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A Woman’s Voice: Ingrid Bergman in Five Languages

A Woman’s Voice: Ingrid Bergman in Five Languages

When we think of Ingrid Bergman, we may immediately call up images of her “you deserve this!” smile, or the indecision on her face in Casablanca (1942). There is a rare kind of suspense in watching Bergman’s face in flux and wondering where her thoughts might land, and this suspense is enhanced by the suppleness of her voice and the unexpected way she read her lines. Bergman may still be best known for her work in 1940s Hollywood, where she learned English quickly and used her voice as expressively as she had in movies made in her native Sweden in the 1930s, but English wasn’t the only foreign language she acted in. Bergman played in German in the late 1930s, and she left Hollywood in 1950 to make films in Italian with Roberto Rossellini. She acted in German again in the mid-1950s and even began acting in French at that time. No other major actor of the twentieth century worked as boldly in this many languages.

American and British actors barely ever work in anything but English, though Vanessa Redgrave has sometimes acted in Italian, in obscure pictures. European actors have been traditionally more comfortable working in different languages, and often with freeing results. Greta Garbo made two versions of her first talkie, Anna Christie (1930), one in English and one in German, and working in the German language releases something tough in her that is not present in the English-speaking film. Similarly, Marlene Dietrich was never more directly sexual than when she performed in French with her lover Jean Gabin in Martin Roumagnac (1946). Yet these are isolated instances in those storied careers. What made Bergman so special and so adventurous was her insistence on continually placing herself in various cultural contexts. Stars were sometimes dubbed by other actors when they worked in different countries, but Bergman was a gifted polyglot and was often able to speak in her own voice.

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