Ingmar Sends His Regrets : THE MAGIC LANTERN An Autobiography<i> by Ingmar Bergman; translated from Swedish by Joan Tate (Viking: $19.95; 290 pp., illustrated) </i>
“Sometimes,” Ingmar Bergman says, “I probably do mourn the fact that I no longer make films. . . . Most of all I miss working with (cinematographer) Sven Nykvist, perhaps because we are both utterly captivated by the problems of light, the gentle, dangerous, dreamlike, living, dead, clear, misty, hot, violent, bare, sudden, dark, springlike, falling, straight, slanting, sensual, subdued, limited, poisonous, calming, pale light. Light.”
It is an enchanting litany to the film maker’s vision. Then again, one would not expect the man who made “Wild Strawberries,” “The Seventh Seal” and “Cries and Whispers” to do an autobiography quite like any other arising in the world of film. It may, in fact, probably be unique in its confessional, self-deprecating and even self-lacerating honesty. He is candid but tactful, telling tales on no one but himself.
“The Magic Lantern” consistently violates the sacred first principle of autobiography by eschewing the glories and triumphs in favor of the failures, embarrassments, shortcomings, cruelties and humiliations of the author’s life.
He offers virtually no evidence that the voice you are hearing belongs to one of the world’s most honored film makers. It can be argued that he takes it for granted that we know. But he also speaks of a “benevolent approval” that the reader forgets in 10 minutes, the director himself in 10 days. He does not rate honors highly. When he cites specific films he has made, it is often to complain of their inadequacies.
“The Seventh Seal,” for example, he calls “an uneven film,” although he adds that it “lies close to my heart because it was made under difficult circumstances in a surge of vitality and delight.” Of “Face to Face”: “My intentions required an inspiration which failed me.” On the undoubted flops, he is quite unsparing: “In ‘The Serpent’s Egg,’ I created a Berlin which no one recognized, not even I.”
Elsewhere, he says, “I have always appreciated the honest brutality of the international film world. One need never doubt one’s worth in the market. Mine was zero.” This was not the beginning Bergman, but the Oscar-winning Bergman trying to put “Cries and Whispers” together and having to invest his life savings and make partners of his performers (in lieu of paying them salaries) for want of a willing distributor. (The film, as he does hint ironically, became one of his substantial successes.)
“I was booed at the premiere of ‘Miss Julie,’ a remarkably stimulating experience,” he writes. That too was in late career in Munich, where he was living and working in voluntary exile from Sweden. “People were fed up with this insufferable Scandinavian who thought so much of himself.”
In many ways, Bergman’s films predict his autobiography. They and it are remarkably visual, a succession of scenes remembered in great detail, or imagined in detail. In a fantasy a few years after her death he creates a conversation with his mother, noting the Band-Aid she was wearing on her finger at the moment she died. It is very affecting.
Also like the films, “The Magic Lantern"is intensely introspective. It alternates between present and past, following only a loose, linking chronology between the hypersensitive and rather unruly boy growing up in Lutheran parsonages and the autumnal adult no longer confident in his physical or his creative powers.
When two or three actors begged off his production of “Hamlet” back in Stockholm after Munich, he saw a hard truth: It was not “any longer so important to keep in with Bergman. He’d stopped making films.” The reader winces at the probable truth of the observation and hears the undertone of bitterness.
Bergman, who began as a writer for the theater and for other film makers and who wrote the scripts of virtually all his own films, is an exceptionally adroit and eloquent autobiographer. The translation by Joan Tate is excellent, but Bergman’s own English is fluent and idiomatic and it is a fair guess that he ran an eye over the text himself.
While “The Magic Lantern” is hardly a how-to book on the making of films--indeed, it is a far cry from any of the “And then I wrote . . .” reminiscences--it is finally an illuminating mosaic on the evolution of the artist as a young Scandinavian man.
The clues are sometimes offhand. Brought to her bedroom to see his just-dead mother, Bergman writes, “The room was suddenly filled with bright early spring light, the little alarm clock ticking away busily on the bedside table. . . . I thought her eyelids twitched. I thought she was asleep and just about to wake, my habitual illusory game with reality.”
Childhood, which Bergman celebrated so movingly in his final film, “Fanny and Alexander,” was perhaps even more crucial for him than for most people. Sent to live with his grandmother after his mother died and before his father remarried, Bergman says the time “gratified my constant and importunate need for silence, regularity and order.”
But it seems also to have been the making of the fantasist or the fabulist. “My imagination and senses were given nourishment, and I remember nothing dull, in fact the days and hours kept exploding with wonders, unexpected sights and magical moments. . . . The prerogative of childhood is to move unhindered between magic and oatmeal porridge, between boundless terror and explosive joy.”
By age 12, Bergman had discovered the magic lantern, the cinematograph for projecting slides, and the theater. In art, his need for order and his love of magic somehow coalesced. “As I harbor a constant tumult within me and have to keep watch over it, I also suffer agony when faced with the unforeseen, the unpredictable. The exercise of my profession thus becomes a pedantic administration of the unspeakable. I act as an intermediary, organizing, ritualizing.”
Later he says, “All forms of improvisation are alien to me. . . . Filming for me is an illusion planned in detail, the reflection of a reality which the longer I live seems to me more and more illusory. When film is not a document, it is dream.”
Thus he admires Akira Kurosawa, Luis Bunuel and Andrei Tarkovsky, who move with such ease in “the room of dream. . . . Antonioni was on the way but he expired, suffocated by his own tediousness,” Bergman remarks with a flash of candor directed outward for once.
There is no trouble tracing the origins of Bergman’s themes. The troubled marriages clearly began with Bergman’s parents who “lived in an exhausting, permanent state of crisis . . . their beliefs, values and traditions of no help to them.” His brother attempted suicide; Bergman and his sister fled from home as soon as they could.
When his father protested Bergman’s live-in relationship with a young woman, they had a fist fight, Bergman decked him and they didn’t speak for years. Yet there are poignant passages as Bergman re-creates an idyllic childhood memory of a bicycle outing with his father, and then recalls his pastor-father, old, ill and wanting only to be left alone with his own memories.
Bergman’s clerics, in “Cries and Whispers” and elsewhere, tormented equally by faith and the drying-up of faith, owe much to the elder Bergman.
(“Church services and bad theatre last longer than anything else in the world,” the son remarks in passing. “If you ever feel life is rushing along too fast, go to church or the theater.” He quotes August Strindberg: “Life is short but it can be long while it lasts.”)
The film maker, looking back, finds little to admire in his young self. “I was a useless lover, an even worse dancer and a conversationalist who talked ceaselessly about himself.” His fiancee at that time broke off their engagement, “saying that I’d never get anywhere, a judgement shared by my parents, by me and by all those around me.”
The obvious inference is that Bergman got somewhere after all, despite the predictions. Yet there are few signs of self-satisfaction. Even the triumphs of his art, as the world surely regards them, seem to him quite transient.
“The truth in our interpretations is bound by time,” he says. “Our theater productions do indeed disappear into merciful obscurity. But individual moments of greatness or misery are still illuminated by a mild light. And the films still exist and bear witness to the cruel fickleness of artistic truth.”
Bergman found a diary his mother was keeping at the time of his birth, when her marriage was already troubled and her new baby so sickly it was thought he might not live. “I pray to God with no confidence,” she told her diary. “One will probably have to manage alone as best one can.”
It was as if she had composed the major theme of the deep-felt and demanding films her new son would one day create.