Bergman: A year in a life

Jane Magnusson’s new Directorial offering, Bergman: A Year in a Life, looks at the tempestuous life and career of the legendary Swedish film maker Ingmar Bergman, to mark his centenary year.

Widely regarded as Sweden’s finest Director of the post-war era, his films are now regarded as epic masterpieces, drawing on religious ideology, sensuality and barren landscapes. A nine-time Academy award nominee, Bergman won the Best Foreign Film Oscar for The Virgin Spring (1960), Through A Glass Darkly (1961) and Fanny & Alexander (1982). But it is at his most vulnerable moments, that Magnusson perfectly captures the essence of Bergman in her new feature, a worthy ‘sequel’ to her previous work Trespassing Bergman (2013). Over three years, Jane interviewed many of those who worked with Bergman directly; from sound technicians, assistant Directors, and stars including Elliott Gould & Gunnel Lindblom.

Bergman is at a crossroads in 1957. His life is spiralling out of control. Meeting two future wives, he’s already a father of six (with three different women), committed to four stage plays, working on one television production, and is the midst of directing epic masterpieces Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal. Bergman realises his reputation is on the line but he recognises this is his chance to make a name for himself. Overwhelmed by the magnitude of his full-scale projects he is pushing himself to extremes at the detriment of his own health. Fighting off painful stomach ulcers, Bergman experiences crippling bouts of insomnia and depression, bound to contractual obligations. ‘He wasn’t the ‘great’ Ingmar Bergman yet, he’d been making films for 13 years, but had made Summer with Monika (1953). It was a huge hit, but he didn’t become a name with that film’ explains Magnusson. ‘It was with Smiles Of A Summer Night in 1956 that he had a breakthrough, winning at the Cannes Film Festival. So he’s becoming Ingmar Bergman. He realises that he has this one big year to either make it or blow it, and is determined to become that big, iconic Director. Bergman says ‘yes’ to too many projects, but he’s under contract and has to keep a salary. He’s so exhausted, so it’s amusing that he checks himself into hospital to write Wild Strawberries rather than resting.’

Bergman’s insatiable appetite spills over into his complicated private life. Muses become lovers, sometimes overlapping one another, causing inevitable pain, confusion and heartbreak. His passion quickly turns to violence, notably during his volatile relationship with journalist Gun Grut.

‘It would be lovely to say he was charming and faithful in 1957 but you have to be truthful, and he wasn’t.’ says Jane. ‘We started making this film three years ago, way before the #me too movement. People were quite worried about what the film would contain; I already decided that I wanted to talk about his lovers. #Me too came along and kind of saved me from trying to tarnish his reputation as the ‘Great Master’. I’m not trying to tarnish his image, I’m just telling the truth.’

To understand the psyche of the mercurial Bergman, one has to look back at his early life in Stockholm.  Born and raised into a socially respectable but cold and abusive household, he feared his spiteful father, Lutheran Minister Erik Bergman, who ruled his family with an iron rod. Routinely punishing and humiliating his sons, Bergman later addressed his painful childhood through the autobiographical Fanny and Alexander (1982) but his toxic relationship with his bitter brother Dag, raged on throughout adulthood and old age. Despite Dag excelling in his own right as a skilled diplomat, he was openly critical of Bergman to the Press, probably stemming from the fact that Dag was the target for most of his father’s uncontrollable rages. Bergman’s form of escapism was film, which he discovered at the age of 9, experimenting  with a magic lantern he acquired after swopping over a set of tin soldiers. ‘We should all be happy that we don’t have a big older brother like Dag.’ says Jane. He was probably a sadist. He’s really mean to Bergman throughout childhood (getting him to eat worms) and he continues being mean the more famous Bergman becomes, through his barbed comments in his interviews. It’s like he’s trying to destroy him. Growing up in Stockholm with their authoritarian Priest father and neurotic mother would be a hard time for anybody. But his brother just wants to sabotage him.’

Bergman is not without reproach. He openly discusses his early affiliation with Hitler in his autobiography, admitting his admiration for Hitler’s rallies during his excursion to Germany in 1934 at the age of 16. It is not until 1946 that he finally denounces Hitler but the damage is done. ‘I don’t try to ignore the fact that Bergman supported Hitler during the war. This is not news. Bergman did think the pictures of concentration camps were propaganda. Bergman wasn’t alone as a sympathiser in Sweden, there was a lot of fear in the country at the time. Bergman writes about it in his autobiography, he isn’t loveable and endearing – just honest. I have to come in once in a while and say ‘but look at the great work Bergman did as an artist.’

Bergman’s love affair with Sweden soured in 1976 when he was accused of tax evasion. By this time he had finally settled down, decamping to Munich with his last wife Ingrid Rosen. But an elderly Bergman doesn’t have a happy ending. Ingrid dies, and he retreats to a secluded life on the island of Faro. Considered untouchable with no-one brave enough to stand up to his volcanic temper tantrums, Bergman isn’t afraid to take on those he perceives to be competition. Bergman publicly berates and humiliates young actor Thorsten Flinck in Stockholm during the nineties, incensed by Flinck’s new ideas for the staging of The Misanthrope in Bergman’s absence as a director at The Royal Theatre. But the issue was more to do with Bergman’s awareness of his own sense of mortality, stemming from deep seated insecurity; ‘It takes a whole society and culture to build that kind of iconic tyrant at The Royal Theatre.’ says Jane. ‘He couldn’t get there alone. He had to have circles around him of people who just said ‘yes’ to him. Bergman was guaranteed to bring in audiences with those who loved his films; everything he touched after the commercial success of Fanny & Alexander turned to gold. If nobody stops you, you become a tyrant.’

However, for all Bergman’s faults, Jane respects Bergman more since the making of her first documentary on him in 2013 (Trespassing Bergman). Former lover Liv Ullman speaks warmly of Bergman who allowed her to shine as a leading lady through their film collaborations, and he developed a large and loyal circle of company players, which included Ullman and the actor Max Von Sydow (whose son, Henrik has worked with Jane on the documentary). ‘I like him more now then when I started, because before it was all about the ‘great’ artist, admired by his peers and fellow film makers. He is so honest about his weaknesses, there’s something good about that.’ explains Jane. ‘He admits he’s a terrible father and husband, and unfaithful. Bergman’s exorcising his demons, and treats what’s going on inside his head. He is a man who is super sensitive to sound, light, food, dreams, but not really to other people. My hope is that young people will see this documentary and go ‘I have never heard of this strange, great artist before, but now I would like to see some of his films.’

Jane Magnusson will take part in a Q&A after the 6.10pm screening of the film at BFI Southbank on Friday 25 February.

https://www.bfi.org.uk/whats-on/bfi-film-releases/bergman-year-life

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About Lynsey Ford

A film and media graduate from Birkbeck College, I am a freelance journalist based in London, and Co-Editor of The People's Movies. My work has been published with numerous publications including The British Film Institute, The Spread, The Stage, The Culture Trip & The Quietus.

View all posts by Lynsey Ford →