By Maaret Koskinen.
(These are excerpts from In the Beginning Was the Word: Ingmar Bergman and His Early Writings [Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand, 2002], originally published in Film International 1, vol. 1. no. 1, 2003.)
One autumn a few years ago the author of this article was in the process of editing a special issue about Ingmar Bergman for a now-defunct cinematic journal. The idea was to focus on Bergman the author in some sort of interartial or intermedial spirit, and for this purpose we wanted to print his never-produced screenplay “The Fish. Farce for Film” from 1950, written in prose form.
The only thing we now needed was the author’s permission. Thus, a strictly businesslike request for the right to use “The Fish” was sent off. But we did not necessarily expect any answer. I myself had been in personal contact with Ingmar Bergman only once before when, a week after defending my doctoral dissertation about his films (Plays and Mirrors. A Study in the Cinematic Aesthetics of Ingmar Bergman, 1993), he had completely unexpectedly phoned me up. “Of course Bergman wants to check up on who that person is who has the gall to write a dissertation about his films without contacting him personally,” explained a clear-headed woman friend, at the same time touching on the reason why I had kept my distance: a certain concern about the author’s possible desire to interfere.
It all worked out smoothly, however. Bergman was his most charming self. Judging from his comments, he had even read portions of the dissertation. I cannot deny that for my part, I was happy and honored by this unsought pat on the head – from on high, so to speak.
And then, as I said, nothing else happened – until history repeated itself. Because a few days after our query about “The Fish” had been sent off, the phone rang and an enthusiastic Bergman was on the line again, gave his instant blessings to a reprint – and out of sheer momentum, continued by writing a little introduction as to conception of the manuscript: “How I could delude myself that any producers in their right minds would bite at my fish is a mystery.”
That was not all. In the middle of the phone call, it popped out: “Listen, I have a room here at Fårö, it’s five by five meters. Here I’ve collected everything imaginable, you see, it’s a damned kitchen midden. Would you like to take a look at it?” How can you answer such a question? You figuratively and almost literally curtsy over the telephone and say, “Yes, please, Mr Bergman.”
Why this long-winded story? Yet another silly testimonial about the Bergman touch from a star-struck fan? No, more of an objective background to explain why I, of all people, almost like slipping on a banana peel, fell into what other academics worldwide – I realized afterward – would nearly kill for. That is why this is perhaps being written in some sort of instinct for self-preservation, with the aim of preventing more or less imaginative rumors.
However, to round off this self-centered prelude, this is how it came to be that on a number of occasions over the past couple of years, I have been at the office and archive of Cinematograph on the isle of Fårö, where first an inventory and catalogue of the “kitchen midden” was made, to be followed by several trips for in-depth studies.
And the rewards were beyond all expectation. Here I found a fascinating notebook with black waxed covers, dated 1938, containing small stories and stylistic exercises, for example “Familjeidyll” (A Happy Family) – a scathingly ironic title, it would turn out – and “En sällsam historia” (A Strange Story), about a prostituted widow and single mother who is murdered. Here I found several early handwritten drafts in completely different versions for what would later become the screenplay of Alf Sjöberg’s Torment (Hets, 1944). Indeed, the “Punch” short stories previously assumed – both by Bergman experts and Bergman himself – to have been lost suddenly appeared. Already their titles were mouth-watering: “Om varför gangstern skriver vers” (On Why the Gangster Writes Verse) and “Berättelsen om när Kasper och Lebemannen foro ut på landet” (The Story of When Punch and the Rake Traveled to the Countryside), both from 1942-43.
Also assumed to have been lost were the ten (!) plays and one opera libretto that the not yet 24 year old Bergman suddenly wrote in the summer of 1942, including “Tivoli,” also called “Några av dem. Pjäs i fem bilder” (Some of Them. Play in Five Images), “Fullmånen” (The Full Moon), “Kaspers död (The Death of Punch), “Stationen. Pjäs i tre akter” (The Station: Play in Three Acts), “De ensamma,” also called “Adjunkt Alman” (The Lonely, or Mr Alman), “Dimman. Om en Mördare” (The Fog. About a Murderer) and “Matheus Manders fjärde berättelse” (Matheus Mander’s Fourth Tale). Here I also found the early versions of several plays that Bergman himself later directed, for example “Kasper får besök” (Kasper Gets a Visitor), which was produced as “The Death of Punch” at the Stockholm Student Theater in 1942, and “Jonas och Mari” (Jonas and Mari), later produced in a rewritten version as “The Murder in Barjärna” at Malmö City Theater in 1952. I also found handwritten manuscripts of the few Bergman plays that had been published: Jack Among the Actors, published by Bonniers in 1946 and “Rakel and the Movie Theater Doorman,” “The Day Ends Early” and “To My Terror,” in the collection Moraliteter. Tre pjäser (Three Morality Plays), also published by Bonniers in 1948.
And there was more: several never-produced screenplays, among them “Dröm i juli” (Dream in July), “Komedien om Jenny” (The Comedy About Jenny), both from 1946, but also manuscripts strikingly often written in pure prose form, which were later turned into films, for example “Puzzlet föreställer Eros, novell för film” (The Puzzle Portrays Eros, Short Story for Film), from 1946, incidentally featuring an “Ingmar Bergman, eyewitness” in the cast, which turned into The Woman Without a Face (1947), directed by Gustaf Molander. “Sann berättelse” (True Story) is also written in prose form, but has seen the light of day only as Prison (UK title The Devil’s Wanton) from 1949, the first film that Bergman directed on the basis of his own screenplay.
And last but not least, I found several versions of “Joachim Naked,” the manuscript that Bergman worked on for a number of years in the late 1940s and early 1950s. It was also sent to Bonniers, which rejected his work this time – by all indications the reason why Bergman put his pure writing career on the shelf and instead focused whole-heartedly on the cinema. This is also the reason why the manuscript was only known in fragmentary form – until now. And the title alone tickles the imagination: “Joakim Naken eller Självmordet. Melodram i tre akter” (“Joachim Naked or the Suicide. Melodrama in Three Acts”), dated 1949 and characterized by the author himself as “a tragi-comedy about the murderer and the suicide Joachim Naked, who lived and worked in Lyon around the turn of the century.”
Obviously these texts are highly interesting, in many ways. First, from a rear-view mirror perspective: how do they point ahead – toward his films and plays and especially toward his later writings? As we know, through Bergman’s memoirs, as well as a number of plays and several screenplays in novel form, in the twilight of his career Bergman has returned to pure writing: to the original source of his artistic activity. And this makes these so far never-published early texts interesting, so to speak, in their own right – precisely as literature: what do they have to say about Ingmar Bergman the author?
But why, then, not publish these texts in their entirety? This thought struck me even during my first inventory of Cinematograph’s archives, as one gold nugget after another appeared. So I ventured to ask the author himself – but to no avail. “Absolutely not” was his cordial but clearly dismissive reply. “I am flattered by the attention – but terrified!” Asked whether and how much I could quote his works in my forthcoming book, the answer was equally definitive: “As widely and broadly as you want! In a purely scholarly context, I feel secure.”
I have borne these words in mind. In the following, Ingmar Bergman, including the younger editions of himself that the older Bergman does not always want to be associated with, will be quoted widely and broadly – albeit through the contextualized filter of one reader and interpreter – in order to let the reluctant author himself have his say.
The miniature persons in the clock
As mentioned, Bergman wrote mainly plays in the summer of 1942. But a couple of regular prose stories also came into existence, with Punch and Jack as central figures. One of them is called “On Why the Gangster Writes Verse”, part of which was published in the Swedish literary journal 40-tal in 1944 under the name “A Brief Account of one of Jack the Ripper’s Earliest Childhood Memories”.i The story revolves around a miniature person living inside a huge, man sized floor clock – a motif that, as we soon shall see, would turn up in fascinating variations in Bergman’s later work, both in film and his latter day prose.
The narrator of the story is called Jack (probably Bergman’s earliest alter ego), and he likes to tell stories. Accordingly, “On Why the Gangster Writes Verse” is structured as a series of stories-within-a stories, in a fashion characteristic of Bergman’s narrative techniques, whether in film, in a stage production or, as here, in prose. One evening Jack tells a particularly gruesome story, while his friends, among them Theobald Gangster and Kasper (Punch), are gathered around him, listening in awe. One night, says Jack, his girlfriend, “a small red-haired person” called Marie, woke him up in terror telling him that a “person not more than 30 centimeters tall” had crept out of the clock. Sure enough, Jack continues, the miniature creature had “smashed the front of the clock, which was entirely made of glass”, and when Jack confronted him, he suddenly asked if Jack remembered him: “Do you remember when you were a little boy and I and my little son came to visit you?” Jack does remember, whereupon yet another story-within-the story unfolds, this time from Jack’s childhood (identical to the one later published as “A Brief Account of one of Jack the Ripper’s Earliest Childhood Memories”).
This story unfolds at the home of Jack’s maternal grandmother, who, we are told, was from the “affluent middle class.” Here, at her house, three-year-old Jack is suddenly awakened one night by “a wretched squeak”: it turns out to be a little girl “who was no more than 15 centimeters tall”, whom Jack later ends up crushing with great pleasure. However, let us return to this incident by way of Frank Gado’s interpretation of the story in his book The Passion of Ingmar Bergman.ii On the basis of the published excerpt Gado has done a fairly standard Freudian interpretation of the story, using the notion of the Oedipus complex (an interpretive matrix that he tends to apply to all of Bergman’s works). For instance he observes that the story from Jack’s childhood occurs in a place that resembles in every detail the apartment of Bergman’s maternal grandmother, and what is more, during a period that little Ingmar – aged three or four like Jack – spent with his grandmother at the time his sister was born. Within this interpretive matrix, the clock becomes a symbol of the narrator’s mother, while the miniature girl becomes a newborn baby, a rival for his mother’s favors – whom the aspiring young author consequently crushes in a sadistic retroactive murder.
This may at first sight strike one as a bit too pat. However, Gado’s angle is not irrelevant, considering the influence of Freudianism on Swedish literary modernism, which the young Bergman so obviously wanted to belong to, and in whose flagship, the journal 40-tal, the story actually got published. At the same time, it is hardly necessary to adopt Gado’s straight-line Freudian approach in order to interpret the story in terms of a kind of fall from grace, with sexuality as an important component.
Notice, first of all, the choice of words: “I felt so soft inside”, says Jack, “as if I would flow apart … Instinctively, I pulled off my nightshirt and then I lay there naked and watched the little miniature person.” It also turns out that the girl, who is dressed in skirts, is actually a boy – a sexual ambivalence that introduces a bisexual element into the story and that, interestingly, would also recur in many shapes in Bergman’s films. One may think of the little boy who wears an apron in The Silence (Tystnaden, 1963), or Bergman’s own recollections in his autobiography The Magic Lantern (Laterna magica, 1987), about how he himself as a small boy was dressed in such garments.
Secondly, there is the description of all numerous caresses and a “furiously desperate tenderness” – Gado calls it a “masturbation fantasy” – which turns into disgust: “I was disgusted at myself, at my nakedness and my mental softness, at my play dreams.” And finally, there is, as mentioned, the murder of the small creature, executed with cruel sadism:
I closed my hand harder around the delicate body. My child’s hand squeezed the slender chest. With my thumb joint, I felt a heart beating madly inside the ribs. As I squeezed even harder, there was a crunch and a little, white fish bone stuck out through the blouse. Around the hole, the cloth was colored dark red. For a moment I became frightened and opened my hand and dropped the little boy on the floor…. The boy raised himself on his knee and … slithered in a strange contorted position toward the sideboard. But I was faster. I grabbed him by the leg … he tried to bite me, then I suddenly became enraged and opened the sideboard cabinet, took out a sharp fruit knife and cut off his leg. He screamed and I cut off his little head.
Aside from the sexual tension escalating into aggression, there is undoubtedly a Freudian touch to the situation as such. For what is happening here is of course a kind of “return of the repressed”: the boy/girl’s father creeps out of the clock when Jack is an adult, to remind him of the frightful event. Time thus literally becomes a kind of preserver of deeds. Indeed, as these visitations continue to plague Jack as an adult, he makes sure to get to the root of the evil. As he himself puts it, in a consciously ambivalent phrase: it “didn’t become calm until I got rid of her.” Who is this “her”? None other than Marie, Jack’s girlfriend, who thus is singled out as the source of evil and is punished by death: her body, Jack implies, true to his name (the Ripper), was hidden in a big trunk at Hotel Savoy in London. Though, Jack adds with a grin to his horrified listener, perhaps this is not true: “The story can be good anyway”!
The endangered child
And one can certainly agree, considering that similar themes and motifs would pop up in Bergman’s later stories: the murder of a helpless creature, often in the shape of a child, coupled with the strongly sensual aggression felt by those who practice violence.
One such variation can be found in the ever-prevalent abortion motif. But one finds a more literal murder of a child in the film Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen, 1968), as well as its forerunners, the working manuscript “The Cannibals” and the published screenplay.iii Now this child, though he is described in the script as a “thin little boy”, is hardly helpless. On the contrary, he belongs to those cannibalistic demons that attack Johan, the main character and narrator of the story, which is revealed by the following description: “His face was very narrow and oblong … His nose short and flat. On the other hand, his mouth and jaws was remarkably well developed.” Sure enough, when the narrator gets into a struggle with the boy, the latter lunges for his throat, with disastrous result:
I threw myself toward a stone with all my power. The lean body sort of snapped, released its grip, lay wiggling and trembling on the rock. It looked like an epileptic attack. The muscles contracted in almost rhythmic cramps and the chin pressed in hard jerks against the chest. I stood shaking in disgust and stared at the crawling, panting creature …. and I stretched to grab a stone and struck blindly, again and again, until it was still, until it was unmovingly still, until it was silent.
This description is remarkably familiar to the story from Jack’s childhood. Not only is the scene permeated by an ambivalent sexuality (actually more prominent in the film, especially in the shot where the boy, with his white body, dressed only in bathing trunks, has lain down in a peculiarly provocative position, with one leg flirtatiously drawn up). What is more, the description – its body “wiggling and trembling” – brings to mind how one kills a fish with a stone, and significantly, this scene occurs when Johan is standing on a cliff by the sea, fishing. This is strongly reminiscent of the fish imagery in the story about Jack’s childhood. Here the child Jack squeezed the little creature so hard that “it crunched and a little white fish bone stuck out of the blouse.” Here, too, just as in The Hour of the Wolf, the little creature tried to bite Jack, who “cut off his little head” – as when killing a fish. (In fact, fish tend – literally – to pop up in the works of the young Bergman, especially in sexually charged situations. Thus, for example, in the film Prison/The Devil’s Wanton (Fängelse, 1949), where the heroine in a dream-sequence sees a baby lying in a bathtub, who suddenly turns into a huge pike, which is then picked up while its neck is broken with a loud, wrenching sound.)
But the story has yet another aspect. In the working manuscript of what would become Hour of the Wolf, one finds the following passage that, nota bene, was deleted from the final film:
I had a little newborn brother. He was lying in a white cradle and was generally well liked. I, too, treated him with great interest and genuine tenderness. One day, right after a punishment … I was left alone upstairs. I went into the bedroom, where my brother was sleeping, and crept up to the bed. I stood for a long time looking at his gentle sleeping face. Then I put my hand over the baby’s chest and squeezed it as hard as I could. My brother woke up at once and stared at me in fright. Then he began to scream. I hit him again and again on his face and body. There were a few brief moments of triumph and pleasure. The baby’s screams became gurgling and spasmodic. I became frightened and ran into my room. I heard someone come up the stairs and enter the bedroom.
The punishment that the narrator refers to in this quotation is another “childhood memory”: “Screaming and furious, I was thrown into a closet,” where he had been told that “a little person” lived, who did not like bad children “and could chew off the toes of naughty children.”iv This story about the closet is something that Bergman has returned to a number of times, and it is hardly accidental that this memory – which again involves a terrifying miniature person – is directly followed by the passage about the brother in the cradle.
But more importantly, this story of the child in the cradle seems, once again, remarkably familiar. Indeed, it is repeated almost word for word in The Magic Lantern – but now the baby is a girl: Bergman’s own sister Margareta.v This is how the narrator remembers the jealousy of his four-year-old self when his sister was born:
A fat, monstrous creature had suddenly acquired the main role. I was banished from my mother’s bed and my father beamed over this bawling bundle. The demon of jealousy fastened its claws into my heart. I raged, wept, crapped on the floor and messed myself. My elder brother and I, usually mortal enemies, made peace and planned various ways of killing this repulsive wretch…. One quiet sunny afternoon I thought I was alone in the apartment and crept into my parents’ bedroom, where the creature was sleeping in her pink basket. I pulled up a chair, climbed on to it and stood looking at the swollen face and dribbling mouth. My brother had given me perfectly clear instructions, but I had misunderstood. Instead of squeezing my sister’s throat, I tried to press her chest in. She woke at once with a penetrating scream. I pressed my hand against her mouth and her watery blue eyes squinted and stared. I took a step forward to get a better grip, lost my footing and fell to the floor.
I recall that the deed itself was associated with acute pleasure that rapidly turned into terror.
Thus, once again, the image of a child’s chest nearly being crushed, and this time the victim is indeed a girl, and not, as in the story of the child Jack, a boy disguised in girls’ clothing. Not the least, the text is permeated with a potent mixture of jealously and pleasure, including the grown-up narrator’s terror at this lingering, or rather, suddenly emerging feeling.
In fact, in “Peeling Onions” – the unedited (unpublished) version of the memoirs – the passage above is followed by another description of a child in danger, which interestingly was deleted from the published version of the book:
Forty years later I lift a wildly crying child in order to console it, a five year old girl whose toy just had broken. She suddenly slaps me hard across my face with the broken object. Before I have time to think, I have hurled her on the floor and experience a similar, short pang of pleasure as that time. The girl’s head is only a few centimeters from the edge of the radiator.
Once again, a sudden flair of anger, violence and a feeling of acute pleasure. Thus, similar events recur in three different periods – and in three different media. Firstly in a short story by a young aspiring writer (1942). Secondly in a film – and screenplay – by an established and world-famous film director (1968). And thirdly in the memoirs of an aging man, after having completed his film career (1986).
Memory images – film images?
Does this then mean that Bergman’s autobiography furnishes evidence that the motif of the endangered child (or miniature creature) can be traced to some kind of “original” event with roots burrowed deep in the author’s childhood, in the fashion of Frank Gado’s model, where the murder by the child Jack of the miniature creature is interpreted as the (then) young author’s retroactive, literary murder of his own sister?
That is debatable. But what is clear is the degree to which this thematic cluster has wielded power over Bergman the author, that is, the writer of fiction. This is evident not only for the tenacity with which it has surfaced in different contexts through the years. Equally important is the varying styles and genres with which it has been varied: from an absurdist tale with starkly symbolic overtones in the 1940s, to the cinematographic and genre-related iconography of the Gothic horror story in the 1960s, and finally the touch of slapstick and, for all its terrible aspects, good humor in the autobiography.
Significantly, the comical aspects are prominent in an incident – curiously similar to the nucleus of the stories above – described in Bergman’s short novel Söndagsbarn (Sundays Children), published in 1993, six years after the autobiography. Here, an elderly house keeper, Lalla, tells the seven year old boy Pu a hair raising story about a clockmaker, who has found a beautiful miniature woman with “large blind eyes” inside a man sized floor clock. And when the infuriated clock tries to steal her back, the clock maker crushes both the clock and the miniature woman – with a hammer! Obviously, this late variation of the motif is consciously melodramatic, the kind of spooky story children love to shudder at, at least Pu. “And then what?”, he insists, “impatient and terrified”, whereupon Lalla, after a well paced pause, continues to serve him some more horrid details.vi
In a similar fashion, Bergman’s description of the child’s attack on his sister in the autobiography is more comic than truly scary. And what is more, it is written with a view to the possibilities and poetic license that autobiography as a literary genre has to offer. This is evident not least for its narrative position that roams associatively over time and space, giving free reign to fiction and the literary imagination. In fact, Bergman touches upon autobiography as genre and its inherent narrative position in an interesting fashion in the book itself, in a passage where he describes visiting his mother’s apartment shortly after she had died:
She was lying in her bed, wearing a flannel nightgown /…/. Her head was turned slightly sideways and her lips were parted. /…/ Her still dark hair was neatly combed – no, her hair was no longer dark, but iron-grey /…/ but the image of her in my memory tells me her hair was dark /…/. Her hands were resting on her breast. /…/ The room was suddenly filled with bright early spring light, the little alarm clock ticking away busily on the bedside table /—/ I sat there for several hours. /…/ I don’t think I was grieving, or that I was thinking, or even that I was observing myself playing a role – that professional disease which has followed me mercilessly through-out my life and so often robbed and diminished my most profound experiences. I don’t recall much of those hours in Mother’s room.vii
This passage is highly complex. First of all, it is astonishing to what degree it reads like a Bergman film script, saturated with detailed descriptions designed to aid the actors and the film crew. More astonishing, however, is that this “scene” (as it were), in fact exists in the shape of an actual film scene, namely in the beginning of The Touch (Beröringen, 1971), which was made well before this passage was written. Here a woman (played by Bibi Anderson) visits her dead mother in a hospital, in a room where the camera captures a situation strikingly similar to the one described in the book. In fact down to the minutest detail: the head turned sideways, the parted lips, the light – and even the clock, noticeable (some would say irritatingly noticeable) in so many other films by Bergman.
But so what if Bergman has included the memory of his dead mother in a film as well as having written about the experience in his autobiography? Of course, there is nothing strange about this – were it not for the order of things. For it seems in this case that not only has “reality” – or rather, the memory of it – foregone and furnished material for a film. There is a good chance that the film itself has “contaminated” this particular memory in hindsight, given the nature of the passage in the book.
Notice, for instance, the way Bergman not only comments on the brittleness of memory by bringing up the color of his mother’s hair, but also includes that strangely openhearted and revealing admission about his habit of observing himself or playing a role, calling it his professional disease. True, here this tendency is presented in negative terms (“I don’t think that …”). Yet, given the fact that it is brought up precisely in this context, and the fact that Bergman ends the entire passage by claiming not to recall much of those long hours in his mother’s room, one has to ask where all those detailed observations that saturate the passage in that case come from. Indeed, one has to ask if that “professional disease”, that directorial eye for dramatic situations and artistically fertile scenes, has not been at work here, after all? Perhaps not in the raw moment, as it were, during an ongoing event – but at least in the act of turning a memory into written memory?
In that case, a pre-existing scene from a film may have been inserted into the autobiography, perhaps in the absence and place of memory, all according to the literary formula: when memory does not serve – or rather, when memory itself by necessity is a (re)construction – fiction will do just as well.
What this ultimately reminds us of is the fact that writing always establishes a complex relationship to images, as images and language are intimately connected – just as ”real” images are related to inner, mental images. Naturally, this aspect comes into play specifically in the case of autobiography: in – literally – writing the images of memory. And if, as in the case of Bergman’s autobiography, memory is often referred to in visual metaphors (camera, film, and so on), one may as well think of the act of writing memory as a way of conceiving and exposing images.
In that case, it is not surprising that the act of writing can also function as a kind of bringing out of focus, as an act of laying behind – literally blurring the images of memory. To put it another way: if for some writer’s fiction is constantly invaded by memories, with time memories become increasingly fictionalized. In short, to remember is often also a way of forgetting.
Or, as in the case of Ingmar Bergman: sometimes the images of memory become cinematic images, while cinematic images become the images of memory.
Maaret Koskinen is Professor at the Department of Cinema Studies, Stockholm University.
i Ingmar Bergman, ”En kortare berättelse om en av Jack Uppskärarens tidigaste barndomsminnen”, 40-tal, no. 3, 1944, pp. 5-9.
ii Frank Gado, The Passion of Ingmar Bergman(Durham: Duke University Press, 1986), pp. 49-57.
iii Four Stories by Ingmar Bergman. The Touch, Cries and Whispers, The Hour of the Wolf, and The Passion of Anna(Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1977), pp. 117-118
iv This punishment, however, is included in the published filmscript. Cf. Four Stories, p. 115.
v Ingmar Bergman, The Magic Lantern. An Autobiography(New York: Penguin Books, 1988), pp. 2-3.
vi Ingmar Bergman, Söndagsbarn (Stockholm: Norstedts. 1993), p. 47 ff.
vii The Magic Lantern, p. 7.