In 1888, when August Strindberg offered a Stockholm publisher his new play “Miss Julie”, he added a warning: “I ask you not to refuse it too easily because you may regret it”. He was refused nevertheless, likely due to the play’s frank dialogue. In the end, Strindberg did agree to a few changes made by another publisher, and the play was first produced on stage in Copenhagen in 1889 with the author’s wife, Siri von Essen, as Miss Julie.
The play is now one of the world’s most famous and has been filmed many times, the first in 1912 (Strindberg’s message to that director: “Please cinematograph as much as you like of my dramas”). This one, from 1951, is head and shoulders above the rest.
It is Midsummer’s Eve at an estate in Sweden sometime in the late 19th century; elaborate celebrations and barn dancing is taking place while the Count (Anders Henriksson) is visiting friends. His daughter, Miss Julie (Anita Björk), is left at home, recently abandoned by her fiancé after an incident where she ended up treating him like a dog. Bitterly, she turns her attention to the servants and the valet in particular. Jean (Ulf Palme), who is betrothed to the cook, Kristin (Märta Dorff), is disgusted by Miss Julie’s behavior and background… but he’s also clearly attracted to her and has ambitions of his own. As the festivities turn into drunken stupor at the estate, the Count’s daughter and the valet spend more time together, irresistibly drawn to each other. As they open up, they remember the childhood experiences that scarred them for life…
Turning the play into visual fireworks
Director Alf Sjöberg originally produced the play at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm in 1949, with Palme as Jean. When the time was right for a movie adaptation, Björk was selected to play Julie. This was her international breakthrough, and Sjöberg’s most successful film. One reason for that must be how cleverly Sjöberg moved from theater to cinema and turned the play into visual fireworks, along with cinematographer Göran Strindberg (who was related to August). The dramatic effects of every twist and turn of the play is thoroughly milked through a combination of claustrophobic close-ups, rapid cuts and grand set-ups that take great advantage of studios and locations.
The Midsummer Eve celebrations take on a frightening dimension, helped by Dag Wirén’s musical arrangements. The fascinating flashbacks that take us to the unhappy childhood of both Jean and Julie at the estate are smoothly presented, ingeniously in the same shot as the adult actors. Björk and Palme are magnificent as the doomed lovers, one dreaming of climbing stairs, the other of falling down. Their performances are packed with feelings of lust, longing, grief and hope.
Themes of class struggle, the darker aspects of love and the game between men and women are frequently addressed in the film, and spellbindingly so. We learn of how sick Julie’s mother was, a demented creature who ended up committing horrific acts. What modern audiences may roll their eyes at is the presentation of this character as a die-hard feminist – but who insists on making her young daughter dress as a boy, punishing every girlish instinct she has. Miss Julie’s mother is indeed terrifying… but not because she believed in women’s rights.
It had originally been feared that this project would be seen as too high-brow by audiences and thus become a commercial failure. However, after winning the top prize at the Cannes film festival, it was distributed all over the world. After all, who isn’t tempted by a film that shows love as twisted, dark and irresistible as this one?
Miss Julie 1951-Sweden. 87 min. B/W. Produced by Rune Waldekrantz. Written and directed by Alf Sjöberg. Play: August Strindberg. Cinematography: Göran Strindberg. Music: Dag Wirén. Editing: Lennart Wallén. Cast: Anita Björk (Julie), Ulf Palme (Jean), Märta Dorff (Kristin), Lissi Alandh, Anders Henriksson, Inga Gill… Max von Sydow, Margaretha Krook, Torgny Anderberg, Martin Ljung, Bibi Andersson.
Trivia: Original title: Fröken Julie.
Cannes: Grand Prix.