The Actor’s Actor: Gunnar Björnstrand

Today marks what would have been the 105th birthday of the Swedish actor Gunnar Björnstrand (1909-1986), who had the distinction of having appeared in more of Ingmar Bergman’s films than any of the director’s other stock players. From It Rains on Our Love (1946) to Fanny and Alexander (1982), Björnstrand proved he could tackle a wide range of character types in both dramas and comedies. He was actually known primarily as a comic actor in both theater and film until Bergman’s work gave him roles – often starring ones – that showed the depths of Björnstrand’s abilities. At times he could project a warm and wonderful kindness, but he was also able to portray loathsomeness through chilling cruelty. I shall highlight a few of those special performances, though I regret that I cannot accurately offer an opinion on Björnstrand’s work in The Seventh Seal (1957) since it has been close to a decade since I last saw the film. I also have not yet seen some of Bergman’s “lesser” romantic comedies and dramas starring Björnstrand, including Secrets of Women (1952), Sawdust and Tinsel (1953), A Lesson in Love (1954) and Dreams (1955). Even so, I have seen enough to have the beginnings of a real appreciation. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)

Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) – In one of Bergman’s most successful comedies, famously reworked into the musical A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim, Björnstrand plays a husband whose marriage is complicated by his ongoing feelings for a past paramour (Eva Dahlbeck, pictured). Björnstrand’s Fredrik Egerman character is often confused or clueless as to how to handle delicate matters of love and relationships, but he is not malicious and it is easy for the viewer to sympathize with many of the characters besides Fredrik, regardless of the infidelities that are committed on the path to true happiness.

The Magician (1958) – Science and skepticism meet the mystical forces of the supernatural and tricks of the mind when a traveling magic/medicine show comes to town and Dr. Vergerus (Björnstrand’s character) is convinced that the whole thing is a charade. The film’s climax features a tense and disturbing standoff between Vergerus and Vogler (Max von Sydow as the enigmatic and mute leader of the troupe), despite the fact that Vogler is supposed to have died in an earlier scene. As Vergerus attempts to write the autopsy report in a big, empty attic, Vogler’s image keeps appearing in mirror reflections and in the corner of Vergerus’s eye. It is an unsettling and extremely effective scene, particularly when Vergerus is on the brink of admitting that something unexplainable (involving an intangible being) may be occurring.

The Devil’s Eye (1960) – Björnstrand plays “The Actor,” the nameless narrator in the film’s framing device, drolly speaking directly to the camera about the tale that he is there to tell. He’s not a god or God, exactly, but as a storyteller he has certain qualities of an all-knowing deity and a definite sense of humor (Bergmanesque, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean unfunny). Although Björnstrand doesn’t have much time onscreen, he has a memorably delightful presence.

Through a Glass Darkly (1961) – About as intimate as an intimate drama can be, this look at a father, his two children and son-in-law is an examination made through a grime-covered window. It is dreamlike in parts, sometimes inscrutable, often challenging and yet consistently interesting to watch for both the visuals and the acting styles. Björnstrand portrays the father, the novelist David, with an acute awareness of his insecurities. For me the performance has some key scenes: when David removes himself from dinner at the outdoor picnic table to go inside and secretly weep with what can only be described as muffled shrieking, his fragility unable to be contained by normal social actions; when David’s son-in-law Martin (Max von Sydow) accuses him of a lack of understanding about his family and David replies with his memory of a suicide attempt that led to realizing that he loves his children; the scene in which daughter Karin (Harriet Andersson) admits to a silent David a serious offense that she has committed; perhaps most of all, the final scene in which David and his teenage son Minus (Lars Passgård) have a discussion on the same intellectual level for the first time in the film. If any viewer had not considered Björnstrand a serious actor before, they certainly would acknowledge it with this performance.

Winter Light (1963) – Probably the most highly acclaimed of Björnstrand’s lead roles in Bergman’s dramas, here the main character is a priest whose personal and professional capabilities have disintegrated to the point of collapse. He no longer has any romantic bond with his former lover (Ingrid Thulin) and his attempts to save a suicidal churchgoer (Max von Sydow) also fail. In the end the only thing he can still do is the same old routine that he has always done: delivering a sermon for the appointed 3:00 pm service. It is a bitter and unforgiving film, but it is necessary viewing for stark, uncompromising writing and acting. Human drama is unflinchingly real here and I’m not sure if any other actor could have accomplished the tragedy and the simplicity of Gunnar Björnstrand’s painfully imperfect Pastor Tomas Ericsson.

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