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“Norrtullsligan” shares a progressive sentiment for the struggles of working women

Per Lindberg’s silent Swedish dramedy from 1923 screens in a new restoration at UW Cinematheque on March 13.

Header Image: The women of the title stay up past 10 p.m. in their nightgowns and listen to Baby (Inga Tidblad) recite the poems of Oscar Levertin. From left to right, Pegg (Tora Teje), Emmy (Linea Hillberg), Baby, and Eva (Renée Björling).

It’s not every week that we talk about a 99-year-old silent film on Tone Madison, but there’s a first (and frankly overdue) time for that—in anticipation of the UW Cinematheque‘s Sunday, March 13, presentation of 1923’s Norrtullsligan (The Norrtull Gang) at 4070 Vilas Hall at 2 p.m. Svenska Filminstitutet (Swedish Film Institute) recently restored Per Lindberg’s narrative feature, with a pre-recorded piano score by Charlotte Hasselquist Nilsson, which had not publicly screened for many decades until 2016.

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Lindberg, who had roots in Swedish theater in the 1910s, briefly shifted his focus to cinema about a decade later, but then did not return to the medium until most movies were using synchronized sound in the late 1930s, launching a prolific late-career streak that ended in 1941. His sophomore film, Norrtullsligan, was adapted by Hjalmar Bergman from the 1908 novel of the same name by feminist author Elin Wägner. For its time, it’s a progressive statement, at least by any measure that we’d assign to the equivalent American commercial film industry, as it brings together a makeshift family of four female characters and offers a direct discussion of women’s self-sufficiency in the process of stressing gender inequality and workers’ rights.

While the film is far from a psychological portrait, its flowery, yet grounded use of first-person narration in intertitle cards shares an irrepressible personality with the protagonist Pegg (Tora Teje), a 25-year-old typist or secretary living in Stockholm (the Norrtull district of the title) with three other “pink-collar” women. It’s not an exaggeration to regard this film and the theatrically minded Lindberg as an inspiration to something like Waiting Women (1952) by Ingmar Bergman, one of the great Swedish directors of the 20th century, who’s regularly accredited with uncompromisingly rich renderings of women on screen.

Today, Norrtullsligan plays as what we often tag as a dramedy. Pegg’s poetic exclamations on the sheer struggles of womanhood are coupled with some slice-of-life comedy during the film’s six-act plot that counts down to Christmas. While the acerbic humor is on the sparse side, Pegg’s expressive words sharply contrast with more vaudevillian antics often associated with iconic figures of the silent era, harnessed in Pegg’s personal framing of her “gang.” It doesn’t always or even necessarily balance the story’s poignancy, but keeps the film engrossing in the overarching emphasis on dramatic pendulum swings of happenstance.

Pegg’s three roommates are more like sisters, as she formally introduces them. Baby (Inga Tidblad), the youngest, works at United Imports; Emmy (Linea Hillberg), the eldest, is often bedridden due to a bad back; and the orderly Eva (Renée Björling), does clerical work for an undertaker. However, in this ensemble, Pegg ultimately remains the center of attention. The story affords her a 13-year-old brother, Putte (Lauritz Falk), and the strongest agency as she wonders aloud about her place in the world. As Pegg goes about her days, she attempts to elevate herself above strained working and living situations to hold together her figurative sisters in need, whether that may involve the repercussions of an attempted strike over “starvation wages,” or trying to find stability without having to give in to the support and whims of older men like her nameless boss (Egil Eide).

Plainly, the film’s presentation of these scenarios is as much about the divide between the rich and the poor as it is about age and gender. One of the more well-known dramatic features of the silent era, Lois Weber’s Shoes (1916), presents the conflict of teenage Eva Meyer (Mary MacLaren)’s struggle to afford a new pair of shoes on her five-and-dime store wages. A similarly dire spirituality is reflected in Pegg’s own dilemma in Norrtullsligan and the implications that, in order to grasp financial security and a pleasurable life, both she and Eva must submit to male desires.

The difference here is that Pegg characterizes her superior as “considerate,” not one-dimensionally lascivious as Cabaret Charlie (William V. Mong) eyeing Eva in Shoes. Pegg’s boss offers to help Baby, who’s accused of stealing, by stuffing a roll of kronor in an anonymous envelope. But he’s still, undoubtedly, a handsy harasser. And, in one of the film’s most memorable shots in Pegg’s aunt’s opulent apartment, his apparition looms over Pegg with a ghostly grip around her shoulders.

For those who see silent cinema as a novelty in 2022, with predictive text descriptions that set up the ensuing scene’s action, Norrtullsligan is certainly of its time, dropping outmoded slang like “spinster” and “brass nick” on at least a couple occasions. This feeling is furthered in its sixth act push toward a heartrending holiday gathering that unsuccessfully tries to put a bow on things to reinforce Pegg’s initial belief about life not turning out the way she imagined. Despite this trite tenderness, for much of its 86 minutes, the film unmistakably wallows in un-storybook-like issues of the working class and male-dominated hierarchy. Neither Lindberg nor screenwriter Bergman neglect the essence of Wägner’s voice and profundity.

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