The cinematic legacy of European modernism is both fascinating and elusive. Not least because the term modernism itself means so many things to so many people: David Bordwell’s surrogate “art-cinema narration” is equally malleable and may be even more bewildering (1). Two books just published, however, help to clear up the picture and shed new light on two very specific directors: Ingmar Bergman, much discussed and viewed the world over, and Jerzy Skolimowski, little discussed or seen outside of Poland, except by Polish expatriates. Even though they were of different generations, their careers overlapped. By the time Bergman made The Silence (Tystnaden) in 1963, he had already directed 24 feature films. In the next 20 years until he officially “retired” from cinema after Fanny and Alexander (Fanny och Alexander, 1982), he made 19 films. In the same period, starting with his 1964 feature debut Identification Marks: None (Rysopsis), Skolimowski made only ten. Bergman became a tax exile later on in the 1970s and made three features outside Sweden. Skolimowski became a political émigré much earlier in his career after the banning of Hands Up! (Ręce do góry) in 1969 and then directed films intermittently outside of Poland until the end of the Cold War. Of these, four were set in southern England: Deep End (1970), The Shout (1978), Moonlighting (1982) and Success is the Best Revenge (1984). It could also be argued that Bergman and Skolimowski inhabit the opposite ends of the modernist spectrum. The two studies here by Maaret Koskinen on Bergman and Ewa Mazierska on Skolimowski help to show us why.
Koskinen’s study of the genesis and enactment of The Silence is quite probably the best Bergman case study ever written. It benefits enormously from the writing notebooks shown to the author by Bergman in 1998 and it is almost literally a study of a masterpiece being born. But it is more than that, for Koskinen highlights context and consequences. By 1962, Bergman had established himself as a major artist and celebrity in Sweden and the film itself proved to be one of his popular at the box office and one of his most controversial: the two things were, of course, related. Koskinen charts the censorship issues surrounding the film and informs us that, at one point in his notebooks, Bergman had thought to use a porno film rather than a cabaret sequence as a trigger for Anna’s (Gunnel Lindblom) desire. Thankfully, and yet notoriously, he choose the latter. Having stood up to the Swedish censorship board, Bergman was also shrewd enough not to pick a fight over international distribution. As Koskinen notes, he chose to edit down the sequence of the copulating couple at the cabaret to ensure widespread global exhibition, a shrewd and typical move. Another shrewd move was to give an interview to Playboy at the height of the controversy. Bergman may have been a reclusive, introverted artist but he was also a fluent self-publicist. Thus several critics, including Koskinen, have rightly argued the film was a watershed of 1960s modernism at every level but also indicative of European modernism’s knack of finding, from time to time, a far broader audience.
The transformation between the notebooks and the screenplay is constantly fascinating. Koskinen calls it the first “anorexic” script compared to Bergman’s earlier work (pp. 71-2):
The very act of writing seems to be regarded as a kind of demon or ghost lurking in the typewriter, one that threatens to take over if it is not framed, and so to speak, “directed” already on the written page […] Writing for Bergman, seems to have been about taming a monster, real or imagined. A similar kind of battle rages in the film, between the letter and the image, the word and the flesh. (p. 83)
This is a brilliant summary of the relationship between the film’s creation and the film itself, and shows that Bergman’s writing is itself indefinable, part literary, part cinematic, endlessly battling the forbidding link between word and image with great fertility. Unlike Alfred Hitchcock, Bergman could not be a director without being a writer first. But he is not an original writer in any textual medium. His best writing exists solely to be filmed, and outside television and cinema, he exists as a stage director of the words or lyrics of others. The Silence is not a stage play but a screenplay made into film by the writer of the text and it is a film whose rhythms mimic that other great art form that Bergman loved – music. So if we use the term “intermedial” as Koskinen does to describe Bergman’s holistic art (pp. 67-8), then we should also realise that his intermediality is unique. No one else has quite achieved it in the way that he has.
The feature of Bergman’s writing for The Silence that Koskinen pinpoints is what she calls its “cinematic ekphrasis” (p. 99), its elimination of verbal and visual superfluity and the consistent use of visual connotation in the language itself. That is to say, the written word always envisages the image to be shown. Word and image too are always in the present – Bergman had eliminated Ester’s (Ingrid Thulin) archipelago flashbacks from an early draft – and often here sight, sound and smell are equally privileged senses. The moving image has to evoke all the senses in the fullest possible way. Flashing forward to the screenplay for Fanny and Alexander, Koskinen notes that here, as in The Silence,the image cannot accommodate everything the writing evokes, and yet the writing sets the template for the image which then develops its own complex audiovisual rhythms. Indeed Bergman’s screenwriting, with its powers of sensuous description, evokes in a very Heideggerian way sheer present-ness, Dasein, a being-there that is not literary narration but literary preparedness for that which-is-to-come, that which we will see and hear simultaneously.
Koskinen’s key example among several of what she calls “framing the senses” is a novel form of intimate staging in The Silence where Bergman moves away from classical convention in the close shot (pp. 132-3). It is the tandem close-up, nose-to-nose, full face to profile between the sisters, which she calls the Bergman icon. Locating the point at which Katinka Faragó, in charge of the continuity script, had scribbled over a standard over-the-shoulder drawing and replaced it with a written instruction “nose-to-nose” (p. 134), Koskinen heralds this as a new entry in the Bergman portfolio and the Kammerspiel mise en scène, a veritable face that transformed the nature of film itself. It was a departure too that Jean-Luc Godard noticed almost immediately: he parodied the shot in his film of the following year, A Married Woman (Une femme mariée, 1964).Koskinen interprets this distinctive two-shot as the moment in a film about separation and silence when there is a metaphorical union of body (Anna) and soul (Ester), but she omits to mention its later counterpart – the tandem shot in the hotel room Anna has rented with her silent lover – where Bergman reverses the positions of the two women as they are finally and bitterly unreconciled. Still, this is a minor point about a commanding and superlative study that changes the way in which we must view Bergman from now on. A last point is for the publishers alone: the layout and visuals are impressive but, on a first reading, the paperback binding fell apart in my hands.
Ewa Mazierska’s book on Skolimowski is very different: a comprehensive overview of the Polish director’s work – long overdue in the Anglophone world – and a study which links the Polish pictures to the later films he made in exile. This is an uneven book, at times brilliantly perceptive, at other times less so. Its true strength is the Polish period where the influence of Witold Gombrowicz’s 1937 novel Ferdydurke on Skolimowski shines through (Skolimowski then filmed the novel in 1992), and Mazierska charts the infantilism, or regression, of Skolimowski’s young males in the context of 1960s Polish society. She notes the major protagonist of three of his Polish features, Andrzei Leszczyc (played by Skolimowski himself), has a surname close to the Polish words “leszcz” and “szczyl” which connote the immature and the childish. As the title of his first feature Identification Marks: None also suggests, Leszczyc never feels he knows who he really is. In this autobiographical persona, Skolimowski has bundled together the hazards and blemishes of male identity in the half-open, half-closed communist society that Poland was under Wladyslaw Gomulka to create a retarded male prototype, vaguely nonconformist, who appears to be going nowhere. It is a defining moment in Polish cinema and we should be truly grateful to Mazierska for illuminating it. We can then read the films as an ingenious transformation of the Gombrowicz prototype of the rural 1930s into the Skolimowski prototype of the urban 1960s. In his different guises, Leszczyc is impulsive, hyperactive and almost always drifting, never satisfied, as Mazierska perceptively notes, with the place he nominally calls his home. Yet though Skolimowski uses Jean-Pierre Léaud in a similar role in his Francophone Le Départ (1967), the tone and nature of his English films alter things radically. Although there is a common thread of the impulsive autobiographical hero, there are profound differences too.
Locating Skolimowski in the modernist canon is not easy. Like many critics, Mazierska places him too close to Godard when Federico Fellini, Orson Welles and Michelangelo Antonioni seem to be stronger influences. Godard’s insolent homage to Hollywood genre, “the girl and the gun”, is something that never features in Skolimowski’s Polish films or, for that matter, later on. Instead the fast, bold, labyrinthine quality of his location shooting seems closer in many ways to Welles’ daring use of baroque in The Trial (1962), while the ambience of lingering inarticulate discontent is more akin to Antonioni, though in a different social setting. And the persistence with auto-biopic is surely inspired by Fellini, culminating with the sly nod to 8 ½ (1963) in Success is the Best Revenge. There are other pitfalls in Mazierska’s discourse. Is Skolimowski surrealist? Is he absurdist? How do we define these terms? It’s a tough call and Mazierska bravely does her best but her critique is inconclusive, suggesting vague hybridity. It seems best then to regard Skolimowski as a baroque realist who uses surreal touches if and when he wishes to create comic effect.
In her concern to attack the male-centred nature of Skolimowski’s films, Mazierska’s argument lapses at times into a diatribe against misogyny, but then gives us a caricatured portrait of the director’s female characters that itself becomes demeaning. Women are divided into young, Polish “virgins” for the Polish pictures (pp. 57-8) (how do we know?); “broken lilies”, which seems to apply to any woman with sexual experience who is “bitter and cunning” (pp. 58-60), plus Joanna Szczerbic at all times (presumably for the mistake of having married Skolimowski, which Mazierska more than once implies); “the withered rose […] women who have lost their youthful charm but not their appetite for sex” (p. 61); and finally “the queen who has the regal ambition to be man’s equal” (p. 63), and therefore is a kind of character of whom the author can approve. Jane Asher thus turns up as “a broken lily” (actually a pool attendant called Susan) in Deep End, but also as “a queen” (actually a bossy bank manager) in Success is the Best Revenge: here Asher delivers a brilliant cameo as a younger version of a blue-suited Margaret Thatcher. Asher thus gives Skolimowski two very different performances – one as a sly, humorous working-class woman, the other as a posh, ruthless figure of authority: both are equally good. But all Mazierska’s labels sound silly in English anyway – flower metaphors are always a killer – and it’s as if she has been reading too much 1930s fiction set in the Home Counties. Ever mindful that Deep End comes on the back end of the Swinging Sixties, Susan’s other designation in the book also embarrasses – “a Soho semi-bitch” (p. 69). Oh dear.
The stand-out feature of Skolimowski’s English films is the innovative dynamics of intimacy, as if the brilliant screenplay he wrote with Roman Polanski for Knife in the Water (1962) finds its visual fruition – for him, not Polanski – in a foreign land, and not just any foreign land. The existential, unpredictable intimacy of Deep End where Mike (John Moulder-Brown) and Susan see in one another the mirror of their own vulnerabilities; the enigmatic triangle of The Shout which echoes and transforms that of Knife in the Water; the sad and comic claustrophobia of Nowak (Jeremy Irons) and his fellow Poles in West London’s Moonlighting;and the febrile family dynamics of Success is the Best Revenge all illuminate the gifts of a mature director at the height of his powers who is still innovating, still shifting focus from one picture to the next, still surprising us in startling ways, not least his comic imagination.
The contrast with Bergman could not be greater. The Swede felt very much at home in Sweden where he had great support for all of his filmmaking from A Lesson in Love (En lektion i kärlek, 1954) onwards. Skolimowski – uncertain of his artistic freedom in a constrained Poland – took a gamble on exile that never fully paid off. The quality of his English films, despite the support of critics like Michel Ciment, went largely unrecognised while the money required to fund them was also hit-and-miss, and left him finally with empty pockets and a re-mortgaged house after the commercial failure of Success is the Best Revenge. Both directors suffered from the inbuilt insecurity of their profession, yet Bergman of an earlier generation was perfectly placed for the flowering of European modernism while Skolimowski seemed consigned, like one of the characters in his films, to jumping through endless hoops and running round in circles. Only now is his cinematic achievement getting the critical recognition it deserves, and Mazierska’s book must be praised for playing its part.
Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence: Pictures in the Typewriter, Writers on the Screen, by Maaret Koskinen, University of Washington Press, Seattle/Museum Tusculanum Press, Copenhagen, 2010.
Jerzy Skolimowski: The Cinema of a Nonconformist, by Ewa Mazierska, Berghahn Books, Oxford, 2010.