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NEW! See footage with Ingmar Bergman in our Film Archive

An Interview with Ingmar Bergman
By Stig Björkman
Originally published in American Cinematographer (April 1972)

The following interview with Ingmar Bergman is taken from the documentary Bergman, which was made by Stig Björkman for the Swedish Film Institute while The Touch was being made.

QUESTION: Could you define the term film direction more concretely?
BERGMAN: Film direction? Well, there was a director who said that a film director is a person who never finds the time to think because of all the problems. That is the closest definition I can think of.

Then, of course, one can think up a lot of things on the spur of the moment. One can think up all sorts of explanations. One can say that film direction is the transformation of visions, ideas, dreams, and hopes into pictures that are to convey these feelings to the audiences in the most efficient manner. One creates some sort of medium, this long strip of film that reproduces one's dreams through a lot of machines. Pictures to the feelings of others, to other people. I don't know.

One can also say that film direction can be given a technical definition. Along with an awful lot of people, performers, and technicians, and a tremendous lot of machines, one produces a product. It's an everyday product or a work of art, whichever one prefers. What it is in reality or all of this is or none of this is, I'm unable to answer although I have been directing films for 27 years.

QUESTION: Do you have any uniform ideas from film to film that recur as to the way you work, how your films come about? Or do they change?

BERGMAN: No, I have a very carefully developed method that has taken shape over the years. On Fårö I saw an old boat one day that had been built a hundred years ago. It was terribly beautiful, but those who owned it spoke also about how indescribably sea-worthy it was. The ship was built in the same way as all ships had been built a century ago. It was built according to a special prescription, which, of course, had been developed through centuries of experience as to how a ship weathers the climate and the severe sea conditions there.

One can say that during 27 years as a director I have built myself a ship in which I can sail through the problems of direction. I have constructed a practical machine, a method that I use from time to time. But, naturally, this method must be suited under all circumstances to the difficult themes I deal with in my films. But in principle I have a carefully worked-out system.

QUESTION: Can you describe the purely practical job? How your films are made. Where do you get the ideas for your films? Of course, it is different, different times but can you give an example of how you get an idea for a film - about transforming it into a film?

BERGMAN: It is a tremendously irrational process that appears different every time. The core of the films, the originally explosive material, creates the film; the final film can consist of perhaps apparently strangely unimportant impulses. The idea for Persona, for example, came from a picture. One day I suddenly saw in front of me two women sitting next to each other and comparing hands with one another. I thought to myself that one of them is mute and the other one speaks. This little thought returned time and again and I wondered: why did it return, why did it repeat itself? It was as if it returned so that I would start to work on it. And then you realize that there is something behind this picture, it is as if it was on a door. And if you open the door carefully, there is a long corridor that becomes broader and broader and you suddenly see scenes that act themselves out and people who start to speak and situations that start to develop themselves on both sides.

But I think this is true of all artisticness. Film may be specially visual. For me, it goes on to develop itself in rhythm and in light. If I return to the picture in Persona, light broke down through the hats (they wore sort of basket hats) and over the girls' faces. The sun was strong in this picture. It's very strange, but the light is an integrated part of my first experience. It is often awfully concrete pictures and some sort of acoustic sensation. Other ideas can grow out of a dream or a piece of music, a few strokes of a piece of music. The Silence, for example, grew out of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. Winter Light grew out of Stravinsky's Psalm Symphony. I don't know how, but sometimes music creates a tension, a situation.

My next film is based on a solo sonata by Bach, a violin sonata. I don't know why. But the music liberates something that wants to be said, that wants to be related about and it can take an eternal time before it materializes itself in words. Before it becomes written at all. The most amusing period is actually when you go around with something in you that isn't at all completed.

QUESTION: When one reads the script of The Touch, it seems to be quite different from your previous films; above all it seems to be a much more everyday story than you have related previously.

BERGMAN: Yes. The Touch is supposed to be an everyday story. The film was originally conceived as a portrait of a woman. It doesn't deal with a magnificent and outstanding and glamorous woman. She is a middle-class housewife who lives in an enormously protected environment, in a world that is terribly cut off from the real world and its disasters and the draughts and the neuroses.

She is the wife of a senior physician in a small town. She and her husband are well off financially, they live well, they have two well-behaved children and they live in beautiful surroundings. Everything is almost painfully splendid.

What was interesting for me was to depict this woman and paint her portrait in a certain situation. As a result, it was my task to busy myself with a series of enormously concrete details. Then the story grows out of them. The story would be impossible without the setting. Every form of stylization is banned.

QUESTION: Do you want to criticize the traditional, middle-class pattern of life or something of the sort?

BERGMAN: I believe that her way of life becomes criticized automatically. But I think that everyone should see this as they want. Personally, I find it uninteresting. Such criticism is not voiced with bitterness or hatred, but it is a criticism that automatically grows out of the material. At the end of the film the woman tries to find reasons why she stays with her husband and in their home. She says that it's her duty and all of that, which can be true. Then her lover says: "You're lying." He repeats it three times to her. Then it's up to the viewer as to which side he wants to stand on. Is she lying or telling the truth? Is she driven by her sense of duty to deny an emotionally charged and adventurous but living life to fall back on her "sleeping beauty world?" Or does she decide to live with a love that she has never succeeded in materializing? Is she lying or is she telling the truth? To me it makes no difference.

QUESTION: But there must be something missing in her life as she lets herself be so violently carried away by her passion for this man who enters her little "librarianish" life.

BERGMAN: Of course. She seeks this wound; she seeks it passionately. She immediately takes part and draws the knife toward her own heart with the certainty of a sleepwalker. That is, the knife he is holding. And drives it in as far as possible and twists it around a few times. The question is whether this is enough for her; will she return with a human experience?
I don't want to be ironic about her environment. It isn't necessary; it it ironic in itself. It is extremely easy to find suppositious, sarcastic aspects about it. I have implied this slightly. This is the environment in which I grew up myself and I have lived in it so long that I'm very familiar with it.

QUESTION: Why did you choose a foreign actor to play the part of the lover. Was it your idea from the start that it should be a foreigner who came into her life?

BERGMAN: He should be a person from a world that is completely exotic. To have a Negro, I thought, was going too far. But to take someone from a completely rootless environment - with roots that had been cut off - was what was important to me. I had in mind a Jew whose entire family had been executed during the days of Hitler. He came to America - having escaped to America with a relative - and then went on to Israel, which he also left. He is an entirely rootless person. He is then set in contrast to the enormously rooted world that lives on traditions. And that gets its strength out of traditions.

QUESTION: You often view worlds of opposites. You did this in The Silence and even in Persona, for example.

BERGMAN: It turns out that way. I'm a dramatist. I have these tensions in me. It's entirely natural.

QUESTION: You work with the same performers from film to film. In The Touch you use a foreign performer for the first time. How did you happen to choose Elliott Gould?

BERGMAN: When you've seen a performer for three hours, or perhaps a minute, or ten seconds, you know whether or not you want to work together. You also know whether it is a true performer or just a phony. All real actors are fun to work with. Wherever you go in the world, I believe that you experience that performers are the same I sort of people - people with the same desires and needs. That is, the real ones. That's why a new actor presents no problems.
I saw Elliott Gould in a film by chance and the part I had written for The Touch was actually quite different. Then it struck me suddenly that here I had an actor. And it was pure luck that he suddenly both wanted to and was able to appear in the film. As things turned out, we discovered that we both got a great deal out of working together.

QUESTION: Were you sure of your choice after seeing the film?

BERGMAN: If I had only seen a minute of that film I would have known this. That's the way it is. Here one can't make mistakes.

QUESTION: Why do you work with movies and continue to do so instead of choosing to devote yourself only to the theatre or the like?

BERGMAN: Eventually, I'm going to give up film-making. And perhaps devote myself to experimenting for my own personal pleasure. I have a Nagra and an Arriflex of my own.

To make films is not only mentally demanding but it takes a good deal out of you physically. There are very few directors over 60 years old who still work at all. It is also much more strenuous for a director to make a film in Scandinavia than anywhere else. He has to handle so much administrative work and organizational tasks, unlike other directors. They are also allotted much more shooting time. We have the short shooting periods breathing down our necks. Therefore, I have planned to go on, if God is willing and my pants hold, for another couple of years. To make four or five films and then retire. But the reason why I go on is that I enjoy it. I have always had this desire. I don't know where it comes from - I think it's an outgrowth of an enormous need for contact. I have an enormous need to influence other people, to touch other people both physically and mentally, to communicate with them. Movies, of course, are fantastic media with which to touch other human beings, to reach them, to either annoy them or to make them happy, to make them sad or to get them to think. To get them started, emotionally. That's probably the truest, deepest reason why I continue to make movies.

There is also something about the work itself that you get very dependent upon. You are part of a group. If you are a relatively inhibited, shy and timid person like me who has difficulty establishing deeper relations, it is wonderful to live in the collective world of filmmaking. Or a group in the theatre that is working on a play. The reason is that nothing else is of importance to the group, you devote yourself completely - no less is acceptable - and you have to stake yourself for better or for worse and you have to accept taking the chance of making a fool of yourself. You have to take the chance that people will laugh at you, which actually makes no difference. But through making films and staging plays you constantly come into contact with other people -one intrudes into the problems of others. Performers, the members of the crew, everyone is forced into a form of emotionalness that is very worthwhile and very amusing. And constantly fascinating, because the great stimulation one has all the time is that one is with people. Living people.

QUESTION: Do you feel that you let the other members of the group take part in your problems in the same way?

BERGMAN: Their curse is that when we're making a movie they have to live for eight or ten weeks with some damned problem that I have had at some earlier date. That's another matter and it's of secondary importance in this context.

But one can also say that these people are subjected to the difficulties and problems of the director because one is never a better director than one's limitations allow. One is never a better chief than one's resources allow. But one can easily say that this is a drive in me, it is a need just like eating, drinking, making love and sleeping. It's entirely integrated in every cell in my body to the extent that I believe that if one tried to remove the vocational in me or the artist that makes these products there would almost be nothing left. Perhaps there would be some little asparagus-like madman who would wander about without being able to take care of himself.

QUESTION: When you now say that you don't expect to make films for more than a limited period of time, do you think that films have a future?

BERGMAN: Enormous! I think that there're going to be changes, adaptations, but they aren't important. Movies as channelers and distributors of dreamers and dreams, of people's dreams and hopes and most secret longings, will always exist - because there is no better medium.