Finally, I get to talk about Ingmar Bergman! Like millions of die-hard film buffs I absolutely worship at the shrine of this Swedish genius. He is undeniably one of the most unique, probing, daring and important filmmakers who ever lived.
Ugh, I hate to use that word, “important”. In describing the works of an artist in the greatest form of mass media ever created as important, you’re almost certain to turn people off. I don’t blame them but I do feel that Ingmar Bergman was the William Shakespeare of cinema. That’s not to say that he towers above all of his fellow artists, though there are many “Bergmatics” who would argue that he does. The reason why I say this is because Bergman, more then any other cinematic artist, constantly and successfully used the art of film to explore the fundamental quandaries of our existence – what does it mean to be human? Why do we behave the way we do? Does God exist and if so why is he so silent? Why should we live if we’re only going to die and why do we hurt the ones we love?
Once again, I’m making him sound like some sort of esoteric bore. He’s not. Woody Allen, one of Bergman’s most fervent disciples has said “the fact that he’s got a mind and an intellect and that the films are about something and that they’re profound on a human level, that’s all great. But he’s first and foremost an entertainer, so it’s not like doing homework.” This is also true of Shakespeare. Bergman never won over the hoi polloi in the way that Shakespeare did in his lifetime. Many people when assigned to read Hamlet in school often do find it to be hard work, but once you get a grasp of the Elizabethan dialect you become a lifelong convert. Yes, Shakespeare understood the human race better then any scientist, philosopher, sociologist or anthropologist that has ever lived, but first and foremost he wanted to connect with the audience and for them to have a good time at one of his plays. In my opinion at least, Bergman did too.
You certainly don’t have to learn Swedish to enjoy Bergman’s films. Assuming you’re not one of those poor souls that claims they don’t like to read subtitles (for those that find reading such a chore there’s nothing I can do but encourage them to enroll in night school), then the biggest challenge will be for you to get used to his cinematic style. People who have never really watched his films are known to find them dull, talky and monotonous. But stick with it and your life will be that much richer.
Another charge that has been levied against Berman has been that his work is horribly depressing and unbearably gloomy. This is very subjective. Yes, his films do deal with the unpleasantness of life, confronting the fact that the world is a cruel place and existence can be stifling. But his films are also, at least in my opinion, very hopeful. All art is, I think, an act of hope and in most of his films I personally feel that there’s something both cathartic and even optimistic at their core.
Take The Seventh Seal, arguably his most famous work. Yes, it has a knight trying to outwit the literal personification of Death by challenging him to a game of Chess. The films protagonist may be traveling through a plague-infested Europe but at the movie’s climax he’s able to distract Death long enough so that a group of traveling minstrels can escape. Through A Glass Darkly deals with a cruel father (played by Bergman’s favorite actor, Max Von Sydow) and his mentally ill daughter (Bergman’s muse and one-time lover Harriett Anderson). It ends with the girl being committed but the final coda has the father’s neglected son saying, “Father finally talked to me.” Winter Light is a film about a priest coming to terms with God’s silence, but at the end of the film he still insists on conducting his sermon, if for no other reason then to reassure his parishioners.
Of course, not all of his films are quite so hopeful. Two of my favorite films of his – Persona and The Passion of Anna – both end on an ambiguous, disjointed note in which the very illusion of the film is shattered through a jarring, reflective effect (he interrupts the climax of Persona by literally turning the camera around and showing the film crew at work, followed by a projector powering down. The Passion of Anna ends with the film overexposing and Bergman’s own voice giving the final word). I’ll also admit that there have been times where his films become down right maudlin, as in Brink of Life, a film about women in a maternity ward, two of whom miscarry and a third is contemplating an abortion. That brings us to From the Life of the Marionettes. A little known, late career work.
When Marionettes was made, Bergman was living in exile in Munich. He had left his native Sweden after he was publicly arrested during a rehearsal of August Strindberg’s Dance of Death. Humiliated by the affair, Bergman left Stockholm. He briefly considered making films in Los Angeles, an unlikely scenario even though Bergman loved Hollywood films and was in awe of the film capitals technical superiority. At one point Bergman shared a U.S. agent with Charles Bronson. The two men met at a film studio. Bronson was shooting one of his action films and had squibs applied to his body for a shoot out scene. Bergman was fascinated to learn how such pyrotechnics were performed. There’s also a photo that I really love of Berman examining that notoriously unreliable mechanical shark from Jaws (shown below). Though they might have seemed to be worlds apart, Bergman and Spielberg had a long mutual admiration for each other.
Ultimately Bergman moved to Munich. His first film in the Bavarian capital was The Serpents Egg. A fairly big production financed by Dino DeLaurentes, the picture starred Bergman’s frequent muse Liv Ullman and Keith Carridine, star of TV’s Kung Fu. The film was poorly received by critics and audiences. He then went to Ms. Ullman’s native home of Norway to film Autumn Sonata, which offered die hard Bergman fans to see him direct that other famous Bergman, actress Ingrid (the two were not related).
By now Bergman was working with the Swedish authorities so that he could return home and make what was expected to be his final work, the positively wonderful Fanny and Alexander (1983), but not before making one more film in West Germany.
From the Life of the Marionettes was something of a companion piece to Bergman’s 1973 picture Scenes from a Marriage. He took two minor characters from that film – played by Jan Malmsjo and frequent Bergman leading lady Bibi Anderson – and decided to explore their marriage in greater depth. This wasn’t a sequel, mind you. Different actors were cast in Marionettes and this film was allegedly set in Munich (the film is almost entirely shot in interiors and the setting is barely ever mentioned) while the previous film was set in Stockholm.
All through his career Bergman supplemented his filmmaking stage productions. While Bergman entered the Swedish film industry as a screenwriter, and would write all of his scripts based on his own original stories, he never succeeded at original ambition, to be a playwright. Instead he staged highly acclaimed productions of the works of Stringburg, Ibsen, Chekov, O’Neil and Shakespeare. In 1975 Bergman recreated a production of The Magic Flute, which he had previously directed. It remains one of the most extraordinary pieces of theater ever to be translated to the screen.
During his exile in Munich Bergman was a resident director for that city’s Residenztheater. For From the Life of the Marionettes he culled actors from that company’s corps of players. Bergman later recalled that “I found it was fascinating, not only to work with actors who had not been before a camera before, but also to have a film without a plot. Just to make an investigation, like an operation: very, very clear, very simple, very sterile, but not to find the truth.”
What we are investigating is a murder, but not a murder mystery. The film opens in a garish brothel where Peter Egermann (Robert Atzon) brutally murders a prostitute (Rita Russek). We learn after the scene fades out that Egermann also sodomized her corpse. There’s no question that he did it, but why? Don’t expect all of the pieces of this puzzle to fall into place by the final coda. The impossibility of solving life’s problems is a big part of the Bergman worldview.
An anonymous interrogator interviews the people in Egermann’s life. His investigation begins five days after the murder. The flashbacks start five days before and progress linearly (four days before the murder, three days before the murder) while the timeline of the interrogations regress until we arrive at the moment the crime was committed.
We learn that Peter is married to Katarina (Christine Buchegger), a beautiful, successful fashion designer. He insists that they have a great sex life (she later counters that claim) but that he is having fantasies about murdering her. We see one of his murderous fantasies as he enters a pristine, white tiled bathroom. Katarina has just gotten out of the shower, her hair wet and sexy. He walks up behind her and produces a straight razor, which he lifts to her jugular. The two of them look in the mirror. She flashes him a Mona Lisa like smile, as if to say “go ahead. I dare you!”
Peter tells this to his psychiatrist (Martin Benrath). We quickly learn that he’s a very dishonest man. In what I can’t help but feel is a bit of a contrivance, Peter makes him think he’s left the office. The doctor then calls up Katrina and asks her to come to his office where he tries to seduce her. She’s not offended. She admits that she’s had affairs (“too many”) and considers having sex with him in his office, but ultimately turns him down. “You realize that I love my husband?” she tells him. She also suspects that the good doctor is trying to come between her and Peter.
He isn’t the only one trying to come between the two of them. We meet Peter’s mother, who on the surface seems to be very nice but we soon learn that there is more then a hint of an Oedipal complex going on between them. We also meet Tim (Walter Schmidinger) Katarina’s partner in her fashion design firm. He’s a rather plain looking, middle-aged, self-loathing Jewish homosexual. This might make him sound like a stereotype today and one could argue that by 1981 the world had become more accepting of gays, particularly in Europe. But Tim is from an older generation. More to the point, it becomes clear that he desperately wants someone to love. He has sex with many random men but he yearns for genuine tenderness. He has a close relationship with Katarina but of course it’s platonic. Eventually he gives Peter the address of a brothel. Consciously or unconsciously, his goal is to break Peter and Katrina up.
We later see another dream sequence in which our married heroes are laying naked in an entirely white setting. The light is harsh and overexposed. It starts out extremely erotic, with Peter caressing his wife’s naked body. It then turns ugly, with him attacking her and Katarina egging him on with her smile. We later see her cradling him in an image deliberately reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Pieta.
All of this climaxes in the brothel. It’s a tacky place decorated with pornographic posters. Via a peep show he’s able to watch voluptuous dancers display their wares. Peter remains at the whorehouse until after it closes (which means he’s locked in). He picks out a prostitute who, interestingly enough, is also named Katarina, though she goes by the name Ka. Big breasted and heavily made up, she’s also sweet and admits that she more or less enjoys her chosen trade. Alas, this doesn’t stop the murderous rage that has been building up in Peter to finally erupt.
Other then a brief exchange where Peter’s mother explains that he and his sister used to stage puppet shows as children, there’s nothing in From the Lives of the Marionettes that has to do with marionettes. The cryptic title apparently alludes to a passage in Carlo Collodi’s novel The Adventures of Pinocchio:
“Most unfortunately in the lives of the Marionettes, there is always
a BUT that spoils everything.”
I’m not entirely sure what that’s supposed to mean. Cryptic titles are indeed a Bergman trademark. Frankly, I think the film more closely resembles another childhood classic, Peter Pan. I say that because regressing into pre-adolescence is a theme in the film. “We are each other’s child. Neither one of us wants to grow up,” Katarina says. The final image of the film shows Peter in an institution where the doctors are observing him. He lies down on his neatly made bed and caresses a tattered teddy bear from his childhood that his mother brought him.
The actors in the film may have been new to the cinema and, for that matter, new to Bergman. But he did have at least one familiar name on his crew, and that was his great cinematographer Sven Nykvist. During his long career Bergman largely worked with two cameramen. One was Gunnar Fischer, whose rich blacks and whites created the striking visuals for The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries and many others. Sven Nykvist first worked with Bergman on 1953’s Sawdust and Tinsel, in which he was one of three cinematographers. The first Bergman film in which he was the sole cameraman was The Virgin Spring. After that he pretty much lensed any piece of emulsion Bergman directed.
Replacing Fischer with Nykvist was like switching Caravaggio with Vermeer. Nykvist light was usually gentler, more even and naturalistic, yet no less beautiful. He and Bergman were reluctant to shoot in color, feeling that black and white was the true photographic medium for the cinema. The poor souls who complain that they “don’t like movies in black and white” haven’t watched one. If they had they would know that by painting purely in light and shadow the eye will almost always see more then they would with color, particularly the details of the human face, and nobody knew how to capture the human face better then Bergman.
Bergman and Nykvist first dipped their toe into the world of color cinematography with About These Women (1964). The results were disastrous. The saturated colors of early sixties film stock just wasn’t conducive to Bergman’s style. Eventually, the more subdued and earthier Ektachrome stock gave Bergman and Nykvist a much more subdued color palette, which they first used with startling results in The Passion of Anna in 1969. Nykvist would latter win Oscars for both Cries and Whispers and Fanny and Alexander.
The opening sequence of Marionettes is shot in color, emphasizing the garish reds of the brothel. The closing scene is also shot in color but the rest of the film is shot entirely in monochrome. The opening and closing sequences are happening now. The rest of the film is memory. We don’t remember things in black and white but by shooting them in the gray scale everything has a feeling of being a reflection of the past. It also appears to be trying to see things with greater clarity, hoping that the truth will be there in “black and white.”
After Marionettes, Bergman made his peace with the Swedish government and returned to his homeland where he made Fanny and Alexander. Released to great acclaim in 1983, Bergman claimed that this was to be his swan song to feature filmmaking, as he yearned to return to directing for the stage full time. “The theatre is like a faithful wife,” Bergman once explained. “Film is the great adventure – the costly, exacting mistress.” Many of the stage productions that Bergman directed were filmed for Swedish television. He also wrote a number of screenplays that were subsequently filmed, including The Best Intentions, Sunday’s Children (directed by his youngest son, Daniel Bergman) and Faithless, directed by his former muse and lover, Liv Ullman. He came out of retirement to direct Saraband, released four years before his death in 2007. In Saraband Liv Ullman and Erald Josephson reprised their roles from Scenes From A Marriage, studying their lives thirty years down the road. The characters in that film clearly had an effect on Bergman. He had also adapted Marriage into a stage play. Bergman died in 2007.
Much as I hate to do so, I can’t help but pine a bit for the olden days when every city and town had an art theater. Where college students and the smart sect lined up around the block not just to see the newest Bergman film but also the latest work by Fellini, Kurosawa, Antonioni, Truffaut and others. Bergman’s films were hardly serious competition for The Sound of Music, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or Jaws, but he had a loyal, passionate following around the world. Who was the last director of non-English speaking films to amass such a following? Pedro Almodovar? Wong Kar-Wai? Today it’s harder then ever for a “foreign film” to get a good distribution deal. While Netflix, Amazon and other home media services have given people in even the most remote regions of this country access to an infinite variety of motion pictures, so few people seek these films out. If it’s not available right when they turn on their Apple TV receivers, a film often just doesn’t get seen. I do yearn for the days when a large segment of the population went to see these types of films and discussed them ad-nauseam but at the moment I fear that we’re not living in a very cinema centric culture. Hopefully, that will soon change.