It was timely of MUBI to post this film of Swedish National Broadcast Company news footage on American Civil Rights protests. Director Göran Olsson discovered the footage whilst researching and realised it needed to be presented to a contemporary audience. He starts with an interview with a white, small businessman who reiterates the myth of the American Dream and this frames the impossibility at the time of even believing in the Dream if you were a ‘person of colour’. The Swedish journalists went to where it was at and interviewed, or filmed speaking, key campaigners for Black Power: Elaine Brown, Stokley Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. Although, as Olsson says in a Film Comment interview, his film is about the Swedish point of view of the time, in order to not overly privilege this viewpoint he included a contemporary African-American view on the footage with comments from musicians Erykah Badu, John Forté (of The Fugees) and Talib Kweli and professors Angela Davis, Robin Kelley and Sonia Sanchez. As he says, these voices have a feel of a DVD commentary and it’s especially good to hear Angela Davis; the footage includes her trial for abetting murder which was such a farcical charge that (you’d hope) it had no chance of sticking.
Unfortunately what’s most striking about the documentary is how little things have changed for African Americans. The same police brutality and government connivance in repression: all in the ‘land of the free’. One difference is, of course, social media were we can readily see police violence though it is unnerving how this does not curb their brutality. The news media, in the 1960s, were probably more likely to ‘call out’ government malfeasance as the increasing corporatisation of news since the 1980s has mitigated risk taking and investigative reporting. The Swedish reporters’ ‘neutral and friendly’ demeanour comes through strongly as they were seeking the ‘truth’; though Angela Davis’ brilliant putdown, whilst being interviewed in prison on the trumped-up charges (was that phrase named after him?!), showed the inevitable limitations of their perspective. Olsson also includes footage of a tourist bus tour of Swedes in Harlem in which the racist assumptions aired are shocking today.
The ending, rightly, is bleak as heroin flooded into Harlem and so, successfully, dispersed Black radicalism; a similar policy was used in LA in the 1980s. This uses footage from Lars Ulvestam’s documentary Harlem: Voices, Faces (Sweden, 1973).
The story hasn’t ended; currently there have been more than two weeks of protest in America after George Floyd’s murder on camera by police. It would be nice to think that this will be a turning point, particularly with the Hater in Chief currently occupying the White House and the fact that the protests have extended worldwide. It was good to see slave trader Colston’s statue being plonked into the harbour in Bristol, UK, last weekend though it is likely the forces of reaction will be not far behind. That such mass protests are happening during a pandemic (though police are more likely to kill African American males than Covid19) is worrying.
All three of us currently contributing to this blog have written about Ingmar Bergman’s films. I think Keith would be happy to accept the position of fan. But I and possibly Nick are more wary. I admire the skills of his filmmaking and I like some of the early films, but I struggle to enjoy the later films I’ve seen. Margarethe von Trotta, however, is a filmmaker I certainly admire and I’ve found all her films interesting. This is her documentary and therefore I approached it with some trepidation, knowing that she was a Bergman fan too.
The film opens with von Trotta on the beach where Bergman shot The Seventh Seal (1957) as she takes us through her first experience of watching his films and then moves to Paris as she tells us how in 1960 she intended to study at the Sorbonne. She then admits that, after meeting some young French cinéphiles, she spent much of her time in cinemas catching up on la nouvelle vague and, through the young directors like Truffaut, discovering Bergman. We realise that this will be a ‘personal journey’ type of documentary and what follows sees the German director discussing Bergman with other directors, several of his female actors and then several members of his family as she visits Bergman’s home on Fårö, the small island in the Baltic where he spent most of his later life. As several reviewers have pointed out, this is a performative documentary – Margarethe von Trotta appears in the film herself and we see her interacting with her interviewees. What could have been a dull series of talking heads interspersed with clips from the films becomes something more personal and engaging. It’s good to see von Trotta talking with, for instance, Liv Ullman. Here are two successful female filmmakers, both of whom have been actors as well as directors, talking about a man who seemed to have the ability to find strong, beautiful and intelligent women (and skilled actors) to be the leads in his films – something eloquently confirmed by the Spanish director Carlos Saura. Bergman was also a man who married five times and seemingly left his wives after they gave birth, unable to engage in any way with his young children.
We do meet Daniel Bergman, one of Bergman’s sons who had a difficult time in later life working with his father on Sunday’s Children (1992), a film written by Ingmar and directed by Daniel and drawing on memories of Ingmar’s father, the cleric Erik Bergman. Von Trotta also shows us a photograph of the whole Bergman clan, over three generations, taken when they travelled to Fårö. On this occasion several of the eight Bergman children met each other for the first time. The documentary does also begin to explore Ingmar’s deep psychological problems with his father and his own need to endlessly explore his childhood rather than engage with his children. This is just one example of how the documentary doesn’t ignore Bergman’s darker side but this isn’t enough to appease some of the film’s reviewers and several see von Trotta as creating a hagiography. She is a fan and she shows us Bergman’s list of films he selected for a publication related to the 1994 Göteborg Film Festival. It reveals that von Trotta’s own film The German Sisters (1981) is the only film in the list directed by a woman and the only one by a filmmaker who is still alive.
I’m not sure that it is fair to describe the film as a ‘hagiography’. Von Trotta does interview two of Bergman’s prominent contemporary disciples in the shape of the French directors Olivier Assayas and Mia Hansen-Løve. The latter made a visit to Fårö to make a (fiction) film which appears to be still to be released. However, another director of a ‘post-Bergman generation’, Ruben Östlund, points to the split in Swedish film culture that came about in the 1960s. Östlund explains that he was trained at the Göteborg film school where there has been more of an influence of the younger directors from the 1960s, led by Bo Widerberg, whereas in Stockholm there is still the sense that Bergman is the important figure. This view, which I confess I have long held, preferring Widerberg to Bergman, is confirmed by the writer, director and critic Stig Björkman who explains that in the 1960s Bergman began to feel threatened by the rise of a new generation. To be fair to Bergman though, he did include one of Widerberg’s films in that 1994 list.
I think Margarethe von Trotta could have delved a little deeper into some of Bergman’s darker places and it’s unfortunate that she doesn’t/couldn’t interview some of Bergman’s male actors. Many of them are no longer with us. Perhaps my major disappointment with the film is that it fails to fulfil the blurb in the sense that although Margarethe von Trotta does probe a little about Bergman’s childhood, she doesn’t attempt to say anything about Bergman’s early work. He had made 16 feature films between 1946 and 1956 when he started on The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries. Apart from Summer with Monika (1953), which was a big influence on Truffaut and Godard, there is no mention of the early career in film – or theatre. It is the early films that I have enjoyed most. There is a clue as to why the early films are excluded. What does emerge from the documentary is that above all, Bergman saw himself as a writer. In those early films he was often constrained by working on somebody else’s original material. Von Trotta’s film does feel like a gathering of auteurs. It is an entertaining gathering and I was most impressed by the directors fluency in discussing the life and work of Bergman in French, German and English and at least I now know how to pronounce properly a range of names and titles in German and Swedish. In summary, this is a film that will interest Bergman’s fans and anyone interested in the history of European cinephilia. But if you don’t know Bergman that well it might not be the best place to start? On the other hand, it is a well-made documentary and Margarethe von Trotta is an engaging guide.
Max von Sydow is the key figure in one of the most famous shots in world cinema; a world weary knight plays chess with the figure of Death on a stony beach as a grey sea rolls behind them. For me this was one of the key images and revelations of contemporary art cinema when I saw the film on 16mm at the Bournemouth Film Society. After a decade of mainstream entertainment I became engaged with a world of cinema that was often slower, usually more ambiguous but which was intellectually challenging in a wholly different register.
Max von Sydow became interested in acting during school trips to the Theatre. After military service he trained at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, where Bibi Andersson also trained. Both had small parts in Alf Sjöberg’s Miss Julie / Fröken Julie (1951). He moved to work at the Malmö City Theatre where Ingmar Bergman was chief director. The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet, 1957) followed. Few actors can have enjoyed such an iconic character in their first leading role. His ability to play characters that were reflexive and cerebral made his performance stand out in the film and in contemporary cinema.
There followed a series of films with Bergman, defining both the work of the director and of the actor. Max von Sydow at times seemed to represent an alter ego for Bergman, He appeared in both leading and supporting roles in the films. The Virgin Spring / (Jungfrukällan, 1960) was another medieval tale, this time following the revenge of a father (Christian Per Töre) for his raped daughter. Once more the film was censored [parts of the rape scene] in the USA. Like The Seventh Seal this was a grim and dark tale, but with a ray of light at the resolution.
Then in Through a Glass Darkly (Såsom i en spege, 1961) he played Martin, the father of Karin (Harriet Andersson) who suffers from schizophrenia. This is an intimate small-scale drama set on the island of Fårö, a location Bergman was to use for several more films. This is one of my personal favourites among Bergman films. I have watched it numerous times and I am always completely taken with the writing, acting and the development of drama and character. And the film enjoys the great artist, Sven Nykvist, as director of cinematography,
Bergman made a further series of what can be described as ‘chamber pieces’. Max von Sydow was a lead in the fine Winter Light (Nattvardsgästerna, 1963). As Jonas Persson von Sydow is part of a small church congregation. The film then explores question of faith and of the wider issues in the world, including the then ever-present threat of the bomb [nuclear]. This film, along with the other chamber works, set up exploration of faith and the spiritual which seemed to dominate Bergman’s work in this period.
There were three films in which Max von Sydow played opposite Liv Ullmann. Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen, 1967), filmed on an island in the south-west: Shame (Skammen, 1968), film on the island of Faro: and A Passion / The Passion of Anna (En Passion, 1969) also filmed on Faro and the only title of the three in colour. I was not quite as struck with these films as the earlier chamber pieces but the acting of Ullmann and von Sydow was really impressive.
Von Sydow had parts in later Bergman films and also worked with the director in theatre (‘Peer Gynt’ and, ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’) and dramas for Swedish radio and television. He also worked with other Swedish film-makers, notably in Jan Troell’s two part The Emigrants (Utvandrarna 1971) which followed people from the old world to the new world of North America. In the 1950s and 1960s von Sydow had resisted offer from the USA and for international productions. Then in 1965 he accepted a lead part in The Greatest Story Ever Told. This was against the advice of Ingmar Bergman, and after seeing the film I agreed with the latter.
Better was the 1967 Hawaii, adapted from a sprawling James Michener novel. Von Sydow played opposite a miscast Julie Andrews but the plotting was fascinating; one could read this as a dramatisation of Jane Eyre’s possible life if she had accompanied St John Rivers to the missions.
The other key film for his career was the 1966 The Quiller Memorandum. Von Sydow is part of a gang of neo-nazis, notably violent and sadistic. And frequently in his subsequent career his particular persona was used for villains, often pretty over the top. Three Days of the Condor was a happy exception where he was a completely professional assassin. But Escape to Victory (1981) was more typical; we, like he, had to watch Sylvester Stallone pretending to be able to play British-style football. This long trajectory as a villain always rather puzzled me. It crept into the European art scene with a film by Jan Troell’s Hansum (1996) as a real-life collaborator from World War Ii.
There were other pretty good films. Von Sydow won an Academy Award for Pelle the Conqueror (Pelle erobreren, 1987) where he performed the most difficult challenge for an adult actor; playing opposite a child. He also won an Academy Award for The Exorcist (1973). I have never understood Mark Kermode’s love of this film. It seems to me that Bergman’s religious dramas are both far more interesting and closer to the real world.
Max von Sydow clocked up 163 credits for work in film and television. I have only seen a fraction of these. Some actors are very careful in the parts they considered and take on; Jeremy Irons would seen an example, even in a conventional genre film his character is really interesting. Max von Sydow appears closer to someone like Michael Caine who seems to take everything they are offered; fine films and dross. And I am not really certain why?
In retrospect, like his fellow thespian from the Royal Dramatic Theatre Bibi Andersson, I think he is defined by the work with Ingmar Bergman. Some of the director’s best and most memorable films feature his fine acting. And as I expect these to remain classics of world cinema I expect Max von Sydow to be long remembered.
Christened Berit Elizabeth, in her professional life this actress used Bibi. She is best known for her work with the Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. She graced some of his finest films, along with what must be the finest group of women actors to work with a single artist. Intriguingly, her first work with the famous artist was at age 16 in an advertisement for a detergent.
He [Bergman] also wrote and produced a series of commercial for Bris, a deodorant soap manufacturer by the Sunlight Corporation. It marked his first contact with teenager Bib Andersson who was to become part of his acting stable both on film and in the theatre, and with whom he was to establish a Higgins-Eliza relationship, a Pygmalian liaison that the actress eventfully would withdraw from. (Birgitta Steene in Ingmar Bergman A Reference Guide, Amsterdam University Press, 2005).
Andersson appeared in the eighth of nine episodes, ‘The Princess and the Swineherd’; a variation on a tale by Hans Christina Anderson. In the commercial version the swineherd attraction is a ‘remarkable soap.
Her early career involved study at the Royal Dramatic Theatre School and then work at the same Theatre in Stockholm. An early film role was as a supporting player in Alf Sjoberg’s film version of Strindberg’s ‘Miss Julie’ (Fröken Julie, 1951). Another regular of Bergman also appearing in a supporting role was Max von Sydow. She then had a supporting role in Smiles of a Summer Night (Sommarnattens Leende, 1955), one of my favourite Bergmans with a fine cast and fine production values.
Her early major role was in The Seventh Seal (Det Sjunde Inseglet, 1956) as Mia, the wife of Jof, the juggler, and mother of their child Mikael. Mia and Jof provide a simple and good family in contrast to the either cynical or villainous characters mainly encountered by Max von Sydow’s world weary knight. At the film ends, cutting from a stark silhouette of death and his victims, we see the family ride on in the sunshine in a new day.
This was followed by another major Bergman film, Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället, 1957). Birgitta Steene notes that the English title does not quite catch the-Swedish sense:
Literal translation would point to a spot where smultron or wild strawberries grow. Since these berries are rare in Sweden, places where they grow are often kept a secret in the family. But the word smultronstället also carries symbolic meaning and refers to a person’s ‘jewel of place’ or special retreat.
Bib Andersson plays Sara who the protagonist, Isak Borg, sees in a reverie from his past. Sara is picking wild strawberries while being courted by Isak’s brother. Andersson also plays another Sara in the film present. Both Sara’s are involved in the final comforting sequence. Alongside Bibi Andersson, Isak is played by the veteran filmmaker and actor Victor Sjöström. This and the way that the film mixes reality with dream-like sequences creates a masterful and complex relation between past and present.
Brink of Life (Nära Livee, 1958) takes us to the other end of life, set in a hospital maternity ward. Three women: Cecilia (Ingrid Thulin) who suffers a miscarriage: Stina (Eva Dahlbeck) is overdue: and Hjördis (Bibi Andersson) is considering an abortion. The three actresses, along with Babro Hiort af Ornäs who plays Sister Britta, shared the Best Actress Award at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival whilst Bergman won the Best Director Award.
After a couple more leading roles Bib Andersson joined Liv Ullmann in what I believe to be Berman’s finest film and one of the great modernist art works; Persona (1966). Andersson and Ullmann are alone together for almost the entire film. Liv Ullmann as Elisabet Vogler is a famous actress who has suffered withdrawal and become mute. Bibi Andersson is Alma, the young nurse, who is to care for Vogler. In order to help the pair move to a summer house on an Island where they are alone. The relationship is intense though not always obviously. As Elisabet’s silence continues Alma becomes more and more voluble. There is one sequence where Alma recounts an earlier sexual encounter to the mute Elisabet; it is all on the voice and is one of the most erotic sequences that I have seen on film. At one point the two characters appear to merge and the ending is suitably ambiguous.
Alma’s monologue on her sexual experience was cut in the English translation for the US release as was an erect penis seen in the pre-credit sequence. Bibi Andersson won a BAFTA as Best Actress in 1967 and in 1968 the US National Society of Film Critics honoured the film’s direction, screenplay, acting [Andersson] and cinematography. Bergman later commented that he had written the screenplay with the two actresses in mind. It is possibly the best work of both. Perhaps Andersson won the awards because Ullmann has virtually no dialogue; her acting is still superb.
Andersson made several more films with Bergman, including a major supporting role in Scenes from a Marriage (Scener ur ett äktenskap,1973). This drama, spread over six/four sections and an extended period, was seen on Swedish television as a 281 minute mini-series and in a film print that was reduced to 167 minutes. Then, as Birgitta Steene noted, Andersson pursued a career away from her personal mentor.
She was, though, involved in theatrical productions directed by Bergman, including playing Ase in Ibsen’s ‘Peer Gynt’ in 1991. She made a number of programmes for both television and radio about Bergman and his work; some involving Bergman himself.
She also had an extensive career in Swedish films by other directors and in international and US based films. She also worked in the US theatre. And in the 1990s she directed theatrical productions in Sweden.
I have seen hardly any of these and it remains that her reputation rests on the films she worked on with Ingmar Bergman. These are some of the best of Bergman’s films and are rightly classics of European and world cinema. Surely films like Persona will remain classics in the years to come and Bibi Andersson will remain an important actor in cinema history.
I’m an absolute sucker for Sven Nykvist’s chiaroscuro cinematography allied to Ingmar Bergman’s deep focus compositions. In The Silence they are welded in a chamber drama of two sisters at war: one lasciviously animistic; the other cooly intellectual until she accepts the truth of her imminent death. The 1960s were probably the height of arthouse cinema in terms of the acceptance by audiences, however minority, of abstruse narratives and we are plunged into a strange world without explanation. The sisters, Ingrid Thulin’s Ester and Gunnel Lindblom’s Anna, are travelling through an unidentifiable east European state either in the throes of, of gearing up for, war. Anna’s young son, Johan, is with them and the opening, on a train, sets the tone that we are as much inhabiting a psychological as a physical landscape; the unscrolling landscape is obviously a back projection.
In Hamish Ford’s interesting Sounds of Cinema review, he quotes Bergman as saying: “It follows Bartók’s music rather closely – the dull continuous note, then the sudden explosion.” Ford notes a ticking clock is heard at the start and end of the film (it could be a metronome in keeping with the musical metaphor), no doubt indicative of our lives’ movement toward their inevitable end. Bergman’s existential angst, which often seems mangled up in misogyny, plays out as the sisters vie for psychological supremacy. I must confess that I spent most of the film unclear on what the heavily portentous goings-on actually meant, but I was never less than engaged. Knowing Bartok didn’t help.
The film was a hit, probably because of the (for the time) explicit representations of sex. Ester masturbates whilst Anna witnesses a couple having sex in a theatre and seduces a waiter for the same purpose. I’m sure that this was the reason the film was successful with audiences though it was to Bergman’s chagrin:
One is always glad when a film is a success. Be then, when I discovered why it was a success, and how many of the people who were going to see it were saying furiously they’d never again go and see an Ingmar Bergman film, I was terrified. (Bergman on Bergman, Björkman, Manns and Sima, 1973: 180)
I’ll take his statement at face value, though it should be noted that the relative explicitness of arthouse cinema was one of the reasons why it became so popular in the post-war period. As I wrote in Introduction to Film (which is going cheap on Amazon at the moment!):
Although art-cinema’s increasing popularity was relative, and was always far below the mainstream’s, there is little doubt that the presence of (female) nudity in Summer With Monika (Sommeren med Monika, Sweden, 1953) helped establish director Ingmar Bergman as a favourite.
Films such as this helped break the censor’s stranglehold. The nudity would not have raised many eyebrows in un-puritanical Scandinavia. Because the nudity was not obviously sensational, and the film was received as art (putting it, in cultural terms, on a similar level as the nude of Renaissance painting) and consumed by a middle-class audience, it was harder to justify it being censored. In addition, these films, produced abroad, had no obligation to the Production Code. (Lacey, 2016: 118)
Even if I finished The Silence unsure of what I’d experienced there are some moments of direct emotional power. For instance, when Ester has an ‘attack’ (I’m guessing she has TB) and rails against death. I don’t think the strength of the scene was accentuated by the fact the ‘grim reaper’ is abroad great numbers worldwide at the moment due to the pandemic; the position of the shot, at the head of her bed, and Thulin’s performance are enough to make it terrifying. The film is available on MUBI for another four days.
One of the magazines freely available at GFF is The Skinny and I read an interview with Mark Cousins about his 5-part Women Make Film which screened in the last few days of the festival. Cousins points out that people who haven’t seen many films made by women often generalise that “Women makes films about relationships” or “Women make films with more empathy”. He’s right of course. This kind of generalisation is damaging and stops many films directed by women for being seen as films by directors who are great filmmakers and who can make all kinds of films. However, it’s also true that when women write and direct films they sometimes do create narratives that have a strongly gendered perspective. Agnes Joy is a ‘comic maternal melodrama’, written by Silja Hauksdóttir, Gagga Jonsdottir and Jóhanna Friðrika Sæmundsdóttir. It’s directed by Silja Hauksdóttir as her second cinematic feature after several years working in television. I should also point out that the story idea came from Mikael Torfason, a novelist and film writer.
Rannveig (Katla M. Þorgeirsdóttir) is a woman in her forties who we first meet at a family/clan gathering where she is searching for her 19 year-old daughter who is supposed to be entertaining the party by playing the violin. But Agnes (Donna Cruz) is hungover and reluctant. Rannveig’s problems are several. As well as Agnes she has to deal with Einar (Þorsteinn Bachmann), her husband who seems no longer interested in anything except watching Netflix and a mother who has retired from running the family business and now demands her daughter’s attention. Rannveig now has to run the family business, a small distribution firm. Here, she has lost interest but finds herself at loggerheads with the staff who want to employ cheap migrant labour (unionised and un-regulated). When she visits the surgery to get some sleeping pills she is angered when she receives a lecture by the young (female) doctor about the symptoms of early menopause. When Agnes announces that she doesn’t want to go on the long-planned holiday to the Philippines it seems like the last straw.
The disruptive element in the narrative is the arrival of a new neighbour, Hreinn who comes to borrow an electrical extension cable. Iceland has a population of less than 400,000 but produces a range of films and TV programmes. The same actors appear in several projects and must be easily spotted out and about. Hreinn is played by Björn Hlynur Haraldsson who appeared in all episodes of the first two series of Trapped, the crime fiction series shown internationally. Agnes Joy makes Hreinn into a jobbing actor and allows him to be recognised as in the cast of Trapped. This postmodern touch is ironic since Katla M. Þorgeirsdóttir as Rannveig is also in all the episodes of Trapped, but she’s playing the owner of a business not an actor. I’m not sure how the Icelandic audience copes with this but it must be strange. Anyway, Hreinn appears looking not unlike a mid-career Jack Nicholson (The Witches of Eastwick 1987?) with stubble and a kind of tousled charm. Rannveig and Einar invite him to a barbecue and the booze flows. Mother and daughter are vulnerable.
I won’t spoil all the plotlines. As the film’s title implies, Agnes has at least equal screentime as her mother. There doesn’t seem to be any discrimination towards her as an adopted daughter. The proposed Philippines trip is the only indication as to her background. The conflict with her parents is mainly down to her wish to leave school without passing all her exams. So far, Agnes has spent most of her free time working/hanging out at a local store with her friend Skari, who doesn’t seem too adventurous. The one aspect of Agnes’s identity that is foregrounded is her body image. Agnes is a powerfully built young woman, something which the script is careful to see as a positive feature. Unlike Skari, Agnes does have ambitions, the first part of which is to get out of the small town of Akranes and eventually move to Rekyavik. Leaving school is the first step. In one scene we see her seemingly asleep in class while the teacher tries to engage his students in a close analysis of the structure and writing style of the Norse sagas. It seems like a commentary of some kind on contemporary Iceland.
Agnes Joy is a conventional narrative with some darker moments leavening the predominantly comedic tone. The script is interested primarily in Rannveig and Agnes and the men are simply narrative agents to help create the situations in which the women’s stories can be developed. Nothing is particularly surprising but the comic situations work and the overall effect is that of a crowd pleaser. I certainly enjoyed it.