Sweden celebrates Garbo centenary

Greta Garbo, the mythical Hollywood diva adored by millions, came from humble origins in Sweden where she grew up as Greta Gustafsson, whose father was a toilet cleaner and mother a seamstress.

Greta, who was born September 18, 1905, in the then-working class Stockholm district of Södermalm, later in life forged a remote, untouchable image of herself, but in her Swedish youth was anything but.

“She was bubbly and funny,” says Tin Andersen Axell, who recently published a novel called “Djävla älskade unge” (“Cursed beloved kid”) based on letters written and received by the Divine One.

Sweden will remember Greta on Sunday, 100 years after her birth, with exhibitions and film festivals.

Garbo left Sweden early, barely aged 20, for the United States, where she died in 1990.

Her formative years in her native country are crucial to understanding her life, according to Jan Göransson of the Swedish Film Institute.

Her poor background gave her the iron will to succeed, while her solid theatre training opened many doors for her during her career, he told AFP.

Greta grew up in a one-room apartment where she lived with her parents, her brother Sven and her sister Alva, with whom she shared a bed. After seven years of school, she found work in a barber’s shop where her job was to apply shaving foam to the faces of clients, Andersen Axell told AFP.

One day Kristian Bergström sat down for a shave. He was the son of Paul U. Bergström, founder of the PUB department store in downtown Stockholm.

Charmed by Greta, he made sure she got a job in his father’s store, where Greta, barely 15 and by now fatherless, was employed in the hat department, fashion accessories which would later feature in iconic photographs of the diva.

Even today, PUB proudly tells the story of its first encounter with Greta Garbo on its internet site.

Greta’s beauty was such that she did not stay among the hats for long, but was instead asked to pose for PUB’s fashion catalogue and act in a commercial reel called “Mr and Mrs Stockholm go shopping”.

In the film clip, Greta first appears atrociously dressed, before changing into the fashionable clothes available in the store.

“She was funny, she made people laugh. She was a clown,” Andersen Axell told AFP. “She was not at all like her Hollywood image.”

Determined to make her way as an actress, Greta acted in her first movie, “Luffarpetter” (Peter the Tramp) in 1922, before being admitted to the prestigous Royal Dramatic Theatre, Dramaten, in Stockholm where she studied for two years.

Mauritz Stiller, one of her teachers, offered her a role in “Gosta Berlings Saga”, considered a masterpiece of Swedish film and which launched Greta’s career.

In 1925 she left for Hollywood, accompanied by Stiller, and never looked back. She shot classics like “Anna Karenina”, “Mata Hari”, Victor Sjöström’s “The Divine Woman” and “Camille”, and won an Academy Award for her body of work in 1955.

Landing in America, far from home and without a word of English, was, however, not a painless experience for the actress.

She left behind her family and friends, especially Mimi Pollak, a fellow actress whom she met at Dramaten and with whom “she was madly in love”, said Andersen Axell, whose novel is based on, and includes facsimiles of, some 30 letters the two alleged lovers wrote to each other between 1923 and 1984.

More than six decades after Garbo gave up acting, at only 36, Swedes still revere her and are flocking to the film nights dedicated to her.


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How a Swedish film festival is offering a nurse downtime during pandemic

A front-line Swedish nurse is getting some Covid downtime with a week of private screenings of the Gothenburg film festival, in a former lighthouse off the country's west coast.

How a Swedish film festival is offering a nurse downtime during pandemic
Competition winner Lisa Enroth.

More than 12,000 candidates from 45 countries applied to watch the festival's films in almost near isolation on an island 400 kilometres (250 miles) from Stockholm.

The prize is a week viewing as many of the festival's 70 premieres as they like in a hotel in the former Pater Noster Lighthouse. But they will be in isolation and will have no access to their own computer or laptop.

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The bright-red lighthouse, built on a tiny island off Sweden's west coast in 1868, is surrounded by a scattering of squat, red buildings originally built to house the lighthouse keeper's family. It can only be reached by boat or helicopter, depending on the weather.

After a series of interviews and tests, festival organisers chose emergency nurse and film buff Lisa Enroth for the prize, in keeping with the 2021 festival's theme, Social Distances.

Before boarding a small speedboat out to the island on the clear, chill winter's morning, Enroth said she had applied not only out of her love for the cinema, but also to seek respite from her hectic work as an emergency nurse during the pandemic.

“It has been hectic, so it's a nice opportunity just to be able to land and to reflect over the year,” she said.

Months working amid Covid crisis

Sweden, which has taken a light-touch approach to the pandemic compared to its neighbours, has been facing a stronger than expected second wave of the virus. So far, more than 11,500 people have died from Covid-19 across the country.

Enroth works in the emergency ward of a hospital in Skovde in central Sweden. Since the start of the pandemic, her hospital's work caring for virus patients on top of their regular workload has been intense.

Lisa Enroth on her way to the remote festival location. Photo: AFP

“We had a lot of Covid cases during this year and every patient that has been admitted to the hospital has been passing through the emergency ward,” she told journalists.

The organisers said they were surprised by the numbers of applicants for the prize but were confident they had chosen the right candidate — not only for her love of cinema.

“She has also dedicated this past year in the frontline against the Covid-19 pandemic,” the festival's creative director Jonas Holmberg said to AFP.

“That's also one of the reasons we chose her”. 

Isolated screenings

Boarding the boat dressed in a thick survival suit, Enroth sped over the calm, icy waters, jumping off in the island's tiny harbour and disappearing into her lodgings.

A screen has been set up in the lantern room at the top of the windswept island's lighthouse, offering a 360-degree view of the sea and coastline around.

Another wide screen has been set up in one of the island's buildings.

Enroth will also have a tablet and headphones if she wants to watch films elsewhere on the island, which measures just 250 metres by 150 metres.

With only one other person staying permanently on the island — a safety precaution — Enroth's only contact with the outside world will be through her video diary about the films she has viewed.

The festival's films will be shown online and two venues in Gothenburg itself will allow screenings for just one person at a time.

Holmberg, the festival's creative director, said he hoped events like these would maintain interest in the industry at a time when many screens are closed because of pandemic restrictions.

“We are longing so much to come back to the cinemas and in the meantime we have to be creative and do the things that we can to create discussion,” he told journalists.