"If you were alive in the 50s and the 60s and of a certain age, a teenager on your way to becoming an adult, and you wanted to make movies, I don't see how you couldn't be influenced by Bergman."--Martin Scorsese
Okay, I am no professional film maker [though I did a few in my youth] but I, like many others, have been tremendously influenced by the catalog of films by Ingmar Bergman. My interest was in his early carrier...the metaphysical period but Martin Scorsese focuses on Saraband.
Stig Björkman conducts the following interview...
When was the first time you got in touch with a Bergman film? Do you recall your reaction and your feelings about it then?
Like most New Yorkers, I saw my first Bergman films in the 50s – The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Smiles of a Summer Night, Sawdust and Tinsel, The Magician, and so on. It's important to remember what it was like back in those days. It's not that we didn't see foreign films – we'd see them on TV with commercials, dubbed into English, black and white versions of the film if it was in color, and so on. But in those days, film culture was still in the process of forming. It was before the explosion of the 60s, when seeing films from around the world became something that was talked about in serious circles, as opposed to something that was tolerated, or spoken of among small groups of enthusiasts. So in the 50s, there were certain films and filmmakers who had a very dramatic impact on moviegoing, on the possibilities of movies, what they could do, where they could go. There was Kurosawa, with Rashomon and Seven Samurai. There was Fellini, with Nights of Cabiria and La Strada. There was Satyajit Ray with the Apu trilogy. There were the Russian films like The Cranes Are Flying. And there was Bergman. It's impossible to overestimate the effect that those films had on people. It's not that Bergman was the first film artist to confront serious themes. It's that he worked in a symbolic and an emotional language that was serious and accessible. He was young, he was setting an incredible pace, but he was looking at memory, old age, the reality of death, the reality of cruelty, and it was so vivid. So dramatic. Bergman's connection with the audience was somewhat like Hitchcock's – direct, immediate.
Then, of course, with Persona, there was a second shock wave. That was a few years later, everyone around the world was reinventing cinema, and there was a sense of Bergman as being a figure from the preceding generation, someone who paved the way for Antonioni and Godard and Resnais and the rest of the New Wave, and so on. And then, suddenly, we saw Persona, and he had suddenly gone further than anyone else. Seeing that film for the first time was so thrilling, and it was terrifying – it demanded: "Look at this! Now what can you say about movies and what they can do?"
What is it, according to you, that distinguishes a Bergman film from other directors' work? Which elements? His choice of themes or his treatment of certain themes?
One aspect of Bergman's work that is quite striking is his masterful simplicity. Scenes from a Marriage, for instance – he's doing what you should do when you're making a film about a couple, he's concentrating on the basics: the living room, the bedroom, the kitchen, the office, the living room. You're confronted with their life together, and the rhythms, the way they speak to each other, the way they move around each other, their boredom, their irritations, their hopes, the emotions they sweep under the rug. And it's all writ large. So the simplicity of concentration gives it all a kind of grandeur – it's intimate and epic at the same time. You could say the same of Shame or of an earlier picture like Winter Light. The opening scene of that picture is stunning. With every movement, every gesture of every parishioner, you feel Gunnar Björnstrand's sense of disgust and desperation deepening, a little more with each cut.
People often remark that you remember the faces in Bergman, and that's absolutely true. But you also think of the spaces between the people, and the spaces in which their interactions unfold. It's the way it is in life: it's real space, physical space, but it's also something else – an arena, of dreams or nightmares or fantasies, or a battleground. The bedroom shared by the minister and his wife in Fanny and Alexander is terrifying: the grey light, the hours going by slowly, the hatred and resentment and hurt growing, becoming monstrous; and meanwhile, Alexander is on a different kind of journey, a child's journey, and he's experiencing that same terror but in a different way. Or, there's the scene in Fanny and Alexander after the father has died, and the kids watch their mother through the doorway, walking back and forth screaming. It's a house, but it's also something else – a theater of mourning, you could say.
Then there's the dialogue – sometimes the sheer volume of dialogue is overpowering and hurtful. It's somewhat like movements of music, or waves of emotion coming at you. Bergman had such a refined understanding of movies, and so many expressive tools – silence; an intense concentration on light, shadow, different times of day; the movement within space and the movement of space: I'm thinking of those great moments when he and Sven Nykvist stay fixed on a face while the actor moves, and the space behind them seems to be moving – again, that's very lifelike, because it's close to the way consciousness works, when you're absorbed in something. And he's a masterful dramatist, he orchestrates gradual shifts in mood and tone. But sometimes the immersion in dialogue between two people, or between two couples, becomes hypnotic, then overwhelming – in Scenes from a Marriage, obviously, but also in the German film, From the Life of the Marionettes, or in The Passion of Anna, a great film. Or in Autumn Sonata.
Has Bergman and his films in any way influenced you as a filmmaker? And, if so, in what way?
It's so difficult to talk about influence. People influence you in mysterious ways. There have been certain cases in my life where I've seen work that has had a profound effect on me, and then I've gotten to know the artist and they've had a different kind of effect on me – this was the case with John Cassavates, and then with Michael Powell. In Bergman's case, I never got to know him personally. But I guess I'd put it like this: if you were alive in the 50s and the 60s and of a certain age, a teenager on your way to becoming an adult, and you wanted to make movies, I don't see how you couldn't be influenced by Bergman. You would have had to make a conscious effort, and even then, the influence would have snuck through. I know that he's had a profound impact on many filmmakers around the world, in France in particular, people like Olivier Assayas and Arnaud Desplechin and André Téchiné, and then before that Truffaut and, particularly, Godard – people forget that. But here, it was just as profound. Bergman was a force to be reckoned with. Beyond that, as I said before, there’s the simplicity – the older I get, the more I realize that’s where I want to be. There are many filmmakers who achieved that kind of simplicity – Ford, who I know Bergman admired so much, or Rossellini, or Mizoguchi. And there's Bergman. He's an example to us all.
The film you have chosen to talk more about is Saraband. Which were the reasons for this choice - and what is it in this particular film that fascinates you most?
Saraband is one of those rare pictures that so few filmmakers are able to actually make – an old man's film, as they say, made by someone who doesn't have to worry about making money, or about pleasing the audience. They're free to explore themes they love or that have preoccupied them, to revisit characters and settings, to look at any aspect of life they choose from whatever distance, in whatever register they like. I suppose that Manoel de Oliveira has this kind of freedom now – which is good, because he's 102! Rohmer had it in those last, wonderful films he made. Resnais with his recent films. And of course Bergman had Saraband.
And what's so unusual about that picture is that he'd been away from movies for so long at that point. I know he'd done the TV version of The Image Makers, the play about Sjöström, but it had been six years since In the Presence of a Clown and almost 20 years since After the Rehearsal. And suddenly, he decided that he wanted to revisit the characters from Scenes from a Marriage, check in on them. This seemed like an extraordinary thing to do.
When I saw the picture, I was taken aback. The directness of it is overwhelming, absolutely shocking. The familiarity between the characters, the history between them, the fact that Liv Ullmann is confronted with a situation between her ex-husband's child from another marriage and his daughter – the sense of generations, of so much time and experience having passed, was astounding. You realize that Ullmann and Josephson's characters have gone way beyond the final reconciliation at the end of Scenes from a Marriage, that the touchstone of that film is now a distant memory for them.
The intimacy, the naked intimacy between the characters – it's just there. And then it becomes literal, in that remarkable moment when Josephson and Ullmann take off their clothes and get into bed with each other. There’s no fuss about it, they're both wrecks, and they just do it. If you know Bergman's films and all the work he's done with both actors over the years, you realize that you're seeing a history of trust between the actors and their director, enacted in this scene. And of course, it's the characters – the nonchalance of it, the awkwardness and the fact that they don't have time to worry about being awkward, or the energy. It's sexual, in a way, but it's also the memory of sexual desire, the familiarity – there is layer upon layer of affection, rejection, animosity, failure, hopes destroyed, happiness, terror, and what it all boils down to is the familiarity, two people trying to keep each other warm, who feel comfortable taking off their clothes and getting into bed together. And you get the feeling that it would seem odd to both of them, on some level, if they didn't do it.
Then there's the ending, which comes right after. I don't really know what to say about it. You have to experience it. Liv Ullmann sits in front of a desk. She's sorting through photos. She looks at the camera, and she talks about how her character, Marianne, and Josephson's character, Johan, have slowly drifted away from each other, again, for the last time. She doesn't say, "And then he died." She says, "I wrote but didn't get an answer. A silence fell." Then, there's a dissolve, and that's the last you hear of her relationship with Johan. Then, she picks up a photo of a woman named Anna, the wife of Johan's son, who has died years before. She wonders about Anna, about her life, about the way she moved, about her love. And then she's prompted to think of her own daughter, who is in a mental institution. There's a cut, and you see Ullmann sitting down in front of a woman in an institutional room. She looks at her, reaches and takes off the woman's glasses, and it's startling, for her and for us. She's shocked into looking at her mother, and then she closes her eyes. Then we cut back to Ullmann at the desk, and she says, "I realized for the first time in our life together than I was touching my daughter. My child." Saying the words causes her to break down in tears of anguish. And then we go to the end titles.
There's nothing to say, because it's so complete, but, let's face it, there's so much to say. The sense of time moving forward, all the time, not stopping – you get such a powerful sense of that in the way she describes drifting apart from Johan again. And then, the train of thought drifts, from Johan to his daughter-in-law, to her own daughter, and as she follows the train of thought, she's led to a terrifying realization, right before our eyes – she spent a whole life separate from her daughter, and now, at long last, she was really touching her, really seeing her, for the first time. This is the way life happens, although we don't want to admit it. We build barriers with certain people, sometimes the people who mean the most to us, because the intimacy is too much, the fear of exposure is too overwhelming. We do it, and they allow us to do it, because they have the same fears. And you come to a moment of your life when you've dropped all your defenses and your mental scenarios, and you see these things clearly. It's a chilling moment, a scary moment, but it's also a liberating moment, because she’s speaking openly and without shame. And the camera is there, seeing her, recording a human face, human actions, reflecting her most honest self back to her. That's acceptance, in the Buddhist sense. And it's a kind of simplicity we should all aspire to, as people and as artists.