Eva Dahlbeck was an actor and an author who became famous in part for her roles in Ingmar Bergman’s Sommarnattens leende and Kvinnors väntan.
Eva Dahlbeck was born in Saltsjö Duvnäs, just south of Stockholm. Her father was a departmental secretary of a state agency. He died when Eva Dahlbeck was just five years old. Her mother, Greta, then became a single mother of three children and the family moved to a less fashionable suburb, where they lived in financially straightened circumstances. Eva Dahlbeck gained her school-leaving certificate in 1939 and spent some time working as an office clerk for a state authority. She also applied to the theatre: she took lessons at Gösta Terserus’ theatre school. For many years Terserus’ school served as a preparatory school for enrolment at the Dramaten stage school, where Eva Dahlbeck was accepted in 1941.
In 1944 Eva Dahlbeck married Sven Lampell, a soldier, and towards the end of that year their first son, Thomas, was born. The marriage lasted until 2007 when Sven Lampell died of cancer. Sven Lampell’s active working life involved serving as a peace-keeping soldier across the world in various troubled spots, on behalf of the U.N. and the Red Cross. In 1972 he was employed at the Red Cross headquarters in Geneva, and Eva Dahlbeck and their youngest son, David, moved to Switzerland to live with him. At that point Eva Dahlbeck had already given up her career as an actress and had become an established author.
Eva Dahlbeck was, like her husband, very active in social issues and the peace movement. For example, in 1952 she made a film in Switzerland which was inspired by thoughts on international peace- and friendship-efforts. It was called Vår lilla by, and was released in 1953. It was sold to several European countries and had its premier in Sweden in March 1954 but garnered little attention. The film critic for Svenska Dagbladet claimed that Eva Dahlbeck only got her part due to her ‘maternal’ appearance.
Eva Dahlbeck tended to play ‘maternal’ roles within the cinematic sphere from the outset of her career, which dated from 1942 when she supplied the voice for the mother of the young rabbit character Stampe in the Swedish-language version of the Disney film Bambi. Before that she had already played extras in other films, the very first of these was as an anonymous masquerade ball guest in Bara en kvinna, from 1941. Her actual film debut came when she played the role of Botila, the elderman’s daughter in the 1942 film adaption of Vilhelm Moberg’s Rid i natt!, directed by Gustaf Molander. The film received almost unanimously favourable reviews, although these focused on the direction and cinematography, merely noting that Eva Dahlbeck embodied the “dream of the eternal female”.
Eva Dahlbeck acted in 60 films throughout her lengthy film career, which spanned a quarter of a century. Initially she played a series of fresh, healthy, beautiful blondes or mothers in films such as Folket i Simlångsdalen, from 1947, Jan Fridegård’s 1948 film adaptation of Lars Hård, and Flicka från Fjällbyn, also from 1948. Eva Dahlbeck further played the lead role in Gustaf Molander’s 1948 film Eva. This was the first time she worked with Ingmar Bergman who had written the script.
Eva Dahlbeck’s performance as the lead role in the 1949 film based on Ivar Lo-Johansson’s novel Bara en mor, directed by Alf Sjöberg, proved to be a major success for her. This film was a marketing ploy for Svensk Filmindustri which was struggling with financial troubles at the time. The reviews were not generous with regard to the direction and script: Harry Schein, for example, savaged the film in BLM. Svenska Dagbladet’s film critic however, who wrote under the byline of Lill (Ellen Liliedahl), expressed some praise for Eva Dahlbeck’s performance, praise which – with minor alterations – would be frequently repeated throughout Eva Dahlbeck’s career: “She is fearless, honest and genuine in her expression. She is perhaps a tiny bit cool, as though maintaining a considered distance from the character she is portraying.” This quote also reflects Ingmar Bergman’s nickname for Eva Dahlbeck, namely “Battleship Womanhood”, a corruption of the title of the well-known Eisenstein film Battleship Potemkin. Some of Eva Dahlbeck’s roles can be described as somewhat ‘battleship-like’, particularly those in films bearing Bergman’s trademark. In the emblematic Sommarnattens leende, from 1955, for example, she is frequently filmed from a vaguely worm’s-eye view which accentuated her bust, chin, and forehead in such a way as to remind the viewer of a battleship figurehead. With regard to her nickname Eva Dahlbeck herself wrote that if she professionally succeeded in living up to it, privately she always found it difficult to do so.
Another aspect of Eva Dahlbeck’s artistry came to the fore in Ingmar Bergman’s films which tended to be very literary, and that was her distinguished diction and ability to speak her lines rhythmically so that they were almost delivered musically. Eva Dahlbeck displays the same skill in her literary output where her undulating prose sometimes resembles poetry in her rhythmic use of phrasing. The fireworks that erupted between her and Gunnar Björnstrand in the Bergman films such as Sommarnattens leende, En lektion i kärlek, from 1954, and especially in the scene in Kvinnors väntan, from 1952, where the couple are stuck in a lift, have become legendary. It isn’t for nought that Eva Dahlbeck and Björnstrand have been compared with some of the American screwball-comedy couple greats such as Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy or Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.
Where Eva Dahlbeck found success in her film career, she initially found it harder to gain public and critical approval on the stage. She made her stage debut at the Dramaten theatre in a 1942 student production in which she played the bridesmaid Signe in August Strindberg’s Svanevit, directed by Stig Torsslow. The following year she, whilst still a student, acted in eight minor roles at Dramaten but was still considered to be “rough around the edges”. It was not until she acted in the modern whodunnit Brott i Sol, under Göran Gentele’s direction, on the Dramaten Lilla scen in 1946 that she seriously gained the public’s attention. In that play she played a many-sided experienced woman and was lauded for her nuanced ability to portray various states of mind. The first time Eva Dahlbeck acted in a play directed by Alf Sjöberg in 1943 she was only given one line in a review, but it contained everything: she was “a work of living dramatic art”. At this point she was already a well-known and well-liked film star and it seems that the theatre reviewers had predetermined that she belonged to the cinematic sphere. However, from the early 1950s she began to perform two heavy dramatic stage roles per season. In 1953 she bore the title role in Hjalmar Söderbergh’s Gertrud. She also acted in several performances of August Strindberg’s plays as interpreted by Alf Sjöberg. The latter also directed Henrik Ibsen’s Vildanden in 1955 in which Eva Dahlbeck portrayed Gina Ekdal with great panache. The play was performed over 100 times on the Dramaten Lilla scen.
It seems that Eva Dahlbeck found her stage home on the Lilla Scen, a stage which offers greater intimacy to both the actors and the audience than the larger stage does. Her final stage appearance was on the Lilla Scen in 1964 in the play Doktorerna, a newly-written comedy by Muriel Spark. The play tells the story of two women and the different lives they had chosen after completing their doctoral degrees. Eva Dahlbeck played one of the two women, directed by Mimi Pollak who had directed her in several plays over the years. The indifferent review merely mentioned Eva Dahlbeck by name, without further comment. It was left unstated that this was her farewell performance, after fifty prior appearances over the preceding twenty years. Perhaps this was due to the fact that most of her major roles were on the big screen: not just as a Bergman star but also in prominent roles directed by two major female directors, Mai Zetterling’s Älskande par, from 1964, and Agnes Varda’s Varelserna, from 1966.
In various interviews Eva Dahlbeck has said that she put a lot of time into learning her parts. She would analyse them in detail in order to fully understand the roles. She believed that her realistic character portrayals eventually proved too draining for her and so she decided to give up acting. She also resigned from her post at the Dramaten students’ school where she had been teaching stage acting since 1957. She was already established as an author and writer for several newspapers.
Eva Dahlbeck made her debut as a literary author in 1963 when she published a poetry collection called Genom fönstren using the pseudonym Lis Edvardson. She published eleven books which were all variously well-received. Three of them, Hem till kaos, from 1964, Hjärtslagen, from 1974, and Saknadens dal, from 1976, were printed in second editions. The first of these books took what at the time was considered the bold decision to use a male narrator despite the author being a female. The male character reflects on a paradox: he is able to make people love him but is unable to return the emotion. The phenomenon of love is one of Eva Dahlbeck’s recurring themes in her literary output, and this aligns her with the likes of Maria Wine and her colleague Birgit Tengroth.
Towards the end of the 1980s Eva Dahlbeck’s acting past was revived when Swedish television began to repeat many of her films. Over the years Eva Dahlbeck received a lot of awards, both for her acting and her writing. In 1956 she was awarded Folket i Bild’s film prize and two years later she shared an acting award at Cannes for her part Ingmar Bergman’s Nära livet – the others receiving the same awards were Bibi Andersson, Barbro Hiort af Ornäs, and Ingrid Thulin. Eva Dahlbeck also won a Guldbagge for her role in the 1965 film Kattorna. She was given the Nordiska teaterpris for her play script called Dessa mina minsta, from 1955, and in 1998 she was awarded the Swiss Paracelsus prize for her writings.
Eva Dahlbeck died in 2008 and lies at The Woodland Cemetery in Stockholm.