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Inside Ingmar Bergman

The late director's personal papers and other materials have been released by the Swedish Film Institute for a new L.A. exhibition at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

September 10, 2010|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times

There's a line in Kris Kristofferson's song "He's a Pilgrim" that poetically describes Swedish director Ingmar Bergman: "He's a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction."

And in fact, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has titled its new exhibition on the Oscar-winning director who has inspired and influenced such filmmakers as Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen, "Ingmar Bergman: Truth and Lies." The show marks the first time since the director's death in 2007 at the age of 89 that the Ingmar Bergman Foundation at the Swedish Film Institute has allowed access to the filmmaker's personal material.

Oddly, during his lifetime, Bergman said in numerous interviews that he never kept any of his papers, scripts, photos or letters and didn't even care what happened to his films after his death. But in reality he had meticulously kept artifacts from his 60-year career in a room in his house on the island of Faro in the Baltic Sea.

"There's always a germ of truth in everything he says," explains academy curator Ellen Harrington. "But he's also a master storyteller and so numerous things that happened in his marriages or his relationships with his parents end up on screen. People tend to interpret his movies as straight autobiographies when, in fact, he took a tremendous amount of creative license."

"We are focusing in the show on the relationship between the private life of Ingmar Bergman to his works of art and the other way around," says Nils Warnecke, curator of Berlin's Deutsch Kinemathek, the academy's partner in the exhibition. "His personal experience influenced the work he did. The show illustrates that on one hand what he was telling us about his private life was influenced by his creativity being an artist. And of course his films and stories were influenced by things that really happened."

Before "Truth and Lies" opens next Thursday for a three-month stay at the academy's Fourth Floor Gallery, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's film department will unveil its companion program, "Cries and Whispers: The Psychological Cinema of Ingmar Bergman," Friday with screenings of 1966's "Persona" and 1973's "Cries and Whispers," which was one of the few foreign-language films to earn a best picture Oscar nomination.

(Bergman was nominated nine times for Academy Awards, winning foreign film Oscars for 1960's "The Virgin Spring," 1961's "Through a Glass Darkly" and 1982's "Fanny and Alexander, as well as the Irving Thalberg Award in 1970.)

Other films to be presented include 1975's "The Magic Flute," "Fanny and Alexander" and 1971's "The Touch" star Elliott Gould will attend. L.A.'s Goethe-Institut is also presenting a mini-retrospective of sorts with "Bergman and Germany," which highlight the films and career of Bergman when tax problems in Sweden sent him into exile to that country in the 1970s.

"I wanted to structure the series around his major themes and focus the attention on these," says LACMA's film head Ian Birnie. "These were the issues — psychological and emotional — that Bergman was focusing on and obsessed on during his career. Women played a huge role, using women as a psychological vessel. Another major theme is that God is dead. The thing is, when you read what other filmmakers say about him, he is really a filmmaker's filmmaker. Even Jean-Luc Godard, who couldn't be more different with his emphasis on pop culture and the use of words, lived in awe of Bergman — of his control and quality of his direction, which was remarkable."

And like all master filmmakers, Bergman had a stock company of actors who appeared in his films including Liv Ullmann, Max Von Sydow, Bibi Andersson, Harriet Andersson, Ingrid Thulin and Gunnar Björnstrand.

"They are fearless," Birnie says of Bergman's repertory company. And though Bergman's films were complex, downbeat and emotionally raw, he managed to keep things light on the set. Bergman, says Birnie, once said that it was one of the director's obligations to create an atmosphere that's pleasant and comfortable on the set. "He also said that one of his greatest challenges was to push the actors to places they never thought they would go."

While Bergman is internationally renowned — though perhaps still ripe for discovery by younger audiences — he's never actually been a popular filmmaker in Sweden, says Jan Holmberg, executive manager of the Bergman Foundation. In fact, Holmberg approached several organizations in the country to mount the exhibition after its engagements in L.A. and Berlin — and was uniformly refused.

"The fact that he was from the mid-'50s and that he was not only artistically but commercially successful abroad flabbergasted the Swedish audience," Holmberg says. "People said then that the only reason they might like a Bergman film is that they probably don't get it because they don't know Swedish."

susan.king@latimes.com

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