A movie ticket with popcorn in Stockholm costs about 200 kroner, and if you pay cash you’ll notice that the 200 kroner bill features Ingmar Bergman’s handsome profile, alongside a smaller image of the director in his trademark beret chatting with Death (Bengt Ekeroth) between takes on the set of The Seventh Seal; the other side depicts Fårö, the remote Baltic Sea island where Bergman lived, died, and filmed. (Further demonstrating Sweden’s numismatic flair, Greta Garbo adorns the 100 kroner bill and Pippi Longstocking, with her creator Astrid Lindgren, graces the 20.)
Marking the hundredth anniversary of Bergman’s birth, Swedes have organised a year of screenings, walking tours of Stockholm following in his footsteps, and museum shows: “Bergman – Truth and Lies” at the Swedish Museum of Performing Arts features rare video footage and production stills, props and set designs, manuscripts and personal correspondence. Uppsala’s Upplandsmuseet offers a luxuriant exhibit of costumes and fashion from Fanny and Alexander (1982), which was filmed in that city (where Bergman was born) an hour north of Stockholm.
At the Royal Dramatic Theatre (Dramaten) a season of theatrical homages included Mats Ek’s Dancing with Bergman, a choreographed meditation on the dynamics of personal relations; Simon Stone’s Hotel Strindberg, a psychological study of the dramatic precursor whose influence resonates throughout Bergman’s cinema, and whose plays Bergman directed over two dozen times for stage, radio, and television; and Sebastian Fagerlund’s opera Autumn Sonata (2017), inspired by Bergman’s own Autumn Sonata (1978). We forget – probably because plays are more ephemeral than films – that Bergman’s investment in theatre rivaled his cinematic career, and the two were often linked: for instance, as Malmö City Theatre’s artistic director he staged Wood Painting in 1957 as he created its cinematic adaptation, The Seventh Seal.
I decided the Stockholm International Film Festival’s 29th edition was a required pilgrimage for Bergman’s centennial. The sunrise/sunset charts for November promised seven hours a day of sunlight, though a generous dusk must have been included in that calculation; it turned out to be more like four or five hours that was not dark (“sunlight” would be a meteorological exaggeration), all the more reason to watch movies all day. Their slogan, shouted in all caps at the end of every email – “VI ÄLSKAR FILM!” (We love film!) – was straightforward and appealing, like all the best elements of Swedish design.
The film I was most eager to see was Margarethe von Trotta’s Searching for Ingmar Bergman, which indeed turned out to be my favourite; she was supposed to attend, and I had even scheduled an interview with her, but at the last moment she was unable to travel due to illness. I was sorry we could not meet, although her onscreen presence as the “searcher” is so richly personal that I almost feel as if we did. (I sometimes have a hard time distinguishing between movies and reality.)
My favourite non-film event was Gunnel Lindblom’s acceptance of the Festival’s Stockholm Achievement Award; best of all, Lindblom did show up for her interview with me. Although less celestial than “leading ladies” like Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson, Lindblom was an integral member of the collaborative troupe that brought Bergman’s corpus to life. Her best-known roles were the mute servant girl who was abducted in The Seventh Seal and the sexually voracious sister, Anna, in The Silence (1963).
She also played Eva, Johan’s colleague (who crushes his soul when she tells him his poetry is mediocre) in Scenes from a Marriage (1973), and in Wild Strawberries (1957) she played old Isak’s sister (from his youth), Charlotta. Bergman had begun writing that film while he was in the hospital in 1957, where his doctor and good friend, Sture Helander, was Lindblom’s husband. She had been acting in Bergman’s Malmö production of Wood Painting when he offered her the screen role in The Seventh Seal, her first film with him. More recently, Lindblom played Isabella (Martin and Harriet’s nasty mother) in the Swedish version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009). She also directed two films, Paradistorg (Paradise Place, 1977) and Sally och frihetan (Sally and Freedom, 1981), which Bergman produced, and a third, Sommarkvällar på jorden (Summer Nights on the Planet Earth, 1986).
If you ever have the opportunity to meet someone who acted in lots of Bergman’s films, my advice is to take it. Our interview lasted only 20 minutes, amid the bustle of the impending award ceremony, and I asked questions that she must have answered a hundred times before (“How did actors get along with Bergman?” “Oh, he was wonderfully supportive. He loved his actors,” she told me; “he was a pleasure to work with.”) Sitting with this film legend, a living connection to the brilliant cinematic tradition from the middle of the last century, was indescribably thrilling. The golden age of Bergman seems like something from a bygone era, the historical past. And yet here Lindblom was, chatting with me about her career as one of those frosty but simmering Swedes who channeled Bergman’s ruthless and awkward honesty, captivating audiences with personifications of hope and guilt, love and despair, failure and acceptance.
Her ceremony featured excerpts from Gunnel Lindblom – Out of the Silence, a 2018 television documentary directed by Henrik von Sydow (Max’s son) honouring a woman whose 60-year career exemplifies the best of cinematic art. If Lindblom, now 86, seemed a bit overwhelmed by the commemoration, she remained consummately gracious and radiant. Not a drop of the intensity or intelligence that characterised her performances had dissipated. Did she know The Seventh Seal would become such an important landmark of cinema? “I had no idea. Even though I had been in the play before we started filming the movie, still I found it very strange. I didn’t know what I was getting into. Every day was a surprise.” She said she had re-watched it a few months ago: “Now I see it’s a piece of art! Then, I didn’t know.” Does she think it speaks to contemporary audiences? “It is so evidently from another time, another planet. But it’s important for people today to get a chance to see what that world looked like.”
Learning that I was an academic, she told me about when Bergman “tried to be a professor, for about a week. His students made him sad. They came late to class, and didn’t seem very interested. They didn’t respect him the way he expected them to, the way his actors did. It was the ‘70s, so the students were interested in other things.” He gave that up as quickly as he could.
Von Trotta’s Searching for Ingmar Bergman is like a 99-minute master-class. An inspired opening scene sets up a keen parallel between her own film and Bergman’s oeuvre: sitting on the rocky beach where the The Seventh Seal began, von Trotta describes shot by shot, movement by movement, how that film’s first scene unfolded. We re-see it through her eyes as she cuts back and forth between her own opening scene and Bergman’s, unfurling her analysis by heart, every nuance of the shot committed to memory – the knight (by his squire and horses) coming to consciousness, trying to understand what kind of world he is in, half-heartedly starting to pray, seeing the chessboard, noticing Death. It’s a powerful entrée to the sharp search her documentary promises, bringing her audience to this place that was so important to Bergman. It was the first of Bergman’s films she had ever seen, and she explains – here on the beach, and then on the street outside the Paris theatre where she originally watched it – how it molded her sense of what cinematic innovation could achieve.
The film does just what its title promises: von Trotta walks around Bergman’s world (Stockholm, Munich, his apartments, his favourite restaurants, the church where his father was pastor, filming locations) and talks to cinematographers, writers, actors, and family, trying to find Bergman. Getting inside his mind and encapsulating his life in one film is a daunting task considering what a many-sided figure he was. She doesn’t offer pat “discoveries,” but teases out strands, connections, and leitmotifs that help impose an overarching unity – or perhaps a better term is trajectory – on his far-flung canon. He created the “Scandinavian atmosphere,” von Trotta posits: before Bergman, the world simply did not know what this corner of northern Europe looked like on film.
The documentary (her first) is also a memoir of her own relationship with Bergman, an account of his influence. When Bergman published a list of what he considered the eleven greatest films,1 von Trotta was honoured to see herself cited: he later told her he found The German Sisters (1981) inspiring as he was facing difficulty with his own work. An acclaimed director in the New German Cinema movement (Sheer Madness, 1983; The Promise, 1994; Hannah Arendt, 2012, in addition to her Sister Films trilogy), von Trotta was hesitant to make this documentary, producer Konstanze Speidel explained before the screening, because Bergman was her master; but she wanted to do it because . . . Bergman was her master. She considered this a duty she owed him, especially since everyone else on that (otherwise all-male) list is now dead, as is Bergman.
She had the support of the Bergman family and the Foundation, and yes, Searching for Ingmar Bergman, veers a bit toward hagiography. (I had hoped Jane Magnusson’s “competing” centennial documentary, Bergman: A Year, A Life – more aggressively accusatory – might be on the Stockholm program, but it wasn’t.) Von Trotta does not ignore Bergman’s romantic chaos and the consequent upheaval of many lives, especially his children’s, but she does not dwell on it. She judiciously balances both the predatory and female-empowering aspects of Bergman’s personality. Perhaps Bergman’s erotic incontinence informed the ambivalence about lust and guilt that makes his films so compelling.
His sons Daniel and Ingmar Jr. appear with posthumous commentary that sounds as if it might have been scripted by their father: “If you have such a good understanding of your own childhood, why can’t you understand your own child?” Daniel says; and, “Since he died, I have never felt I missed him. Not for one minute.” Daniel – who doesn’t watch his father’s films to avoid the anxiety of influence – told a long, strange story about a collaboration that came to screaming and tears, and finally the elder Bergman’s grudging concession to his son’s directorial decisions.
Liv Ullmann talks with von Trotta about how different characters “play the role of Bergman” in each of his films, as she did in Persona (1966) and Max von Sydow did in Hour of the Wolf (1968). She describes Bergman’s directorial process: “He told us, ‘You have read and understood the script. Show me, the director, that you have understood it.’” Sometimes, Ullmann said, the actors didn’t quite understand it, at least at first; but Bergman’s direction let them know that such “understanding” was their task, their challenge. Another key method, according to his longtime script supervisor Katinka Faragó: “don’t fight with the actors; yell at the crew instead.” This confused her, understandably, the first time it happened to her, but she got used to it.
Von Trotta includes shots of Bergman at work on the set: sitting near the camera with a still, piercing stare, it’s almost as if he was the camera. These clips ensure that Bergman’s physical presence is in this film, and remind us of his chronological development, but there’s probably less than five minutes of Bergman in the flesh. Von Trotta’s search is not so much for the man himself as it is – through places, actors, films, impressions and memories – for his impact on the world of film. “It’s impossible to think about what I would have become without him,” Gunnel Lindblom says in the film; certainly von Trotta feels the same way, and I think the audience does as well.
Two other “searches” reminded me of von Trotta’s: Lisa D’Apolito’s Love, Gilda, about the extraordinary comic talent and tragic death of the Saturday Night Live star in 1989 at the age of 42, and Ondi Timoner’s Mapplethorpe, about the similarly abridged career of the photographer who died also at 42 and also in 1989. (I don’t think Festival programmers noticed this coincidence: I didn’t myself until I put the films together here.)
Mapplethorpe was a feature and Gilda a documentary; there wasn’t any stylistic similarity between these films and von Trotta’s. But seeing them all together in the space of a couple of days made me think about how a director uses film to craft a sort of detective story, a narrative of an artist’s struggle, and most of all, a filmic recapitulation of that art. We leave the theatre with a better understanding of Bergman’s cinema, Mapplethorpe’s photography, and Radner’s sketch comedy, along with an appetite for more. Critics are right to guard against excessively biographical readings: the art is not the life. But at the same time, art comes from life, to a greater or lesser extent depending on the artist, and if the biographical director is tactfully suggestive rather than heavy-handedly seeking secrets and “answers,” then we end up with a film that complements the body of work we strive to appreciate as fully as possible.
Mapplethorpe started out straight, living with Patti Smith in the Chelsea Hotel and studying a conventional art school curriculum. He developed into a shockingly edgy photographer inspired by gay Greenwich Village culture and, visually, gay porn, which he made into collages. He found his metier and shot to fame with his portraits of people – culturally transgressive but at the same time formally elegant – black and white, straight and gay, famous and common, who reflected the new style of a new time. One of the most prominent queer American artists of his generation, he died of AIDS in the relatively early phase of that epidemic, at a time when many of its victims were, like him, in denial about their illness. Matt Smith played him with brio: I gasped when I placed him as Prince Philip from Netflix’s The Crown, a variation of the same character – the egocentric bad boy misfit. Smith is clearly having his moment: he was also in Mary Harron’s Charley Says, which played at the Festival though I missed it (but I imagine he plays Manson’s character with the same frisson he exudes in Mapplethorpe and Philip).
I asked producer Nate Dushko if he considered it problematic that Smith himself isn’t gay. When I saw Dome Karukoski’s Tom of Finland (2017) at last year’s Reykjavik Film Festival, the audience blasted straight actor Pekka Strang for the presumption of playing a gay icon. Dushko responded as I’d expected – Smith was the best-suited actor they saw in casting, and a gay man would’ve been great had they found the right one, but it’s all acting anyway. Both Mapplethorpe and Tom, though, struck me as less raunchy than I thought they might have been, especially given the centrality of queer lusty eros in both artists’ work, and I wonder if straight actors just couldn’t quite pull off (pun intended) the requisite gay sizzle.
Brandon Sklenar played Mapplethorpe’s brother Edward, still a practicing photographer. Robert forbade him from using their surname on the grounds that it muddied the brand, though he later relented. Not all that interested in the technical details of the photographic process, Robert delegated a good deal of production work (which comprises a highly significant facet of Mapplethorpe’s art) to Edward.
D’Apolito’s completely enchanting search, Love, Gilda, makes her audience laugh and cry: what would normally be a cliché is here simply descriptive of the masterful range of emotion deployed so movingly. She makes the most of a rich archival smorgasbord: television clips, old family films, audio recordings and diaries full of fascinating self-reflection, movingly declaimed on screen by such fans as Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, and Bill Hader. “We went as far as we could go with her own voice,” D’Apolito told me.
One might be tempted to distinguish between Mapplethorpe’s high-art biopic and Gilda Radner’s career in the thick of commercial pop culture, but both filmmakers (to their credit) declined to impose such categorisations. The filmmakers didn’t fit their subjects into a slot or type, but took each as an individual, warts and all, foregrounding the artists’ triumphs without overlooking the less-successful aspects of their lives. In all three of these searches, one might ask, did the director finally find the person s/he was searching for? I think the answers might be: somewhat, not completely; but I also think that’s the wrong question. A better metric of their success is that they showed their audiences how engaging these searches themselves are, inspiring us to join along in searching for them and thinking about how artists from the past resonate in our present moment.
Strong women in strong films
The Festival brimmed over with inventive indies, contemporary world cinema at its best, a nice mix of mass market and arthouse titles, leaving me to regret many tempting films I just couldn’t squeeze in (including Hiroshi Okuyama’s Jesus, Wolfgang Fischer’s Styx, and Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass). There were more American and British films than I’d expected, fewer Swedish and Scandianivan productions. I enjoyed two odd second films that followed up on odd first films and piqued my interest for the next ones: Anna Odell’s X & Y (the opening film, and the only Swedish one I saw) extended her postmodern film-in-a-film self-obsession from The Reunion (2013); Philippe Lesage’s Genesis veered off its narrative path toward the end and went back to revisit, à propos de rien, the charming character Félix from his debut The Demons (2015).
Firecrackers, Canadian director Jasmin Mozaffari’s first film featuring a cast of first-time actors, was a worthy winner of the Festival’s best film prize: a compelling story about young women trying to escape their dull town by any means necessary. Her wild and woozy vibe is a little off-putting at first. “You just couldn’t do simple straightforward objective narrative cinematography here,” Mozaffari said at the post-screening discussion; she wanted to set things off-kilter “so these girls would have a chance to survive.” Her idiosyncratic cinematography challenges the rules, the status quo; it somehow pulls the carpet out from beneath the brash, violent, have-their-way boys, and facilitates the girls’ improbable dreams of getting away. “Female freedom, or the lack thereof, has always been a topic of interest for me,” Mozaffari said. She wrote the film in 2016 “at a time when things seemed pretty dim for women” (i. e., “grab them by the pussy”).
Remember the “Angry Young Men” from the 1950s? A few generations later, here are the Angry Young Women. They’re quite enraged – more interestingly than the young men were, and they do something about it. At the end, Lou and Chantal (Michaela Kurimsky and Karena Evans) get away; the final plot twist is a little fuzzy, and when I asked Mozaffari for clarification she responded that she didn’t want to focus on the details so much as the outcome, which she conceded was “dreamlike.” It’s not quite magical realism, but not dissimilar. The film ends with a long and powerful shot of Lou’s face that celebrates a kind of quiet transcendence, unexpectedly calm in such an explosive (“firecrackers”) film.
Crystal Moselle’s engrossing Skate Kitchen is another inspirational film about female empowerment. If you think you won’t like a movie about skateboarding young women (as I had nearly decided), you’re wrong. Moselle’s debut was The Wolfpack (2015), a wonderfully strange documentary about six brothers in a dysfunctional family who are confined in a New York City apartment with nothing to do but act out movies. Her current film, set in the same ‘hood, is a feature, but draws on extensive ethnography Moselle conducted with skateboarders, many of whom appear in the movie, so it’s hybrid in genre. Moselle won the Festival’s award for best debut (and if I’d been on the jury I might have argued that it was a snidge more deserving of the best film award than Firecrackers, though both are highly accomplished post-#metoo films). This story is feisty, authentic, resplendently indie, and beautifully set in a city that seems as if it was designed to be one large skatepark. Rachelle Vinberg shines as the protagonist, Camille, and Moselle’s camera (like Mozaffari’s in Firecrackers) jives perfectly with her characters, the femme skate posse. Her sharp eye for catching moods, characters, places, and group dynamics is sure to keep audiences eagerly following her career.
The Favourite, Stockholm’s closing film, is a wry period piece with a dash of disjunctive postmodern pizazz. Director Yorgos Lanthimos colours way outside the lines as Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, and the incomparable Olivia Colman play a brilliant triangle of lesbian aristocrats trying to run England in the early 18th century. It is perhaps slightly less odd than The Lobster (2015), which also featured Weisz and Colman, but still, it will take you a while to suss out what exactly you are watching here, and that destablising uncertainty is one of the best things about it. Costume dramas usually cherish a formulaic style and narrative: not this one. Colman, as Queen Anne, allows herself to be filmed in a milieu of luxuriant filth and decrepitude (frequent vomitous eruptions, gout, scabs, pusillanimous personality, psychological derangement) that only the very finest of actors could carry off with dignity (or, dignified indignity). Novel and thought-provoking, The Favourite is enjoying well-deserved buzz. (Had the Bergman documentary not been on the program, I’d be tempted to dub The Favourite my favourite!)
Happy New Year, Colin Burstead is a jittery talkfest about a family reunion. I liked it better after hearing Ben Wheatley describe his dark comedy as an allegory for Brexit, but of course you shouldn’t need the director to explain the film afterwards. Its working title, Colin, You Anus, obliquely and pretentiously references Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (which is also messy and overwrought). Wheatley draws you into the film’s annoying milieu, making you feel like you’re at a gathering you don’t really want to attend as part of a family that you’d prefer wasn’t yours. Mission accomplished? Own goal? Some of both.
Wildfire stars Jake Gyllenhaal alongside Carey Mulligan and Ed Oxenbould in an uncomfortable film about a 1960 American family’s implosion in Montana’s Big Sky country. In his directorial debut, Dano – like Bergman – invokes powerful forces of both connection and disconnection at the same time, in scenes that triangulate the family’s fears and resentments. Sometimes they are yelling at each other and sometimes brooding; sometimes they tell painful truths, and sometimes painful lies. They never quite make eye contact, and Dano wallows in awkward, enthralling uncertainty about whether or not this family will endure. He leverages, as Bergman did, the characters’ inner passions, both individually and as they bump into conflict with each other. The beautifully majestic American landscape is ultimately inhospitable, just as Bergman’s Swedish settings seemed transcendently pure until people inhabit them and the world collapses. (Sublime wild strawberries freshly gathered from Edenic fields should make us happy, but we still grow up suffering nightmares about poorly-lived lives.)
As my own centennial tribute, I decided to seek out depressing, difficult, but brave and necessary films – the Bergmanesque films of today. How does his mid-century Scandinavian aesthetic flourish in our current cinema? Where do we look for his heirs, his ghosts?
Mary Kay Place plays a good woman who becomes overwhelmed with the thankless life of a caregiver in Kent Jones’s Diane. Diane ministers to her cancer-stricken cousin, her drug-addicted son, various old people in her circle of friends, and if that isn’t enough she volunteers regularly at a soup kitchen where dozens more need her help. In a touching and honest mood piece (understated, slow, bleak), what begins as well-meaning assistance for fellow creatures in need spirals into an exhausting and sometimes even degrading cycle of giving (on her part) and taking. Eventually she has nothing more to give, though the takers keep taking: they do not get better. Diane makes care-taking seem like a fool’s errand: she helps too much; people who need such extensive assistance always need more, and Diane tries to give everything, at the cost of her own happiness and freedom.
Ray & Liz, the first feature by eminent photographer Richard Billingham, concerns his own profoundly incompetent parents. A younger brother is removed to foster care after he went off sleeping rough, almost freezing to death, and his parents barely noticed. When the social service worker comes to take him away, the older brother (Billingham’s own character) asks, “Can you take me too?” He responds, “No, you’re old enough that you’ll be out of here in a couple of years. Just focus on that.”
Amazingly, the family portrait is drawn without anger. I asked Billingham at the Q&A how he managed this, and he cited the influence of the Terence Davies trilogy (1976-83), which impressed him with its power of empathy. “I wanted to make creative work about the tragedy of my situation,” Billingham said. “When you’ve got an interest, it can pull you through the harshest conditions.” The audience loathes these negligent parents, but the filmmaker doesn’t: they are who they are. Ray, when he is still asleep and not yet stumbling for the strong homebrew he begins drinking first thing in the morning, has a kind of peaceful calm to him; Liz seems to enjoy doing her jigsaw puzzles. Billingham allows these characters their simple human dignity in a way that few who had experienced this kind of cruelty would be capable of doing.
Slow, respectful, carefully detailed takes resemble photographic compositions – artful, composed, more still than a film tableau usually is. Billingham captures his parents’ simmering existential angst with echoes of Beckett: nothing to be done. In the vein of Diane, Wildfire, and Firecrackers (until the very end), this is a film about lives of quiet desperation. All unhappy families are unhappy in their own way, Tolstoy decreed – and Bergman’s films are predicated on this fascination with familial discordance, as are the neo-Bergmanesque films I saw in Stockholm.
Like Gunnel Lindblom, the actors who take on these kinds of roles are consummately subtle and fantastically expressive even in their quiet, troubled constraint. Their characters do not allow for showy dynamism, but with their bodies, their moods, their eyes and their sighs, their slow meditative caution, they reveal all the action and energy that has been bottled up, or forsaken. Like Ingmar Bergman, these directors craft emotionally and psychologically turbulent stories that make difficult claims upon us as an audience. We don’t smile much during the film: we squirm, we resist, we try not to see ourselves in these stories (but still, sometimes, we can’t help recognising, and identifying).
A direct debt or homage to Bergman is not necessarily obvious in these films, though it is more so if you happen to be watching them in gloomy Stockholm during his centennial year. Labels like “Bergmanesque” identify traditions, relations, continuities: they help us see forests rather than just trees. It’s interesting to jump into a vast program of current cinema and to think about how (consciously, or not) filmmakers integrate the moods and dynamics that Bergman so expertly nurtured throughout his career. It is a rich and useful exercise, searching for Ingmar Bergman.
- The list appeared in Göteborg Film Festival’s 1994 program; the other ten films were The Phantom Carriage (Victor Sjöström, 1921); The Circus (Charlie Chaplin, 1928); The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Dreyer, 1928); Port of Shadows (Marcel Carné, 1938); Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950); Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950); La Strada (Federico Fellini, 1954); Raven’s End (Bo Widerberg, 1963); Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966); and The Orchestra Conductor (Andrzej Wajda, 1980). ↩