In 1951, Alf Sjoberg, veteran director of Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theatre, wrote and directed his own adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie. The film, and the play it’s based on, follows the young woman of the title, who falls in love (or is it just lust?) with a servant in her household, Jean. Together, Jean and Julie reminisce over their pasts, and share their thoughts and dreams, and Sjoberg uses his camera to help illustrate what Jean and Julie share with each other. Sjoberg’s Miss Julie is successful because it doesn’t try to be a play: it uses the medium of film to generate interest in its source material, through projections that establish a character’s inner world and long transitional takes that shift the setting.
Near the beginning of the story, Julie and Jean run off to a forest to dance and share their thoughts. Julie mentions a dream she has of being at a great height, but lacks the courage to jump off and fall, and asks Jean if he’s ever felt that way. Jean says he hasn’t, but mentions a dream he often has where he climbs a tree to rob a nest of its golden eggs at the top; he can never quite reach the nest, but someday he swears he will, if only in a dream. The sequence is a metaphor for the characters’ desire to escape their respective social classes. Julie’s dream represents her longing to ‘fall’ from her spoilt upbringing into a lower class, while Jean’s dream represents his ambition to climb the social ladder and enjoy the rewards that belong to the top rung. Their love affair offers both what they long for. Here, Sjoberg chooses to use projected images behind the close-ups of his actors to demonstrate their desires. Behind Julie we see a woman in a pure, white dress falling from a great height, while behind Jean we see a man with rolled up sleeves working his way up the branches of a tree. Sjoberg also chooses to place the actors, and their respective projections, in a mirror image of each other, perhaps symbolizing the oppositional symmetry of their aspirations. While projectors in theatres nowadays are used extensively (and often regrettably), Sjoberg’s use of projection and close-up together is exclusive to film, and it gives us a feeling of closeness with the characters, allowing us to enter into their thoughts and dreams.
We learn the most about Julie and Jean when they each spend time talking about their pasts. For the transitions involved in the flashbacks, Sjoberg uses un-cut takes to seamlessly blend past and present. At one point, Julie begins talking of her youth, and Sjoberg slowly pans his camera to another part of the room, where we see her as a young girl staring into a mirror. Although the take is continuous, Sjoberg clearly shows that the film is in a new setting, yet the action is not broken through cutting to a new shot. This technique is used often by Sjoberg, and in one take he even has Julie and her past self sharing the same frame. The technique affects the viewer’s experience of time, and creates a blurry reality where past and present share almost the same space. In Miss Julie, the main characters often disregard the consequences of their actions, and Sjoberg’s use of un-cut transitions helps us feel that the ‘rules’, be they the rules of remaining in one’s social class, or the rules of time and space, aren’t so much in charge of the piece. It’s the relationship between Jean and Julie that is in charge, and the film, like the characters, will follow anywhere the relationship chooses to go, be it in present reality, or in their memories of the past.
Sjoberg’s Miss Julie may be based on a classic play, but it isn’t afraid of being a film. His technically creative use of the camera allows the text to flow between settings and explore visual depth of characterization. The film brings a classic text to a modern medium, without losing any of the source material’s power, and adds some technical elements that embellish our experience of the story along the way. Of course, the film, and it’s technical prowess, is only effective because of great performances by Anita Bjork and Ulf Palme in the lead roles (and a very young Max von Sydow as a rowdy farmhand). And there’s something great about hearing a classic text in the language it was meant for.