If you follow the world of the movies to any great degree you will know that 2018 is the centenary of the birth of Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. You will also know that this is a Big Deal in the High Culture circles. The British Film Institute is holding a two-month festival showing all his movies. There are any number of commemorative books and at least two feature length documentaries to come.
However, I hope you will understand if I don’t join in the Bergmania. In my opinion Bergman was a repulsive man who made cold, pretentious movies devoid of humanity. Evidence for Bergman’s scumbagness centres on two things: he was a sometime Nazi and he was a lifelong misogynist.
Bergman became a Nazi from 1936 when, aged 18, he attended a Hitler rally in Hamburg. When it is forced to acknowledge this ugly fact, the Bergman industry writes it off as teenage pratishness that he soon grew out of. But was it? In fact Bergman was a Nazi for nine years, sieg-heiling throughout the German atrocities of the Second World War. He was in his late twenties when he hung up his jackboots, so this was hardly a passing adolescent fad.
Moreover, never once in his career did Bergman ever apologise for his Nazi politics — indeed he told a journalist in 1999 that, “The Nazism I had seen seemed fun and youthful. The big threat were the Bolsheviks.”
Even after the “fun” stopped with his Führer’s death Bergman remained an icon of the authoritarian right for the rest of his life. In 1962 Bo Wilderberg and other radical Swedish filmmakers issued a manifesto denouncing Bergman for the way his movies were focussed so tightly on the personal, never showing any interest in social realities. In the radical upswing of 1968 students no-platformed Bergman out of his classes at the Swedish Film School.
Bergman’s sexual politics were almost as pernicious. A new documentary by Jane Magnusson explores the systematic sexual exploitation that Bergman imposed on actresses, who he treated as his personal harem. Magnusson talks coyly about “the great director’s flaws”, but in effect Bergman was Sweden’s answer to Harvey Weinstein.
He married six times, plus he had sexual affairs with almost all of the young actresses who appeared in his movies. You may draw your own conclusion from the well-documented fact that Bergman angrily fired Lena Olin when he discovered that she was pregnant. One of the few to survive Bergman’s priapism unmolested was Mai Zetterling, who later said, “He wanted to be extraordinarily close to his actresses — too close for comfort. I refused to be one of his puppets.”
It is important to remember that once his international reputation was established by the arthouse success of Smiles of a Summer Night in 1955, Bergman effectively was the Swedish film industry. After Ingrid Bergman, the only Swedish actresses who received any international exposure were those who appeared in Bergman films. So Bergman wielded enormous power.
Sadly there was no #MeToo movement in Swedish cinema at the time; had there been, Bergman might have been exposed and held to account as the sexual predator he was his whole life.
Now clearly there is not a direct line between the personality of filmmakers and the quality of their movies. Monsters can — and do — make great movies. If we eliminated all the right wing scumbags and emotional fuck-ups from the pantheon of Great Film Directors we’d be left with Ken Loach and Jane Campion.
Moreover the relationship between the personal politics of a filmmaker and the politics of their movies is a complex one. Sam Peckinpah was an abusive Republican redneck, but his film The Wild Bunch is one of the few genuinely revolutionary movies ever made in America.
However, I would argue that in Bergman’s case his rancid politics and his sexual Trumpism are always there on the screen.
I cannot discuss all of Bergman’s 60 movies so I would encourage readers to actually watch them — such is his reputation that they are all readily available. I intend to very briefly consider Persona. This was on general release last month, and it is usually considered by Bergmaniacs as his greatest film. I just don’t see it at all.
I doubt if any film ever made by any director has been as widely discussed and analysed as Persona. Fans like Susan Sontag claim it as a profound insight into “the human condition” (whatever that means). In fact Persona is a superficial melodrama with all the intellectual depth (and sexual politics) of Woody Woodpecker. It is so pompous and yet so empty that critics and academics can fill in the hollowness with whatever crackpot interpretation they fancy. Which they do a lot.
Significantly, Bergman called Persona “a sonata for two instruments”. In fact it is a psycho-drama acted out by Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson, but to Bergman these two actresses (both of whom he had sexual relationships with) were man-made objects being “played” by the maestro. Him.
The visual language is icy cold, shot in black and white and filled with alternating moody long-shots and extreme close-ups of Andersson and Ullmann. It is the very definition of a film drained of all warmth, all colour and all perspective. That impersonal visual style is consolidated by the setting on the remote island of Faro (owned by Bergman). Just as Bo Wilderberg said, Bergman abstracted his story from any social and political context. The only history that Bergman ever showed any interest in was his own.
The narrative — such as it is — concerns Alma, a famous and wealthy actress who has become an elective mute. She is looked after by Elisabet, who is listed as a nurse but is in effect a domestic servant. During most of the film Alma says nothing, while Elisabet babbles endlessly — revealing that more than anything else she wants the life that Alma enjoys.
In the most iconic shot of the film the faces of Alma and Elisabet are merged; but Bergman does not do social mobility. So Persona ends as most melodramas do — Alma finds her voice and returns to her life of privilege; Elisabet gets on the bus to return to her humdrum working class existence.
Since Bergman has deliberately distanced his story from any hint of social reality, we are left to conclude that the hierarchy implicit here is a natural one — Alma is naturally privileged and Elisabet is a natural dogsbody. That is the order of things in the right wing individualised world of Ingmar Bergman.
The sexism of Persona is surely even more obvious. Much of the movie consists of extreme close-ups of Andersson and Ullmann and their bodies. At some point even the Bergmaniacs must surely have to accept that this is pure voyeurism. Andersson and Ullmann are simply objectified by Bergman’s obsessive focus on their faces and their bodies.
When you know that during the shooting of Persona Bergman was in the process of dumping Andersson and taking Ullmann as his new lover, the endless close-ups of their bodies are nothing less than a lecherous old perv using his power to size up his sexual preference. Persona is the casting couch on film.
With Oprah’s stirring speech at the Golden Globes still ringing in my ears, I think the moment has come to say about Bergman and his fatuously inflated reputation, “Time’s Up”.