Through the Years With Bergman

Peter Cowie (second from right) looks on, along with  NFT head Ken Wlaschin, as  filmmaker John Boorman (left) shakes filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s hand at the National Film Theatre in London in 1982. Photo courtesy of the BFI.

Ingmar Bergman, if not quite so secretive as B. Traven or J. D. Salinger, was hard to meet during the late fifties and early sixties, long before e-mail, faxes, and low-cost airlines. Thrilled, like so many of my generation, by The Seventh Seal, I wrote to the Great Man in the spring of 1959 before going up to Cambridge at the age of nineteen. His reply, the first of his letters to me over the decades, came promptly. He began: “I think it is much better that we meet for a personal talk next time you visit Stockholm.” I didn’t go that year, but when I published my first little pamphlet on Bergman’s work in 1961, I sent it to him in Sweden. Soon afterward, in February 1962, he wrote that he had read it “with the greatest pleasure.” He had, he continued, “just finished The Communicants [Winter Light] and have started to cut the film. In that situation I never talk about my work. I am feeling too frightened.” Another polite letter followed in September of that year: “I am unfortunately just in the final part of my film The Silence and my principle is and has to be not to meet anyone during the shooting. We can perhaps meet later this coming autumn.”

Throughout the sixties, I visited Stockholm often, writing for The Financial Times about most new Bergman films immediately as they appeared there. But I could never pin him down for an interview. He would send a couple of theater tickets to my hotel, and his assistant took me to at least one dinner, but no Ingmar. My luck changed in Sorrento, near Naples, where a Swedish Film Week was held in the (elsewhere) tumultuous summer of 1968. There I met a Swedish journalist, Gunnel Hessel, who promised to introduce me to Ingmar the next time I came to Stockholm. In January 1969, Gunnel and I attended a press conference at the Royal Dramatic Theatre, where Ingmar talked about his stage production of Büchner’s Woyzeck. Afterward, we met Ingmar and he took me to dinner at the nearby Teatergrillen, where he chatted happily about his stage work, sudden thunderclaps of laughter punctuating his conversation. “I’m a fervent believer in the human imagination,” he said. “We have become lazy because color, stereo sound, and ’Scope leave nothing to our imagination.” Ingmar’s regular table was discreetly placed out of sight of casual passersby. Midway through our one-course dinner, the door opened and a vainglorious Swedish actor who would much later be used to good effect by Lars von Trier stood for a few moments waiting for all eyes to enjoy him. He was then at the height of his local fame, and Ingmar leaned toward me with a conspiratorial smile; “Let’s hope that little shit doesn’t come over here,” he said. The actor made his royal tour of the various tables, and when he reached ours, Ingmar sprang to his feet and embraced him warmly. In that instant, I realized that in the tight-knit world of stage and screen, expediency is always the better part of valor.

In 1971, I interviewed Bergman in his austere office high above the Royal Dramatic Theatre, with its upright chairs, its small truckle bed, and a bottle of Ramlösa mineral water on its bare table. He talked of The Touch—“It’s probably the nearest of my films to reality but nevertheless a dream, full of sadness and desire.” Did he still believe in his dictum that the theater was his wife and the movies his mistress? “Forget it,” he laughed, “now I’m living in bigamy!”

Two years later, we discussed Cries and Whispers. “I intended at first to write something about my mother. She’s in all four of the women in the film. My feelings towards her were ambivalent. When I was little I felt she loved my brother more than she did me, and I was jealous.”

The next time I actually met Bergman was in 1980, in Munich. He had taken refuge there after a nasty spat with the Swedish tax authorities, who in 1976 had accused him of declaring insufficient earnings. He was later exonerated, but when I interviewed him he had been shooting From the Life of the Marionettes, an anguished, somber film that reflected his depression and sense of deracination. During a Saturday-afternoon chat at the Bavaria Studios, he maintained that “the cultural climate here in Munich is extremely stimulating and very varied. I miss that in Stockholm, where there is no life-or-death struggle in the cultural field.” He told me that it was “an indescribable relief to at last be free of this difficult and stressful film [Marionettes], which really cost me blood, sweat, and tears.”

In early 1982, I sat on the set of Fanny and Alexander as Bergman directed Harriet Andersson in a dream sequence. He had been hailed by the Swedes like a prodigal son, and thanks to funding from Gaumont, he could make what he declared to be his final film in a lavish, epic idiom. But he was—he claimed—retiring: “I want to stop. I want to stay on Fårö, and read the books I haven’t read, find out things I haven’t yet found out. I want to write things I haven’t written. To listen to music, and talk to my neighbors. To live together with my wife a very calm, very secure, very lazy existence, for the rest of my life.”

That autumn, we enticed him to London’s National Film Theatre. He told me quite candidly that he would not talk about his own work. “I have just made my final film, and it lasts three hours fourteen minutes. It was meant to be two hours forty-five minutes, but as it is my final production, I think I can indulge myself just a little!” He agreed to the NFT appearance only if the discussion be devoted to his mentor, Alf Sjöberg, who had just died. I concurred but figured that I could gradually switch the conversation to Bergman’s own films. Sure enough, after about twenty minutes onstage, we were chatting about the early days of Ingmar’s career, and everyone was delighted. Of course, my ruse was transparent, and he probably knew as much. His career had overlapped with that of Sjöberg, and he told us onstage that when he first began directing Bibi Andersson, in Smiles of a Summer Night, she had just come from working on Last Pair Out, one of Sjöberg’s pictures. “We did one take, and another, and another,” he said. “And I asked her what was wrong.” Andersson replied that Sjöberg’s method was to do thirteen or fourteen or even fifteen takes, and when you have done it that many times you can really start to play the scene. “My method is the opposite,” declared Ingmar. “I try to do just one, two, or three takes, and to prepare in such a way that when we start to shoot, the actor knows exactly what to do, but he or she still has some freedom.”

Although Bergman would resort to digital cameras for his swan song, Saraband (2003), he disliked technological advances. Onstage that night at the NFT, he told me, with some exasperation, “I think it’s quite tragic that electronics have taken over now. Of course it must be so. Film was invented in 1895, and we still work with it in exactly the same way. Something else has to happen . . . but I don’t want to be involved in it. I like to work with a screen and projectors, with the sound of the projectors and the shadows.”

The NFT was absolutely packed that evening—understandably, for it was a very rare event. Bergman was loath to travel and felt ill at ease away from his routine at home in Sweden. Relaxed and smiling amid the adulation, he used my back as an impromptu desk for signing autographs after the interview. Later, at a restaurant, he had two beers with his meal. Ingrid, his wife, whispered happily: “Ingmar never has more than one beer. This is really something!” At some juncture during the dinner, Andi Engel (head of the British distribution company Artificial Eye) suddenly called out down the table, “Ingmar, why do you give so much time to this man Cowie?” Seated opposite me, Ingmar did not look at him but instead fixed me with a hooded stare. “I think we trust each other,” he said, more to me than to the impudent Andi, and I remember wondering what would happen should I ever betray that trust!

A few weeks later, he wrote me: “The visit to London was in fact really nice, the first and until now only comfortable experience I have had in that city” (likely referring in part to his clashes with Laurence Olivier when Bergman’s production of Hedda Gabler was staged at the National in 1970). His Swedish generation having been taught German as a second language, Ingmar was always self-conscious about his halting English. “It’s difficult to say something subtle and substantial in a foreign language,” he continued, “and that evening just happened to be more ‘foreign’ than usual!”

As I left him and Ingrid in the lobby of the Savoy that night in September 1982, I had no idea that I would never see him again. We talked on the phone sometimes (friends were permitted to call him on Fårö around noon on Sundays), and in the late eighties he gave me some nice quotes about Max von Sydow for the book I was writing on the actor. I forwarded various requests from festivals for Ingmar to travel here, there, and everywhere. All were turned down politely, or not so politely. By the nineties, he had slipped out of fashion, replaced in the art-house pantheon by such new names as Nanni Moretti, Jane Campion, and Quentin Tarantino. Even his status as God of the Nordic Cinema had been usurped by Aki Kaurismäki and von Trier. Almost the last letter I ever received from him was about the biography I had written in the eighties: “I get giddy when forced to turn and look back [over my career]. But as I understand that the tone of your book is friendly, then, despite everything I’m able to confront the irretrievable past.”

This is the first in a series of pieces devoted to filmmakers Cowie has gotten to know in the course of his career. Read his introduction to the series here.

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