a woman betrayed
by Douglas Messerli
Hasse Ekman (screenwriter and director) Flicka och hyacinter (Girl with Hyacinths) / 1950
young woman playing at the piano at a party where the attendees seem somewhat
drunk and sexually involved, suddenly stops playing midway through a phrase. We
see her soon after looking into the dark waters of a canal, as if contemplating
a jump. A passing street artist warns her it’s not worth it and offers her a
sketch. She gives him some money but leaves before accepting his
Having left everything to Anders and Britt Wikner (Ulf Palme and Birgit Tengroth), her neighbors who live across from her apartment, they begin an investigation into why the woman they hardly knew has committed suicide. For the rest of this film, Flicka och hyacinter (Girl with Hyacinths) focuses, in the manner of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, on attempting to discover who this beautiful but apparently inscrutable woman was and why her life ended as it did. Like Welles’ great film, Girl with Hyacinths, directed by Hasse Ekman, provides us with a secret answer to the puzzle which only one of his characters solves at film’s end.
The amazing thing about this film is not its final narrative solution, however, but just how remarkable are Ekman’s images and cinematic strategies, proving him the equal of his Swedish friend and peer Ingmar Bergman, along with its fascinating psychological insights and the fact that Ekman would chose to focus on a seemingly ordinary woman with the intensity and persistence as if she were of major interest to the culture at large.
Strangely, Dagmar Brink (Eva Henning, Ekman’s wife at the time) is worthy of that interest for a reason that perhaps until the date of this film, 1950, no director had previously explored—her sexual preference. I’m going to do something that no other critic has ever dared to do, to tell my readers in the fourth paragraph of my review-essay that what we discover by the end of this film is that Dagmar committed suicide, in part, because she was a lesbian.
If that may immediately alienate most of my LGBTQ readers, seemingly representing as it does yet another occasion where the homosexual figure of a film is forced to suffer and die because of her or his sexual identity, I want to assure you that it is for that very reason that I am presenting the facts up front. For although the film’s characters, many critics, and some viewers might remain obstinately obtuse throughout the film, the director gives obvious signals to his knowledgeable gay viewers right from the start about Dagmar’s private life. And by the end we realize that Ekman’s presentation of her is not only sympathetic but that her suicide was not caused by her lesbian identification but because she was betrayed by all of her lovers, male and female, both personally and in the case of her lesbian friend, politically. Unlike Martha Dobie of William Wyler’s The Children’s Hour of a decade later, Dagmar Brink did not hang herself out of fear for having realized her lesbian desires, but for having so loved someone, in this case a woman who has lived under the Nazi occupation in Paris (Anne-Marie Brunius), that her abandonment of their love and country has sent this film’s central character into a despondency so absolute that she simply no longer wishes to go on living.
Indeed the fact that this director feels that the consequences of that love is worth devoting a hour and a half of our lives testifies to his respect for LGBTQ life in a manner that almost no other director before him evidenced.
Ekman himself, it appears, can hardly wait to reveal the secret we perceive him purposely withholding in order to gain and keep our interest. Probably if he had truly announced at the beginning of his film that his hero is queer, most viewers of the day would have never bothered to watch the rest of this significantly engaging work of art. But he certainly tosses us more than a few breadcrumbs to lead us to the truth quite early in the film.
Upon first learning about their unexpected and somewhat unwanted inheritance, the Witner’s explore the now empty apartment next door, finding little of anything to explain her death. Looking over library, Anders comments that she seems to be reading the kind of literature one might expect of such a person: Boye, Gullberg, and Södergran. Perhaps Ekman is being rather coy in mentioning these three Swedish language poets; even most of his Swedish audience might not immediately know of their work. But Karin Boye, I happen to know, was a lesbian poet and novelist who committed suicide. Gullberg, probably a gay poet, who wrote significant anti-war poetry, suffered for years from a neuromuscular disease, and also committed suicide. He also wrote a poem about Boye, entitled “Dead Amazon”:
Swords that battle crushing powers
Will be broken, thrust aside
News reports say German forces
Breached Thermopylae and passed
Forty-year old Karin Boye
Is missing from her home, feared lost.
Very dark,with big brown eyes
Dressed in travel clothes, it’s said
Maybe finding beyond eons
Where no one other found the trail
The pass where Sparta’s heroes fought
And chose their death but did not yield.
Södergran,* a Swedish speaking Finnish poet, is also thought to have been bisexual and suffered for much of her life from tuberculosis. And she is, moreover, recognized as one of Scandinavia’s first feminist writers. Here’s a few lines from one of her most renowned poems:
I am no woman. I am a neuter.
I am a child, a page-boy, and a bold decision,
I am a laughing streak of a scarlet sun...
I am a net for all voracious fish,
I am a toast to every woman's honor,
I am a step toward luck and toward ruin,
I am a leap in freedom and the self...
I am the whisper of desire in a man's ear,
I am the soul's shivering, the flesh's longing and denial,
I am an entry sign to new paradises.
I am a flame, searching and brave,
I am water, deep yet bold only to the knees,
I am fire and water, honestly combined, on free terms...
Anders, who recognizes these writers, is himself an author so you might imagine that he at least had read these poets. But apparently not, or his male simple-mindedness cannot make the obvious connections between literature and this woman’s life. He, meanwhile, goes on an engaging in a wild goose-chase encountering first a banker who hesitatingly admits that she had visited him, subtly blackmailing him with the fact that she knows he was her father, demanding 5,000 kroner, which he grudgingly pays.
Angered by what he has discovered, he asks her to honestly tell him if she has had another relationship. She says quite openly: “I have never loved a man before you, Stefan.” But, as he tells the Wikners, he cannot understand why she lied to him. Again from the paternalistic view that dominates this film, apparently no male might ever bother to wonder whether Alex was a male or female name. In any event, the doubt sown by that letter soon results in their separation.
Yet we do see Britt wondering if there might be something more to the incident. She clearly knows a bit more about Alex from a time before her marriage to Anders when, living in the same apartment, she feared that Dagmar was about to commit suicide. Worried, she intruded upon her neighbor, insisting that the girl take a sleeping pill and think on her situation before acting. To make sure the girl is safe, she stays on until Dagmar falls to sleep, hearing her declare that she loves Alex.
Anders fails a couple of times in contacting an artist to whom Dagmar was somehow connected because of that figure’s continual drunkenness, each time resulting in a series of comic incidents in what otherwise is a rather dark movie. But when he finally does meet up with the artist Elias Körner, he discovers another of the failed human beings whom Dagmar loved. Körner, having long spotted her at the Ritz where she played piano, asks her to sit for the portrait which provides this movie with its title, “Girl with Hyacinths,” perhaps his best work.
The two eventually join up and spend delightful weeks together before he once more falls into his cyclic pattern of severe alcoholism, ending in his long periods of disappearance and even, when the police arrest him, incarceration. After several of these “cycles,” she is finally convinced that if he cannot permanently become sober their relationship will have to end. To send him to a sanatorium she produces, without him knowing the source—although we know that she has gotten the money from the banker—enough money to keep him in the institution until he is cured. He returns home and they live together in happiness until, once again, he comes home drunken and argumentative, purposely destroying their relationship.
Suffering from the breakup, she meets up with a singer, Willy Borge (Karl-Arne Holmsten), whom she had met one time before, admiring his music but recognizing that he is a total cad, determined to have nothing to do with him sexually. Coincidentally, Anders went to school with Borge and recognizes him as a perfect scoundrel, surprised that Dagmar even had his records in her collection. It’s that connection which leads him to Borges where we see the final scenes of this moral drama played out.
Much like the works of Norwegian post-war novelist Sigurd Hoel, Ekman’s work plays out a complex tale of betrayal, of love of course, but even worse, in a near a treasonous act, a betrayal of moral values. Dagmar has witnessed that betrayal at least three times and cannot bear to go in a world where both men and women have become such creatures.
For Anders the story is over without a proper ending, without a full explanation for the series of events. But his wife suspects the truth, calling up Borge to find out the name of the women he went to bed with that night—Alexandria of course.
She doesn’t tell her husband. Perhaps the male species cannot be trusted with such a deep truth. But in 1950 Hasse Ekman felt he could rely on his audience to comprehend that what was wrong with the world in which Dagmar Brink lived was not that she loved another woman but that she had chosen an immoral one.
For those who repeat the myth that the 1950s represented only views of domesticity, racism, xenophobia, and moral righteousness, I’d invite you to enter my view of that decade which would include this film, Michael Curtiz’ Young Man with a Horn, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Les Enfants terribles, Jean Genet’s Un chant d’amour, Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, Jacqueline Audry’s Oliva, Jacques Demy’s Les horizons mort, John Schmitz Voices, Federico Fellini’s I vitelloni, François Reichenbach Last Spring, Marcel Carné’s L’Air de Paris, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques, Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket, Nicolas Ray’s Rebel without a Cause, Richard Fleischer’s Compulsion, Mauro Bolognini’s La notte brava, everything by or based on Tennessee Williams, along with the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, early John Ashbery, John Wieners, and so very much else that belies the notion that the decade was only involved in family television stereotypes and House on Un-American Activities’ atrocities. Hasse Ekman’s film might almost be said to be the gateway, along with Genet’s Chant, of a new era of LGBTQ awareness, so very long before Stonewall.
Los Angeles, June 11, 2021
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (June 2021).