Ingmar Bergman: Dangerous liaisons

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Geoffrey Macnab describes how his new book on the film director led him to discover the intense and volatile relationships the director 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 two years ago, 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 art-house 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. The emotion he felt when he had them caught in the viewfinder was clearly akin to the ecstasy that he had experienced as a child with his first movie projector – his famous "magic lantern" – looking at some flickering images from an old movie. By cranking a handle on a metal box, he had been able to make a woman asleep in a meadow spring to life and move. Now, with Bibi and Harriet, he could achieve something similar.

As Harriet Andersson acknowledged, his leading performers grew exasperated at his tendency to describe them as "my actresses", as if they were his chattels. From the very beginning of Bergman's career in the 1940s to its very end 60 years later, the women in his films have testified to the intense and claustrophobic relationship he cultivated with them. "He wanted to be extraordinarily close to his actors – too close for comfort. I didn't want to be one of his puppets," the actress and film-maker Mai Zetterling (who worked with him in the 1940s) recalled.

His namesake, Hollywood legend Ingrid Bergman (who appeared in Autumn Sonata in 1978 just a few years before her death from cancer) was so discomfited by Bergman's intense approach on set that she once slapped him.

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.

It was telling that he compared her both to a religious figure and to one of the most radiant of silent-movie actresses. Late in his career, he made a haunting short documentary, Karin's Face (1986), which told the story of his mother's life through a selection of still images taken from family albums. In the early photographs, she is a strikingly beautiful woman but in the later portraits, she begins to age and disappear from view. As Bergman puts it, "she disappears into group photographs."

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. Harriet Andersson recalls going to discuss her career over tea and sandwiches in Bergman's office. At the time, both had other partners but that didn't stop them starting a relationship. Such on-the-hoof romances affected – and sometimes even directly inspired – the films Bergman made. His love life also moulded his career in a more prosaic way. Five times married, he had a small army of ex-wives and children to support.

"I used to go once a month to the post office to send the money to his wives. It was a lot of money for that time," recalls Katinka Farago, Bergman's former assistant and producer. She remembers how highly strung the director used to be when she was first hired by him as a 17-year-old in the mid 1950s. "He was not so nice to work with," she recalls of Bergman at the time of Dreams (1955). "He had a terrible reputation. He was screaming and hollering and very nervous. He wasn't happy at that time and not very well. He weighed nothing. He was very thin and had all these stomach problems and so on."

The image Farago conjures up of a bad-tempered and neurotic director, browbeating his colleagues, doesn't accord with the image of Bergman as lofty, Prospero-like magician.

In this period, 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. "They thought he was too self-indulgent," Farago says.

Bergman was strategic in his tantrums. Invariably, he was generally sympathetic toward the actors. It was the technicians who suffered. The anger wasn't feigned, though. As Farago 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.

Bibi Andersson later claimed she felt as if she was walking a tightrope when she collaborated with Bergman. "He likes you to come up with ideas," she told one journalist. "If you show nothing, he gets very angry because he says he must have a starting point; you must show that you have some idea of what the scene is about. But if you are too firm in your convictions you can have terrible arguments with him."

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. In his autobiography, The Magic Lantern, Bergman writes that he was "happy for her happiness" and describes Olin as "lovely and decent". However, what she remembers is that he was "very furious" about the pregnancy, "and very unforgiving as well. He was really mean."

Years later, when Olin (then based with her family in the US) refused to come back to Sweden to appear in another Strindberg production, Bergman's formidable wrath was again provoked. Olin realised that the only way to patch up their relationship was to keep out of his way. "You've got to leave it a few years!"

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. "First, I was a sumptuous thing in Summer with Monika. Then, I became the object of jealousy in Sawdust and Tinsel, complete with the wife in the background. After that comes A Lesson in Love, where I was a defiant and sad little teenager. Then came Dreams, where I was a sad girl again and where neither of us felt well," Andersson recalled on stage during the 2006 Bergman Week Festival. She also went on to play a maid in Smiles of a Summer Night, made just at the point when their own relationship was ending, a mentally disturbed visionary in Through a Glass Darkly and a woman dying a painful and protracted death from cancer in Cries and Whispers.

Bergman had 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, an adaptation of Knut Hamsun's Pan 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". Bibi Andersson played a pretty young nurse. Ullmann was the brooding classical actress who is seemingly traumatised during a production of Electra and becomes catatonic. "For the first time, I met a director who let me express emotions and thoughts that no one else had seen in me," Liv 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, from the home movies he shot in the 1950s with his 9.5 mm Bell + Howell camera to his final features, had luminous close-ups of his actresses. "The human face is one of the most cinematographic things that exists," he once stated.

No one can deny that Bergman's private life was messy in the extreme. At times, his egotism, jealousy and anger appalled his collaborators, even his beloved actresses. 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 film-maker 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.

Bergman at his best

Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)

The romantic comedy won the prize for Best Poetic Humour at Cannes in 1956, bringing Bergman to international fame. The original plot was subsequently adapted by director Woody Allen for his remake, titled, 'A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy'.

Wild Strawberries (1957)

Bergman confessed after making this film that the protagonist, Professor Borg, was a cinematic attempt at justifying himself to his parents. Opening with an iconic dream sequence, the film's central premise is of forgiveness between parents and children, and the awareness of our diminishing potential as we grow older.

Through a Glass Darkly (1961)

The first in Bergman's famous Faith trilogy, the plot questions love and the fragility of family relationships through the unhappy state of the human psyche. The film is set on a remote island where a family are holidaying, and in one scene God is envisioned as a spider in this sinister analysis of schizophrenia.

The Silence (1963)

The last in the Faith trilogy is regarded as one of the most sexually provocative films of its day, and is concerned with the emotional isolation of two sisters. It follows their train journey to the fabricated city of Timoka, which means in Estonian "belonging to the hangman". Atmosphere, rather than the explicit, is paramount to this piece, which toys with themes of incest and death.

Cries and Whispers (1973)

Two sisters care for their terminally ill third sister in this classic that depicts the cruelty of mortality, winning 19 separate awards altogether. The central theme, softened by Bergman's beautiful narrative, is that through love, the fear of pain, and ultimately inexorable death, can be diminished to something bearable.

Ruth Gilbe

'Ingmar Bergman: the Life and Films of the Last Great European Director' by Geoffrey Macnab is published by IB Tauris

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