Mai Zetterling

Mai Elisabeth Zetterling (Swedish pronunciation: [ˈmajː ˇsɛtːɛˌɭɪŋ]; 24 May 1925 - 17 March 1994)[1] was a Swedish actress and film director.

Mai Zetterling
Mai Elisabeth Zetterling

(1925-05-24)24 May 1925
Died17 March 1994(1994-03-17) (aged 68)
London, England, UK
OccupationActress, film director
Years active1941-1993
Spouse(s)Tutte Lemkow (1944 - 1953) (divorced)
David Hughes (1958 - 1979) (divorced)
ChildrenDr. Louis Lemkow-Zetterling
Etienne Lemkow-Zetterling

Early life

Zetterling was born in Västerås, Västmanland, Sweden, to a working class family.[2] She started her career as an actress at the age of 17 at Dramaten, the Swedish national theatre, appearing in war-era films.


Zetterling appeared in film and television productions spanning six decades from the 1940s to the 1990s. Her breakthrough came in the 1944 film Torment written by Ingmar Bergman, in which she played a controversial role as a tormented shopgirl. Shortly afterwards she moved to England and gained instant success there with her title role in Basil Dearden's Frieda (1947) playing opposite David Farrar. After a brief return to Sweden in which she worked with Bergman again in his film Music in Darkness (1948), she returned to Britain and starred in a number of UK films, playing against such leading men as Tyrone Power, Dirk Bogarde, Richard Widmark, Laurence Harvey, Peter Sellers, Herbert Lom, Richard Attenborough, Keenan Wynn, Stanley Baker, and Dennis Price.

Some of her notable films as an actress include Quartet (1948), a film based on some of W. Somerset Maugham's short stories, The Romantic Age (1949) directed by Edmond T. Gréville, Only Two Can Play (1962) co-starring Peter Sellers and directed by Sidney Gilliat, and The Witches (1990), an adaptation of Roald Dahl's book directed by Nicolas Roeg. Having gained a reputation as a sex symbol in dramas and thrillers, she was equally effective in comedies, and also was very active in British television in the 50s and 60s.

She began directing in the early 1960s, starting with political documentaries and a short film called The War Game (1962), which was nominated for a BAFTA award, and won a Silver Lion at Venice. Her first feature film Älskande par (1964, "Loving Couples"), based on the novels of Agnes von Krusenstjerna, was banned at the Cannes Film Festival for its sexual explicitness and nudity. Kenneth Tynan of The Observer later called it "one of the most ambitious debuts since Citizen Kane." It was not the only film she made that would stir up controversy for its frank sexuality (early pioneer on voyeurism).

When critics reviewing her debut feature said that "Mai Zetterling directs like a man,"[3] she began to explore feminist themes more explicitly in her work. The Girls, which had an all-star Swedish cast including Bibi Andersson and Harriet Andersson, discussed women's liberation (or lack thereof) in a society controlled by men, as the protagonists compare their lives to characters in the play Lysistrata, and find that things have not progressed very much for women since ancient times.

In 1966 she appeared as a storyteller on the BBC children's programme Jackanory, and in five episodes narrated Tove Jansson's Finn Family Moomintroll.

Personal life

Zetterling was married to Norwegian actor Tutte Lemkow from 1944 to 1953. They had a daughter, Etienne and a son, Louis, who is professor of environmental sociology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. In her autobiography, All Those Tomorrows,[4] published in 1985, Zetterling details love affairs with actor Herbert Lom and, later, Tyrone Power, with whom she lived from 1956 until early 1958. From 1958 to 1976 she was married to British author David Hughes, who collaborated with her on her first films as director.

Documents at the National Archives in London show that, as a member of the Hollywood Left, she was watched by British security agents as a suspected Communist. However, the UK never had a system along the lines of the American Hollywood Blacklist.

She died in her home in London, from cancer on 17 March 1994, at the age of 68, a year after her final role on television.


A partial filmography as director



  1. DEATHS - The Washington Post - HighBeam Research
  2. Collins, Glenn (March 19, 1994). "Mai Zetterling, 68, Film Actress With a Second Career in Directing". The New York Times. Retrieved May 12, 2010.
  4. Mai Zetterling (1985). All Those Tomorrows. London: Cape. ISBN 0-224-01841-8. New York: Grove, 1986. ISBN 0-394-55602-X.
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