When Hollywood came calling to sign both Ingrid Bergman and Gustaf Molander for a remake of Intermezzo (1936), the actress and the director’s reluctance was probably no surprise, considering MGM’s famous difficulties with (among other stubborn Scandinavians) Garbo and her Svengali, Mauritz Stiller. The twenty-one-year-old Bergman was eager to go, but she drove a hard bargain, agreeing only to a one-picture deal at David O. Selznick’s studio and insisting she be allowed to return to Sweden for one planned film and to Germany’s Ufa for two. For his part, Molander would agree to no more than two films, while Selznick insisted on four.
Molander certainly was privy to the complaints of fellow Swedes who had gone, and not quite conquered. The director was the heir apparent to the masters that had ruled Sweden’s Golden Age when Sjöström and Stiller dazzled with cinematic adaptations of Swedish literature shot on location in Scandinavia’s dramatic landscapes. Despite the falloff of Swedish preeminence as sound took over cinema, Molander enjoyed a national reputation for making “elegant comedies” but complained about the lack of good scripts. He told one interviewer, “Who says that a film director should have to be a poet and at the same time begin constructing a film without having a finished screenplay?” (1). It might have been a good moment to take Selznick’s offer for work elsewhere.
Forsyth Hardy’s 1952 history of Scandinavian cinema describes “the mood of complacency into which the Swedish cinema appeared to have slipped” in the mid-1930s. (2) Works overall were mediocre, comedies and melodramas made to fill theater seats. Hardy says the frustration led to public protests, specifically, a 1936 gathering in Stockholm’s Concert Hall where “critics, authors, social workers and civic leaders debated, discussed and exhorted until the early hours of the morning” about the “empty elegance of the films being produced.”  1936 was also the year Molander made Intermezzo, the kind of film that makes you wonder what all the dissatisfaction was about.
Molander ended up co-writing his best films of the period, including Intermezzo, which was inspired by his memories of playing the violin as a young man and written with frequent collaborator Gösta Stevens. Intermezzo portrays a simultaneously joyful and fraught interlude in the lives of two musicians, one a virtuoso, the other an aspiring newcomer (played by Gösta Ekman and Ingrid Bergman, respectively). The story doesn’t seem like much; on the surface a tired cliché about an older man falling for a younger woman more attuned to his needs, a wife at home preoccupied with children. But May and September are drawn to each other primarily by music, which makes their attraction richer and their inevitable parting more poignant. Bergman’s serious young musician is not a home wrecker and sincerely loves the ethereal Ekman, whose stage-honed histrionics didn’t always translate well to film, however, here he is gentle and natural, attributable, one writer thinks, to Molander’s allowance for improvisation. (4) Nor is the abandoned wife a housebound shrew; the serene Inga Tidblad plays her as domesticated and sophisticated.
Audiences responded to the film’s nuanced rendering of a familiar story and, in particular, to Bergman’s portrayal of a woman who chooses to pursue her own career over prolonging a doomed romance. One reviewer wrote:
“Just when there is talk about the degradation of the Swedish film we are shown … a production … from an unexpected quarter … Intermezzo … plunges right into deep water and tries individualistic descriptions of human beings which are both beautiful and sensitive.” (5)
The reviewer also lamented Swedish cinema’s general retreat from location shooting, a characteristic that had elevated so many of its silent-era masterpieces: “[H]ow fine it would have been if the film had got out of the studio more often into the fresh air. Real pictures of Stockholm and the Tyrolean Alps would have made the film quite perfect.” (6)
It’s hard to disagree. The pasted in views of the surrounding mountains where the lovers escape are lost opportunities, especially when the man behind the camera, Åke Dahlqvist, had learned his craft under Julius Jaenzon, cinematographer of the silent masterpieces of Stiller and Sjöström, not the least of which is 1919’s stunning Herr Arnes pengar (Sir Arne’s Treasure). Dahlqvist enjoyed a career-long partnership with Molander, shooting not only all his films with Ingrid Bergman in the 1930s but also the dozens that came after until his final collaboration with the director in 1956 on a remake of Sången om den eldröda blomman (The Song of the Fire-Red Flower). Dahlqvist was not exclusive to Molander and shot five of the seven films theater director Per Lindberg made during his brief return to the cinema between 1939 and 1941, including June Nights (Juninatten, 1940), which also starred Ingrid Bergman.
The one false moment in Intermezzo is, sadly, a photographic one: a superimposition of Ekman’s head in the clouds, reinforcing the point of his dreamy nature far too literally. Perhaps it’s necessary for us to reconcile his return home to firmer, familial ground. But it’s more likely a reach for the metaphorical splendor of Sweden’s silent era.
Hardy wrote his history of Scandinavian cinema just as the disgruntled Swedish intelligentsia he described was about to get what they wanted in Ingmar Bergman’s anguished existential explorations shot on Swedish locations, noting:
“It seems strange that it should have been necessary to urge the Swedish directors to leave the studio. Their concentration on comedies and farces, drawn from stage examples, had blinded them to the virtue to be drawn from the Swedish landscape.” (7)
American critics gushed over Intermezzo. The New York Herald Tribune called it “one of the best foreign films to have been screened. Each succession of images is filled with a beautiful poetic intensity.” (8) The trade publication Variety may have had insider information when it concluded: “Miss Bergman’s star is destined for Hollywood!” (9)
Selznick didn’t get the director but got the female lead and even took the you-are-there angles of the virtuoso on his violin. He should also have taken the moody lighting and deep focus shots that lift Intermezzo from mere melodrama to a kind of universal longing. But Selznick was busy with his masterpiece, and he thought Bergman was too tall and her eyebrows too thick. Bergman refused to tweeze them, demonstrating a resolve that proved essential in the years to come, telling the mercurial producer that she preferred to return home, her eyebrows intact.
Bergman and Molander made six films together in this period, from 1935’s Swedenhielms to 1939’s En enda Natt, of which the actress said the script was “a piece of rubbish.”  Exhibiting strength of artistic character uncommon for one so young, she only agreed to do En enda Natt if she could play Anna Holm in En kvinass ansikte (A Woman’s Face, 1938) about a disfigured leader of a blackmail ring. When producers told her no one wanted to see her beauty mutilated, she replied “that is exactly what they want, to see my face transformed.” (11) Hollywood copied that film, too, remaking it with Joan Crawford and George Cukor. Bergman, meanwhile, was tossed around Hollywood’s studios, and when Selznick wasn’t looking, made immortal in Warner Bros.’ Casablanca (1942). He remained blind to her versatility until Hitchcock revealed it to him. She didn’t make another Swedish film until Molander called her home in 1967 for his last film, the episodic Stimulantia.
1. Quoted in Bengt Forslund, “The Melodramas of Gustaf Molander,” Swedish film an introduction and a reader, edited by Mariah Larsson and Anders Marklund (Nordic Academic Press, 2010), p. 112
2. Forsyth Hardy, Scandinavian Film (The Falcon Press, 1952), p. 21
3. Hardy, p. 21
4. P.O. Blomqvist, P.O.: Gösta Ekman biography, Swedish Film Database http://www.sfi.se/en-gb/Swedish-film-database/
5. Hardy, p. 21
6. Hardy, p. 21
7. Hardy, pp. 21–22
8. Quoted in Forslund, pp. 111–112
9. Quoted in Forslund, pp. 111–112
10. Forslund, p. 113
11. Forslund, p. 113
Intermezzo (1936 Sweden 88 mins)
Prod Co: AB Svensk Filmindustri Dir: Gustaf Molander Scr: Gösta Stevens and Gustaf Molander Phot: Åke Dahlqvist Ed: Oscar Rosander Art Dir: Arne Åkermark Mus: Heinz Provost
Cast: Gösta Ekman, Inga Tildblad, Ingrid Bergman, Erik “Bullen” Berglund, Hugo Björne, Anders Henrikson, Hasse Ekman, Britt Hagman, Margarete Orth