Mai Zetterling was a pioneer and trailblazer in film. She was not afraid of financing her projects through unconventional means and her films often provoked debates on issues ranging from gender roles and sexuality to seal hunting.
Mai Zetterling was born in Västerås in 1925. Her parents were businessman Johan David Sigfrid Larson and housewife Linnea Maria Törnblom. Her mother later remarried as Zetterling and Mai also took that name. Mai Zetterling began her working life as an actor. She was accepted at the Dramaten (Royal Dramatic Theatre) school in 1942 and began to act in minor roles both on stage and in films. Her major breakthroughs came in 1943 and 1944. She acted in Vi har vår frihet by Maxwell Anderson at Dramaten in 1943, and the following year she played the leading female role in Alf Sjöberg’s classic film Hets. For some years she was a star of Swedish cinema and theatre, but after playing the title role in the British film Frieda in 1947 she was offered a contract by Rank Organisation. She moved to England in December 1947 with her husband at the time and their two young children. For the next decade she was mainly active in England, where she decided to become a film director.
Her career as a film director was initially supported by the BBC, which financed four half-hour documentaries: The Polite Invasion, 1960, Lords of Little Egypt, 1961, The Prosperity Race, 1962, and The Do-it-yourself Democracy, 1963. Mai Zetterling also made a short called The War Game, 1962, which won a prize at the Venice Film Festival. She then obtained a contract with Sandrews in Sweden to direct the 1964 movie Älskande par, a film adaption of Agnes von Krusenstjerna’s series of novels called Fröknarna von Pahlen. The film received fairly positive reviews and was awarded a “kvalitetspremie” (a post-release financial bonus) from the newly established Svenska Filminstitutet (Swedish film institute). The other films directed by Mai Zetterling during the 1960s were not as favourably received. Nattlek, 1966, about a young man’s coming to terms with his mother’s death, got mixed reviews. Dr. Glas, 1968 (Swedish premiere in 1969), a Danish-American co-production based on Hjalmar Söderberg’s novel, was fairly unanimously slated. Following the release of Flickorna, 1968, an anti-civilisation film where the war between the sexes stood as a metaphor for the wider global situation, Sandrews expressed doubt over a continued collaboration with Mai Zetterling. At that point she withdrew from the Swedish film industry, instead choosing to work abroad.
During the 1970s Mai Zetterling became active in the women’s movement through film. Despite its unpopularity in Sweden, Flickorna opened the New York Women’s Film Festival in 1972. Mai Zetterling then wrote the script, directed, and acted in the TV movie Vi har många namn in the run-up to the international year of the woman in 1975 and, in the following year, she and others protested against the male dominated juries of the film festivals. She was also active as a documentary director. She made a film about Vincent van Gogh (Vincent the Dutchman, 1972), about heavyweight lifters in an anthological documentary of the Münich Olympic Games (Visions of Eight, 1973), about Stockholm (Mai Zetterling’s Stockholm, 1979) and on seal hunting on Greenland (Of Seals and Men, 1979). In the early 1980s she returned to feature films and made the British film Scrubbers, 1982, about young female inmates at youth detention centres, and a Swedish film called Amorosa, 1986, about Agnes von Krusenstjerna’s life.
Amorosa has been described as a comeback film, but this is only true from a strictly Swedish perspective. Mai Zetterling had not been inactive as a director during the 18 years that had passed since the release of Flickorna.
Mai Zetterling’s films are characterised by a high level of subjectivity. She uses flashbacks, inner visions and dreams, often on several complicatedly intertwined narrative levels with surrealistic elements. This is also true of her shorts and her documentary films, as well as those episodes of the Canadian TV series The Hitchhiker, 1983-1991, which she directed in the mid-1980s. Älskande par and Nattlek are based on flashbacks, whilst Flickorna alternates between various narratives representing inner visions, and Scrubbers contains both hallucinations and nightmares.
Mai Zetterling’s fiction is generally characterised by a harsh criticism of civilisation, which she directs at the aristocracy in Älskande par, Nattlek, and Amorosa, at the bourgeoisie in Dr. Glas, and at the Swedish welfare state in The Prosperity Race and Flickorna. In contrast, most of her documentary films depict people on the margins of Western society, such as nomads or hunters, in different ways. She seems to be at once naively romantic and respectful of their ways of life. For example, she highlights – in opposition to Brigitte Bardot – seal hunting as crucial to life in Greenland in her film Of Seals and Men.
Another notable trait is her treatment of sexuality and reproduction. Several of her feature films explore a critical perspective on reproduction, which she presents as a dead end for women. Both Älskande par and Dr. Glas link sexuality directly with pregnancy in a way that can be seen as sex-negative. In Flickorna maternity is portrayed as causing anxiety and limiting in terms of women’s freedom. At the same time sexuality and giving birth is shown explicitly and with a refreshing fierceness. Älskande par ends with a genuine birth. Dr. Glas contains a subliminal brief shot of genital close-ups during sex.
Mai Zetterling has come to be remembered as a Swedish female film director who made films about women, which has also meant that it is mainly her Swedish films with female leads that have gained most attention. In fact, however, men are just as often the main focus of her narration, often in conjunction with portrayals of isolation and obsession. Dr. Glas can be seen as a study of loneliness with its supplementary storyline of a doctor, almost blinded by cataracts, wandering around Stockholm, in illustration of the novel’s line: “Life passed me by”. Vincent the Dutchman tells the story of an actor who so intensely portrays the role of Vincent van Gogh that he loses his mind. The heavyweight lifters are alone when they circle the weights they are about to lift, at the mercy of the raw strength of their muscles. The hunters on the ice in Of Seals and Men do work together but also withdraw within themselves to focus on the hunt.
Mai Zetterling’s films also contain hints of self-mockery and humour, particularly those from the 1970s and 1980s. In Mai Zetterling’s Stockholm she plays both August Strindberg and Queen Kristina in a humorous and self-distancing fashion. In Betongmormor, 1986, a film commissioned by Skanska, Mai Zetterling herself plays the “cement maternal grandmother”.
Between 1960 and her death Mai Zetterling directed six feature films, a great number of documentaries, and produced a number of TV programmes. She also wrote novels and short stories. Following three decades of active and lively film production, Mai Zetterling’s later life was marked by films that were never made. Her last project was the filming of her own novel, Bird of Passage, which came to a halt when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Mai Zetterling died in 1994.