Bergman: A Year in a Life (2018)

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If you look for Ingmar Bergman the only place you find him is in his films.  Jane Magnusson’s film (in Swedish, Norwegian and English) was made to celebrate Ingmar Bergman’s 2018 centenary and pivots on 1957, a year in which he made two award winning films, a TV movie and he had four theatre smashes. How did he do it? What spurred this sudden surge in productivity and arguably his career masterpieces (Wild Strawberries, The Seventh Seal on film, Peer Gynt on stage)? (The biggest surprise is that once actor who saw Gynt describes it as follows:  This is all adventure movies rolled into one! Not what the viewer would expect of an auteur known for austere and sexualised work – he knew everyone would go to see Summer With Monika if he included nude shots). He worked quickly on low budgets and hadn’t even conceived of Wild Strawberries at the beginning of 1957 but it was released by the end of the year and is examined here as a version of himself, Viktor Sjöstrom might even be perceived as dead already, looking back upon his life with that wonderful combination of wistful yearning and regret while he journeys to collect his award. Bergman’s work rate can’t be explained scientifically – he certainly had a bad temper and was plagued by a rotten ulcerous stomach. One interviewee posits that his diet of yoghurt and Marie biscuits constituted what would today be called an eating disorder (he thought vegetables were evil).  Perhaps he had all kinds of hunger issues. He didn’t believe in therapy and claims in a TV interview to have visited a psychiatrist just once. (One actress contradicts his declaration that the doctor found him healthy). His relationships were complex and unfaithful, yielding 6 offspring by 1957 (he thought 5, and he would eventually father 9 in and out of marriages, one of whom didn’t know she was his illegitimate daughter until she was 22). He was involved with three women in 1957 other than his then wife and one was actress Bibi Andersson. Apart from anything else, he had a lot of people to support financially. It seems that in 1957 Bergman realised that his best source of material was himself and the film uses his achievements in that annus mirabilis as a prism to analyse his entire life and career. Fassbinder was on amphetamine. Maybe Bergman was on sexuality. When it came to Persona, a film interpreted here as a dramatising of his two sides, he commenced a relationship with Liv Ullmann who lived with him on his island, eventually bearing him another child and she cries when recalling that he was the best friend she ever had. Bergman describes the camera as seeing more than he ever did,  a phenomenal tool for registering the human soul and it is this journey into the soul that he believes he was on through his films. Perhaps his most beloved work is Fanny and Alexander but a long-suppressed interview with his brother Dag (recorded in the 80s) deflates Bergman’s claim of bullying by his father or a horrible time at school – it all happened, just not to him, but to Dag. Bergman’s flirtation with Nazism raises troubling questions – he claimed to have been sent on an exchange to Germany when he was a young child. However it happened in 1936 when he was 18 and his support of the regime lasted until 1946, long after the camps had been exposed. His biographer is conflicted about whether or not he was claiming to be a fascist acolyte as part of his extensive self-mythologising:  the son of a Jewish refugee in his father’s home seems to think so. And Bergman determined in the aftermath of that period that he would never engage politically in his films. There is no limit to what Bergman will do to get the best out of his actors. On Winter Light he had a doctor diagnose lead actor Gunnar Björnstrand with depression so that his reaction to illness could be caught on camera (and boy did it work). His relationship with other screen actors is more heartening:  instead of words he’d give you an emotional gesture, says one, so that that if they were quick enough and inventive enough they would pick up on it and use it in their characterisation. Barbra Streisand speaks of her envy watching him direct her then husband Elliott Gould in Bergman’s English-language debut The Touch, including one scene when he actually sat underneath the camera while Gould was being shot in close up and guided his performance. Gould himself says, There’s no one like Ingmar Bergman. An artist. A craftsman. A master. In later years Bergman’s antics directing theatre productions are remembered by victims as bullying, in a period when his celebrity and indulgence by the establishment was only tarnished by a highly public tax problem; while his personal life disintegrated in 1995 after the death of his fifth wife Ingrid von Rosen (the love of his life, he said) and he withdrew almost totally, albeit his last filmed interview reveals a sense of self-deprecating humour. His autocratic persona was out of time and he seemed to be jealous of younger men. His conduct toward lead actor Thorsten Flinck in The Misanthrope at the Royal Dramatic Theatre is horrible to hear. This is a fascinating, confounding and compelling portrait of a man whose importance to Swedish art is finally declared to be more influential than that of Strindberg with some jaw-dropping interviews from actors, technicians and colleagues.  Written by Mattias Nohrborg, this is a marvellous, informative documentary about one of the most important filmmakers in cinema. The now is all that exists

Cries and Whispers (1972)

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It is early Monday morning and I am in pain.  At the turn of the twentieth century, Agnes (Harriet Andersson) slowly and painfully dies of cancer in the family’s country home. Her sisters are so immersed in their own problems that they can’t offer her the support she needs as she goes through a nightmare of torture. Shallow Maria (Liv Ullmann) is wracked with guilt at her husband’s suicide following his discovery of her  affair. Self-loathing, suicidal Karin (Ingrid Thulin) seems to regard her sister with revulsion. Only Anna (Kari Sylwan), the deeply religious maid who lost her young child, seems able to offer the solitary dying Agnes solace and empathy as her condition deteriorates and her sisters are helpless in their eternal feuding … Ingmar Bergman went as far as he could in Persona to explore identity:  here he holds up a mirror to the pain we cause each other even as death stares us in the face. It is so stark a confrontation and so formal a construct that it shocks. He described it simply as a chamber play in red about a dying woman and her sisters. The colour scheme devised with cinematographer Sven Nykvist seems to ooze life and threaten death and the filtered photography has a quality that niggles the brain. This is pessimistic and filled with dread, certainly, but it is also haunting and unforgettable, a master at work in a film that excited global audiences and earned multiple Academy Award nominations.

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Persona (1966)

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I understand why you don’t speak, why you don’t move, why you’ve created a part for yourself out of apathy. I understand. I admire. You should go on with this part until it is played out, until it loses interest for you. Then you can leave it, just as you’ve left your other parts one by one.  Renowned stage actress Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann) suffers a moment of blankness during a performance of Electra and the next day lapses into total silence. Advised by her doctor to take time off to recover from what appears to be an emotional breakdown, Elisabet leaves the psychiatric hospital where she has been recovering and goes to a beach house on the Baltic Sea with only Alma (Bibi Andersson), a nurse, as company. Over the next several weeks, as Alma struggles to reach her mute patient, the two women find themselves experiencing a strange emotional convergence as the talking cure makes the nurse talk rather than the patient and images from the outside world catalyse friction… An astonishing study of identity that blurs so many lines there are none left with questions of mental health, sexual grooming, power, communication, silence and betrayal, how much of life is performance. It is a work that transports the viewer into the realm of the metaphysical. It is an astonishing example of personal filmmaking that has had enormous influence in cinema. The shot in which Ullmann’s face merges with that of Andersson is unforgettable. This is perfect cinema in terms of conception, execution and performance, strange and erotic, mysterious and scary. Bergman stated of it: I feel that in Persona – and later in Cries and Whispers – I had gone as far as I could go. And that in these two instances when working in total freedom, I touched wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover.

Winter Light (1963)

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Aka The CommunicantsThe passion of Christ, his suffering… Wouldn’t you say the focus on his suffering is all wrong? Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Björnstrand) a pastor in a Swedish village handles his own existential crisis as he fails a fisherman Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow) who is suicidal about the possibility of nuclear annihilation; and his former mistress, local schoolteacher Märta Lundberg (Ingrid Thulin) whom he doesn’t think is as good as his late wife … Some years ago at a dinner party I was asked what I thought of Bergman. Being a smartass, I responded, Ingmar – or Andrew? That was my way of sidestepping a tough question about an auteur who can simultaneously leave me cold and move me unbearably. This is one of a loosely connected spiritual trilogy (known as Silence of God) which Bergman himself said tackled certainty. Here, it’s the pastor’s inability to understand the message of The Passion and the need for physical trials and to question the existence of God. It’s a thoughtful narrative with an unlikable protagonist and reflects on Bergman’s own relationship with his father, a Church of Sweden minister, and the position of the Church itself regarding the liturgy and its uses when a priest is unable to vocalise its virtues in a way that is meaningful to people desperate for reassurance. A serious film about major issues which are tackled and somewhat resolved in an astonishing 81 minutes by Bergman’s regular ensemble, with cinematography by the peerless Sven Nykvist whose camera traces the movement of sunlight through the church’s problematic spaces. Masterful.