Ingmar Bergman and Sweden: an epoch’s end

Birgitta Steene
28 July 2009

In 1944-45 as the second world war was coming to a close, two artistic debuts occurred in Sweden that hardly impacted on the international political situation but were to be of decisive importance to the Swedish cultural scene. One was the publication of Pippi Långstrump (Pippi Longstocking) by Astrid Lindgren. The other was the appearance of the film Hets (Frenzy/Torment), scripted by Ingmar Bergman, at the time an amateur theatre director in Stockholm's Old City.

Lindgren's children's story about a super-strong red-haired girl who flaunted all social decorum and Bergman's screenplay about a sensitive schoolboy who was tormented by his sadistic Latin teacher caused an intense media debate in Sweden. What had been challenged was, in fact, the very basis of a homogenous traditional culture, governed by a patriarchal family structure, a state church (which was also a civil service), a class-divided hierarchic school system founded on strict discipline, and a much respected, long-standing bureaucracy. Birgitta Steene is professor emerita in cinema studies and Scandinavian literature at the University of Washington and has also been a professor in the film department at Stockholm University.
She is the recipient of an honoris causa doctorate from her alma mater, the University of Uppsala.

Birgitta Steene is the author of Ingmar Bergman: A Reference Guide (Amsterdam University Press, 2005) as well as numerous other books and articles on Scandinavian drama and film.

Some thirty years later both Astrid Lindgren and Ingmar Bergman were to contribute in very different ways to the toppling of the social-democratic government which had been in power since the end of the second world war. During its political mandate Sweden had become a model welfare state. The old authoritarian school system had been dismantled; a new youth culture had gained ground which dared challenge parental authority.

Sweden had become one of the most secularised societies in the world, and the centuries-old Lutheran church whose ethos had once provided the moral and religious backbone of the country, was now reduced to providing ritual services to the population on occasions of baptism, marriage and burial. To Ingmar Bergman, the son of a Lutheran minister who had also been a chaplain to the king and queen of Sweden, the social and political change that the country had undergone could hardly have been more fundamental.

An artist misunderstood

But Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007) was an artist and not a political animal. He once said that the only political party he ever belonged to was the Party of the Scared. It is one of the ironies in his career that while his early apprentice works (portraying authority figures such as headmasters, clergymen, social workers, officers, and psychiatrists) gained him the reputation of a young rebel and social iconoclast, his subsequent more mature and introspective films (which shifted the focus to religious and existential issues) were considered out of tune with the times by his fellow Swedes. When such films as The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries,The Virgin Spring, and Winter Light established Bergman's reputation abroad as a directeur du conscience and a leading existentialist auteur du cinéma, these works were often regarded as too personal by the Swedes. Bergman was said to suffer from "a Christian hangover" and one Swedish reviewer after another was critical of Bergman's "meaningless digging in Angst". Instead they called for films depicting the lives of "ordinary decent people".

Foreign audiences on the other hand often saw Bergman as the prototypal Swede, a mythic creature weighed down since the days of Montesquieu by a dark and cold climate, reflecting a sombre cultural mentality and a self-castigating Lutheran morality. In a cover portrait of him in Time magazine, Bergman appeared in front of a murky forest where his "persona", a spook-like dark creature was stalking among the trees. Often he was linked to earlier Scandinavians like Kierkegaard and, especially, Strindberg. The (London) Sunday Times once described him as "a creature out of a Strindberg play, a neurotic insomniac and hypochondriac who detests critics, seldom shaves and has no listed number in the telephone book". This assessment of Bergman as typifying a gloom-and-doom Swede irritated his commentators at home but also became part of their own disenchantment with his filmmaking, for what he projected, according to them, was after all a false image of Swedish reality. weighed down since the days of Montesquieu by a dark and cold climate, reflecting a sombre cultural mentality and a self-castigating Lutheran morality. In a

In 1962 the filmmaker Bo Widerberg published a pamphlet titled Visionen i svensk film (Vision in the Swedish Cinema), which was intended as a clarion- call to the native film industry to shift to what Widerberg called a "horizontal' cinema, that is, a realistic cinema rooted in modern-day Swedish society. But the pamphlet took the form of what was to become a lifelong attack on the "vertical" non-realistic filmmaking of Ingmar Bergman. This response must be seen in relation to Bergman's strong visibility in all facets of Swedish art: film, theatre, opera, TV, radio, and to his never-ending search for means of communicating with his public, including numerous interviews in the various media, even in tabloids and popular magazines.

On the other hand Bergman never appeared at the premiere of his own works or at the numerous festivals paying tribute to his films or theatre productions. He may have been a very skilful promoter of his works in progress but never of his private persona. It was this personal integrity that the Swedes respected. It became particularly obvious when Bergman moved to the island of Fårö in the Baltic in the mid-1960s and the native population kept his whereabouts a secret to the many curiosity seekers who visited the island.

A master exiled

The two major themes in Bergman's mature filmmaking - the silence of God and the destiny of the "corroded" artist - which are at the centre of such screen works as The Seventh Seal, Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, The Silence, Persona, The Hour of the Wolf and Shame often faced a critique at home that was coloured by the intellectual voices of the politicised 1960s. After the opening of Winter Light in 1963, one Stockholm reviewer exclaimed in exasperation: "Of what concern is the individual Ingmar Bergman's religious self-reflections hither and thither." And when The Hour of the Wolf and Shame premiered in 1967-68, a member of the Swedish Academy, Lars Forssell, wondered if Bergman might not be guilty of "some sort of constitutional blindness, a reflection of a 19th century individualistic view of the artist that began with Werther and ended with Oscar Wilde", someone who was guilty of "an overrating of the artistic self that seems completely old-fashioned."

Like the painter Johan Borg in The Hour of the Wolf, Ingmar Bergman was seen to have sunk into his own mental morass. Per Olov Enqvist, Swedish novelist and playwright, referred to Bergman as a giant mamba biting its only tail and crawled up in a corner whining about his miserable childhood. It was simply more and more difficult, wrote another of Bergman's Swedish critics, "to establish any contact with Bergman's art. No new elements have been let into his universe. But time has not stood still and the wider the territories that the cinema has conquered, the more narrow this universe of Bergman's has become."

When Bergman accepted, in 1963, the appointment as head of Sweden's national theatre, the Dramaten (Royal Dramatic) in Stockholm, he came to experience the ideological climate in his country also on stage. Years later, in his autobiography Laterna Magica, he was to describe what he called "our provincial cultural revolution" as follows:

"It is possible some brave researcher will one day investigate just how much damage was done to our cultural life by the 1968 movement. . . . Today, frustrated revolutionaries still...do not see (and how could they!)that their contribution was a deadly slashing blow at an evolution that must never be separated from its roots. In other countries where varied ideas are allowed to flourish at the same time, tradition and education were not destroyed. Only in China and Sweden were artists and teachers scorned. . . ."

In this politicised climate Bergman was booed out of Sweden's national drama school when he tried to teach its young students. After three years as head of Dramaten, he resigned, calling his three-year sojourn there "the worst lye bath of my life". He left the Swedish theatre scene for a brief exile in Norway, but returned in less than a year and resumed his role as director at the Royal Dramatic. It was now he took his critics by surprise by inviting them to attend open rehearsals of his upcoming production of Büchner's Woyzeck and by exploring the TV medium with such works as Mozart's The Magic Flute and the first Swedish "soap-opera", the immensely popular Scenes from a Marriage. Bergman was no longer considered an elitist artist and his work finally reached large audiences also at home.

Nevertheless, had Ingmar Bergman not become the victim of the Swedish tax authorities in 1976, an event that led to his voluntary exile in Munich for some seven years, he might never have achieved the status of a national icon. His arrest under humiliating circumstances was something the heavily taxed Swedes could relate to. And when the ever more popular Astrid Lindgren revealed, in a scathingly ironic open letter to the Swedish finance minister, that her tax rate constituted 103% of her annual income, she added political dynamite to the situation. In the subsequent election, Swedes voted out the social-democratic government that had ruled the country for some thirty years.

Also in openDemocracy on the work of Ingmar Bergman:

Roger Scruton, "Ingmar Bergman: the sense of the world" (3 August 2007)

When Bergman returned to Sweden after his exile, he was greeted as the prodigal son. On opening night of his Dramaten production of Shakespeare's King Lear in 1984, prime minister Olof Palme, the epitome of the political 1960s, was seated in the audience. Bergman made one of his rare appearances on stage and was greeted by the actor who played King Lear with the words: "welcome home". From then on, he was to be addressed in Swedish media not with the earlier epithet "the Demon Director" but as the Mästaren (Master).

A taboo broken

Ingmar Bergman would remain active for another twenty years at Dramaten and on Swedish television and radio, years that confirmed his mastership position and were no longer marked by the turbulence of previous decades. But though he may be "canonised" in the Swedish press today, a reception-study made in Stockholm in the mid-1990s showed clearly the reservations that still met Bergman's art in Sweden. One respondent in the reception project who considered himself an exception in his lifelong positive response to Ingmar Bergman testified to the reaction he had met among his family and work mates:

"They do not understand how I can like Ingmar Bergman's work. The fact that he penetrates into the human being and brings up philosophical issues is not very popular in Sweden. On the contrary, we Swedes seldom talk about religion and philosophy the way people do in other countries. In Sweden it's almost taboo to talk about feelings the way Bergman does. We are a country that only discusses TV programmes and the weather."

Now, in the aftermath of Bergman's death on 30 July 2007, as Swedish media inundate their channels with programmes by and about Ingmar Bergman, the subject-matter turns for a moment to more serious topics. For a day or two perhaps the materialistic Swedes are opting for Bergman rather than Ikea. But what filters through this homage to an extraordinary artistic achievement is not only Bergman's overall presence in Swedish culture for more than half a century but also the way the reception of his work, more so perhaps than the work itself, reflects the social and political climate in his country during that time.

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