Ingmar Bergman would have turned 100 this week. But who was this iconic filmmaker?

He was Sweden's best-known director, but what else is there to say about Ingmar Bergman, whose dark themes didn't always fit into his country's societal changes?

Ingmar Bergman would have turned 100 this week. But who was this iconic filmmaker?
Ingmar Bergman in 1957. Photo: SvD/TT

Ingmar Bergman, one of the most distinguished filmmakers of his generation whose melancholic work is often tough-to-digest but celebrated, still captivates audiences as much as he puts off his critics.

July 14th would have been his 100th birthday.

Born in 1918 in Uppsala, north of Stockholm, Bergman directed some 60 movies between 1946 and 2003, including 'Cries and Whispers' (1972), 'Scenes from a Marriage' (1974), 'Autumn Sonata' (1978) and his trademark film 'Fanny and Alexander' (1982).

He died 11 years ago aged 89 in his home in Fårö, a small island in the Baltic Sea whose coast is strewn with distinctly-shaped limestone rocks and shrubland, where his disturbing film 'Persona' (1966) was set.

The son of a Lutheran priest, Bergman remains to this day the most distinguished portrayer of torments, fantasies, madness and marital infidelity.

“The essence of our education was based on the principles of sin, confession, punishment, redemption and forgiveness,” Bergman wrote in his autobiography 'The Magic Lantern'.

Throughout his career, with his debut film 'Crisis' to final 'Saraband', the gifted director was known for having relationships with his actresses whom he filmed masterfully.

He abhorred death and depicted its themes painfully by creating a tense metaphysical atmosphere where God is powerful yet absent, leaving the characters alone in the world with a troubled conscience between cries and whispers.

“Ingmar drew heavily on his past experiences… in a way, he stayed in the first 10 years of his life,” costume designer and Bergman's former daughter-in-law Anna Bergman told AFP.

'Scandinavian exoticism'

His international breakthruogh began in the 1950s with global audiences seduced by 'Scandinavian exoticism' with its barbaric language, frank women, wild landscapes and bewildering 'natural' representation of nudity which also triggered scandals.

“He is often associated abroad with his dark, black-and-white, slow-paced, tight-shot films, but that's only part of his truth,” Anna Bergman said.

She said Swedes prefer to watch 'Fanny and Alexander', which portrays the tragic life of a family through the eyes of two children. The film is shown every year around Christmas on Swedish television.

The filmmaker's dark themes didn't always fit into the societal changes in his country.

“Bergman's career coincides with the development of the Swedish welfare state… Sweden experiences an exceptional political, social, and economic boom during the 1940s, 50s and 60s,” Jan Holmberg, head of the Ingmar Bergman Foundation, told AFP.

“We now have this director reminding us that we can also be anxious, that we can divorce, or maintain difficult relationships with our parents, that we're godless, and that we do not want to hear about it,” he added.

Showered with Oscars

Bergman repeatedly created symbolist compositions, first in black and white and then in colour.

'The Seventh Seal', 'Summer with Monika', 'Scenes from a Marriage', 'Autumn Sonata', 'Cries and Whispers' and 'Fanny and Alexander' are classical examples next to 'Persona' which, to this day, remains one of the masterpieces of cinema.

He also wrote dozens of plays and adaptations of Molière, William Shakespeare, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen and Swedish author August Strindberg.

From 1963 to 1966, Bergman was the director of the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, which this year announced an exceptional programme to celebrate his 100th birthday.

An impassioned music listener who once humbly claimed he wasn't very gifted in the art, Bergman united the stage and cinema when he directed Mozart's comedy opera 'The Magic Flute' in 1975.

The opera's LP record remains in his pine-shaded home in Fårö.

Described by Woddy Allen as the “best director” in film history, Bergman won an Oscar in the best foreign language film category for 'The Virgin Spring' (1960), 'Through a Glass Darkly' the following year and for 'Fanny and Alexander' (1983).

In 1997, he became the only filmmaker to be honoured with the 'Palmes des Palmes' in Cannes.

Bergman himself had role models.

“Tarkovsky is for me the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream,” Bergman said.

And he said other filmmakers, among them Italy's Federico Fellini, Japan's Akira Kurosawa and Spain's Luis Bunuel, all “sail in the same waters” as Tarkovsky.

Bergman selected Swedish actress Harriet Andersson and his Norwegian muse Liv Ullmann – whom he called a “Stradivarius” – for his most profound characters.

He married five times and had nine children.

Article by AFP's Gaël Branchereau

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Meet the Indian filmmaker who brought Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann’s love story to the big screen

Indian filmmaker Dheeraj Akolkar talks candidly about what iconic Swedish director Ingmar Bergman meant to him, and why there should be more Indo-Swedish films made.

Meet the Indian filmmaker who brought Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann's love story to the big screen
Liv Ullmann and Dheeraj Akolkar at the 50th New York Film Festival. Photo: Rune H Trondsen, Producer, Liv & Ingmar

On July 14th, 2018, Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman would have been a hundred years old. As the film industry and his fans commemorate his centennial anniversary, The Local contributor Rupali Mehra spoke to Indian filmmaker Dheeraj Akolkar, who directed the film 'Liv & Ingmar' (2012) on one of Bergman's most complex relationships – that with his actor, muse and soulmate, Liv Ullmann.

You're a qualified architect who got into films. How did the idea of a film on Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann, who many call his soulmate, come about?

I was working in India and at the house of a legendary filmmaker and producer, I found Liv Ullmann's book 'Changing'. I started reading it and was completely hooked. It was one of the most honest pieces of literature I had ever read. But as I was reading I got the feeling that there was a lot she had not written. There was a lot in between the spaces.

There is a memory Liv writes about – visiting Ingmar with their daughter at Fårö after their break-up. She comes to the house which he built for her, on the spot where he declared his love for her. She writes in the book that when she arrives, “a new woman is standing by the door and she looks happier than I was. Yet the house has the same curtains and the same furniture, she hasn't tried to remove me from there and I thank her for that.”

Then Liv is told, “we have organized the guest house for you”. Liv writes in the book, “for the first time I see my own house from the window of the guest house – nothing can hurt me anymore”.

Even as I am saying these words I can sense the pain in that line. But she is doing the right thing, being a friend. It tugged at my heart. 

Then in 2007 Bergman passed away.

At the time, I was studying in London, doing my Masters and watching a lot of Ullmann-Bergman films. When Bergman passed away, I was flipping through newspapers, trying to see what Liv had said about Ingmar's passing. But she had said nothing.

That evening, my film came to me, and I wrote it down as a poem that very moment, about their kind of togetherness and that was to become the film.

I know this sounds like a cliché, but I think the film chose me. Because this story had existed for 42 years in Scandinavia, and why did nobody else make it? This was deeper than just wanting to make a film.

That's how it all started.

Ullmann and Akolkar on the last day of shooting at Fårö island. Photo: Hallvard Brein, Cinematographer, Liv & Ingmar

Did you think you would get a response from Liv Ullman on a story so personal to her?

There has been a lot of cynicism about their relationship, but I was not interested in that cynicism. I was interested in the unspoken and the unsaid that I had sensed – something vital that connected them and kept them together through 42 years and 12 films.

I did expect a response from Liv. I was a struggling filmmaker and hope was all I had, honestly. But when she called – and I remember the date and time: It was February 23rd, 2008 and it was 2.30pm – I remember the phone ringing and I remember the voice saying, “This is Liv Ullmann.”

The reason I was stunned was  because Liv, for me, is excellence. Liv said: “If you find the support to put the film together, I will participate.”

Here was a famous actor, telling a very personal story of the love and turmoil between her and the iconic Ingmar Bergman – all this while being directed by a young Indian filmmaker. How did it all fall into place?

I have to say I owe the producers Rune Trondsen and Stein Roger Bull so much because they and their company NordicStories put so much faith behind me, an unknown filmmaker.

The second part of the equation was that it was all very human. People of ten to 12 different nationalities worked on this film and at the end, it is just a human experience.

At the same time, it was very overwhelming. When we were on location, in Bergman's house on Fårö, the door opened and Liv Ullmann walked in. It felt like it was happening in one of his films. 

Liv completed bared her heart, and at the end of the filming, we all bonded so beautifully. It is a friendship that continues to this date.

Ullmann in Bergman's theatre. She did the interview with her hand on his chair. Photo: Hallvard Brein

What do you think of Bergman as a person and as a filmmaker?

I feel as a person he was a child. He was this gigantic genius cinematically and in theatre, but I feel the reason he was able to tap into all of these emotions with such brutal honesty, is because there was a certain innocence to him.

Lack of love seemed to have marked him from his childhood. I saw  a documentary which showed Bergman talking about how he used to go to hug his mother and she used to push him away. In my mind this is a man who always felt abandoned. His films are so full of longing – of people who cannot belong! 

When I first met Liv in Norway, she had asked me why I wanted to make the film, and I said to her: “You are in the last frame of his last film. This is not a coincidence for a filmmaker like Ingmar Bergman.” Perhaps I am reading too much into this, perhaps I am a romantic, I don't know.

But I felt I was proven right when we found his letters (to Ullmann). They couldn't live together, perhaps because they were two headstrong individuals, but they couldn't live apart either. Liv and Ingmar were truly, painfully connected. I met the producers of 'Saraband', and they said to me that throughout Ingmar's last years he kept confiding in them that he wished he had married Liv, but it was too late then.

Bergman and Ullmann in 1977. Photo: Pressens Bild

You juxtaposed an interview with Liv Ullmann, the love letters of Ingmar and the films Ingmar and Liv did together. What made you choose this format? Were you influenced by Bergman's storytelling style?

Yes, absolutely. For example, there is a scene in 'The Passion of Anna' where Anna has a dream, and in that dream Bergman has used a sequence which he had shot for 'Shame'. I also loved this thought that Liv Ullmann as Marianne knocks on a door in 'Scenes From A Marriage' and 30 years later in the beginning of the film 'Saraband' the same Marianne comes in through another door.

I find it fascinating that time spent and films made together are like rooms of the same house – you can walk out of one and into another with effortless ease. If you ever go to Ingmar's house it feels like it is divided into chapters like in 'Scenes From A Marriage'. They are all intertwined, interconnected. Every great artist has constructed his/her own life into their work of art.

Earlier my film was supposed to be include many more people, but unfortunately it wasn't possible.Then I thought to myself, “instead of looking at this as a problem, why don't we turn it into strength? Why do we need anybody else? The story belongs to Liv and Ingmar, and Liv has agreed to participate.”

Then luckily we found those letters, so there was Ingmar talking as well – through them. His own words, in his own handwriting, are there. We also used Liv's autobiography 'Changing'; about which Ingmar says, “Liv's account is affectionately accurate”.

But our film is not about what happened. Our film is about memories – it is about remembering what happened. These are two different things. 

Shooting 'Scenes from a Marriage' with Erland Josephson, left, in 1972. Photo: Gunnar Lantz/SvD/TT

Your film was shot after Bergman had passed away. If he was around, do you think he would have agreed to be part of the documentary?

I think he would have agreed to be a part of it. A lot of Bergman scholars and people who know him would probably criticize me for saying this, but I feel he would have agreed because the complexity of love he had for Liv was not sensed by very many people.

Perhaps somebody from India, from a different continent and time zone had to come up and say, “but I see this love clearly and I want to celebrate it, in whatever form that you choose to talk about. Say it as you have experienced it.”

I wish I had met him because I had so much to ask him. Not just as a person, but as a filmmaker. His cinema is so unique, and that is because it is brutally honest, unashamedly personal, yet universal.

Liv says this on camera in our film, and I have felt it as well: I felt he was around when we made the film. If you go to his house, it is so alive with energy. 

Shooting in the National Theatre Oslo. Photo: Rune H Trondsen, Producer, Liv & Ingmar

Back in the day, there was a lot of exchange between Indian directors like Satyajit Ray and Bergman for example. Is there still an interest in Swedish filmmaking in India and vice versa today?

There has been a lot of effort. But I think a larger cultural exchange needs to take place in terms of collaborating on projects. For example, now I am putting together a film in Sweden; it is a Swedish story. There should be a lot more of that. The world has opened up so much, so we cannot and should not stay boxed in.

How about Swedish artists – painters, writers, filmmakers, poets, photographers – going for an Indian residency each year and Indian artists coming here to Sweden and the two sharing ideas and creating something together and apart? We can do so much more. 

What can both the Swedish and Indian film industry learn from each other?

I think Swedish cinema by and large is so close to real life, so honest and existential. Indian cinema could look at that, although I think it is already happening among some brilliant young filmmakers.

What Swedish cinema could learn from India, is perhaps the canvas and the diversity in Indian cinema that exists because of the extremes in the society, which you don't see much in Swedish cinema because the society is homogeneous in a way.

I am not a film scholar, I am a filmmaker. But I strongly feel that we must look at each other's differences, similarities which exist despite these differences, and the complexities that open up.

And do you think there is scope for Indo-Swedish collaborations, like your film for example?

There is immense Swedish and Indian talent. But there needs to be more access to each other to be able to collaborate. There need to be dedicated platforms, film labs, film financing initiatives. My experience is that people face the danger of only look inwards, not outwards. 

Are you working with any Swedish collaboration at the moment and in the near future?

One of my latest projects is a drama feature set in Northern Sweden. It is a true story involving a father, a son and a piano. It is a film that I intend to make in Swedish and English for home audiences in Sweden as well as international audiences.

I have made several trips to the North of Sweden and I believe that the beauty of the emptiness and silence in which this story is placed is very specific to that part of the world. It is based on my composer Stefan Nilsson's childhood days; it is his personal memories that we are adapting into a film. 

Rupali Mehra moved to Sweden from India in the spring of 2017. She is a former television anchor & senior editor. She now runs a communications consultancy and can be reached at [email protected]

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