Last year, during LFF, I interviewed Jane Magnusson for the BFI. The final piece was published on the BFI website earlier today. Our chat, however, was more expansive than the word count I was given, so here's a full transcript of our conversation…
AB: Having previously worked on the Bergman's Video/Trespassing Bergman project, what made you want to return to Bergman?
JM: I really really didn't want to return to Bergman. I was super tired of him. But right at the end of working on Bergman's Video and Trespassing Bergman – and this is because I'm not a Bergman scholar – I saw that The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries came out in 1957. I thought someone should do a film about that and I thought, well, it can't be me because I'm super tired of Bergman. Then, when the Centenary came around, I was asked, because of Trespassing Bergman and Bergman's Video, if I would like to make another film about him. I said 'if I can dive into 1957, I would like to do that. I think there's a story there'. And it turned out – you know, I'm full of bad ideas – but that was a good idea. Because as I started researching 1957, it just grew and grew and grew – it wasn't just these two films. It was all that theatre, it was another film, it was this television film, it was all these women, it was his children. Everything just grew, so I kind of cartwheeled to work and then cartwheeled home. People think that Bergman is a horribly serious and awful issue to bring upon oneself, because everyone thinks it's just about death and seriousness, but he was a funny person. He had a super strange life, and in 1957, it kind of culminates. I was really happy to have found that year. And also I love the ending of the film where he's just like 'oh no, how could you think this was anything special?'. I don't think he was ever happy about any work he had done. He likes Persona and Cries and Whispers. He thinks there's something in those films [and that's it]. And that's ridiculous, I mean… there are 25 films that are amazing. But there are also 25 films which are absolute crap.
AB: Beyond looking at his productivity in 1957, I was wondering if there was any kind of thesis that you wanted to explore with the film. I don't know if you would agree with this, but one of the differences between the new film and Trespassing Bergman is the tone – in Trespassing Bergman, you have people like Iñárritu visiting Bergman's home on Fårö and saying 'this is the Mecca of cinema'. But in A Year in a Life, you have a more critical approach – or at least a more even approach. So I was interested in whether this was something that you set out to do – to look at him slightly more critically.
JM: I didn't set out to look at him critically, but in Trespassing Bergman we had only one person who had met Bergman, and that was Woody Allen. And I found that when I interviewed Woody Allen there was a difference between him and all the others, who came to the island and praised him. So I thought it was interesting to actually talk to people who had met him. And that was the starting point for the interviews for A Year in a Life – only people who had worked with him. Nobody who had seen him from abroad and admired him. So it wasn't that I wanted to be critical, I just thought 'let's see what it was like to work with him'. The films about what a fantastic artist he is – they've already been made. And these films are great, but nobody's talked to the sound technician, nobody's talked to the editor, or whatever, and I think in A Year in a Life, the sound technician, Owe Svensson, is a key figure. He's in there for, you know, thirty seconds, but he was the sound technician on Fanny and Alexander, and he's the one that says 'well, today, we talk about diagnoses and I think there was something kind of wrong with Bergman'. And of course there was something! I'm not a psychologist, but to be able to have a year like 1957…
AB: One thing I found interesting about the interviews is that the more critical comments tend to come from the younger generation – those that worked with him towards the end of his life. I was wondering whether you think this is because Bergman had changed, or times had changed…
JM: You need to re-see the film. The critical comments are from Bergman himself.
AB: Okay, fair enough but…
JM: He's the one who's always saying 'I'm a terrible father, I was unfaithful, I was horribly angry'. You know, that's what I like about Bergman, that he's so super honest. I don't even have to be critical – nobody has to be critical, because he's his own worst critic.
AB: Yes, I agree with that, but you also have people like Thorsten Flinck…
JM: Who was crushed by him…
AB: Exactly. So maybe critical is the wrong word, but if you compare… There's a quote from Gunnel Lindblom in which she talks about his 'volcanic tempers', but says that 'if you relaxed, they dissipated very quickly' because 'he has too much of a sense of humour to sulk for long'. So it's almost like she's admitting his darker side, while also downplaying it. Whereas I got the sense from the younger generation that they don't downplay it in the way that, say, maybe Liv Ullmann or people of her generation would…
JM: In Sweden it's interesting: we have these actors that Bergman brought up, and made world famous but, with the exception of Gunnel Lindblom and Max von Sydow, never really did anything great outside of Bergman. So he must have been a fantastic director to bring out the best from these actors. So we have the old school actors, and then we have the younger people who he blocked and crushed. And when he was that old man, he was just… I mean, in Sweden it became kind of a joke in the '90s… He's making all these films about his parents and his childhood and we have all these young filmmakers who are not given any money to make their films. Although I think Swedish film would never have ended up on the map of international film without Bergman, he also stopped it for maybe twenty years, where nothing new came out of Sweden in film. And, like Thorsten Flinck, all the people that were competing with him, that were like the new Bergmans, he just crushed. And it's interesting… when I show this film in Sweden, there are so many people that hate me, whose careers were made by Bergman. And they don't want to admit to sucking up to him. They think the story about Thorsten Flinck is horribly skewed. But it's not. We did an amazing amount of research about that, and all these actors who were there to corroborate his story. There are also actors who were in that room who don't dare tell what happened, because Bergman still has power in Sweden.
AB: Do you think the time that has passed since his death is enabling us to start having these conversations more objectively?
JM: I don't know. I really don't know. I don't think it's made… Making this film has been quite difficult.
AB: I feel like, critically, Bergman has been very out of favour in recent years, at least in the UK. Now, with the Centenary, people are re-evaluating his work a little bit. I wonder if that critical distance enables us to look afresh at him.
JM: That's difficult. You're British, I'm Swedish – though I didn't grow up in Sweden. I went to University in America, and was a horribly pretentious University student who loved cinema. I was trying to get in touch with my Swedish roots. And thought 'I'll join the Bergman Society'. And I learned all my Bergman there, in the US, in the 90s. I came back to Sweden and started working as a journalist and thought 'let's talk about Bergman, a master', and people were like 'What are you talking about? Shut up. Let's talk about Scorsese or Tarantino' or whatever. So I really had to put a lid on my love for Bergman's films. And in Sweden, really, they don't even show his films at the dramatic film school in Stockholm. They think they're bourgeois and outdated. And I think they're wrong. I think they should show his films. I think… to try and answer your question… I think the Bergman Centenary is in some sense a bad idea – in Sweden, everyone is so tired of him by now. The Swedes are tired of him. We are. So maybe there's a comeback here, because you haven't had him down your throat your entire life… I don't know if I'm answering your question. I think it's different being Swedish than British. It's hard being Swedish and admiring Bergman because people think you're an idiot. And I think maybe if you're British or American and like Bergman, you're seen as an intellectual.
AB: Going back to what you were saying about Bergman being his own worst critic… I've always been fascinated by his self-critical streak, and how he exposes this in his work. With Faithless, for example, there's the story Liv Ullmann tells about how Bergman refused to give himself any forgiveness. Do you think that his films are an attempt to explore his personal shortcomings, or perhaps even to atone for them?
JM: I don't think he's looking for atonement, because he keeps repeating these things. I just think he's one of the most honest artists we've ever had. And unless you are as honest as he is, when you're making films about relationships, then your films will be bad. And that's why his films are so great – because he is so honest. 'I did this, I was horrible, I'm going to make a film about how horrible I was'. Because most of us are horrible people. Most of us have flaws, and he makes… It seems like he's asking 'where are my flaws?' and then making a film about it.
AB: In the film, there's a quote from Bergman where he says 'I dealt with my upbringing by lying and pretending', and it seems that this continued throughout his life. For instance, I think it's fair to say that The Magic Lantern has been widely discredited…
JM: It's a novel, rather than an autobiography. Yeah.
AB: So do you think he's more honest in his films?
AB: Or do you think that he's always playing a role, playing a game and creating a mythology about himself?
JM: I don't know him. I spoke to him on the phone once, but that's a different story… I think he became a great storyteller by having to lie to his parents all the time and finding out that there was a reward for a good lie. He didn't get abused like his brother. He might have even got given a cookie if he told a good lie. And I think maybe that's the beginning of him becoming a great storyteller – to have to start lying at a young age. And then he's super untruthful in The Magic Lantern… There's a really funny Swedish journalist, Jan Winter, who's in the film, and he's written an article: The Magic Lantern, everything wrong. Which is just all the dates, you know, everything that's wrong in that book. Bergman may have lied with dates and facts, but overall it's a good story and it is somewhat coherent with his life. But, I mean, he didn't have to write about going to Germany and loving Hitler. Most of the people that did that, they tried to erase it out of their history. There are so many artists who pretend like they didn't think Hitler was a good idea, but Bergman says 'I thought so. I'm ashamed of it now. Let's talk about it'.
AB: Going back to this idea of atonement… After having this experience in Germany, he says 'I'm not going to be political at all', which is almost like the response we get in Persona, where Elisabet withdraws from the world because of its atrocities. But, in a way, I feel like Shame and The Serpent's Egg both come out of his experience with the Nazis. So although he says he's going to back away from politics, I think there's a lot more politics in his films than he's given credit for.
JM: Yeah, I think there's politics. But I think The Serpent's Egg, I'm sorry, is such a terrible film…
AB: I agree it's his worst film.
JM: I can't even talk about it… If that's his attempt to try and… I don't know. What is he doing? He should just not have made it. But atonement is an interesting question. I don't think atonement is… I think in Faithless, maybe. I think he really has a bad conscience for how he treated Gun Grut. Why else would he write that film?
AB: Do you think his private life was so tumultuous because he needed people for inspiration, and in a way he was using them in order to…
JM: That makes you think, doesn't it? I mean, these women turn up in his films and you can kind of back track and see 'here's Gun Grut, here's Harriet, here's Bibi, here's Ingrid von Rosen, here's Käbi Laretei…' Either it's atonement or it's just that that's what he was doing. It's 'where am I going to get my next film? Well, from this part of my life, where I treated this woman horribly'. Or these children. Or, later in his life, it's always about how poorly he was treated by his father and his mother. So everything is autobiographical. I sometimes wonder if he was a horrible husband or lover just to have something to write about, but I don't think anyone is that bad. I mean, who would do that?
AB: But you get this in Through a Glass Darkly... There, you have the father figure who is a writer and is observing, and almost sacrificing, his family for his art. I wonder if that is a self-portrait.
JM: Autumn Sonata is, I think, and Hour of the Wolf… It's a reoccurring theme – the artist who screws over his family for the sake of art. And maybe that's also a reason why Bergman is so loved by male filmmakers and artists all over the world – because he kind of justifies that behaviour. And for good reason… We wouldn't want every man to be like that, but Bergman was like that and we got all these great films out of it. He also had nine children who were crushed. Or eight, or twelve. We don't know.
AB: He doesn't know.
JM: He doesn't know. So who does? And I don't know… was that a good sacrifice? I just love the films. And if he hadn't behaved the way he did, we wouldn't have those films.
AB: Going back to 1957 – as you've explained already, it was an incredibly productive year for Bergman. I'm interested to hear what you think it was that drove him to create in such an obsessive, compulsive manner.
JM: The year before, in 1956, he was awarded a prize in Cannes for Smiles of a Summer Night, and suddenly he was given artistic freedom and a little bit of money. Also, I think he knew that he always wanted to become this huge Ingmar Bergman figure, but he wasn't. At the beginning of 1957, he isn't. I think he understands that he has to become this giant filmmaker: "I want to make films for the rest of my life, I want to have nobody involved in my creative process, and this is my year to do that". And it is insane, that year. It would be enough, just the two films. But also his private life during that time. We can maybe apply it to him having some kind of mental disorder. I don't know. I think he just wanted to become Ingmar Bergman. And by the end of the year, he is.
AB: You start the film talking about Bergman's stomach pain, and later on you talk about how he goes into hospital to write Wild Strawberries – that was something that he did quite a lot. It seems like once a year, he took a scheduled trip to hospital. I was wondering if you think his illness is linked to his productivity, or whether it's the result of his productivity.
JM: I think maybe he has a lactose intolerance or something, or maybe he was gluten allergic, because the diet he keeps is really weird. But also, he's a grown up and if he wants to have yoghurt and pork every lunch, he's allowed to do that. I do think that check in to Sophiahemmet, where he did check in, you know, every other year, was his way of saying 'I'm out of the office', in a weird kind of guilt-ridden way. Most people can just put on flight mode on their cell phone – obviously he didn't have one, but he could have just gone out to an island in Sweden instead of… But he also wanted to have someone to deliver his food. Obviously if you could check into the most lush spa/hospital for four weeks, with our social welfare system, and just write things… His mother was a nurse, so I think he always really liked having the nurses around him. And his father had been a preacher at Sophiahemmet when he grew up, so he saw his first corpse in their morgue – which is not in the film, but in the TV series you get more about that. I don't really think he was that sick. But it's really funny. In Swedish National Television, our version of the BBC Building, he had his own bathroom. And at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, he also had his own bathroom. And later in life they would have arrows taped on the floor so that he could find his own bathroom, and he would sit there forever. And that's fine – if you have stomach problems, it's really nice to have your own bathroom.
AB: I think we can probably agree that Bergman did suffer from anxiety, that he had genuine anxious feelings. Nowadays, one of the recommended ways to treat anxiety is to live in the present moment, rather than obsessing over the past or worrying about the future. To what extent you think his frantic work schedule was a way to keep his anxiety at bay – whether consciously or unconsciously?
JM: Good question. I don't know if this will answer your question, but I asked Woody Allen… I hate name dropping. John Landis, who was on Fårö [for Trespassing Bergman], said 'Jack Nicholson told me never to name drop', which I think is the best quote I've ever heard… But I think what Woody Allen says about trying not to think about death is… I mean, he's obsessed with death in the same way Bergman is. And if you sit around and think about 'how am I going to change the second act?' or 'are these lines okay?' or 'is this actress right?', that's just a way of not thinking about death or about anxiety. And I think that is a general explanation to any artist, or author or painter or filmmaker's reasons… just not to think about death. And I think it's the same with Bergman. He has this huge anxiety, and I think he had quite low self-esteem… If you were a battered child, which he was, not as battered as his brother, but he was a battered child… how do you get out of that?
AB: One of the most amazing things in A Year in a Life, for me at least, is the interview with Bergman's brother, Dag. But given that we know there was animosity between those two, to what extent do you think we can take Dag's comments at face value?
JM: Well, that's up to you. The Swedish National Television screen Fanny and Alexander every Christmas, and we've had all these other films about Bergman's childhood, that he's written – so for me, finding one voice telling about that time, that's not Bergman, was amazing. But it's obvious to me that Dag Bergman, his older brother, is a sadist. I mean, he enjoys telling the story of how he forces his younger brother to eat worms. And you can see in his face after he tells that… 'And then Ingmar ate the worms'. I mean, that's horrible. Can you imagine having an older brother like that? Awful. That interview is made in the 80s, when he's part of the consulate in Hong Kong and Macau, which is also really funny because he's like the worst person on the planet. How can you have this person as a diplomat? But he's a Bergman, so they let it pass. He gets interviewed because our King and Queen are going to Hong Kong. He's being interviewed about their coming visit, and they also ask him about his brother – and it's like he's forcing Bergman to eat worms again. He's so mean. I think he's telling the truth, but in that interview there is nothing nice. He says nothing nice about his brother. And there's a segment which is in the television series, where he says 'you know, when I want to go see a film, I go and see Laurel and Hardy. I love them. I want to have a good time. I don't want to see my brother's crap, because I have enough problems on my own'. Which is… you know, he can walk around and think that, but you don't have to say it. But I think it was interesting to bring up in the film.
AB: In 1957, the release of The Seventh Seal launches his career. But some people see it as an atypical work, because it's a medieval fantasy rather than a more straight forward autobiographical piece. In A Year in a Life, you posit that The Seventh Seal is really about his fear of death. So would you argue that it is still an autobiographical piece?
JM: Absolutely, and he starts it there. And there are lots of films… It doesn't have to be Ingmar Bergman walking around mistreating women. He deals with his own fears and anxieties and makes a film out of it, which becomes great. Persona is the same thing – you don't have to have a man walking around being a tortured artist. Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson are two versions of himself. And I think this is general of any great artist as well – you stay home and you work around this little area, and try to make art out of it. And then, if you're really super honest, then it becomes great. Bergman leaves that area from time to time, and it's just bad.
AB: And would you agree with my personal opinion that The Seventh Seal is meant to be a comedy?
JM: Portions of it. I mean, it is really funny. But, I'm sorry, it's you and me and a few other nerds who think it's really funny. I watch it with my husband and we're like [laughs], because it is really funny. Bergman says it was super funny – 'we're making this film about Death, and he's walking around with shaved eyebrows'. Portions of it are comedy, definitely. When you do laugh in it?
AB: Pretty much all the way through. But I think that opening sequence, especially, when he draws black for the chess game and says 'Very appropriate, don't you think?' It's written like a comedy. That's a comedic line.
JM: You know, there's a very strange exchange there. 'Are you afraid?' Death says, and Max von Sydow says 'My body is prepared, I am not'. So he doesn't answer the question. It's like, he doesn't hear what Death is saying… He should say 'can you repeat the question?' But this is always lost in translation.
AB: One final question, because we haven't spoken about it all, which perhaps answers the question, in a way… Do you feel like his success on the stage has been overshadowed by his film work? And how do you think his stage work influenced his screen work?
JM: You know, I'm not a huge fan of theatre. I saw five Bergman productions during the 90s at the Royal Dramatic Theatre. I thought they were bad. But I almost always think theatre is bad. So I think theatre was just a way for Bergman… He made theatre all year round, and then he took these actors which he had worked with, and made a film during the summer. And that was his working mode from the time he became in charge of the Dramatic Theatre in Malmö. He had these actors that he worked with all year, and he could trust them. I don't think he was super confident. During the summers, when the theatres were closed, because everything shuts down in Sweden during the summers, he would make these films. But I don't know how much the theatre influenced his films. I don't think much. But then we have all these people who say 'Oh, Bergman's theatre was better than his films'. They're not recorded. We can't dispute that. I've seen a few of them. I fell asleep during Hamlet. I really did. I'm a big fan of Shakespeare, but I thought it was a terrible production. Which is strange, because that production started the career of Peter Stormare, who's in Fargo…
AB: He's also in In the Presence of a Clown.
JM: Which is horrible. Do you like that?
AB: I do. I've only seen it once, but I liked it a lot.
JM: You're so funny! That's like the worst film ever.
AB: I thought it was really interesting…
JM: You thought so? But Agneta Ekmanner with her funny clown hat! That's great. I'm glad you like it. I also think you're insane. I've never met anyone who liked it.
AB: I only saw it at the beginning of this year. Over here, his TV work is very hard to see – apart from Scenes from a Marriage, or…
JM: Scenes from a Marriage, I'm so surprised that HBO or Netflix hasn't picked that up. Because it's still really good…. But In the Presence of a Clown? Alex… I'm worried about you.
AB: I mean, I like pretty much of all of this films. This is the one thing we disagree on slightly, I think. I like a lot of the early work. I don't really like The Serpent's Egg.
JM: Do you like my film?
JM: Be honest.
AB: Yes, very much.
JM: Because you seem to adore Bergman. I do too. So you can tell me if you think…
AB: No, I liked it a lot. I would say I think you're maybe slightly too dismissive of the early work.
AB: But apart from that…
JM: Which early ones do you like?
AB: Some of them are patchy, but I think most of them are interesting. And I also think… one of the things that you express in the documentary, which I would disagree with slightly, is that '57 is the year that his films start becoming autobiographical – I think they're autobiographical before that. For instance, if you look at To Joy… It's not the best film, but the lead character's relationship with Victor Sjöström parallels Bergman's real-life relationship with Sjöström. So I think there are autobiographical elements in that early work…
JM: Yeah, and in Sawdust and Tinsel…
AB: Which is a masterpiece – one of his best.
JM: Yeah, and that's super autobiographical. I love it. So you're absolutely right. There are elements of that in his early work. But what he writes in his diaries in '57 is… 'All the other stuff, I just have to get rid of it…'
AB: But he would get rid of so many masterpieces, because he was so displeased with so much of his work.
JM: I really love his phrase, 'I am both the axe and the tree'. How do you sum up an artist, or your life's work? He does that early in '57, and he's 39. He says 'I've understood I have to be both the tree and the axe'. And that's 1957 that he writes that. So I agree with you that there's lots of autobiographical stuff going on before that, but this is the year he decides to go that way. And then every time he leaves that path, it's awful. Have you seen All These Women?
AB: Yes. That was one of my backup questions… I saw an interview with you saying you think that's his worst. I'm not going to sit here and make an impassioned defence of it…
JM: Oh you cannot! If you do that…
AB: No, no, I'm saying I'm not going to do that! But I find it interesting. You would never expect Bergman to make a slapstick comedy. I think there are parts of it which are successful, but mostly I think it's interesting from an autobiographical level, because you can read it as being about him and all his women…
JM: Jarl Kulle is him.
AB: Right. So I think it's very interesting and I enjoy it… But I don't think it's a great film.
JM: You're such a geek.
[We both laugh]
AB: I won't deny it.
JM: I hated it. I love Bergman, and during the course of making this film I saw everything. Most of the time it was just a joy, but then there are… Have you seen the forbidden film [This Can't Happen Here]?
AB: I've seen it on YouTube with the subtitles auto-translated from Russian to English. So I found it slightly hard to follow. But they're showing it here [at London Film Festival], so I'm seeing it on Saturday on the big screen.
JM: Really? They're showing it here?
AB: Yes, because SF have restored it for the Centenary.
JM: This Can't Happen Here, the forbidden film. They're showing it?
JM: This should be news in Sweden.
AB: It showed in Helsinki recently too.
JM: That's interesting, because right after Bergman died in 2007, it was suddenly on Pirate Bay. And I downloaded it right away.
AB: And it's on YouTube at the moment, but only subtitled in Russian.
JM: But it's horrible. It's the worst.
AB: I feel like I can't comment properly because, as I said, I watched with auto-translated subtitles – but I kind of enjoyed it.
JM: That's the thing… I love everything that Bergman does because it's so interesting – but I can't see any redeeming factors in that film.
AB: Well, I'll have a proper opinion after I see it on the big screen.
JM: But also, it's set in Stockholm, where I live, and there are so many backstories… there's a moment where a criminal is thrown off a very famous Swedish suicide point, Katarinahissen, and you can totally tell it's a dummy. But the horrible thing is, Gûsta Ekman, you saw him in my film, he's the directorial assistant to Bergman in 1957 – he was so unhappy during that time, because Bergman was so mean to him, that he tries to commit suicide. He tries to commit suicide the year after he's finished with Bergman. He cuts his wrists, but I don't think he wants to die. And he meets Bergman when he's bandaged, and Bergman says to him 'well, next time, take Katarinahissen'. And having that in mind when you see the forbidden film is horrible, because how can you say that to a young 22 year old who's just tried to commit suicide? How could you ever say that to someone who's actually failed? And wanted to take their own lives?
AB: He's a complicated figure, Bergman.