The Pearl Fisher

The Magic Lantern: An Autobiography

by Ingmar Bergman, translated by Joan Tate
Viking, 308 pp., $19.95

I don’t mind being wild and free
If Ingmar Bergman fancies me.

Ingmar Bergman is a rare breed indeed: a director who has had a popular song written about him. He has also written an extraordinary, turbulent autobiography, The Magic Lantern. It received a rather sniffy dismissal when it was published in England some months ago. Perhaps because of its densely emotional kaleidoscopic shape or, more likely, because of the downright seriousness with which he attempts to define his own creative impulse and process.

And, too, he hated London when he was trapped there directing Hedda Gabler for Olivier’s National Theatre. With Olivier sorely ill and distracted, and himself rehearsing in squalid, makeshift physical conditions, he was welcomed with general unease, an inedible Javanese meal, and an uncouth actor who informed him, as if it were company doctrine, that Strindberg and Ibsen were unplayable dinosaurs, which “simply went to prove that bourgeois theatre was on its way out.” Reviling the distinguished guest is no longer a cultural sport confined to Australia. America, most welcoming of lands, has its own charmless cities of the plain and none more stylish in their treatment of strangers than those of California. He didn’t have much time for the stars of Los Angeles, or they for him; he fled the joint when Barbra Streisand invited him to cool off at her pool party. Understandably, to Sweden: “It was past eleven o’clock and a mild evening, everything at its most beautiful and fragrant. And then the Swedish light!”

The Swedish landscape is his lifeblood; Strindberg his god. The country’s stark Lutheranism incites his demons; its scolding silences provoke him to wild outpourings. He may describe it as “our remote cultural landscape,” but he has insinuated it unforgettably into the minds of millions across the globe.

The Magic Lantern is not, far from it, a literary memoir. Bergman’s minute recall is essentially, astonishingly, visual. Description after description stamp out scenes from his films. The man, his memory, his work are one, hammered into the Bergman coinage as indelibly mint as the desert of John Ford. Take this:

It is always summer, the huge double birches, rustling, the heat shimmering above the hills, people in light clothes on the terrace, the windows open, someone playing the piano, croquet balls rolling, goods trains shunting and signalling…. There is the fragrance of lily-of-the-valley, and heaps of roast veal. The children all have grazed knees and elbows.

Or again, remembering his first love affair: “We rowed across the bay, straight into all that motionlessness, the glinting of the sun and the indolent waves.” It’s a long, long way from London and Los Angeles.

His father, Pastor Bergman, was a chronic depressive who threatened suicide when he discovered his wife was having a passionate affair with another man. They stayed together, as the homely piety has it, “for the sake of the children,” including an elder brother and a younger sister, both of whom, unlike Ingmar, seemed to be rather crushed in adult life. The Bergman household ethic was severely Scandinavian, focusing in on sin, confession, punishment, forgiveness, and, with luck, grace. “If I wet myself, which often happened, and all too easily, I was made to wear a red knee-length skirt for the rest of the day.”

The young Bergmans—marked recidivists—were encouraged to long for punishment, specifying how many strokes of the birch they deserved, or how many hours incarcerated in a cupboard, before forgiveness should be bestowed. Unsurprisingly, young Ingmar became a liar:

I created an external person who had very little to do with the real me. As I didn’t know how to keep my creation and my person apart, the damage had consequences for my life and creativity far into adulthood. Sometimes I have to console myself with the fact that he who has lived a lie loves the truth.

Behind what was outwardly an irreproachable picture of solid bourgeois family life was, in effect, “inwardly misery and exhausting conflicts.” The Melodrama at the Manse was relentless. “Fear created what was feared.” His brother attempted suicide, his sister was forced to have an abortion, Ingmar ran away from home; the parents stayed and prayed together, burdened down by work, tension, and a permanent state of crisis.

Mercifully for young Ingmar, and perhaps the reader, there was an energizing knot of spontaneity within the family circle. There was Rich Aunt Anna, a kind of benefactress who took him to the theater and introduced him to the silent screen in the days when ladies removed their hats at the cinema. Then there was his grandmother, with whom he spent considerable stretches of time and who provided him with the quiet and orderly relationship he craved. The best of his childhood, as he describes it: “A sunken world of lights, odours and sounds. Today, if I am calm and just about to fall asleep, I can go from room to room and see every detail, know and feel it.”

Best of all was Uncle Carl, an inventor who besieged the Royal Patent Office with his designs. Two were approved: a machine that made all potatoes the same size and an automatic lavatory brush. He was, it seems, extremely protective about his inventions and they traveled with him in an oilcloth wrapper between his trousers and his long underpants. The oilcloth served a dual purpose since Uncle Carl was also incontinent, or “urinomaniac” as Bergman puts it: the lure of the self-induced flood. Poor Uncle Carl, an endearing innocent, ended his days cut to pieces on the railway track. Inside the oilcloth they discovered a design to revolutionize the changing of light bulbs in street lamps.

So: Bergman is a self-confessed liar. (The style is catching.) How much do we believe of these childhood memories? How much does it matter? All autobiography is fiction to a greater extent. Is it true that his first memory is of vomiting over a plate of gruel in a white enamel plate with blue flowers on it, on a gray oilcloth in a dining room overlooking an outside privy, dustbins, and fat rats? Is it true that when his father was a hospital chaplain the young Ingmar was allowed to see corpses in various stages of decay? Or, as he later elaborated in Persona and Cries and Whispers, that one corpse was not dead and, as he examined her private parts, opened her eyes on the mortuary slab? Images in the kaleidoscope? All part of the magic of the lantern?

One incident that is undoubtedly true is the matter of the cinematograph (or movie projector). One Christmas, the great and good Aunt Anna gave Ingmar’s brother a cinematograph. To Ingmar she gave some tin soldiers (his brother’s passion). “The year before,” he recalls,

I had been to the cinema for the first time and seen a film about a horse…. To me, it was the beginning. I was overcome with a fever that has never left me. The silent shadows turned their pale faces towards me and spoke in inaudible voices to my most secret feelings. Sixty years have gone by and nothing has changed; the fever is the same.

That Christmas day, he made a deal with his truculent brother: in exchange for the cinematograph he would trade in the tin soldiers. It is worth quoting the experience, in the incarcerating cupboard, at length:

A picture of a meadow appeared on the wall. Asleep in the meadow was a young woman apparently wearing national costume. Then I turned the handle! It is impossible to describe this. I can’t find words to express my excitement. But at any time I can recall the smell of the hot metal, the scent of mothballs and dust in the wardrobe, the feel of the crank against my hand. I can see the trembling rectangle on the wall.

I turned the handle and the girl woke up, sat up, slowly got up, stretched her arms out, swung round and disappeared to the right. If I went on turning, she would again lie there, then make exactly the same movements all over again.

She was moving.

At a guess, films would seem to be the most personal part of Bergman’s life. Certainly his personal life is openly reflected in them. He cites, specifically, Scenes from a Marriage and The Silence. It is wonderfully liberating to be made privy to the tangible relish in his craft. Of course, he suffers the dismal vagaries of actors, the crassness of the money-men, and the transience of power and loyalties. Actors began to say: “It’s no longer so important to keep in with Bergman. He’s stopped making films.”

There is an exhilarating, and modest, account of a day’s filming on Fanny and Alexander in 1982.

I got out of bed immediately and for a few moments stood quite still on the floor with my eyes closed. I went over my actual situation. How was my body, how was my soul and, most of all, what had got to be done today? I established that my nose was blocked (the dry air), my left testicle hurt (probably cancer), my hip ached (the same old pain), and there was a ringing in my bad ear (unpleasant but not worth bothering about). I also registered that my hysteria was under control, my fear of stomach cramp not too intensive. [We closet hypochondriacs recognize this diagnosis.]…It was a day of modest delight…. The rehearsals moved on smoothly and a quiet cheerfulness reigned, our creativity dancing along…. Sometimes there is a special happiness in being a film director. An unrehearsed expression is born just like that, and the camera registers that expression…. That is when I think days and months of predictable routine have paid off. It is possible I live for those brief moments.

Like a pearl fisher.

But the pearl fisher had been an arrogant, ill-equipped fledgling, snapping like a frightened dog, unloving, obsessive and guilty. It was Victor Sjöström, the great silent filmmaker, who took Bergman, literally by the scruff of the neck, grounded him in the rudiments, and banished his whelpish arrogance: “You make your scenes too complicated…. Work more simply,” he said, frog-marching that ill-mannered puppy across the asphalt in front of the studio. “Don’t keep having rows with everyone…. Don’t turn everything into primary issues. The audience just groans.”

Bergman listened and learned, from a master. The temptation to quote at length again is irresistible. It is preferable to editorializing. His own words cut to the core of his cinematography.

The rhythm in my films is conceived in the script, at the desk, and is then given birth in front of the camera. All forms of improvisation are alien to me. If I am ever forced into hasty decisions, I grow sweaty and rigid with terror. Filming for me is an illusion planned in detail, the reflection of a reality which the longer I live seems to me more and more illusory.

When film is not a document, it is dream. That is why Tarkovsky is the greatest of them all…. Fellini, Kurosawa and Buñuel move in the same fields…. At the editing table, when I run the strip of film through, frame by frame, I still feel that dizzy sense of magic of my childhood; in the darkness of the wardrobe, I slowly wind on one frame after another, see the almost imperceptible changes, wind faster—a movement.

And then he gave it all up.

This dream world he inhabited so trenchantly and describes so evocatively is a powerfully erotic business. “It took me many years,” he says, “before I at last learnt that one day the camera would stop and the lights go out.” Light, again.

Most of all I miss working with [the cameraman] Sven Nykvist, perhaps because we are both utterly captivated by the problems of light, the gentle, dangerous, dreamlike, living, dead, clear, misty, hot, violent, bare, sudden, dark, springlike, falling, straight, slanting, sensual, subdued, limited, poisonous, calming, pale light. Light.

He gives the reasons for his abdications as aging and exhaustion. He found, while working on Fanny and Alexander, that he was often in physical distress; practical problems became increasingly too difficult to solve and he felt himself becoming pedantic, and the result threatened a creeping perfectionism which was driving the life and spirit out of his films. “I shall take my hat while I can still reach the hatrack,” he decided, “and walk off by myself, although my hip hurts.”

And yet he had been, often alarmingly, in some physical distress throughout his life. The most persistent of these demons was a “nervous stomach,” a calamitous and humiliating affliction that has plagued him from childhood, liable to strike without warning and without respect. It would have sapped many a man disastrously, but he accepted it, adapted to it, asking only for his own lavatory in the places where he worked. “These conveniences are probably my most lasting contribution to the history of the theatre.”

Then there has been insomnia, quite literally the “hours of the wolf,” the predawn devils familiar to those creative spirits who regularly dread a sunrise that may most likely bring them not illumination but a more clamorous and crowded darkness. Characteristically, he adopted a strategy, a technique to outwit them by reading, music, a glass of milk, a chocolate biscuit. “I give the demons free rein: come on then! I know you, I know how you function, you just carry on until you tire of it.” Sleep, then, and another day of technical problems, actors’ problems, producers’ problems, money problems.

The demons drew him to Strindberg, passionately and at an early age. Strindberg is his lifelong love affair and undoubtedly the reason why he went into the theater. He saw A Dream Play at twelve and directed it himself four times. He even imagines, or experiences, some kind of telepathy with the playwright. “Strindberg,” he records, “has been showing his displeasure with me…. That number of misfortunes is no coincidence…. Strindberg did not want me. The thought saddened me, for I love him.” Later, Bergman moved into an apartment on the site of Strindberg’s house and, on his first night there, Bergman heard a “friendly greeting, perhaps,” Schumann’s “Aufschwung,” one of Strindberg’s favorite pieces. A whimsy, maybe, but there is no denying they are, uncannily, Sweden’s soul brothers.

The Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun wrote of Strindberg exactly one hundred years ago: “August Strindberg has formed no party, he stands alone.” In the party-minded conformism of modern Sweden, with its iron imposition of state benevolence, Strindberg’s trapped forebodings and headlong, courageous ingenuities must have been a readily natural blood supply of oxygen to exult the heart in the thin, overpurified air of modern Scandinavia.

Bergman’s attitude to the theater is fascinating, being both precise and romantic. His approach to rehearsals is about as far removed from Stanislavsky as the Actors Studio is geographically from Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theatre. Bergman’s method of rehearsal is rooted in self-discipline, cleanliness, order, and quiet. “My own tumult must be kept in place,” he explains, citing Stravinsky, who, as he bore a volcano within him, urged restraint. “I want calm, order and friendliness.”

Yet his working methods clearly are not as chilly as they sometimes sound when he elaborates his technique. He describes his early days in the theater with an obvious joy, one that used to prevail in the repertory and touring companies in England before television killed the gypsy life, making actors at once less technically equipped and irremediably avaricious. “I loved the theatre from the very first moment…. We were grateful for our incredible good fortune at being able to play every night, and rehearse every day.” Incredible good fortune is precisely my own remembrance.

There is also some sensible, oldfashioned nostalgia for the days when scenery was clanked around by hand, when the scene changes actually worked and there were no computers to blame when they didn’t. As director of the Royal Dramatic Theatre he remembers his first visit there in 1930: “I used to go and sit in my old seat…feeling with every beat of my pulse that this impractical and faded place was really my home.”

So contrasting with the laborious film setup is his response to the exhilaration of the morning rehearsal and the actors from Universal central casting: the drunk anxious to confide his private problems; the transvestite in crippling high-heeled shoes; the actress arriving late and flurried, laden with carrier bags; another who has lost her script; yet another who must just make two quick telephone calls. Inevitably, the veteran who has forgotten his lines and blames the author.

His days as director of the Royal Dramatic Theatre were, naturally, often irksome, but nothing in his life was as horrific as the tax scandal of 1976. Like most of us in this business, he was woefully uninformed and inadequate about money. He paid inordinate sums to others to barricade himself against the armed forces of both private and state cupidity that encircle the honest, unworldly craftsman. He signed forms he neither read nor understood. So, it appeared, did his advisers. Unsurprisingly, they repaid his trust with rabid negligence, and the tax authority detectives swooped out of a clear blue morning sky during rehearsals and bundled him off like some prized Mafia mastodon. “I was guilty of only one thing,…I had approved financial operations that I had no grasp of.” His account of this terrifying business chills the blood. Sweden’s brightest star was transformed into its most notorious criminal. He almost, hypnotically, threw himself out of the window, suffered a total breakdown, and endured seemingly eternal sedation. “There disappeared my life’s most faithful companion: the anxiety,…the driving force was also eclipsed and fell away.” It was a cruel, harsh fight back.

Throughout his life this anxiety, or the demons, or just plain old rage have sustained him. Rehearsing A Dream Play again, he found it all, for the first time, impossible and, uncharacteristically, felt like giving up.

Suddenly I heard myself saying…: “I’m about to lose my joy. I can feel it physically. It’s running out. I’m just drying up, inside….” On that darkening afternoon in my room at the theatre, the attack came quite unexpectedly, my grief dark and bitter.

Then, later: “I had been overcome by a rage demanding adrenalin. I am not yet dead.”

The Magic Lantern is no conventional autobiography, more a scalding stream of consciousness from the pen of a licentious puritan. “Why were we given masks instead of faces?” he asks his mother in a dream after her death. He certainly has a staggering bout at cracking his own. In one sentence he can be praying, “Do not turn Thy face” to a silent God he may not even believe in. In another, remembering the white hand with a chipped fingernail of a famous but faded theater director as he fired him. Or the putrid flowered shirt of the tax detective. Or the Band-Aid on his dead mother’s left forefinger.

Though the translation runs none too trippingly, the book is also consistently entertaining, even gossipy at times. Bergman is generous, on the whole, to his many wives and lovers. He is funny and crisp about several of the Famous and unstrainingly vicious about the dread and dismal critics. They, too, like actors at the morning rehearsal, seem to be the same the globe over. As Strindberg would have it: “The world’s a shithole!” A letter, supposedly sent to him by Nietzsche, said that he hardly regarded loneliness as a hardship, but rather felt it “a priceless distinction and at the same time a purification.” Such a letter, even from such a mad mountaintop hand, must surely have cheered them both. Everyone, indeed.

Let Bergman have the last word: “Before I am silenced for biological reasons, I very much want to be contradicted and questioned. Not just by myself. That happens everyday. I want to be a pest, a trouble-maker and hard to pigeon hole.”