Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Intermezzo (1936)

Director: Gustaf Molander                              Writers: Gösta Stevens & Gustaf Molander
Music Director: Eric Bengston                        Cinematography: Åke Dahlqvist
Starring: Gösta Ekman, Ingrid Bergman, Inga Tidblad and Erik Berglund

After seeing Ingrid Bergman in this film, David O. Selznick immediately signed the actress to a personal service contract and her first film for him in the United States was the remake of Intermezzo in 1939 with Leslie Howard in the lead role. The original was actually one of the half dozen films she appeared in for Swedish director Gustaf Molander. Intermezzo is a classic musical love story of an older virtuoso falling for a much younger acolyte. The film was written specifically for Bergman by Molander and Gösta Stevens, and the acquisition of Gösta Ekman’s services were a major part of the production. Ekman was acting on the stage at the time and the film had to be shot around his schedule. The film would be one of the venerable Swedish actor’s last, however, as he died a year and a half after shooting. In a prescient moment near the middle of the film actor Erik Berglund asks Ekman if he’s feeling well and says he looks tired. Bergman was devastated by the news of his death and always remembered him with fondness.

The film opens on a ship returning to Sweden. Hugo Björne and Gösta Ekman are coming home after a successful tour playing music on the continent, Björne on the piano and Ekman on violin. But this is Björne’s last tour as he’s retiring. Their manager, Erik Berglund, comes over to his house to see if he’ll do one more tour and there he meets Björne’s pupil, Ingrid Bergman. Over at Ekman’s house the violinist begins to realize how much his family has been neglected in his absences abroad and wife, Inga Tidblad, gently confirms this for him. Bergman, whom he has never really met, gives piano lessons to his daughter. The night of his daughter’s birthday party, however, he hears her play for the first time and becomes entranced with the idea of her becoming his accompanist. Björne wants her to take her time and not rush into performing and she, at least initially, agrees with him. But Ekman works on her, luring her with the adventure of travel and the unknown, and before the music can even begin they fall in love with each other. Bergman is tormented by the affair and wants to go away for a while, but Ekman is insistent that they stay together, even to the point of telling his wife and leaving her and the children. So, with nothing to stop them Bergman goes out as Ekman’s accompanist, and the two plan their perfect life together.

Gustaf Molander’s directing style is quite interesting. His camera tends to be set in closer to the actors than is typical of the Hollywood style at the time, and his European sensibilities lead him to frame other actors in the background of close ups. He also makes good use of shadow and soft lighting. There is a briskness to the film that does, however, seem to owe a debt to American cinema of this period. As with most films of its type, Deception and Humoresque come to mind, the music is exceptional. The violin solos are performed by Charles Barkel, just one among the trickle of Europeans born in the United States who actually emigrated back to their home country. His work is magnificent and the same technique that would appear later in Humoresque was actually invented here, where the hands of two violinists are used to play the violin around Ekman during close ups. Bergman, on the other hand, was a fine pianist herself and did all of her own work on close ups, though pianist Stina Sundell plays the music for Bergman at other times. Gösta Ekman has a great screen presence in this film. He looks a bit like Conrad Veidt but his acting style is brighter and more mercurial. Ingrid Bergman, of course, is ravishing and impossibly young. Intermezzo is not a torrid romance, nor is it a gut-wrenching family drama. It is simply the story of a brief period in two lives that the audience is allowed to share, and a wonderful piece of Swedish cinema.

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