Ingmar Bergman, 1918-2007. Photo: Jacob Forsell
Bergman’s career as a cinematic artist is unique in its sheer volume. From his directing debut in Crisis (1946) to Fanny and Alexander (1982), he found time to direct more than 40 films, including some — for example The Naked Night (1953, UK title Sawdust and Tinsel), The Seventh Seal (1957), Wild Strawberries (1957), The Silence (1963) and Persona (1966) — considered to be among the absolute classics of the cinema. But what is really unique about Bergman and has certainly helped make him world-famous is his ability to use the mass medium of film — by nature as much an industry as an art — as a deeply personal form of expression, equally suited to depicting existential or psychological problems as well as a tangible world of events.
Parallel with his career in the cinematic arts, Bergman has also worked in the theater, directing an almost countless number of plays both in Sweden and abroad. In fact, as a young student Bergman began his directing career in theater. At this writing, that career is in full swing. “They’ll have to carry me out of the theater feet first,” Bergman has said.
Ingmar Bergman was born in Uppsala on July 14, 1918, to Karin, née Åkerblom, and Erik Bergman, Church of Sweden pastor and later chaplain to the King. Around the age of ten, he owned a “laterna magica” or cinematograph. To quote Bergman’s own description, this was a “clattering tin box with a chimney, a kerosene lamp and endless films that went round and round in a strip” — a “magic machine” whose flickering light was projected against his mother’s hung-up sheets. He found it strangely “secretive and provocative.” This primitive film projector was, and remains, a kind of creative fountainhead for Bergman, something that is clear, if not otherwise, from the way it shows up both in the hands of the hypnotist and artist figure Vogler in The Magician (1958, UK title The Face) and in the bedroom of the young Alexander in the semi-autobiographical Fanny and Alexander (1982). Nor is it a coincidence that Bergman named his memoirs Laterna Magica (1987) after this childhood toy.
As a boy, Bergman also owned a puppet theater. He made his own little puppets, painted scenery and wrote playlets, and during his early teens this puppet theater steadily grew. He added “lighting equipment, revolving stages, sliding stages: big, heavy things that filled my whole room so nobody could get in.”
In other words, even as a child, Bergman was immersed in the two fields to which he would devote his entire professional life. As an adult, he would refer to the theater as his “loyal wife” and the cinema as his “expensive mistress.”
But his childhood years also proved important to Bergman’s later work in other ways. First, as an inexhaustible source of inspiration for the creative process: “I can still roam through the landscape of my childhood and again experience lights, odors, people, rooms, moments, gestures, tones of voice and objects,” he writes in Laterna Magica. Childhood was also important in a more specific sense. This is especially true of Bergman’s conflictladen relationship with his parents, which — as he has indicated numerous times over the years — has manifested itself in a number of recurring cinematic themes and motifs. These include the prominent role of the “truth and falsehood” theme and the “humiliation” motif in Bergman’s films that focus on the problems of the artist. Like a child in a strictly controlled family structure, the artist finds himself relegated to the lowest rung in a society’s hierarchical power structure.
In other respects, too, Bergman’s cinematic works seem to spring from a storehouse of personal insights and experiences. Marianne Höök, an early biographer, wrote that “Bergman’s production is intimately autobiographical, one big first-person narrative drama, a monologue for many voices.” Some Bergman scholars say they can even detect a kind of autobiographical “life curve” in the very chronology of the films: the vulnerable youths facing an uncomprehending adult world in his early films; the problems of sexuality and marriage in his more mature films of the early 1950s; the religious struggle and artistic problems that characterized his films from the late 1950s and most of the 1960s; and his psychoanalytically oriented films of the 1960s and 1970s, some assuming the form of actual self-analyses where the characters seem more like facets of a single psyche or narrator. In this progression, it is even possible to sense a kind of allegory, as the Swedish-American Bergman scholar Birgitta Steene puts it, “on the progress of the soul and, by inference, the soul of modern man.”
These autobiographical connections have been confirmed to some extent by Bergman himself in Bilder (1990), a book of recollections about his films in which, as he puts it himself, he set out to “present the sources... the guts, heart, brain, nerves,” the experiences and memories from which these works emerged. In recent years Bergman has also started a literary project – his combined novel-screenplay Good Intentions (1991) and his screenplay for Sunday’s Children (1992), the latter directed by his son Daniel Bergman – where he seeks to provide a more nuanced portrait of his parents and his childhood. It is a portrait that can simultaneously be interpreted as another contribution to the allegorical self-analysis that Bergman’s films can be said to describe: As Bergman himself has stated concerning Good Intentions, “What I created was a very strange picture... It might be Mother. It might be Father. But it might also be me.”
Ingmar Bergman was not only Sweden's foremost filmmaker of all time, but also generally regarded as one of the foremost figures in the entire history of the cinematic arts. Photo: Karl Heinz Hernried/The Royal Library
Motifs, style, artistic development
It is thus apparent that Ingmar Bergman is a person for whom art and life are one. Nonetheless, there is reason to be cautious about interpreting his works on the basis of narrowly biographical facts. Not only is there a danger of getting stuck in a burdensoe cult of personality, but what is worse, Bergman’s works — the films themselves — paradoxically risk ending up in the background while a “diagnosis” of their author’s (supposed) emotional life somehow becomes the main focus. As the Finno-Swedish writer and cultural critic Jörn Donner pointed out in his Bergman book, apropos the intensive interest in Bergman himself that was especially characteristic of Swedish writers from the very start of his career: “What they are searching for here... is B’s face, his soul, but they forget to look for the face his film shows.”
As a counterweight, it is worth pointing out the remarkable diversity with which Bergman has been able to portray the area he carved out early in his career. From one film to another, from one decade to another, his thematic and stylistic components have undergone constant transformations, bursts of energy and shifts of meaning. In fact, this has occurred to such a degree that Bergman’s works are difficult to organize into any linear growth curve in the traditional sense. Instead, his artistic development is shaped like a kind of spiral that repeats similar movements in cyclical phases, yet each time at a different level.
1. Faith and doubt
Bergman's earliest films were decidedly eclectic in both style and choice of subject. This was natural: his first five films were based on existing literary works and Bergman was a genuinely self-taught director who, by his own admission, borrowed styles freely: “I just grabbed helplessly at any form that might save me.” This is perhaps most evident in The Man With an Umbrella (1946, UK title It Rains on Our Love) and A Ship to India (1947, UK title The Land of Desire), which were both inspired by the French interwar cinema and “poetic realism,” and in the working-class drama Port of Call (1948, UK title Harbour City), made deliberately in the spirit of Italian neorealism. In fact, Bergman was part of a generation of relatively privileged Swedish film directors who — unlike today’s hard-pressed wouldbe filmmakers — could learn his craft on paid working time and was allowed to experiment with a number of styles before he found his own.
Although his early films lack independence, they show the contours of what in time would comprise archetypically Bergmanian features. One is the religious and broader existential problem complex that has perhaps contributed more to Bergman’s fame than anything else; especially in an international perspective, his fame undoubtedly rests on the fact that he brought to the cinema issues traditionally belonging to the domains of philosophy and religion and which, not long ago, few people thought this art form was capable of. There are reasons why The Seventh Seal is said to be screened an average of twice a day, all year round, somewhere in North America...
One key film in this context is The Devil’s Wanton (1949, UK title Prison) — significantly, the first film Bergman directed on the basis of his own screenplay. Here he expressly formulated the theological problem that would recur in his later films: Is the earth a living hell, and in that case is there also a God, and where is he? Amidst a seemingly realistic, not to say naturalistic tale of a young streetwalker and her martyrdom, Bergman is clearly drawn toward an abstractly representative and at times purely allegorical style. This is certainly influenced in part by the Swedish literary scene in the 1940s, when, as Jörn Donner puts it, “Camus, Kafka and Sartre were names of the day” and “mankind was transformed into... a Sisyphus, a K, a suffering Mankind.” But in fact, this attraction to abstract representation would characterize Bergman’s films even much later in his career and can thus be said to comprise one element of his narrative temperament. To quote Marianne Höök’s book on Bergman, his films “lack roots in a Here and Now... the sphere of topics is universal human themes, such as birth, death, love, hate, God and the Devil.”
The Seventh Seal (1957) naturally occupies a special position among his religiously colored films. With its allegorically simple form and classic high-contrast cinematography, it shows how the Medieval knight Antonius Block (played by Max von Sydow) confronts Death, thereby personifying the existential struggle and religious doubts of modern man. But naturally Bergman’s “trilogy” on the silence of God – Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1963, UK title The Communicants) and The Silence (1963) – represents the culmination of his religious themes. This was when Bergman, in his own words, “cast off” his faith in God, “holy rubbish that blocks one’s view.” These three mutually rather contrasting films describe a religious problem in three stages, or by “reduction,” as Bergman puts it in his foreword to the published screenplay: a movement from “certainty achieved” to “certainty unmasked” and finally God’s silence, “the negative impression.” The title of the final film in the trilogy, The Silence, is thus significant: it portrays people left to each other amidst the emptiness and silence that has descended over a godless world.
It is perhaps mainly in this trilogy — regarded by many people as the high point of his artistic career — that Bergman demonstrates the great extent to which his films connect with and reflect the modernistic project that typifies 20th-century art in general. This art describes and itself is a sign of the modern crisis: the revolt against authority, the disintegration of absolute values, doubt and negation.
However, the trilogy is not only a “reduction” in the religious sense but also aesthetically. For it marks the point where Bergman is considered to have found his own specifically filmic style. Critics were pleased to note that the untamed eclectic had become a discriminating aesthete, with a toned-down, spare style. For this, Bergman could largely thank cinematographer Sven Nykvist. With Nykvist’s help, he now evolved what later became famous as the ascetic “pencil sketch tone” of his films. Bergman moved away from the chiaroscuro, high contrasts and sometimes overloaded cinematography of his earlier films. Around this time, he began to cultivate the close-up, which now partly replaced the rhetorical dialogue of his earlier films and in time would appear increasingly central to his cinematic aesthetic. It is not surprising that the close-up has been called a Bergmanian “signature” and a veritable “icon.”
After the trilogy, Bergman would only touch on religious or Christian themes in a roundabout or ironic way. This has not prevented him from occasionally relapsing into a more or less religiously colored idiom. One example is the inexplicable light which suddenly breaks forth, washing with remarkable grace over some suffering or downtrodden soul — for example the assaulted fisherman in The Passion of Anna (1969, UK title A Passion) or the dying woman in Cries and Whispers (1973).
When the concept of God disappeared from Bergman’s films, all that was left was a kind of impression — a remnant or relic from a fallen world.
Bengt Ekeroth and Max von Sydow in The Seventh Seal, 1957. Photo: AB Svensk Filmindustri; still photographer Louis Huch.
2. Men and women
Another set of cinematic motifs where Bergman is considered an innovator is in his portrayal of marriage and family life. Perhaps especially from an international perspective, his approach was perceived by contemporaries as unusually straightforward and unromantically realistic.
This was already true of such an early film as Three Strange Loves (1949, UK title Thirst). Although the film was based on a short-story collection by Swedish actress and writer Birgit Tengroth, it portrayed the tedium of marriage and the inability of a couple to break up in what appears to be typically Bergmanian fashion: its message was that living in hell together is at least better than living there alone.
A unique and different approach is seen in Bergman’s series of women-oriented films, some of them comedies, which appeared during the first half of the 1950s: Secrets of Women (1952, UK title Waiting Women), A Lesson in Love (1954), Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) and to some extent Dreams (1955, UK title Journey into Autumn). According to Bergman himself, these films were made for crass financial reasons. This did not prevent him from showing his skill at constructing comic intrigues and dialogue, often aimed at the pretensions and subterfuges of his own gender. Bergman thus allowed his leading lady, Eva Dahlbeck — whom he referred to as “the battleship of femininity” — to declare in one of these films that “Men are only children with grown-up genitals.” Around this time, Bergman would also demonstrate his unsurpassed skill at directing film actors in ways that miraculously brought out their best — a talent for which he would become so famous. This is especially evident in the effortless elegance of Eva Dahlbeck’s and Gunnar Björnstrand’s exchanges of marital venom and yawns during the famous broken elevator scene in Secrets of Women.
The high point in this series of films, however, was Smiles of a Summer Night, inspired by Bergman’s own theatrical production of “The Merry Widow” and widely regarded as a masterpiece of “well-crafted cinematic drama.” (Sure enough, this was the film that won Bergman his first major international award at the Cannes Film Festival.) Here, too, women control the battle of the sexes, while men often end up with the short end of the stick. Thus, early in the film, the foolish military macho man played by Jarl Kulle declares in a pompous upper-class accent that he will gladly “tolerate my wife’s infidelity, but if anyone touches my mistress, I become a tiger!” Toward the end of the film, the intellectual and strategic mathematics which are characteristic of farce make him say the same thing — but the other way around: “I can tolerate someone dallying with my mistress, but if anyone touches my wife, I become a tiger.”
Monika: The Story of a Bad Girl (1953, UK title Summer With Monika) should also be included among Bergman’s relationship- and women-oriented films. Its nude glimpses of the main character (played by Harriet Andersson), quite innocent by today’s standards, caused a sensation. It is worth recalling that the film was released in the wake of Arne Mattsson’s One Summer of Happiness (1951), which made the concept of “Swedish sin” world-famous. The film was also perceived, especially in France, as very Swedish and therefore exotic. This included Bergman’s sensitivity to nature and the changing seasons, the Nordic light and summer as a symbol of paradise, which is evident from the titles of his films. Aside from Summer With Monika and Smiles of a Summer Night, Bergman made other films with summer themes, such as Illicit Interlude (1951, UK title Summer Interlude) and Wild Strawberries (1957).
But Bergman would not return to portrayals of marriage and family life in more concentrated form until the 1970s, a decade when he made deliberate efforts to reach a larger audience, both through his choice of subjects and distribution channels. The first such film was The Touch (1971), Bergman’s first film production that was not wholly Swedish. It featured an internationally known “star” — Elliott Gould — in the principal male role. Two years later came the television miniseries Scenes from a Marriage, which was distributed abroad in a film version. It had a seemingly uncanny ability to hit viewers right in the solar plexus — at least according to the amazed statisticians who announced that after the series ran on TV, they noted a statistically significant peak in divorces both in Denmark and Sweden.
3. Artists and jesters
A final, significant set of Bergman motifs revolve around art and the artist. If not otherwise, this is clear from the fact that so many of his films take place in artistic milieus: the film studio in The Devil’s Wanton, the Royal Opera Ballet in Illicit Interlude, the circus in The Naked Night (UK title Sawdust and Tinsel), the medieval farce in The Seventh Seal, the “magnetic health theater” in The Magician and of course the “real” theater in such mutually contrasting films as Persona, The Ritual (UK title The Rite) and Fanny and Alexander.
Ironically, The Naked Night, widely regarded as the first genuinely classic Bergman film, was a real audience fiasco. Yet this was remarkably appropriate, because this is the first film where Bergman depicts an artistic community — a traveling circus troupe — as humiliated social outcasts, hounded from place to place by their employers and the police. In its character portrayals and play-within-a-play elements, the film also indicates how strongly Bergman’s fictive universe is controlled by exactly this theatrical metaphor: life is theater, God is a tyrannical theater manager and people are marionettes — life is a giant cosmic masquerade.
A similar imagery prevails in The Magician, which triggered an impassioned debate in Swedish newspaper columns at the time of its release because it depicts a Christ-like, martyred artist (in Max von Sydow’s congenial interpretation). In this film, perhaps more than anywhere else in Bergman’s works, the artist sometimes appears to be a consecrated, respected temple servant and magician, at other times an outcast, a despised illusionist and conjurer.
The theme of the artist would reach its culmination in Persona and Bergman’s three subsequent films: Hour of the Wolf (1968), Shame (1968, UK title The Shame) and The Passion of Anna (1969). These have sometimes been called Bergman’s “second trilogy,” because in one way or another, all of them portray the artist’s increasingly insignificant role in modern society. If not otherwise, this is reflected in the progressive marginalization of the artist figure in each film. The first in the trilogy is a nightmare-like film dealing with an artist who is overpowered and devoured by his own internal demons. In the second film, he is a musician whose instrument is literally crushed, while he himself is reduced to a human wreck – a war victim who slowly, inexorably is transformed into an executioner. And in the final film, the artist figure per se has actually disappeared completely, although a pale and perverted reflection of him is visible in the disillusioned, cynical architect Vergerus (played by Erland Josephson) who declares that art is kept alive in modern society only for sentimental reasons.
Börje Ahlstedt, Pernilla August, Jarl Kulle, Ewa Fröhling and Erland Josephson
in Fanny and Alexander, 1982. Photo: Svenska Filminstitutet, AB Svensk Filmindustri; Still photographer Arne Carlsson.
This view is otherwise reflected to some extent in Bergman’s own word in “The Snakeskin,” his famous speech of thanks when he received the Erasmus Prize in 1965: “Now, to be completely honest, I regard art (and not only the art of the cinema) as lacking importance. Literature, painting, music, the cinema, the theater beget and give birth to themselves. New mutations and combinations emerge and are destroyed; seen from the outside, the movement possesses a nervous vitality... almost feverish; it resembles, it seems to me, a snakeskin full of ants. The snake itself is long since dead, eaten out from within, deprived of its poison; but the skin moves, filled with busy life... Religion and art are kept alive for sentimental reasons, as a conventional courtesy to the past.”
However, the Bergman literature associates “The Snakeskin” mainly with Persona. This film appears to be a watershed in Bergman’s film production, because it is not only a kind of artistic self-confrontation but is Bergman’s most radical stylistic experiment by far. For example, it includes the famous close-up in which the faces of the two main female characters — played by Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann — seem to blend seamlessly into one. This single image becomes a condensed, symbolic image of the whole film, whose form and thematic language question both artistic and psychological identity.
The film is ultimately also a continuation of the Strindbergian dream and chamber play aesthetics that Bergman experimented with as early as Wild Strawberries; in that film it was governed by a modernistically paced narrative structure, filtered through the memory and dreams of the elderly man who is the main character (played by Swedish silent-film director Victor Sjöström in his last role). This, in turn, would be followed by the God trilogy, where Bergman’s purpose was to let the waking world assume the attributes of a dream — to let his filmic narrative achieve the unconstrained, dreamlike enlightenment that he believes is closest to the essence of cinema. In Bergman’s own opinion, he has achieved this only a few times in his career — for example, in Persona, “this composition of different voices in the concerto grosso of the same soul.”
During the 1970s, however, the artist motif and the self-conscious cinematic aesthetics associated with it moved into the background in Bergman’s films, in favor of other themes — as mentioned above. This does not prevent the artist figure from making a triumphant yet ironic return in Fanny and Alexander in 1982, Bergman’s last film. (Or, more precisely, his last film made directly for cinema screening. Since then, he has directed four of his own scripts for television, After the Rehearsal in 1984, The Last Scream in 1995, In the Presence of a Clown in 1997 and Saraband in 2003.) In this last film “proper,” Bergman returns to the figure of the artist in his portrait of the Ekdahl family — not coincidentally modeled on Ibsen’s family of the same name — with their love of role play and naive, peepshow-like Christmas productions. This theme is, of course, sustained primarily by the young main character Alexander (played by Bertil Guve) who is forced to suffer for his powers of imagination.
And thus we have returned to the laterna magica in the little boy’s bedroom — to the source of everything: poetic imagination. In light of this, it is not surprising that Bergman chooses to round off his entire cinematic career by having Alexander’s grandmother recite the famous preface of Strindberg’s “A Dream Play”:
“Everything can happen; everything is possible and likely. Time and space do not exist; on an insignificant basis of reality the imagination spins and weaves new patterns.”
Although Bergman's reputation rests mainly on his contributions to the cinema, his career began in the theater. And here, too, he has been incredibly productive. Parallel with more than forty films, Bergman has directed at least three times as many plays — at times during his career, up to four productions per season.
Even before Bergman began his professional theatrical career, he had staged a number of well-publicized amateur productions at the Mäster Olofsgården theater in Stockholm and the Student Theater, where he also made his debut as a dramatist with the play “The Death of Punch” (1942).
Bergman began his professional career in the theater in 1944 when, at age 26, he became Sweden’s youngest-ever theater manager at the Municipal Theater in Helsingborg, a mediumsized city in southern Sweden. His task here — to rescue a dying institution — succeeded beyond all expectations. Bergman transformed the sleepy provincial theater into a controversial meeting place for the city’s cultural life. During two short seasons, Bergman himself directed nine productions. Of these, it is worth singling out a politically charged 1944 production of “Macbeth” in which the main character came to personify Nazism and totalitarianism.
However, it was while working as principal director at the Göteborg (Gothenburg) Municipal Theater in 1946–49 that Bergman, in his own words, began to learn the theatrical craft. One important factor was that, compared with the modest resources in Helsingborg, the stage in Göteborg had larger machinery. He thus learned how to take advantage of opportunities for spectacle — as evident, for example in his explosive production of Camus’ “Caligula” — but also to control and scale things down as needed. This was clear from Bergman’s last production in Göteborg. For the first time, he staged a modern American drama, Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” With its realism and psychologizing bent, this production can be said to mark the beginning of the more small-scale, actor-oriented style that Bergman would later cultivate so successfully.
Ingmar Bergman started his career in the theatre. Photo: AB Svensk Filmindustri
Among Bergman's most successful periods in the theater was his years as artistic director of the Malmö Municipal Theater (1952–58). At this time, he built up a brilliant troupe of actors, the famous “Bergman ensemble” who also appeared in his films — including Bibi Andersson, Harriet Andersson, Naima Wifstrand, Ingrid Thulin, Max von Sydow, Gunnel Lindblom and Erland Josephson. His years in Malmö were also marked by vigorous experimentation, as reflected in the vital eclecticism of a repertoire that ranged from a sizzling production of Franz Léhar’s “Merry Widow” to a faithful uncaricatured version of the Swedish folk epic “The People of Värmland.”
But more importantly, this is where Bergman began in earnest to reinterpret the classics. According to most observers, this has been his main contribution to the theater. This was when he did a deliberately theatrical and ironically distanced production of Molière’s “Don Juan,” Goethe’s “Ur-Faust” in a daring new interpretation, as well as Strindberg’s “Ghost Sonata” and Ibsens’s “Peer Gynt.” Bergman has returned to these dramatists a number of times, just as a conductor creates new interpretations of the same symphony during his career.
According to Bergman himself, his choice of repertoire has never been guided by any special favorite dramatists, but he has always accepted widely varying assignments. This is true, of course, especially early in his theatrical career when he moved between Camus, American realism, comedy and even new Swedish drama. This did not, however, prevent the emergence over time of a kind of canon of classic dramatists — chiefly Strindberg, Ibsen and Molière — from whom Bergman appears to have derived inspiration. For example, among the plays he has directed at least three times are Molière’s “Don Juan,” Strindberg’s “A Dream Play” and Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler.”
During his period as head of the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm from 1963 to 1966, Bergman continued as he had in Malmö to interpret and reinterpret the classics. His 1964 production of “Hedda Gabler” seems to have been one of the most remarkable of his career. This stylized, radically simplified production — stripped of all historical props and assembled traditional conventions — seems to have burst like a bomb on the European theatrical scene and, according to theater scholars, appears in retrospect as one of the truly revolutionary and influential Ibsen productions of this century. Bergman would later stage the play in London in 1968 and in Munich in 1979.
If the 1960s for Bergman can be described as dominated by Ibsen, the 1970s appears to be his Strindbergian decade. Bergman staged “A Dream Play” for the first time, again in a radically stripped-down form, without the customary projections, scenery or props, concentrating instead on the actors. And after his production in Malmö, Bergman staged the “Ghost Sonata” for the third time in a well-publicized version, also directing “To Damascus.” In fact, Strindberg is the dramatist that Bergman has returned to most often over the years. During his years at the Residenztheater in Munich, he would also stage a “triangle production” called “Nora-Julie” — consisting of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” Strindberg’s “Miss Julie” and Bergman’s theatrical adaptation of his own TV series “Scenes from a Marriage.”
During the 1980s, after moving home from Germany to Sweden and completing his last film, Bergman accepted some major theatrical projects at the Royal Dramatic Theater. He returned to Strindberg’s “Miss Julie” and “A Dream Play” in 1986 as well as directing Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” in 1989 and “Peer Gynt” in 1991. In addition, he directed Shakespeare, whose works he had previously staged relatively infrequently over the years (aside from his early version of “Macbeth” only two productions of “Twelfth Night” during the 1970s): a visually magnificent production of “King Lear” in 1984, a controversial modernized “Hamlet” in 1986 and a sumptuous staging of “A Winter’s Tale” in 1994. However, during this period Bergman also staged modern drama, Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night” in 1988 and Yukio Mishima’s “Marquise de Sade” in 1989 as well as Botho Strauss’ “Time and the Room,” 1993, Gorge Tabori’s “Goldberg Variations,” 1994 and “Yvonne, Princess of Burgundy” by Witold Gombrowicz, 1995.
In 1991 Bergman found time to direct a magnificent Stockholm Opera production of Euripides’ “The Bacchae” with newly written music by Swedish composer Daniel Börtz (also transposed by himself for television). He returned to “The Bacchae” in a scaled-down theatrical version at the Royal Dramatic Theater in 1996. In the latter part of the decade, Bergman staged a newly written play by Swedish author Per Olov Enquist, “The Image Makers” in 1998 (also transposed by himself for television), as well as returning to the classics: Strindberg’s “Ghost Sonata” in 2000, Friedrich von Schiller’s “Maria Stuart” in 2000 and Ibsen’s “Ghosts” in 2002.
On the whole, Bergman’s theater-directing style is not guided by any uniform aesthetic principles but is basically flexible and pragmatic; he is equally at home with spectacular coups de théâtre as with scaled-down chamber plays. Or as Bergman himself has put it, “I cannot and will not put on a play against the writer’s intentions. And I never have. Deliberately. I have always regarded myself as an interpreter, a re-creator.”
Örjan Ramberg and Angela Kovács in Ibsen’s Ghosts at the Barbican, London, 2003. Photo: Rune Hellestad/CorbisSygma/Scanpix.
BERGMAN AS AUTHOR
Late in his career, through his memoirs, stage plays and screenplays in novel form, Ingmar Bergman has returned to pure writing. And thereby to the original source of his artistic activity: after all, he began his career as a playwright and prose author.
Bergman himself has written (in his memoirs The Magic Lantern) that in the summer of 1942, at the age of 24, he suddenly wrote twelve (!) plays. He personally directed two of them, “The Death of Punch” and “Tivoli,” at the Student Theater in Stockholm in 1942 and 1943. However, only a few of these early plays were published. Jack Among the Actors was published by Bonniers in 1946, as were his three plays in the 1948 collection Moraliteter: “Rakel and the Movie Theater Doorman,” “The Day Ends Early” and “To My Terror”. Publication of his stage plays ended in the 1950s: “The City” was included in the radio drama anthology Svenska radiopjäser 1951 and “Painting on Wood” — forerunner of the film The Seventh Seal — in Svenska radiopjäser 1954, while other plays saw the light of day only in his own productions, among them “The Murder in Barjärna” at Malmö Municipal Theater in 1952.
It is naturally interesting to compare these early plays with his films. Bergman scholars have correctly noted that these plays have obvious similarities with his films of that time and later, ranging from minor details to overall conceptual contents. Perhaps most striking is Bergman’s attraction to the world of theater, cinema and carnival amusements, already alluded to in titles like “Tivoli,” “Jack Among the Actors” and “Rakel and the Movie Theater Doorman.” This would, of course, also be highly typical of Bergman’s own films, where the plot is often connected to the performing arts — the circus, cinema, theater — and the main characters are often dancers, actors or artists.
Indeed, the Punch character was an early artistic alter ego, with its associations to puppet and marionette theater. It appears not only in the play “The Death of Punch” but is also used by Bergman as the author’s pseudonym for a New Year satirical revue he wrote during his period at the Municipal Theater in Helsingborg, called “Kriss Krass Filibom.” An even clearer alter ego was the character of Jack, who appears in Bergman’s very first film, “Crisis”; a poseur and manipulator that Bergman himself has acknowledged that he borrowed directly from his own play “Jack Among the Actors.” A somewhat later alter ego was Joachim Naked, in the eponymous play that was turned down by Bonniers. However, an excerpt from “Joachim Naked” entitled “Historien om Eiffeltornet” (The Story of the Eiffel Tower) was published in Bonniers Litterära Magasin (BLM) in 1953. Joachim also found his way into a never-filmed screenplay, “Fisken. Fars för film” (The Fish. Farce for Film) published in the film magazine Biografbladet, No.4, 1950/51 and the above-mentioned “The City,” performed as a radio play the same year.
Later in his career, Bergman liked to borrow sections from his own plays to use in his films. For example, Rakel and her ex-lover Kaj, from the play “Rakel and the Movie Theater Doorman,” along with the theme of unfaithfulness, appear in the episodic film Secrets of Women (1952). The allegorical thrust of this play, like the more or less expressly moralist tone that distinguish virtually all of Bergman’s early plays — focusing on the conflict between Man, God and the Devil — would also typify Bergman’s films of that period. This was true not only of The Devil’s Wanton, described by critics even at the time as a “40s cinematic morality play,” or The Seventh Seal, but also of later films that would perhaps not be described initially in such terms: films of the 60s and 70s that later interpreters have called offshoots of a nearly “Beckettian talent for reductive abstraction.”
But as indicated, Bergman stopped writing stage plays. The main reason was the bad reviews. Just as critics often attributed some successful feature of his plays to Bergman the cinematic storyteller, equally often they turned his actual author’s role against him – in the same breath as they praised the actual stage production. One reviewer, for example, wrote about Bergman’s production of “To My Terror”: “Directed by anyone but Ingmar Bergman, the meaning of all his plays would evaporate and the scripts would become waste paper. His genius as a director, for he is something of a genius, is a constant temptation for the poet in him to deliver plays half-finished and overloaded with unsorted, temporary whims.”
Many years later, Bergman himself would confirm that statements like these were what made him stop writing stage plays. As he said in an interview about his period in Malmö, “Then, of course, every time we put on a play by me, I read that I was a bad writer but a good director who had come to the writer’s rescue. Naturally I finally got tired of hearing that. When you are not forced to hear abuse, of course you have no desire to put yourself in that situation either.” Indeed, not until his one act work "The Last Scream" in 1993 did he once again allow one of his own plays to be produced on a Swedish stage. (In Munich, however, he directed a stage version of his TV series “Scenes from a Marriage” in 1981 – more than 25 years after the last production in Malmö of material he had written himself.)
But in addition to writing screenplays and stage plays, Bergman is also a published prose author. In fact even early in his career, his work appeared in the Swedish 1940S literary flagship 40-tal: a piece entitled “En kortare berättelse om en av Jack Uppskärarens tidigaste barndomsminnen” (A Brief Account of One of Jack the Ripper’s Earliest Childhood Memories). As mentioned, “The Story of the Eiffel Tower,” a brief absurdist excerpt from “Joachim Naked,” appeared in BLM (1953).
However, Bergman’s writings per se have not been visible or made visible by Bergman scholars over the years. This is actually natural. First, Bergman the image maker has occupied the center of attention. Second, Bergman himself has insisted that his published screenplays are half-finished works, somewhat like a conductor’s scores, and therefore do not lend themselves to study as independent texts. But Bergman’s early texts are undoubtedly interesting not only in retrospect — as examples of his emerging artistry, mainly in the cinematic domain — but also in their own right, in stylistic and literary respects.
In fact Bergman the author shows strong similarities of motif and style with Bergman the theater and film director. Thus, for example, “The Fish. Farce for Film” from the early 1950s is full of author’s comments and direct address, as if being put on exhibit, and resembling the stylistic features of his recent screenplay/novels The Best Intentions (1991), Sunday’s Children (1993), Private Confessions (1996) and his play In the Presence of a Clown (1994). Regardless of whether the recipient is the reader of a book or an actor studying the script before a film shoot, the text is written as if there were a life audience present.
In many respects, this is visual prose, where the director’s gaze falls upon the stage and seems to make the reader a participant in an as yet unfinished work. Or put differently: Bergman’s ways of using the media-specific qualities of film, theater and literature tend to overlap in intention, to a degree where one can speak of a desire to bridge over these characteristics and differences in an “interartial” or “intermedial” direction.
The directors Ang Lee and Ingmar Bergman meeting on Fårö, 2006. Photo: Jannike Åhlund.
Meanwhile it is apparent to what a great degree Ingmar Bergman’s literary resurgence has been a kind of effort to square accounts. In fact, most of Bergman’s now rich production since the end of his filmmaking career is characterized by a rounding-off, a writing of epilogues. His 1984 play After the Rehearsal was to his theatrical work what Fanny and Alexander was to his films: a dream play-like summary and a Strindbergian testament to the theater as magic and craft, summarized in director Henrik Vogel’s — and Bergman’s own oft-repeated — words: “Everything represents, nothing is.”
Bergman’s memoirs The Magic Lantern: An Autobiography (1987, English translation 1998) and Images: My Life in Film (1990, English translation 1994) — both written in Bildungsroman-like form — are, in turn, a squaring of accounts with various periods and shapes of his ego. But as a result, they are also an artistic self-examination: a portrait of a man to whom art and the world are one.
This tendency is reinforced in the The Best Intentions, Sunday’s Children and Private Confessions, which all return to a past anchored in his own family sphere. Meanwhile the individual texts in The Fifth Act continue Bergman’s recapitulations of the professional sphere in dramatic form. The Last Scream (1993), a play about how silent film director af Klercker locked horns with producer Charles Magnusson, repeats much of the humiliation theme from his films and undoubtedly also from Bergman’s own experience of “the industry.” In the Presence of a Clown deals with the tragicomic hardships of artistic life. A failed film project is transformed into an amateur theater production –while Death, disguised as a white clown, hovers behind the scenes.
Otherwise, Bergman’s squaring of accounts is evident from his very titles. This applies to his anthology The Fifth Act, whose name is taken from Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (“You don’t die in the middle of the fifth act,” also apostrophized on the fly-leaf of the book), and In the Presence of a Clown, whose Swedish title literally means “That Struts and Frets” and alludes to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, or more precisely the famous monologue on the vanity and transitory nature of life (Act V, Scene V):
“Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player, That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more: it is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.”
Bergman’s writings have continued into the new millennium. In the autumn of 2000 his book Föreställningar (Performances) was published. Alongside the radio play A matter of the Soul from the early 90s and the lengthy script (never realized as film) Kärlek utan Älskare (Love without Lovers) it includes a recent screenplay novel Faithless, adapted to film by Liv Ullmann in 2000.
This screenplay, too, is retrospective but this time openly autobiographical. It is about an old writer called Bergman, who while working one day is suddenly visited — or rather, visited in his imagination — by a woman from his past. Whereupon a drama of unfaithfulness and divorce and the potent poison that Bergman, here as previously, has called “retroactive jealousy,” unfolds in his inner vision.
Briefly, it is about an aging man who does not dare walk alone in certain places in the topography of his ego and in the landscape of his past, and therefore conjures up a female guide. Meanwhile Marianne herself at first seems to have only vaguely outlines and indeed asks the writer’s guidance in “creating” herself. She is a character in the process of emerging, who only gradually assumes an outline and a body.
Marianne is a remarkably suitable contribution to Bergman’s epilogue-writing in a career that spans film, theater and literature. She is a role who finds a film director but — to paraphrase Pirandello — also a character in search of an author.
Bergman’s most recent (as well as, most likely, last) screenplay is “Saraband”, which he himself directed for television in 2003, aged 85. According to the media and the PR set in motion by Swedish Television, Saraband is a “continuation” of Bergman’s world-famous 1973 television series Scenes from a Marriage. However, the only real connecting factor between the two is the actors, Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, playing older versions of Marianne and Johan, who meet again after thirty years.
More interesting in this context is the fact that Bergman wrote Saraband while planning his last production for the stage, “Ghosts” by Ibsen, at the Royal Dramatic Theater. Indeed, the two works reveal a number of uncanny similarities. Thus, for instance, in both works the theme of incest is pronounced, as well as euthenasia, albeit only hinted at in Saraband. More importantly, however, the female protagonist of the play and her male counterpart share a common past, just as do Marianne and Johan in the film. In other words the passing of time as well as the past weighs heavily on the characters – as does death: a woman, close to both of them, has recently died, and although she remains invisible throughout the entire film, her presence, and the void she has left behind, is felt by all characters. In short, the sense of impending death lurks heavily in Saraband.
In the autumn of 2004, Bergman also published a private diary with his (up until now) officially unknown daughter Maria von Rosen. This book deals with death as well, but in a more factual way, since it chronicles the actual dying and death of Bergman’s wife of twenty-four years, Ingrid.
On that note, let us end with Ingmar Bergman’s own words from the (unpublished) workbook to Saraband: “I stand at a border... A border. And I turn, listening and perhaps also seeing, toward a reality I find increasingly self-evident.”
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MAARET KOSKINEN, Professor, Department of Cinema Studies, University of Stockholm. Film critic for the national daily Dagens Nyheter. Publications: numerous articles and essays at home and abroad; Swedish Film Today (co-ed. Francesco Bono), 1996; Allting föreställer, ingenting är. Filmen och teatern – en tvärestetisk studie, on the intermedial relations between Ingmar Bergman’s work in film and theater; I begynnelsen var ordet. Ingmar Bergman och hans tidiga författarskap, 2002, on Bergman as an author of fiction; and Fanny och Alexander. Ur Ingmar Bergmans arkiv och hemliga gömmor (with Mats Rohdin), 2005, on the making of Bergman’s last feature film as revealed in his private diaries.
The author alone is responsible for the opinions expressed in this publication.
Editor: Eva Sigsjö
Translation by Victor Kayfetz
© Photo 1: Jacob Forsell
© Photo 2: Karl Heinz Hernried/The Royal Library
© Photo 3: AB Svensk Filmindustri; Still photographer Louis Huch
© Photo 4: Svenska Filminstitutet, AB Svensk Filmindustri; Still photographer Arne Carlsson
© Photo 5: AB Svensk Filmindustri
© Photo 6: Rune Hellestad/CorbisSygma/Scanpix
© Photo 7: Jannike Åhlund
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© 2007 Maaret Koskinen and the Swedish Institute