When I started watching Echo, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Is it a documentary, a comedy, an avant-garde film? I hadn’t attempted to read anything about the film at all, wanting only to give it a try before it left MUBI in the UK yesterday. I was fascinated by the first few shots – each beautifully composed and framed by a static camera on a tripod, allowing a simple scene to play out in a single take of a minute or two. One of my first thoughts was of Roy Andersson’s films but although there are elements of comedy in some of the scenes/shots in Echo, there is none of Andersson’s playing with his colour palette or his penchant for a particular kind of actor and make-up and a style of playing. Instead, each scene features what appear to be ‘real’ situations. I couldn’t discern any overall narrative or any unifying principle and I did begin to wonder if this sequence of scenes would last for the whole length of a feature. I chickened out and glance at MUBI’s introduction but as soon as I saw the director was Rúnar Rúnarsson, whose début film Volcano (2011) impressed me greatly, I went straight back to the film, knowing I was in safe hands.
Eventually a form of narrative does become clear in the film and we realise that the scenes all refer to the Christmas period in Iceland. In fact, the film was shot from the start of Advent in December 2018 through to the start of 2019. There are 56 ‘vignettes’ and no character appears more than once. The whole offers a ‘mosaic’ of Iceland, its people and its culture across 79 minutes. I can’t imagine how much preparation Rúnarsson put into this. Many of the ‘performers’ are non-professionals (though there are some established actors too) and I imagine that the scenes were scripted and rehearsed. In the Press Notes, Rúnarsson tells us that one scene with a small child took many hours and several takes. The film presents aspects of Icelandic culture familiar from film, TV and literature. The long darkness of Iceland in December is captured in a scene featuring a young Black man (possibly an athlete from North America) sent by his coach to a solarium to ’embrace the light’. Several scenes feature music of different kinds, often diegetic but also some scoring by Kjartan Sveinsson. Where some scenes feature activities familiar from many parts of the world, others are distinctly Icelandic – cooking ‘fermented fish’ in the garage because of the smell or a son on the phone to his parents about why he won’t be there when they are eating whale meat. A couple of scenes refer to the influence of links with Poland, evident in recent co-productions of Icelandic films.
Some of the transitions from one scene to another work as comic/satirical observations, some are smooth, some more abrupt. Similarly the shot size alters from the intimate in a small room to long shots in which we see scenes played out with several characters and a staging in depth. I know I won’t be alone in remembering one particular scene in which a young man, a drug user, visits a clinic where the two young pharmacists/nurses prepare him for Christmas and assure him that they will be there on the 24th/25th. It’s a simple ‘three shot’ around a table in the corner of the room and I found it very moving. I won’t spoil any more vignettes and they are all worth your attention. One of the strengths of the film is that the scenes feature the very young and those in the final years of life and every age in between. Rúnar Rúnarsson’s most obvious collaborators are cinematographer Sophia Olsson, editor Jacob Secher Schulsinger and sound designer Gunnar Óskarsson. Along with Kjartan Sveinsson they are all long-time collaborators and contribute a great deal to the success of the film but there is also a larger overall crew responsible for this fascinating undertaking.
I’m not sure if Echo will appear in MUBI’s ‘Library’ offer, but if you can find the film, I recommend it highly. I would have loved to see this on a big screen and I hope the film gets seen as widely as possible. I’m not sure Volcano or Rúnarsson’s second film Sparrows got a UK release. He’s a talented director. Come on UK distributors give him a chance. Echo is a French co-production so all the details and Press Notes are accessible via Unifrance.
Giraffe uses footage of an animal in a Danish safari park to introduce a story about displacement and globalisation. What follows is in some ways a familiar European ‘festival film’. It first appeared at Locarno, then won a prize at the Viennale in 2019. My first thought was that it seemed like another example of a film associated with the ‘Berlin School’. Writer-Director Anna Sofie Hartmann is Danish but she trained at the German Film Academy (FFFB) in Berlin and this film has Maren Ade as one of its producers and Valeska Grisebach and Bettina Böhler are listed in the credits as mentors/consultants. Maren Eggert has a secondary acting role in the film and she has previously appeared in two films for Angela Schanelec. These names suggest that the Berlin School links are strong. They also signal a film with a predominantly female creative team and a female perspective at the centre of the narrative.
Dara (Lisa Loven Kongsli) is an ethnologist and photographer on Lolland, one of the main Danish islands, where she grew up. Though she is now based in Berlin, she is back in Lolland for a few months on a project to document the buildings and the people associated with them who will be displaced because preparations are being made for construction of a tunnel which will link Lolland to Northern Germany. There is very little plot in what is a relatively short film (85 mins). Dara meets various people and delves into local archives to research earlier inhabitants and artefacts. But there is a romance in which Dara, a woman in her thirties, becomes involved with Lucek, a younger Polish worker who is part of a gang laying a cable for services to be used by the construction workers on the tunnel.
My main interest in the film, apart from the aesthetics of its production and the performances, is in the geography of the location and what it means for the economics and sociology of the region. Although I’ve learned something through reading Nordic crime fiction and watching films and TV from Sweden and Denmark, I hadn’t before appreciated just how interconnected the countries around the Eastern Baltic Sea were, and especially how important the network of ferry services is to Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Poland. Hartmann includes various extracts from diaries and personal testimonies in ways which sometimes suggest we are watching a documentary. (Some of the characters in the film are clearly ‘real people’.) We listen to Lucek’s fellow Polish workers who sketch out the economics of why Poles take up contract work elsewhere in the EU since 2008 and these seem like authentic conversations. Lisa Loven Kongsli is actually a Norwegian actor which adds another layer to the film’s meaning with its mix of Danish, German and Polish actors and crew. Maren Eggert’s role is as a woman working on the main ferry to Germany. She has time to simply observe the passengers and she gives us her thoughts about who they are and where they are going – and again Jenny Lou Ziegel’s camera films these passengers in observational documentary mode.
I was reminded in several ways of the French film Fidelio – Alice’s Journey (France 2014) in which a young woman is a ship’s engineer who works with various nationalities, both officers and crew, and has a traditional masculine sailor’s idea about a sexual life in every port. Like Alice, Dara finds a young man even though she has a partner in Berlin and like Alice she is shown to be a highly competent and professional young woman. Both films use diaries and video calls/filmed material to communicate with lovers/friends overseas. A final similarity in the two films is a narrative strand in which the globalised workforce finds itself at the mercy of layers of sub-contractors who come between them and the multinational company who is ostensibly their employer. So in Giraffe, Lucek and his colleagues fear that they might not be paid. I’m not clear on who is paying Dara but she seems to be ‘secure’ in some way. This kind of interaction between workers from different countries often means that conversations are conducted in English, even if in this case, the countries themselves are often geographically quite close. Dara and Lucek make love in English.
I enjoyed watching this film but a quick trawl through other online responses reveals a mixed audience response. In Berlin School style, the narrative is not laid out as a conventional story. Instead each viewer simply needs to watch and listen carefully and piece together their own story. That said, I found some scenes to be humorous and some quite moving as Dara delves into the lives of the people who owned the houses that are to be demolished. The performances are all good and I found simple pleasure in watching Dara at work. Giraffe is currently available on MUBI.
Here’s the only trailer I can find, but no English subs:
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.