Backstage detail behind every act

Ingmar Bergman
June 23, 2006

Always Be Entertaining; Thou Must Follow Thy Artistic Conscience; Every Film is My Last Film. Ingmar Bergman's artistic credo is one of many insights collected in Birgitta Steene's comprehensive 1,150-page reference guide to his work. Which brings me straight to my only complaint about her volume: that its title does no justice to its ambitions. "Guide" suggests something brief, but it would be hard to imagine a more erudite (or thorough) companion to Bergman studies than this. It is, quite simply, the starting point for future assessments of his work.

Her first three chapters provide a summary account of Bergman's career - essential reading for anyone wishing to use other parts of the volume. For those not well acquainted with his CV, she covers the various marriages and numerous children, the arrest for tax evasion, his incarceration in a psychiatric ward and his exile in Munich with as much tact and intelligence as she handles his career as playwright, theatre director and film-maker.

Most of those who use this book will probably turn immediately to its filmography, which occupies more than 200 pages. This should be used in conjunction with chapter three, a sensitive and persuasive analysis of Bergman's output. The filmography is a more detailed and knowledgeable piece of work than any I have seen. Besides complete cast listings and credits, Steene provides locations, dates of shooting, synopses, running times, distribution details, premiere dates and dates of opening. This material is hard to find even for works such as Wild Strawberries and Persona , but to have found them for the early films Bergman made in the 1940s and 1950s is testimony to Steene's resourcefulness.

Each entry also contains two further sections. First, she gives her own commentary. This provides information on the film's genesis, its sources and Bergman's remarks about it, as well as where to obtain the script, published or not. It also reveals when and where he made Hitchcockian guest appearances in his films (quite frequently, as it happens). Second, Steene gives readers an overview of critical reception, quoting generously and impartially from her sources, many of which are accessible only to those with a mastery of Swedish. Such an enterprise would be no small matter for one film: she does it for all 57, listing and describing even the nine soap commercials Bergman directed for television between 1951 and 1953.

This is remarkable enough, but Steene proceeds in subsequent chapters to apply the same treatment, with no less diligence, to Bergman's dramatic productions for radio, television and theatre - the latter amounting to more than 300 pages. (Such is her meticulousness that we are told that latecomers were not admitted to Bergman's 1979 production of Hedda Gabler .) Chapter seven is a full, annotated bibliography of articles and book-length works on Bergman; chapter eight lists all published interviews, as well as radio and television appearances; chapter nine places in chronological order all publications addressing the director's life and work, and the last chapter lists "Varia" such as media documentaries on Bergman, awards received and archival sources. There are three indexes (subject, title and name), which together occupy nearly 100 pages. Steene is no drudge, and there is nothing dry about this. She brings to her labours a passion that gives her discursive materials critical value in their own right. It is hard to imagine anyone reading this book without feeling inspired to make their own film, or at least wanting to see Bergman's films.

Even those already afflicted with Bergmania will learn much from this book, in particular concerning matters such as his artistic development. Steene demonstrates the extent to which his play Painting on Wood (1954) was the source for The Seventh Seal . She discusses the evolution of his film scripts, showing how they became increasingly cryptic, so that by 1972 the script of Cries and Whispers consisted of no more than a "dear friends" letter to the cast. On a more practical level, the reader can plot the gradual assembly of the repertory company with which Bergman made his films by examining cast lists of his theatrical productions: Bibi Andersson turns up in a student performance of Painting on Wood in 1955 and Max von Sydow in a play directed by Bergman in Malmö later that year.

Steene reminds us that Bergman was a remarkable theatre director, responsible for the first Swedish production of A Streetcar Named Desire and a marathon five-hour Peer Gynt in 1957. Her commentaries reveal Bergman's directorial imagination to have been as provocative on stage as on celluloid. When directing Macbeth in 1959, he wanted the sexual passion between Macbeth and his wife to be so intense that "you feel it in your stomach"; when in his 1964 production of Ibsen's play Hedda Gabler shot herself, "Bergman had her fall on her knees with her rump in the air"; in his 1975 production of Twelfth Night Malvolio "did not simply kiss Olivia's hand; he practically raped her, so that she had to flee screaming"; his 1984 King Lear began "with a song and dance number, which was under way while the audience was being seated and concluded with an apocalyptic big bang as the stage 'exploded', exposing the theatrical machinery before it was engulfed in darkness"; Hamlet's father in his 1986 production was "a harbinger of death whose hand touched Hamlet and sucked the life out of him".

One of the book's more painful themes is the extent to which Bergman has had to contend with critical hostility. The most frequent accusation is one of the earliest: reviewers of Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) accused him of being a pornographer. Latterly, this became the charge of feminists: in 1969 it was claimed that his television play, The Ritual , "raped the viewers", and Face to Face (1976), when shown on Swedish television, was said to depict "Bergman's total rape of women". One tends glibly to assume that geniuses such as Bergman seldom meet with obtuse or unjust criticism, but Steene demonstrates it to have been the rule for most of his career, even when his finest work was under review. The Virgin Spring (1960) attracted claims that he was a master of histrionics rather than an artist; Through a Glass Darkly (1961) was considered "basically uncinematic"; Persona (1966) was dismissed as "a film about lesbians"; Cries and Whispers (1972) contained "the well-trodden range of obsessions we have come to regard as evocative of Nordic gloom"; Scenes from a Marriage (1974) was "a high-class soap"; The Serpent's Egg (1977) was "a manipulative film", "a brutally offensive work" and "a major disaster"; while Fanny and Alexander (1982-83) was attacked for "intellectual cliches" and its director's lack of narrative skill. The extent of the philistinism Bergman has encountered may be illustrated by the fact that, as Steene notes: "Many American reviews of The Serpent's Egg compared Bergman's film unfavourably to Bob Fosse's Cabaret " - a grotesque and idiotic misjudgment even by the standards of the day. Time has exposed his critics for what they are: these films are classics that retain the power to disturb and unsettle. Who could blame Bergman, under the circumstances, for having physically attacked one of his more malicious reviewers, Bengt Jahnsson, while holding open rehearsals of Georg Büchner's Woyzeck in Stockholm in 1969. He said he did it because Jahnsson had "humiliated and abused certain actors", and he was fined 5,000 Swedish kronor. Leaving court, he told the press: "It was well worth it!"

Steene's commentaries attest to the fact that many of Bergman's films have been shown outside Sweden in versions markedly different from the originals. Face to Face , for example, first aired in a version of 175 minutes, considerably longer than the 135-minute version released as a film; Scenes from a Marriage began as a television play of 282 minutes, compared with the film of only 155; most strikingly, Fanny and Alexander (1984), best-known as a film lasting 188 minutes, was originally a five-part television series, each episode of uneven lengths (92, 40, 37, 60 and 90 minutes).

The main reason for these reductions was commercial pressure; as Steene reveals, theatrical release outside Sweden has often been denied to Bergman's films and granted only when he edited them down to a length dictated by his American distributors. On occasion, his work has been interfered with for other reasons: the American distributor of Summer Interlude (1951) added nude bathing scenes filmed on Long Island Sound, while the distributor of Persona removed the image of an erect penis and (more importantly) Bibi Andersson's monologue about a sexual encounter. The intended form of Bergman's works thus continues in many cases to elude us.

Steene's "reference guide" is beautifully produced by Amsterdam University Press and contains a small but well-chosen selection of illustrations, two of which - Bergman consulting with the figure of Death on the set of The Seventh Seal and the "pieta" scene from Cries and Whispers - are particularly haunting. If there is a thematic subtext to this volume, it is provided by Bergman's seriousness as a moral thinker - as evident in his critical writings of the 1930s as in his plays, a collection of which appeared in 1948 as Moraliteter ("Morality Plays"). Not only does this monumental work of reference do justice to one of the great creative geniuses of modern cinema, but it constitutes the best possible introduction for anyone interested in his work.

Duncan Wu is professor of English language and literature, Oxford University.

Ingmar Bergman: A Reference Guide

Author - Birgitta Steene
Publisher - Amsterdam University Press
Pages - 1,150
Price - £45.00
ISBN - 90 5356 406 3

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