A WOMAN’S FACE (Gustaf Molander, 1938)

Gustaf Molander’s A Woman’s Face, from Sweden, is a strong film about an embittered young woman. Anna Holm, whose face was partially burned in a childhood accident, leads a ring of blackmailers. Eventually, a plastic surgeon restores her appearance to normal, but Anna remains tied to her criminal past. She becomes governess to a wealthy young boy whose uncle wants him dead. Will she and her former associates murder her charge?
     This, Molander’s finest achievement, is preeminently a film of atmosphere, for the creation of which the filmmaker plainly drew upon G. W. Pabst, especially Die Dreigroschenoper. Anna lives in a world of depression and deep shadows; not until her face has been purged of scars will she come out into the light. The child she is supposed to kill is the agency of her humanization. One night, in bed before he goes to sleep, he kisses her, and this unexpected display of warm affection for her jolts her into a realization of emotional possibilities she has long shunned.
     Ingrid Bergman is astounding as Anna, whose spiritual progress, sensitively charted, fascinates. George Cukor’s Hollywood remake (1941), vastly inferior to Molander’s version, replaces grit with glitz, and Joan Crawford’s constrained, artificial acting is like play-acting. Bergman, by contrast, is Anna to the bone.

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