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Gunnel Lindblom obituary | Film

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The Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman was renowned for writing complex and demanding roles for women such as Harriet Andersson, Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann. Further down the cast list, but prized by the director throughout his career, was Gunnel Lindblom, who has died aged 89.

She appeared in several of his best-known pictures, including The Seventh Seal (1957), in which she was the young mute woman who accompanies a knight’s squire (Gunnar Björnstrand) after he saves her from being raped. When she eventually speaks, it is to deliver the film’s final words: “It is finished.” Lindblom had played the role in an earlier stage version. “I am a rather silent person,” she said, “so maybe he gave me those parts just because he knew I don’t like to talk a lot. I prefer to listen.”

In the medieval revenge drama The Virgin Spring (1960), she was the servant who witnesses the rape and murder of her mistress. On Bergman’s orders, she lost more than a stone for the part, and was baffled to then find herself fitted on set with an artificial belly; the film-maker explained that he wanted a stark contrast between her gaunt face and the character’s pregnancy. He also insisted that she watch the filming of the attack “so I knew really what it was about. It was one of the most difficult scenes for me to play.”

During the shoot, she was rushed to hospital with appendicitis. Medical staff later told her that she had refused to undergo surgery unless it was cleared with Bergman beforehand. It was while in hospital that she met her first husband, Sture Helander, a doctor, with whom she had three children. For that reason, she always regarded The Virgin Spring as “a blessed film”.

She had a small role in Wild Strawberries (1957) as the sister of the ageing professor played by Victor Sjöström, and appeared in two parts of what is sometimes referred to as Bergman’s “Faith” trilogy. In Winter Light, she was the wife of a forlorn fisherman (Max von Sydow), while in the austere metaphorical drama The Silence (also 1963), she was a woman who, for unknown reasons, travels with her sister and young son to a country on the verge of war. She also appeared in Bergman’s gruelling 1973 TV drama Scenes from a Marriage, which was re-edited for cinema the following year.

When she first met the director in 1954, Lindblom had already worked with one of his previous wives, a choreographer, in her student days. “I was so angry because he had left her for another woman,” she told this paper in 2007. “So when he came to a party I held in Malmö … I shut the door in his face. He always used to remind me about this later on and laugh at my very unkind behaviour.”

Gunnel Lindblom in The Silence, 1963, directed by Ingmar Bergman.
Gunnel Lindblom in The Silence, 1963, directed by Ingmar Bergman. Photograph: Entertainment Pictures/Alamy

Bergman invited her to join Malmö City theatre, where he was the artistic director. Among the productions she performed in were Peer Gynt (1957) and Faust (1958). “We had a fantastic time in Malmö,” she said. “There was a group of us for whom film and theatre was everything. He was wonderful in the way he cared about the young people in theatre and wanted to help them develop their talents.” It was the beginning for her of a lifetime of stage work.

The creative environment could be unpredictable. “He used to refer to all those who didn’t throw furniture around as inhibited,” she said. But she was “never afraid of him. I felt he really understood what I was trying to do. You didn’t have to show him something exquisite: he saw the work in progress and saw what it could become.”

She was born in Gothenburg, Sweden, the daughter of Erik Lindblom and Beda-Maria (nee Löfgren). After studying drama at the Gothenburg City theatre, she made her screen debut in Gustaf Molander’s film Love (1952). She starred in Mai Zetterling’s first feature, Loving Couples (1964), about three pregnant women looking back over their lives, and was reunited with that director in The Girls (1968), in which she played one of a trio of female actors touring a production of Lysistrata. In between, she received acclaim for her lead performance in a BBC production of Miss Julie (1965).

Lindblom directed six films for cinema and television, and credited Bergman with encouraging her to do so. He produced her 1977 debut, Paradistorg, released outside Sweden as Paradise Place, or Summer Paradise.

Their theatre work together included Woyzeck (1969), Hamlet (1987) – also seen at the National Theatre, London; she played Gertrude, The Bacchae (1996) and a production of Strindberg’s Ghost Sonata that toured internationally. Reviewing it in New York in 2001, the critic John Lahr singled her out as a “memorable, birdlike” member of Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic theatre company. Between them, he said, the cast “deliver the wallop of Strindberg’s struggle between purity and sin”.

Her final screen credits included the original Swedish version of Stieg Larsson’s thriller The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009), and its spin-off TV series Millennium (2010), in which all three films adapted from Larsson’s trilogy were stitched together along with previously unseen material. Lindblom played the mother of a serial killer.

She is survived by Thomas, Jessica and Jan, her children with Helander. That marriage ended in divorce in 1970. In 1981, she married the Danish director Frederik Dessau, from whom she was divorced five years later.

Gunnel Märtha Ingegärd Lindblom, actor, born 18 December 1931; died 24 January 2021

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