Photography by Andris Søndrol Visdal
Words by Marianne Clementine Håheim
They say your home is your castle, and VIBEKE LØKKEBERG’s (71) home certainly looks the part, full of antique furniture, art and fresh lilacs. The director, actress and author has indeed needed the sanctuary of a castle several times throughout her career. In Norway, she is probably as famous for the many controversies around her as for her films. But a crooked nose is proof that it takes more than a couple of blows to throw her off balance.
You have been an artist your entire adult life—where does the need to create come from?
"I don't know," Løkkeberg laughs. "There are some questions you choose not to ask yourself. If you start to analyse your own motivation, it'll take something away from the intuitive, child-like, that is at the root of creativity."
She does, however, remember that it all started when she was a child. Her uncle’s paintings on the walls of her childhood home inspired her to think that maybe she, too, could become a painter. She was especially interested in Edvard Munch, and would imitate his style in her own paintings and drawings. As soon as she could write, she also began writing stories. All this despite growing up in what she calls a completely unartistic home.
Løkkeberg grew up in Laksevåg, Bergen, a part of town that lost close to 200 civilians to bombing during WWII. She says she was born into trauma, and remembers poverty and street fights as part of everyday life. At the age of 16, she moved away from home.
"There was nothing rebellious about my choice to leave home. It was a decision I made out of necessity. My father passed away when I was 15, leaving only my mother and myself. Shortly after he died, I left school so that I could work. I grew up in a time when children were raised to be useful, and I knew that my mother wouldn't be able to support me on her own."
At 16, Vibeke Løkkeberg already knew that she wanted to be an artist. She also knew that art wasn’t something that made you lots of money. The solution was to take classes at Kunstfagskolen (art school) in the evenings, and work full days.
"At four in the morning, I would take the bus to town with all the factory workers, and work as a goldsmith’s apprentice. I didn’t want to be a goldsmith, but my advisor, my mother, was of the opinion that it was somehow related to what I really wanted to do, which was draw and paint. It was nowhere close to that, of course. It was factory work, and very dangerous."
In addition to the work being dangerous, working long days indoors meant that Løkkeberg didn’t get to see the trees blossom in spring. So she quit. She claims she’s not very good at persevering if she doesn’t like the job at hand. After six months’ time as an apprentice, Løkkeberg got a job at an advertising agency, where she learnt to draw. Next was fashion modelling in Paris, then Teaterskolen (Norwegian Theatre Academy)—but in between came a broken nose.
"I’ve always been concerned with women’s position in society and marriage. Growing up, I saw my mother’s lack of status within the family, and knew that I never wanted to be in a relationship where I had to subordinate myself to another’s career. For a while, I was dating a real uptown boy who was going to be a sculptor. Both he and his parents were of the opinion that my career didn’t matter as much as his. They wanted me to learn a craft, specifically study to become a weaver. Just imagine, me sitting day in and day out on a loom ... I would have gone completely mad."
Løkkeberg laughs out loud. You don’t need to be around her for long before that laughter makes perfect sense. This is not a woman destined for the loom, or any kind of sitting still for too long. She dumped the sculptor-to-be, and moved to Paris. There, she got in contact with the major French couturiers and pretty soon made a name for herself as a fashion model. While modelling, she studied for the theatre academy audition she knew would be her next challenge. What she didn’t prepare for, though, was being knocked straight down by her ex-boyfriend on the morning of the audition.
"I had moved back home from Paris, and ran into my ex on the street. I told him I was going to audition for Teaterskolen, although I knew that he and his parents were very much opposed to the idea. So the next morning, an hour before my audition, the doorbell rang, and I received a sculptor’s fist straight in the face. It wouldn’t stop bleeding. My nose is still crooked from that blow."
Not going to the audition was not an option. Quitting has never been an option for Løkkeberg, in spite of receiving countless (metaphorical) blows to the face throughout her career.
"The jurors probably didn’t know what to think of me," she laughs. "I didn’t get in, of course. I guess a 17-year-old girl playing Sophocles and Chekov with a swollen face was too confusing for them."
So Løkkeberg left the country again. She lived in Rome for a year, where she was offered a place at Italy’s national film school. Despite her love of all things Italian, she didn’t want to become an artist abroad.
"I saw that within the film industry, girls like myself were often reduced to objects of men’s desire," she explains. "Wherever there was big money and power at play, there was a certain exchange going on. 'If you want me to make you famous, you'll have to lie down first,' you know. I wanted no part of that. I thought it would be better at home."
Where do you get your fearlessness from?
"I think I’ve always been fearless. I’ve also had a strong sense of justice. I can’t sit idly by and watch someone strong pick on someone weaker. I had a friend growing up, a boy called Svein. He was physically weaker than me, and quite the original. We loved each other dearly. One day, I witnessed a bigger boy at school beating him up, and I didn’t stop to think. I ran into the schoolyard, grabbed my rubber jump rope, and proceeded to whip the bigger boy with it. I guess it hurt so much that he didn't know what to do. I learned early on that protecting someone comes at a cost, but that’s a price you just have to pay."
Today, Løkkeberg’s films have been screened all over the world, and she’s received several awards for her work. Growing up, however, becoming a director was an unthinkable ambition. Big Hollywood films were it back then, and succeeding as a director across the pond seemed a vain idea. The thought of a future both behind and in front of the camera first came to mind while she was living in Paris.
"Paris was a time of self-discovery. I was 17 or 18 years old and in the process of discovering that I had other options, other ways of expressing myself. I discovered Godard and Fellini’s films, films that portrayed European culture in a way that I recognised. When I finally got accepted into Teaterskolen, those were the kind of films I wanted to act in."
‘Anything is possible here.’ That’s what one of the jurors wrote in his comment on Løkkeberg’s second audition. This man, 10 years her senior, invited her out to dinner, where he asked her two questions. The first was if she’d be interested in making movies with him. The second was if she’d be interested in marrying him.
"I don't know you, how can you even ask me that? I don’t love you!’ I told him. –He looked straight at me and said: ‘You're going to.’ I thought that was such a great answer—it was quite impressive. So I accepted on the spot."
Løkkeberg was 19 years old. Didn’t this exchange make her feel slightly objectified?
"No," she answers promptly. "Because by that time, I was in charge. I made my own money, and was very rich. All the premises were in my favour. The feeling of objectification had vanished after my success as a fashion model abroad. No one had handed that success to me, no boyfriend or man had helped me. I was all alone, and I had made it. I guess that gave me quite some confidence."
A few months later, Vibeke and Pål Løkkeberg were married. They started writing film scripts together shortly after, and made the films Liv (1967) and Exit (1970) during their years of marriage. Vibeke starred in both films. At the same time, she taught herself the ropes of film-making.
"In my day, there were no film schools in Norway. Unless you went to school abroad, there was no formal way of learning how to direct. I’m glad I never went to school. It’s given me the freedom to find my own expression as a director. If you’ve acted on camera enough times, you eventually understand how to work with actors, and I never thought that the technical part of it was difficult. I’ve always had fun making films. I’m a playful person, and everything I do is a game."
Løkkeberg’s first own productions were documentaries Abort (1971) and Prostitusjon (1974), and the short film Regn (1976). Her first feature film, Åpenbaringen (‘The revelation’) came in 1977. Its main character, Inger, is a middle-aged woman who experiences a life crisis after her children move out of the home. Why was this the first story Løkkeberg wanted to tell?
"I think it was because my aunt had committed suicide shortly before. I also had my first child around that time, which put me in a very serious place, creatively. I was raising questions about the whole concept of being a woman, of getting married and having children. Åpenbaringen is the story of a person who becomes isolated in her home and has no contact with society or reality. She’s a grown-up woman, and when her children move away from home and her husband loses interest in her, she reaches a state of crisis. There’s nothing left for her. That is the traditional role of women in our society, and many people don’t realise that it’s a trap, whether you’re rich or poor."
Løkkeberg had met her second husband, chief officer for cinemas and culture in Ås municipality, Terje Kristiansen, a few years earlier. She says it was love at first sight. They both got divorced, were married within months and have been a team ever since. Kristiansen has produced the majority of Løkkeberg’s feature films, and they have daughters Marie and Tonje together.
Åpenbaringen, in which Kristiansen plays a role, became quite controversial, both among men and women. Male critics were especially shocked by leading actress Marie Takvam’s naked body, which was neither young nor slim.
"I understand why they were provoked, as they made that quite clear in their reviews, but I have no understanding for it," says Løkkeberg. "One paper printed the words ‘No to Marie Takvam’s butt’ in capital letters. Imagine writing something like that!"
Løperjenten (‘Betrayal,’ 1981) was completely different, and wildly successful. Norwegian critics raved about the film, as did New York Times critic Vincent Canby and J. Hoberman of The Village Voice. It was screened throughout the USA, and earned a place on UNESCO’s National Cinematic Heritage list in 1995. Did Løkkeberg decide to make this more traditional film because of the way the experimental Åpenbaringen had been received?
"Definitely. I understood that, in order not to be called an amateur and all that nonsense, I had to prove that I could make a film in a completely professional way. I knew exactly what I was doing when I wrote the script for Løperjenten. I knew that it would have a much wider appeal and wouldn’t be as difficult for people as Åpenbaringen."
Løkkeberg was celebrated for having made an un-Norwegian film, and agrees with the term. Løperjenten seems spontaneous and not confined to a Norwegian idiom. Many critics felt that the film had a foreign, maybe Italian, temperament. Has she always had this temperament, or did she pick it up during her years abroad?
"Travelling to and living in Italy inspired me, of course, but I’ve always been different," Løkkeberg says. "I’ve always stood out from the crowd, but I’ve respected my otherness. I’ve been happy with my otherness and my temperament, and never let anyone break it. There are far too many people who don’t dare be who they are. I think the most important thing you can do, as an artist, is to be honest. Get on a stage and just be yourself."
Do you think Norwegian films need more of your Italian temperament?
"Well, yes, but a nation that only skis, doesn’t really need it. Norwegians are not exciting people, and it doesn’t seem like we want to be, either. I thought maybe we’d grow into a nation that cared about and understood art, but nothing has changed since I started in 1964. In France and Italy, the art scenes are much bigger. They are very small in Norway, which I suppose is the reason why so many people like myself leave. My husband and I have a great place in Italy, but in the end, I do want to be here at home. I need to see the lilacs bloom in May."
Løkkeberg writes the script, sits in the director’s chair and stars in all of her films. How does that work?
"It’s important for me to be involved in all parts of the process. That’s why I both write, act and direct my own films. When I am acting myself, I know all the premises. Many things are created the moment you’re standing in front of the camera, acting out a scene, but it requires you to trust the people you’re working with. I use the same model as Ingmar Bergman and the French and Italian directors: I surround myself with the same people, so that we eventually become a troupe. When the others know and understand your style of directing, you’ll have the right atmosphere on the set from the start."
In the film Måker (‘Seagulls,’ 1991), Løkkeberg acted alongside both her daughters. She has been criticized for working so closely with her husband, children and friends, and has on several occasions been asked to change her methods. That’s a criticism she neither understands nor is willing to comply with.
"No one would tell a painter she can’t paint a portrait of her daughter," Løkkeberg exemplifies. "No one says to Karl Ove Knausgård that he can’t write about his wife. You need that freedom as an artist."
In Norway, Løkkeberg’s career has been surrounded by controversy. Her third feature film, Hud (‘Skin,’ 1986), is about incest, and earned her the label ‘man hater.’ At one point, she and husband Kristiansen weren’t sure if they wanted to live in Norway any longer, and bought a house in Italy. Luckily, she says, she’s had international success as well (both Løperjenten and Hud were presented at the Cannes Film Festival), which has encouraged her to continue.
"I think my movies are better understood abroad, since the audience don’t focus on me personally there. In Norway, stories and myths about me keep critics from seeing a film clearly."
Does that bother you?
"It bothers me in the sense that it’s kept me from getting the support I think I deserve, and in the sense that it’s made my children victims to bullying. People are happy to talk about me, but they won’t invite me to their fancy dinner parties. I’ve never been part of the Norwegian film scene. They’ve given me an honorary Amanda award now, though. That’s nice of them," she laughs dryly.
Part of the reason for the ongoing conflict between her and the Norwegian film industry, says Løkkeberg, is that she considers herself an auteur. According to auteur (the French word for ‘author’) theory, a film reflects the director’s personal creative vision. According to Wikipedia, the auteur’s creative voice is distinct enough to shine through studio interference and the collective process of film production. Løkkeberg claims there are no auteurs left in the Norwegian film industry, and that they’ve been purposely eradicated.
"I've been told not to write my own scripts. I've been told I can’t work with my husband as producer anymore. Somewhere along the line, the support for auteurs completely ended. Maybe a few men still get to call themselves auteurs, but women don’t. Women are not given the universal status as artists that men are. As women, we’re confined to our little ‘female cabinets’ no matter what we try to express."
Where does the process of making a film start?
"Often with a dream. When I start writing a script, it’s instinctively clear to me where I’m going with it. With Løperjenten, there was one vision I couldn’t let go of: a little girl smashing a window, her parents standing behind it. That’s the last image in the film. Then I wrote my way to an understanding of who she was and why she smashed that window. With Åpenbaringen, I was imagining a woman eating glass that was being fed to her by her husband. I think that vision stemmed from my first husband, who couldn’t handle me in a state of crisis. If I was upset, it was important that I take a Valium. Once, he tried to force me to take one, but I wouldn’t take pills. When I started writing the script for Hud, I was breastfeeding my daughter Marie, and started thinking about child abuse and incest. It just wouldn’t let me go. The story developed from there."
In Hud, you play Vilde, who has been sexually abused by her step father since childhood. Were the abuse scenes hard to act out?
"I think it was more difficult for the others on the set. I had already been through a long process of writing the script, and acting was the final station. Mentally, it is harder to write than to act. You’re so close to the words you write."
Løkkeberg has always been socially engaged as a director. She doesn’t make films just to make film, she says, but to say something of importance. The documentary Gazas tårer (‘Tears of Gaza’) came in 2010, and was her first film in 17 years.
"I wanted to tell a story about what war does to children, the posttraumatic stress it inflicts. I never made it into Gaza myself, but the film went all across the world, and got an amazing review in the New York Times. I received several awards, which was quite healing for me. Recognition is important. You can’t beat your head against a wall all your life. Being an untraditional and provocative artist in Norway is difficult. You’re supposed to act within a tiny, designated space and behave yourself so that the critics can accept you, but I’ve never gone along with that."
Where do you get the strength to keep going?
"I feel compelled to speak. That is more important than all the opposition I encounter. We know from history that nothing changes if people don’t endure in the long run. I’m governed by my intellect, not my feelings, when it comes to this. I’m old now, and I’ve had some experiences that have cost me dearly, but it’s been worth it."