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
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.