"Bergman’s films deal with the questions we all have to deal with...it is impossible not to relate them to one’s own thoughts and feelings."
Film critic and programmer, Geoff Andrew
Ingmar Bergman at 100: A British Love Affair with Swedish Film?
British Council Sweden talks to critic and programmer, Geoff Andrew, who curated the BFI's Ingmar Bergman retrospective at the British Film Institute (BFI) about the Swedish film maker and his direct, and indirect, impact on British cinema.
What was the first Bergman film that you saw and which really meant something to you?
My first encounter with Bergman was when I saw Cries and Whispers at the Cambridge Arts Cinema in the autumn of 1973. I was in my first term as a classics student at King’s College, and a friend and I decided to try out this new film. We got the last available seats - in the middle of the front row - and were soon face to face with a close-up of a woman in agony, dying from cancer. The film, which was like no other movie I had ever seen at that time, affected us both very deeply, and being typical students, we sat up into the early hours talking about the movies, art, death and so on. That was it; I was hooked, and wanted to see more films by Ingmar Bergman as soon as I could.
Did the film increase your interest in Sweden at all?
Not really; to me at that time the theme of the film seemed to be universal rather than specifically Swedish. Rather, it increased my interest in the artistic potential of film as a medium.
What would you say is unique about Bergman’s films?
‘Unique’ is a strong word, and I am always very wary of using it. But I would say that what particularly distinguishes Bergman’s films is the fact that they are so profoundly personal: in creating them he repeatedly drew, with a rare degree of honesty, on his own fears and anxieties, desires and dreams, thoughts and hopes; even his own experiences. That was - and still remains - very unusual in the cinema, which is widely regarded primarily as an industrial form of ‘entertainment’, not as a form of personal expression.
Has Bergman’s work influenced how you, personally, look at film?
It has, for all the reasons touched on above. I prefer film to be about life as most of us in the west experience it on a daily basis, not about escapist and generic movie conventions. I believe the cinema can be an art form, and I have devoted most of my professional life of the past forty years to seeking out works that are interesting and rewarding in that respect.
What about how you look at your own life?
To some degree, yes. Bergman’s films deal with the questions we all have to deal with: how to live with and remain true to ourselves; how to live with and remain true to others; how to find a balance and sense of purpose in life; how to understand and cope with all the suffering and injustice in the world; how to face up to the inevitability of our own death. Since his films focus on those questions, it is impossible not to relate them to one’s own thoughts and feelings about life and death.
How, if at all, have Bergman’s films influenced British cinema?
There is little direct influence, in my opinion: the number of British films one could describe as ‘Bergmanesque’ is very small, I think. But the example he set, in dealing seriously with serious subject matter, must surely have been a source of inspiration to a great many people working in film, especially if they have a broad and serious interest in cinema as an art form. So while people like Mike Leigh, Terence Davies and Joanna Hogg may not make films that feel very like Bergman’s own work, it is clear, I think, that they are in certain respects following in his footsteps.
If you were to recommend one of Bergman’s films above all others to young UK-based film-makers, which would that be?
It’s difficult to choose. Wild Strawberries is one of his warmest and most charming films, but some young people might conceivably be put off by the fact that the protagonist is an old man. Summer with Monika, perhaps Bergman’s finest film about young people, clearly offers more to identify with, but it is not his most typical film by any means. Persona is extraordinary, and feels incredibly modern, but its sheer experimentalism might put some people off. The Face is fun, and might please some with its anti-establishment humour and its echoes of the horror movie, but again it’s not too typical. While I, as a 19-year-old, was astonished and impressed by Cries and Whispers, it might be too tough a watch for some people. So I think I might suggest Shame. It’s fast, short, immediately accessible, scary, very gripping, and a war film unlike any other; I think young people might find it intriguing and thought-provoking.
Is there anything funny about Bergman films, or is it all serious stuff?
There are comedies: A Lesson in Love, Smiles of a Summer Night, and the wacky Now About These Women. And there is quite a bit of humour in the other films: The Face is very amusing. And the final part of Waiting Woman, with Gunner Björnstrand and Eva Dahlbeck as a couple trapped in a lift, is very funny.
There is a stage version of Fanny and Alexander at the Old Vic Theatre. Do you this might lose some of what makes the film so special?
It is hard to say without seeing the stage production. But I myself think it is insufficient simply to regard Bergman as a writer. He was a great writer but he was also a great director: he directed particular actors after writing roles with them in mind; with Gunnar Fischer and Sven Nykvist he decided on the compositions, cameras angles, lighting and so on; and he was wholly involved in the editing, the choice of music and sound effects, and so on. All those things inform one’s experience of watching a Bergman film; it is never just about the story and the dialogue. So however strong, sensitive and faithful a stage production of one of Bergman’s works will be, it could never be a work by Bergman to the same degree as his films are.
We’re delighted to celebrate Bergman in the UK this year. If Sweden were to celebrate one British film-maker with a retrospective across the country, who should that be?
It would be invidious of me to nominate a living filmmaker when there are so many of them deserving of a retrospective. Alfred Hitchcock is already very well known, of course, so I would nominate Michael Powell who, with his frequent collaborator Emeric Pressburger, created some of the most ambitious, audacious and richly rewarding British movies ever made.