Friday 20 April 2018

Bergman's films of the 1940s

In 1944 SF, Svensk Filmindustri, bought a play by the Danish writer Leck Fisher. SF did have different people in mind for directing it but since Ingmar Bergman was an employee and since he had had a great success with his script for Frenzy aka Torment (Alf Sjöberg 1944), and since Bergman was eager enough to direct that, he claimed, he would have been happy to make an adaptation of the phone book, SF gave it to him. He began shooting on July 4, 1945. Thus began the directing career of Ingmar Bergman.

Part of the film, to be called Crisis, was shot at SF's studio complex Filmstaden in Råsunda (just outside Stockholm) and part of it was shot on location in the small town of Hedemora in Dalarna County. The shooting ended on the last of August. The production was an unhappy one, with the nervous and insecure Bergman fighting with most everyone. He did not get along at all with the cinematographer Gösta Roosling but he did get along well with the editor Oscar Rosander, who taught him a lot about filmmaking and who would be one of his closest cooperators for 15 years until Rosander retired in 1961.

When Crisis opened the critics were torn. Some saw it as a great film, intelligent and realistic, and with very good acting. Others thought it was dreadful. But most seemed to find something of value in it, and that Bergman showed great promise. SF were not pleased though, and he was not asked to make another film for them for some time.

The story of Crisis is not very interesting. An 18-year-old girl who has lived with a foster mother in an idyllic small town is now brought to the big city and corrupted. Then in the end she returns back home to her foster home and to the man who was in love with her before she left, and still is. But there are other things about it beyond the story. The setting for example. Hedemora was not chosen by chance. Dalarna is where Bergman grow up to a large part, his maternal grandparents were buried in Hedemora, and Dalarna would continue to be important for him. Styggforsen, where he shot The Virgin Spring (1960), is some 100 kilometres northwest of Hedemora. Skattungbyn, where he shot Winter Light (1963), is just 30 kilometres northwest of Styggforsen. The town of Rättvik where Bergman was a frequent guest at the hotel Siljansborg, where he wrote many of his films, is some 20 kilometres southwest of Styggforsen. So this is Bergman country, much like Fårö.


During his first five years as a filmmaker, 1945-1949, Bergman was on an exploration. Each film was different, he was trying to find himself and his own style and voice. Some efforts are more successful than others but they are all of interest, Crisis too. They are above all interesting for those scenes, shots or actions that, even if surrounded by otherwise poor material, are really powerful, moving and stylish, those moments where you can see the Bergman to come, experience the first appearance of some quintessential Bergman shot, motif, line of dialogue or facial expression. On Crisis there is in particular a scene at a train station between the foster mother and a young man which is shot, edited and written in a typical Bergman fashion. Watching these early films back to back can be an overwhelming experience, to witness his steady progression from Crisis to Thirst (1949), which I would say is his first pure Bergman film. The earlier ones are more like other films, but with a Bergman touch. Thirst is all Bergman, although like the rest of his films of the 1940s it is not entirely successful. Summer Interlude (shot in 1950 but released in 1951) is his first complete film, the first unquestionably great one, and one of his very best.


Crisis could have been a Hollywood melodrama, something by Edmund Goulding, or perhaps remade by Douglas Sirk in 1953. Bergman's next film on the other hand, It Rains on Our Love (1946), feels very Swedish, a typical product of the exciting and vibrant Swedish cinema of the 1940s. This also means that you can sense the influence from French poetic realism, which had a major impact on Swedish 1940s cinema. It is about a young man and a young woman who meet at a train station, spend the night together, and then are reluctant to part. The one-night stand turns into a love affair and a relationship, but with little money and little support from society. They settle down in a small cottage on an allotment, and get by as best they can. Their attraction is a very strong physical one, and there is considerable frankness in subject matter, as well as partial nudity. Birger Malmsten and Barbro Kollberg play the couple, and they are very good. And the film is fine too, much better than Crisis. It has greater warmth and is less overbearing, it is even at times quite playful. But Bergman's fears and concerns are present. There is for example an almost dreamlike trial sequence towards the end where society is willing to condemn the couple for daring to live their own life.

Malmsten and Kollberg after a night of passion.

It Rains on Our Love was not made at SF but was produced by Lorens Marmstedt, one of very few famous Swedish producers, something like a Swedish version of Darryl F. Zanuck at Twentieth Century-Fox. He had begun his career as a film critic, became a film director in 1932 and started his own distribution company, AB Terrafilm, in 1938, which soon also began producing its own films. Marmstedt was an entrepreneur and a cinephile who helped build the career of many Swedish filmmakers, especially Hasse Ekman, but also Bergman. After Crisis, he took Bergman in and gave him the chance to make It Rains on Our Love for the company Sveriges Folkbiografer AB. Marmstedt was perhaps not overly enthusiastic by the final result, and complained, Bergman claimed, that Bergman was certainly not a Marcel Carné and Malmsten was certainly not a Jean Gabin. But he still produced Bergman's next film A Ship to India aka A Ship Bound for India (1947), again for Sveriges Folkbiografer AB. It also shows the influence that Carné and French poetic realism had on Bergman at the time. Like Crisis and It Rains on Our Love, A Ship to India was based on a play, this time by Martin Söderhjelm, and like the earlier two films Bergman rewrote it substantially. It is about a young man who falls in love with his father's mistress, whom the father has invited to come and live with them (father, mother and son), a situation which obviously does not lead to happiness for anyone. It is again a very uneven film, but with several remarkable sequences, including one at an amusement park and a sequence towards the end where the father tries to kill his son and then barricades himself in an apartment. The film competed in Cannes, and won an honourable mention.

Gertrud Fridh and Malmsten in A Ship to India.

Bergman followed it with another film for Marmstedt, this time at TerrafilmMusic in Darkness (1948). It is based on a book by Dagmar Edqvist, the male lead was as usual played by Birger Malmsten and the female lead was Mai Zetterling. She had already left Sweden for an acting career in Britain but she was able to come to Sweden now and then to make a film. Unfortunately, this is quite possibly Bergman's worst film. Unconvincing and awkward, with little coherence or sensibility. But it has some finely lit shots and a spectacular nightmare sequence. The film, like Bergman's other films produced by Marmstedt, was shot by Göran Strindberg, one of Sweden's finest cinematographer at the time. He was responsible for the look of not just these films but several of Ekman's best films as well as Alf Sjöberg's Miss Julie (1951) and Arne Mattsson's One Summer of Happiness (1951). Another member of the team Marmstedt had at his disposal was architect and set designer P.A. Lundgren who would, beginning with It Rains on Our Love, become another one of Bergman's closest collaborators, all the way until The Touch (1971).


After Music in Darkness, Bergman was called back to SF and made Port of Call (1948). The story is typical for Bergman, couples who cannot stand each other yet remain together, and includes disillusionment, suicidal characters, infidelities and abortions and, typical for this part of Bergman's career, the struggles of a young, working-poor couple trying to survive in a society which has little time and patient with them. Other Bergman conventions have now also been well-established such as fog horns, aggressively ticking clocks (part of Bergman's particular soundscape) and there are flashbacks, violence and faces superimposed on other faces. What is new however is that this was the first time Bergman worked together with the cinematographer Gunnar Fischer, who would from then on be his visual half until Sven Nykvist took Fischer's place in the early 1960s. (The Devil's Eye (1960) would be the last film Fischer and Bergman made together, just as it was the last film Bergman would make with the editor Rosander.)

If Bergman so far had made an American melodrama (Crisis), a distinctly Swedish film with a touch of French poetic realism (It Rains on Our Love) and another poetic realist work (A Ship to India), he now, with Port of Call, made his neorealist film. Much has been made of Bergman being influenced by Roberto Rossellini, not least by Bergman himself, with the emphasis on the on-location shooting. But it is not obvious that there is more on-location shooting in Port of Call than Bergman's earlier films. There are other things that are more relevant for making the Italian connection, and that is partly the way work and casual incidents are shown, and given ample screen time, at least before the melodramatics of the plot take over. In the beginning of the film there are lot of scenes in the harbour, with the actors working alongside genuine dock workers. 

Speaking of influences, Bergman was a committed cinephile too, like Marmstedt. There was no official film school but by watching films over and over Bergman did teach himself a lot. One particular favourite was Michael Curtiz, whose films he would watch night after night. (In an interview with John Simon in 1971 Bergman also said that George Cukor had influenced him "very much".) This influence on Bergman of 1940s Hollywood cinema is often overlooked, as critics and historians prefer to focus on his European peers. But it is an important part of his emergence, and of his style. Hollywood cinema of the 1940s was constantly experimenting with narration, like different layers of flashbacks and various forms of voice-overs, and Bergman does this too. Crisis has an all-knowing, dispassionate narrator, heard but not seen. It Always Rains on Our Love has a character, a benevolent father-figure, who acts as our guide in the story, appearing with regular intervals and sometimes talking directly into the camera. A Ship to India is one long flashback, first narrated by the main character directly to us, the audience. Port of Call has several flashbacks, and Thirst has one genuine flashback and several scenes that might appear to be flashbacks but are better described as parallel storylines. And Prison is so narratively complex, with so many layers, that it is not enough space here to disentangle it. Curtiz might have approved. In Bergman's films there also sometimes appear shots and light patterns similar to Curtiz's style, which may or may not be deliberate. 

Swedish films of the time had a rather relaxed sense of nudity and in, for example, Music in Darkness and Port of Call there are scenes with what you might called casual nudity, that is unrelated to sex or eroticism but just the way people dress, change clothes or wash up when they are home. Sweden would in the 1950s get a reputation for sex and nudity in films, but this earlier casual nudity instead gives the films added realism, as it is so mundane. (It was there already in the 1930s.) But since nudity is so extremely rare in films from this age, globally speaking, it is still somewhat startling to suddenly see, for example, a woman baring her breasts because she is putting on a new dress.


By now Bergman had established himself as a filmmaker, and there was even talk about an international career. David O. Selznick was interested, among others. There were meetings, proposals and scripts passed back and forth, but nothing came of it. After Port of Call Bergman would direct three more films before the decade was over and two of them would be released in 1949: Prison, produced by Marmstedt at Terrafilm, and Thirst, made by SF. (The third, To Joy, was released in 1950.) The first is a short (76 minutes) and cheap experimental work which is completely unlike anything Bergman did at the time, or until Persona (1966). It is an allegory about the devil's work and the absence of God, with elaborate dream sequences, tales within tales and a high level of reflexivity as it takes place on a film set. The credit sequence does not have text but a spoken narration by Hasse Ekman (not by Bergman, as some claim), and Ekman also plays a leading role as the film director in the film. This is the first time Ekman and Bergman work together, and much can be said about the way this creates yet another meta-level to the films. The two were rivals and both were considered "the best" by the Swedish critics, and they influenced one another, competed in various ways, and also, in various way, incorporated their relationship in their films. After Prison, Ekman wrote and directed The Girl from the Third Row (1949), calling it his "anti-Bergman film". Sawdust and Tinsel (1953) was the last time Ekman acted in a Bergman film and that whole film can profitably be seen partly as an allegory about their rivalry and relationship. Sawdust and Tinsel is a fascinating, great film, but since it came out in 1953 it is outside the scope of this article. Prison on the other hand is not a great film (it is crude, sometimes too emphatic and didactic) but it is one of Bergman's most interesting, and among all the horror and despair it portrays there are also several really funny scenes. It is also the first time the "Bergman scream" and the "Bergman light" appears, both in scenes involving Birgitta Carolina, the young prostitute the film is centred around and who is played by Doris Svedlund. 

In one scene, after having been assaulted by a pimp, she screams with such a deep, agonising force that it is almost impossible to watch. Here the acting goes beyond just acting and reach some other level, some primal fear or terror or trauma, and moments like these appear on occasion in Bergman's films, creating a crack in the fabric of fiction.

In another scene, towards the end, she has committed suicide and after her death the light breaks through the window and embalms her, as if it has come to caress her and take her away. This light, as from a different dimension, like a religious manifestation, will also appear again and again in Bergman's films, disproving the idea of a godless universe.

Svedlund and Malmsten

That leaves Thirst, the first film in which, as argued above, Bergman finally feels ready. After all his experimenting and exploration, he has now found his voice, and there is a sense of self-confidence that had not necessarily been there before. The story in itself is not new, couples locked in mutual hatred yet unable to be apart, but the way it is shot and told is different. Scenes are longer without much happening externally but are instead about inner turmoil. Scenes are often silent and there is much less music. (This is the only film Bergman directed in the 1940s that Erland von Koch did not write the music for). In general the staging, pacing and ambiance just feels distinctly Bergmanesque for the first time. Malmsten plays the male lead, now established as something of Bergman's alter ego, and Eva Henning plays the female lead. The film is based on some short stories by Birgit Tengroth, who also plays a major part, but although the stories do not successfully coalesce together, and some scenes have a certain histrionic tension, it is a fitting end of the decade; a filmmaker finally finding himself after having been searching for several years.

Ekman and Henning in Prison

Regarding Bergman's claim (in Images: My Life in Film) that Marmstedt criticised him for trying and failing to be Marcel Carné, and Malmsten for not being a Gabin, it is worth pointing out that Ekman earlier had said that Marmstedt had said the same thing to him after Ekman wrote and directed Changing Trains (1943), in which Ekman also played the male lead. Marmstedt might have said it to both Ekman and Bergman, but it is also possible that Bergman borrowed Ekman's anecdote, or appropriated it. Bergman has never been a reliable teller of his own story.

A few films written by Bergman but directed by others also came out in the 1940s but they will be discussed in a separate piece later.

A person not mentioned but of vital importance, as friend, mentor and cooperator, is Herbert Grevenius, theatre critic and writer. They co-wrote the scripts for several films, including It Rains on Our Love and Thirst.

During the period covered in this post Bergman was also contracted director at Göteborgs stadsteater (1946-1950). He got his first job as theatre manager through Grevenius, at Helsingborg stadsteater in 1944, but it was at Malmö stadsteater, beginning in 1952, that he really came into his own, and began building up his now famous stock company.

A few links to related pieces:
Schamyl Bauman
Mai Zetterling
Michael Curtiz

Friday 6 April 2018

Death of a Cyclist (1955)

In Spain in the 1950s, although a dictatorship under Franco, there was something of a cinematic revival. An important event was in 1951 when the Institute of Italian Cultures organised a festival with new Italian films, which obviously included several neorealist films. The festival, or film week, took place in Madrid and in the audience were many students from IIEC (Instituto de Investigaciones y Experiencias de Cinematografia), a recently opened (1947) film school. Among them were Juan Antonio Bardem, Luis García Berlanga and Carlos Saura, and Bardem and Berlanga also started a film journal, Objetivo. In 1953 the international film festival in San Sebastián opened (which was where Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) had its international premiere). In 1955 there was a conference in Salamanca for filmmakers and critics where they discussed the future of Spanish cinema. This was a time when the Franco regime was (comparatively) more open-minded, and even Luis Buñuel was invited back to his home country to make Viridiana (1961), produced by the closeted communist company UNINCI (founded in 1949), on which board J.A. Bardem now sat. Viridiana was Spain's contribution to the Cannes film festival (where it won the Palme d'or) but the Catholic Church disapproved of the film and Buñuel was not allowed to make any more films in Spain. But the more liberal period in Spanish cinema lasted for the rest of the 1960s and this later period is sometimes summed up with the acronym NCE, Nuevo Cine Español, or New Spanish Cinema, which was to some extent a reaction against the cinema of the 1950s too. (The 1960s was also a time when many big international co-productions were made in Spain, such as 55 Days in Peking (Nicholas Ray 1963), The Fall of the Roman Empire (Anthony Mann 1964), Doctor Zhivago (David Lean 1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Sergio Leone 1966).)

Berlanga's second film, from 1953.

Perhaps the most well-known film from the 1950s is J.A. Bardem's Death of a Cyclist (1955). It is sometimes called a Spanish neorealist film but it is unclear why since it is a tale of adultery, emotional blackmail and anomie among some well-to-do families. A man and a woman, both married, are having an affair and the film opens with them driving on a country road. By accident they hit a man on a bicycle and, afraid of being found out as lovers, they do not report it or call for an ambulance. When they read in the newspapers that the man died they are consumed by guilt, and act out in various ways, while an unpleasant acquaintance seems to know what they have done and is teasingly suggesting he will tell all and destroy their marriages.

Death of a Cyclist is quite brilliant. The storytelling and pacing is precise and smooth, the acting is magnificent and the visuals are powerful and often beautiful. The film is like a combination of Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Michelangelo Antonioni. The milieu, ambiance, dialogue, storytelling and imagery create this interesting mixture of the two. The actress who plays the lead is Lucia Bosè, who also played the lead in Antonioni's excellent Story of a Love Affair (1950) and this obviously strengthens this connection. One aspect where it is different from Antonioni is the ending, which is a neat re-imagining of the opening and this makes the film circular rather than open-ended like Antonioni. This is closer to Mankiewicz.

Today Spanish cinema before Almodóvar is relatively underexplored, globally speaking. There are a few well-known films, like Victor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), but there is a lot more to explore and treasure. (I am told that Berlanga's El Verdugo / The Executioner (1963) is especially good.) Death of a Cyclist is also a reminder of how strong and universal this kind of film style was at the time. There is a tendency to see Hollywood films as generic and European cinema as expressions of personal artistry but this has always been a mistake; most of European cinema is generic mainstream, like Hollywood, and there has always been a lot of personal artistry in Hollywood too. Death of a Cyclist is both typical for its time and place while also being artistically specific, and could be said to exemplify generic artistry.

Pauline Kael wrote an essay in 1963 with the title "The Come-Dressed-As-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe-Parties" in which she discussed (critically) then contemporary European cinema with a focus on Fellini, Resnais and Antonioni, and she might have included Death of the Cyclist in that sick-soul-of-Europe genre. (Although Death of a Cyclist is not mentioned in that article, Kael disliked it.) This is what I meant by the film being generic to some extent. But that is no contradiction to it being a brilliant film, one among the many highlights of the cinema of the 1950s.

There were two Palme d'or winners in 1961. Buñuel shared the award with the French film The Long Absence, directed by Henri Colpi.