The Life and Work of Ingmar Bergman by Peter Cowie, Faber 2023
Do we need another book on Ingmar Bergman? Although the sheer quantity of Bergman books doesn’t exceed Alfred Hitchcock there also exists a huge number of scholarly articles and PhDs on the Swedish master of film. In the case of Peter Cowie we can say yes to another book. In 1983 Cowie published his Ingmar Bergman a Critical Biography. However since Bergman’s death in 2007 Cowie has had access to Bergman’s work books, letters and been able to conduct more interviews with his actors. Cowie has drawn on this new material to chart Bergman’s life and work with “the emphasis on biography rather than the redundant exegesis (of every film and theatre production)”
Bergman’s status as one of the very greatest filmmakers is unassailable when it comes to (a) How we define cinema and (b) how he stamped his personality on every film. Whether you admire Bergman or not perhaps the only other director who made his films so autobiographical was Charles Chaplin. Cowie mentions Fassbinder as the director who reveals his sores as much as Bergman. Yet I wonder if Chaplin and Bergman don’t give more of the story of a complete life? And what’s fascinating about both men is their judicious use of the close-up (Cowie references this fact into his book). I’m thinking of the soulful face of Chaplin at the climax of his sublime City Lights and numerous close-ups throughout Bergman’s Persona which operate as a spiritual examination of character.
Cowie is able to skilfully intersect Bergman’s creativity with his personal crises, relationships and memories. The death of Bergman’s mother in 1966, and seeing his father’s corpse in 1970, influenced the opening hospital scenes of his film The Touch (1971); the romance initiated between Bergman and Liv Ullman during the making of Persona (1966); Bibi Anderson lived with Bergman in the fifties and encouraged him to return to directing more serious films (The result was The Seventh Seal of 1957) and intense summer memories of Ingmar’s boyhood can be found in Joy, Summer Interlude and Summer with Monika; all conveying the sensuality of a uniquely Swedish sunlight especially in May and June.
It’s not just a specific person or place that’s portrayed in Bergman’s art but a more generalised feeling of the love / hate intensity of his temperament. Of Bergman’s film Saraband (his last and made for television) Cowie says “Bergman has rarely made such a candid, unflinching analysis of family relationsips.” Here Bergman drew upon the acting talents of Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson (Echoing them as a couple in Scenes from a Marriage from 1973) now an elderly pair viewed unflinchingly and often harshly – in old age people are not kindly left of the hook of examination for their failings. Such emotional probing is a saraband, “Like the slow and stately saraband dance, the film demands that two people are always meeting each other.”
To a great extent we are always meeting Bergman himself head on in his film and theatre work. His demons are constantly being exorcised. And his genius was to make his inner struggle, to understand life, ours as well. Alongside his guilt, shame, anxiety and humiliation (and the latter is perhaps the hardest of states to responsibly explore) ran compassion, empathy, concern and love often underlined by an urgent need to heal.
Peter Cowie succinctly covers Bergman’s themes and obsessions in a critical, sympathetic but not reverential book. The Life and Work of Ingmar Bergman is an admirable, clear headed and astute biography. And as for religion, holding an answer to life’s problems, Cowie rightly says Bergman neither accepts nor rejects his early Christian upbringing that was sternly imposed by his time and father Erik, a Lutheran pastor.
“Now I believe that all the qualities I used to associate with God – love, tenderness, grace, all those beautiful things – are created by human beings themselves, they come from inside us. That, for me, is the big miracle