Ingmar Bergman was the founder of a line of cult Nordic film movements, including the ‘Dogme 95’ movement of the 1990s and early 2000s. GEOFFREY MACNAB looks back on the life of Sweden’s creative genius…
Ingmar Bergman had a difficult childhood. While he completely adored his mother, he had a vexed relationship with his father. This is something we see him explore later in a number of films (Fanny and Alexander being the most obvious example). His father was strict, so reacting against him became a large part of Bergman’s creative force. One of the reasons, however, this relationship became troubled was that Bergman saw reflections of himself in his father. We hear many stories about the famous ‘Bergman temper’, and the idea of Bergman as a ‘little demon’ was even used for marketing purposes until recently. In the Bergman archives, indeed, where there’s still much to emerge, there were politics about what I could and couldn’t see. I met one of his wives, Käbi Laretei, and of course Bergman had many relationships with his actresses. But Bergman, nevertheless, chose on the basis of talent. He could be brutal if he felt the cast had, in any way, betrayed him. He described himself as “family lazy”, and I don’t think he was the best husband or father, as he was so singularly devoted to his work.
Bergman also had a difficult relationship with the Swedish state. He reacted badly when the authorities came after him for unpaid taxes, and he took himself off to Germany to live in self-imposed exile. From the conversations I had with younger Swedes, I found they still hold residual resentment for this. Many filmmakers, too, felt he stole their oxygen by taking the funding. At the end of his life, Bergman became a Prospero-like figure on the island of Fårö. There was an amusing documentary, which aired a few years ago. That found Bergman used to watch old episodes of Dallas on VHS. This, I think, endeared him to Swedes, as it showed he did in fact have a populist, mainstream taste. Still, in the period I wrote my book, just after his death, I felt the Swedes held a real ambivalence to him. I visited Fårö the year Kenneth Branagh met Henning Mankell (Bergman’s son-in-law), and Branagh had an interesting observation. He pointed out that, amongst the portraits of famous Swedes in Arlanda Airport, Bergman was absent. He’s now on the 100 SEK note though, so perhaps things have changed. He is, after all, the quintessential European auteur and, though there remain mixed feelings in Sweden about his personality, his films and plays are constantly revived. He’s one of those directors whose reputation will only continue to grow.
GEOFFREY MACNAB is a film writer.
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