Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Early Ingmar Bergman Films

The Artist and His Canvas: Early Bergman

By David Skolnick

In examining the complexities of people and capturing these on film, Ingmar Bergman has few peers.

His films go beyond merely being compelling and interesting; his goal is to give his audience a glimpse into themselves, and by extension, their humanity. It’s more than an artistic coincidence that Bergman seemed to know a lot about relationships: He was married five times, divorced four times, and had notable love affairs with three of his leading ladies: Harriet Andersson, Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann.

In addition to disintegrating relationships, Bergman’s films focus on subtexts such as death, religion, loneliness, regret and self-examination. They’re also beautifully shot with lengthy close-ups that capture the moods and feelings of his films’ characters, many who are entertainers of some sort ranging from prima ballerinas and concert pianists to small-time traveling actors.

Rarely does a Bergman film have a happy ending and there are times in which there doesn’t seem to be an ending. Those movies are snapshots of life without a conclusion. 

It’s ironic that a comedy – the excellent 1955 film, Smiles of a Summer Night – gave Bergman his first international hit. Two years later, Bergman released The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, two classics that cemented his well-deserved status as one of cinema’s greatest directors. He would go on to make numerous other memorable films.

But we are interested here with Bergman’s earlier movies. Are they as good as his later work? Did they give clues as to what he would create?

I recently saw five of his early films. While Bergman, as with many artists, sticks to a central theme, he diverges and adds to it to give the audience the impression they’re not seeing the same movie at a different date, which can’t be said of many of his fellow directors/producers.

Torment (aka Frenzy) (1944): Bergman wrote the screenplay and directed small parts of this film, including the finale, but did not receive a directing credit. Alf Sjoberg is the film’s credited director, and he appears to have been a major influence on the young Bergman. If you watch Bergman-directed films you can see Sjoberg’s influence: The crisp black-and-white cinematography, effective use of shadows and  the slow mental breakdown of one of the main characters.
Torment is about problems at a Swedish high school, primarily caused by a cruel and sadistic Latin teacher, (Stig Jarrel). We never learn the teacher’s name, but all of the students and some of the other teachers appropriately call him Caligula behind his back. (Yeah, he’s that bad.) The movie focuses on one student, Jan-Erik Widgren (Alf Kjellin), the target for much of Caligula’s torture.
Widgren falls in love with a slightly older woman who works at a store near the school, selling cigarettes. A troubled soul, she tells Widgren of her victimization at the hands of a mysterious older man. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out who is the older man.
Widgren is on the verge of quitting school with only two weeks left before graduation as he is unable to withstand any more cruelty from Caligula, but it gets worse. In a rage, the teacher kills the woman. Trying to cover up his responsibility for the death, the teacher concentrates on getting Widgren expelled. But this has a positive catharsis in the young man, giving him a direction in his life while Caligula, on the other end of Bergman’s spectrum, is condemned to loneliness and misery. He calls for his former student’s forgiveness; something he doesn’t receive.
It’s a good film with a strong performance from Jarrel and a solid script from Bergman. Look for Stig Olin, an early Bergman film regular, as Widgren’s friend, Sandman.

Crisis (1946): Bergman’s directorial debut in feature films. He also wrote the screenplay. While it stands on its own as a personal effort, it but pales in comparison to his later work.
A narrator at the beginning of the film sets the mood. “I wouldn’t call this a great or harrowing tale. It really is just an everyday drama.”
He’s correct. There’s nothing special about this movie, but ironically that is precisely what makes it special: Bergman’s knack of capturing and magnifying the ordinary; taking it from mere role play into an almost exact mirror of the human condition.

There are a handful of early Bergman film acting regulars in this film. Of particular note is Stig Olin, who has the best role as Jack, a lowlife con-man who develops a conscience at the end of the film. The movie’s featured character is Nelly (Inga Landgre), who would later play the wife of Max von Sydow’s knight in The Seventh Seal.

The plot centers around Nelly, who is raised in the country by a loving older woman, who is dying. Nelly’s birth mother comes to the small town when Nelly turns 18 and successfully manipulates her daughter into coming to the big city to help her at her beauty salon.

Bergman’s point is sacrifice versus selfishness; trust versus betrayal, but both the director and his storyline lack the necessary strength at this point and Bergman clutters the canvas with too many useless characters. The film stands more as a testament to the director’s own personal growth than to a cognizant storyline.

Thirst (Three Strange Loves) (1949): I had to stop about 20 minutes into this movie to read about what I was watching. That helped me considerably as I would have never figured it out on my own. The film goes from present time to flashbacks without giving any indication the latter are about the past. Bergman uses the flashback to supersede time itself, adding a fourth dimension to the character and delving even deeper into the interior life.

Thirst is about the unhappy marriage (surprise!) between Rut, a woman who was a ballet dancer (note Bergman’s fascination with entertainers), and Bertil. They’re returning on a train from a vacation in Italy as they recall past love affairs, none of which are happy. Rut’s affair with a married military officer resulted in her having a botched abortion, the consequences of which are that she can no longer bear children, and is the major factor in the couple’s tension.

The recollection of other unpleasant relationships causes great strain on their marriage, a strain that is only relieved when Bertil kills her. But does he? No, it’s only a dream. Bertil wakes up, and out of nowhere, they decide to give their marriage a real chance to succeed. Bertil’s dream symbolizes not only their tension, but that their lives previous were a dream. Now awakened into reality, they can only decide to slog on. (With the baggage the two of them have, I’d give them another few months, but the movie ends.)

In the hands of a lesser talent, it would be annoying but Bergman uses the film to help with our understanding of the characters. Background shots of lakes, clouds and forests and the unusual camera angles are used to define and move the characters along. For every moment in the film there is an equal moment when Bergman wishes to evoke a precise feeling, and we should not overlook this.

A note: Bergman didn’t write the screenplay. Herbert Grevenius, who also wrote Summer Interlude, did the honors here.

Thirst is choppy, sloppy, and confusing. It has a few Bergman elements such as the extreme close-ups and a nostalgic look at past relationships, even though they were bad. But it’s the most unBergman Bergman movie I’ve seen, and, ultimately, I found it less interesting than his other work from this period.

To Joy (1950): An excellent film about two members of a symphony orchestra (the theme of entertainer-as-hero), Stig Eriksson (Stig Olin again) and Marta Olsson (Maj-Britt Nilsson), who fall in love and marry. While I’m not a classical music fan, Bergman does an outstanding job in this film of using it to move the story.

Stig is an ambitious violinist who dreams of being a famous soloist. The problem is he just isn’t that good, which leads him to never be happy and believe the world is out to get him. The movie is told in Bergman’s favorite form, a flashback, and opens with Stig learning about the death of Marta and a child. Even though we know the tragic ending, the final scene is still incredible and moving.

There is little joy in this film, but it’s compelling nonetheless. There’s no doubt this is a Bergman movie, and an excellent Bergman movie at that. Besides the close-ups (no mere sleight of camera for Bergman, but an integral feature of the character), the back and forth of the relationship, and use of music, there are several scenes that allow the passion and love between Stig and Marta to be experienced, even through the tough times.

Summer Interlude (1951): At this point in his directing career, Summer Interlude was Bergman’s greatest film and a strong indicator of what he would do in the future. It’s almost as if Bergman is foreshadowing some of his greatest movies. There is one scene that has a dying woman playing chess with a priest (The Seventh Seal). The leads are seen picking wild strawberries. The summer is seen as the perfect season in this film, as it is in Smiles of a Summer Night. Summer is Bergman’s symbol for happiness: warm but all too short in the Scandinavian climate. We get the Bergman close-ups, the passionate but rocky romance, and questions about religion, all told in flashback. Maj-Britt Nilsson is the female lead (Marie) again. As in To Joy, she’s a ballerina, although this time she’s a successful one.

Marie is detached and off-putting, emotionally empty. It helps her focus on being a prima ballerina, but does nothing to overcome her isolation, and hurts her relationship with her boyfriend, David (played by Alf Kjellin), a newspaper reporter. That the two are together at all is somewhat of a mystery: he comes across as light-hearted while Marie is an ice queen, seemingly incapable of love or even basic, simple kindnesses.

We learn that Marie shut herself off emotionally because of a tragic love affair 13 years earlier with Henrik (Birger Malmsten in his eighth of 11 Bergman films) while on a summer vacation. The two fall madly in love, but Henrik dies when diving into water. (You’re supposed to check the depth of water before diving in head-first: a lesson Henrik learned the hard way.)

After that, “Uncle” Erland, an older family friend, takes advantage of Marie’s grief to engage in a love affair with her, which results in her emotional shutdown. The memories of Henrik return after Erland sends Marie the diary Henrik kept that summer and release the bottled-up emotions return for Marie, who recalls that wonderful time 13 years ago. Happiness for Bergman is always temporal and transitory. She comes to terms with her hatred of Erland, confides in her ballet master (Stig Olin once again!), and is finally able to show love for David.

In a telling moment during one of the film’s final scenes, Marie removes the heavy makeup she wears for the ballet’s last dress rehearsal. As she takes off the makeup, she is also exposing her true self, looking young and happy as she did during that magic and tragic summer with Henrik. While the symbolism is all too obvious, it still cannot distract us from the emotions we feel in this incredibly touching scene.

Bergman has called Summer Interlude “one of my most important films.” It definitely was a sign of things to come for one of cinema’s most talented and iconic directors.

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