Here Is Your Life (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), the 1966 feature debut of Swedish director Jan Troell, is ambitious by any measure: an epic (over two-and-a-half hours long) coming of age drama based on the semi-autobiographical novels by Nobel Prize-winning author Eyvind Johnson set in rural Sweden during the years of World War I.
It was also a response to the symbol-laden, psychologically heavy cinema of Ingmar Bergman, which was pretty much all the rest of the world knew about Swedish cinema in the early sixties. Here is Your Life, the feature debut of Jan Troell, was part of a new wave of Swedish cinema. Not quite Sweden’s answer to the nouvelle vague, it nonetheless ushered in young (or at least younger) filmmakers and different approaches, from the passionate romanticism of Bo Widerberg’s Elvira Madigan to the freewheeling intimacy of Vilgot Sjöman’s I Am Curious – Yellow, both 1967.
Framed in those terms, Here is Your Life is a fresh take on the classic historical drama. Olaf (Johnson’s stand-in, played by Eddie Axberg) is a mere 13 years old when he leaves the farm of his foster parents (sent there because his real parents are too poor to feed him) and sets out to make his own way in the world. The film follows him through his teenage years as he moves from job to job—he works at a lumber camp, a brick furnace, a sawmill, a movie theater, a travelling tent cinema, a carnival shooting booth, and maintaining the engines at a railroad yard—and schools himself by reading philosophy and attending socialist meetings.
Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957) followed his sunny, airy sex comedy Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), the first Bergman film to catch the international spotlight, and the dark medieval allegory The Seventh Seal (1957), where a knight’s faith is shaken by the death and cruelty of the crusades and the doom of the Black Plague sweeping through his home. Set in the present but tied to a past viewed through the lens of remembrance and dream, Wild Strawberries is more melancholy and introspective than Smiles and more hopeful and self-reflective than the enigmatic Seal. It is also more autobiographical, with details of aging protagonist Isak Borg’s past drawn from Bergman’s own childhood. To what extent Isak or his emotionally closed in son Evald Borg (note the initials EB) represent Bergman himself is open to question (he claimed Evald was based on his father), but such concerns are secondary to the film itself, an often painful drama but one of Bergman’s warmest and most touching films.
Victor Sjöström, an actor and the great Swedish director of the silent era (and one of Bergman’s heroes), plays Isak Borg, a widowed doctor living a quiet retirement in a lovely country home. He was coaxed out of retirement to play the fragile old man being presented with an honorary doctorate in the college town of Lund, and Bergman pays tribute to the director in the opening sequences of the film. Isak has a nightmare where he wanders through a sun-seared yet ghostly village, and the silent movie-like sequence recalls Sjöström’s 1921 masterpiece The Phantom Carriage, with its driverless hearse carrying the corpse of Isak himself through the streets. It’s unlikely that audiences of the time would make the connection, which makes the moment even more touching: a personal gesture from one artist acknowledging his debt to another.
Ingmar Bergman’s reputation is built on a foundation of introspective human dramas and personal crises steeped in philosophical discussions, conversations that scrape tender emotions and troubled relationships laid bare. And yes, his career is filled with such cinema, much of it dark, most of it very serious and all of it (to a greater or lesser extent) exploring his ideas of drama, art, love and the complexities of human existence.
Yet the film that first brought Bergman to international attention in 1955 was neither dour nor dark. Smiles of a Summer Night is a light, sunny, airy sex comedy, like a Swedish version of a sly Lubitsch satire of love and class and sex by way of a Shakespeare comedy of mismatched couples reshuffled through the course of the film. It largely plays out at a weekend retreat in the country manor of beautiful (and somewhat notorious) stage actress Desiree (Eva Dahlbeck), or rather her worldly mother (Naima Wifstrand), something of a social courtesan in her day (“My dear daughter, I was given this estate for promising not to write my memoirs”).
She invites Fredrik (Gunnar Björnstrand), an old lover who has recently reconnected, along with his much, much younger wife (Ulla Jacobsson) and troubled son (Björn Bjelfvenstam), a divinity student with very worldly concerns, notably a tormenting attraction to his stepmom. To stir it up, she also invites her current lover, the married Count Carl Magnus Malcolm (Jarl Kulle), and his wife (Margit Carlqvist), who connives to help Desiree reshuffle the pairs to their desired outcome. Bringing the sextet up to an octet is Fredrik’s earthy young maid (Harriet Andersson) and Desiree’s hearty groom (Åke Fridell). While Desiree’s mother provides the witty commentary to the awkward dance, the unfettered attraction and physical indulgence of the servants offers a refreshing simplicity to love and sex beyond these social creatures.
It’s all very warm and witty and played like an elegant stage farce, with Bergman’s usual introspection recast through witticisms and banter. The men are egotistical fools (“I can tolerate my wife’s infidelity, but if anyone touches my mistress, I become a tiger”) and the women worldly veterans of disappointing loves (apart from the girlish young wife, still a virgin and an optimist). But there is also a vulnerability in the aging Fredrik, who adores his young wife but yearns for a grown-up relationship (and a sex life), and to Desiree, tired of a life of temporary affairs and shared lovers. While she’s the glamorous (and perhaps notorious) star on tour, she seeks stability and comfort at home, where she is also mother to a young son (named Fredrik, much to the adult Fredrik’s alarm… and perhaps pride). It’s a very human comedy, built on the fragility of ego, the confusion of desire and the wonderful illogic of love.
Criterion originally released the film to DVD in 2004. The Blu-ray debut includes the supplements originally presented with that release: a video introduction by director Ingmar Bergman, a video conversation with film historian Peter Cowie and writer Jorn Donner (who was the executive producer on Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander’) and the original Swedish theatrical trailer. The 24-page booklet features an essay by theater and film critic John Simon and a reprint of Pauline Kael’s 1961 review. You can read them both in their entirety at the Criterion Current: John Simon here and Pauline Kael here.