Birgit Tengroth was a celebrated and much-loved actor and author.
Birgit Tengroth was born in 1915. She was the sixth child in a family of eight siblings. Her father, Carl Gustaf, was a chief customs inspector in Stockholm, but despite his impressive title the family was poor. Birgit Tengroth’s parent’s marriage was not a happy one, her mother was worn out and bitter. Later, in one of her memoires, Birgit Tengroth would describe how “throughout my childhood I was hungry, lacked clothing, shoes, tenderness, and no-one showed any interest in me”. Meanwhile she fostered a dream to work within the arts and her parents supported this desire. She began with ballet lessons and was accepted into a class at the Kungliga Teatern (royal theatre) when she was 11 years old. Although she applied to the Dramatiska Teaterns elevskola (royal theatre school of drama) she failed to get in and never gained any formal acting training. She developed a familiarity with the stage by dint of her many appearances as an extra whilst she was a ballet student at Kungliga Teatern and during the 1930s she did take private acting lessons.
Birgit Tengroth married Stig Ahlgren, a man who was five years her senior. He was an author and publicist. Theirs was an unhappy marriage, not to mention a destructive one, and it gave rise to a lot of gossip. The couple divorced after Birgit Tengroth met Jens Otto Krag, a Danish politician, whom she married in Copenhagen in May 1950. This second marriage barely lasted 6 months (formally for 8 years). Birgit Tengroth and Stig Ahlgren resumed their tempestuous relationship and then lived together until Birgit Tengroth died in 1983.
Birgit Tengroth had begun her acting career by playing walk-ons in private Stockholm theatres when she was a pupil at ballet school. In 1926 she gained her first film role in a melodrama called Mordbrännerskan, directed by John Lindelöf. Six years later she played the female lead in one of the most popular competition- or sports related-themed films of the day, namely the 1932 film Hans livs match. Bengt Idestam-Almqvist, the influential critic of Stockholms-Tidningen who wrote under the pseudonym of Robin Hood, said: “We have not, since the era of Greta Garbo, been presented with a face that is so responsive to the camera. Do not waste Birgit Tengroth”. That same year she performed the lead role in a comedy called Pojkarna på Storholmen which made her an established film star and she was described as: “perhaps the dearest little ingénue of Swedish cinema”.
Birgit Tengroth also appeared at Riksteatern and private Stockholm theatres, including Vasateatern and Oscarsteatern. However, these were small fry appearances compared to her nearly 50 film roles between 1926 and 1950. Her repertoire remained comparatively narrow, however; for most of her career she portrayed the vibrant, jaunty young woman who finally gets the man at the end of the film. This was despite having performed – besides the popular comedies – in several weightier melodramas such as the 1933 Vad veta väl mannen? and Gläd dig i din ungdom, from 1939, both directed by Per Lindberg. It should be noted that the film censor edited out the “ecstatic facial expressions” of the loving couple – Birgit Tengroth and Peter Höglund – during their love scene.
During the 1940s Birgit Tengroth became involved in several ambitious efforts based on literary publications, such as novels by Wilhelm Moberg. None of these led to major success, however. In 1948 she and Sture Lagerwall took the lead roles in the film Synd, but it received crushingly negative reviews. It was a bit unusual for Swedish film critics to depart from their sober and professional views of a known and recognised film star, nevertheless, the most favourable comment about Birgit Tengroth’s performance was that her acting was uneven: “Synd is aptly named given that it is truly a pity for the audience”, as the byline A.H. wrote in Arbetaren. Tengroth's last feature film was Girl and Hyacinths (1950), directed by Hasse Ekman, and is today considered a Swedish film classic.
Just as the Synd fiasco was released in the cinemas Birgit Tengroth had, however, already headed off in another direction by publishing her first collection of short stories. It is said that the publication date was intentionally delayed to exploit the attention generated by the film’s premiere to highlight the newly-released book. The book, entitled Törst, portrayed a deeply unhappy marriage in a self-revelatory and stark manner. It was easy to see the author’s own experiences in her fiction. Whilst a lot of interest was whipped a more balanced view of the furore was that it was an “overblown scandal”. The critics were united in their opinion that Birgit Tengroth was a talented writer. Her use of language was described as refreshingly straightforward, verging on uncouth. Although she garnered respect for her frenetic and audacious style, opinions were divided as to whether this represented good or bad literature.
Several of the short stories which made up Törst were almost immediately reworked as a film manuscript by Herbert Grevenius. The film – in which Birgit Tengroth played the sole female lead – bore the same name as the book and was recorded during the spring of 1949, under Ingmar Bergman’s direction. The film’s premiere was held in October of the same year. Interestingly enough, Birgit Tengroth gained more attention for being the author of the film’s material than for her acting performance. The byline Lill (Ellen Liliedahl) in Svenska Dagbladet concluded thus: “Perhaps it is unsurprising to find her dramatic portrayals to be somewhat heavy and un-nuanced – given the recent revelation of the author’s temperament and personality!”.
Birgit Tengroth published another ten books and also wrote causerie-style submissions for publications including Vecko-Journalen and Året Runt, amongst others. She released a rapid flow of books during the 1950s, each of them bearing the mark of personal experience and several of them containing the word “life” in their titles. She was considered by many to be one of the nation’s most intelligent authors and drew comparisons to Maria Wine. They were both felt to be focused intensely on two areas of life: the mature woman’s experience of eroticism and the embittered memories of childhood endured with negligent parents.
No-one was spared Birgit Tengroth’s harsh pen strokes, it seems, and several of her books include stark portraits of both her friends and enemies from within the cinematic- and theatre-worlds. She famously commented on Karin Swanström, Svensk Filmindustri’s artistic director during the 1930s, for example, as well as Ingrid Bergman, whom Birgit Tengroth considered to be a rival. There was, however, no lack of self-revelation and she could suddenly turn the mirror on herself: “Now the reader will say: Tengroth was jealous. I was jealous of [Bergman’s] coolness and freshness, jealous that she was so wise and proper”, Birgit Tengroth writes in her collection entitled Livs levande, published in 1952.
In 1964 Birgit Tengroth published a collection of poems in a book called Snedresa. She returned to her fractious relationships in two books written in the early 1970s, namely Jag vill ha tillbaka mitt liv, from 1972, and Jag trodde du var död!, from 1975, in which she uses the same bitterness to describe her debilitating illness, her suffering, and the pain.
Birgit Tengroth died in Nynäshamn in 1983. She is buried at the Galärvarv cemetery in Stockholm, beside Stig Ahlgren.