Four working girls sharing an apartment in the big city might sound more like the premise for a 2015 American cable series than a 1923 feature from Sweden. But not only is Norrtullsligan a silent-era film set in Stockholm, it was adapted from a serialized novel published fifteen years earlier. The author, Elin Wägner, later a member of the Royal Swedish Academy, was also a journalist, an ardent feminist, and an advocate for a life lived closer to nature’s rhythms than to the minute-by-minute mechanical ticking that had become society’s dominant tempo during her lifetime.
The title of the novel, Wägner’s first, and only recently published in English, literally means the Northgate League (often translated into the folksier “Gang”) and refers to a working-class district where the quartet of pink collar ladies make their home. The newly minted English-language title, however, is stripped of any local color and conveys more plainly the challenges these young women face as they jostle alongside other rats in the modern race: “Men and Other Misfortunes.” The misfortunes are familiar as they still menace us today: sexual harassment, prejudice against single-parenting, the wage gap, the glass ceiling, and an unforgiving capitalism that pits poor against poor in a wealth-rules-all world. But neither the book nor the film are a mere socialist tract, and under Per Lindberg’s deft direction, the film captures the delicate moments among the difficulties written about by Wägner.
Norrtullsligan was one of five films released by the short-lived Bonnierfilm, a production unit set up by the respected publishing house Albert Bonniers Förlag to adapt selections from its inventory for motion pictures. The time seemed right to exploit the newly popular commercial art form, the tail end of Sweden’s Golden Age of cinema not yet visible. The tight-knit group of creators associated with Norrtullsligan’s production maps out like the branches of an incestuous family tree.
Director Per Lindberg was the son of revered stage actress Augusta and her actor-director husband August, both with deep roots in Stockholm theater. Their son was “an ambitious firebrand” in his day, credited with bringing Berlin-based Max Reinhardt’s radical staging to Stockholm. Per Lindberg’s sister Greta married Tor Bonnier, heir to Bonnier Publishing, today a worldwide media enterprise still owned and operated by the family. It can be deduced from letters written to her husband that Tor was the de facto head of Bonnierfilm’s projects.
Per’s other sister, Stina, married author Hjalmar Bergman, who adapted Elin Wägner’s story for Norrtullsligan. Primarily a novelist, but also active as a playwright, Bergman wrote the scripts for two other Bonnierfilm productions, Kalle Utter, directed by Karin Swanström, and Anna-Clara, also directed by Per Lindberg. Bergman later contributed scenarios to other films by director Swanström and by his great friend Victor Sjöström. Bergman’s final screenplay credit is for an adaptation of his own novel that unfolds over the course of a single day in a small Swedish town. It was directed by Sjöström and released just after Bergman’s death. This productive stretch of screenwriting included a short stint alongside Sjöström in Los Angeles, about which he wrote to Tor Bonnier, “What in this poor, ugly and petty country might interest esteemed readership? I find nothing—until further notice.” A notorious binge-drinker, Bergman had earlier scolded his friend Sjöström for being “so thoughtless” as not to warn him about Prohibition and expressed a “senseless terror of the drained continent.”
A witty writer possessed by volatile humors, Bergman sent several letters to producer Bonnier that provide a notion of the complexities of transforming a story for the screen. “The film is a hell,” he once wrote, signing off another time more cheerfully, “I’ll return to my puzzle.” He details what he’ll keep and what he’ll discard of Wägner’s narrative, including tagging on a happy ending, skipping a big wedding, which he says he can work back in if Bonnier wants it, and dropping a secondary character, because “empty people are just as pernicious on the screen as on stage.” He preserved Norrtullsligan’s most engaging quality, the first-person point-of-view of the principal character, Pegg (played by theater great Tora Teje), whose thoughts and observations provide all the text for the film’s intertitles and gently guide the story forward.
What Per Lindberg was able to preserve of the original story was the warmth that Wägner obviously felt for her characters and the fullness she gave them as human beings. Whether exhibiting the wide-eyed naïveté of Baby (Inga Tidblad), the sad resignation of Emmy (Linnéa Hillberg), or the practical optimism of Eva (Renée Björling), these women rise above the suffocating stereotypes of female characters sadly prevalent in American movies of the time. Here, even Pegg’s widowed aunt (the delightful Stina Berg), who expects instinctive deference for her inherited wealth, exhibits humor and humanity, if not awareness, in her brief appearances.
Lindberg’s visual flair condenses into seconds what took the writer hundreds of words to describe: the chaotic but effective morning routine of four women getting ready for work: pinning hair while grinding coffee beans, polishing boots while boiling water, all while trying to avoid being seen in their underwear by the landlady’s lurking son. Wägner’s “Army of Blouses” becomes stunning overhead shots of women milling about city streets and filling row upon row of office desks, five years before King Vidor’s iconic scene in The Crowd. Lindberg also conveys the intimacy among these women sharing their few resources and negotiating their small living space, with close-ups on consoling hugs and gentle caresses, a caring that seems largely absent on-screen even today. This is Wägner’s vision, who saw the hope for women in women, interpreted but respected.
Lindberg and Bergman had their fun, too, adding visual codes to hint at things that could not yet be explicit. For instance, one older character, who in the book has a larger role, is dressed in a crisp white shirt and tie (tucked into a long skirt), sitting in the middle of a sewing bee, her hands folded idle, looking slightly down on the busy swarm of industrious ladies. Played by Lili Ziedner, Norrtullsligan’s union organizer can be read as a butch stand-in for the radical Wägner, who after divorcing her unfaithful husband shared a farm and an environmental vision with another woman.
Scenarist Bergman was satisfied overall after a preview screening, writing later to Bonnier, “As sad as I was after the running of [Anna-Clara] I was pleased after Norrtullsligan.” He wrote about the performances: “all in my opinion excellent—with one major exception: Eide’s appearance [Pegg’s boss]. My God, cut at least the worst gorilla close-ups! And do not cut an inch of [Nils] Asther’s scenes (excepting an incomprehensible, unappetizing trouser pull-on). Had I the slightest idea that he could do such a comical figure, I certainly wouldn’t have skimped so with the Notary scenes.”
A letter written by Bergman in 1926 implies Wägner had mixed feelings about the adaptation, or at least about him: “I just learned that Elin Wägner will come here in the next few days and I shall then invite her for a cup of tea—for they shall be collegial.” As for Lindberg, after his brief interlude at Bonnierfilm, he stuck mostly with the theater, having another spurt of film directing from 1939 to 1941. In 1940’s June Nights, he reprised his sensitive portrayal of women in modern kinds of trouble, creating the same intimate atmosphere and tender moments but, this time, with newcomer Ingrid Bergman at the center.
Presented at SFSFF 2015 with live music by the Matti Bye Ensemble