Sunday, 25 July 2021

Bergman Begins… Ingmar Bergman Volume 1, BFI Limited Edition Blu-ray box set - out now!


I wouldn’t call this a great or harrowing drama. It really is only an everyday drama. Almost a comedy…


Well, this five-disc set is a feast of film covering the start of the legendary director’s career with eight films from 1944 to 1950, six directed by him and the other two featuring his script (and, as it transpires, some direction).


Much like the pupils in the opening film, Torment (1944), force-feeding themselves Latin in an attempt to cram it through their final exams, Bergman has seemed to be almost a chore for some of the admittedly lazier boys in class. He’s unavoidably part of the curriculum but his aversion to Hollywood happy endings and focus on long takes and mood presents a barrier to simply enjoying his work for the less familiar. I was that lazy student but, as I sat down to do my filmarbete i hemmet I soon abandoned my notebook and just fell for the rich characters and on screen.


Sometimes we can study too much and look for the early signs of patterns established much later but, honestly, watching these films from a time when Bergman had no idea how his career would pan out, is a positive joy. So, ahem, here’s “to joy” and to switching our analytical minds off as we relax and float down the stream of Swedish films second great coming. Not that I can stop myself looking for the influence of Victor Sjöström from the first… Bergman learned a lot from his friend, but he is clearly also picking up ideas from expressionism as well as neo-realism.


Alf Kjellin and Mai Zetterling in torment...

There’s also a good deal of humour in these films and I love, for example, the man who learned his craft in the theatre having his narrator introducing his first directed film, Crisis (1946) with the words above, followed by “let’s raise the curtain” just as one of the characters does exactly that in Ingeborg Johnson’s music room… he’s confident enough to play on words and with the form from the beginning.


The first film on the set is Torment (1944) for which Bergman wrote the screenplay and direction was provided by the experienced Alf Sjöberg – who directed the rather marvellous polar-bear hunting epic Den Starkaste (1929) - apart from the closing section which, as the latter was unavailable, ended up becoming the first film directed by Bergman and powerful moments they are too. That said Alf won the Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix for his work which is full of impressive atmospherics and technically advanced dynamics.

It’s always hard to know the split between script and directorial interpretation but the opening shot of Torment features the two leads, Alf Kjellin as Jan-Erik Widgren and the eternal Mai Zetterling as Bertha Olsson, in close-up huddled together against some existential menace, comforting each other as a world of threats mingles in the darkness around them. As filmmaker and writer Leigh Singer says in his excellent video essay, this sees Bergman start as he means to go on with this focus on uncertain love, extreme close-up and the invisible torments that plague us all. Bergman himself gives great credit to Alf Sjöberg in the Guardian Interview from 1982, also included here, film and style have many godfathers.

Stig Järrel torments Alf Kjellin

Torment is painful to watch at times given the moral situations of the leads, Widgren’s discomfort at school reflecting Bergman’s own experiences, as he struggles to cover the work and to meet the expectations of his exacting, cruel, Latin master known un-affectionately as "Caligula" (Stig Järrel) whilst meeting his parent’s expectations and falling in love with Bertha, the girl who works at the local tobacconists. Caligula is a superb creation from writer and performer, a monster in the classroom who covers his own frailty and fear with aggression and manipulation. This is a coded attack on Adolf Hitler, a man with complicated resonance for Bergman…, an inadequate who constantly excuses himself because he’s “ill” but who keeps on returning to cruelty.

He not only victimises Widgren, possibly as he senses weakness, but also preys on Bertha who is driven to drink by his unrelenting attentions. Once the “triangle” of love and abuse is complete something is going to have to give but, whilst there are life lessons to be learnt, there are also teachers who believe in nurturing and kindness…


Experiencing her lessons - Inga Landgré

Crisis (1946), Bergman’s first film as both writer and director, follows the theme of inter-generational friction in ways that easily pass the Bechdel Test. Bergman’s women are well wrought even as his male characters are also nuanced and riven with faults. Here there’s also a tussle between town and country as a woman from the city, Jenny (Marianne Löfgren) arrives in her home village to try and reconnect with the daughter she left there 18 years before. Jessie now owns a beautician’s and wants her daughter, Nelly (Inga Landgré) to come and join her.


The central character is Ingeborg, marvellously played by Dagny Lind, who must decide whether her claims as mother are to stand in the way of Nelly’s decision to find out what the life beyond is like. Matters are complicated by Jack (baby-faced Stig Olin who is in Torment and several others here) and occasionally employed actor who is with Jenny but quite fancies Nelly and has a way of gaslighting those around him.


Sisters? Marianne Löfgren and Dagny Lind

Jack offers to help Ingeborg to the station on one visit and uses the occasion to skilfully cast doubt on her motivations for wanting to “keep” Nelly; is she really selfish? The answer is no and nor is she stupid… she knows Nelly needs to find out about life for herself, the only way to learn is to go through it and that she does. What is so interesting about all these characters though is that everyone has good and bad to varying degrees, shades of grey, mistakes and misfortune.


All of this is already being expressed though framing and mis-en-scene as with later works and, as Singer again points out, if you want to tick off Bergman’s later preoccupations you will find them all here: physical journeys, signify major life changes, the restrictions of social institutions on independent feeling, sexual jealousy, doomed romance, a Godless universe… But these are eternal questions and ones that Bergman’s self-examination would never leave unaddressed.

Inga Landgré and Stig Olin

The director was also gathering a troop of regular actors as any theatre producer might and as he did throughout his later career. His next film, Music in Darkness (1948) directed from Dagmar Edqvist’s script, features marvellous Mai Zetterling again (anyone else see a resemblance to Emily Blunt?) whilst Stig Olin is in Port of Call (1948) and Prison (1949) both written and directed by Ingmar.


He’s also in Eva (1948), written by Bergman but directed by Gustaf Molander – another silent stalwart who had directed Alf Sjöberg as an actor in Ingmarsarvet (1925) a partially lost film that also features Swedish superstar, prima ballerina and actress, Jenny Hasselqvist.


Thirst (1949), released as Three Strange Loves in the United Kingdom, has a screenplay by Herbert Grevenius and features Birger Malmsten who is in no less than six of these films including the last… To Joy (1950). This is the only one of the films I’d seen before and one which sees Bergman really hitting his stride now as writer and director. This also has an excellent performance from his pal Victor Sjöström who really had no limits. Four years into his career and still with so much said and left to say, what a remarkable man he was. Here Bergman’s belief in the alignments of music and film come to the fore in the form of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony… it’s a powerful argument.

Victor Sjöström and Stig Olin in To Joy

This is, of course, an essential set and these restored gems come with a hefty side-order of extras: 

The Guardian Interview: Ingmar Bergman (1982, 62 mins, audio only): Ingmar Bergman pays tribute to Alf Sjöberg, the director of Torment, discussing his influence and impact on his own career

Ingmar Bergman: First Cries, Early Whispers (2021, 20 mins): a new video essay by writer, filmmaker and film journalist Leigh Singer

100-page perfect-bound book featuring new essays by Jan Holmberg (CEO of the Ingmar Bergman Foundation), Philip Kemp, Geoff Andrew, Jessica Kiang, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Kat Ellinger and Laura Hubner


It is out now and can be ordered direct from the BFI Shop either online or in - socially distanced - person. You won’t regret it! Hurry too as it’s a limited edition!


Prison (1949)

Port of Call (1948)

Music in the Dark (1948)

Thirst (1949)

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