Vandaag is het al 25 jaar geleden dat de Zweedse actrice en latere filmregisseur Mai Zetterling is overleden aan de gevolgen van kanker.

Zetterling was born in a working class family. She started her career as an actress at the age of seventeen at Dramaten, the Swedish national theater. Her breakthrough came in the 1944 film Torment written by Ingmar Bergman, in which she played a controversial role as a tormented shopgirl. Shortly afterwards she moved to England and gained instant success there with her title role in Basil Dearden’s Frieda (1947). After a brief return to Sweden in which she worked with Bergman again in his film Music in Darkness (1948), she returned to England and starred in a number of English films, including Quartet (1948), a film based on some of W. Somerset Maugham’s short stories, and The Romantic Age (1949) directed by Edmond T. Gréville. Having gained a reputation as a sex symbol in dramas and thrillers, she was equally effective in comedies, and also was very active in British television in the ’50s and ’60s.
Zetterling lived in a commune near Sevenoaks, Kent. The house was run by Shakespearean actress Patricia Burke and her then husband Duncan MacDonald, founder of the left-wing MacDonald Discussion Group. In that way she was under investigation by MI5 (see picture), but a 1952 memo said only that she was “increasing her interest in Communism” and “reading Communist literature”. It adds: “While she is not yet, so far as source knows, a Communist Party member, if her present enthusiasm for extreme left-wing politics continues, she may well join the Communist Party.” But Zetterling, who went on to be an acclaimed director, never became a full-time activist. And anyway, the UK never had a system along the lines of the American Hollywood Blacklist.
However, she began producing political documentaries and a short film called The War Game (1962), which was nominated for a BAFTA award, and won a Silver Lion at Venice. Her first feature film Älskande par (1964, “Loving Couples”), based on the novels of Agnes von Krusenstjerna, was banned at the Cannes Film Festival for its sexual explicitness and nudity. Kenneth Tynan of The Observer later called it “one of the most ambitious debuts since Citizen Kane.” It was not the only film she made that would stir up controversy for its frank sexuality: Nattlek (1966, “Night Games”) was banned at the Venice Film Festival e.g.
When critics reviewing her debut feature said that “Mai Zetterling directs like a man,” she began to explore feminist themes more explicitly in her work. The Girls, which had an all-star Swedish cast including Bibi Andersson and Harriet Andersson, discussed women’s liberation (or lack thereof) in a society controlled by men. In 1982 draaide ze voor de Hand Made Films van George Harrison (waarover ze eigenlijk niet tevreden is) “Scrubbers” (de slecht vertaalde titel is “Uitschot”) over de Engelse Borstal-gevangenis voor minderjarige meisjes. Uit het oorspronkelijke scenario (geschreven door een man) had ze wel tal van seks-fantasieën geschrapt: Prison Camp Girls is mijn genre niet.” Toch behoudt ze het verhaal van Carol, die al het mogelijke doet om in Borstal terecht te komen omdat daar ook haar vriendin Doreen gevangen zit. Als ze er echter in slaagt, vindt ze Doreen reeds in de armen van een ander meisje. Ze wordt dan maar het liefje van de “hardgekookte” lesbienne Eddie. Zetterling weigerde met bekende actrices te werken, maar nam meisjes die echt cockney praatten (Amanda York, Chrissie Cotterill, Elisabeth Edmunds, Kate Ingram, Imogen Bain, Cassie Stuart, Kathy Burke en Amanda Symonds). “Het gaat er inderdaad af en toe erg plat aan toe,” aldus mijn informant. “Zo bekogelen de meisjes Carol op een bepaald moment met excrementen.” (Zo plat kan het dan natuurlijk ook niet geweest zijn…)
In 1985 keerde ze terug naar de Zweedse excentrieke schrijfster Agnes von Krusenstjerna (1894-1940) die in de jaren twintig een aantal erotische werken had geschreven die ophef maakten. Haar leven werd verfilmd door Mai Zetterling onder de titel “Amorosa”. Stina Ekblad speelt de rol van de schrijfster. But I guess the only time I saw Zetterling on the screen, was in The Witches (1990), an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book directed by Nicolas Roeg.

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