Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Ingmar Bergman: On Art and War

Shame (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)

‘Ingmar Bergman’s simple, masterly vision of normal war and what it does to survivors. Set a tiny step into the future, the film has the inevitability of a common dream. Liv Ullmann is superb in the demanding central role – one that calls for emotional involvements with her husband (Max von Sydow) and her lover (Gunnar Björnstrand). One of Bergman’s greatest films, this is one of the least known.’
                                                                                                                      – Pauline Kael
‘Bergman’s magisterial confrontation with war, set in a characteristically ambivalent decor, either a peaceful farm somewhere in Sweden or a landscape from Goya secreting intimations of disaster. Here live a man and wife, indifferent to the war until it arrives on their doorstep to strip their lives to the bone. Presenting war with shattering power as a blindly destructive force, Bergman uses it brilliantly as a background to the real pain: the way the couple are forced to look at each other, and to realise that the only honest feeling they have about their relationship is shame. It ends with one of the cinema’s most awesomely apocalyptic visions: not the cheeriest of films, but a masterpiece.’
                                                                                                        – Tom Milne, Time Out

‘When I see Shame today, I find that it can be divided into two parts. The first half, which is about the events of the war, is bad. The second half, which is about the effects of war, is good. The first half is much worse than I had imagined; the second much better than I had remembered....One might say that the authenticity of the second half is disturbed by an overblown scheme involving a wad of paper money that changes hands several times. This scheme reflects an influence from American dramaturgy of the 1950s....When I made Shame, I felt an intense desire to expose the violence of war without restraint. But my intentions and wishes were greater than my abilities. I did not understand that a modern portrayer of war needs a totally different fortitude and professional precision than what I could provide. Once the outer violence stops and the inner violence begins, Shame becomes a good film. When society can no longer function, the main characters lose their frame of reference. Their social relations cease. The people crumble. The weak man becomes ruthless. The woman, who had been the stronger, falls apart. Everything slips away into a dream play that ends on board the refugee boat. Everything is shown in pictures, as in a nightmare. In a nightmare, I felt at home. In the reality of war, I was lost.’
                                                                       – Ingmar Bergman, Images: My Life in Film

‘The Shame’ is Ingmar Bergman’s 30th film – a film in which improvisation has played a major part. ‘But improvisation must be prepared for,’ says Bergman.

A November noon; a small room in the Svensk Filmindustri studios. Ingmar Bergman, ensconced in a beautiful, baroque armchair, talks. He is interviewed by Take One’s Swedish correspondent, Lars-Olof Löthwall.

Q: During production of ‘The Shame’, you made certain minor alterations from time to time. Previously, the manuscript has been Holy Scripture to you, isn’t that so?

A: No, actually I worked in this way with Persona. With Persona, I had ample time, I had an ensemble of virtually two characters, and it cost nothing to begin experimenting, to try improvising.

But the basis for all improvisation must be preparation. If I haven’t prepared, I can’t improvise. If I’ve made careful preparations I can always improvise. Then I know I have something to fall back on. What I detest is formlessness. That terrifies me. It is seldom that mere formlessness in a work of art conveys anything vivid. More often it gives an impression of effort. But a combination of improvisation and planning – that’s good.

Q: You shot quite lengthy sequences in ‘The Shame’ which you didn’t at first think were suitable.

A: I’ve always done so, that has been my practice for the last ten to fifteen years. You see, one has to begin somewhere in a film; when you do, you’re likely to be far out from the centre of eventual interest, you find yourself disoriented. No matter how well you prepare, you don’t really know how a film’s going to look when you’ve finished it. Above all, you’re not sure of the tone, and that’s tremendously important...for which reason I always have a margin of at least a week for retakes, usually at the tail end of the production...

When we begin a film, the actors know as little about it as I do. Usually I overwork them, as well as myself, in the first week. I’m looking for something. All the time, in this first medley of images I’m in search of some strong, key expression. Now, if you try forcing this into existence by an effort of will, your work of art will be dead and thin.

Q: When you’ve written your manuscript and it’s ready for you to start shooting, it’s pretty well set up as a visual continuity. Do you work in such a way with your imagination that you can then – if one may express this in a banal way – close your eyes and see the film as a sequence of pictures?

A: No. Well, bits and pieces of it, yes. But it would be intolerable, for me and for those working with me, if, at every moment, I were to try and shape the film by force, if I insisted on a sequence of detailed, preconceived pictures to illustrate the conception I had as I envisioned or wrote the script.

When I write I must try to capture something in words which for all useful purposes, you might say, can’t be expressed in words. Later it is necessary to translate the words again so that in quite another context they’ll come alive. To be sure, so long as I have a firm grasp on my point of departure, there will always be an inner relationship between the original vision I had and the completed, materialized picture-sequence.

While that original conception must always be in the background, I must not let it become too dictatorial, since, for one thing, I must be prepared to modify it when I switch from writing to directing. For another, my actors, too, have a right – to say nothing of an obligation – to draw straws, to choose among alternatives. The whole process is essentially creative. You write down a melodic line and after that, with the orchestra, you work out the instrumentation.

Q: In an interview you said that if you once lost your feeling for play you’d be finished. But in ‘The Shame’ you’re actually very close to the intense centre, you have got something deep inside, in a grip...

A: But that’s a game, too. I believe that every seriously intended work of art must contain an element of play. If we believe otherwise, we commit ourselves to a colossal exaggeration. I believe that in this feeling of a game we can find a stimulating sense of shaping a universe, shaping people, shaping situations: we experience the passion of holding up a mirror and finding out what that mirror reflects...

Look at the great ones, like Churchill, Picasso, Stravinsky. Picasso and Stravinsky, both, have the eyes of a child, they have ‘humour lines’; they suggest some kind of secret feeling for the game.

Q: Games and games! Your script girl claims that when you did ‘The Silence’ and Ingrid Thulin was supposed to be dying, alone in a hotel bed, she spiced up the situation by doing a cha-cha before taking the scene!

A: Certainly; I’ve often noticed this: if you’re concentrating on a serious story, a deeply serious, perhaps tragic situation, a desperately painful involvement, you have a bursting need for jumping off into the opposite – into a lively clowning mood.

Perhaps because the moment of pain which was the nucleus of your creation is now far behind you, experienced long before you wrote it down, and even further away from the production of the film. Each and every artist who creates does so by building on his own painful experience, on a moment of agony which does not necessarily exist at the time of his performance. Of this we are reminded – sometimes with a secret smile – behind the mask we are assuming. This doesn’t mean that the experience will then seem less genuine. On the contrary.

Q: You have often mentioned the moment of pain which is the kernel of a film’s inspiration. Can you trace ‘The Shame’ back to such a moment?

A: No. That’s a long and tangled thread. It’s an experience of humiliation. A long, painful experience of man’s humiliation.

For some time, since the first moment of recognition, I have wondered how I would have sustained the experience of a concentration camp, of being forced into such a damnable position. How noble would I have been?

At the bottom of everything there lies this abomination to which man is exposed, the world over: they club his head in, they scream at him, they assault him, they terrorize him.

The older I get the more ghastly it seems to me. And the harder it is for me to live with in my conscience.

This is what we’re attempting, modestly, in The Shame: to show how humiliation, the rape of human dignity, can lead to the loss of humanity on the part of those subjected to it.

Q: You must despise films that glorify war, that interpret war as a manly adventure...

A: I think they are swinish.

Q: You have said that working with actors involves talk. In getting responses from them, isn’t it largely a matter of confidence, or what?

A: There is nothing more mysterious in it than that they have confidence in my ear and that I have confidence in their ‘inner hearing.’

Q: The rumour that you threw a chair through the window, and such-like, has never accurately been established...

A: I did so. That happens when one is afraid. The more insecure you are, the angrier you get. Or the more afraid. And fear is transformed into anger.

You can’t just stay being afraid.

I used to be very dependent on people’s opinion of me: I was tyrannically vulnerable to criticism and was unhappy for days if anyone said anything wounding to me or about me. Today I don’t care about anything except the life I have with friends and the work I have to do. This is all that’s important to me.

I have no need of power.

I have no need to be influential.

I have no need to be a participant in, or a shaper of, Swedish cultural life.

I have no desire to justify myself before criticism.

I have no need at all to be aggressive. I hate that.

I want to look around at the world, above all to read books and fill the gaps in my education which are a result of the uninterrupted work I have pursued since my student days.

Q: Do you experience the times when you don’t work as empty?

A: Not at all. Once I did, but only for short periods. I never had any free time. Spare time is something I experience as an unbelievable delight! To have a good book in my hands and actually immerse myself in it...

I have often thought that I should devote myself to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. I mean methodically. Actually stay with it. That takes time and patience. I have two kinds of spare time: one kind is only fugitive – attendant on my getting up in the morning and going to bed at night, eating and perhaps taking a walk. The other kind is methodical spare time, when I take a certain time every day to sit down and do something I believe is interesting. But it must be done at a specified time or the day just flies away.

Q: You like working by schedule?

A: I love to.

Q: You have said that it is more important for the public to feel than to understand.

A: To feel is primary, to understand is secondary. First feel, experience – and then understand. Self-evidently, the main thing for the public is to have an experience. Later they can bring intellectual processes to bear. That’s always a pleasure. And eventually the intellectual process, itself, may elicit a new feeling.

When the audience misunderstands a film...The Silence, for example – it became a great success because people went to see it not for the film’s sake, but to see certain parts of it.

By now, The Silence is as innocent as a kindergarten infant by comparison with the films made since. It’s no fun to make pornography when everyone else is making it...

Q: How do you see your future as a film-maker shaping up?

A: I know I’ll stay with it; if I make my films cheaply enough I can stay with it as long as I have reasons for making films. Nobody, however indirectly, can prevent me. For one reason: I no longer have occasion to be afraid. Of critics, for example: before now they were either sawing off the branch I sat on, or making it stronger for me. I depended on them for my livelihood...There were few moments in my life when I wasn’t gambling with my existence.

If Smiles of a Summer Night hadn’t been an international success I would have been virtually finished. I had just had The Seventh Seal refused, in manuscript. When Smiles of a Summer Night became a success, after its showing at Cannes, I drove to Cannes to see Carl-Anders Dymling and laid that script on the table and told him: ‘Now or never.’ Then he accepted it.

Q: You have said that among films by others you have especially liked were ‘Lady With a Dog’, ‘Umberto D.’, ‘Rashomon’. Have you added to that list?

A: Yes, with Fellini’s II Bidone (The Swindler). I have a great admiration for Fellini. I feel a sort of brotherly contact with him, I don’t know why exactly. We have written brief, confused letters to each other many times. It’s amusing...I like him because he is himself, he is who he is and what he is. His temperament is something I have a feeling for, though it’s quite different from my own; but I understand it so damn well and I admire it, colossally.

He is said to be enchanted by my films. That experience is mutual.

Q: How many times can you see a film? You have a private collection of 200 films.

A: How many times depends on how much I like them. I have seen Les Vacances de M. Hulot (Mr. Hulot’s Holiday) countless times.

I sit and wait for the parts I enjoy. These can be whole sequences, great moments or just details.

Q: You have maintained that you are self-taught, yet surely a number of directors must have had a certain influence on you?

A: I have not been subject to influences from another director’s artistic style. But influences are not specifically those that come from one’s own occupational involvement. You can be influenced by anything around you: modern photography, TV reportage, pop music – which I find fascinating.

The whole life-way influences one.

But film-makers exert the least influence over me. Because I don’t see the world the way they do. Formally, I achieve my results by going my own way.

I don’t need help from anyone else’s means of expression.

Naturally I am influenced, at large, by the new mode of film-making, by the feeling for film as film, where actually you don’t need lighting effects, for instance, and in which you can get effective results without complex equipment. By these means we can return, in a sense, to the origins of film, when it was simple: when you set up a camera in a bush. I have always found this congenial. A purely technical extension of territory attracts me.

Q: Is ‘The Shame’ to be your last black-and-white film? You have been discussing colour very much lately.

A: I don’t know. Colour is interesting. I was at home with some friends Sunday afternoon and a young girl, about 15, came to the house. She had been to the movies and seen a film which I admired personally. But she was contemptuous: It wasn’t in colour! Then I thought: this is the new thing today; this new generation finds nothing stimulating in a film unless it’s in colour.

It has been a long time since I saw a colour film which I found inspiring. Yes, I was very impressed by the colour in Agnes Varda’s Happiness. There I felt the colour was deeply sensual.

Colour is best when it isn’t colour. That may sound banal, but it’s a fact.

Q: Music is finished, you said.

A: In The Shame it has come to that point. No music any more.

Q: You have seldom made a film with a purely literary foundation; usually it’s from your own manuscript. Does this mean that you don’t think books should be filmed?

A: I think it’s hard to film books or short stories. The material is too rich, it often fences in the film. It’s hard to create from it. I don’t know. I feel no temptation to try.

Q: Films which never become films – why can’t you make novels out of them?

A: I am not a writer, I am a film-maker. I have no need to express myself with words.

Q: Yet your scripts are written with such literary pregnancy.

A: That’s for practical reasons: so that my co-workers will understand what I mean.

Once I had a literary inferiority complex. I haven’t any longer. For some time I harboured the illusion that I would write a play or a novel or a collection of short stories, or whatever. I’ve entirely given up that idea. I am completely satisfied to express myself in my films.

– An Interview With Ingmar Bergman by Lars-Olof Löthwall. Originally published in Take One 2, no. 1 (September-October 1968): 16-18


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