Boy with a magic lantern

Print edition : August 24, 2007

Bergman at work. A 1963 file picture. - AP

INGMAR BERGMAN was arguably the most famous Swede of the 20th century and his severe, dark films, which embraced many aspects of human suffering, had originated from Christianity, its religious and philosophical aspects. Himself a sceptic and a non-believer, Bergman shared the anguish of the characters in his films with a stern compassion.

Born Ernst Ingmar Bergman to Karin and Erik Bergman on July 14, 1918 in Uppsala, Bergman could never shake off the after-effects of a contentious, and in retrospect, a malefic relationship with his father who was a minister of the Lutheran Church and later Chaplain to the King of Sweden. Erik Bergman, an important member of the Church of Sweden was said to be a martinet, and if his son is to be believed, a sadist.

As a boy, Ingmar was the principal recipient of his wrath which ranged from hard to severe corporal punishment. What Erik Bergman did to his other children may be a matter of conjecture but it is not hard to imagine the effect his personality might have had on them. The only escape Ingmar had from the cruelties of growing up in a so-called religious family was his little puppet theatre and a magic lantern or laterna magica whose flickering images he projected on his mother’s bedsheet doing duty for a cinema screen.

Both the laterna magica and the puppet theatre resurfaced in Fanny and Alexander (1982) Bergman’s last major film. The opening sequence exquisitely photographed by his long-time associate Sven Nykvist, serve s a double function: first to project the fantasy and reverie of the little boy in the film and also to establish a link with his own childhood where the oppressions of the father could only be escaped through flights of fancy provided by these tools of amusement.

The mother in the film is literally saved from a fate worse than death when she enters into a second marriage with a pastor who turns out to be a pervert. The move is to secure the future of her son and daughter. The lunatic priest and his alien sister die in a fire and the children and the mother are saved. One is never clear about Bergman’s attitude towards his own mother Karin. But that he was no sentimentalist is beyond reasonable doubt. In his films he liked strong, elegant, well-endowed, women. No anorexics for him.

Women of substance – literally and metaphorically – were the anchors in many of his films. Though in his colourful, even difficult personal life, one does not know if he could have possibly loved a strong, self-possessed woman who was his equal, although he may have admired her. He married five times; apparently all his wives were beautiful and gifted. He also had liaisons with several of his women actors. By all these associations, he fathered nine children including a daughter by actor Liv Ulman.

He made 54 feature films beginning with Crisis (1946), directed 126 plays in the theatre and another 39 for the radio. He had begun his theatre career in 1944 when he became the manager of the Municipal Theatre in Helsingborg, a med ium-sized town and directed an anti-Nazi version of ‘Macbeth’. In two short seasons he did nine plays. Among his early successes were Albert Camus’ Caligula and Tennesse Williams’ A Street Car Name d Desire.

He rose to become Sweden’s most celebrated theatre director. Bergman was perhaps the only film master who held the same position of eminence in another medium.

He understood the value of writing and acting because of his association with the theatre. He learned to write scripts and soon excelled at it when he decided to enter the cinema. His first original script was for Alf Sjoeberg’s To rment, which won among other prizes the Grand Prix at Cannes in 1946. It was about a failed love affair between a student and a teacher, much older.

When he hit his stride in films with his 13th film Summer with Monika (1953) he had already served a long apprenticeship, which included nine one-minute commercials for Bris soap. By then he had decided he would only work with reall y good actors who in Sweden came from the theatre.

His permanent repertory of actors included Harriett Andersson, Liv Ulman, Ingrid Thulin, Erland Josephson, Bibi Andersson, Max von Sydow and Gunnar Bjornstrand. Partha Chatterjee

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