Ingmar Bergman: five late films

The second of a two part essay on Bergman’s films written after watching The Ingmar Bergman Collection, which gathers most of the Criterion and Tartan releases. The films I liked were the ones most people do, so these two essays represent the average person’s response to Bergman rather than the film student’s or critic’s response.

Over the period 1968 to 1984 Bergman made 16 films, apparently just as immersed in his obsessions as before. Slowly he became recognised for his achievement, so different to that of any other film director (except perhaps Fellini). No longer associated with a titillating reputation that meant ‘foreign’ films were ones in which you saw actresses naked, he even moved into television, eventually to have a hit mini series that engaged all the countries of Scandinavia. His stage productions travelled around Europe and even went to New York, where some of them were acclaimed as the greatest of the 20th century. He published several books, including an autobiography, made a semi autobiographical TV mini series, and was extensively interviewed.

Hour of the Wolf (1968) though, was as dour as anything he had previously produced. A mentally disturbed painter comes to a remote island, meets a sinister aristocrat in his castle, and is eventually killed. It screens like Dracula produced by Hitchcock. All the characters are depressed. This is gloom and doom theatre and as incongruous in Bergman’s work as The Virgin Spring.


In Shame (1968) Bergman looks at the effect of war. One of the primary characteristics of being human is the psychoses that make us hurt and kill other humans, often justifying this by inventing ’causes’ to fight for and against in a war (basic to our psyches, for we do it anyway in times of ‘peace’). Shame shows war as it impinges on isolated, non involved ordinary people, the kind soldiers have always ordered around, beaten, robbed, raped and murdered in between killing enemy soldiers. Slowly, the values of civilised life are eroded away, till a man’s wife buys freedom by having sex with a local official, and her husband takes the money she has been offered, and ‘executes’ the seducer, later killing a young soldier he has surprised asleep. The couple flee in an open boat, but are marooned on the ocean without water or food, trying to recollect something someone said. The film is a parable, and has a nightmare quality about it that is quite involving. This is how most will experience war. Degrading, frightening, confusing. The uniforms, the weapons technology, the causes, the victories and the parades are for the deluded few.

It is largely an actors’ film, Sven Nykvist’s camera preponderantly focuses on the faces of Liv Ullman and Max von Sydow playing a musician couple Eva and Jan Rosenberg. The finesse and subtlety with which these actors are able to express the hidden conflicts and moral disintegration these characters go through is wonderful to watch. Gunnar Björnstrand as the village mayor and later commandant Jacobi manages to show geniality and friendship, shame and anguish at his role in the conflict depicted, and a brooding air of menace, all at the same time, and almost steals the show. The gritty black and white photography gives an air of newsreel coverage to the action. Yet this is not realism. It is nightmare.

Bergman shows a marriage like any other in the first half of the film. This is not an idyll on an island. The Rosenbergs are full of dissatisfaction and affection for one another, and the isolation of living alone on the island (where they have fled to escape war) and the barrenness of not playing the music they have dedicated their lives to, creates fissures in their relationship that would ordinarily be dealt with by both. Now war will break them apart. Still together, they will become attached by revulsion at what each has become.

The theme is war and the damage it does, but Bergman has the restraint to pose the issue as a question, which makes the impact of the film more powerful. Are the Rosenbergs escapists, refusing to take a moral stand on political issues and thus partly responsible for the conflict? Is the artist at times a moral coward? Can art ever really be apolitical? Was Leni Riefenstahl, for example? Is the 18th century violin Jan so values merely a broken toy? Or are the causes we fight for merely an excuse for murderous impulses from our subconscious? Is survival at any cost a necessity or an excuse? The issue recalls Wertmuller’s film Seven Beauties.

Bergman, who had previously explored subjects such as faith, memory and self, turns his questioning eye on politics in Shame. But he’s not interested in overt causes. So he uses the dream metaphor. Jan and Eva, and Jacobi, are figures in a dream, and like those figures, they behave inconsistently, suddenly change, become something different without transition. And the dreams are many: of children, of burning roses, of something someone once said (perhaps about loving your enemies).

The Ritual (The Rite) followed in 1969, a rather incomprehensible diatribe about four actors and a bureaucrat, who dies in the end, which seems to reflect events in Bergman’s life but hardly seems relevant to anyone else’s. Equally uninvolving is Passion (1969), a film in which cardboard cutout characters  are said to arbitrarily inter relate, as though large gaps in the screenplay have been omitted. There is continual authorial explanation, and the actors give their views on the characters they portray (all part of the part they play) yet nothing is explained in this static, undramatic production. Both films show Bergman using deconstruction and experimental methods to supplement the script, but not really putting anything in place to form a dramatic centre, as he did so effectively in Persona. Nothing much had changed by 1971 when Bergman made the badly miscast The Touch, or by 1973 when he released one of his most acclaimed films, Cries and Whispers, which I find uninvolving, static and rather pointless.

Scenes from a Marriage

Far from uninvolving was Bergman’s next production, Scenes from a Marriage, which ran on Swedish television April to May 1973: not only was it Bergman’s first foray into TV, but his most popular movie up to that time; after almost 30 years of making critically esteemed films popular mainly with students of cinema Bergman now had a hit show on his hands.

The film was presented first as a mini series of six scenes or episodes, then edited into a feature film. It was written after Bergman had separated from Liv Ullmann and while he was forming a relationship with his future fifth wife Ingrid Karlebo. While not autobiographical, the film dealt with relationship issues that must have been on Bergman’s mind at the time. The film is accurately titled. It deals with six scenes from a marriage, and charts the texture not only of the main protagonists’ relationship, but of relationships in general. It is organised in a theme and variation structure that throws a lot of light on the changing, ambiguous nature of people’s feelings. In each episode we see Marianne and Johan’s (Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson) relationship from one perspective, and they see another relationship from a perspective that tells them something disquieting about their own.

In the first episode, “Innocence and Panic”, Marianne and Johan are interviewed for a women’s magazine, and we see the surface of their lives and relationship. They are happy, successful and well adjusted, no problems. Innocent. It is hard not to be sympathetic to two such sensitive, intelligent people who show, as well, a charming sense of humour about themselves. After the interview we see a dinner party where two close friends of the couple are present, Katarina and Peter (Bibi Andersson and Jan Malmsjö), a couple held together by feelings closer to hatred than love but which form a strong bond anyway. A couple beginning to panic. In the second episode, “The Art of Sweeping Things Under the Rug”, we see Marianne and Johan expressing the first doubts about their seemingly ideal relationship. It seems that sex no longer holds them together but friendship, though neither can admit it.  In another scene Marianne, who is a family lawyer, interviews a woman who wants a divorce after 20 years of what she claims is a loveless marriage, as she can no longer live without love. She too has an ideal marriage, but it is lacking the vital element, and over the years she has swept her needs ‘under the rug’. In the third episode, “Paula”, Johan suddenly reveals he wants a divorce, and has been seeing a woman he is in love with for some time. Marianne is devastated by the deceit and callousness of his action, even more so when she learns all their friends are privy to Johan’s affair yet no one has warned her. This is contrasted with the relationship of Johan and Paula, whom he now wants to marry, a relationship both are embarking on, with doubts they are doing the right thing.

In the fourth episode, “The Vale of Tears”, Marianne and Johan meet after twelve months’ separation, and find themselves in the unsettling situation of comparing their present, separated, relationship with that of their former married life. On a visit to Marianne for dinner at their former home where Marianne now lives alone, Johan reveals some things about himself that Marianne finds shocking. He, it appears, has a chance to work in America, and intends to go, for, as he says, “he has nothing to hold him here (in Sweden)”. She, and his children, and his relationship with Paula, are dismissed in an aside as irrelevant. Marianne has been seeing a psychiatrist, taken him as a lover, recording her thoughts in a journal. She has discovered that she is a victim of her need to please, inculcated in her from an early age by her parents. Marianne’s attitude is maternal. She wants to care for both men, feels neither can cope on their own. But Johan is still the most important person in her life. Johan in turn loves Marianne, and the episode wryly comments on what the feeling means to both. They are neither together nor alone at this stage and their emotions are in turmoil.

The fifth episode, “The Illiterates”, contrasts what Marianne has learnt from her separation with what Johan has. Things are not going well with him. His relationship with Paula has evaporated, his career is going nowhere, he feels defeated and lost. Marianne has learned something from the past, and is determined to build on it. The episode portrays the quandary that unhappy couples experience, that of the devil you know seeming better than the one you don’t.  Johan wants to flee to the past he has hitherto found unsatisfactory while Marianne wants to leave it behind, something she feels will be better for them both. Despite the strength of their affection for one another, mutual antagonisms surface born of mutual frustrations, and they quarrel. Will divorce preserve what was valuable in the relationship or erode it? The final episode “In the Middle of the Night in a Dark House Somewhere in the World” shows a relationship relevant to Marianne, that of her parents, based on duty, and one relevant to Johan, a work romance with his colleague Eva (Gunnel Lindblom), and contrasts this with the evolving relationship of Marianne and Johan. They conclude that honesty is not the best basis of a relationship, and settle for something more humble and more enduring. The dialogue in this final episode is quite extraordinary, and deserves close study by anybody in a relationship, or anyone contemplating one. It has all of Bergman’s wisdom.

Bergman has stated the film is about the growing self awareness of emotional illiterates, a state he claims many people are in, knowing nothing of whom they are, what they want, what their partner is like or what they too want. The film charts the dangerous waters of expressing feelings without attacking others, accepting others’ needs without being exploited. Life really is a game where we learn the rules by playing it (and if we don’t learn, we lose).

Bergman had touched on another universal: the way people express their emotions to others. It’s something every man, woman and child on the planet has problems with, and always has, and perhaps always will, one reason for the series’ popularity, even though we now live in a different world to that of 1973. Bergman was a very obsessive man, and believed himself a dangerously impatient man, yet he was highly intelligent, extremely perceptive, and very honest. Beginning with his own angst, he portrayed it so realistically it became something of relevance to others.

The film is so honest it could be a psychoanalyst’s analysis, not a film director’s. It seems like every word, every sentence, of the script is weighed in the balance, designed to convey, not meaning, but emotional responses, and not one but several emotions expressed at the same time. We do this: only in actors’ school do we register one emotion at a time. And our responses include silences, lies and diversionary tactics, self importance, self illusions, greed and hunger for gratification and attention, hostility expressed as praise, dismissal, need for dominance. Ego and id might be fighting entirely different wars with the other person in any emotional exchange we have. Bergman seems anxious to express as much of this as possible. Much of it is inexpressible. What does a disappointed silence mean for example? We hardly know ourselves.

The honesty of the script gives the film an air of documentary, an air reinforced by the distancing scenes of travel, workplace, shops and other mundane externals. This is a dull, middle class, fairly prosperous world that many audiences of the series would be familiar with. The conversations about relationships, family, and friends would be ones most audiences of the series would have. Because it’s so familiar we listen in, as it were, as we might to a conversation two strangers have on a bus about a couple they know. But this is an Ingmar Bergman script and the conversations go much further than we know how to go. Reassured by the magazine interview introduction in episode one, we are deeply shocked by the love and hate expressed by the couple Peter and Katarina. And when Johan and Marianne’s relationship develops sudden faults and fissures we have to examine our own as well. Throughout the film Bergman calls attention to the permutations of the relationship and away from its definition.

What we learn is that we, like everyone, use other people. Other people, we think, are there to manipulate, to use. What we want is gratification, at any cost. It’s ourselves only that are important, other people are expendable. We try to deceive them, resent them, control them. We are the only reality we are sure of. Friends, neighbours, colleagues, lovers, look anywhere and you’ll see the same. The results are conveyed in every scandal, in every news broadcast. It takes more self control than we have to change this. But it can be done, paradoxically with the help of another person. The despised other is really the only one who can help us. Learning how to let them is one of the biggest lessons life teaches us. And this is the conclusion that Scenes from a Marriage comes to.

It goes without saying by now that the film succeeds by the depth of its acting. You have to go a long way into Bergman’s films to find an actor delivering a bad performance, even in his most impenetrable films. There isn’t an actor in the world who couldn’t learn something from watching Liv Ullmann’s and Erland Josephson’s faces, filmed in unflinching close up by Sven Nykvist, as emotions play across them. This is bravura film making, and Bergman risks everything by relying on his actor’s ability to express not just mixed emotions, but emotions the character is not aware of consciously. Few actors would even attempt this, perhaps Kieslowski’s or Ray’s. His confidence in his actors, perhaps it would be better to say the confidence the film makers have in each other, is justified.

The Magic Flute

Another film for television followed in 1974, a production of Mozart’s Magic Flute. As the film is effectively a collaboration between Mozart and Bergman, who normally had full control over what he filmed, some compromises could be expected. Bergman chose to deal with each element of the production separately, recording the sound at a theatre in Stockholm, casting and rehearsing his actors/singers, and finally filming at a Stockholm studio on a set that reproduced the Drottningholm Court Theatre, which he thought a reasonable facsimile of Mozart’s own theatre. Drottningholm was a good choice: the 1984 production of Così Fan Tutti directed by Thomas Olofsson was staged there effectively for television in a filmed version of a stage performance. I saw how far superior da Ponte’s masterpiece of a libretto was to Schikaneder’s covert references to Freemasonry designed to slip past the Austrian censor when I saw it. Another compromise is worth noting. Bergman had been directing stage productions since 1944 in a career that ran parallel to his work in film. The Magic Flute effectively introduced Bergman the stage director to Bergman the film director: wife and mistress finally met. The film skips briskly from a staged production to a film production and back again, not too distractingly.

For a comparison of treatments of Mozart operas reference could be had to the accessible if florid and melodramatic Milos Forman Amadeus. In that film, which staged excerpts of operas to illustrate Mozart’s life, none more effectively than the grand guignol of Salieri’s work, the music hall nature of singspiel was emphasised. Bergman’s Magic Flute has been tidied up, Schikaneder’s libretto slightly rewritten and edited by a master script writer, and the fairy tale nature of the story emphasised, perhaps with the New Year’s Day broadcast in mind.

And now for 135 minutes I have been under the spell of a master who makes the achievements of even a Bergman look insignificant. Some, including myself, feel Mozart was the most gifted human being we know of, the greatest musical composer, and dramatist, the composer of operas whom all others must look up to. Mozart certainly knew the instruments of his time more exactly than the technicians who constructed them; his command of melody and rhythm makes his compositions  mesmeric to listen to. And no-one has excelled his ability to create two, three or four part harmony in opera recitative which is so intensely dramatic.

So to leave Bergman for a while, I regretted the ernest message about Freemasonry in this opera. It must have been more Schikaneder than Mozart, for I think the music lags and drags in the central section, and in the three obscure trials. The music of romance that opens the opera, concludes it, and accompanies Papageno throughout is so vibrant, has such strength it fills even the slack periods of the opera. Sarastro might be a bore, even though he represents a poor memory of the ancient rites of Orpheus or Demeter at Eleusis. But Papageno/a represents life, and no one has pictured life so comprehensibly as Mozart, the only man ever allowed back into the garden of Eden. Ill and with only two months to live, Mozart wrote music so full of life and energy it’s irresistible.

Bergman errs on the side of Schikaneder in his production in filming a deconstructive intermission scene totally unnecessarily; you would not notice if it was deleted from the broadcast. The point about the universality of appeal Mozart’s music has was made about 500% more intrusive than it needed to be as the overture played. The sets were obtrusively dilapidated and creaking, the animal costumes from a small town Coney Island. This is after all the man who has the subtlety of a Steven Spielberg when it comes to drawing your attention to stage conventions or a symbol. OK, Freemasonry isn’t going to sell any tickets, and Mozart has to be decanted from the classical master container where we’ve locked him away. But he himself can do that.

The great strength of this production is that Bergman’s skill as a stage producer and film maker takes us over the dull Schikaneder passages of the opera, and lets Mozart tell us what we really need to know. A ebullient zestful Magic Flute, full of life and colour, stage and screen united as only Bergman could.

Another TV series followed in 1976, the simplistic Face to Face. This was the year Bergman was victimised by the Swedish tax and police authorities in a Gestapo like attack (to their eventual great financial loss) that resulted in Bergman’s move to Germany, where his next film, The Serpent’s Egg, was released the following year. A rare attempt at commercial filming on a big budget, the film failed ignominiously, and is unwatchable. Bergman returned to his usual small scale psychological conflict drama in Autumn Sonata in 1978, featuring, in the acting, Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Bergman, and as it turned out, in the making, Ingrid Bergman and Ingmar Bergman, who both had radically different ideas of how a film should be made.

Autumn Sonata

Autumn Sonata has a title quite relevant to its matter: a reaping or gathering of what one has sown, by means of a performance and accompaniment, as a celebrated pianist returns to her daughter’s home after an absence of years. There is quite a lot of ambiguity here as to who has done the sowing, who the reaping, and whose performance precipitates the matter. Perhaps Ingmar is suggesting that as the psyche of the child is formed by the parent, they both form a continuum and continue to affect the other as they mutually react. Ingmar, as usual, is drawing on his own psychosis, his difficult relationship with his parents, the source of his attempts at reconciliation, which were all films. As often, he is able to make the exploration relevant to all those who have become aware of how profoundly a part their parents, and unfortunately their parents’ psychoses, are of what they themselves have become.

Liv Ullmann gives an astonishing performance as Eva, the daughter, a really unpleasant character, a classic passive aggressive, unable to relate to anyone, husband, father, mother, sister, in her circumscribed and barren life, without hostility. She seems unable to make a remark to anyone of her family without slipping in a bitchy comment designed to hurt them. And she smiles ingratiatingly while she does it. As she had said in a book she wrote before her marriage, she is unable to gain self knowledge because she is unaware who she is. For the entire length of the film, 93 minutes, Ingmar forces us to listen to her self centered accusations, to see unflinchingly her inability to take any responsibility for her own emotional state, her virulent need to blame others for her own unhappiness.

A key scene midway in the film shows first Eva then Charlotte her mother playing a sonata by Chopin. We are to understand that both players miss the point of the music: the daughter sees it as a score, the mother as a performance: Chopin as an attitude to life. So Bergman sets the stage for his drama of the generations. A sonata is a piece played to piano accompaniment, and the accompaniment to Eva’s (Liv Ullmann) poisonous, festering performance on the ego exploding in a self indulgent orgy of accusations is her mother Charlotte’s (Ingrid Bergman) visit after an absence of many years. Charlotte is a world famous pianist, a disciplined artist who has spent the past 45 years rehearsing and playing around the world. She has just lost her companion Leonardo, who has died of cancer (Ingrid was dying of cancer when she played the part of Charlotte). Her two children have taken second place to her career. The imbalance of her daughter Eva’s accusations can be seen if one considers that any child could levy such accusations at any parent who had a career.

Charlotte’s other daughter Lena has a physical disability that affects her ability to speak or move. She is being cared for by her sister during Charlotte’s visit. During the penultimate scene when Eva is reproaching her mother, who has awoken terrified from a nightmare, Lena too awakes, hears the altercation between her mother and sister, and tries to join them but can only manage to fall out of bed. “Mama”, she calls. It’s her mother she wants to comfort in the dispute taking place downstairs.

I thought this a flawed, unbalanced film, very one sided and static, redeemed by superb acting from Liv Ullmann and Ingrid. Ingmar may have had a five part mini series planned originally. It is said the original screenplay ran for four hours and had more to say about Charlotte, but that Ingrid objected at the part and forced Ingmar to tone it down and curtail it. As it is the role reflects uncomfortably on Ingrid, who came to fame as an actress playing a pianist in Intermezzo in 1936, and had abandoned her child and husband for a romantic affair with Roberto Rossellini. The film’s emphasis  falls unduly on the failings of Eva, portrayed devastatingly by Ullmann, but leaving the dramatic action unbalanced. We need to know more about Charlotte to see Eva as less disturbed and more human than she is in this film. As it is it is not much more than 90 minutes of resentful diatribe by a woman totally devoid of charity. A showcase for Ullman’s abilities, but we never see why Eva can’t break out of the prison she has created for herself. Charlotte, as portrayed by Ingrid, is merely a dedicated artist, a limited, simplistic role Ingrid was perhaps too used to portraying in Hollywood films. Charlotte’s own emotional problems are glossed over, and surface only in the last 10 minutes of the film. The film also includes a clumsy attempt by Ingmar to ‘open’ it up through inserted, tableaux scenes of Charlotte’s husband, and her lover Leonardo in hospital, which add nothing to the film.

Probably the confrontation between mother and daughter was originally meant to be a catharsis for them both. As it stands Charlotte, and more so Eva, will remain set in their ways, not very satisfactory a conclusion from a dramatic point of view. We can take away the message that blame, no matter how justified, is always an emotional excuse.

Fanny and Alexander

In 1983 Bergman released a five hour four part TV mini series, in five acts with a Prolog and Epilog, called Fanny and Alexander, preceded by a three hour theatrical feature version the previous year. It was announced as Bergman’s farewell production for the cinema, his last theatrical release film (he continued to work in theatre and TV). The film was a sumptuous period production with stunning sets, some of Sven Nykvist’s finest photography, and elements of autobiography in the portrait of the character Alexander. In its creation of period, the early 20th century (the year is 1909), and presentation of a large and eccentric family it was very different to Bergman’s other work (except perhaps Cries and Whispers). It contained elements of fairy tale, melodrama – and soap opera (Bergman’s own comment).

It begins by introducing the child Alexander and his puppet theatre, and his detached and cautious attitude to the world around him, in a brief prolog. I think we are to understand that all that follows is a narrative seen from Alexander’s point of view, with the emotional lack of perspective natural for a child. In the first act we meet the extended family of the Ekdahls, a wealthy family whose matriarch has three sons, each married with their own establishment. Two are weak triflers, one a good hearted and imaginative man who is ill: Oscar, the father of Fanny and Alexander and married to Emilie. Oscar is interested in theatre, and supports a ramshackle troupe. This first act is a leisurely introduction to the family and their world, perhaps too slowly paced for its content, which consists mainly of a Christmas Eve party, and two subsequent gatherings.  It is much the longest of the five acts. In the second act Oscar falls ill during a production of Hamlet. He plays the ghost of Hamlet’s father, and afterwards suffers a stroke and dies.

In the third act it is 12 months later, and Emilie remarries, to a friend of the family, Bishop Vergerus (Jan Malmsjö), and she and her two children go to live with him. The bishop turns out to be very peculiar indeed. Suddenly Bergman seems to be doing Dickens, and the bishop is like something out of Oliver Twist. Both Dickens and Bergman have this in common, that they never forgot a grudge. Dickens all his life never forgot the period as a boy when he was forced to work in a blacking factory, and Bergman resented till the day he died his strict upbringing by parents who withheld overt affection from him (one could go on to find other parallels between the two men: furious energy, need to dominate and command others, enormous creativity…). Alexander has an ideal father, involved in the theatre, who encourages the exercise of his imagination; then a repressive step father, who disciplines him for so doing (did Bergman imagine his father was not his ‘real’ father?). Life in the Ekdahl family, warm and disordered and dominated by theatre and the magic lantern for Alexander, is followed by a bizarre Hansel and Gretel interlude in the bishop’s house, with a menacing household of threatening figures who all oppress Alexander. The film seems to me to become somewhat disordered after that, in the 4th and 5th act. The bishop finally goes mad, or is possessed by the devil (or seems that way to Alexander). After a brutal confrontation between he and the children, another one between he and Emilie, the children are spirited from his house by magic employed by Isak, who is a Jewish ex lover of the children’s grandmother, and the bishop is burned to death in a fire, accidentally but with everyone’s connivance, using magic again. Almost apologetically, in the epilog, Gustav Adolf (Jarl Kulle), Alexander’s uncle, gives a speech praising the little world, of actors and art as much as the simple things of life such as love and affection. The film closes with a quotation from A Dream Play.

The bishop is a man for whom a dream is a lie, and Bergman uses him to examine the role that imagination, ‘day dreaming’, or creativity plays, not just in the life of artists (such as Alexander) but of people who define themselves as ‘realistic’. I though of a line from a Bruce Springsteen song: “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true/or is it something worse?” (The River). Fanny and Alexander is of course self reflexive (it is a Bergman film) and we are invited to constantly assess how ‘real’ it is, as well as how real the plays acted or read by the characters are, from Hamlet to A Dream Play.

The sudden shifts from social realism in episode 1 to comedy (the awful Hamlet) and pathos (the death of Oscar) in episode 2, then melodrama in episodes 3 and 4, to fantasy in episodes 4 and 5; the abandonment of the sub plots involving Oscar’s two brothers and their families, and a possible one about Fanny; and the intrusion of what is surely a personal, authorial voice in a long monologue by Isak concerning faith and grace, and in the epilogue, on the ‘little world’, all seem faults to me. The film meanders a bit, and relies for its undoubted achievement on the immense acting skill on display, and the award winning sets and costumes, which make this world absolutely convincing.

The Interviews

There are two making of…movies about Bergman. In 1962 a Swedish documentary, Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie, with interviewer Vilgot Sjöman, detailed the making of Winter Light, and was highly enlightening about the script to screen process, and Bergman’s methods. In 1983 a film about the making of Fanny and Alexander directed by Bergman himself showed the process of that film’s making. Bergman had earlier made a making of… film of Autumn Sonata, which has not been released.

In 1970 Bergman was interviewed for Canadian TV. The program was an episode of “Man Alive”. Aged 52 and with most of his best movies behind him, Bergman was then suffering from the Bergman legend, that of being a depressed, pessimistic film maker offering a painfully bleak view of human life. All the more wonderful to hear him discourse, along with much else, on his beliefs, which prove to be ennobling, and positive, and profound. Bergman had found a way from his own rejection of religion to a personal faith which was inspiring for him, and for the viewers of this interview who can hear and see him in a very different light to his stereotypical reputation. He could almost be reprising his father’s role as a pastor.

In 2004 Bergman, then aged 85, was interviewed on Fårö by Marie Nyreröd. The three 60 minute interviews were on his movies, on theatre, and about Fårö, though much else was covered, including anecdotes about 11 of his movies used as introductions to screenings of the films on Swedish TV. He appeared active, vigorous and full of vitality, and showed he had an excellent memory. Notable points he made were that theatre was his main love: film was a hobby or diversion, and he staged three times as many theatre productions (theatre, radio and TV) as he did films. Bergman wrote scripts for over 60 movies, and directed 40 of these, as well as leaving dozens of unproduced scripts behind in his archives. He was a workaholic who spent 16 hours a day on the job, a fact he acknowledged led to his many divorces. Speaking of his films, he said what he missed most was the collaboration with Sven Nykvist. He thought his achievement in film lay chiefly in two: Persona, and Cries and Whispers, both of which, he thought, had successfully extended the range and matter of cinema. He gave the impression he would have liked to go on and see what he could do in another 80 years.

I had completed my survey of Bergman’s work, a director who had shown me how important film could be as an art, which had led indirectly to my viewing several hundred films I might not otherwise have seen by film makers I would not have heard of. In my personal best 50 films ever made there are five films by Bergman. Another four I put in the ‘flawed but fascinating’ category; as many again would repay study by students of film. Bergman is the Picasso of film directors, as Nykvist is the Holbein of Directors of Photography. Bergman’s achievement was made possible as well by the skills of five supreme actors, Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann, Gunnar Björnstrand, Erland Josephson and Max von Sydow. Bergman had the ability to not only project his angst into powerfully dramatic screenplays but to bring these colleagues into one of the great teams in movie history.

Bergman greatly admired August Strindberg, and I think a consideration of Strindberg’s achievement in theatre, novel, painting and photography would explain a lot about Bergman’s films that are otherwise difficult for viewers. Bergman, like Stringberg, abandoned narrative to a great extent in favour of depictions of what must be described as psychological warfare. Bergman’s influence is unlikely to rival Strindberg’s however, as cinema is in most cases dominated by economic forces which in effect result in the production of melodrama rather than depictions of psychological reality.

This is a grim world indeed. Bergman tells us first that god is silent, then that memories are merely protection, then that reality is not only illusion but a constantly changing illusion, then that we don’t know what we feel or how to express it in a way meaningful to others. Unfortunately he is very convincing. He is an artist, so he needs to talk to other people. This is what I see, he says. It is not comfortable to look at. Reject it though and you will be sticking your head in the sand, choosing a drug to numb your pain or an illusion to fend off your fear. But despite its bleakness I find the honesty of his depiction comforting. Yes, we must jettison much that gives us solace in the process of becoming adult. After that, we have the immense power to create a new world. Perhaps a wiser world.

No more Bergman films. Who’ll keep us honest now?

The company

Bergman preferred to work with actors he knew the capabilities of, and formed a repertory company which was remarkably consistent over the years. He relied to an exceptional degree for the visual look of his films on his cinematographer, and two men created the look of a Bergman film.


Bibi Andersson (b. 1935) 13 films 1955-1973

Harriet Andersson (b. 1932) 10 films 1950-1986

Gunnar Björnstrand (1909-1986) 18 films 1946-1982

Eva Dahlbeck (1920-2008) 9 films 1948-1964

Erland Josephson (1923-2012) 9 films 1946-1984

Max von Sydow (b. 1929) 10 films 1957-1971

Ingrid Thulin (1926-2004) 8 films 1957-1984

Liv Ullmann (b. 1938) 9 films 1966-1978


Gunnar Fischer (1910-2011) 14 films 1948-1961

Sven Nykvist (1922-2006) 19 films 1959-1984

Ingmar Bergman 1918-2007

Filmography and stage productions

©2012 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


2 thoughts on “Ingmar Bergman: five late films

  1. Firstly, you didn’t get Cries and Whispers, that undermines your validity as a critic. You should either watch it repeatedly as many times as its sense dawns on you, or just quit trying to be a movie critic. Seemingly it is not your forte.

    By stating “Bergman is the Picasso” of movies you undermined your validity as a writer. This analogy is as false and absurd as they can be. You don’t have to be an art critic

    Lastly, your idolatry for Mozart couldn’t be more silly and immature. Good old Wolfgang is nowhere near as significant as Bergman in cultural terms. More than that, compared to Bach he was just a musical hack, pompous and pretentious as they can be.

    1. Well well Bergie. Just to let you know, I’m not a movie critic. Just putting my opinions down in a blog. I think it far fetched to claim only those who like Cries and Whispers can be movie critics. I bet a lot of critics don’t care one way or the other. Still, I’m glad you like it. If it leads to a deeper appreciation of Bergman’s art for you, well that’s good. As for Picasso, I don’t think the allusion is so inept. Both men tried many different subjects and treatments, and Picasso is better known for this than Bergman. And poor Mozart, I’m sorry you dismiss him. That’s as bad as not liking Cries and Whispers on my part. Perhaps we have something in common.Glad to hear your opinions though. You sound very passionate about what you like, and it’s only a shame it’s led you to be so negative about my opinions, which are as valid as yours are.

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