A Woman’s Face (1938)
Directed by Gustaf Molander
Starring: Ingrid Bergman, Tore Svennberg, Anders Henrikson, Georg Rydeberg
* Published specifically for The Fifth Wonderful Ingrid Bergman Blogathon hosted by Virginie at The Wonderful World of Cinema *
Je veux être riche. Et je ne veux pas attendre. Je ne peux pas apprécier la vie comme les autres. – Anna Holm
(I want to be rich. I don’t want to wait. I can’t appreciate life like everyone else.)
A man and woman are dining together in a room at the Auberge Rosenvik in Stockholm. There is a sense that something is wrong and we soon learn that she is being blackmailed. You see, her companion has had letters stolen that show proof of their relationship; notably, her infidelity. As she is married to a renowned surgeon, news of her affair could be the cause of a damning scandal that could ruin them both. Vera Wegert is her name – wife of Dr. Allan Wegert (Anders Henrikson) and lover of Georg Mark. Georg has been staying at the Auberge and the two had been meeting there in secret. Little did they know that they were being watched by petty criminals working for a living by extorting unsuspecting strangers. Perhaps most surprising is that the group is led by Anna Holm (Ingrid Bergman), a domineering young woman who turned to a life of crime stemming from a childhood accident that left her disfigured.
Initially, the sum of 5,000 Swedish Kronor is demanded in order for Vera to recuperate her three letters. After some shrewd consideration, Anna decides that she wants to double the asking price to 10,000 Kronor. Her reasoning is that the Wegerts can certainly afford it but mostly, Anna is angry and jealous about everything in life. Since she cannot lead a normal life, neither as a feminine lady nor as a simple private citizen, she wants to punish others. The beautiful Vera just happens to be one of them. One evening, she goes to the Wegert residence in order to complete the transaction. Vera is not prepared to pay an additional 5,000 Kronor so she briefly leaves the house to obtain more money. While she is gone, Dr. Wegert comes back home unexpectedly early, both startling and distracting Anna. Her clumsiness causes her foot to become fractured after a table falls on it. Unable to leave the premises, Anna is attended to by the doctor but his attention quickly focuses on her face. Having practised reconstructive surgery on the distorted faces of soldiers who were partially or completely affected from World War I combat, Dr. Wegert believes he can help Anna in both a physical and spiritual capacity.
Without telling anyone of her whereabouts, Anna is admitted to the hospital to recover from her foot fracture as well as to undergo an operation on her face. While she is there, Vera comes to visit her to see how she is faring and also to enquire about the letters. Anna is overcome with emotion and eventually gives Vera the letters without expecting anything in return. Her selfless gesture shows that Anna is becoming a changed person. When her bandages come off, there is no sign of her former disfigurement and she makes plans for a “new” life.
Still not having made any contact with her gang, Anna decides to go ahead with a plan they had devised with a certain Torsten Barring (Georg Rydeberg). Barring, who owed the gang a significant amount of money, had alerted them to the fact that he could eventually gain a significant inheritance from his uncle, the Consul Barring (Tore Svennberg). Only one thing stands in his way: a 6-year-old boy. This boy, Lars-Erik, is the Consul’s grandson who was orphaned after his parents tragically died when he was just a baby. Only the death of the boy would result in Torsten being named as the benefactor of the Barring Estate. Seeing as how Lars-Erik was in need of a Governess, Torsten introduced the idea of finding a woman for the job who could also act as an assassin. Anna was never considered as an option because of her face but now she was the perfect candidate. She gets in contact with Torsten who does not recognise her, thinking that she has been chosen by the gang. Under the pseudonym Anna Paulsson, she boards a train to the area of Forsa, 300 km. north of Stockholm.
As Miss Paulsson, Anna becomes a beloved member of the Barring household and also starts seeing Harald, a long-time employee of the Estate who is so much a part of the family that Lars-Erik refers to him as his uncle. Torsten makes an unannounced visit to Forsa to check-up on Anna and reveals that he knows her true identity. She betrayed herself through a body gesture that she used to repeatedly make when she was still disfigured and which Torsten had remembered from their first meeting. He pressures her to get on with the murder; otherwise he will expose her and ruin all that she has built-up for herself at the Estate. Not only that, he has alerted her gang as to her location and they are ready to exact their revenge should she not be willing to comply. Is Anna still capable of killing the little boy or has she too profoundly changed to commit such a horror? And even if there is a way out, how can she continue living with the Barrings as before?
Comparison with MGM’s A Woman’s Face (1941)
Before I talk about my personal opinions of the 1938 Swedish version of the film, it is important to discuss the American remake especially since classic film fans are more likely to be familiar with that one.
There are many distinct differences between the two versions although nothing is striking enough for it to significantly alter the story. The 1941 version starts off in a slightly different fashion but ends up in almost the same capacity as the 1938 version, which is pretty remarkable considering the liberties that Hollywood took with the script. MGM’s film was much more glamorous with generously decorated sets and designer clothing by Adrian. In comparison, the Swedish version is much simpler though just as eye-catching because everything was done in extremely good taste. Credit should be given to both studios for an amazing make-up job that was very realistic. Crawford’s scarring looked very much like that Bergman with the sole exception of it being on the opposite side of her face. Both films had a darker feel to them though the 1938 version was more ominous in nature and had a definitive Noir ambiance.
The main characters are played very similar to one another in each version. I would say that Georg Rydeberg’s Torsten Barring was more instinctively ruthless and cold-blooded than Conrad Veidt’s interpretation. Veidt brought a lot more charm as well as an ability to completely mask his wicked ways whereas Rydeberg looked outright sinister. Harald actually comments on having a similar, uneasy sentiment about Torsten when Anna confesses her dislike for him. Interestingly enough, the character of Harald was completely cut from the 1941 film and was not replaced. Instead, the writers made it so that Dr. Wegert shows up at the Barring Estate and stays on as a guest. By seeming default, he becomes Anna’s love interest along with Torsten, who is hardly such in the 1938 film. Bergman’s Anna and Rydeberg’s Torsten neither trust nor like one another.
Anna and Torsten’s romance drastically changes the motivations of her character. It does not take much for 1941 Anna to promise Torsten that she will murder Lars-Erik. Her being so deeply in love with him made her a puppet. Even when 1941 Torsten comes to the Barring Estate just as 1938 Torsten had, it does not take much for Anna to reaffirm her allegiance to Torsten. In fact, we never see 1938 Anna anywhere near harming Lars-Erik whereas 1941 Anna comes moments away from committing homicide.
Another significant departure for the 1941 film was how they changed the character of Emma, the Barring Estate housekeeper. 1938 Emma is a jolly older woman who has been loyal to her patron for 40 years. There are subtle yet playful hints that she and the Consul are attracted to one another and have interactions that you would see amongst long-married couples. On the contrary, 1941 Emma is as hard as stone and very unwelcoming. Her tenure is slightly shorter, coming in at 32 years. She immediately takes a dislike to Anna, becoming very jealous and imagining that the young woman wishes to use her good looks as a way to seduce the Consul. This kind of role is quite different for usually jubilant Marjorie Main, who could fare very well if she faced Mrs. Danvers in a duel.
Fun Trivia: The names of Anna’s alias and of Dr. Wegert were changed in the 1941 version to honour both Ingrid Bergman and director Gustaf Molander. Anna Paulsson became Ingrid Paulson and Dr. Allan Wegert became Dr. Gustaf Segert.
Dr. Wegert: Avez-vous déjà-été attrapée?
Anna: Non. C’est la première fois.
( – Have you ever been caught before? / – No. This is the first time.)
The best Anna: Ingrid or Joan?
To me, this is as hard a question to answer as it is to pose. Both women gave outstanding performances in their respective roles; that cannot be argued.
Ingrid was only 22 years old when she starred in the film and was quickly building up a solid filmography despite having started appearing on-screen just three years prior. Even as a young girl, Ingrid had a fearless personality as well as a pronounced natural talent for acting. Anyone who is familiar with her American and later European films will have no difficulty in recognising the Ingrid that we know and love. Her Anna is very bold, showing a determination and capacity to dominate that is rarely seen amongst women. She is overflowing with negativity which causes her to spew out hate but it would seem that this reaction actually protected her. Had she kept everything in, it would have made her rot on the inside as well as the outside, making a life change after her operation quite impossible.
There is a great deal of consistency in the delivery of the character. Even after her life improves, Anna still remains distanced from people and protective of her privacy. When she and Harald are spending time together, it is not immediately obvious that they are in fact courting and falling in love with one another. Anna, though clearly happy to be in Harald’s presence, is always a step further back than the rest.
Most remarkable is her interaction with Vera Wegert. These two women have an unspoken mutual respect for one another even when the conditions of their meeting are very stressful. Unlike in the 1941 film, Vera does not mock Anna who, in return, delivers the ultimate bitch slap. Instead, Vera kindly and calmly interacts with Anna, even visiting her in the hospital; a visit that was not simply about gaining back possession of the letters. Both actresses beautifully played this scene and it honestly brought tears to my eyes. Such humility is very rare to witness.
Something that always strikes me about Ingrid is that she never has airs about her. Being this young, you could see that she had no problem standing at the same level with her fellow actors, regardless of their level of prestige. Later on, she was helpful and considerate with up and coming actors. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Ingrid was one of the greatest performers that the world has ever known.
Joan Crawford was 36 years old when cast as Anna Holm and had a celebrated 15-year career that included both silent and talking pictures. She had been one of MGM’s biggest stars and still had a lot of star power at this time though her contract would be terminated just two years later. This marks her third and last collaboration with director George Cukor who would ironically later work with Ingrid in 1944’s Gaslight. Joan received critical praise for her performance in this film and with good reason as she brought another side of Anna to life.
This particular Anna is very reclusive even amongst the members of her gang. She holds a position of power as leader of the gang but she is seen as a broken woman. The members openly mock her when she is not present or even right as her back has been turned. When she meets Torsten for the first time, she literally melts at his stare and starts to live only for him. Her operation is done to satisfy Torsten’s sexual attraction to her, not to try and turn her life around or even to help out with the plot to kill 4-year-old Lars-Erik. While she was known to be a dangerous person before she met Torsten, all of that almost immediately disappeared due to her intense longing for male companionship.
One could say that this version of Anna has been beaten to submission, first to Torsten and then to life. Her composure in the court room says it all. She is seen slouched much of the time even while standing, her strength diminished. Having murder charges brought against must not be easy but it is almost certain that Ingrid’s Anna would have not been brought to the edge of going to pieces. The court scenes were not included in the 1938 despite some protest from Ingrid, leading to an alternative ending for the film.
There is no doubt in my mind that Joan’s Anna was written as weaker and her character more sexualised than Ingrid’s portrayal. This delicacy is not overly common in Joan’s roles as she was known for playing strong-willed, independent women. Nonetheless, she pulls it off in a convincing manner and makes the character her own.
I have long been a fan of 1941’s A Woman’s Face so I was very excited to discover Ingrid’s version in particular because it is also my very first time watching one of her Swedish films. Over the years, I have heard her speak in several languages but never in her native tongue. It was not hard to fall in love with 1938’s A Woman Face which is by all means a perfect film. MGM and Cukor’s effort is a tasteful remake that compliments the original film in, of course, a Hollywood fashion but one that also tries to preserve the Nordic feel of the setting. Pictures like this continue to inspire me and nurture my reverence for Classic Film. Both receive my highest recommendations and it is my hope that you will end up enjoying them as much as me.