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Bergman Discovers Love

Ingmar Bergman has described himself in the years before World War II—during the Hitler period—as a “pro-German fanatic,” a political orientation which, by his own admission, lasted until 1945 when he was twenty-seven. This is a picturesque detail to which I shall later return, but for understanding Bergman’s early films the most significant fact of his youth is that his father was a Lutheran pastor, chaplain, in fact, to the royal house of Sweden.

The first film ever released in the United States with which Bergman had been connected was one that he had written (not directed). Called Hets (“Torment”), it was given a spectacular reception in the late 1940’s by critics and the American film-going public. Its star was Mai Zetterling, who briefly became famous, even going to Hollywood to co-star with Danny Kaye. Hollywood’s idea of a religious movie in those days was Bing Crosby’s Going My Way and Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette, and the sudden immersion in the Kierkegaardian world of Ingmar Bergman, where man lives in a state of depravity, in terror of an angry God, must have produced something of a shock.

The first important film which Bergman was allowed to direct as well as write was Fängelse (“Prison”), released in 1949. The plot concerns a young prostitute who eventually commits suicide (suicide was to remain a Bergman leitmotif for many years). But the handling of the story could not be more different from the way a “liberal” writer-director would deal with the subject today. In the young woman’s somber conversations with a journalist (who seems more cleric than reporter), we are not told that her condition is the fault of society, or capitalism, or poverty, or unemployment. The film, instead, is peppered with references to God and the Devil, good and evil, life and death.

In 1953, Bergman made two quite remarkable movies, Summer With Monika and Gycklarnas Afton (called in Britain “Sawdust and Tinsel” and in America “The Naked Night”), both starring Harriet Andersson. In Summer With Monika a young, middle-class Swede is smitten with the easy sexuality of a beautiful working-class girl from south Stockholm. They spend their summer holiday together. There are nude love scenes on the beach. The young man is in love and seems to have found that paradise of the senses of which he has always dreamed. But, the summer over, Monika shows that in addition to being sensual and light-hearted she is also fickle, and breezily drops him for someone new, leaving him alone and disconsolate. The final frames of the movie, a seeming commentary on the fleeting nature of happiness, are of an unmitigated bleakness.

But it was in The Naked Night that Bergman attained his full range of expression. He secured for the first time the priceless talents of Sven Nyquist, one of the world’s great cinematographers, from whom he was never again to be separated. And it was perhaps because of Nyquist’s visual virtuosity that it occurred to me (when I later saw The Naked Night) that the leading dramatic influence on Bergman’s work of this period was not August Strindberg, as was often said, but the great Norwegian expressionist painter Edvard Munch—whose most famous single painting is probably The Shriek, with its scream of horror at what can only be the human condition. The Naked Night, in any event, is straight Munch. The story is about the members of a small-time traveling circus who experience, collectively, a kind of metaphysical nightmare: sexual betrayal; a clown, hysterical with despair, trying to kill himself in the middle of the night in a circus wagon rolling over a forsaken countryside; an older woman putting her bear through his pathetic tricks. This is The Naked Night of the soul, of all of us.

At this point, Bergman was still virtually unknown outside his native country. It required Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) and The Seventh Seal (1957), both of which won prizes at the Cannes Film Festival, to launch him upon the world. Smiles of a Summer Night, which was later brought to Broadway in vulgarized musical form as A Little Night Music (which in turn was to become a disastrously unsuccessful movie in its own right), has been called a “comedy of manners,” an expression I am not entirely happy with. It shows, in any case, Bergman in a lighter mood. But in The Seventh Seal he was doing business again at the old stand. An allegorical tale set in the Middle Ages, the film deals openly with the relationship of God and man. Death, all dressed in black, appears periodically to debate mortality with a knight (Max von Sydow) just returned from the Crusades. Gunnar Björnstrand plays the knight’s squire, Bibi Andersson represents some kind of beautiful innocence, and the whole film is wonderfully cast and directed. Swedes have always warned me that if I understood Swedish I would find Bergman’s metaphysical discourses on God and mortality stale and platitudinous (a warning that came back to me most acridly when I heard Elliott Gould’s lines in English in Bergman’s The Touch and the speeches of an entire English-speaking cast in his 1977 The Serpent’s Egg). But, my eyes bouncing up and down and with only the subtitles for guidance, I considered his films of the 50’s and early 60’s very impressive. Wild Strawberries, made the same year as The Seventh Seal, explores the problem of man’s isolation. But with Alf Sjöberg, the famous director, playing the self-centered, allegedly loveless old curmudgeon, the effect is considerably softened, which might help to explain the film’s great commercial success. (Coincidentally, Sjöberg had directed Hets.)

Bergman stuck by his favorite themes through the early 60’s. The Virgin Spring (1960) is another medieval allegory. A metaphysical trilogy (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, The Silence) is about people who are seeking God, or have lost Him. In my favorite, Winter Light, a pastor (Gunnar Björnstrand), in an isolated parish in the north of Sweden, tries to bring God to a flock which has so dwindled that his church is almost deserted. Yet, desperately, he preaches on.

In 1964, Bergman, quite out of character, made a broad sexual farce called All These Women, his first film in color. In a fit of narcissism, he filled the roles of all seven leading ladies with his own ex-wives and ex-mistresses. It was unquestionably an appalling movie, the worst he had ever made, and was also a financial disaster. Having failed at broad comedy, he began casting about, perhaps looking for something new, in keeping with the spirit of the times. Two years later, in Persona (1966), his first film with Liv Ullmann, he abandoned God for Sigmund Freud.

For all I know, Bergman had never believed in God to begin with. Perhaps it had all been just theater. But the religious faith of his ancestors had plainly struck a responsive chord in him. When he entered the world of Freud and psychological behavior, however, his work declined precipitously in quality. Persona, Shame, The Passion of Anna, The Touch, and Scenes from a Marriage were just superior Swedish soap opera. Cries and Whispers, despite flashes of the old Bergman and its great commercial success, I do not place much higher. The Magic Flute, although well directed, is after all Mozart.

In my view, in sum, all of Bergman’s great films were made in one ten-year burst from 1953 to 1963. When the 60’s hit Bergman, he abandoned God, death, and the Kierkegaardian despair that had been his hallmark in favor of psychology and a form of elevated soap opera. But the director’s last phase began in 1976 when he was arrested in Stockholm by two plainclothes policemen, booked at a nearby police station, and charged with income-tax fraud. Shortly afterward, Bergman suffered a deep nervous breakdown and was hospitalized in a state of extreme depression.

Although the charges were dropped and he was implored by the Swedish Prime Minister himself to continue his career, Bergman went into self-imposed exile. He has since returned to Sweden, “forgiven” his homeland, and resumed directing. But hardly a shred of the old Bergman remains, and his latest film, Fanny and Alexander—the virtual antithesis of the movies that won him his reputation—has as its basis a kind of groveling, pseudo-Hindu Love, Love, Love, as if Bergman, like nothing so much as an overage flower child, had just come under the influence of a Charles Reichian Greening of Sweden, and joined the counterculture.

He has made several statements about this new movie: first, that it is “the sum total of my life as a film-maker.” This is about as deceptive or self-deluded a statement as an artist has ever made about his own work. Bergman has also said that Fanny and Alexander is “a declaration of love for life.” About this we shall see.


The film takes place in 1907 in a prosperous Swedish provincial town and centers on a large, rich, “extended” family whose youngest members are the grandchildren, the eponymous Fanny and Alexander. The story is “seen” through the eyes of the ten-year-old Alexander—a dramatic technique that requires him to be simply present as an impassive witness at some of the movie’s key scenes. If Alexander played too active a part it would become “his” movie, a child’s story, so instead he merely looks on, and we look at him looking on. The head of the family is Helena Ekdahl, the grandmother, a former actress now a widow. Judging by the size of her luxurious home, with its half-dozen uniformed servants, her largesse to her less provident sons, and even the obviously costly wardrobes of little Fanny and Alexander, it is clear that Helena must have married far above her station—in fact, into one of this Swedish provincial town’s very richest families. Yet we never meet a single one of her late husband’s family—the original Ekdahls—and we never learn how they acquired their wealth (timber? mining? ball bearings?). However it was, its money-grubbing nature would inevitably jar with the family Helena has raised, which is essentially artistic.

Those unaware of the humiliatingly low economic and social status of actors in the period in question have only to read the novels of the late Jean Rhys, set in an even later period. In the early days of Hollywood—the social circumstances of which now seem to have been erased from the memory of the race—rooming houses quite commonly carried signs reading: “NO DOGS OR ACTORS.” So Grandmother Helena, as can be seen, married very well indeed.


Fanny and Alexander opens with lavish Christmas celebrations at the opulent Ekdahl family home, including—from grandmother, to children, to grandchildren, to servants—in all, twenty-six persons. There is joy. There is laughter. There is love. There is good eating. There is singing, and dancing hand-in-hand throughout the palatial Edwardian house. During the holiday celebrations we learn most of what we need to know about Helena and her family. Her oldest son has succeeded her in directing the family-owned theater and, although a bad actor himself, is lovable, both in his manner and in his dedication to his theater, his company, and his art. He has a beautiful young wife, Emilie, also an actress. Fanny and Alexander are their children. Another of grandmother’s sons is lovable in a slightly more unusual way. He is a businessman, runs a successful luxury restaurant, and is an ebullient, irrepressible philanderer. What is remarkable about this is that no one is hurt or takes the slightest offense at what the publicity material accompanying the film calls his “kindly, delightful hedonism.” His wife finds his adulteries charming, as do his sister-in-law, his mother, and even his daughter. His wife and family giggle and joke about it simply all the time. His principal paramour is one of the family servants, and a very pretty one, but (now this is interesting) she is also lame. I have no doubt at all that this fact establishes Uncle Gustav Adolf as a humanistic philanderer. He sets his servant-mistress up in her own pastry shop. Yesterday but a house servant, she is accepted on terms of equality into the wealthy Ekdahl family. No Fannie Hurst Back Street for her. And, wonder of wonders, all class distinctions having been totally volatilized, Gustav Adolf’s lame mistress and Gustav Adolf’s legitimate daughter, one of the wealthy Ekdahls, announce their plans of opening a milliner’s shop together.

Grandmother Helena’s third son, a professor, is less lovable than the other two, but has rare gifts at what the French call pétomanie. Which is to say that he performs prodigies of flatulence, at one point succeeding in blowing out a candle to the delight of the assembled children. He is also a drunk, which is arguably lovable.

But to my mind the most interesting participant in the Ekdahls’ Christmas celebrations is the only one not related to them by blood or marriage, an old Jew named Isak (Erland Josephson of Scenes from a Marriage), by his habit Orthodox, by profession an antique dealer and moneylender. Now an Orthodox Jewish moneylender is not the first person one would expect to see at a socially prominent Christian family’s Christmas celebrations (could he even touch the food?), but we are told that he is “an old friend of the family,” and learn shortly that he and Helena had once been passionate lovers—behind the back of her husband, who not only supported her in a manner to which she had never been accustomed but also provided the wealth the Ekdahls are still enjoying. Late in the evening Helena reminisces with Isak about the fevered kisses they once exchanged. “You had unbuttoned my blouse—I think you’d unbuttoned your trousers too. . . .” Whereupon her husband entered, and, after a brief pique, the three of them became “friends for life.”


“If you have no dark passages,” says Ingmar Bergman, “you cannot see the lighter side.” So into the life of the joyful, loving, vital Ekdahls, a little rain falls. The father of Fanny and Alexander, the theater manager, dies. But this brings their beautiful mother Emilie an imposing new suitor, a cleric, Bishop Vergerus, who becomes, rather speedily, her husband and the children’s stepfather. The death also provides the movie, which with all this loving was beginning to turn in circles, with a second act.

Those unfamiliar with the clerics and other seekers after God of Bergman’s major period can hardly appreciate the shock of his portrayal of Bishop Vergerus. The bishop, stern and handsome, is shown even in his first scene to be overbearing, smug, and sanctimonious. But it is after the marriage that he reveals himself as a true monster. One might think that Emilie might have sounded him out earlier on this, but she is astonished when the bishop demands that she and her children leave everything behind them, their pretty clothes, their distractions, their toys, to join him in a life of monastic austerity. (There was a time in early Bergman when austerity might have been seen as drawing men closer to God, but the director is now in his Timothy Leary period.) The bishop, in any event, does not stop at austerity. He must bend his new family entirely to his tyrannical will. He whips his stepson Alexander, locks his new wife Emilie in a special room to break her spirit. There are rumors that he drove his earlier wife and children to suicide. The bishop’s whole entourage is repellent. His sister is a malicious hysteric, his mother an icy-eyed martinet, his aunt a morbid, bedridden invalid. He has a neurotic servant (Harriet Andersson) who continually scrapes an open sore to keep the wound festering. Emilie’s love for the bishop rapidly turns into hatred, but she dare not desert him, for, with this morally reprehensible act against her, the bishop would retain custody of her children.

It turns out, however (Act 3), that the old Jew Isak, besides being an antique dealer and moneylender, is also a necromancer (this is the first appearance in the film of any magic). He spirits the two children away from the wicked bishop and hides them in the nether regions of his antique shop, which at this point suddenly expands into a labyrinthine storeroom of figures for the paintings of James Ensor. Alexander, moreover, wandering about at night, crosses into a forbidden zone and encounters Isak’s shame, his sequestered nephew Ismael, who is (1) insane, (2) homosexual (played by a woman), and (3) capable of such Semitic sorcery as to put his uncle to shame. While caressing the impassive Alexander, and without so much as a beetle’s leg or a frog’s eye, Ismael causes the following to come about, and at many miles’ distance. At the bishop’s monastery-like palace, his invalid, bedridden aunt knocks over an oil lamp, setting herself on fire. In agony, blazing like a torch, she runs screaming into the bishop’s bedroom, setting him on fire, too. The next morning they are found dead, the flames having consumed them both. So if you want a little piece of effective sorcery, stick with the Jews. They have these strange powers. Either that or, Ismael being an Arab name, it is the Arabs who have the strange powers. They are related, are they not? (I have no doubt, incidentally, that in Bergman’s symbolist language the sequestered Ismael is an appeal for a “Free Palestine.”)

Emilie and her children, in any event, return rapturously to the bosom of the Ekdahl family, which resumes its joyful, loving, vital life of “good food, gentle smiles, fruit trees in bloom, waltzes” (I am quoting from a speech).


The full published text of Fanny and Alexander, contains an interesting stage direction—clearly reflected in the film itself. As the bishop’s pathetic, bedridden aunt lifts her hand with great effort and lays it on the hot paraffin lamp, an action which leads to her horrible death, Bergman writes as follows:

There is no counsel for the defense, who, orally or in writing, has a mind to plead Elsa Bergius’s cause. She is repulsive, she is rotting, a parasite, a monster. Her part will soon be played out. She is a loaf that hasn’t risen in the world’s batch and it is no use wasting pity on such an utter failure.

So amid all the loving, and caring, and joyful hedonism, a poor invalid burns to death. But we must “waste no pity” on such a repulsive creature because she hasn’t risen in the world’s batch, because her part is played out, because she is a failure.

Now the reader will have noticed that, having mentioned Bergman’s youthful fascination with Hitler’s Germany at the beginning of this essay, I dropped it during my discussion of his major films on God, death, mortality, and the human condition. When he left God for Freud and psychology it did not seem relevant. But now that he has changed sides and gone over to “love,” hedonism, and all that, and decided there is a real enemy again (curiously enough, the same God-ridden people he once professed to admire), I find myself thinking again of the freely confessed political enthusiasms of Bergman’s youth. There were at that time many young men in Germany who thought “parasites” and “failures” were totally unworthy of human pity, and these young men wore death’s heads on their caps and marched to the orders of Heinrich Himmler. Think on’t.


An intelligent critic, David Brudnoy, has made a respectable case that Fanny and Alexander is a comedy. And I certainly agree with him to the extent that if you are to enjoy the film at all you must find it comic. But Bergman himself tells us that the movie is a “declaration of love for life.” And, particularly since it doesn’t make me laugh much, and is filled with such preachy and mawkish speeches, I am inclined to think that this is what Bergman feels the film really is. Which compels me, for my part, to state that I do not for one second believe in this joyful, loving Ekdahl family. I do not believe Uncle Gustav Adolf’s wife is delightfully amused at his persistent adultery. I don’t believe the lame servant-mistress is generously embraced by the family. I don’t believe Helena Ekdahl’s late husband became lifelong friends with her Jewish lover. I don’t believe in the Jewish lover. I want to know what he ate at Christmas. I don’t believe one word of this “love” glup that runs from one end of the film to the other. When Ingmar Bergman talked to me of God and death I respected him despite his past political sympathies. But now that he’s prattling on about love, and gentle smiles, and fruit trees in bloom, I think something in him has snapped.


Pantheon, 216 pp., $13.95.

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