A Woman’s Voice: Ingrid Bergman in Five Languages

When we think of Ingrid Bergman, we may immediately call up images of her “you deserve this!” smile, or the indecision on her face in Casablanca (1942). There is a rare kind of suspense in watching Bergman’s face in flux and wondering where her thoughts might land, and this suspense is enhanced by the suppleness of her voice and the unexpected way she read her lines. Bergman may still be best known for her work in 1940s Hollywood, where she learned English quickly and used her voice as expressively as she had in movies made in her native Sweden in the 1930s, but English wasn’t the only foreign language she acted in. Bergman played in German in the late 1930s, and she left Hollywood in 1950 to make films in Italian with Roberto Rossellini. She acted in German again in the mid-1950s and even began acting in French at that time. No other major actor of the twentieth century worked as boldly in this many languages.

American and British actors barely ever work in anything but English, though Vanessa Redgrave has sometimes acted in Italian, in obscure pictures. European actors have been traditionally more comfortable working in different languages, and often with freeing results. Greta Garbo made two versions of her first talkie, Anna Christie (1930), one in English and one in German, and working in the German language releases something tough in her that is not present in the English-speaking film. Similarly, Marlene Dietrich was never more directly sexual than when she performed in French with her lover Jean Gabin in Martin Roumagnac (1946). Yet these are isolated instances in those storied careers. What made Bergman so special and so adventurous was her insistence on continually placing herself in various cultural contexts. Stars were sometimes dubbed by other actors when they worked in different countries, but Bergman was a gifted polyglot and was often able to speak in her own voice.

Intermezzo

Bergman was born to a German mother and a Swedish father, and she learned Swedish and German at school and some French before going into films at the age of nineteen in the comedy The Count of the Old Town (1935), where she is green and self-conscious. But she learned fast under the tutelage of Gustaf Molander, who directed her in six films in Sweden in the 1930s, plus a short in the omnibus picture Stimulantia in 1967. Molander often delights in presenting Bergman in “isn’t she beautiful?” shots where she is posed next to flowers or a statue or an ornate staircase so that her loveliness is reinforced by the objects around her, and so her vocal delivery takes a backseat to visual presentation.

But Bergman’s voice throbs and rides up and down the scale with abandon in Molander’s Intermezzo (1936), in which she offers up her youthfully lyric enthusiasm to a famous violinist played by Gosta Ekman, an actor she admired and loved. Romantic material like this was the ideal setting for Bergman, far more so than the sophisticated comedy of Molander’s Dollar (1938), where she has some trouble with the quickness of the pace and the overall tone. Yet there is a moment in this movie where she stops speaking Swedish and asks, “Ladies and gentlemen, can I have a cup of tea?” in English—with an American accent—to send up an American character in the film, and the effect is exciting because the Bergman of the 1940s jumps out at us momentarily.

Bergman went to Nazi-era Germany to make a little-seen working girl comedy called The Four Companions (1938), and she seems exceptionally ill-tempered in that movie speaking the more strenuous language. In scenes where her character is supposed to be annoyed, Bergman’s fury goes well beyond the scope of the role she is playing, and it does feel like she knows she has made a mistake in coming to this country at this time. Sixteen years later, Bergman went to Munich to make her last film with her second husband, Roberto Rossellini, which is called Angst (1954) in its German-language edition, and in this performance she is void of all creative energy, which is funneled directly to the English-language version called Fear. So playing in German brought out only the worst for Bergman.

Back in Sweden she reached a new level of imagination and emotional identification as a performer for Molander in A Woman’s Face (1938), as a scarred blackmailer. This was the point when her work had fully matured, and this is especially so in June Night (1940), a key Swedish Bergman film that understands her enigmatic, questing nature better than just about any other movie she ever made. In June Night she is a free spirit and a woman of scandal, a great beauty open to much interpretation and projection by the people around her. Her character is alive here to emotions of resentment, mortification, and fear, yet dreamily ruthless enough to betray a very supportive female friend without any qualms.

It can be difficult but not impossible to judge vocal effects in acting when you do not know the language in which the actor is working, but it seems clear that Bergman uses Swedish in a heightened way in her 1930s movies. Her daughter Pia Lindstrom thought that Bergman was so effective in English in the 1940s because “Swedish is so open in the throat,” with cadences that move up and then down very fast. Think of her line readings in the 1940s movies that made Bergman the most beloved female star in Hollywood of that time and it is clear that her musical way with English is part of what made her so magical. In Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946), when she says, “I’m liable to blow up the Panama Canal any minute now,” the line comes out like a roller-coaster ride, with the words “Panama Canal” so tightly held together that “any minute now” is like the steepest fast plunge downward.

Autumn Sonata

With the help of her indispensable voice teacher Ruth Roberts, who taught her English and also coached her on nuances of speech for the dialogue in her films, Bergman was a voice virtuoso in the 1940s, but there were some limits to that. She swiftly abandons trying to do a Cockney accent in English in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941) and an Irish accent in Under Capricorn (1949), and she wisely makes no attempt to sound French in Adam Had Four Sons (1941) or Spanish in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943). Bergman treated the English language like a lucky lover until she was ready for another adventure and went to Italy to make films with Rossellini.

She spoke no Italian when she voyaged to film Rossellini’s Stromboli (1950), but she picked it up fairly fast. In the Italian-language version of that movie, which uses Bergman’s own voice, this new language allows her to express anger far more directly and cuttingly than she ever had before. Playing a refugee who finds herself alienated and trapped when she marries a young Italian fisherman, Bergman herself is freed from artifice here. She doesn’t just play at anger and she doesn’t do her iconic starry smile for the camera. For Rossellini, Bergman stripped herself down to her essence while also using the Italian language to give vent to deeper veins of feeling and cast off the shackles of her personal and professional frustrations. By contrast, Rossellini’s discarded lover Anna Magnani always kept English at a large distance when she made films in that language, getting by on sheer emotional force.

Bergman’s voice was dubbed in the Italian version of Europa ’51 (1952), but she did the English soundtracks of that film and Journey to Italy (1954), both Rossellini masterpieces in which words and sound are secondary to the images and the emotions in her watchful, often bewildered face. She played in Italian, French, Swedish, and English for Rossellini’s stage production of Joan of Arc at the Stake, and Bergman recorded her own soundtrack in Italian for the 1954 film version, where she used the language for the kinds of heightened effects she got in her Swedish films of the 1930s.

As her marriage to Rossellini reached its end, Bergman was rescued by Jean Renoir for Elena and Her Men (1956), a light comedy where her character was Polish but she acted in French. This language did not particularly suit her, maybe because it is too straight-ahead and tense and doesn’t lilt and rocket up and down in the way she would like it to. She worked mainly in English after that until taking on the challenge of playing in Swedish for Ingmar Bergman in Autumn Sonata (1978). Her best scene in this movie is a silent one in close-up where she reacts to and judges her daughter Eva (Liv Ullmann) as Eva tries to play a Chopin prelude, but she was also expected to stand up to Ullmann in lengthy recriminatory dialogues, and Bergman is more than up to that task, in both Swedish and English. In truth, she takes more chances with the English track she recorded for the film, which makes her character Charlotte sound far harder on Eva, and justifiably so.

Bergman never stopped taking chances and testing herself as she got older. She gave her final performance in the TV film A Woman Called Golda (1982) as Golda Meir, a real character part in which she acted in English and almost completely roughed up her own Swedish cadences for a cigarette-darkened Russian-Jewish accent, a vocal feat unlike anything she had been able to achieve before. Bergman was unusually alert to the emotions that different sounds could evoke, and she was a woman and an artist who saw no limits or borders personally, creatively, or linguistically, and sometimes that feels like a miracle and also like an example.


The thirteen-film series Ingrid Bergman in Europe is now available to stream on the Criterion Channel.