Foraging in the Bergman Foundation

For the past twelve months I’ve been re-plunging into Ingmar Bergman. It began with a conference in Lund, Sweden, in June of 2018, to mark the centennial of his birth; numerous experts, among them contributors to Criterion’s mammoth edition last year, read papers on various facets of Bergman’s oeuvre. It ended in June 2019, when Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema won the best box-set award at the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna. In between, I took two research trips to Stockholm, where the Ingmar Bergman Foundation made me welcome as I prepare to expand and update my critical biography of Bergman. 

Although the Bergman centennial yielded a profusion of retrospectives, stage performances, and seminars, the foundation that bears Bergman’s name dates back to 2002, when the director himself decided to give his archive of letters, diaries, photos, and other documents to an independent entity housed within the Swedish Film Institute. Some forty-five massive boxes arrived at the institute and were then painstakingly collated over the ensuing years. These included around 20,000 letters, to and from Bergman (about half of which have been catalogued so far), as well as the “Work Books,” from 1955 to 2001, which in addition to being available to view online in their original state, like the letters, have also been transcribed and released in elegant book form by Norstedts, the Stockholm publisher with whom Bergman had a long-standing relationship. Another volume contains all Bergman’s articles, essays, and speeches, and lectures. And a further bound book includes numerous “un-published,” “un-filmed,” and “un-performed” items written by Bergman.

The best box-set award from Il Cinema Ritrovato

It’s easy to feel a sense of imminent suffocation when confronted by this wealth of raw material.  How can one ever assimilate it all, sift and select astutely enough to retain a sense of shape for whatever new project one plans on the horizon? Since Bergman’s death, the academic studies of his work have tumbled out. Documentary films, notably those by Marie Nyreröd, have reached into even the most recondite areas of his life and career, such as his alleged espousal of Nazi ideals in the 1940s, or his secret tryst with the journalist (and his future wife) Gun Grut in Paris in 1949 (much later evoked in Liv Ullmann’s movie version of Bergman’s screenplay Faithless). Linn Ullmann, his daughter by Liv, has written a disturbing “novel” entitled Unquiet, about Bergman as an often querulous old man. Henning Mankell, the crime writer married to another of Bergman’s daughter, Eva, had been commissioned to write a four-part miniseries about Bergman’s life; he did so before his death in 2015, but Swedish television never produced it.

At the time I wrote my “critical biography” of Bergman for Scribners, in 1982, I had one priceless advantage: with his agreement, I was able to speak to almost everyone with whom he had lived and worked since his youth, from Else Fisher, his first wife, and Käbi Laretei, his fourth, to his great loves Harriet Andersson, Bibi Andersson, and Liv Ullmann. I interviewed all the actors, including Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Birger Malmsten, Maj-Britt Nilsson, Erland Josephson. And all the technicians—Sven Nykvist, Gunnar Fischer, Erik Nordgren, Ulla Ryghe. Looking back, however, I realize that I had little access to the sources of Bergman’s art—to his annotated screenplays, to his work books, to the letters he had exchanged with countless individuals through the years.

So now the Bergman Foundation has changed that perspective. Virtually all his great actors and technicians, the ones I interviewed at length, have passed on, but now I can sit before a monitor and surf to my heart’s content. True, the foreign-language researcher like myself must grapple with Bergman’s linguistic foibles as well as his calligraphy. True, one cannot access his private diaries until after 2050. But thanks to the diligent work of foundation director Jan Holmberg and his colleague Hélène Dahl, it is possible to unravel the gestation and demise of such Bergman projects as The Merry Widow, which was to have starred Barbra Streisand, or The Petrified Prince, which was to have been a salacious, scatological comedy set in 1807.

Forty years after I first embarked on the research for my biography, I ask myself if I can muster both the energy and the sagacity to find a fresh path through the murky forest that is Bergman’s legacy. Should I take a fictional approach to his life and films, as his son Daniel counsels me to do? Should I accept that one must question virtually everything Bergman ever said about himself or his work, that he was a serial fibber in matters emotional and professional? Or should I just expand and flesh out the original book, as Harvey Sachs did with his studies of Toscanini (first in 1978 and definitively in 2017)? As Oscar Wilde said, “The truth is rarely pure, and never simple.”

The answer will emerge in time, as it always does, but meanwhile I have already made some fascinating discoveries—Bergman’s complex relationship with his elder brother Dag; his accepting to pay Fårö’s much higher taxes in order to take up residence on the island in 1967 (somewhat ironic in view of his later troubles with Swedish IRS); the reasons for his rupture with Kurt Meisel and the Residenztheater in Munich in 1979; and Hollywood producer Walter Wanger urging Bergman to make a film of Albert Camus’s The Fall—to star Cary Grant . . . To be continued!