Ing­mar Bergman: Danger­ous li­aisons

Ge­of­frey Macnab de­scribes how his new book about the film di­rec­tor led him to dis­cover the in­tense, volatile re­la­tion­ships he had with his ac­tresses

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - GOOD PEOPLE -

AT TIMES, when I was re­search­ing my book Ing­mar Bergman: the Life and Films of the Last Great Euro­pean Di­rec­tor, I felt as if I was tres­pass­ing on hal­lowed turf. Since Bergman died in 2007, a mini-in­dus­try has sprung up around him. He has only been dead for two years but al­ready he is treated with ven­er­a­tion.

One area I was es­pe­cially in­ter­ested in was his in­tense and of­ten vexed re­la­tion­ship with his ac­tresses. Har­riet Andersson, Bibi Andersson, Liv Ull­mann, Gun­nel Lind­blom, In­grid Thulin, Lena Olin and oth­ers be­came in­ter­na­tional stars as a re­sult of their work with Bergman. In turn, their vi­tal­ity, beauty and tal­ent helped en­gage audiences who might not oth­er­wise have been in­ter­ested in som­bre dra­mas from a Swedish art­house di­rec­tor.

In Im­ages from the Play­ground, you can see the loving way that he used to train even his home-movie cam­era on the faces of Bibi Andersson and Har­riet Andersson. There is some­thing fetishis­tic about the way he frames them. It was as if he felt he could pos­sess them by film­ing them.

From the very beginning of Bergman’s ca­reer in the 1940s to its end 60 years later, the women in his films have tes­ti­fied to the in­tense and claus­tro­pho­bic re­la­tion­ship he cul­ti­vated with them.

If you’re looking for the cod psy­cho­log­i­cal ex­pla­na­tion of why he clung so fiercely to his ac­tresses, the most ob­vi­ous rea­son is his in­tense but trou­bled re­la­tion­ship with his mother.

“Mother is beau­ti­ful, re­ally the most beau­ti­ful of all imag­in­able peo­ple, more beau­ti­ful than the Vir­gin Mary and Lil­lian Gish,” Bergman wrote of his mother in his au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal novel, Sun­day’s Chil­dren.

Late in his ca­reer, he made a haunt­ing short doc­u­men­tary, Karin’s Face (1986), which told the story of her life through a se­lec­tion of still im­ages taken from fam­ily al­bums.

Bergman’s de­vo­tion to his mother wasn’t al­ways re­turned. She was dis­mayed by his puppy-like wor­ship of her and tried to keep him at an arm’s length. In his mar­riages, Kabi Laretei, his for­mer wife, sug­gests he was looking for a woman who re­minded him of her and who would pro­vide him with the sta­bil­ity he craved.

The di­rec­tor had af­fairs with many of his col­lab­o­ra­tors. Five times mar­ried, he had a small army of ex-wives and chil­dren to sup­port.

In the mid 1950s, the lo­cal crit­ics were very tough on Bergman’s work. (It was only af­ter Smiles of a Sum­mer’s Night won a prize in Cannes that the Swedish film re­view­ers re­ally be­gan to give him his due.) His re­la­tion­ship with the bosses at pro­duc­tion com­pany Svensk wasn’t har­mo­nious ei­ther. They didn’t ap­pre­ci­ate his out­spo­ken na­ture and fret­ted that his films didn’t make enough money.

Bergman was strate­gic in his tantrums. In­vari­ably, he was sym­pa­thetic to­ward the ac­tors. It was the tech­ni­cians who suf­fered. The anger wasn’t feigned, though. As Katinka Farago, Bergman’s for­mer as­sis­tant and pro­ducer re­calls, “He gave ev­ery­thing in ev­ery movie and ev­ery scene. He wanted the peo­ple around him also to give ev­ery­thing.”

For all his fury and neu­roses, his ac­tresses adored him. He was at­ten­tive to them in a way that other direc­tors were not. His re­la­tion­ship with them was of­ten as de­mand­ing as that be­tween lovers. He ex­pected to­tal com­mit­ment.

Bergman be­came ex­traor­di­nar­ily an­gry when ac­tresses let him down; for ex­am­ple, by be­com­ing preg­nant. Lena Olin (best known for her turn as the bowler-hat­ted femme fa­tale in The Un­bear­able Light­ness of Be­ing) fell foul of Bergman for pre­cisely this rea­son dur­ing re­hearsals for a stage pro­duc­tion of Strind­berg’s A Dream Play. When he re­alised she was no longer avail­able for the play, he lost all in­ter­est in her.

Worse, he be­came ac­tively hos­tile. He was “very fu­ri­ous” re­calls Olin. “And very un­for­giv­ing as well. He was re­ally mean.”

Ac­tresses who proved their reli­a­bil­ity and loy­alty were in­vari­ably given a range of roles. Har­riet Andersson liked to joke about the wildly con­tra­dic­tory range of char­ac­ters she played for Bergman – roles that of­ten re­flected the os­cil­la­tions in her re­la­tion­ship with him.

Bergman first en­coun­tered Nor­we­gian ac­tress Liv Ull­mann when she was part of a del­e­ga­tion from Nor­way that vis­ited the Royal Dra­matic The­atre. He later saw a pic­ture of her sit­ting next to Bibi Andersson on the set of the 1962 film Sum­mer Is Short, di­rected by Bjarne Hen­ning-Jensen. Bergman was struck by how “like and un­like” each other the ac­tresses were. Their sim­i­lar­ity gave him the seed of the idea that would de­velop into Per­sona (1966), a film which he de­scribed as “a sonata for two in­stru­ments”.

“For the first time, I met a di­rec­tor who let me ex­press emo­tions and thoughts that no one else had seen in me,” Ull­mann said of Bergman af­ter mak­ing Per­sona.

Bergman was pre­pared to delve far more deeply into the emo­tional lives of his fe­male char­ac­ters than other (male) direc­tors of his era. He iden­ti­fied with them and gave them traits and feel­ings that he of­ten shared. At the same time, th­ese ac­tresses re­mained ex­otic and mys­te­ri­ous to him. Nearly all his films had luminous close-ups of his ac­tresses. “The hu­man face is one of the most cin­e­mato­graphic things that ex­ists,” he once stated.

Per­haps it is petty and in­tru­sive to pore over the great di­rec­tor’s per­sonal prob­lems. Then again, it’s hard to think of any other film­maker who shared so much about such prob­lems. Thanks to his films and writ­ing, we know all about his di­ges­tion prob­lems, his tax af­fairs, his shame over his ado­les­cent flir­ta­tion with Nazism and his in­fi­deli­ties. This knowl­edge doesn’t lessen his sta­tus as an artist in the slight­est. It sim­ply makes him seem more hu­man. – The In­de­pen­dent


NO­TABLE: Top left, leg­endary Swedish film di­rec­tor Ing­mar Bergman dur­ing a rare in­ter­view.


GOOD­BYE: Top, a man writes his name in a con­do­lence book at Swe­den's Royal Dra­matic The­atre in Stock­holm, in July 2007, af­ter the death of Bergman. He was 89. ROLLING: Above, Bergman, right, and Sven Nyqvist, chief cam­era­man, dur­ing the shoot­ing of Fanny and Alexan­der. UNIQUE STYLE: Left, Bergman and Scan­di­na­vian ac­tress Liv Ull­man dur­ing the film­ing of Cries and Whis­pers.

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