Anita Björk was one of the most outstanding actors at Kungliga Dramatiska Teatern (Dramaten) for a large part of the 1900s.
Anita Björk was the only child in an artistic family. Although she dreamt of being a dancer when she was a young girl, it was acting which became her profession. She trained at the Dramaten school from 1942 to 1945 and was loyal to the national theatre and its distinctive style of acting throughout her career. She made her debut in Holger Drachmann’s fairy tale Det var en gång, 1945. Her breakthrough performance was in the play Jungfruleken by Jean Genet in 1948. She was lauded for her ability to evince “the nature of a highly-fraught, corrupt young girl’s dream in the midst of all the unpleasantness that was going on inside of her”.
It was perhaps the force of her artistic breakthrough – playing the servant girl Claire in Genet’s play – that steered her in the direction of secretive characters, who hide a wide range of emotions beneath a controlled exterior. Her well-modulated alto voice and expressive enunciation were a result of her classical training, which meant that her softest whispers were audible at the very back of the theatre without any kind of artificial amplification. Her enunciation served as a marker for the separation between the actor and the character being portrayed. Sometimes this professional aspect was perceived as a genuine element of her actual person, resulting in descriptions of her as a tad impenetrable.
Anita Björk portrayed a range of classic roles at Dramaten, such as Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in 1953, and Maria Stuart in Friedrich Schiller’s eponymous drama from 1966. More frequently she played modern figures in psychological plays by the likes of Shaw, Eliot, Ibsen and Strindberg. She was a director’s dream actress as she delivered what was asked of her professionally and to the smallest detail. Well-respected and traditional directors such as Alf Sjöberg and Ingmar Bergman repeatedly selected her for their plays. Alf Sjöberg had directed Himlaspelet in 1942, where Anita Björk made her cinematographic debut with a small part in Himlaspelet in 1945. However, he probably mainly thought of her as Amorina, the main character in Carl Jonas Love Almqvist’s “poetic fugue”.
The theatrical premier of “Amorina” took place on 2 June 1951. Although it was described as a directorial and technical triumph the staging was not entirely smooth. Anita Björk gained great acclaim for her portrayal. One review stated: “Her willowy and airily light performance shimmered with the vitality of youth and averted purity.” That same year she played the title role in Fröken Julie, also directed by Alf Sjöberg, with Ulf Palme as the male lead. The film was awarded the Jurors’ main prize at Cannes film festival and is considered to be one of the greatest Swedish films ever made.
Despite these successes the 1950s proved to be a difficult decade for Anita Björk, both professionally and privately. She had been living together with Stig Dagerman, an author, in the early 1950s but when she was about to audition for Alfred Hitchcock in Hollywood she discovered that Dagerman still had not completely divorced from his first wife. At this point Anita and Stig also had a child together, their daughter Lo. Given the recent Ingrid Bergman scandal, which was still fresh in the gossip pages, Anita Björk was unable to gain a contract. She married Stig Dagerman in 1953, but the very next year he committed suicide, which dealt a very heavy blow to Anita Björk.
Anita Björk acted in eleven films during the 1950s, and made several attempts to break into Hollywood, including Ingmar Bergman’s Kvinnors väntan, 1952. This film received positive reviews, partly for its low-key and light-hearted approach. Anita Björk excelled in portraying ordinary female roles in such a way that “one sees its authoritative universality”. During the 1950s she also made films in Germany and in Norway, and she acted on the stage. In 1957 she portrayed Tintomara in Drottningens juvelsmycke at Dramaten.
Anita Björk also acted in a completely different type of film, namely the “Hillman mystery series”, directed by Arne Mattson, with Carl-Arne Holmsten and Annalisa Ericsson in the lead roles. Anita Björk played important parts as the victim of murder or attempted murder in three of the films (Vita frun, 1962, Mannekäng i rött, 1958, and Damen i svart, 1958). These films, derided at the time, have subsequently been re-evaluated for their use of idiom, their mastery of colour, photography and mise-en-scène. In these films Anita Björk’s secretive acting style as well as her reserved and elegant manner of holding herself in front of the camera, blends in with and becomes part of the effective use of style.
The actress and film director Mai Zetterling had been a fellow student of Anita Björk at the Dramaten school. In 1942 they worked together on dubbing the animated Disney film Bambi into Swedish. When Zetterling returned to Stockholm from Great Britain in 1964, in order to direct her first film Älskande par, she invited Anita Björk to play one of the leading roles. Anita Björk also played a part in Zetterling’s comeback film Amorosa in 1986.
Towards the end of her professional career Anita Björk became increasingly entwined with Ingmar Bergman’s network. Bergman, like Björk and Alf Sjöberg, had personal ties to the Dramaten theatre. However, Anita Björk – being true to her independent nature – also accepted work from other sources. She portrayed Siri von Essen in Per Olov Enquist’s play Tribaderna natt, directed by Per Verner-Carlsson in 1975. Twelve years later she reprised Drottningens juvelsmycke to sold-out audiences, but this time Anita Björk played the part of mother in a production directed by Peter Oscarsson. She had similar success at Dramaten in a strictly ascetic production of Yukio Mishima’s Markisinna de Sade directed by Ingmar Bergman in 1989. Anita Björk excelled in the role as Madame de Montreuil. A little later this strict stage production was adapted for TV. Anita Björk also acted in TV films based on Bergman’s life and manuscripts, namely Den Goda viljan, 1992, Enskilda samtal, 1996, and Larmar och gör sig till, 1997.
Working with Per Olov Enquist’s play Bildmakarna – which, following its success at Dramaten, was turned into a TV movie in 2000 – Ingmar Bergman found Anita Björk to be the natural choice for the role of Selma Lagerlöf. Bildmakarna allowed these two old stars of the Swedish stage to look back on their respective youths and the great storytellers of that era: the film director Victor Sjöström and the aforementioned author Selma Lagerlöf. This production elucidated on various levels how the traditions of storytelling and performance are passed on from generation to generation.
Anita Björk won several awards throughout her career. She received an honorary professorship in 2001, was awarded the O’Neill stipend in 1972, and was presented with the Litteris et Artibus medal in 1979. In 1991 she was given the Swedish Academy’s prize for theatre, and in 2005 she received the Hedersguldbagge for her comprehensive life’s work.
Anita Björk died in Stockholm in 2012 and is buried at the Norra cemetery in Solna.