MOVIES INTO THEATER | I can’t believe it’s not Ingmar Bergman’s film (part 1)

Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman is seen talking during a press conference in Stockholm in this May 9, 2023 file photo where he presented his latest TV-project "Faithless." He was 89 years old when he died.  |  AP Photo by Gunnar Seijbold)

By Randy Gener

This is the first half of a 2-part essay.  Click here to read part 2.

STOCKHOLM |   Sweden, the world’s third largest exporter of popular music, after the U.S. and U.K., seems poised to become a substantial purveyor of Ingmar Bergmanarama. New stage adaptations of the late auteur Ingmar Bergman’s film scripts have been cropping up — a veritable Stockholm syndrome all over the world.

Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman is seen talking during a press conference in Stockholm in this May 9, 2023 file photo where he presented his latest TV-project
Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman is seen talking during a press conference in Stockholm in this May 9, 2023 file photo where he presented his latest TV-project “Faithless.” He was 89 years old when he died. | AP Photo by Gunnar Seijbold)

The year 2011 alone saw a Danish Persona at Teater Får302, a Polish Faithless at TR Warszawa, a Romanian Cries and Whispers at the Hungarian Theatre in Cluj, a German Winter Light at Schauspiel Leipzig. Almost simultaneously, in September 2011, Autumn Sonata premiered in Seoul, Oslo and Stockholm (the latter under the auspices of the Royal Dramatic Theater, or Dramaten). Fanny and Alexander premiered at the Nationaltheatret in Oslo.

This list does not include the numerous stage productions of the TV drama Scenes from a Marriage, Bergman’s most frequently staged script, whose life began when the Swedish film icon himself staged a shorter version of it during his Munich exile in 1981 together with excerpts from August Strindberg’s Miss Julie and Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House under the title Nora/Julie/Szenen einer Ehe.

This month, Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s raw and urgent twofer, After the Rehearsal/Persona, will have its U.S. premiere September 3, 4 and 5 at the 2015 Fringe Arts Festival in Philadelphia.  Read my essay about Ivo van Hove’s Philadelphia premiere by clicking here and the longer version here.

Such productions, though not unthinkable, were rare occurrences when Bergman was alive; inquiries to stage his film scripts (which were published in book form in English) were almost routinely met with a firm no.

So what happened to change the Bergmanian tide? Money and the swift canonization of a once-reluctant Swedish film icon who started out as a playwright are the quick answers. After his passing in 2007, all of his scripts were donated to the Ingmar Bergman Foundation, which finally made available all his scripts for stage productions.

In that same year, Bergman had also granted Dramaten, the Stockholm theatre to which he remained loyal as a director right up to his farewell production of Ghosts in 2002, a crack at producing for the first time Scenes from a Marriage and Autumn Sonata. Until the concurrent debuts of both these productions in the fall of 2009, Swedish audiences had not yet had a chance to see stage versions of his works.

Struck by the international outpouring of accolades, obituaries and tributes to Bergman and his work after his death, the Swedish government doled out special funds, totaling $3.1 million. That sum went to the Ingmar Bergman Foundation, the Svensk Filmindustri and Dramaten.  The aim was to promote and preserve the filmmaker’s works.  In addition to access to Bergman’s film scripts, half of the money was used to set up a biannual Ingmar Bergman International Theatre Festival, the first edition of which took place in May 2010 at Dramaten.  At the invitation of the Swedish Institute and the Swedish Embassy in the U.S., I took part in that festival.

Moreover, the Ingmar Bergman Foundation has for a long time lacked the resources to digitize Bergman’s extensive archives of scripts, notes, sketches and photographs. And for a while, the future of the director’s estate on the island of Fårö home, situated about 87 miles off Sweden’s southeast coast in the Baltic Sea, seemed as dire and gloomy as . . . well, a Bergman classic.

” From the Life of the Marionettes (Aus dem Leben der Marionetten”) at Hamburger Thalia Theater in Bergman. Regie und Bühne- Andreas Kriegenburg

To the relief of advocates who had been fighting to keep Bergman’s home from being turned into a vacation place or a tourist enterprise, in October 2010 a Norwegian inventor and archaeologist, Hans Gude Gudesen, acquired the estate (and most of Bergman’s belongings at an auction) for an undisclosed sum; a new foundation was created to establish a non-commercial center for art and research.

“Looking after the Swedish cultural heritage is a linchpin of the government’s cultural policy,” Swedish prime minister Frederik Reinfeldt and minister of culture Lena Aledsohn Liljeroth said in a joint statement in September 2007. “Ingmar Bergman’s lifework is a living part of this heritage.”

The irony of this posthumous largesse is that in the 1950s and 1960s Sweden never matched the enthusiasm with which he was embraced outside his own country, especially in postwar America where his seriousness of purpose and uncompromisingly bleak, God-haunted stories were both an art-house sensation and an antidote to insipid mainstream/commercial entertainments.

2012 poster for Ingmar Bergman Festival
2012 poster for Ingmar Bergman Festival

At the Ingmar Bergman International Theatre Festival I attended in 2010, the debut of German director Andreas Kriegenburg’s perplexing Thalia Theater production of the television drama From the Life of the Marionettes (1980)—the only film Bergman made in Germany—reminded us of the trauma and humiliation he experienced when he was arrested with income-tax evasion in January 1976, while rehearsing Strindberg’s Dance of Death at Dramaten.

Although the charges were later dropped, the impact of the well-publicized tax scandal on Bergman, who suffered a nervous breakdown, was devastating. Bergman took refuge in a mental health clinic before seeking a voluntary exile in Germany for eight years. Upon his return to Sweden, he achieved the status of a national icon among the heavily taxed Swedes (who could certainly relate), but then he announced his retirement and made the warm-hearted 1982 Fanny and Alexander as his swan song.

To delve further into the complexities of Andreas Kriegenburg’s From the Life of the Marionettes, please click here to read part 2 of this essay.

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