Swedish director Ingmar Bergman in 1968 with Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann.
(Photo credit: STF/AFP/Getty Images; courtesy of UPI Photo Service/NewsCom).
Special Thoughts for
FILMS FOR TWO
by Alan Waldman
Swedish screenwriter-director Ingmar Bergman, who died recently at age 89, was one of the most respected filmmakers of the 20th Century. Leading helmers including Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman, David Lynch, Lars Von Trier and Chan Wook-Park have cited his films as a major influence on their own. Woody Allen declared Bergman “the greatest film artist since the invention of the motion-picture camera.”
During his 61-year career, the dour, larger-than-life Swede directed 62 films and 170 plays, writing 66 screenplays and producing nine movies. For most of his career, he spent seven months of each year directing plays at major Swedish stages in Malmo, Helsingborg or Stockholm. Then, in the brief but brilliant Swedish summer, he would direct a movie he had written—usually performed by the same acting troupe he had been comfortable working with on stage. The group included top Scandinavian stars Max von Sydow, Bibi Andersson, Harriet Andersson, Erland Josephson, Ingrid Thulin, Gunnar Bjoerstrand and Liv Ullman—each of whom appeared in at least five of his films.
Bergman won 63 major film honors and 14 other nominations for 20 of his works—awards presented in 10 countries on four continents. He won the Irving Thalberg career achievement Oscar, as well as Best Foreign Language Academy Awards for FANNY & ALEXANDER, THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY and THE VIRGIN SPRING. He was Oscar nominated nine times, five for best screenplay, three for best director and one for best picture (three for CRIES AND WHISPERS, two for FANNY & ALEXANDER, and one each for AUTUMN SONATA, FACE TO FACE, THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY, and WILD STRAWBERRIES). Bergman was inducted into the exclusive French Legion of Honor, was chosen the world's greatest living filmmaker by Time magazine and was voted the eighth-greatest film director of all time by Entertainment Weekly.
Director Steven Spielberg said of Bergman: “I have always admired him, and I wish I could be an equally good filmmaker, but it will never happen. His love for the cinema almost gives me a guilty conscience.”
Peter Bradshaw, film critic of Britain’s Guardian newspaper, wrote at Bergman’s death: “The world has lost the last filmmaker willing or capable of explicitly taking on the big themes: the nature of God and the nature of humanity.”
Ingmar Bergman created highly personal films which revealed a deep understanding of human feelings and aspirations. Some of his films were bleak, dealing with insanity, illness, savagery and betrayal. His films of the early 1960s dealt with doubt, pain and humiliation. As a result, gloomy serious films became widely known as “Bergmanesque.” However, he also had a great, surprising talent for comedy, and my two favorite of his films (which were highly successful with audiences) are the sly comedy of morals SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT and the adorable memory piece FANNY & ALEXANDER, which features scenes of both joyous comedy and stark cruelty.
Although his films were serious and intellectual, sexuality often featured prominently in them. Bergman explained: “I want audiences to feel, to sense my films. This to me is much more important than their understanding them.” He had long affairs with female stars Harriet Andersson, Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman, married five women and had nine children with them (and Ullman). Three of his kids became directors, two writers, three performers and one an airline captain.
Woody Allen recalled Bergman as "a warm, amusing, joking character, insecure about his immense gifts, beguiled by the ladies. He was a genius.”
Allen often talked to Bergman by telephone, refusing invitations to visit because "I didn't relish flying on a small aircraft to some speck near Russia for what I envisioned as a lunch of yogurt."
Ernst Ingmar Bergman was born in Uppsala, Sweden, on Bastille Day 1914, to Karin Åkerblom and strict Lutheran pastor Erik Bergman, who was chaplain to the King of Sweden. Young Ingmar was surrounded by religious imagery and discussion, and his cruel father often punished him severely, for instance by locking him in a closet for wetting the bed. This deeply influenced his films, particularly the harrowing middle section of FANNY & ALEXANDER.
Ingmar lost his religious faith at age eight (and many of his movies dealt with a character’s quest to regain his faith or force the deity to prove His existence) and immersed himself in puppet and “magic lantern” shows, for which he created the scenery and lighting, and for which he voiced the dialogue for all the characters—whether in his own plays or those of Swedish stage titan August Strindberg.
Ingmar’s mother died when he was 12. Behind father’s back, the boy’s beloved grandmother would take him to the forbidden theatre and cinema, which soon held him in thrall.
He entered Stockholm College in 1937, studying art and literature and spending most of his time in student theatre and in movie houses. A romantic liaison led to a break with his father that lasted many years.
He did not graduate, but Ingmar wrote several plays and an opera and became an assistant director at a theatre. A play of his was seen by members of the powerful Svensk
Filmindustri, which hired him to work on screenplays. After writing FRENZY for director Alf
Sjoeberg, Ingmar directed his first movie, KRIS, in 1946.
His first 15 films were not seen outside Sweden, but his next one, SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT, was a career turning point-- a big-budget success that charmed world audiences, won an award at Cannes and earned him total artistic freedom for the rest of his career. A Bergman biographer believes that if SMILES had failed, Ingmar would have been finished as a movie director.
Two years later he scored twice more with a pair of his most popular movies:
THE SEVENTH SEAL (which won top prizes at Cannes, in Spain and in Italy) and WILD STRAWBERRIES (which took 11 top honors in six countries, plus an Oscar nom).
Until 1959, Bergman worked with brilliant cinematographer Gunnar Fischer, who created very dramatic, high-contrast lighting effects which made the movies visually arresting. After Fischer was drafted by Disney, Bergman began one of the world’s great partnerships, with brilliant cinematographer Sven Nykvist, who used a new kind of movie film to invent subtle, shadowless, naturalistic, grey light that earned him worldwide admiration. Nykvist won two Oscars (for CRIES AND WHISPERS and FANNY & ALEXANDER), 14 other major awards and seven nominations for those two films and for THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING, Richard Attenborough’s CHAPLIN, Andrei Tarkovsky’s THE SACRIFICE, Liv Ullman’s KRISTIN LAVRANDATTER, Louis Malle’s BLACK MOON and Woody Allen’s CELEBRITY.
During their 28-year association, Bergman would often tell Nykvist what he wanted, Sven would say it was impossible, and then he would find a way to accomplish it. On the morning of a typical shoot, Bergman would briefly speak to Nykvist about the mood and composition he hoped for, and then leave Sven to work, without interruption or comment.
The controversial drama THE SILENCE (1963) was Bergman’s greatest hit, drawing 4 million viewers in Germany alone. Judith Crist wrote: “This film contains more overt sexuality than we have ever seen on screen.” It screened in the U.K. and Germany only with cuts.
In 1976 Bergman’s world collapsed: he was arrested and falsely accused of tax fraud; had a mental breakdown; exiled himself to Germany, France, Denmark and the U.S. for eight years; and only returned after he was cleared of all charges.
In 1995, Bergman was devastated by the death of his beloved fifth wife, Ingrid Rosen, and declared that his creative life was over. But she pressured him to keep at it, and he wrote two plays and then continued his career for eight more years.
For the last 30 years of his life, Bergman lived as a virtual hermit on the Swedish island of Fårö, although he spoke on phone with Erland Josephson for an hour every Saturday. He died on the island on July 30, 2007—the same day as fellow film genius Michelangelo Antonioni (see Tribute at FF2).
ALAN WALDMAN’S FAVORITE
1. SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT (1955)
2. FANNY & ALEXANDER (1982)
3. THE VIRGIN SPRING (1960)
4. THE MAGIC FLUTE (1975)
5. WILD STRAWBERRIES (1957)
THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957)
I admire much of Bergman’s work and love some of it—but not all. WINTER LIGHT is one of the few films I walked out of; it was grim, religious, slow and unbearable.
My favorite Bergman film is the utterly delightful
SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT, which is witty, wise, sophisticated, funny, beautifully acted and shot and full of fascinating characters. (Woody Allen tried to capture its unique spirit in his not-nearly-as-good pic A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S SEX COMEDY. Hugh Wheeler and Harold Prince later adapted SMILES into a terrific stage and screen musical, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, with the movie version starring Liz Taylor, Diana Rigg, Len Cariou and Hermione
In preparation for this article, I recently watched a dozen Bergman films, fully expecting
FANNY & ALEXANDER to remain my fave, but SMILES tops it. It is a romantic merry-go-round featuring a sophisticated lawyer, his virgin wife, his adult son who has the hots for mom but also wants to be a priest, his ex-mistress who is now a leading actress, her pompous soldier-lover, his frustrated wife, a man-crazy maid, a horny rustic and a very wise older woman.
FANNY & ALEXANDER is wonderful. It’ is a very rich work about the impact of a father’s death on his two kids when his widow marries a fanatically strict clergyman who keeps them virtual prisoners and punishes them severely. It won four Oscars—for Nykvist’s cinematography, art/set direction, costumes and best foreign film.) The first utterly delightful third of the film recaptures the joyous big family Christmases at Bergman’s grandmother’s house. The second segment is about how the children suffer under the strict bishop and his cruel family, and how a subterfuge results in their escape. The final section is at the quirky home and of the grandmother’s Jewish lover. Parts of the film are lusty, others funny, others dramatic and others spooky. It is Bergman’s masterpiece. Regarding the surprisingly comic and joyful tone of much of the movie, Bergman quipped: “I guess deep down I’m really one happy devil. It bursts out every now and then.”
The 1961 Best Foreign Film Oscar winner, THE VIRGIN
SPRING, deals with a medieval knight’s stylized revenge on the men who raped and murdered his young daughter on her way to church. The cast, headed by Max Von Sydow, is terrific, Fischer’s stunning cinematography grabs you and doesn’t let up, and the film is involving from beginning to end.
THE MAGIC FLUTE, a highly imaginative Bergman staging of Mozart’s greatest opera, was a triumph on TV and in movies—winning a BAFTA and a Golden Globe award. The music is magnificent, the voices are great, and the set, costumes and direction are a treat.
Surrealism abounds in WILD
STRAWBERRIES—from a clock with no hands to an old man seeing himself in coffin. Written when Bergman was in hospital, in great anguish from a painful ulcer and over the end of his third marriage and his looming breakup with Bibi Andersson, it featured a great performance by former silent star Victor Sjoestrom. Bergman says he personally experienced all the dreams and nightmares depicted in this highly personal film about the need to overcome fear of death to enjoy life. On his way to receive an honorary degree at the other end of Sweden, an old professor joins up with a group of people, recalls key moments in his life and has a memorable series of experiences that change him and give him spiritual release.
THE SEVENTH SEAL
All us college students were grabbed by this classic art film—about a knight who wants to believe, but needs proof of the deity’s existence. He plays chess with death (a black-shrouded figure with a scythe that has been frequently spoofed). Again featuring the very talented Sydow, it is dramatic, funny, heroic, surprising and rich with character and incident. This was a huge global success that sent audiences to see Bergman’s other films.
Quotes from Ingmar Bergman:
“No form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does, straight to our emotions, deep into the twilight room of the soul.”
“From having been exceedingly dogmatic, my views on life have gradually dissolved. They don't exist any longer.”
“I am deeply fixated on my childhood. Some impressions are extremely vivid: light, smell and all. There are moments when I can wander through my childhood's landscape, through rooms long ago, remember how they were furnished, where the pictures hung on the walls, the way the light fell--all to the last detail.”
“I think it’s part of a director’s duties to be in a good mood while working—to create comfort and security. When I was young I didn’t understand that. I dragged in the devils of my private life and my hangovers and my woman problems—and I created terribly unpleasant situations. However, sometimes you need premeditated acts of rage. It is precision bombing.”
“When I was young, I was extremely scared of dying. But now I think it a very wise arrangement. It's like a light that is extinguished: not very much to make a fuss about.”
“I hope I never get so old that I become religious.”
Multiple award-winning Corvallis, Oregon-based freelance writer ALAN WALDMAN is the author of
HOW THE GRINCH STOLE THE WHITE
HOUSE…AGAIN, which documents in detail how Republican operatives filched and illegally hacked the U.S. presidency from legitimate winner John F. Kerry in 2004. Banned by all major U.S. media, Waldman’s provocative article did run in Mexico, New Zealand and Azerbaijan, plus in left-leaning weeklies in Seattle, Orlando, Hartford, Missoula and Western Massachusetts.
Other of the 2000-plus Waldman articles published in more than 60 magazines (including TV Guide, Sport, The Hollywood Reporter, Honolulu Magazine, Texas Monthly, Billboard, In These Times and Lawn Furniture Monthly) have dealt with medical malpractice, Monty Python, Motown, Kazakhstan and air pollution. Waldman recently moved to leafy Corvallis, with his third and cutest wife, Sharon, and his very handsome tuxedo cat Winkie. Alan is believed to be the oldest-living Oregon Jew to have never owned real estate. This is his 20th Tribute article for
Films for Two.