Ingmar Bergman looms so large in the cinema that we tend to forget he didn’t simply arrive a fully-formed artist, turning out ruminative, allegorical, emotionally intense masterpieces like The Seventh Seal (1957) and Wild Strawberries (1957) and The Magician (1958). Bergman found his first success on the stage; his first original screenplay, Torment, was produced in 1944 under the direction of Alf Sjöberg, a fellow stage veteran and a major influence. He directed his first feature, Crisis, in 1946. The man of the theater embraced cinema, but it took time to learn the expressive qualities of cinema storytelling, and moviemaking was his classroom.
With his tenth feature, Summer Interlude (1951), we can see the development of the mature Bergman, and with his twelfth, Summer with Monika (1953), his filmmaking sophistication catches up with his artistic ambition. Together they make a fine set showing the two sides of Bergman as a serious filmmaker: Interlude, steeped in metaphor and allegory and myth, and Monika, his first triumph in the psychological cinema of troubled souls and broken marriages.
[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]
The same cramped space and abundance of facial closeups that Bergman used in CriesandWhispers dominate his latest film as well. In Scenesfrom aMarriage we are only infrequently offered relief from the claustrophobic intimacy resulting from Bergman’s preoccupation with the faces of Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson. Indeed, at least one critic has commented on Bergman’s spare use of open exterior shots, without really delineating the analogy between the camera’s increasing freedom of movement as the movie progresses and the freedom gained by Johan and Marianne in their relationship. Their liaison becomes less one-sided and more of a healthy, complementary give-and-take union in which neither is forced into a role he or she may not be willing to assume—Johan as the dominant male whose efforts to initiate sex are often met with less than enthusiasm, Marianne as domestically submissive female (that she has a law career doesn’t seem to substantially alter this self-concept) who defines her life in terms of Johan’s. These are the very roles they play at the beginning of the movie during the interview with the journalist where all Marianne has to say is that she is his wife. In fact, it is not until the final segment of the film (“In the Middle of the Night in a Dark House Somewhere in the World”) that Bergman literally opens up in the way he makes use of space within the frame.
The greatest leap in home video technology since Criterion released its first DVDs 15 years ago or so is the amazing improvement in mastering technology. With the digital revolution making digital prints the standard for cinema projection, the combination of elevates standards for film-to-digital quality and the HD standard of Blu-ray has brought near-cinema quality to home theater.
Persona (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Combo) is the most recent of Criterion’s world classics mastered from 2K digital, this one a 2011 digital restoration by Svensk Filmindustri. And like the greatest restorations, this disc brings the best of film texture and digital clarity together for a stunning image. Persona is a film dominated by light and white, with stark figures against neutral backgrounds, warm sunlight, and the bright glare of a film projector, and those values are the kinds of things that get muddied in poor prints and digital masters. This disc looks like a 35mm fresh from the lab has been projected directly on my flatscreen.
Liv Ullman is revered stage actress Elisabeth Vogler, who is suddenly stricken speechless, and Bibi Andersson is the adoring young nurse Alma, who watches over her at a quiet seaside retreat, doing all the talking for both of them while she lays her soul bare to the actress. When Alma discovers the insensitive and condescending words about her in a letter Elisabeth has written, the roles of their relationship begins to shift and the intensity of feeling builds to point that, quite literally, stops the film dead. For a brief moment, Bergman reaches back to the origins of cinema, as if to recreate the artform in brief, abstracted images and rebuild the film around the two women.
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.
The critical consensus is that Summer Interlude, the tenth feature from Ingmar Bergman, was a breakthrough for the filmmaker: his first film built around a strong, assertive, sure woman and the first shot extensively on location, where the natural world becomes a defining reflection of the lives of his characters.
This information comes courtesy of film historian and Bergman expert Peter Cowie, who has written extensively on Bergman and contributes the fine essay in the accompanying booklet to the Criterion release. I have much less experience with early Bergman, to be honest. It has been, in fact, the recent Criterion Blu-ray releases of classic Bergman films that has brought back to the director and introduced me to films I had never seen previously. It’s been a rewarding rediscovery of a director that I confess I have respected more than I’ve appreciated, in no small part thanks to the sheer beauty of the Criterion presentations. The cinematography of Gunnar Fischer has long been overshadowed by Bergman’s legendary collaborations with Sven Nykvist and the distinctive winter light of his images, but Criterion’s superbly remastered discs remind us of the beauty of his work, from the sunny, lush warmth of his summer interludes to the gray, foggy cloud of urban life and the cold desolation of fall and winter.
The blush of summer and the death of autumn are defining moods of Summer Interlude. Maj-Britt Nilsson, one of Bergman’s most overlooked actresses, plays Marie, an emotionally distant leading dancer in a Stockholm ballet company. An envelope containing a handwritten diary sends her mind reeling back thirteen years, to sunny days of young love and freedom and the first stirrings of desire on a summer vacation on the archipelago islands near Stockholm. She’s 15 and an aspiring ballerina, staying in vacation manor home of her Uncle Erland (Georg Funkquist), whose flirtations are more unsettlingly lustful than avuncular, and long-suffering Aunt Elisabeth (Renée Björling).
Summer Interlude (Criterion) and Summer With Monika (Criterion), the tenth and twelfth films (respectively) directed by Ingmar Bergman, make a fine match set showing off the two sides of Bergman developing in his early years as a filmmaker.
Summer Interlude (1951), the story of a summer romance between a sunny, confident young ballet student (Maj-Britt Nilsson) and a shy scholar (Birger Malmsten) on the lush vacation islands of the Stockholm archipelago, is a memory film. The older ballerina, now emotionally cocooned in regret and loss, is sent back to those free and easy days when she receives a handwritten diary, and she revisits the island, now a cold, foggy corpse of its summer lushness, to come to terms with her past.
Lovingly shot by Gunnar Fischer, Bergman’s first great cinematographer collaborator, the film is steeped in metaphor: a philosophical rumination on love and loss staged as a story, with characters more like archetypes in a theatre piece. Summer is the charge of youth in the idealism of eternal vacation and the innocence of young love in all its dimensions.
Summer with Monika (1953), starring Bergman’s first acknowledged muse Harriet Andersson as the impulsive, anxious, immature young Monika, is more about the complications, the rough edges, the unseen complications in a young couple after the bloom of sexual charge gives way to living in the real world.
Here, summer is less a metaphor and more of the literal time of year that allows these working teenagers to flee the city and live on the islands of the archipelago without a care. For Monika, it is an escape from the reality of the city – her family, her job, the dull life of a working class girl – and only the reality of supplies and food and the onset of autumn’s cold weather drives her back from this ambivalent self-made Eden and back to the material world of Stockholm.
Both are miniatures, studies in character and idea, small in scope and ambition, full of lovely moments and delicate performances. Bergman is finding his themes and learning to express himself and they both feature with moments of grace They don’t have the depth or the breadth or the richness of his great films, but his growth as a filmmaker is apparent in these jump between these two films. Where “Interude” is lovely but sophisticated sketch for films to come, “Monika” brings the real world into Bergman’s world and the tensions create a more powerful and resonant film.
Both debut on Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion. Summer Interlude features no supplements beyond a booklet with an essay by Peter Cowie. Summer with Monika features an introduction by Ingmar Bergman (recorded in 2003), a new video interview with actress Harriet Andersson conducted by Peter Cowie, half-hour documentary Images from the Playground by Stig Björkman (featuring behind-the-scenes footage shot by Bergman), and an interview with film scholar Eric Schaefer discussing the original American release of Summer with Monika as an exploitation film, cut down and dubbed by Kroger Babb and released as Monika: Story of a Bad Girl.
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.
Humphrey Bogart: The Essential Collection (Warner) The Maltese Falcon Blu-ray (Warner) The Treasure of the Sierra Madre Blu-ray (Warner)
Humphrey Bogart was the first Hollywood star I embraced. Watching him hold down the center of Casablanca with a pose of populist existentialism covering his wounded romanticism (“Where were you last night?” “That’s so long ago, I don’t remember.” “Will I see you tonight?” “I never make plans that far ahead.”), I thought he was the coolest cat I’d ever seen on the screen. There’s not a lot new to say about the Bogie, and not much I can add to Dave Kehr’s excellent piece in the New York Times on the icon, the actor and the movie star in relation to the great new box set Humphrey Bogart: The Essential Collection (Warner). I received the set late, just after returning from Vancouver and nursing the end days of a pesky head cold, so I’ve not had as much time and energy as I would have liked to dive into the set.
However, I can still offer a tour of the selections in the set through notes and reviews I wrote on earlier viewings of the films and coverage of their previous release on DVD. Yes, each of the 24 films in the set have been previously available on DVD, both individually and in various box set incarnations, and the supplements from those excellent Warner volumes are ported over. But the remarkable efficiency of this box set (12 two-sided flipper discs in six thinpak cases, plus a couple of extras, more on those later) and the amazing price tag ($100 retail, less with inevitable markdowns) brings the price per film to under $4 apiece.
Arguably the most famous of Ingmar Bergman’s films and certainly his most iconic, The Seventh Seal is Bergman at his most allegorical. Max von Sydow, young and blond and heroic, is a disillusioned knight returned from the Crusades in a state of spiritual desperation: his faith has been shaken by senseless death and terrible cruelty he’s seen perpetrated in the name of a silent God. Coming home to find his own country ravaged by the Black Plague doesn’t help matters much and as he searches for some sign of a benevolent God, he plays a game of chess with Death (Bengt Ekerot), personified as a cloaked figure with a grim white face. Gunnar Björnstrand is his skeptical squire, suspicious of religion that plays upon and encourages the blind fears of a superstitious population and cynical about a culture that values human life so cheaply.
The landscape in the opening scenes mirrors the harsh reality of his existence: rocky, cold, with jagged cliffs that look torn out of the land, scrub grass hills with scraggly trees. Only in the domestic scenes of Jof (Nils Poppe) and his family, wife Mia (Bibi Andersson) and infant son Mikael, does the sun come out to warm their world with anything close to hope. And it’s that warmth, that hope, that promise of the future the knight sees in their love and their laughing child, that he is able to save by his simple sacrifice.
As I remembered from college, it’s full of heavy themes about faith and loss, about the meaning of life and the fear of death, with a lugubrious and introspective knight trying to hold onto his idealism in the face of a grim world and an unforgiving existence. What I had forgotten was the details: religion is a grotesquery of death and suffering, the strange and the sick are accused of being in league with the devil and are executed while the trembling devout lash themselves in penitence, offering their suffering as proof of their devotion, or as a sacrifice to a merciless God in exchange for sparing their lives. “They speak of Judgment Day,” says one. Things have not changed in 50 years or 500 or 1000 years.