The ’68 Comeback Special: Doktor Glas

Scout Tafoya and I are reviewing all the entries from Cannes ’68, AKA the Cannes That Wasn’t there.

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“I killed him for money and a woman. Well, I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman.” So says Fred MacMurray in DOUBLE INDEMNITY, anticipating Per Oscarsson in DOKTOR GLAS, Mai Zetterling’s entry for Sweden in the abortive ’68 Cannes Film Festival.

The lanky Oscarsson, always a strange, appealing but unsettling presence, is a doctor in early 20th Century Sweden, tempted to murder by the case of a woman he’s besotted with who’s married to a man he can’t stand, the hypocritical Reverend Gregorius. Glas is initially consulted by Mrs G, who’s repulsed by her older husband and wants a medical excuse to stave off his vigorous and forceful exercising of his “marital rights,” but he starts to think that the only permanent solution is to remove the Rev from the picture altogether.

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The only previous directorial work by Zetterling I had seen was her short, WAR GAMES, which I liked a lot. This one does have some trendy stuff — ’68 may have been THE big year for fashionable stylistic excess — but it’s inflected with enough imagination and originality to diffuse any sense of ennui. The diciest choice is probably the pop song at the start, performed by The Others — quite pleasant in its own way, and an attractive music video, with everything out of focus — but is it really appropriate? Still, it ties in with a whole series of contemporary sequences in which the presumably very old Glas walks the streets of Stockholm musing on his life, filmed in a myopic blur of hand-held subjective camera. Some of the transitions, led by sound design, from period to contemporary scenes are very neat, particularly a climactic scene where the camera pans directly from 1910s to 1960s in a single take, while going into its trademark hazy unfocused state.

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Zetterling also creates a stream-of-consciousness quality by intercutting a pensive Oscarsson with fantasy images unreeling in his mind, typically set against a white studio cyclorama infinity wall — again, a little too forcefully reminding us of the sixties, but resulting in some nice graphic compositions. The cutting is at times near-subliminal, with the influence of MARIENBAD very much in the air. I suspect this movie, in addition to the brief glimpses of childbirth delivered with gouts of monochrome grue, would have been the first Cannes screening to feature close-up sexual penetration — although again these moments are blink-and-you-miss-it brief. I suspect the censor cut them everywhere outside Scandinavia anyway.

Being Swedish, there’s a fair bit of nudity, rather more than you’d expect for ’68 (which is kind of the year the nude scene was normalized, and also the year colour became the default setting for all US film — Europe obviously caught up with this a year later since Cannes featured numerous b&w movies that year). And despite being directed by a woman, the film enters the mind of Glas so thoroughly that the nudity is pretty clearly divided in purpose — the male nudes can be filed under “frankness” (the inevitable sauna) whereas the females are squarely “eroticism”. Several dream sequences show Glas fantasising about the woman he’s smitten with, and there’s a degree of menace to her oneiric provocations. We also get Glas rolling about in a quarry and other modish bits of Felliniesque peculiarity — I have a suspicion that Swedish filmmakers must have felt intimidated by the influence of Bergman so they’d scout around for other influences to plunge into. This certainly doesn’t feel anything like THE HOUR OF THE WOLF.

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’68 was probably Zetterling’s biggest year as director — she also made her feminist film FLICKORNA, aka THE GIRLS — and then didn’t direct again until ’72. Soon she was confined to UK TV or else acting again (she’s great in THE WITCHES). This fatal loss of career momentum is to be deeply regretted, and I wonder what a successful Cannes screening of DOKTOR GLAS might have meant for her.

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8 Responses to “The ’68 Comeback Special: Doktor Glas”

  1. As I recall Carl Th. Dreyer was once interested in making a film of this story.

    Mai Zetterling’s biggest film stateside was Night Games, which famously shocked the star of John Ford’s Wee Willie Winkie

  2. I presume you mean Shirley Temple. I bet Victor McLaglan, June Lang and Cesar Romero would have taken it in their stride.

  3. david wingrove Says:

    God, I’m dying to see this! NIGHT GAMES is one of my all-time favourites – and LOVING COUPLES is marvellous as well. Her later film AMOROSA has an interesting reputation but is very hard to track down…

  4. David Boxwell Says:

    And Greene hadn’t even seen Morelegs Sweetrick in KID ‘N HOLLYWOOD (33)!

  5. Jesus. Had forgotten that NAME.

  6. […] we screened Dr. Glas at the Totally Illegal Film Festival, the ‘judges’ were torn about whether its title […]

  7. […] we screened Dr. Glas at the Totally Illegal Film Festival, the ‘judges’ were torn about whether its title […]

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