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THE SIGNIFICANCE OF INGMAR BERGMAN
by Jörn Donner
Originally published in Chaplin: Ingmar Bergman at 70–a Tribute, 1988
Bergman's artistic self-understanding leads him to try to make a synthesis of the chaotic and irrational conditions of private life and of external life, which is often dissimulation and play-acting. His films have a defiant spirit that makes his moral significance even greater than his strictly artistic significance, Jörn Donner writes.
Around 1945 new trends appeared in art, also in film. A change of generation was coming. The new names in Japan, Italy but also Sweden had begun their work earlier. But the end of the war was a watershed, people say in retrospect.
Bergman made his first film as an independent director. Afterwards people have wanted to say that Torment (U.K. title Frenzy) is more his film than Alf Sjöberg's. Perhaps–for those to whom his later films offer the benefit of hindsight.
Bergman has often described how he felt when he made Crisis. He has probably somewhat exaggerated his total lack of professional knowledge. One result, in any event, was that over the years he became a craftsman and perfectionist. No aspect of working in films is unknown to him, they say. Later there were a lot of stories about how thorough he was and how he only rarely and reluctantly changed co-workers or actors.
In 1945 he was known in his native country as a theatre director and writer. In Swedish literature it was a time of renewal. Crisis was no example of renewal. Yet remarkably, there were critics who saw something new arriving with Bergman's first film. The fact that he of all people was allowed to make films was perhaps also related to the quantitative boom then prevailing, with about 40 new Swedish films per year.
The Devil's Wanton
In the spring of 1949 I spent a week in Stockholm. It was my first trip abroad. In my youthful surroundings, people were talking about a film called The Devil's Wanton, which had just premiered. It was an upsetting experience for a 16-year-old to see this film, which seemed to open up whole new possibilities and left room for many interpretations. From that moment, Bergman became an artistic companion, sometimes a guiding star, stubbornness and frenzy personified.
The Devil's Wanton told in pictures what Swedish 1940s literature was saying in words. It was a time of artistic experimentation. The Devil's Wanton signified (we now know) the starting pistol of the Bergman epoch in Swedish cinema, the Bergman epoch in world cinema.
Success and Paris
The Devil's Wanton was avant garde. So was The Naked Night (U.K. title Sawdust and Tinsel), at least judging by how difficult it was for many critics to accept this relatively simple tale. The Naked Night is about an eternal theme, about love, jealousy and degradation, but it is possible that something in its experimental form made the resistance great, just as it has always been when something new is being created.
Smiles of a Summer Night is definitely not avant garde.
In a state of great personal difficulties Bergman made this film, which received an award and much praise at Cannes, becoming the gateway to the external successes that followed, one after the other, until certain film critics, who had begun to tire of honouring the same gods, discovered that Bergman was passé and decided to honour other masters.
Henri Langlois of the Cinémathèque in Paris had discovered Bergman before Smiles of a Summer Night. Bergman was one of many minor names in Paris, a city which had functioned for many years as the intellectual clearing house of world cinema. Then and much later, Langlois showed series of Bergman films, made the young French generation aware of Bergman's qualities–something that made Truffaut have his young hero steal a still photo from Summer with Monika, a token of his respect for Bergman.
From that period in the 1950s, the success of Bergman's films spread like rings on water. They became standard fare for those exclusive Parisian movie houses that constantly make it possible to revive past years and old films.
Bergman became a business phenomenon. This could not have happened under production conditions where studios aimed at high costs and a world audience. It was only possible under conditions where they were accustomed to short filming periods and unpretentious fees. The world audience materialized, was found in many countries, especially France and the United States, but it was not large, compared with what the Bond films of a later period required.
Bergman the business phenomenon, but also his international reputation, made it possible for the Swedish government–after a one-man campaign by Harry Schein–to go along with a film reform in 1963 that was financially unique, securing the economic position of Swedish cinema for years to come.
Bergman the business phenomenon gave Bergman the artist a freedom that was limited, to be sure, but within limits he was able to be true to himself. So he created such ascetic and distant films as Winter Light–also underestimated for almost as long as The Naked Night.
Auteur and producer
The auteur concept was coined in France and presupposed that one could compare the work of a film director with that of a writer. Cinematic images thus became as personal as poetry or prose. Behind the technical gadgetry, a single person was concealed.
Based on this philosophy, the most peculiar personalities were born, for example certain professionally able directors who had worked in Hollywood for years and had never filmed their own screenplays, instead operating mainly within the framework of an entirely commercial system. But among them, and this was perhaps the discovery, several had a personal signature.
According to this conception, the overshadowing Nordic auteur was Bergman–almost a godfather to the movement, without having to be regarded as guilty of its critical excesses.
At the same time, this meant that in Sweden his role was perceived as negative by many, among them Bo Widerberg. If there was going to be a revolt against the Swedish cinema as it was, it had to be aimed against Bergman.
This was perhaps partly because he had a strong position when it came to production decisions. Somewhere along the line, it must have occurred to him to function as a godfather-sponsor-producer for the new Swedish cinema, building up a community of young artists who learned from his experience and know-how.
Actually this combination fit him badly, because by definition his path to success could not be imitated, at least judging from what I tried to say in an early book about Bergman (1962) that his career as a filmmaker was unique, that it was built on altogether specific experiences and knowledge which could not be imitated.
In retrospect, the idea that Bergman the producer would create a bunch of little plastic-Bergman auteurs seems absurd.
He realized his failure in this respect at an early juncture. Then he made one of his many necessary departures, this time to the theatre. No one else could make films the way Bergman himself did, because everyone's handwriting is unique.
The conversation topic
What is Ingmar Bergman trying to say?
This question was being asked in more and more countries, from Australia to the United States to Sweden. Critical persons said he didn't have anything at all to say, that he was actually creating intellectual puzzles without answers, while the philosophically or religiously schooled published long, grave essays or books about him.
The world of the 1960s in a larger number of Western countries was definitely not postwar in spirit, and there was a not entirely unfounded optimism about the future. There was also a larger number of people for whom existential problems were more important than social or economic ones. Most of Bergman's films have lacked explicit social messages.
Of the many references to "Bergman's landscape," his visions and individual images, I remember an automobile journey in one of V.S. Naipaul's novels. After the fact, when I now check how the text reads, the female partner in the story merely says: Bergman.
That says everything, or nothing.
It was possible to travel around the world and talk about Bergman, because he was a conversation topic. But much later (1981) when I was trying to persuade the Chinese that Autumn Sonata was a remarkable film, they said they preferred The Brothers Lionhart, because "such" problems as in Autumn Sonata "did not exist" in China.
On the other hand they apparently existed in the Soviet Union, because Soviet intellectuals–probably illegally–had seen a large proportion of Bergman's films, and he was a topic of conversation there.
Even after he has ended his film career, he will remain a topic of conversation.
Some day, and I really hope it is a distant day, a psychologically knowledgeable and biographically schooled researcher is going to compare Bergman's nightmares and dreams (in his films) with the reality he has lived through, and discover that his films are actually an endless, cleverly masked autobiography, in the same way that his official autobiography, Laterna Magica, is cleverly masked.
There are numerous hints.
Bergman himself has told about how he finds visions and material from dreams and daydreams. It means he is childish, that he combines a child's curiosity with a child's wisdom and naïveté. That childishness has enabled him to overcome the natural inhibitions and limitations of actors. They have been able to rely on him the way children rely on someone (to the extent they do).
Childishness also means an ability to summarize a course of events in a single, simple symbolism. Childishness is the ability to unmask.
One then wonders, as the researcher should do, is it the screenplay, the directing, the actors? If not, what? I don't know if Bergman's scripts should be classified in literature as dramas or novels. They bring to the films a material rich in associations. Some of them are so meager that an outsider could hardly have made pictures from them. The sensuality and mood that the pictures convey, the series of images that return with a new content, could be conveyed through film and no other medium.
This unparalleled childishness continued through nearly 40 years of cinematic history. It has no parallel and cannot be linked with any other well-known name. Truffaut is perhaps closest, however. But he is a disciple.
Bergman and freedom
A superbly stupid but (objectively speaking) relatively harmless string of events made Bergman–via Paris and Los Angeles–eventually settle in Munich. He eventually obtained his redress but did not move home until he considered the time ripe and he had reconquered Sweden through theatre directing and Fanny and Alexander.
Some years earlier I had met in Paris with Joseph Losey, an emigrant from the United States (for the sake of his convictions) and driven out of Britain (for the sake of taxes). He took it as the most natural of things.
Bergman wanted to get revenge on Sweden, and he devoted more space to this in his autobiography than it deserves.
But this, too, was important considering that Bergman has been inner-directed, little controlled by outside impulses. In his pedantry and careful guarding of his own freedom and his working discipline, this incident came to signify a lot, because until then he had been entirely his own master. Now an outsider had wanted to control his physical freedom.
In the long run, Bergman would probably be unthinkable other than as a Swede. How Sweden reacted to what he did was always important. In many films there are triumphant victories or degrading defeats. Everything ends in a certain ironic reconciliation. This also happens in Fanny and Alexander, which is an anthology (in the best sense of the word) of Bergman themes, and therefore perhaps misunderstood.
The path to self-understanding is difficult. Bergman's private self-understanding is one thing; it does not concern us here. Artistic self-understanding leads a person to try to make a synthesis of the chaotic and irrational conditions of private life and external life, which is often dissimulation and play-acting.
Bergman's films have a defiant spirit that makes his moral significance even greater than his strictly artistic significance. And that is important. Others have written about all the rest.
Jörn Donner is a Finno-Swedish film director, producer and author. Between 1978 and 1982 he was Managing Director of the Swedish Film Institute. In recent years he has pursued a political career in Finland.