The Magic Lantern
Ingmar Bergman has been widely acclaimed as one of the outstanding film directors of all time, the greatest according to many critics. In such films as Smultronstället (1957; Wild Strawberries), Persona (1966), Viskningar och rop (1973; Cries and Whispers), and Fanny och Alexander (1982; Fanny and Alexander), the Swedish filmmaker combines a striking visual style with an understanding of people’s psychological nature unrivaled in the cinema. While Bergman’s autobiography offers anecdotes about his four decades in film and the theater, the emphasis is on the personal side of his life, as he looks at his relations with his stern parents and his many wives and mistresses to reveal how he became the man and artist he is.
Unlike a Bergman film, The Magic Lantern is arranged in a series of seemingly random impressions as its author ponders the events of his life. The period upon which he reflects most often is his childhood, a time of both carefree joy and dark despair. As in Fanny and Alexander, there were warm family gatherings at Våroms, the large country house of Anna Åkerblom, his maternal grandmother. Bergman considers the best times of his childhood to have been the visits with Åkerblom, who talked to him as an equal: “She wanted to know what I thought. ... She allowed me to have my say as a real person in my own right without camouflage.” They went to films together, read to each other, and invented ghost stories.We also drew “people,” a kind of serial. One of us started by drawing a picture, then the other continued with the next picture and thus the action developed. ... They could amount to forty or fifty pictures, and in between the pictures we wrote explanatory texts.
No wonder the artist considers his grandmother one of the most important influences on his life.
Other aspects of growing up were less pleasant but probably had an equally significant impact on the future playwright, screenwriter, and director. When he was four, he tried to kill his infant sister. A few years later, he hit his older brother over the head with a heavy glass carafe. When Dag recovered, he knocked out two of Igmar’s front teeth. The younger brother retaliated by setting Dag’s bed on fire while he was sleeping. In the ninth grade, Bergman was caught having sex with a young girl by the girl’s mother.
As he grew up, Bergman took refuge in lying: “As I didn’t know how to keep my creation and my person apart, the damage had consequences for my life and creativity far into adulthood.” He lied to escape and mock the harsh values of his parents: “We had never heard of freedom and knew even less what it tasted like. In a hierarchical system, all doors are closed.” For his numerous transgressions, young Ingmar was punished by not being spoken to, having to wear a red knee-length skirt, being paddled with a carpet beater, and being locked in a cupboard. The austerity of his parents dominates The Magic Lantern.
Erik Bergman, a Lutheran minister, used religion as a respite from life’s unpleasant realities, but it did not prevent severe depression and threats of suicide. As Ingmar Bergman grew older, he began to appreciate the man he often hated as a child: “I sometimes think about his cheerful light-heartedness, his kindness, friendliness and extravagance, everything that had been concealed behind darkness, severity, brutality and remoteness. I think that in my memory I have often done my father an injustice.” When the old man died in 1970, Bergman yearned for something to touch him, to give him grace.
Because his mother did not return his affection, Ingmar frequently pretended to be ill to get attention. Karin took the boy to a famous pediatrician, who warned that any indulgence would damage him for life, and she followed this advice. Like her husband, however, Karin Bergman was more complicated than she appeared on the surface. Bergman did not learn until years later that his mother had had a passionate love affair and had prepared to end her marriage before the couple decided to stay together for the sake of the children.
The most dramatic episode of Bergman’s relations with his mother occurred not in his childhood but in 1965. As he was rehearsing a play in Stockholm, she telephoned to say that his father was about to have surgery for a malignant tumor. After Bergman replied that he was too busy to see Erik, she came to the theater and slapped him. He begged her forgiveness and visited his father. Five days later, Karin became ill and died minutes before her son arrived. He sat with her corpse for hours and, as in Cries and Whispers, imagined that she was breathing: “I thought she was asleep and just about to wake, my habitual illusory game with reality.” Bergman has since come to admire her: “She was no liver-of-a-lie like Father. She was no believer. She had the strength to take the blame even when her share of the blame was doubtful.” He eventually discovered considerable sympathy for his parents: “A pastor’s family lives as if on a tray, unprotected from other eyes. The parsonage must always be open to criticism and comments from the congregation. Both Father and Mother were perfectionists who sagged beneath this unreasonable pressure.”
The chaos of Bergman’s adult life is indicated by his five marriages and numerous love affairs. He does not try to justify or soften his cruelty to women, as...
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