Images: My Life in Film
The Best Intentions
Ingmar Bergman: Film and Stage
I worked with Ingmar Bergman for two weeks in 1970 when he came to London to direct Hedda Gabler for the National Theatre. His charm was spectacular. So were the demons that possessed him. What terrible things he said about people once their backs were turned. How skillfully he instructed the actors, and how shamelessly he manipulated the play so as to make it an Ingmar Bergman statement rather than an Ibsen one. Humility is not one of this gifted man’s qualities, though he can seem humble in interviews. Not for him the approach of a soloist toward a great composer. My agent, the late Peggy Ramsay, pithily summed up his Hedda when she said that for anyone who didn’t know or didn’t like Ibsen it was a great evening.
To me personally he was charming and even flattering; he had chosen to use my translation in the face of opposition from Laurence Olivier, the head of the National, with whom I had had a public row about that theater’s penchant for adapters who didn’t know the language of the original. After the dress rehearsal (he didn’t stay in London for the premiere), Bergman took my hand in both of his and said: “When you come back to Stockholm, phone me. We’ll have an evening.” I never did. He is the unknowing president of an imaginary society I have founded called the Long Spoon Club, people with whom one for some reason hesitates to sup.
He and Olivier got on far from well. You cannot have two Napoleons in the same room. He banned Olivier from rehearsals after the second day because of some suggestions that Olivier had made, admittedly fatuous ones, abused him before the cast at the lighting rehearsal because the lighting had gone wrong, and, most humiliatingly, excluded him from the final get-together in Maggie Smith’s dressing-room when he said goodbye, with irresistible wit and charm, to all of us who had helped with the production. Olivier had lent him his flat to stay in, and in his autobiography, The Magic Lantern, Bergman described this flat as “dirty, the expensive sofas grubby, the wallpaper torn… Everything was dusty or stained…the wall-to-wall carpets were worn out, the picture windows streaky.” I knew that flat and never noticed any of these things. But Bergman’s physical hypersensitiveness is legendary, his memory for facts not always reliable. When I asked one of his best-known actors what he thought of Bergman’s autobiography, he replied: “You mean that novel Ingmar wrote about his life?”
I first encountered Bergman’s work as a director in the late Forties, when I was a lecturer at Uppsala University in Sweden. During the war I had seen Torment (1944), directed from a story by Bergman by his mentor, the great Alf Sjöberg; then, in Uppsala, I saw his own exciting early films such as Port of Call, The Devil’s Wanton, and Three Strange Loves. The flaws were obvious (the melodrama, the cliché-ridden dialogue), but so was the talent—the sharp editing, the fine performances he got from his actors, the harsh confrontation with life’s ugliness, on waterfronts and in cheap bedrooms.
He was writing interesting plays too, and one of these, Rachel and the Cinema Usher, I translated—the first translation I ever attempted, for which he wrote me a kind letter of thanks. Nobody in Britain would touch it—we had no fringe theater then. At a party in London I met the owner of the Everyman Theatre in Hampstead, which specialized in foreign films, and told him about this new director, but he said there was no public for Scandinavian films, and when I offered to subtitle them free he turned away. The combination of an unknown director and an untried translator must have seemed doubly unappealing. When a few years later in 1953 Bergman made his breakthrough in Britain with his circus film The Naked Night, several London theaters expressed interest in Rachel and the Cinema Usher, but Bergman by now felt, I think rightly, that those plays of his were immature stuff and he did not wish them to be seen again, so that my translation remains, and must remain, unperformed.
The Magic Lantern (1987), a kaleidoscope of memories intercut as in a film and trimmed to the bone (his original draft is said to have been twice as long), proved disappointingly reticent about his films, though the little he did say about them was intriguing, especially his childhood fascination with the medium—as a small child he bartered a hundred toy soldiers for a cinematograph which an aunt had given to his brother for Christmas. That book was mainly a prolonged and merciless self-indictment, a delving into his childhood to find the causes of his unhappiness and self-hatred. He wrote of his “tormented and joyless relationship with God” as incarnated in his stern pastor father, and he supplied guilt-ridden memories of his five marriages and various love affairs.
A more detailed personal account of his film career was obviously desirable, and to this end his Swedish publisher, Lasse Bergström, himself a film critic, interviewed him for some sixty hours. The transcript of these conversations, with the questions deleted, has been edited into a fairly short text, though it looks long because its 442 pages have generous margins and include a “filmography” of fifty-five pages and 120 pages of photographs, which last are perhaps the book’s most valuable feature. It could have done with sharper editing; indeed, apart from the cutting it hardly seems to have been edited at all. It moves about confusingly in time; for example, it discusses The Magician (1958) before The Naked Night (1953) without giving dates, and we have to consult the filmography at the back to find that the latter preceded the former. Passages from The Magic Lantern, his workbooks, and previous publications about him have been added to the tape transcript, often to obscure effect even for one reasonably well acquainted with his work. No index is provided, and there are few notes to assist readers unaware of writers such as Agnes von Krusenstjerna, Olle Hedberg, and Hjalmar Bergman, who are famous in Sweden but virtually unknown elsewhere. (Hjalmar Bergman, incidentally, was born in 1883, not 1863 as stated on page 25.) Nor is much effort made to explain the films; we are assumed to have seen all but the earliest, which is asking a lot, since he has directed over forty.
Nonetheless, there is much to fascinate, and the rewards outweigh the disappointments. Like The Magic Lantern, Images is a prolonged self-indictment as, he tells us, most of his films are.
For some reason that had never occurred to me before, I have always avoided re-screening my old movies. Whenever I have had to do so or done so out of curiosity, I have been, without exception and no matter which film it was, nervous and upset, and have felt like going out to take a leak, like running to the toilet. I have been overwhelmed with anxiety, felt like crying, been afraid, unhappy, nostalgic, sentimental, and so on…. Watching forty years of my work over the span of one year turned out to be unexpectedly upsetting, at times unbearable. I suddenly realized that my movies had mostly been conceived in the depths of my soul, in my heart, my brain, my nerves, my sex and, not the least, in my guts. A nameless desire gave them birth. Another desire, which can perhaps be called “the joy of the craftsman” brought them that further step where they were displayed to the world.
The chief character in one of his finest films, Wild Strawberries (1957), is Isak Borg, a bitter old man looking back on a sterile life, and to play him Bergman plucked the veteran silent film director Victor Sjöström out of a long retirement. Bergman writes:
I had created a figure who, on the outside, looked like my father, but was me, through and through…. I was a loner, a failure. I mean a complete failure. Though successful. And clever. And orderly. And disciplined. I was looking for my father and my mother, but I could not find them.
That film was, he says, “a desperate attempt to justify myself to mythologically oversized parents who have turned away…It wasn’t until many years later that my mother and father were transformed into human beings of normal proportions, and the infantile, bitter hatred was dissolved and disappeared.” Elsewhere he records “my difficulty in getting started, fear that it won’t be any good, fear of life, of moving at all,” adding significantly: “I have always had the ability to attach my demons to my chariot,” and comparing these demons to circus fleas whose owner lets them suck his blood. In Bergman’s work as in Strindberg’s love, jealousy, and hatred ride hand in hand.
For The Ritual (1967), an unsatisfying Kafkaesque film about two actors and an actress arrested on an unspecified charge, mainly set in a courtroom, “I divided myself into three characters….Sebastian Fischer is irresponsible, lecherous, unpredictable, infantile…epicurean, lazy, amiable, soft, and brutal. Hans Winkelmann, on the other hand, is orderly, strictly disciplined with a deep sense of responsibility, socially aware, good-humored and patient. The woman, Thea…is unbearably sensitive—cannot even stand to wear clothes at times.” Each of these characters, not least the last, is one aspect of Bergman; as we discovered in London, many foods nauseate him, the smallest sound wakes him.
With very few exceptions, Bergman has always created his own plots, for two reasons. He once said he can only make films convincingly about Swedes, because they are the only people he really knows. (Ibsen, though he wrote most of his great plays in exile in Italy and Germany, always set them in Norway on the same grounds.) But Sweden has, for the past half century, been low on dramatists and novelists, and those there were have been weak on plot, which has come to be regarded in Swedish literary circles as a dirty word. So Bergman has had to write his films himself, and his skills as a writer, though considerable, are much more flawed than his skills as a director. This is less perceptible to filmgoers ignorant of Swedish, who assume that the often uninspired subtitles conceal something much subtler, just as Somerset Maugham, a writer of famously flat prose, is more highly regarded in Europe than in Britain and America (I have been told that the same is true of Fenimore Cooper).
Nor is Bergman always good at last acts. Up to fifteen minutes from the end of almost any Bergman film, even The Ritual, I find myself thinking: “Why have I any doubts about this splendid director?”; but when the crisis has to be resolved, instead of painfully untying the knot with bleeding fingers he cuts it neatly with a sharp scalpel, as in Through a Glass Darkly and Persona. Most of Bergman’s tragic endings seem to me facile, as glib as happy endings. I can think of only six exceptions: The Naked Night (which Bergman strangely disparages), Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Silence, and Fanny and Alexander. Yet six almost wholly satisfactory films, though it may seem a small proportion out of more than forty, represent a considerable achievement. How many other directors could claim as many? What is irritating is the genuflection that tends to take place before any Bergman film, as with any stage production by Peter Brook, a comparably gifted and uneven artist.
Graham Greene has written that every writer needs to have a chip of ice at his center, but Bergman, like many highly sexed people, has more than a chip, and the coldness of his brilliance seems to me another defect. The only really warm film he has made, even including his comedies such as Smiles of a Summer Night, has been his last, Fanny and Alexander, and what an extra dimension this warmth gives it, how tenderly the two children in particular are evoked. In his declining years, perhaps because of a waning sexual compulsion and a seemingly tranquil fifth marriage, he seems to have found something approaching serenity. In two respects he deserves to rank among the great directors: the brilliance of his editing and his ability to get the best out of actors. Several of his leading players have not looked very good under other directors, on stage or screen. (Bergman’s charitable explanation is that “other countries chose, as usual, to misunderstand the uniqueness of their respective talents,” but this has not been true of such actors as Max von Sydow.) Although I did not like Bergman’s production of Hedda Gabler, I could only admire the brilliant perception and precision of his notes to the actors. For example, to Robert Stephens, who played the strayed genius Løvborg, he said:
Who are you, Ejlert Løvborg? A genius? Yes. A passionate lover? Yes. But all that is secondary. First and foremost, you are an alcoholic. Reformed, yes, but you know, once an alcoholic, always, perhaps, again an alcoholic, and when Hedda offers you the glass of punch, you begin to sweat.
I equally admired the mastery with which he placed the actors, his understanding of how to create focus on a stage as though he were behind a camera. What a pity that the end result seemed so cleverly hollow. I felt the same about his stage Hamlet, Peer Gynt, and The Wild Duck, though never about his Strindberg productions. He can identify completely with Strindberg, perhaps because Strindberg’s plays, like most of Bergman’s work, are about people who fuck each other and hate each other. Any dramatist with whom he cannot wholly identify he molds to fit his own vision. I could not help feeling, as I watched him direct Hedda, that he was wishing Ibsen had written like Strindberg. He tried to turn both Hedda and Hamlet into Strindberg plays, violent personal statements, sexually explicit where the originals are implicit.
Unlike some of his admirers, Bergman is aware that his work has been uneven, as whose has not? “I have made bad films that are close to my heart, and I have made good films, objectively speaking, to which I am indifferent.” Of Through a Glass Darkly (1960), he confesses:
I was touching on a divine concept that is real, but then I smeared a diffuse veneer of love all over it. I was really defending myself against what was threatening me in my own life…. I handed him [the actor] a text that is totally impossible because of its superficiality.
And of his early films from the late Forties:
A general weakness reigns in my films from this period. I had trouble trying to depict the happiness of youth. I believe the trouble is that I myself never felt young, only immature…. The world of youth was alien to me. I stood on the outside, looking in. When I had to formulate dialogue for my young characters, I reached for literary clichés and adopted a coquettish silliness.
Of Brink of Life (1957), a disappointing film which followed The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries about three women awaiting childbirth, he records how the “swelling breasts, sour milk stains everywhere” which he saw when researching the film in a hospital aroused in him a nausea that he “could only relate to my own inadequate experience as a daddy, eternally awkward, eternally fleeing.” By contrast, in Fanny and Alexander: “I want to depict, finally, the joy that I carry within me in spite of everything, and which I so seldom and so feebly have given attention to in my work.”
The two novels which Bergman has written in his seventies, The Best Intentions (1991) and Sunday’s Children (1993), both of which have been filmed by other Scandinavian directors, Bille August and Bergman’s son Daniel, echo the warmth and tenderness of Fanny and Alexander. But where Fanny and Alexander portrays, in the character of the sadistic bishop, a scarcely concealed memory of the father Bergman hated, these novels seem to represent an attempt at reconciliation, a reconciliation which in fact took place when his aged father was dying. These novels are constructed rather awkwardly; stretches of dialogue set down plainly as in a film are interspersed with passages of narration written exclusively in the historic present like stage directions, so that though described as novels they read like extended screenplays.
The Best Intentions is set in the time of his grandparents shortly before World War One, and describes a poor divinity student’s troubled wooing of a pampered rich girl in the face of her parents’ opposition. He wins her, becomes a pastor in an austere rural outpost where they face every conceivable obstacle, and is offered a safe and comfortable place as court chaplain in Stockholm. He refuses it out of scruple, his wife threatens to leave him and, in the end, under the threat of losing her, he surrenders and accepts it, as Bergman’s father did.
Sunday’s Children tells of a summer in the Twenties spent by an eight-year-old child, Pu, in the country, and of his confused relationship with his father, a clergyman whom he worships but fears. Idyllic scenes of childhood are intercut with “flashbacks to the future” in which the adult Pu visits his dying father, for whom his worship has through the years withered into resentment and hatred. At last, the relationship grudgingly mellows into understanding and reconciliation. Had Bergman laid this ghost earlier, his own life might conceivably have been happier and we might have had more films from him with the emotional depth of Fanny and Alexander. But if the demons that drove him had been weaker, would his oeuvre have been less distinctive? Would it have been richer or blander? I suspect the former. One wonders what Bergman himself thinks.
Robert Emmet Long’s Ingmar Bergman: Film and Stage is a thoughtful and discriminating survey of Bergman’s film career related chronologically, which serves as a useful adjunct to Images. It tells us a good deal that Images does not, such as that “after the first read through and the terrific clash that developed between the two Bergmans [Ingmar and Ingrid, during the making of Autumn Sonata in 1977], Liv Ullmann left the room and wept, convinced that the film would never be made,” and that “just before making The Virgin Spring, Bergman studied the films of Akira Kurosawa, particularly Rashomon, and the picture reflects the styling of Kurosawa in a number of respects.” As regards such of Bergman’s stage productions as he has seen, by contrast, Long is so completely uncritical that one wonders if he can ever have witnessed a decent production of Hamlet or Peer Gynt.