Norstedts, 2008. ISBN: 9789113015293
Reviewed by Henning Koch in SBR 2008:2
In Woody Allen’s popular film Manhattan there is a scene where Diane Keaton trashes Ingmar Bergman’s films, provoking Woody Allen into saying: "Ingmar Bergman is the only genius in cinema today" – thus using Bergman as a counterweight to all that is frivolous and pretentious about Manhattan. The role of "genius" is one that Bergman had foisted upon him his whole life, and we do not know if he was comfortable with the label – although Timm does quote Bergman in an early diary commenting "most probably I am a genius". Others have not been so sure. The eminent film critic David Thomson in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film asserted that Bergman was always "fixed on the heart and soul, but with a bristling neatness that was heartless and depressing..."
Lusten och dämonerna is a portrait of Ingmar Bergman through his work, a step-by-step analysis of more or less every film and play he ever produced. Mikael Timm is practical, precise and often an inspired biographer. His book is certainly an essential reference work for students and film and theatre buffs; and ultimately it may even encourage a more reasoned debate about Bergman’s legacy. What Timm also succeeds in showing, though it may not be intentional, is that Ingmar Bergman was a relentless Protestant work-horse (the son of a vicar), albeit one with enough vision and energy to achieve his ambitions.
From the moment in 1941 when a precocious Bergman extracts a large sum of public money to set up Sweden’s first dedicated theatre for children (Sagoteatern) we sense the emergence of a driven professional with his feet on the ground. Timm even reproduces a note from the fledgling theatre manager in which he wittily reminds his actors to leave their socks in the laundry "neatly rolled up". Bergman has his eye on every detail!
Foreign readers may be surprised at the extent of Bergman’s involvement in the theatre, not just in the early days but throughout his life. Again, Timm’s confident grasp of his subject is reassuring. When Bergman became theatre manager at Helsingborg Theatre in 1945, he was Europe’s youngest municipal theatre manager. Within a month of opening in Helsingborg, Bergman had already taken a quarter of the previous year’s entire takings – a populist, contrary to his reputation! After Helsingborg, Bergman became a junior director at the modern, prestigious Gothenburg City Theatre. Bergman was occasionally histrionic while at Gothenburg; he once smashed a glass table with his fist, and had his salary docked.
Bergman’s film career kicked off with similar promise. The film of his script, Hets (Frenzy), directed by Alf Sjöberg, premiered in October 1944 and promptly won the Grand Prix in Cannes. A year later Bergman had his first opportunity to direct his own adaptation of Leck Fischer’s play Kris – Bergman was not pleased with the result and he returned to his bread and butter – the theatre – with relief.
At this time there were no grants for film production and no central funding initiative – and Bergman made a series of advertising films for soap powder to keep himself afloat. Again, this might have surprised Woody Allen.
In spite of some resistance in Sweden to his cinema, Bergman churned out more than eleven films between 1947 and 1953, including Törst (1949, admired by Francois Truffaut), Summer Interlude (1950) and Summer with Monika (1952). The Seventh Seal (1957) is aptly described by Mikael Timm as "one of the best road movies in film history". Virgin Spring (1959) won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film and Bergman never subsequently had to look for film finance in Sweden.
The offers rained in. Elias Kazan wanted Bergman to direct his own play at the Lincoln Center in New York, Tennessee Williams asked him to adapt one of his plays and, whilst writing Through a Glass Darkly Bergman had a million-crown offer from Paramount. He steadfastly ignored all offers of work outside Sweden.
Viveca Lindfors, the actress and later director, commented in the 1980s that she regretted decamping to Hollywood in the 1960s. "It was in Sweden that remarkable film was being created in the 1960s, not Hollywood", she said. As the French and Italian new wave began to lose impetus, Bergman kept steadily working in spite of increasing criticism in the sixties about his lack of political commitment. At the height of his influence, whilst simultaneously artistic manager at SF and theatre manager at the Royal Dramatic Theatre, Bergman actually considered taking a year off to listen to Bach! Many years later when Lars von Trier tried to persuade him to direct a Dogme film, Bergman commented: "Why does that Dane want me to film with a shaky camera?" Certainly there was always a classicist in Bergman – which did attract hostility in the progressive 1960s and 1970s.
Bergman worked internationally with theatre, if not film. In addition to his Munich years between 1976 and 1985 (a period of exile after his vilification in Sweden for alleged tax evasion – all charges subsequently dropped) Bergman went to London’s National Theatre in the early 1970s to direct Hedda Gabler. Bergman was up against an alien, verbose English theatre tradition in direct opposition to his own preference for physical theatre. Oddly enough, he found the actors "too well prepared"; Maggie Smith, for all her professionalism, was "inaccessible". The Savoy was "too dark" and the theatre "dirty". Finally (in desperation?) Olivier invited Bergman to stay in his unoccupied London flat, although the elderly actor and theatre manager did turn up for breakfast every morning – until an argument over Olivier’s staging of The Three Sisters.
Bergman’s uncompromising approach was also his great strength. When his distributors withdrew from a proposed film about three sisters, one of whom was dying, Bergman pressed on unconcernedly to achieve perhaps his most successful film – Cries and Whispers (1972) – of which he later said it was "like playing the one-armed bandit and winning the jackpot every time". It is not a bad metaphor for his career.
Only in his personal life was there ever a hint of dysfunction, and, to give Mikael Timm credit, he does document Bergman’s many marriages and children, although he declines to venture onto the sacred turf of the deeper man: his soul, his dreams. There may be a good reason for this. For in spite of all the interesting material on offer in this marvellously researched and structured biography with its countless anecdotes and reflections, the reader comes away with a sense that Ingmar Bergman was an artist whose only priority was his work. David Thomson may have been right – there are elements of heartlessness in this. And, as Timm might agree, daemons.