The Films of Ingmar Bergman Vol 4

BFI Blu Ray Box set 2023.


And so we arrive at the 4th BFI Box set of Bergman films.  This covers his final films for the cinema and some TV work from 1972 until 1984.  His great masterpiece Cries and Whispers opens the seventies and the wonderful Fanny and Alexander heralds the early eighties – after this Bergman retired from the cinema to write scripts for other directors and direct films for television.

Whenever people discuss Cries and Whispers (1972) they cannot escape talking about its use of the colour red.  Sven Nykvist’s Oscar winning photography saturates, without recourse to colour filters, and employing lighting from one source only, the red interiors of a period manor house to create an environment with an intense soulful character that’s the equal of its four female inhabitants.

Three sisters and their maid live together in a Swedish manor house in the early 1900s.  The youngest sister Agnes is dying of cancer.  Maria and Karin experience unhappy memories of their relations with men and the housemaid cannot forget the loss of her daughter in childhood.  The death of Agnes only brings temporary solace and reconciliation between the sisters.  And the maid, the one who gave unconditional love, is paid off and dismissed.

In Cries and Whispers Bergman assembled his regular great ensemble – consummate actors and technicians who perform like instruments in a string quartet (According to Bergman the film’s title was borrowed from a music critic who once wrote in a review of a Mozart quartet that is was “whispers and cries”).  This is Ingmar Bergman viewed through the prism of Ibsen.  In a remarkable career that has produced so many masterpieces, Cries and Whispers, along with Persona, is for me Bergman at the height of his powers.

Many critics also say this of Fanny and Alexander (1982).  I personally wouldn’t place it quite so high in the Bergman cannon.  Fanny and Alexander is a great film but my preference is for the darker complexity of Cries and Whispers and Persona: though the film does have dark troubling moments cutting through its joy and celebration of the theatre, family life and Christmastide.

Fanny and Alexander is Bergman at his most warm and relaxed.  It’s the story of two siblings Fanny and Alexander and their very large family living in Uppsala, Sweden at the very beginning of the 20th century.  After the death of the children’s father, their mother remarries a cruel and sadistic bishop who becomes abusive towards the critical and imaginative Alexander.  The film is not Dickensian as some critics have labelled it.  Yet a fair bit of Bergman autobiography is included.  Hugely entertaining, visually sumptuous, funny, sad and endearing, Fanny and Alexander certainly was a very impressive feature for Ingmar to go out on.

.Autumn Sonata (1978) brings together Ingrid Bergman with Ingmar Bergman.  In interviews with Ingrid she says that during rehearsals she couldn’t believe that the mother character Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman) and first daughter Eva (Liv Ulman) have not seen each other for seven years.  Director Ingmar explained to actor Ingrid that there are certain mothers who give more attention to their careers than their children.  In Charlotte’s case it’s her busy life touring as a concert pianist.  I could readily accept that fact of family life.  But I felt uneasy about Autumn Sonata introducing a second daughter Helena (Lena Nyman) with cerebral palsy; for her presence doesn’t add anything dramatically to the film.  I felt it was sufficient to know Eva’s back story about her son who drowned at the age of four.  Having the other sister brought an almost dramatic imbalance to Autumn Sonata – an emotional over-kill weighted in sympathy for Eva.  (Are we meant to view Helena as a substitute child for Eva?)

There is a great deal of dialogue in the film – much is piercing and truthful in such an irreconcilable mother and daughter relationship.  Still there’s finally too much talk in Autumn Sonata.  The finest scene occurs not during the verbal attacks of the long, dark night of the soul, confrontation (Though that too is brilliantly acted) but when mother and daughter both take turns in playing a Chopin prelude.  Here nothing is said by either actor.  Yet volumes of information are given through the characters’ expressive looks about their past stormy suffering.  Can this really be my mother? Can this really be my daughter? Have I ever really loved her? What does it mean to love? Puzzlement, anger, sadness, admiration, longing and frustration are eloquently conveyed in this scene.  It’s a master class of highly intelligent acting, ably supported by Bergman’s intimate direction, and one of the greatest moments in Bergman’s cinema however not for me in a great film but a very good one.

From the Life of the Marionettes (1980) is a hard film to like.  Yet although I think it’s a failure this ultimately over-earnest film about severe mental breakdown is considered by Bergman to be one of his best films.  Peter Eggerton (Robert Atzorn) a young, happily married and successful business man goes to his friend and psychiatrist Heinz (Arthur Brenner) and says he is frightened that he is going to murder his wife Katarina (Christine Buchegger).  He in fact murders an innocent prostitute, also named Katarina (Rita Russek).  The film then reverts to a series of flashbacks and flash forwards to investigate the reasons for the crime.

From the Life of the Marionettes is in black and white.  Yet 6 minutes of the murder scene are shot in lurid colour.  Sven Nykvist excels himself with superb photography incorporating a terrific dream within a dream sequence.  The performances are excellent and the characters and situations very believable.  However Bergman directs this psychodrama with a pronounced detachment as if he where nervously eavesdropping on everybody undergoing a session with their therapist.  The result is too many monologues of intense self-examination making for a lack of real dramatic impetus.

Only in the club scenes with the prostitute and Peter do we feel emotionally engaged.  And at the film’s beginning (just after the murder) where Peter, who has pretended to leave the psychiatrist’s office, but stays on watching, hidden in another room, do we have a superbly realised moment of betrayal and humiliation.  Peter’s wife arrives and we learn she’s having an affair with the psychiatrist.  The husband / client’s voyeurism appears more and more chillingly audacious.

Bergman’s 1984 TV film After the Rehearsal could have also fallen into solemn psychodrama but it easefully transcends that to become a sincere and moving confession about relationships in the world of theatre.  At 72 minutes this is a minimalist TV film for three actors shot on an empty theatre stage.  Henrik Volger (Erland Josephson) is a theatre director about to stage his 5th version of Strindberg’s A Dream Play.  He wakes up alone on stage, after rehearsals, to greet his young actress Anna (Lena Olin).  They discuss the reasons for acting and directing.  Anna’s mother Rakel (Ingrid Thulin) enters and invites Henrik to have sex with her in his room but gradually we realise that this is a fantasy memory as Rakel (an ex-lover of Henrik) has been dead for twelve years.

After the Rehearsal is a deliberately autobiographical film (Bergman’s theatre output was very big and he constantly staged A Dream Play).  The actors’ conversations / confrontations begin with their love for and experience of making theatre.  Soon they enter the territory of desire outside of, but naturally, evolving from their art and craft.  When Henrik and Anna begin to discuss what would happen if they got sexually involved a remarkable dialogue about expectations begins.  Henrik spells out why it wouldn’t work and Anna who proposed the idea starts to agree: yet as you view them, rationally talking themselves out of the proposition, a note of genuine poignancy and disappointment is struck.

I felt that Henrik and Anna were not so much seeing that the great difference in their ages would make a relationship difficult but they were guilty of procrastination and repressing spontaneity of feeling – acting in a play would allow them the freedom to do what they might desire but not the contingency of real life, which has too many consequences.  It’s a testament to the superb performances of Erland Josephson and Lean Olin combined with Bergman’s insightful writing that this dilemma is subtly suggested.  Chamber work it might be but the brilliant After the Rehearsal is weighty with allusions and ideas.

In 1969 and 1979 Bergman made two documentaries for Swedish TV.  Only one of these (Faro Document 1979) is included in this BFI set.  From 1960 Bergman set up home on the island of Faro.  His film is a record of the islanders.  A warm and sympathetic film beautifully photographed by Sven Nykvist.  You watch it looking for links to Bergman’s feature films yet very little is apparent.  However one sequence observes an elderly man frying his fish meal and sitting down to eat.  The camera pulls away outside of the kitchen, through the window and into a night exterior to convey a deep Bergman sense of containment and solitude.

If I’ve left little space to cover Scenes From a Marriage (1973) then this is deliberate.  The feature and the TV series are so well known and universally liked through their numerous TV screenings, stage adaptations and now even an American Net Flick remake.  All I will say is that in spite of Scenes From a Marriage being labelled, by some critics, as a soap opera (which it definitely isn’t) this project, a television landmark, has stood the test of time.  It’s as engrossing as ever: an acute and very Swedish account of marriage and divorce in the 1970’s.  Perfectly cast, performed and directed.  And it was a deservedly popular hit throughout the world without any recourse to soapy melodrama.

Alan Price©2023