“Quiet on the set!”
It was Alf F. Sjöberg, head-honcho both at M.G.M. (Malmö-Göteberg-Morose) and Inhibited Artists, laying down the law on the sound-stage of his big 1950 Christmas release, It’s A Miserable Life.
I was just a kid then, with high hopes and stars in my eyes — lucky enough to have landed the role of “The Dancing Kleptomaniac” via the influence of my latest leading-lady and bed-mate, a buxom redhead called Anna Olsen. (Never heard of her? She later made quite a name for herself — first in Hollywood as Ann-Margaret, then in Japan as the baseball slugging-sensation, Sadaharu Oh.)
I hadn’t made too many friends, working on the flick, for novice that I was, I had my own ideas about Scandinavian cinema. For example, many in the cast felt that, because Miserable was a Christmas picture, some of its more somber elements might be expunged: that the George Bailey character (played by Jimmy Stewart in the story’s Hollywood version) need not commit suicide at the film’s conclusion, nor need his wife Mary be burnt at the stake; and it was also felt that the gruesome crucifixion of the angel Clarence would do little to contribute to the picture’s Yuletide appeal.
I disagreed with these views, feeling they did not represent the tradition of Swedish film as we knew it. Would a Victor F. Sjöstrom, I asked, a Mauritz F. Stiller, a Carl F. Dreyer or an Alf F. Sjöberg himself produce a picture that allowed cheerfulness to penetrate the overall mood of despair? I thought not…and now, the mogul in person was here to see what was what — responding to a cast telegram threatening to move to Finland were I not immediately dismissed from the film.
Sjöberg, chomping on one of his trademark pine-bark stogies, barreled across the sound-stage and scowled. “What’s this?” he grimaced, stopping at one of the Christmas-decorated flats. “Tinsel? Who ordered all these colored lights and this fake snow?” Naturally, no one dared speak. (The last company member to answer back to the mogul had subsequently been left stranded on an ice floe.) “We’re northern Protestants here,” the man continued, shaking his head in disbelief. “What kind of spectator is going to pay to be entertained?”
Simple words…and yet it would only be years later that I fully grasped the wisdom they contained.
Bibi Anderson was a real hot number. I met her working on the set of my third picture for Worried Brothers, a little documentary on the Umförs fruit market I called, Wild Strawberries. At the time, I was still married to Bibi’s distant cousin Harriet Anderson, and living in Stockholm with Harriet and her dog, Fido (Anderson). Bibi telephoned me one afternoon to discuss her role (she played the wife of an optometrist whose clients kept seeing the Madonna) and in no time at all the two of us were thrashing about in my study as though neither had ever heard of sin and damnation (both preferable, it seemed, to divorce court.)
As usual, the home office was making noises about my next production. Some mid-level know-nothing felt this new picture should be more “existential;” another felt it should be more action-packed. Together they produced a nutty compromise script about Death himself (surprisingly, he was already a member of the Swedish Actors’ Union) stalking a depressed knight and his traveling companions across a plague-ridden, 13th-century Sweden. The catch was that each time the Grim Reaper was about to claim a victim, the dashing hero (“Christiana Jones,” they called him) would burst onto the scene with his whip and in his ranch hat to save the day. What a turkey sandwich! Perhaps the best thing about the flick was its boffo original title — Raiders of the Seventh Seal. (Of course when Hollywood later got hold of our script, they remade it entirely into the well-known adventure classic, Muppet Treasure Island.)
Flash forward ten years. By the late sixties I was living full-time on the Färoe Islands with Bibi, but cheating on her with Liv Ullmann. (No, wait a minute — I think it was the other way around: I was living full-time with Liv but cheating on her with Erland Josephson.) Brother, was I headed for trouble.
I knew many in the Scandinavian film industry relied on “controlled substances” to boost their physical stamina. I too had toyed with these, but only in a minor way. (And, like anyone else in Sweden, I also celebrated National Day by running up the old flag then snorting a line of pure Svealand iron ore.) Yet I was no match for the seductive powers of that white paste that began circulating among the glitterati of the early 70’s: it gave you the strength to turn into an eight-hour television marathon a script perhaps fit for no more than a half-hour soap-opera. (Otherwise, the critics liked my Scenes From a Marriage, but felt that it didn’t contain enough robots.) Cocaine, speed, angel dust — none could compare in potency with our own peninsular product. I mean, of course — the lutefisk.
Signs of my dependency had already shown themselves earlier in my career. I put on weight and, like other addicts, never went out without my butter knife, lemon juice and packets of Wäsa crispbread. (Lutefisk junkies could usually be identified by the permanent sprinkling of breadcrumbs visible down their shirtfronts.) The stuff all but eradicated your inhibitions– — witness the night in 1972 when I tried to copulate with all four members of the singing-group, ABBA, simultaneously.
My run-in with the law came about due to a phone-call from my brother Morris.
“You want me to pick-up a suit-case for you in room 313 of the Adlon Hotel?” I asked Morrie from my end. “I don’t understand.”
“Brother,” said Morris. “I’ve got a pal bringing in a load of watches from Switzerland, and I need an unknown face to courier it.”
“Me, an unknown face?” I asked the man incredulously. “Are you joking?”
“Ingie,” he replied. “You’re not thinking. Sure, you’re our great national film director — but the cops aren’t interested in that. I’m the one with the rap sheet longer than a treatment by Tarkovsky.”
It was true, my brother had already been prominently featured in a number of very public financial scandals — the last involving millions received from the Stockholm government for a “Swedish Space-Program,” and Morrie’s construction of the world’s tallest ski-jump.
“Besides,” added my brother. “After your latest art-house flop, I doubt your face is still known in this country to more than a few dozen eggheads and nymphomaniacs…”
“Thanks bro’.” I knew I could always count on my elder sibling for a healthy ego-boost.
To make a long story short, I went to the Adlon Hotel to pick up Morrie’s “watches.” I should have been suspicious of the fact that, when I got hold of it, the suitcase seemed to be leaking a viscous, fishy-smelling liquid; also, by the fact that wherever I went with the thing, about two-dozen stray cats followed in its wake. Even before I could board the get-away tram (not a car, because in Sweden even crime is socially responsible), the Royal Foodstuffs and Narcotics Squad had nabbed me. Since I was a first offender (the magistrate didn’t count Hour of the Wolf), I got just six months in Halmstad Minimum Security.
It made a body think to be in lock-up: All the world’s a stage…Art holds a mirror up to Nature…What kind of spectator is going to pay to be entertained? I think I finally learnt the lesson of Alf F. Sjoberg, all those years ago: life goes on — and oy, the gloom stays in the picture!