The pen name ”Pavane” – the ”well-known and acclaimed” film critic, left a diary behind for posterity. At the time of her death in 1974, I was given this diary by my sister Pia, who had saved it from one of our mother’s carrying bags after her eviction in the late 1950s. Gerd had finally lost a dragged-out tenancy dispute and it led to her and my – her teenage daughter’s – homeless odyssey from our tenement quarters to the street; it ended with my escape at the age of 16, when I left her squatting in a stair shaft together with my cats. I saw to it that I was taken care of by the child welfare authorities. Gerd eventually wound up at the Beckomberga psychiatric hospital, where she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
For a considerable part of my adult life I was under the impression that I had left my mother’s illness behind me. I went all in as far as studying hard, amounting to something, having an impact on the class system and making my own family.
I wanted five strong children – at least. I wanted them all to find their place in a fair and equitable society, filled with art and creativity…
During my political awakening – the visions of the women’s movement regarding a new and equal society with the children at centre stage – I observed a new set of means of aesthetic analyses: I read my mother’s diary and applied a curiosity for the 1970s via a new focus on the question: “who writes women’s art history?” (cf. “The Second Avant-garde” regarding female visual artists, and the new Nordic women’s literature history). A veritable flood of books appeared, through which we got to reclaim the forgotten female artists.
Thus armed – inside me, my private fears of being entangled in mental illness and shame – I wanted to get to know my mother anew and identify the professional woman, her dreams, thoughts and creative process, the person before the mother figure.
Generations of women started to examine their own woman’s history and to talk about their dreams and their visions.
But “only the films that get made are the ones that matter”, Ingmar Bergman said in an interview I read.
This very thing about that what will matter in the end, spurred me towards the quest to find voices from women who dreamt about doing, creating themselves – and to matter.
Who was my mother before she became my mother?
My reluctance to read the black booklet with the oilcloth cover gave in to an urge of telling the story of the generation of women during World War II. Gerd writes in the diary about her fears and dreams of creating during the years between 1939 and 1944. “My life is now.” My personal resistance also concerned not just the old left-wing ideological, but the social contempt and/or taboo regarding any “private” activities. The renewed interest for the inner side of things partly came from the American therapy scene, but especially from the political credo of the women’s movement: “what is private is political”, which pushed forward an insight regarding the interior and the exterior in the life of a human being.
Gerd reports about Hitler’s occupation and destruction, the bombings of cities with countless lives gone. Her Europe is in ruins and her friends on the run and disappearing. She dreams, she cites poems and during one war spring she has her eye on a desirable red dress suit. Her plans to film in France are all in ashes.
Ashes – a recurring word
The black booklet contains encounters in Stockholm with casualties of exile, like the one with Bertold Brecht, an event that will make its way into a scene in Mamma (Our Life Is Now) in 1982. He drives in on a motorcycle with two lovers in tow and advices her, the one-woman writer who wants to make films, to not work alone. ”Das schafft man nicht”, that won’t do, states Brecht. In the film Gerd replies that she’d preferably like a wife, and also a secretary… In the room, her kids scurry about in the background.
Simultaneously, while working as a journalist and writing about other people’s films, Gerd often writes in the diary about her recurring script ideas, about her urge to film herself. She also visits sets in film studios. She constantly registers how different directors go about in their work. And she is a single parent. Someone says that she wants to be mother, father and God, all in one person.
She never mentions the child in the diary. Just the divorce. And the new passion.
She also never mentioned her children in her therapeutic talks, I’m later told.
She does note, in 1941, that she has “met O”, he who became my father, at the time taken into custody inside the Långholmen prison.
Karl Otto Osten was born in Berlin in 1912. He was an organized resistance fighter and he had entered Sweden illegally from Norway during the Nazi occupation, where he hid on a farm after his escape from Czechoslovakia. The couple decides to have children after the battle of Stalingrad, when the war turns. The diary runs until two weeks before I was born in June 1944 at home on Stora Essingen in the flat we were to be evicted from twelve years later, mother and I. My eight-year-old sister is my witness.
By the time that I thoroughly re-read the diary, this time in preparation for my film Mamma, I had behind me the 1974 feminist theatre epic Jösses flickor – befrielsen är nära (“Geez, girls – liberty is near”), which I wrote with Margareta Garpe. In this play, Gerd is embodied in the patient named Harriet, the liberal who succumbs and is hospitalized in a mental institution. The same year, my mother died at Beckomberga.
Writing a film script
My co-writer Tove Ellefsen and I did extensive research for the Mamma script in 1978-79, which led me to do several interviews with her friends and with admirers of her written film criticism. Gerd was in the forefront when she early on connected film language with psychoanalysis. Not only was she a bold critic, she had a good feel for her time, was contemporary, had an attitude, was gutsy and elegant.
After the film had opened, I found out that she worked for the national security service during the war and I fantasize about her, breaking secret codes. She played chess and had useful language skills in German, Italian, Russian, Spanish and French. I see her before me, like when I saw her working as a child, typing away on her machine and smoking, with long, slim fingers with red, long fingernails… a film noir! The feature film Mamma was inspired by her film reports of choice, and the aesthetics of French and Swedish noir-like films like Iris and the Lieutenant (Iris och löjtnantshjärta, 1946) or Daybreak (Le jour se lève, 1939).
Living with the fear of a German invasion during the war was my parents’ reality and an escape boat was constructed in our flat. Tensions did not drop after the end of the war. I trudged along with my mother to various neurologists. She also tried to get help early on in psychoanalysis, but the Freudian-trained analysts at the time were helpless in the face of her psychotic symptoms. She regarded herself increasingly persecuted and lived after the war constantly prepared to get out, with a suitcase under the bed. We were waiting for the World War III. The “Greens” monitored the world.
There’s more to come
Also after the film in 1982 I would continuously get new impressions and information about her persona: an elderly psychoanalyst and relative of Rikard Wolff told me on his ninetieth birthday:
“Your mother looked like Meryl Streep… and your father looks like Johan Rabaeus!”
Myths, concerning an intellectual woman with high ideals and a taste for elegant clothes. But also the Difficult Loyal Silences and the “tragic mental illness” about which it was whispered, and which was then considered incurable and incomprehensible. She scared away all her friends.
No, not everyone – a vicar friend took her in as a resident for a while until it was no longer possible. I visited her after school in a shelter for the homeless, Roma people and alcoholics. It was located under a now modern rental complex on Hornsgatan, Pensionat Spjutet [“Spear’s Inn”], where she had a very small and cheap room, a bed and access to a joint laundry room. I attended high school, and one day I found her bleeding and delirious and she was brought to the big mental hospital where they experimented with a bit of everything: chlorpromazine, insulin treatment, electric shocks… Lobotomy was not tested, but was still used in the 1970’s.
My material legacy after my mother consists of the diary and two very worthwhile and amusing scrapbooks from 1938-1942, as well as a small notebook where she collected reviews of her last book, Den nya filmrealismen (“The new film realism”), from 1956. A quote from a critic who notes her evolution from a “finger tip aesthetic” towards a growing interest for “images of reality” catches my eye.
I’m sitting with her in her picture. I am 12 years old and have the cat in my lap.
It looks normal. It was not. At home it was war.
Cinema – the temple of those who are scared of life
The truth was that in her writing she is firmly rooted in the present in all her texts about French and German, Italian and Nordic cinema. She has a broad passionate interest for the Swedish dream factory as well as the Hollywood one and pays attention to the craft as well as the film medium. She is interested in political film issues as well as the creative process. Her tastes and descriptions include avant-garde, documentaries and popular genres. Gerd, the critic combines her passion for the aesthetic with a phenomenally well-formulated critical distance. Take, for example, her insightful critique (“Nordic film” from 1951) of Ingmar Bergman’s early films – which were met with a rather harsh aversion at the time – and by all means a tad of the classic contempt for artists. The writings of Gerd, the critic remain unaffected by her private relationships – despite the fact that she worked with Bergman as a script supervisor and sometimes had a few mundane conflicts with him. And despite the fact that she was never allowed to make her own feature film, while he would with time complete 60 of them.
Being able to make a feature film was the main theme of my first film Mamma (with the portrait-like Malin Ek in the role of my mother; Malin received a Gudbagge award for her portrayal at the National Swedish Film Awards in 1983). Bo (Helge Skoog, a portrait-like, beret-clad Bergman), gets to make the film in my film, while she is a journalist and writes about other people’s films. Despite all this, a perennial critical lightness and generosity pervades her film analyses. Ingmar Bergman was not one of her demons!
The role of Carmen’s mother in Bengbulan (Carmen’s Revenge) (as played by Malin Ek, now portraying a distraught parent with a rent debt – a harbinger of forthcoming psychosis and disappearance in this 1996 film). The 12-year-old Carmen is abandoned, but manages on her own and outsmarts her enemy while the big sister (Cilla Thorell) tries to find the missing mother and runs into her during a psychotic begging spree at the summer water festival.
In 2016, my mother Gerd inspired the role of Siri, the beloved and admired, but weird mother (played by Maria Sundbohm) in The Girl, the Mother and the Demons.
Sometimes confused, sometimes dangerous – but enticing to the child (played by Esther Squigley).
Three films with different aspects of a professional woman in a nightmare world.
The child sees the mother and tries to comprise it all, but must abandon the sick one and go her own way. The theme runs like a thread through several of my plays for the theatre; for example in the stage play Flickan, Mamman och Soporna (“The Girl, the Mother and the Trash”).
In other stage works I have been interested in the creative within the psychotic, as well as its danger to the child (as in Lars Norén’s Underjordens leende (“Smiles of the Underworld”) from 1982, where the mother is psychotic on stage, a newborn.)
The creative process has not directly reconciled me with the child’s weak vulnerable position, too much neglect and shame remains in society today, despite new knowledge.
But I have learned a lot and any so-called thank you speech probably goes to my mother today:
It was you who taught me everything I know about film, psychosis and the child perspective. I picked up some other things along the way as well.
For example, I can trace black humour, and my all-encompassing taste for all genres and things I wanted to try to do myself: comedic opera, drama, splatter farce, horror film, political thriller…
The film that depicts the effect of psychosis is probably Livsfarlig film (“Lethal Film,” 1988). A depiction of horror and the horror film industry. Reality versus manufactured entertainment horror.
My latest film for children also contains dangers, thrillers and grotesque effects, but the child does not see the demons that the mother sees in our story.
It is the very dangerous reality that makes us the most vulnerable. Having a sick parent strongly affects children. While the psychosis itself is getting caught up in a nightmare, which here happens to Siri, the mother. The child is affected by the mother’s fears and projections, but also lives her own life with her own relationships and is through her imagination able to fight the delusions.
In each school class there are several children with parents who are ill. Still, unfortunately, there is this shame of even raising the subject.
My research on the period of the script about Gerd led me to many amusing discoveries as far as her own journeys and descriptions. She started writing for Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfartstidning and what she wrote was perceived and described by her contemporaries as innovative. Via this writing and travelling work, she put herself though film school and critics’ school. The newspaper clippings that she herself pasted in with dates with light-hearted handwriting are invigorating reading even today and they give me the image of an enterprising subject with a healthy language and a sharp outlook. The scrapbooks describe highlights from her chosen path; interviews with active film people, set visits, current polemics within cinema – “only bad literature becomes good cinema”. She already has the ability to describe both aesthetics and different countries’ different political film strategies – and it is film, film, film… Growing up as she did in an Italian non-stop cinema from the age of five. My grandmother worked as a tour guide and didn’t have a babysitter.
Her world is seen through a camera eye, something I reuse in the film about her – her shielded, inward-looking gaze.
The art of Gerd
What did her own world of cinema look like? My sister knew of her winning awards for 8mm films, for short stories… She received awards in Budapest in Hungary before the war. An early press clip from 1938 shows a serious-looking Gerd, sporting a cigarette and an attitude: she does not smile, she is interviewed about the awards, her views on cinema, yes, she believes in the silent film’s renaissance – “in the future, lots of music”. Gerd starts a student film studio in Stockholm.
The diary talks about a cancelled film contract – with the French director Raymond Bernard – as a consequence of the outbreak of the war in 1939. She refers to a screenplay collaboration with the famous poet and screenwriter Jacques Prévert and to concrete film plans with Brecht. They discussed a film adaptation of his ballad Children’s Crusade (Kinderkreuzzug) – in colour. Something they apparently disagreed on. Gerd liked G. W. Pabst’s film adaptation of Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera (Die 3 Groschen-Oper, 1931), a subject that spawned further disagreement.
In 2015, I sat enchanted in Berlin and saw a strange, early silent film by Pabst, about poor and vulnerable people in a dark pre-war atmosphere from the Germany of the era of depression. The film revolved around a photographer. Suddenly I understood what Gerd was talking about, Pabst, his work with the actors, the silent film. Yes, that’s why she admired him, only now do I understand and appreciate this elevated language – what a director! Despite all the talk about her hating the theatre! The melodrama of cinema is born out of the theatrical body.
Three small films
After Mamma had premiered and had been shown at festivals and Ingmar Bergman a few years later would choose Swedish films that he liked for a historical cavalcade at the Gothenburg Film Festival, he invited my film. This Bergman venture led to two small films emerging from the sea of films out there, unknown short films from the past – films by Gerd that have been thawed out of the freezer archive, I have been told – traces of my mother’s filming spirit and which were now shown 40 years later. All this moved me incredibly!
Then it is true: she was willing and she was also able!
The theme of two of these short films is dance. She had also collaborated (something I claimed she did not do with other women – just talked love and war) with Birgit Cullberg and Lilian Karina. Arne Klingborg photographed, the same photographer I portray in Mamma (played by Philip Zandén).
Birgit and Gerd’s dance film Antonius & Cleopatra makes a humorous mockery of masculinity and the worship of war (the dancers are Mario Mengarelli and Birgit Cullberg). Films that came about after the war.
In 2016, my film box collection was released, Det bästa av Suzanne Osten (“The best of Suzanne Osten”), which includes six of my ten films, now digitally restored. Producer Stefan Nylén at Studio S, ironically, financed this box edition with profits from another box collection with films from the heyday of the “pilsner” comedy films of the 1930s! Pilsner film and the great star of that genre Thor Modéen, shunned by Gerd in Mamma…! Nylén also found a newsreel item where Gerd speaks out on behalf of a so-called modern film genre, which will become the short film Ung kvinna (“Young Woman”). A small superb surrealist gem on the theme of a woman’s passion, a sweaty man, a cat, a cracked mirror, some magic and dead goldfish. No dialogue.
All three films are now included as bonus material in the film box.
So it was true, she wanted, could – and made films!
My conversations with my mother about what life was like as a child went in circles, the same dry, short answers… “I was cute in a white dress”. Yes, I was cute…
It was also difficult to talk about her desire to make film.
Everything she wrote or had written she judged as – nothing.
Her constant disapproval of her critique and writing; the tapping sounds behind glass doors during all my awoken childhood, why was it “nothing” to her?
Grandma drove around Europe with Gerd, who graduated as a private student in Uppsala. Raised in Europe, she spoke many languages. Well-read and modern, but constantly flat broke. She lacked funds for higher education after her father’s death, the family’s daughters were left to their own devices, but the only son was allowed to study. Gerd supported herself as an office typist. The film reports in Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfartstidning led to funds for travel.
In the first marriage with the painter Tord Baeckström (who has done a series of oil paintings and sketches on her) my sister Pia is born in 1936.
Gerd creates her own film education
The travel articles in the scrapbooks before the war show her enormous and very hands-on interest in film: acting, production design, script writing and storytelling, the psychology of the shoot. Many travel pieces are from the large French and German film studios that were really film factories, up here there was a small one, Filmstaden, with theatre houses where everything was fabricated. There she also sat down, looking for new things to learn.
In her film journalism, she has an early ability to describe both social forces and human driving forces. Techniques, clichés and tricks amuse her, as well as the artisan aspects of filming.
When she started writing, film was not a prestigious art form but a low, popular form of entertainment. But in Europe there were claims and experiments.
In scrapbooks, an argumentation emerges on behalf of film as an art form, something connected and connectable and vital to and for the people, where entertainment does not stand against content, quality does not stand against impact. Film as something sensual and spiritual.
Crucial? Yes. But no genre is inferior.
Gerd Ekbom-Baeckström writes for her life and sees the film as a survival language where the interior and exterior can be accommodated and coexist. A “higher” narrative form and a very significant dream theatre. She is unusually well-read and sees a new world encompassing the film, her knowledge has roots in classical literature, her view of the outside world is coloured by both psychoanalysis and surrealism. She encounters the art world as a young person, she puts everything to good use in her knowledgeable undressing of Hollywood stories… costumes, bodies, desires and hats.
After the war, Gerd is a disillusioned adult, now engaged in visions of cinema’s necessary function in building a new Europe. Now the important question was the cinema’s function in a ravaged and ruined society, yes, now the Nordic countries, as well as Europe, need the new images of reality instead of the simple adventures or peppy soldier films for the home front.
Her humour comes across everywhere, for example in the analysis of the ladies’ phallic-shaped hats. This sharp-eyed feminist offers gender-masked articles in which she describes how the stars of the 1930s – many of them distinguished artists – were forced to face surgery, teeth whitening, braces, relocated hairlines – all to be product-perfect for the dream factory’s star templates.
After the war comes the Italian “neorealist” film with hope, a new solidarity with the poor. From the bombed-out film studios, filmmakers seek out new environments and new subjects, often in the open air. In our family, director Roberto Rossellini was a hero. Our cat was named Paisà.
And when my mother interviewed Ingrid Bergman, Ingrid’s words became sacred at home:
“The best thing you can have is a bad memory.” I think I have heard this, but my sister sat up and waited for my mother and heard the words of wisdom immediately after the completed interview with Ingrid Bergman who played Jeanne d’Arc, the heroine who was burned at the stake. When I tried to find out more about the scandals surrounding the movie star she met, she ironically replied “Do you know famous people?”
To Gerd, gossip was frowned upon.
To love what you criticize
I have collected Gerd’s books from second-hand bookstores, sometimes a book from a film lover is handed to me. “Did I know that…?”
She was widely read by my parents’ generation and her educational plan was to make the film housebroken, free from prejudice and the stigma of simple entertainment. She wanted to highlight all the narrative possibilities and symbols of the medium and show us readers the essence.
Gerd wanted to envision the artistic potential of cinema as well as the narrative of the community and saw a new world in demand of new film visions.
A new world needed new stories
In essays on the various recurring themes around film politics, the eternal question is which is the most important component of a successful film. Is it the perfect script – or is it mainly about the creative role of the auteur – to “write” with film?
Gerd’s style is journalistically fresh and witty, whether the subject concerns avant-garde or peasant drama in Nordic film. She scrutinizes the glamour of the stars as much as she devotes her time to foxes and deer in the new school of poetic documentary.
The film critic Gerd, with the handsome signature Pavane, (from a Spanish court dance, a music theme that turns up both in Mamma and in The Girl, the Mother and the Demons) is the omnivore who can talk about style and references like today’s young people talk about menus and cuisine.
Gerd was a snob and an elitist in everyday life, but when it came to cinema, she was a democrat. She wanted to be all-inclusive.
Gerd was an original critic. She also loved what she criticized. She writes and chooses that which interest her.
As a writer, she made ideological choices for her participation and she set conditions in the press she wrote for, constantly asserting the freedom and independence of the critic, to never be forced to think “right”. Her choice not to be a permanent employee made her poor. In the established daily press and the trade press, she felt politically at home, and despite her sophisticated trains-of-thought, she was widely read and she published four film essay collections. When I read in her scrapbooks, I wish they were published. Fun reading!
Gerd fell silent in 1959
The last article was one of the classic “underliner” full-page essays in newspaper Svenska Dagbladet.
By then she was homeless. Where did she write it?
In a barrack, on a borrowed typewriter?
She died in 1974, but I always thought she would write again and bought her a new typewriter. The films about her are my fantasies about the creative woman and all her possibilities in a difficult patriarchal time. I took on a fight about woman’s place in the arts, inspired by her. She never read anything from me, never saw anything, did not perceive us daughters. We are not mentioned in the diary.
Suzanne Osten (2016)
(translated by Jan Lumholdt, 2021)