Gado concludes that whatever the outward appearance of Bergman's works, they contain an elementary psychic fantasy that links them all, revealing an artist who hoped to be a dramatist, "the new Strindberg," and who saw the camera as an extension of his pen.
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The Passion of Ingmar Bergman
By Frank Gado
Duke University PressCopyright © 1986 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
The Early Years
* * *
The Depths of Childhood
"To make films," Bergman has repeatedly said, "is to plunge into the very depths of childhood." The fullest representation of that childhood oecurs in Fanny and Alexander, which he meant to be both a summation of four decades in cinema and a symbolic loop joining the grand, final expression of his art to the origins of the artist. With evident fascination, he re-creates there a sensitive boy's feelings of wonder as he watches the unfolding dramas of a Swedish clan similar to Bergman's own. To be sure, the Ekdahls in that film are not a direct transcription of the Bergmans, but young Alexander Ekdahl unmistakably corresponds to young Ingmar, and the family reveis that the filmmaker depicts at great length evoke the warm memories of a period he has often described as happy and privileged.
In attributing his creativity to childhood, however, Bergman is not referring to an external reality which the filmmaker could imitate or reshape but to the psychological forces which stimulated his imagination and set the patterns of its operation. And despite the many occasions on which he has remembered his early years as a golden time, he has spoken more frequently and more vividly of their horrors—of systematic humiliation, of an abiding guilt, of painful insecurity and profound feelings of rejection. That he somehow managed to survive, he has said, was close to a miracle; when he at last won independence from his parents, "it was like emerging from an iron lung and finally being able to breathe for oneself." The mood at the beginning and endof Fanny and Alexander may reflect the kindest of Bergman's memories, but the Gothic central section in this portrayal of the artist-in-the-making is a plunge into that interior of consciousness which has been at the center of virtually every story, play and film he has written.
Bergman states that an examination of his films, "from one end to the other," will show "what I have always strongly felt": that "the practice of art is an exorcism, a ritual act, an intercession, a satisfaction of the inner need." Close examination of the metaphoric patterns through which those functions are expressed will also show that what needs to be exorcized, ritualistically mediated, or satisfied traces back to his relationship with his parents. No factor in Bergman's life has had a greater or more persistent effect on his dreamlike creativily. If any attempt to understand the imagination at work in his films must lead to his childhood, the understanding of that childhood leads to his parents.
His father, Erik Bergman, was the son of a pharmacist who died while Erik was still a boy. That death and the subsequent death of a younger sister seem to have had a pronounced effect not only on Erik's temperament but also on his choice of profession. Intrigued by the solemnity of the burial rite, the lonely boy made playing minister at pretend funerals his favorite game; eventually the game matured into a determination to study theology.
After enrolling at the Universiry of Uppsala, he paid a call on the Åkerbloms, relatives who lived in town, and quickly fell in love with his second cousin Karin. It would not be an easy courtship.
Although both had similar ancestries—grandfathers and great grandfathers on each side had been pastors and distinguished schoolmen—the Åkerbloms were a rung above the Bergmans on the social ladder. Karin's mother, Anna, who taught French in Uppsala at one point, was an unusually intelligent woman with a deeply religious personality. The man she married, a widower, twenty years her senior, with three sons, was an enterprising businessman: among his other accomplishments, Johan Åkerblom had built the South Dalarna Railway The obstacle to the divinity student's suit was not social, however. From the start, Anna Åkerblom deeply disliked the young man who was calling on her daughter—and he reciprocated her feelings. When Karin and Erik beganthinking of marriage, the mother's objections went beyond personal antagonism. Johan Åkerblom was afflicted with a rare progressive muscular atrophy, a hereditary disease also present in Erik's family. A marriage between these cousins would increase the odds that the trait would surface in their children. (In fact, Erik carried the disease, which manifested itself in his later life and eventually led to his death. And Anna's concern would prove prophetic: Dag, the couple's first child, fell victim to the disorder and sat totally paralyzed for nearly twenty years before he died of it in 1984.) In addition, the family showed a disquieting history of "nervous instability." One of Johan Åkerblom's sons by his first marriage, also named Johan, had fallen in love with his stepmother during his adolescence; schizophrenia developed, and for the rest of his life he suffered from delusions of grandeur But Karin would not be swayed, and in the end, virtually defying her mother, she accepted Erik's proposal. After his ordination, they married when he secured a post as a chaplain in Forsbacka, a small community of ironworkers near Gävle—a town in which he had spent much of his childhood.
A few years later; the couple left the rural village for Stockholm, where Erik was employed as a curate in the Östermalm district's grand Hedvig Eleonora church. For him, being in the capital meant an exciting change, and he derived great satisfaction from his work. For Karin, however; these were trying years. Although she knew she could always count on financial support from her mother in Uppsala, her husband's salary could just meagerly support the family that slowly grew In addition, the World War caused a food shortage in Sweden—a land that then, even more than now, depended on imported commodities; rations were so tight that parts of the country suffered severe hunger. To be sure, the Bergmans were more fortunate than most. After the birth of their second child, Ernst Ingmar; on July 14,1918, the christening was celebrated at Våroms, Anna Åkerblom's country villa, where there were plenty of eggs for the cake. Even so, the consequences of these depressing conditions on the young clergyman's parishioners taxed his energy. And the devastating effects of the worldwide influenza epidemic that Struck in three waves between June 1918 and February 1919 were far worse: in the fall and again in the winter, Erik Bergman was steadily engaged in visiting the sick and consoling the families of those he buried.
Within a few years the marriage was showing signs of internal strain. In church, Erik Bergman won everyone's affection. He was the town'sbest-loved minister as well as a handsome man who attracted the admiration of women of all ages. At home, he was the subordinate figure: it was his wife "who first and last ran everything"—although "always within the constrained framework placed on everything by [his] work and Status." Their fundamentally dissimilar emotional and intellectual characters exacerbated tensions. A novel by Ingmar's sister Margareta captures the atmosphere in a passage she introduces as "a sort of folksong about primaeval post-war Östermalm":
Both Father and Mother were artistically gifted. Mother could—should—have been a tragedienne, Father a poet. Two incompatible temperaments! Two desperately unhappy imperfect human beings, either of whom, alone or with some other life-partner could perhaps have been brought to marvellous fruition; but whose talents were stunted, etiolated, watered down and crushed by the mutually destructive life-style they created for themselves....
Should it ever cross my mind to send my folksong to the printer's, I should first have to explain to the gentle reader how Father's days usually started in a State of incomprehensible gaiety Splashing, whistling, jubilantly singing fragments of seasonal chorales. A rose from Jesse's rod has blossomed or Now in this lovely summer time as the case might be, he'd take an ice-cold shower. shave, and brush his teeth with the same frenzy as other men in quite different cultural and social circles pass the early morning hours enjoying their wives or mistresses. Probably the comparison isn't as outrageous as it may seem. Because year in and year out poor Father clergyman of the State Lutheran Church as he was, lived on a minimum erotic subsistence level.
But Mother, she suffered from insomnia. After spending half the night indulging one of her few vices—reading—and having managed during the small hours with the aid of sleeping tablets to scrape together a few hours sleep, she'd come stumbling in to breakfast only half-awake and in a State of extreme nervous irritability, there to find her freshly-washed, matitudinally cheerful husband Standing as hungry as a hunter behind his chair at the breakfast table, gold watch in hand and waiting for the porridge to be served up, followed by a hash of ham and fried potatoes with fried eggs and pickled beetroot etc., to say nothing of Lalla's witches' brew known as coffee. Nine o'clock, on the dot! Set on so fateful a collision course, the impact as these two heavenly bodies met wasstupendous—and unavoidable. Sometimes, it's true, God intervened and averted it. But mostly His mind, alas, seemed to have wandered to other matters. And then, between these two diametrically opposed morning temperaments, arose an unbearable tension. Controlled at first by Mother's yawns and Father's ever more forced and brittle cheerfulness, it gave rise, sooner or later, to an—for us children—approached its end, would explode into a grandiose quarrel, of which Malin and I were doomed to be witnesses or—even worse—be dragged in as participants; cross-examined as to who had said this or who had said that—who was in the wrong and who in the right?
Given force by the pressure of hiding her unhappiness under the facade of being a minister's contented wife, Karin's passionate nature eventually found release in love for Torsten Bohlin—another minister, who would later become a bishop and a theologian of some renown. The romance burst into the open around 1925. (Emotionally, it was a wrenching year for Karin. Ernst, her only full brother, was killed in an airplane crash in August.) For a while there was a possibility that she and Bohlin would run off together, and in tempestuous clashes the Bergmans talked of a divorce. But her lover, perhaps assessing the damage that would ensue, appears to have had second thoughts, and she also understood the consequences a divorce would have for her children and what the taint of scandal would mean for someone from her social background. The emotional breach between husband and wife did not heal quickly, however. Erik, a hypersensitive man already exhausted from carrying a heavy burden of clerical duties, became "pathologically jealous" and suffered a grave nervous breakdown that continued to affect his health for the next five years. Karin also continued to feel the repercussions. Margareta remembers that both parents were "frequently absent for longish periods at a time, my father in nursing homes; likewise my mother. The psychoneurotic storms of that time must have been terrible indeed." A diary found among her clothes in a drawer after her death in 1966 would disclose the anguished thoughts of the woman who struggled to play her part as a minister's wife. On reading these painful confessions, Ingmar marveled at "how she hid and endured her weariness, her desperation, her boredom and despair ... [which] she had recorded in greatest secrecy, day by day, concisely, cryptically with abbreviations and microscopic illustrations. And in another diary, predating this one, she had for several years written even more secret notes telling, with daring candor, of her innermost, guilt-ridden feelings."
Shortly before the romance between Karin and Bohlin erupted, a major change had occurred in the family's circumstances after the Queen, impressed by a sermon she had heard Erik Bergman preach, recommended that he be installed as chaplain atSophiahemmet. Since this private hospital had maintained ties to the Royal Family from the time of its founding in the eighteenth Century, the appointment implied future promotion for the minister. Of greater immediate importance, the post furnished the family with their first parsonage in Stockholm. Though only a short walk from the heart of the city on what was then its outermost rim, the house had a commodious farm kitchen, a great living room hearth, and an almost rural setting within the hospital park that adjoined Little Jan's Wood.
But Ingmar's recollections of the ten years spent at Sophiahemmet are less colored by its idyllic surroundings than by an aching loneliness, by the feeling that he was conspicuously different from other children, by unhappy Submission to the protocol his father's office imposed on the family, and, above all else, by a sense of dread. Sophiahemmet could supply a child's imagination with ample cause for fright. One of its buildings stored corpses until they were taken away for burial, and in the hospital's basement the boy watched as bins of arms, legs, and organs gathered from the surgeries were dumped onto the glowing coals of the incinerator. These sights, however, he found morbidly fascinating. His fears focused instead on the parsonage, which darkness transformed into a theater for his insecurity and guilt.
The nursery had an ordinary black blind which, when drawn, made everything alive and frightening: the toys changed and became unfriendly or just unrecognizable. It was a different world without mother—a noiseless, isolated, lonely world. The blind did not exactly move and no shadows showed on it. Even so, there were figures there. Not any special kind of little men, or animals, or heads, or faces, but something for which no words existed. In the glimmering darkness, they crept out of the curtains and moved toward the green lampshade or to the table where the drinking water stood. They were quite ruthless. They were relentless and powerful, and they disappeared only if it became really dark or very light, or when sleep came.
Even more terrifying was a wardrobe in the upstairs hallway According to him, a teenage girl who came to the house had told him it concealed a tiny dwarf with sharp teeth that gnawed off the feet of misbehaving children. Ingmar believed every word: "Nothing made me so ready to beg forgiveness for anything at all or confess to any transgression as a few hours' imprisonment in that dark wardrobe beside the stairs to the attic."
Allusions to this "torture Chamber" recur again and again in his films and in interviews; it has become a centerpiece of personal myth. His unvarying accounts of punishment describe confusion on being caught in what his father called a lie, unspeakable fright while incarcerated in the wardrobe, physical pain from a caning administered by his father, and then, after the instruction to beg forgiveness from his mother. joy when she responded with kisses. Whether Ingmar ever suffered exactly the treatment he insists was administered with ritualistic regularity however, is questionable. His brother Dag, four years his senior, often incurred his father's ire (although Margareta has no memory of the story Ingmar has told on Swedish television of Dag's being so badly flogged by his father that his mother had to bathe his welts to ease the pain and reduce the swelling). A gifted child who reacted to the strife between his parents by showing an indifference to his studies, Dag once brought home the lowest possible grades. With good reason, his father was exasperated: in the Sweden of that era, school grades had the force of doom in determining a child's future. Moreover. Karin favored Dag above the other children (for which Ingmar never completely forgave her), and Erik was inclined to transfer onto her darling the anger he felt against his wife. The fact that Dag bore his punishments stoically further vexedhis father But Ingmar had an altogether different temperament; according to Margareta, he avoided challenging his father head-on and soon developed a skill for mollifying his wrath. In a memoir written for his daughter in 1941, Erik recorded the consternation his second son had caused him:
Ingmar was a good-natured child, cheerful and friendly. It was utterly impossible ever to be stern with him.... None of you other children has ever caused us such misery and worry as Ingmar has. He's easily led. When I write these lines I have behind me many depressing experiences of his violent temper and unbalanced temperament. At one moment he can be so frightfully hard and unfeeling. The next, he's as soft and sensitive and helpless as a little child. I can only leave this inexpressibly beloved child in God's hands. Myself I can do no more, so worried and tormented am I on his behalf.
Excerpted from The Passion of Ingmar Bergman by Frank Gado. Copyright © 1986 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of ContentsPreface xiii
The Early Years 1
The 'Forties Films 37
Playwright Bergman 93
The Lengthening Shadows of Summer 137
God's Silence 258
A Twilight World 314
"Accelerating Necrosis" 391
The Final Phase 463
Translation of Titles 513
Recurrent Names 516