Ingmar Bergman: Playboy Interview (1964)

A candid conversation with Ingmar Bergman, Sweden's one-man new wave of cinematic sorcery. Published in Playboy n. 6, 1964
MUBI on X: "Ingrid Thulin with Ingmar Bergman on the set of THE SILENCE, 1963

In the months since Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence world-premiered in Stockholm, moviegoers in a dozen countries have been lining up around the block: some to see the final third of the Swedish film maker’s celebrated trilogy (following Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light) on the quest for love as a salvation from emotional death; others to verify the judgment of some critics that this anatomy of lust is the masterwork of Bergman’s 20-year career. But most, quite unabashedly, have come to ogle the most explicitly erotic movie scenes on view this side of a stag smoker—even after the snipping of more than a minute’s film for the toned-down U.S. version. The film has precipitated a rain of abuse on its 45-year-old creator—as a pornographer (by members of the Swedish parliament), purveyor of obscenity (from Lutheran pulpits all over Sweden) and corrupter of youth and decency (via anonymous calls and letters). Outraged at the outcry, Bergman was most offended by the accusation that he filmed the sex scenes merely to shock and titillate his audiences. “I’m an artist,” he told a reporter. “Once I had the idea for The Silence in my mind, I had to make it—that’s all.” The son of an Evangelical Lutheran parson who became the chaplain to Sweden’s royal family, Bergman remembers his years at home “with bitterness,” as a period of emotional sterility and rigid moral rectitude from which he withdrew into the private world of fantasy. It was on his ninth birthday that he traded a set of tin soldiers for a toy that was to become the catalyst of his creativity: a battered magic lantern. A year later he was building scenery, fashioning marionettes, working all the strings and speaking all the parts in his own puppet theater productions of Strindberg—foreshadowing his directorship of a youth-club theater during his years at Stockholm University, where he produced in 1940 an anti-Nazi version of “Macbeth” which became a minor cause célèbre—and scandalized his family.

Fired with the zeal of social protest, Bergman quit school the next year, moved into the city’s bohemian quarter, began to dress and act accordingly—and to germinate plot lines for satiric and irreverent plays which he never got around to writing. He finally found steady employment as an assistant stage manager, rose swiftly to become a director, and began to earn the reputation for dramatic genius, arrogance and irresistibility to women (he’s been married four times) that has become part and parcel of the Bergman legend. Trying his hand at writing a screenplay in 1944, he submitted the manuscript to Svensk Filmindustri, Sweden’s largest movie company, which decided to film it. Appropriately entitled Torment, it set the tone and theme for a new career, and for the 25 films that followed. In the eight years since his “discovery” abroad with the international release of The Seventh Seal, Smiles of a Summer Night, Wild Strawberries, The Magician, Brink of Life and The Virgin Spring, he has become the acknowledged guru of the art-film avant-garde, and many critics have joined fellow professionals in hailing him as the world’s first-ranking film maker.

An exacting taskmaster, he does not brook the slightest deviation from the script in the course of shooting, nor countenance the presence of outsiders anywhere in the studio—especially journalists, of whom he has never been fond, on or off the set.

It was with some trepidation, therefore, that we approached the mercurial moviemaker with our request for an exclusive interview. But he replied with a cordial invitation to visit him in Stockholm—which we accepted, arriving late last February, in the middle of the somber Nordic winter, for a week-long stay.

Our conversations took place in his small, sparsely furnished office backstage at the Royal Dramatic Theater in downtown Stockholm, where, as the newly appointed manager of the national theater, he was devoting his directorial energies full time, on an extended sabbatical from film making, to staging the works of such theatrical iconoclasts as Brecht, Albee and Ionesco. Meeting with us for an hour or so each morning (“when I’m most alive,” he told us), he would arrive promptly at nine, dressed always, indoors and out, in heavy flannel slacks, polo shirt, wool cap and a tan windbreaker with a dry cleaner’s tag still stapled to a cuff. Our interview began with a wry smile from our subject—and a disarming greeting in which he reversed roles by asking the first question.

Bergman: Well, are you depressed yet?

Playboy: Should we be?

Bergman: Perhaps you haven’t been here long enough. But the depression will come. I don’t know why anybody lives in Stockholm, so far away from everything. When you fly up here from the south, it’s very odd. First there are houses and towns and villages; but farther on there are just woods and forests and more woods and a lake, perhaps, and then still more woods with, just once in a while, a long way off, a house. And then, suddenly, Stockholm. It’s perverse to have a city way up here. And so here we sit, feeling lonely. We’re such a huge country; yet we are so few, so thinly scattered across it. The people here spend their lives isolated on their farms—and isolated from one another in their homes. It’s terribly difficult for them, even when they come to the cities and live close to other people; it’s no help, really. They don’t know how to get in touch, to communicate. They stay shut off. And our winters don’t help.

Playboy: How do you mean?

Bergman: Well, we have light in the winter only from maybe eight-thirty in the morning till two-thirty in the afternoon. Up north, just a few hours from here, they have darkness all day long. No daylight at all. I hate the winter. I hate Stockholm in the winter. When I wake up during the winter—I always get up at six, ever since I was a child—I look at the wall opposite my window. November, December, there is no light at all. Then, in January, comes a tiny thread of light. Every morning I watch that line of light getting a little bigger. This is what sustains me through the black and terrible winter: seeing that line of light growing as we get closer to spring.

Playboy: If that’s how you feel, why not leave Stockholm during the winter and work in the warmer climates of such film capitals as Rome or Hollywood?

Bergman: New cities arouse too many sensations in me. They give me too many impressions to experience at the same time; they all crowd in on me. Being in a new city overwhelms me, unsettles me.

Playboy: There’ve been reports that you feel what you’ve called “the great fear” whenever you leave Sweden. Is that why you’ve never made a film outside the country?

Bergman: Not really; all that has very little to do with making movies. After all, actors and studios are basically the same all over the world. What worries me about making a film in another country is the loss of artistic control I might run into. When I make a film, I must control it from the beginning until it opens in the movie houses. I grew up in Sweden, I have my roots here, and I’m never frustrated professionally here—at least not by producers. I’ve been working with virtually the same people for nearly twenty years; they’ve watched me grow up. The technical demands of moviemaking are enslaving; but here, everything runs smoothly in human terms: the cameraman, the operator, the head electrician. We all know and understand one another; I hardly need tell them what to do. This is ideal and it makes the creative task—always a difficult one—easier. The idea of making a film for an American company is very tempting, for obvious reasons. But it’s not one’s first Hollywood film that’s so difficult—it’s the second. Work in another country, with more modern equipment but with my same crew, with the same relationship to my producers, with the same control over the film as I have here? I don’t think that’s very likely.

Playboy: You’re said to be no less indisposed to come into contact with outsiders even on your own sets in Stockholm, from which all visitors are barred. Why?

Bergman: Do you know what moviemaking is? Eight hours of hard work each day to get three minutes of film. And during those eight hours there are maybe only ten or twelve minutes, if you’re lucky, of real creation. And maybe they don’t come. Then you have to gear yourself for another eight hours and pray you’re going to get your good ten minutes this time. Everything and everyone on a movie set must be attuned to finding those minutes of real creativity. You’ve got to keep the actors and yourself in a kind of enchanted circle. An outside presence, even a completely friendly one, is basically alien to the intimate process going on in front of him. Any time there’s an outsider on the set, we run the risk that part of the actors’ absorption, or the technicians’, or mine, is going to be impinged upon. It takes very little to destroy the delicate mood of total immersion in our work. We can’t risk losing those vital minutes of real creation. The few times I’ve made exceptions I’ve always regretted it.

Playboy: You’ve been criticized not only for barring and even ejecting intruders from your sets, but for outbursts of rage in which, reportedly, you’ve ripped phones off walls and thrown chairs through glass control booths. Is there any truth to these accounts?

Bergman: Yes, there is—or rather, was. When I was younger, much younger, like so many young men I was unsure of myself. But I was very ambitious. And when you’re unsure, when you’re insecure and need to assert yourself, or think you do, you become aggressive in trying to get your own way. Well, that’s what happened to me—in a provincial theater where I was a new director. I couldn’t behave that way now and hope to keep the respect of my actors and my technicians. When I know the importance of every minute in a working day, when I realize the supreme necessity of establishing a mood of calm and security on the set, do you think I could, or would have any right to, indulge myself that way? A director on a movie set is a little like the captain of a ship; he must be respected in order to be obeyed. I haven’t behaved that way at work since I was maybe twenty-five or twenty-six.

Playboy: Yet these stories of temper tantrums continue to circulate in print.

Bergman: Of course they do. Such stunts as ripping out telephones and hurling chairs around make the sort of copy that journalists love to give their editors and their readers. It’s more colorful to read about a violent temper than about someone instilling confidence in his actors by talking quietly to them. It’s to be expected that people will go on writing—and reading—this sort of nonsense about a man year after year. Do you begin to understand why I don’t like to talk to the press? You know, people also say I don’t like to see journalists, that I refuse to talk to them anymore. For once they are right. When I am nice to reporters, when I give them my time and I talk to them sincerely, they go off and print a lot of old gossip, or their editors throw it in, because they think those old stories are more entertaining than the truth. Take that cover story done on me a few years ago by one of those American magazines of yours.

Playboy: Time magazine?

Bergman: Yes, that’s it. My wife read it to me when it came out here. The man they described sounds like someone I’d like to meet—perhaps a little difficult, not such a nice person, yet still an interesting fellow. But I didn’t find myself in it. He was nobody I know.

Playboy: It’s been reported that you’ve had no less difficulty recognizing some of your own films when you read what the critics have to say about their merit and meaning. Is this true?

Bergman: I’ve given up reading what’s written either about me or about my films. It’s pointless to get annoyed. Most film critics know very little about how a film is made, have very little general film knowledge or culture. But we are beginning to get a new generation of film critics who are sincere and knowledgeable about the cinema. Like some of the young French critics—them I read. I don’t always agree with what they have to say about my films, but at least they’re sincere. Sincerity I like, even when it’s unfavorable to me.

Playboy: Well, your films have been unfavorably reviewed for, among other reasons, the private meanings and obscurity of many of their episodes and much of their symbolism. Do you think these accusations may have some validity?

Bergman: Possibly, but I hope not—because I think that making a film comprehensible to the audience is the most important duty of any moviemaker. It’s also the most difficult. Private films are relatively easy to make; but I don’t feel a director should make easy films. He should try to lead his audience a little further in each succeeding film. It’s good for the public to work a little. But the director should never forget who it is he’s making his film for. In any case, it’s not as important that a person who sees one of my films understands it here, in the head, as it is that he understands it here, in the heart. This is what matters.

Playboy: Whatever the nature of their understanding, a great many international critics concur in ranking you foremost among the world’s film makers. How do you feel about this approbation?

Bergman: Success abroad has made my work much easier in Sweden. I don’t have to fight so much on matters really external to actual creative work. Thanks to success, I’ve earned the right to be left to my work. But, of course, success is so transitory; it’s such a flimsy thing to be à la mode. Take Paris—a few years ago I was their favorite director. Then came Antonioni. Who’s the new one? Who knows? But you know, when these young men of the nouvelle vague first started making films, I was envious of them, envious of their having seen all the films at the cinémathèque [film library], of their knowing all the techniques of moviemaking. Not anymore. On the technical side, I have become very sound. I have acquired confidence in myself. Now I can see other directors’ work and no longer feel jealous or afraid. I know I don’t have to.

Playboy: Have their films influenced or instructed you in the development of your own moviemaking style and skills?

Bergman: I’ve had to learn everything about movies by myself. For the theater I studied with a wonderful old man in Göteborg, where I spent four years. He was a hard, difficult man, but he knew the theater, and I learned from him. For the movies, however, there was no one. Before the war I was a schoolboy, then during the war we got to see no foreign films at all, and by the time it was over I was working hard to support a wife and three children. But fortunately I am by nature an autodidact, one who can teach himself—though it’s an uncomfortable thing to be at times. Self-taught people sometimes cling too much to the technical side, the sure side, and place technical perfection too high. I think what is important, most important, is having something to say.

Playboy: Do you feel that America’s New Wave directors have something to say?

Bergman: Yes, I do. I have seen just a few examples of their work—only The Connection, Shadows and Pull My Daisy; I should like very much to see more. But from what I’ve seen, I like the American New Wave much more than the French. They are so much more enthusiastic, idealistic, in a way—cruder, technically less perfect and less knowing than the French film makers, but I think they have something to say, and that is good. That is important. I like them.

Playboy: Have you enjoyed the Russian films you’ve seen?

Bergman: Very much. I think something very good will be coming from them soon. I don’t know why, but I feel it. Did you see Childhood of Ivan? There are extraordinary things in it. Some of it’s very bad, of course, but there is real talent and power.

Playboy: How do you feel about the Italian directors?

Bergman: Fellini is wonderful. He is everything I’m not. I should like to be him. He is so baroque. His work is so generous, so warm, so easy, so unneurotic. I liked La Dolce Vita very much, particularly the scene with the father. That was good. And the end, with the giant fish. Visconti—I liked his first film, La Terra Trema; his best, I think. I liked Antonioni’s La Notte a great deal, too.

Playboy: Would you classify these among the best films you’ve ever seen?

Bergman: No, right now I think I have three favorite contemporary films: The Lady with the Dog, Rashomon and Umberto D. Oh, yes, and a fourth: Mr. Hulot’s Holiday. I love that one.

Playboy: Let’s return to the subject of your own work, if we may. Where did you get the idea for your latest and most controversial film, The Silence?

Bergman: From a very big, fat old man. That’s right. Four years ago, when I was visiting a friend in a hospital here, I noticed from his window a very old man, enormously fat and paralyzed, sitting in a chair under a tree in the park. As I watched, four jolly, good-natured nurses came marching out, lifted him up, chair and all, and carried him back into the hospital. The image of him being carried away like a dummy stayed in my mind, although I didn’t really know exactly why. It all grew from that seed, like most of my films have grown—from some small incident, a feeling I’ve had about something, an anecdote someone’s told me, perhaps from a gesture or an expression on an actor’s face. It sets off a very special sort of tension in me, immediately recognizable as such to me. On the deepest level, of course, the ideas for my films come out of the pressures of the spirit; and these pressures vary. But most of my films begin with a specific image or feeling around which my imagination begins slowly to build an elaborate detail. I file each one away in my mind. Often I even write them down in note form. This way I have a whole series of handy files in my head. Of course, several years may go by before I get around to transforming these sensations into anything as concrete as a scenario. But when a project begins to take shape, then I dig into one of my mental files for a scene, into another for a character. Sometimes the character I pull out doesn’t get on at all with the other ones in my script, so I have to send him back to his file and look elsewhere. My films grow like a snowball, very gradually from a single flake of snow. In the end, I often can’t see the original flake that started it all.

Playboy: In the case of The Silence, the “original flake”—that paralyzed old man—is certainly hard to discern in the explicit scenes of intercourse and masturbation that aroused such heated reactions, pro and con. What made you decide to depict sex so graphically on the screen?

Bergman: For many years I was timid and conventional in the expression of sex in my films. But the manifestation of sex is very important, and particularly to me, for above all, I don’t want to make merely intellectual films. I want audiences to feel, to sense my films. This to me is much more important than their understanding them. There is much in common between a beautiful summer morning and the sexual act; but I feel I’ve found the cinematic means of expressing only the first, and not the other, as yet. What interests me more, however, is the interior anatomy of love. This strikes me as far more meaningful than the depiction of sexual gratification.

Playboy: Do you agree with those who say that the American version of The Silence has been emasculated by the excision of almost two minutes of film from the erotic scenes?

Bergman: I’d rather not comment on that.

Playboy: All right. But is it possible that this encounter with American censorship regulations will induce you to exercise a certain degree of self-censorship in future films?

Bergman: No. Never.

Playboy: How did you persuade actresses Thulin and Lindblom to perform the actual acts depicted in the picture’s controversial scenes?

Bergman: The exact same way I have gotten them, with all my other actors, to perform in any scene in any of my other films. We simply discuss quietly and easily what they must do. Some people claim I hypnotize my actors—that I use magic to bring the performances out of them that I get. What nonsense! All I do is try to give them the one thing everyone wants, the one thing an actor must have: confidence in himself. That’s all any actor wants, you know. To feel sure enough of himself that he’ll be able to give everything he’s capable of when the director asks for it. So I surround my actors with an aura of confidence and trust. I talk with them, often not about the scene we’re working on at all, but just to make them feel secure and at ease. If that’s magic, then I am a sorcerer. Then, too, working with the same people—technicians and actors—in our own private world for so many years together has facilitated my task of creating the necessary mood of trust.

Playboy: How do you reconcile this statement with the following declaration, which you made five or six years ago in discussing your film-making methods: “I’d prostitute my talents if it would further my cause, steal if there was no other way out, kill my friends or anyone else if it would help my art”?

Bergman: Let’s say I was pretty defensive when I said that. When one is unsure of himself, when he’s worried about his position, worried about being a creative artist, he feels the need, as I said before, to express himself very strongly, very assertively, in order to withstand any potential criticism. But once you’ve finally become successful, you feel freed from the imperatives of success. You stop worrying about striving, and can devote yourself to your work. Life becomes so much easier. You like yourself better. I find that I’m beginning to enjoy much that I never did before, to learn that there is much I haven’t seen. I feel a little older—not much, but a little—and I like it.
You know, I used to think that compromise in life, as in art, was unthinkable, that the worst thing a man could do was make compromises. But of course I did make compromises. We all do. We have to. We couldn’t live otherwise. But for a long time I wouldn’t admit to myself—although, of course, at the same time I knew it—that I, too, was a man who compromised. I thought I could be above it all. I have learned that I can’t. I have learned that what matters, really, is being alive. You’re alive; you can’t stand dead or half-dead people, can you? To me, what counts is being able to feel. That’s what Winter Light—the film of mine that people seem to understand least—is trying to say. Now that you’ve been in Stockholm in midwinter for a few days, I think you can begin to understand, a little, what this film is about. What do you make of it?

Playboy: We’re more interested in learning what you make of it.

Bergman: Well, it was a difficult film, one of the hardest I’ve made so far. The audience has to work. It’s a progression from Through a Glass Darkly, and it in turn is carried forward to The Silence. The three stand together. My basic concern in making them was to dramatize the all-importance of communication, of the capacity for feeling. They are not concerned—as many critics have theorized—with God or His absence, but with the saving force of love. Most of the people in these three films are dead, completely dead. They don’t know how to love or to feel any emotions. They are lost because they can’t reach anyone outside of themselves.
The man in Winter Light, the pastor, is nothing. He’s nearly dead, you understand. He’s almost completely cut off from everyone. The central character is the woman. She doesn’t believe in God, but she has strength; it’s the women who are strong. She can love. She can save with her love. Her problem is that she doesn’t know how to express this love. She’s ugly, clumsy. She smothers him, and he hates her for it and for her ugliness. But she finally learns how to love. Only at the end, when they’re in the empty church for the three o’clock service that has become perfectly meaningless for him, her prayer in a sense is answered: he responds to her love by going on with the service in that empty country church. It’s his own first step toward feeling, toward learning how to love. We’re saved not by God, but by love. That’s the most we can hope for.

Playboy: How is this theme carried out in the other two films of the trilogy?

Bergman: Each film, you see, has its moment of contact, of human communication: the line “Father spoke to me,” at the end of Through a Glass Darkly; the pastor conducting the service in the empty church for Marta at the end of Winter Light; the little boy reading Ester’s letter on the train at the end of The Silence. A tiny moment in each film—but the crucial one. What matters most of all in life is being able to make that contact with another human. Otherwise you are dead, like so many people today are dead. But if you can take that first step toward communication, toward understanding, toward love, then no matter how difficult the future may be—and have no illusions, even with all the love in the world, living can be hellishly difficult—then you are saved. This is all that really matters, isn’t it?

Playboy: Many reviewers felt that this same message—that of salvation from solitude through love—was also the theme of your best-known and most commercially successful film, Wild Strawberries—in which the old physician, as one critic wrote, “after a life of emotional detachment, learns the lesson of compassion, and is redeemed by this change of heart.” Are they right?

Bergman: But he doesn’t change. He can’t. That’s just it. I don’t believe that people can change, not really, not fundamentally. Do you? They may have a moment of illumination, they may see themselves, have awareness of what they are, but that is the most they can hope for. In Winter Light, the woman, the strong one—she can see. She has her moment of awareness, but it won’t change their lives. They will have a terrible life. I wouldn’t make a film about what happens to them next for anything in the world. They’ll have to get along without me.

Playboy: Speaking of the character of Marta in Winter Light, you’ve been widely praised for your sympathetic depiction of, and insight into, the feminine protagonists in your films. How is it…

Bergman: You’re going to ask how it is I understand women so well. Women used to interest me as subjects because they were so ridiculously treated and shown in movies. I simply showed them as they actually are—or at least closer to what they are than the silly representations of them in the movies of the Thirties and Forties. Any reasonably realistic treatment looked great by comparison with what was being done. In the past few years, however, I have begun to realize that women are essentially the same as men, that they both have the same problems. I don’t think of there being women’s problems or women’s stories any more than I do of there being men’s problems or men’s stories. They are all human problems. It’s people who interest me now.

Playboy: Will your next film be in any way a continuation of the theme elaborated in your recent trilogy?

Bergman: No, my new film, and my last for a while, is a comedy, an erotic comedy, a ghost story—and my first film in color.

Playboy: What’s it called?

Bergman: All the Women. They may like it in America; the theme song is Yes, We Have No Bananas. It amuses me, anyway. I’ve already told one Swedish writer that I’m hoping it will start the Bergman Ballyhoo Era. It’s not long since I finished the final cutting. You know, I don’t at all mind editing or cutting my films. I don’t have any of this love-hate feeling that some directors have toward cutting their own work. David Lean told me once that he can’t bear the task of cutting, that it literally makes him sick. I don’t feel that way at all. I’m completely unneurotic in that respect.

Playboy: You said a moment ago that this will be your last film “for a while.” How long is a while?

Bergman: Two years, probably. I want to immerse myself in my work as director at the Royal Dramatic Theater here. Theater fascinates me for several reasons; for one thing, it’s so much less demanding on you than making films. You’re less at the mercy of equipment and the demand for so many minutes of footage every day. You aren’t nearly so alone. It’s between you and the actors, and later on, the audience. It’s wonderful—the sudden meeting of the actor’s expression and the audience’s response. It’s all so direct and alive. A film, once completed, is inalterable; in the theater you can get a different response from every performance. There’s constant change, always the chance to improve. I don’t think I could live without it.

Published in Playboy, 11, NO. 6 (1964), pp. 61-68


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Read More

Weekly Magazine

Get the best articles once a week directly to your inbox!