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Terrifying Gifts of Intimacy

Ingmar Bergman


In an interview for Life magazine in 1971, Ingmar Bergman said, “I try always to do things that are familiar to me. I always feel scared to death when I have to meet new people. When I travel out of Sweden, I feel exhausted, unhappy, insecure. So the technical solution is to regulate my life just so….very orderly…ritual.” There are some directors who have impeccably regular careers and others where we feel the work never quite developed as it ought to have; that there has been something stunted in its growth. If Orson Welles, Michelangelo Antonioni and even Stanley Kubrick (albeit through choice rather than design) would fall into the latter category, Woody Allen, Eric Rohmer and Ingmar Bergman would seem to be examples of the former, no matter the many crises the director talks of in his autobiography The Magic Lantern. We sense in their work and in their lives a regularity that allowed them to make a film almost every year, and few filmmakers more than Bergman has talked up the importance of the orderly existence that allows for the prolific nature of the work. Generally making a film each fall and directing a play each winter, Bergman spent much of his later life on the island of Faro, temporarily relocating to Germany after unfounded accusations concerning his tax returns during the mid-seventies.

Yet though Bergman made the occasional comedy like Smiles of a Summer Night, he remains an example of quintessential Nordic anguish, a figure to put alongside Strindberg and Munch. It is as if his obsession with regularity and punctuality (he’s been described as “a demon for promptness”) demanded the flipside: an internal insecurity that destroyed one’s sense of time and space at its core. While speaking of writing The Hour of the Wolf he would say, “What I talked about was the demons, the friends who become friendly and started to destroy the man. I think it had very much to do with my own fear of them – but I will never let them do that.”

Bergman’s concerns are with what we’ll call the small subjects, the areas of experience that aren’t so much exposed as disclosed. When a house loses its roof, a partner passes away, a job is lost or a war is fought, these are big subjects that almost take place in the public realm as readily as in the private one. Yet the kernel of Bergman’s work resides in characters not exposed to the world, its primary elements and its social demands, but enclosed in their own mental landscapes colliding with others who seem equally enveloped in their own consciousness. There are few filmmakers who give a greater impression of intimacy than Bergman, few directors who capture the enclosed mind disclosed.

Throughout his work characters express thoughts and feelings that other filmmakers cannot, will not or don’t know how to reveal, and whether it is the spat between a warring couple near the beginning of Scenes from a Marriage, the confessional feelings of the nurse Alma in Persona, or the dinner party scene in The Passion of Anna where each character expresses and explores their own beliefs, Bergman searches out the moments that reveal elements of their psyches that are at the same time never merely psychological. Bergman’s use of the word psyche seems consistent with the Ancients, where the word is often translated as soul, and this leads to a twofold complexity in the director’s work that might be absent in a filmmaker ‘merely’ and straightforwardly psychological. The first lies in his interest in the possibilities in dissembling: a disclosure might not always be true; merely purposeful. When the central character, Pastor Tomas Ericsson, tears into his mistress in Winter Light is this the truth he is expressing, or chiefly giving himself the opportunity to practise self-disgust at one remove? He takes his feelings of failure out on a woman who loves him and will accept his words because she loves him far more than she loves herself. For the pastor he loves neither himself nor her, which gives him a horrible position of power that adds to the self-disgust rather than alleviates it. In Autumn Sonata, the daughter reveals how awful she felt as a child around her mother; a partial truth, of course, but also revealing of how awful she feels about herself as an adult, and chooses the mother as an understandable, even justifiable hate figure.

If Bergman acknowledges that these disclosures are more than honest revelations, equally he is aware that some element of his characters’ personalities cannot stop them from having a solipsistic relationship with the world. In many ways these are rational, bourgeois characters, often clearly situated in a post-war Swedish world of prosperity, but at the same time figures aloof from that world, frequently holidaying or in retreat from the urban. Bergman is less interested in their social psyche, the mores and habits of post-war Swedish urbanites, than the fragility of being that transcends the immediate milieu and moment in history. When John Simon proposed in an interview, “I think in a way, you have done what [Carl] Dreyer wanted to do”, Bergman replied, perhaps immodestly, “yes”. In Danish director Dreyer’s works like Ordet and Gertrud the problem of the soul becomes paramount often to the detriment of the psychological. It was if Dreyer was working out of his compatriot philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s idea that certain movements of the soul disarm psychology, while Bergman is often more interested in certain movements of the soul that are still contained by it. When the Pastor in Winter Light  verbally attacks his lover, this is still well within the realm of the psychologically plausible, but at the same time Bergman is fascinated by some residual excess as his characters are frequently not only psychologically conflicted but also spiritually tormented. Indeed if the Pastor weren’t struggling with his faith, would he need to lay into another character? Bergman’s figures have not so much the frayed nerves that easily justify irritated behaviour, however we might abhor it, but frayed selves: characters coming apart at the seams and where the self tries to unravel others also. They often have in the best and worst sense, what Bergman calls an “impatience of the soul”. As Bergman says of the actress in Persona, “Elizabet is intelligent, she’s sensible, she has emotions, she is immoral, she is a gifted woman, but she’s a monster, because she has an emptiness in her.”

Bergman when interviewed may insist that “I have no style”, but he also says “if intuition is our mental instrument, the camera is our physical instrument”, and the Bergman style would appear to come out of the attempt to search the human face for signs of anguish and pain. While as a scriptwriter Bergman is brilliant on ambivalent disclosure, as a director he is equally significant for finding a means with which to make this disclosure revelatory even if the comments made are not always so revealing. There is something in what we might call the selfishness of his close-ups that surprise, that make disclosure seem suspicious. In Autumn Sonata there is the scene at the beginning of the film where Ingrid Bergman’s pianist discusses with her daughter (Liv Ullmann) her lover’s recent death. As the film focuses on the close-up of Bergman’s face while she talks about his illness and demise as the film utilises brief flashbacks, so we look at a woman carefully coiffured and rouged, still finally concerned more with her own appearance than the lover’s death – a point she all but admits moments later when she turns to her daughter and asks Ullmann how good she thinks her mother looks. Bergman usually searches a face as if to ask what is it saying, the words coming out of the mouth only part of the story.

Bergman is also known stylistically though for his tight two-shots, and though this is most famously evident in the cramped framing in films like Persona and Cries and Whispers where one character stands in the front facing into the camera and another does likewise behind them, he also often uses it in less combative form. In Smiles of a Summer night a young woman’s lover comes as she lies in bed and tells her he loves her. Bergman frames the moment in horizontal close up as they lie next to each other. The same shot is used in Scenes from a Marriage as Erland Josephson hugs Liv Ullmann while they’re lying together on the floor. It is not only in the disclosure, whether actual or fictional, that Bergman is a great director of what Yeats called “the terrible gift of intimacy”, but also in the framing that can suggest the collapse or abuse of the self we see in these moments in Persona and Cries and Whispers, or the assuagement with another, as evident in Smiles of a Summer Night and Scenes from a Marriage.

If Bergman claims he has no style is it because this terrible gift of intimacy is central to his very personality? The Yeats phrase is used by Al Alvarez in an interview with the director, where the writer says this “means that you find yourself talking to him almost immediately as if you and he had known each other for years.” He is a filmmaker for having not one actrice fetiche as muse, one actress he worked with, but several. If Godard’s great sixties period is closely tied to his relationship with Anna Karina, and Antonioni’s work during the same time closely affiliated with Monica Vitti, Bergman was known for his relationships with several of his actresses, including Harriet Andersson, Bibi Andersson, andLiv Ullmann, and in continuing a working relation in some instances long after the break-ups.

He also worked very closely with certain male actors over many years, Gunnar Björnstrand, Max von Sydow and Erland Josephson. His cameraman would also be quite consistent: many of his earlier films were shot by Gunnar Fischer; later ones by Sven Nykvist. As he would say in a 1964 interview, “I’ve been working with virtually the same people for twenty years.”  He also of course had a reputation as a control freak. “A director on a movie set is a little like the captain of a ship; he must be respected in order to be obeyed.” When talking of the problems of urban living, he says: “If you live on an island, at the seaside, with farmers and fishermen, everything has its proportions. Here in town nothing has proportions.” When he was asked in the same interview from 1964 whether he would like to work in Hollywood, he replied: “Work in another country, with more modern equipment, but with the same crew, with the same relationship to my producers, with the same control over the films as I have here? I don’t think that’s very likely.”

The need for control seems to be matched by the need for an intimate environment, and few filmmakers manage to translate this feeling into the work more than Bergman. There are of course a handful of other directors capable of generating intimate worlds (John Cassavetes, Philippe Garrel, Maurice Pialat, Atom Egoyan in very different ways), but nobody offered up this poisoned chalice with quite the same acerbic combination of intense love aligned to hovering contempt or chasmic loss. As Liv Ullmann’s character says to her estranged husband as he tries to persuade her to make love in Scenes from a Marriage: “It’ll be unbearable to me if we start to kiss…then you’ll go and I’ll be left to long for you again.” It encapsulates beautifully Bergman’s characters need for, and fear of, intimacy, and it is this thematic exploration that allows for the Bergmanesque. As he says, it isn’t technical skill that makes a great director, it is the intent behind the work, that somehow finds it form in the work. “That is very important, that is the most important of all. You have to have something to come with, to give other people.”


©Tony McKibbin