The Magic Lantern

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2249

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.

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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 when he recounts dropping his first wife, Else Fisher, for a friend of hers, Ellen Lundström, while his wife and infant daughter were in a tuberculosis sanatorium. He is vague about the causes of his breakups, as with his marriage to Ellen: “We were fighting chained together and were drowning.” After leaving Ellen for Gun Hagberg, he was for a time supporting three families. This third marriage ended when he began a lengthy affair with actress Harriet Andersson during the making of Sommaren med Monika (1953; The Summer with Monika). Bergman explains why he frequently fell in love with his actresses:Film work is a powerfully erotic business; the proximity of actors is without reservations, the mutual exposure is total. The intimacy, devotion, dependency, love, confidence and credibility in front of the camera’s magical eye become a warm, possibly illusory security. The strain, the easing of tension, the mutual drawing of breath, the moment of triumph, followed by anticlimax: the atmosphere is irresistibly charged with sexuality. It took me many years before I at last learnt that one day the camera would stop and the lights go out.

He criticizes himself for his treatment of Liv Ullmann, star of most of his films of the late 1960’s and 1970’s, for making decisions for her without consulting her. He describes her account of their life together in Changing (1977) as “affectionately correct.”

The greatest love of Bergman’s life has been the theater. He escaped the everyday world of his childhood by pretending to be a director: “I leant over my toy theatre, letting the curtain rise voluptuously on Red Riding Hood’s dark forest or Cinderella’s bright ballroom, my games making me ruler of the stage, my imagination populating it.” When he was appointed head of the Helsingborg City Theatre in 1944, becoming at twenty-six Sweden’s “youngest theatre director of all time,” he felt that he had found “paradise on earth.” Bergman lovingly traces the development of his theatrical career, which reached its pinnacle in 1963 when he was appointed head of the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm. He seems to love the theater because it provides him with a substitute family over which he has complete autonomy, in which he is the stern but adored father.

Bergman cares almost as much for films as for the stage. When he went to the cinema for the first time, he was transformed: “I was overcome with a fever that has never left me. The silent shadows turned their pale faces towards me and spoke in inaudible voices to my most secret feelings. Sixty years have gone by and nothing has changed; the fever is the same.” Just as vividly, he describes how young Ingmar acquired a cinematograph, the magic lantern of the title, and thrilled at controlling the moving images himself.

Bergman’s film career began in 1943, when he was hired as a screenwriter by Svensk Filmindustri after two of its executives saw a play he had written. When he was given the opportunity to direct a film, Kris (1946; Crisis), the result was indeed a crisis until veteran director Victor Sjöström gave him advice and perhaps intervened to keep the film from being taken away from him. Twelve years later, Sjöström was the creator of the chaos as the star of Wild Strawberries. Elderly and ill, Sjöström was nervous and surly until costar Bibi Andersson charmed him into cooperating. Twenty years later, Bergman had troubles with another veteran performer. While making Höstsonaten (1978; Autumn Sonata), Ingrid Bergman decided how she was to play her part even before rehearsals began, made changes in her dialogue, hated the Chopin prelude her character was to play, and considered the project in general to be a bore, begging the director to add some humor: “One morning she turned round violently and slapped my face (in fun?) and said she would smash me to pieces if I didn’t at once tell her how the scene was to be done.” In other ways, she was a complete professional. Suffering from cancer, she postponed surgery and radiation treatment until the film was finished.

The Victor Sjöström and Ingrid Bergman anecdotes represent the only accounts of any length in The Magic Lantern about the making of Bergman’s films. He mentions the brilliance of cinematographer Sven Nykvist and says that he misses working with him, but of their work on twenty-one films he says only that “confidence and total security prevailed in our collaboration.” Bergman has elicited some of the greatest film performances ever but gives no clue of how he did so. He does not even mention Gunnar Björnstrand, who has appeared in nineteen of the forty-two films he has directed, Max von Sydow, who has been in eleven, or Ingrid Thulin, a veteran of nine of Bergman’s best films. He says that his screen work has been better appreciated outside Sweden but does not try to explain why. Bergman shows how a handful of events from his life found their way into his films; considers För att inte tala om alla dessa kvinnor (1964: Not to Speak of All These Women), Beröringen (1971; The Touch), Ansikte mot ansikte (1976; Face to Face), and The Serpent’s Egg (1977) embarrassing failures; says that Aus dem Leben der Marionetten (1980; From the Life of the Marionettes) “belongs among my best films, an opinion shared by a few”; calls Det sjunde inseglet (1957; The Seventh Seal), perhaps his most popular creation, “an uneven film”; and expresses admiration for the work of Luis Buñuel, Akira Kurosawa, Frederico Fellini, and, especially, Andrei Tarkovsky.

Bergman announced that Fanny and Alexander would be his final film, although he has since made two more for television and a short film consisting of photographs of his mother. His philosophy as a director includes never allowing private concerns, such as decaying marriages, to interfere with his work. The Magic Lantern tells the reader more than enough about Bergman’s nervous stomach, insomnia, and other ills. While making Fanny and Alexander, the director realized that his “physical distress” had made working in the cinema too difficult. Bergman thinks that age and its accompanying exhaustion have made him too pedantic:I scrutinized my more recent films and productions and here and there found a perfectionist restriction which had driven out life and spirit. The danger was not so great in the theatre, where I could keep an eye on my weakness, and at worst the actors could put me right. In film, everything is irretrievable.

Among the numerous other subjects in The Magic Lantern are Bergman’s infatuation with Fascism after he spent six weeks in Germany in 1934 and his complicated tax problems with the Swedish government in 1976, which led to a nervous breakdown and five years, on and off, of exile in Munich. This exile was painful because of his insecurity about his grasp of German and his homesickness for the country he continued to think of as the best in the world.

Bergman seems to have written The Magic Lantern to explore his evolution from the arrogant, insensitive young man he presents himself as having been. He says that he has been guilty of playing a role: “that professional disease which has followed me mercilessly throughout my life and so often robbed or diminished my most profound experiences.” He traces many of his deficiencies to his family—“the same distant Bergman stance: don’t touch me, don’t come near me, don’t hold on to me, I’m a Bergman, for Christ’s sake.” Such insight into himself and others has made him the artist he is, his art being built upon analysis of pain. “No form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does, straight to our emotions, deep into the twilight room of the soul.” Bergman’s portrait of the artist as tormented soul probes this room as well.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 68

Booklist. LXXXV, September 15, 1988, p. 110.

Kirkus Reviews. LVI, July 15, 1988, p. 1021.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 18, 1988, p. 1.

National Review. XL, September 2, 1988, p. 44.

The New Republic. CXCXIX, October 3, 1988, p. 24.

The New York Review of Books. XXXV, October 27, 1988, p. 16.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, September 18, 1988, p. 1.

Newsweek. CXII, September 26, 1988, p. 76.

Time. CXXXII, September 26, 1988, p. C4.

The Times Literary Supplement. June 17, 1988, p. 670.

The Washington Post Book World. XVIII, September 25, 1988, p. 3.

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