A photo of a UFO propels journalist Tore Haugen into a stellar career, while her colleague and husband becomes a stay-at-home dad. This well-made Norwegian marital comedy from 1956 manages to be progressive and reactionary at the same time. 7/10
Kvinnens plass. 1956, Norway. Directed by Nils R. Müller. Written by Müller & Eva Seeberg. Starring: Inger Marie Andersen, Lars Nordrum, Pål Bang-Hansen, Odd Borg, Wilfred Breistrand, Aud Schønemann. IMDb: 5.7/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
Despite the science fiction craze of the 1950’s, surprisingly few countries actually made films in the genre during this decade. Outside of the US and the UK, the only nations with any significant production of SF movies in the first half of the 50’s were Japan and Mexico. Former SF movie powerhouses like Russia, Germany, Austria, Denmark and France had all abandoned the genre after WWII, most of the rest of Europe, Asia, America and Africa had never entered it. Of the Nordic countries, only Finland had produced two (fringe) SF movies in the ten-year period between 1945 and 1955, the rejuvenation screwball comedy Hormoonit valloillaan (1948, review) and the abominable snowman comedy Pekka ja Pätkä lumimiehen jäljillä (1954, review). In 1956 Norway followed suit with another fringe SF comedy, Kvinnens plass or “A Woman’s Place”.
Returning to Oslo from a trip to the US, newspaper journalist Tore Haugen (Lars Nordrum) finds that he now shares office with a new hire — Tore Naess. But despite sharing a first name with Haugen, the new journalist is (gasp!) a woman! Played by Inger Marie Andersen, she immediately proves herself more than just a pretty face around the office, but a headstrong, fearless and extremely capable journalist. Just as quickly as she shows her professional teeth, she falls head over heels for her male namesake, and in the time you can say “cut”, the two Tores are married. On their honeymoon to a small Norwegian town, Mr. and Mrs. Haugen are called out from their holiday to report on UFO sightings over the countryside. While Mr. Haugen is quick to dismiss it as another hoax, his wife presses on, and manages to get a clear photograph of the flying saucer. Cutting their honeymoon short, she hitchhikes back to Oslo to get her photos developed for the afternoon edition. The photograph is printed not just in her newspaper, but in every major paper of the world, making her an international celebrity.
But it’s not just her lucky shot of the flying saucer that propels her professionally. Mrs. Haugen turns out to be a star reporter in every aspect, easily outshining her mediocre husband. Mr. Haugen takes no offence, but proudly rejoices in his wife’s stellar career. Their happiness is further increased when she announces that she is pregnant with their son. But here the problems start. After the child is born, the Haugens look for a suitable nanny. Their first alternative, conservative Miss Stjernhol (Aud Schønemann) is unable to cope with the modern, morally liberal and equal household. The next one tries to flirt with Mr. Haugen, the third one is too old and sick, and the fourth invites her friends to a party when the Haugens are away. After trying and failing to engage the services of half a dozen nannies, Mrs. Haugen finally accepts that she will have to forsake her career and become a stay-at-home mum. But Mr. Haugen will not hear of it. Clearly, his wife is irreplaceable at the office, while his kind of journalist come thirteen on the dozen. She will go to work, and he will be the stay-at-home dad, he declares.
And at first things go smoothly. Mr. Haugen relishes his time with their son, happily taking care of the household, while Mrs. Haugen does long hours at the newspaper, building her career. But as “meetings” at the social hotspots and hotel restaurants with political and business hotshots start to drag on into the wee hours of the morning, she begins neglecting her family. For Mr. Haugen the last straw is when she forgets to come home for their wedding anniversary dinner, which he has meticulously prepared. When Mrs. Haugen returns in the middle of the night, she finds the remnants of what was supposed to be a candle-lit dinner and beside it, a framed copy of her famous UFO photo, taken on their honeymoon, smashed to pieces. Mr. Haugen throws her out of the bedroom. Sleeping on the couch, Mrs Haugen dreams of encountering two aliens in face-covering space suits, one man and one juvenile boy, and realises that her husband and son will become as alien to her as these Martians unless she changes her ways. Rushing home, she finds Mr. Haugen, emasculated and shrunken to the size of a milk carton, cheering her happily from his over-sized dinner table as he reads her articles in the monstrously large newspaper. Back at the office, the rolling plates of the printing press attack her in her office, steaming closer and closer, threatening to flatten her between the rolling pins as her deadline approaches. She screams in panic: “No! Stop! I don’t want make a career anymore! I want to go home to my family!”. She wakes up, rushes to the bedroom, looking for her shrinking husband beneath the sheets, unable to find him. But fear not, he was just in the bathroom, and he is full-sized again. As he picks her up in his arms, she exclaims: “From now on I will be your little woman, and you will be my big man!”
Directed by Nils R. Müller and co-written by Eva Seeberg, this is a film that reads very differently today than it did when it was released in 1956. Back in the day, this would have been the equivalent of the 1994 movie Junior, where Arnold Schwarzenegger becomes pregnant. Just the absurdity of the idea made people flock to the cinemas. In the same way, the idea of a man becoming a stay-at-home dad so his wife can have a professional career, was equally absurd in the 50’s. And yes, it also made audiences flock to the cinemas. Today, however, the sight of a man being lovingly teased by his drunk wife returning from a business “meeting” when he is in the middle of doing the laundry doesn’t strike us as just as unlikely as flying saucers landing in Norway. Today much of the film’s intended comedy is lost on the fact that what seemed unthinkable in the 50’s is perfectly normal today. Oddly enough, this is not necessarily to the detriment of the film, even if it changes the tone of the movie. Instead of seeming laughable, scenes of Mr. Haugen lovingly taking care of his son or waving his wife goodbye from his balcony as she goes to work come across as endearing to a modern audience, making Kvinnens plass more of a feelgood movie than the gender farce it was intended as. That is, until the end, when the marital roles are again “righted to their natural order”, from a 50’s point of view.
As science fiction Kvinnens plass is a fringe case. The flying saucers have no bearing on the plot, and after their initial introduction we never learn anything more about them. The film was made in 1956, when the 50’s UFO craze was at its peak, and they might as well be replaced by the Yeti or the Loch Ness monster without changing the plot or sentiment of the film. Rather, the UFO’s have a more symbolic meaning. Partly, as Michael Wynn writes on the blog Norsk film, they can be seen as a metaphor for the odd division of responsibilities in the Haugen family: a man staying at home with the baby while his wife goes to work is just as unlikely as Mrs. Haugen getting a photograph of a flying saucer. But the two “Martians” that Mrs. Haugen meets in her dream also represent the gulf between her and her husband and son that is growing ever wider because of her professional ambitions.
Kvinnens plass was not a fringe film in the Norwegian cinematic landscape of the 50’s, though, but rather an an entry in the dominating genre at the time, the so-called “marital comedy”. Norwegian film was experiencing a boom in the post-war era. The Norwegian movie industry was somewhat underdeveloped during the pre-war years in comparison to its Nordic neighbours, partly due to the legal framework surrounding the industry. Unlike the normal practice, movie studios couldn’t own movie theatres, nor did Norwegian cinema receive government funding. Cinemas were run by the local municipalities, who also took the lion’s share of the ticket proceeds. Thus, Norwegian films were severely underfunded up until WWII. The dominating genres were rural romanticism and national romanticism. Perhaps somewhat surprising, it was the Nazi occupation of Norway during WWII that laid the foundation for Norwegian state funding of the movie arts. During the occupation, movie tickets were the object of a luxury tax of 40 percent, and the proceeds from this tax became the foundation for a government movie fund. According to an article at the Norwegian film archive, at the end of 1946, this fund had grown to around 10 million Norwegian crowns, roughly the equivalent of 2-3 million USD at the time.
Like in most European countries, the 50’s in Norway were a time of economic growth, investment and rebuilding, a period of both economic and social optimism. Like in the US, social and family lives were also finding new ways to settle after the uprooting of social norms and traditions during the war. The American screwball comedy had its golden era in the 40’s and early 50’s, and neighbouring Finland produced many of its most popular, folksy comedies in the fifties, of which the afore-mentioned snowman film is a good example. The period between 1950 and 1965 is often seen as the Golden Age for the Norwegian comedy. The 50’s, in particular, were dominated by the so-called “marital comedy”. As opposed to the classic romantic comedy where the focus often lies on overcoming hurdles that lie in the way of forming a relationship, the marital comedy tends to put focus on gender roles and social norms, writes Anne Marit Myrstad in an article for Tidsskrift for Kjønnsforskning. Myrstad identifies the Norwegian marital comedy as largely falling under the subgenre of the husmorsfilme, or the “housewife movie”. In her Master’s thesis on Norwegian comedies (2014, University of Bergen), Hanna Kvalheim Hekkelstrand notes that the large majority of all women in Norwegian comedies of the fifties and sixties were stay-at-home housewives. Much of the comedy, writes Myrstad, is derived from men trying and failing to do housework, thus reinforcing the idea that the kitchen and the laundry room are a woman’s domain.
There are several reasons for the focus on the housewife in films across the so-called western world in the 50’s. Part of it was the fact that women were becoming an increasingly interesting market segment. But it was also a part of a wider culture debate — a culture war, some might even call it, about women’s place in society. WWII had upended traditional family roles. Young women had been called on to replace men drafted into the military in the workforce. “Rosie the Riveter” became an icon in the US, and in the UK thousands of women were called to the countryside as the nation’s farm production needed to be tripled because of a lack of import. In occupied Norway, however, the reverse was true. As the Norwegian army was dismantled by the occupying forces, it left even less opportunities for women to work, and the number of housewives shot through the roof. On the other hand, during the occupation, the resistance movement was tightly tied to the homes and households of ordinary people, much the same way as in France, and as much of organised social life, such as sporting events or theatre, was either banned or controlled by the Nazis, the home sphere became a central arena for clandestine social gatherings, culture and debate, which in many cases gave women a completely different access to decision-making, planning and execution of both political, social and even guerrilla activities. Then, with the end of the war and a return to “normal” circumstances, women suddenly saw their agency lessened as social and political activities once again returned to the public sphere. On the other hand, modernisation, urbanisation and industrialisation in the fifties provided women with new possibilities to earn their own income, make careers and liberate themselves from their assigned place “between the hearth and the fist”, to quote a Finnish phrase. Pushing back against this liberation was the move to strengthen so-called “traditional family values”. And a central battlefield for the “war between the sexes” was the culture sphere, including the movies.
Director Nils R. Müller was both the most successful director of marital comedies and the fifties and something of a challenger of its norms. While most of the marital comedies followed a fairly standardised and “harmless” formula, Müller often dared to discuss social issues in his films. His 1951 film Vi gifter oss (“Let’s Get Married”) is often seen as the starting point for the boom of marital comedies. It starred the genre’s two most popular stars, Henki Kolstad and Inger Marie Andersen (in her debut role). This film set the tone for Müller’s comedies as it features a couple that deals with problems of — if not homelessness as such, then at least problems finding an apartment of their own — thus commenting on the housing problem in Oslo during this time of rapid urbanisation. And while Kvinnens plass ultimately reinforces patriarchal norms, at least it deals with the issue of women’s liberation and equality in a relationship in a non-condescending way, and it’s clear that for at least two thirds of the film Müller seems to sympathise with the modern young couple who challenge gender stereotypes. Müller often wrote his own movies, but Kvinnens plass is co-written by Eva Seeberg, who drew on her own experiences in the male dominated world of journalism as she worked at Norway’s largest evening paper Aftenposten 1949-1954. Seeberg made her literary debut in 1952, but her career as an author didn’t really begin in earnest before she moved to Sweden in 1961. However, she wrote or co-wrote a dozen screenplays (or in some cases, provided original stories for them) in the late 50’s and earöy 60’s. Most of these were romantic or marital comedies, but like Müller she often touched on more serious issues. Seeberg harboured a lifelong interest in the paranormal, and the UFO subplot is most definitely from her pen. I am not fluent in Norwegian (any of its dialects), and watched the film without subtitles, so some of the dialogue’s subtleties probably went over my head. I watched it with my Norwegian partner, and she said some of the actors spoke in a manner that even she had a hard time understanding what they were saying.
Technically there is not much to criticise in Kvinnens plass. Müller was a capable craftsman who later gained recognition with his social dramas. Kvinnens plass is crisply photographed in a style reminiscent of Hollywood screwball comedies, but with a touch of Italian neorealism. It moves along at a decent pace, some trimming might have done it good, but it doesn’t feel overlong at its 90-minute length. It’s clear this was a prestige film — it’s got some of the Norwegian film industry’s best talent in front and behind the camera and there seems to have been a decent budget for both studio and location shooting. I would personally have loved to see more of Oslo in the 50’s, though. Seeberg’s background in journalism gives it a sense of realism, as does the fact that the film team has had access to a working printing house. The dream sequence at the end also shows that Müller, cinematographer Per Jonson and production designer H.C. Hansen have a good grasp on special effects. The UFO landing looks better than in many low-budget Hollywood films of the era, the alien’s space suits are well realised and the effects with the shrinking Mr. Haugen are superbly realised with oversized props and furniture, as well as some neat composition shots. The music by the Norwegian Radio Symphony Orchestra director and prolific movie soundtrack composer Egil Monn-Iversen is perhaps a bit intrusive at places, but suitably dramatic at other. The acting is uniformly good, in the somewhat stylised manner of 50’s comedies. Inger Marie Andersen is no Oscar winner, but she has a charisma and natural directness, and the same kind of emotional openness as, for example, Ingrid Bergman, which translates so well to the screen. Lars Nordrum is wonderfully sweet in his role as the stay-at-home dad. Nordrum balances his performance well, so that it doesn’t tip over into caricature territory — he’s not making fun of the stay-at-home dad, which is why the film is as enjoyable as it is today. Also, with the exception of one grumpy nay-sayer, Mrs. Haugen’s male colleagues also don’t react in any way negatively towards her as a female reporter, but treat her as a normal member of the staff. Nordrum and Andersen have a good on-screen chemistry, which makes you invest in the characters and their relationship. On the whole, from a technical and artistic point of view, the film is well produced, and could as such be mistaken for a major Hollywood studio B programmer. It is certainly better in terms of production values than most Hollywood low-budget films I review on this blog.
There seems to be more scholarly articles about Kvinnens plass online than actual reviews. The only trace of a contemporary review I can find comes from Michael Wynn’s blog, where he quotes Norwegian daily Verdens Gang. According to him VG disliked Inger Marie Andersen’s character, but praised the other actors, as well as the photography: “Per Jonson displays animated and fun photography and has dared some very impressive camera tricks”. However, the newspaper was not impressed by the script: “The script is co-written by [Müller] and Eva Seeberg, but it smacks more of Seeberg than Müller. There is something virginial* over the vision of woman and man in the situations that the writers have placed them in” (*jomfrunalsk, in this case perhaps mostly describing a “womanly naiveté.”). Despite bad reviews, the movie was a resounding success, just like Müller’s previous marital comedies, Vi gifter oss (“Lets Get Married”, 1951), Vi vil skilles (“Let’s Get Divorced”, 1952), and the later Ektemann allene (“Husband On His Own”, 1956). Together these four movies form what’s sometimes called Müller’s “marital comedy quartet”, and they were the most popular Norwegian movies of the 50’s. So popular was it, that it even reached beyond Norway’s borders. Remove the UFO subplot and add a triangle drama, and what you have is the Swedish 1958 movie Du är mitt äventyr (“You Are My Adventure”) — which was also highly successful, starring some of Sweden’s biggest comedy stars at the time, Sickan Carlsson and Bibi Andersson. Neither Müller nor Seeberg got any credits for this obvious ripoff — the script was credited to Carlsson and director Stig Olin, even though the plots of the films are more or less identical.
Today Kvinnens plass has a 5.7/10 audience rating on IMDb, based on only a little more than 40 votes. Unsurprisingly, modern reviews are also hard to find — the are more scholarly articles on the movie than reviews. Occasional comments seem to sum up the modern sentiment as “fun, but reactionary”. Gunnar Iverson, et.al., write in the book Nordic National Cinemas: “By focusing on the female sex-roles, which appear to be under pressure and changing, these films give the female protagonist a more central position in the films than hitherto.”. However, states, Hanna Kvalheim Hekkelstrand: “In Kvinnens plass, the whole project with alternative gender roles is abandoned as a doomed attempt, almost as a joke.” At Norsk Film, Michael Wynn concludes: “The marital comedy is a moralising genre in which the stories reaffirm prevailing norms. However, in admitting that there are problems, [Kvinnens plass] nevertheless represents a step forward, a step away from the hypocrisy [of the age]”.
Looked at with modern eyes, Kvinnens plass is a weird movie to rate. You spend most of the film rooting for this very modern and equal couple. Mrs. Haugen is a headstrong, capable woman who doesn’t apologise for taking her place in a male-dominated professional surrounding. Nevertheless, she isn’t caricatured as an ice queen, as is so often the case — even in current movies about career women. She is portrayed as loving, caring, funny and responsible — throughout most of the film. Equally, Mr. Haugen never seems to think being stuck at home with the kid is demeaning or less worthy than the job his wife does, and in fact, he seems to relish in his role as the domestic spirit. Then out of the blue, the film suddenly turns on its protagonists in a way that clashes with what we have learned about them before. As a viewer, you don’t buy Mrs. Haugen’s abrupt disregard for her child and husband, and her dismissal of their wedding anniversary feels tacked-on. It just doesn’t gel. But of course, this was the ending that 50’s audiences were anticipating, because to them it was the first two thirds of the film that felt like they were taken out of their own reality and had their social norms upended. The ending was, in a sense, a throwback to the tiresome “it was all a dream and now all is back to normal” trope, one that’s been around since the beginning of the movies, and that often featured as a way to “explain away” fantasy or SF material for an audience. Nevertheless, I liked the movie, and I felt that it had a progressive spirit despite its reactionary ending.
Director Nils R. Müller grew up in a wealthy family on the outskirts of Oslo, and became interested in filmmaking as a a child. After a little noticed directorial debut, he got a 6-month scholarship to study film in England in 1949, where he worked on various menial tasks on films of Alexander Korda, giving him a glimpse of how things were done in the big world. Apparently the lessons learned served him well, as his second movie, Vi gifter oss, was a smash hit. Along with Edith Carlmar and Arne Skouen, Müller became one of the most celebrated director of the 50’s, representing a new generation among Norwegian movie makers in an industry now strengthened by government backing. Like Carlmar and Skouen, Müller worked in many genres. After his successes with comedy in the early fifties, he turned briefly to the crime thriller and then to social drama, which is where he left his biggest mark. Tonny (1962) is considered his finest movie, a drama exploring how society treats former prison inmates. The film featured a young Liv Ullman in a co-lead, and was nominated for the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Another film of note was Broder Gabrielsen (1966), which gave an unflattering view of Christian Revivalism, and caused a minor uproar as certain religious leaders tried to have it banned. Müller retired from the movie business in 1975, and supported himself through different means — he started selling his services as a wedding filmer, and invented a water turbine for use in developing countries. In 1996 he receined an honorary Amanda award – Norway’s most prestigious film award, for his contribution to Norwegian cinema.
Lead actress Inger Marie Andersen was one of the figureheads of the new generation in filmmaking that Müller represented. Born in 1930, she made her stage debut in 1949, and soon after made her first screen appearance in Müller’s Vi gifter oss, where she played opposite Henki Kolstad. Kolstad and Andersen became the screen’s most beloved couple, playing opposite each other in a number of films, primarily marital comedies. In 1962 she received the prestigious Aamot award for her contribution to Norwegian cinema.
Lars Nordrum was one of the most admired character actors of the Norwegian stage, where he made his debut in 1935, at a mere 14 years of age. He created memorable performances in plays by Shakespeare, Ibsen, Holberg and Strindberg. On screen he also appeared opposite Kolstad and Andersen in Vi gifter oss, and played the lead in Müller’s Ektemann allene. He is perhaps best remembered for his role opposite Kolstad and Wenche Foss in the 1963 movie adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, directed by Ibsen’s grandson Tancred Ibsen. But most of all, Nordrum is famous for voicing the title character in a long-running radio series of radio adaptations of Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings children’s books, which aired between 1957 and 1964 on the Norwegian Broadcasting Company NRK.
In a small but effective supporting part as an errand boy at the newspaper office the film feature Pål Bang-Hansen, one of the most legendary characters within the Norwegian film industry. Bang-Hansen started his career in entertainment as a juvenile radio actor, especially noted for voicing the title character in a series of radio shows based on Astrid Lindgren’s Bill Bergson books. He had a couple of roles in the movies before moving to Italy to study film, and worked for a year in the Italian movie industry. Between 1964 and 1981 he directed a handful of very well-regarded and successful films. However, his legendary status comes from his long career as a movie critic. He worked as a film critic for the Norwegian Broadcasting Company for 40 years between 1967 and 2007, and became especially beloved for his long-running TV show Filmmagasinet. During many years, he was NRK’s only film critic, and was regarded very much as a Norwegian Roger Ebert. He also reported extensively from international film festivals, in particular Cannes, and interviewed many famous movie stars. Today there are some critics who feel that his exemplary work as a movie director been overlooked because of his immense popularity as a critic and TV personality. He passed away in 2010.
A last actress worthy of mention is Aud Schønemann, playing the role of the first nanny that the Haugen couple try out. One of Norway’s most beloved entertainers, Schønemann was well versed in dramatic stage roles, but it was as a comedienne that she made her name. She debuted on stage in 1945, and became legendary for her starring role as the cleaning woman at the heart of a murder mystery in Jack Popplewell’s play Busybody in 1969. Her line “Skulle det dukke opp flere lik er det bare å ringe” (“Would any more bodies turn up, then just give me a call”) has entered the Norwegian vocabulary and also became the title the hugely popular 1970 movie adaptation, also starring Aud Schønemann. Her stage performance garnered her the Norwegian Critics’ Award for best actress. However, she is best known and beloved for her roles in the 14 Olsenbanden comedies (1968-1999) and the TV serier Flexnes Fataliteter (1972-1982). Following the exploits of a trio of unlucky criminals, the Olsenbanden (“The Olsen League”) films were based on a similarly popular string of films, also called Olsenbanden, in Denmark, and a third series of movies was made in Sweden, called Jönssonligan, starring comedy royalty Gösta Ekman. In the Danish film series, Aud Schønemann played the wife of one of the dimwit crooks. Flexnes Fataliteter (generally only referred to as Flexnes) is one of Scandinavia’s most popular comedy TV shows in history, following the exploits of the hapless bachelor Marve Flexnes (Rolv Wesenlund) and his mother Magnhild (Schønemann), who frequently turns up at his apartment unannounced. The series was based on Galton and Simpson’s British series Hancock’s Half Hour, and it was co-produced by the Norwegian, Danish and Swedish broadcasting companies. Originally only six episodes were meant to be made, but the show became so popular in all the Scandinavian countries that it became six seasons. When the show returned with a special episode in 2002, Galton and Simpson wrote an original script for the occasion. Aud Schønemann suffered a stroke in 2003, where after she became recluse, and passed away in 2006. During her career she received multiple awards and tributes, including an honorary Amanda, the highest award given by the City of Oslo; the St. Hallvard Award, and a knighthood from the King of Norway. In 2010 the mayor of Oslo unveiled a statue of Aud Schønemann outside the Oslo New Theatre. With over 50 film roles to her name, she is regarded as Norway’s most prolific movie actress.
Kvinnens plass. 1956, Norway. Directed by Nils R. Müller. Written by Müller & Eva Seeberg. Starring: Inger Marie Andersen, Lars Nordrum, Pål Bang-Hansen, Odd Borg, Wilfred Breistrand, Hilde Brenni, Lalla Carlsen, Aud Schønemann. Music: Egil Monn-Iversen, Bjørn Voll. Cinematography: Per Jonson. Editing: H.C. Hansen. Makeup artist: Helle Wolf. Sound: Tore Kinge.