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Mai Zetterling: Cinema Artist

Mai Zetterling: Cinema Artist

By the time Mai Zetterling decided to become a filmmaker, she had already been a stage and screen actor for nearly twenty years, beginning as a teenager in the early 1940s in her native Sweden. Sweet-faced, blonde, and a skilled, sensitive performer, she enchanted both audiences and critics. Having emigrated to Great Britain in 1947 to star in films there—she would never again live in Sweden—she resolved in the late fifties to teach herself the craft of directing by making a series of documentaries for the BBC, which would take advantage of her star persona by featuring her on-screen as well as in the voice-over narration. As she explained in an interview with a Swedish women’s magazine at the time, “I don’t want to talk about my ideals anymore; now I want to do something about them! As an actor, you rarely get the opportunity. A writer, an artist, or a composer can go into his chamber and create whatever he wants, and when he wants to. As an actress, I had to sit at home by my phone and wait for it to ring.”

For the most part, Zetterling’s BBC documentaries focused on people or places seen by Western culture as being on its margins: the Sámi people of northern Sweden (The Polite Invasion, 1960), the Roma people of southern France (Lords of Little Egypt, 1961), and Icelanders (The Do-It-Yourself Democracy, 1963). A notable exception was The Prosperity Race (1962), about Sweden and the Swedish people. The title is a pun: it refers to race both in the sense of a contest and of a group of people of common ancestry. The film portrays the country as a place in which authentic life, love, and community have been exchanged for material comforts, security, and safety, leaving the people there as islands, bereft of any meaningful human interaction. In the Swedish newspapers, Zetterling was accused of betraying her own country, and many Swedes living in Great Britain were also apparently shocked by the way the film seemed to play into the prejudices that proliferated about Sweden among outsiders at the time—having to do with its loneliness, coldness, alcoholism, crime, suicides, and promiscuity. In this, the response to The Prosperity Race anticipated later reactions to Zetterling’s work. The idea that modern, mainstream Western society was responsible for a widespread loss of meaning in people’s lives is a theme the filmmaker would return to in the incendiary Swedish art films of the sixties for which she is best known. The petrified traditions of the aristocracy in Loving Couples (1964), the perverse decadence of the rich in Night Games (1966), and the alienation and loss of communication in the welfare state of The Girls (1968) all reiterate and elaborate on that worldview.

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