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Depth of Field: Harriet Andersson

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Wednesday, Aug 9, 2006



Film lovers of the world rarely get to bask in the glow of first-hand recollections from a long time principal performer of one of world cinema’s treasured directors. Arriving at the 56th annual Berlinale International Film Festival, it was immensely pleasing to see that master Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s legendary performer Harriet Andersson appearing. She was there to introduce a restored print of Bergman’s 1952 classic Sommaren mit Monika (The Summer with Monika), as well as taking part in a panel discussion on women in film.


On the first night of the festival, Andersson introduced a print of Bergman’s 1952 work, an adaptation that launched her acting career and made her an international sex symbol. Andersson would later become the object of carnal inspiration for filmmakers such as Jean Luc Godard and Woody Allen, both of whom cite Andersson’s sly, raw performance as a seminal growing up experience. This qualified Andersson to be part of the “Traumfrauen” (dream girls) series of the festival, to which she jokingly claimed was quite impossible as she simply didn’t enjoy getting up at 4 or 5 AM to sit in the make up and hairdresser’s chairs like the other women included (among them Ingrid Bergman, Ava Gardener and Audrey Hepburn). “Too much work to look like that”, she said modestly, making it quite clear that she started her career without the intention of being a style icon.


Monika is a very basic story about a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who takes up with a nice guy. Of course he doesn’t see how immature and manipulative she really is. Though obviously still a fledgling auteur at the time, Bergman, brings many small flourishes to the film that would become a staple of his later works. Starting with his stark, almost brutal photography of the natural elements (such as the sea) and continuing onto his quite renowned confrontational “close-up” technique, Monika showed a stylistic flair that Bergman would improve and perfect in his subsequent years. Andersson discussed the importance of this film, how it redefining Sweden in the world’s eyes from a medieval place filled with Vikings and ice to a sexy, lush paradise where beautiful landscapes were as abundant as the beautiful Swedes.


The director and actress embarked on a short-lived sexual affair following the filming, but Andersson claimed the infamous director “terrified” her, despite also teaching her more than anyone in her entire career. Andersson also noted that he was “evil” and liked to “beat” performances out of actors, which brought the house down with laughter. She also spoke about her infamous nude scenes, which were initially cut from the original American release (they were later restored). She dismissed the idea that nudity should be sensational, calling the scenes natural, not in any way obscene, jokingly telling the capacity crowd to “enjoy my boobs”.


Unfortunately, “the boobs” were about the only things that were enjoyable about this dry, dated examination of Swedish youth culture. Without having Andersson’s essential commentary prior to the screening, it is likely the audience would have either fallen asleep or perhaps left the theater. The spark of a fruitful artistic collaboration was apparent, though excruciating to sit through in this fledgling stage.


The following night, on the eve of her 75th birthday, Andersson, looking sprightly in flashy gold sneakers and fur, sat down with a devoted crowd at the Berlin Film Museum to talk about her career, her affiliation with Bergman and what she has learned as an actress.



End of Part 1

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