We invited Fredrik Gustafsson to give us his own impressions on Master Ingmar Bergman. He is the Bergman Coordinator at the Swedish Institute, where the memory of one of the greatest geniuses of world cinema is preserved. Gustafsson became a researcher with a passion for Bergman films as of 1993. As a film lover, he tells us he was first a movie employee - an usher and projectionist. From 1997, as a film journalist, he wrote for various film magazines. In 2003, he joined the Swedish Institute as a shop assistant for his store The Movie Store. In 2007, he left the store and became manager of the Ingmar Bergman Archives as assistant in charge of cataloguing Bergman’s collected personal letters. In 2007, he also became library assistant at the Film Institute before becoming Bergman coordinator for all the Bergman collection. He completed two Master of Arts degrees at Stockholm University - one in Cinema History and Theory and the other, in the History of Ideas.
To continue, please see Fredrik Gustafsson’s account of Ingmar Bergman:
When Ingmar Bergman began working as a film director Victor Sjöström was the grand old man of Swedish cinema. Sjöström was one of three leading Swedish directors in the 1920s and, among other films, Sjöström directed The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen, 1921, 29th Mostra), a film which had a profound impact on Bergman himself. While Bergman was working on the set of his first film as a director, Crisis (1945), the staff was upset because he was so hard on them, even rude. They complained to Sjöström who one day got hold of Bergman and talked to him about how to behave on a film set. Bergman listened and learned, but being a man with a short fuse and a demanding personality, he would still erupt from time to time and there are many stories about Ingmar Bergman being tough on set. Even Harriet Andersson one day had enough and left the set, and that was as late as in 1985, when they made The Blessed Ones (De Två Saliga) together. But after Bergman run after her and apologized she went back and finished the shot. Considering the intense emotional conflicts Bergman captured on film, and the raw, naked performances his actors and actresses gave, it’s hardly surprising that this created a general feeling of tension, even between takes. Because if there is one thing that’s been consistent in all of Bergman’s films, from the very first to the very last, it’s all these emotions, often at breaking point.
Most people would probably use words such as “gloomy”, “bleak” and “heavy” when describing their perception of Bergman. And it’s true that he can be utterly harsh and demanding and that his characters often go through agonizing ordeals, struggling with insanity, feelings of abandonment and fear of death. But there’s a lot more to Bergman than gloom. He can be playful and humorous as well. In the 50s Bergman made a couple of films which are comedies of manners, a mixture between screwball and drama. They are all very good and Secrets of Women (Kvinnors Väntan, 1952) belong to this group. There are three episodes in Secrets of Women, each very different from the other. The first one is fairly uninteresting but the second is vintage Bergman, and very good. It is the last episode though which is the most interesting and, perhaps for some, surprising. It’s mostly set in an elevator where a married couple gets stuck and has to spend the night. They use the night to tell each other embarrassing secrets and the result is quite simply hilarious. The two actors, Gunnar Björnstrand and Eva Dahlbeck were Bergman regulars (in particular Björnstrand who acted in 20 of Bergman’s films) and they really milk the scene for all it’s worth, he being pompous and stiff, she being sharp and sarcastic.
That scene is one of the most loved in all of Swedish cinema and is something of a tour de force, both for the actors and for Bergman, the writer and director. It’s also a proof of Bergman’s constant willingness to try to do things differently. Even though there are recurrent themes and images which make Bergman Bergman, or maybe even Bergmanesque, there are also big differences between his films. If you look at the visuals, you’ll notice that his style differs from film to film. The films of the 40s and 50s are a mixture of Italian neorealism and the expressionism more associated with directors such as Fritz Lang and Michael Curtiz. A film like So Close to Life (Nära Livet, 1958) on the other hand is closer to what would eventually evolve to a more personal, typical Bergman style. A bleak, grey look, which was most apparent in the 60s, and can, in the festival, be seen in Shame (Skammen, 1968). The Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen, 1968) is a mixture of styles, going from realism to gothic horror and back. And then we have Fanny and Alexander (Fanny och Alexander, 1982), an explosion of warm colors, preferably red, which is lively and inviting.
Bergman’s first film, Crisis (Kris, 1946), is nothing special, but it isn’t bad either, and the character played by Stig Olin is a typical Bergman figure. But it’s Prison (Fängelse, 1949) which is the first true Bergman film, not least because it was the first time he directed a script he had written all by himself. Prison has an experimental narrative and works on many levels. It’s partly a story about hell on earth, shot in a very dreamlike, expressionistic style, but the bleakness of the story can come across as overly melodramatic. But even so, there are also elements of tenderness and comedy and at the end, after a girl has committed suicide, a mysterious light shines upon her, like a divine intervention. She may have been alone on this earth, but someone is watching over her. It’s important to stress that these moments of hope and comfort are quite common in Bergman’s work, and they take the edge off the despair.
But Prison is also a story about filmmaking, as it begins and ends at a film set, and the story described above is a story within the story, and maybe that part of it is what’s most interesting today, rather than Bergman’s vision of existence as a nightmare. It’s worth pointing out that the director in the film is played by Hasse Ekman. Ekman starred in three of Bergman’s film (the other two being Three Strange Loves/Thirst [Törst, 1949] and Sawdust and Tinsel [Gycklarnas Afton, 1953]). But Ekman was not only an actor, he was also a filmmaker. A writer and a director as well as a producer and a composer. In fact, in the 40s and early 50s Ekman, not Bergman, was Sweden’s foremost director, although he’s almost unknown outside of Sweden. There was a constant artistic struggle between them, and after Prison, Ekman made one of his greatest films, The Girl from the Third Row (Flickan Från Tredje Raden, 1949), which has become known as his “anti-Bergman” film. But the battle shouldn’t be overstated, they had a deep respect for each other, and Bergman always, rightfully, thought that Ekman’s Girl With Hyacinths (Flicka och Hyacinter, 1950) was an extraordinary masterpiece.
Another of Bergman’s earlier films which is of special interest is To Joy (Till Glädje, 1950). It’s one of two films Bergman did starring his mentor Victor Sjöström. The other of course being Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället, 1957). To Joy is a fairly routine domestic drama but there are some extraordinary sequences and it’s also a testament to Bergman’s deep love of music. And Sjöström, as the conductor, gives a fine performance.
A recurring motive, or figure, in all of Bergman’s work is that of the struggling artist, who is either fighting his own demons or are subject to criticism and ridicule from the outside world. In the films shown at the festival this theme is most apparent in two remarkable films from 1968, Shame and The Hour of the Wolf. Shame is a war film, in which a musician and his wife are torn apart when a civil war threatens their survival. The Hour of the Wolf is, as mentioned above, a kind of gothic horror story about a painter’s descend into insanity. It’s of course very tempting to see all these struggling artists as portraits of Bergman but such a reading can be deceiving even though they are of course realizations of Bergman’s fears and fantasies. He has always used his own life as an inspiration, but it’s important to remember that it’s just that, an inspiration.
And finally there’s Fanny and Alexander, Bergman’s ambivalent homage to his family, a film which contains all the keys to Bergman’s life and work and as such stands as a fitting closure to his career as a filmmaker, which was his outspoken intent. But, ever the artist, it didn’t take long before he begun working on his next project, and he continued directing plays, films and TV-productions for yet another 20 years. Always searching for new ways of expressing himself, always fighting with his personal demons and always giving his crew and cast a hard time.