World-renowned Swedish violinist Holger Brandt (Gosta Ekman) knows what he is about to do is wrong, but he does it anyway, and invites gifted student pianist Anita Hoffman (Ingrid Bergman) out for a “late dinner and wine” after they meet—not so much by coincidence at all—exiting a theatrical performance.
Anita has been providing piano lessons for Anne-Marie, Holger’s little daughter, while he has been away from his wife and children on a long tour; at the girl’s birthday party earlier, she had performed an impromptu duet with him, electrifying the assembled guests. Immediately, Holger realized that Anita would be the perfect choice to replace his retiring accompanist. He also realized he was in love.
Late at night now, as they gaze over the side of a bridge at ice melting into the dark river, Holger tries to convince Anita to abandon her studies and join him on his next tour. At first, she refuses, but he continues to advance his case, telling her that she reminds him of a Viennese waltz, “smiling but melancholy”—words that not only flatter and excite Anita, but also manage in a mere three words to bluntly describe the magical components of Ingrid Bergman’s stardom.
Movie fans have Intermezzo—the original 1936 Swedish melodrama, not the 1939 remake co-starring Leslie Howard—to thank for Bergman’s illustrious Hollywood career. Secondarily, they have David O. Selznick to thank, as he is the man who saw the film and realized an English-language remake could make her a highly bankable star in America. There will be more to say here about the Selznick version of the film later.
It is difficult, meanwhile, to write about Bergman at all without sounding like a lovestruck fool, but I will offer unreservedly that fans who have never seen her in director Gustaf Molander’s dreamlike romantic film have missed what is essentially cinema’s “first kiss” with the luminous star. Everything she has been celebrated for in more visibly appreciated classics like Casablanca and Notorious is present and already in full flower here.
The film wastes no time in paving the way for the love affair between Ekman’s Holger and Bergman’s Anita. Our introduction to her character plants the first seed, when Holger’s former accompanist (Hugo Bjorne) —who is also her musical mentor—and his manager (Erik Berglund) discuss him in front of her. When Bergman is asked if she is aware of not only Ekman’s great talents but his qualities as a human being, her head slowly dips and her eyes glow with seductive hunger. The old men miss this reaction; we do not.
That look is repeated when Holger and Anita play together for the first time at Anne-Marie’s (Britt Hagman) birthday party, except now, her feelings are on display for all to see. It is a remarkable scene in that it generates such brazen romantic heat between them but is interpreted by some observers in the room to be “only” a passionate connection being made between two great musical artists.
Anita’s mentor glowers with alarm; he knows he is losing his pupil. Holger’s manager grins with delight; he knows he has found Holger’s new accompanist.
We struggle with the enigmatic reaction of Holger’s wife (Inga Tidblad), who watches the fire explode in her own home. She holds onto her young daughter tightly; the girl had started the duet at the piano with her father, but faltered. When Anita takes her place at the keyboard, the child’s expression is more than a little heartbreaking.
Holger and Anita? Their eyes hardly meet in this scene of mutual seduction—those longing looks will come later, at the bridge, in the darkness—but the connection they make is unmistakable. Through their passion for music and their skill at expressing it, they awaken a “spring storm” in their hearts.
The remainder of Intermezzo is about how the artists (and lovers) weather that storm. Viewers will see plot points that are to be echoed in Casablanca—an abandonment by train; a plea to end the romance for her own benefit—and also experience a narrative shock so jarring (towards the end) that it stirs up fears the film might be headed for ahead-of-its-time-tragedy in the mold of Crash or Babel, only to have the script then deliver a u-turn so sharp as to nearly delegitimize everything that came before it.
While the plot may suffer from some of its more melodramatic components, the lovely chemistry between Ekman and Bergman is what sticks in the mind; Molander’s direction is sometimes stark, sometimes fluid, and sometimes beguilingly symbolic. Repeat viewings allow us to focus on how and why carefully placed flowers are employed to unite characters, or separate them from one another, or strangely block us from them; we find ourselves noticing how Ekman is always smoking in his scenes with his troubled wife, allowing the wispy clouds to pass around him and between them.
I hadn’t noticed this while watching the film (which is available as part of the Ingrid Bergman in Sweden three-disc set, along with two other mother-tongue Bergman films, A Woman’s Face and June Night), but apparently editor Oscar Rosander goes uncredited. This is not a film “about” cutting, of course, but this oversight is a shame because Rosander’s instincts truly shine in the scenes where music performance is key. Not in the rather showy, percussive way we are used to seeing today, but in a manner that reveals a keen understanding of how the music breathes and how tension can be raised or released in connection with a closeup, a particular angle, and so on.
We return, as we must, to Ingrid Bergman. She was 21 when this film was released; already, in one of her earliest works, she deftly mixes the sweetest, most radiant charm with a gift for exuding scandalous desire.
Like I said earlier—one can’t help but sound a lovestruck fool.
American producer David O. Selznick, upon seeing Bergman in the film, was surely affected in a similar way as he realized a new star was waiting to be born. While the 1939 version of Intermezzo is the one most familiar to movie fans, it feels thin and bloodless when compared to the Swedish film. The Hollywood production is too well-lit, too overproduced, too clean, and too stiff; it is often improperly focused on middling business and bits unrelated to the meat of the love story. It is splashy but unpoetic.
There is even some shot-for-shot duplication between the films, but the cutting together of these sequences in the remake feels stodgy. Even the music sounds drained of its force; competent but without passion.
Bergman’s 1939 leading man, Leslie Howard, may be suitable enough in other films, but his rapport with her, especially in that critical scene of the first duet—which, in spite of some overheated performance gestures, comes across duller than elevator music—feels positively antiseptic. And, the Ingrid Bergman who was a force of nature in the original film would, despite the fact it was the remake that catapulted her to U.S. stardom, only emerge later in her English-language career under the direction of masters like Michael Curtiz and Alfred Hitchcock.
But in the Swedish Intermezzo, her incomparable beauty, irresistible allure, and uncanny acting were already on complete display—and so clearly defined by that “smiling but melancholy” line—before any American movie lover ever knew her name. Like Holger, we are helplessly captivated by how she masters the instrument of her craft; our time with her is like a dream and all too brief, and when she leaves us we awaken back in the real world, feeling drenched and tossed-about as if by a tempestuous spring rain.