“Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie ” - Vilgot Sjöman (1963)

The documentary Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie (Ingmar Bergman Gör En Film, 1963) is a uniquely detailed examination of a great film director in action. Bergman, who was engaged at that time in the production of his feature, Winter Light (1963), was at the peak of his career and already critically regarded as the world’s best filmmaker. What makes this documentary special is the intellectual intimacy that director Sjöman was able to achieve with Bergman and display in the presentation of the film.  Sjöman at this time was a film critic and an aspiring auteur, himself, interested in gleaning all aspects of Bergman’s craftsmanship – in fact he was engaged at this time in the production of his own first feature, The Mistress (1962).  He would later go on to achieve world notoriety for his controversial politoco-cinema-verite features, I Am Curious Yellow (1967) and I Am Curious Blue (1968).

This work was originally made for television and shown in five separate installments, tracing a linear sequence through the activities associated with Bergman’s work on Winter Light during late 1961 and the early part of 1962:
  1. The Script
  2. Filming, Part 1
  3. Filming, Part 2
  4. Postproduction
  5. The Premiere
Regrettably, Sjöman had not absorbed one of Bergman’s fundamental maxims: “film is about rhythm”, for a progressive rhythm is missing in Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie. Adhering to a linear time structure through the filmmaking process was probably a contributing factor to this problem, because the opening section concerning the script-writing lacks necessary context and motivation.  As it stands, this first section is mostly a rather boring talking-heads interview with Bergman.  The only interesting element in this section is Bergman’s revelation concerning how insecure he used to feel about writing.  Given his prolific production of film scripts, I would have thought that he would have had no qualms in this area.  This intriguing admission notwithstanding, I can imagine some viewers giving up on the film during this relatively static early part and not sticking through the remaining segments.  That would be unfortunate, because the film, despite its narrative deficiencies, contains a number of interesting nuggets about filmmaking technique and Bergman’s approach to it – so much so, in fact, that this film should probably serve as essential material in any filmmaking curriculum. After all, for documentary films in particular, the important thing is not so much what is behind the camera but what is in front of it.

When we get into the filming sections, parts 1 and 2, things get more interesting. Berman worked closely with his cinematographer, Sven Nyquist, and together they plotted out how to achieve Bergman’s original vision with respect to lighting and image composition.  Bergman is shown blocking out an individual scene for his lead actors, Gunnar Bjornstrand and Ingrid Thulin, in considerable detail.  This is followed by extensive rehearsals with the actors in order to settle on just the right tone and expression for everything that is said in the scene.  Sjöman’s camera prowls around the set following Bergman in his work, trying to sneak up and capture the details without getting in the way of Bergman and his crew and interfering with the production.  Although Bergman didn’t allow Sjöman to film much live camera action for the Winter Light shooting, it is still amazing that Sjöman was able to get as close in as he did to Bergman’s  rehearsal activities, which of course are a crucial aspect of the filmmaking.

In these scenes it is interesting to see how Berman operates.  He seems relatively relaxed and low-key around Thulin and Bjornstrand, with whom he had worked many times before, but he nevertheless maintains strict control of everything and everyone around him.  He confessed that he has to treat inexperienced, and therefore insecure, actors much differently from experienced actors when he wants them to alter their performances according to his wishes.  With an experienced actor, he can be curt and aggressive, but with an inexperienced actor he had to be more subtle.  

A particular concern of Bergman’s was the maintenance of emotional continuity between scenes.  The action of Winter Light takes place over only a three-hour period of a single day, but the shooting of those scenes took several months.   So when a particular scene was to be shot, Bergman and his assistants had to pay close attention to the emotional nuances that had been present in the script’s immediately preceding scene (which, for all we know, may have been shot some time ago or may not to this point in the shooting have been filmed).

Another interesting point that I had not heard before was Bergman’s remarks about the energy of his actors. He felt that actors might become less energized as the production proceeds and that  he felt the need to invigorate them with more energy to maintain continuity on this level, as well.  Moreover, he said that as a film viewer watches a two-hour film, he or she will inevitably become psychologically fatigued. To counteract this fatigue, the latter stages of a film must inject more energy and stimulate the viewer somewhat.  To achieve this, he felt that the actors should display a bit more energy in their performances towards the end of the film.

With respect to camera rhythm, Bergman said that he liked to make editing cuts on action.  His explanation for why this is psychologically effective is very well stated.  As the viewer refocuses his or her attention on the principal character in focus when there is some significant character movement, a cut is less noticeable and therefore less psychologically disruptive.

Even though Bergman has carefully “blocked out” (i.e. worked out the sequence of camera positions) prior to shooting, he said he still spends 6 to 8 weeks editing each of his films.   In this regard, Sjöman shows us how Bergman carefully edited a short, intimate sequence of shots involving his actors Bjornstrand, Thulin, and Max von Sydow.  Even though meaningful close-ups and reaction shots were required to convey the psychological nuances of the scene, Bergman progressively shortened the sequence in his editing – to the point where he removed one reaction shot on the part of von Sydow that Sjöman thought should have been retained.  But the master knew better.

Concerning how much of the shooting is pre-planned, Bergman contradicts himself somewhat.  Alfred Hitchcock (who is not mentioned in this film) was said to plan his films so carefully that he found the actual shooting of his films to be mechanical and boring.  The creative activity had taken place in the planning.  Similarly, Bergman here says much the same thing at one point in this film.  But on another occasion in this film, he says that he often learns new things about what should be expressed when the actors are out there in front of the camera, and he makes changes opportunistically.  So the creative activity is ongoing throughout the production.

There is also a brief but interesting discussion about realism and neorealism. Bergman, of course, was more oriented toward expressionism, and the “realism” he sought included the psychological domain of not only the author (the filmmaker) but also the viewer.  Vilgot Sjöman, on the other hand, seems to have been more aligned with the neorealistic sides of filmmaking (at least on the basis of what I saw in I Am Curious Yellow).  In this connection Bergman makes the insightful remark that the work “isn’t done until it’s surrounded by the consciousness of the audience”.   This is true of all art, but it is particularly notable with respect to film, concerning which the viewer must always construct his or her own diegetic narrative during the act of viewing.

So Bergman is profoundly interested in how his film-viewing public see his films, particularly in connection with his films during this period of his career that expressed his own concerns and the path that he was working through in connection with faith in God.  Indeed, Winter Light was subsequently considered by many critics to be part of Bergman’s “Trilogy of Faith” that included Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and The Silence (1963).  Given this degree of personal expression, it is not surprising that Bergman sought to insulate himself from the potentially depressive effects of critical reviews, which often appear before the film is officially released.  He discusses this issue briefly with Sjöman and reminds him that one should “never, ever respond to a critic. . . . never discuss with a critic” – an interesting remark, since Sjöman at this time was primarily a critic. 

Near the end of the film, Bergman then turns the tables on Sjöman and starts interviewing the interviewer concerning how a critic feels about films and the degree to which a critic might take pride in the publication of a damning review of a new film.  This is only fair, because Sjöman  has cast himself in a more prominent role in this film than one might have expected.  The critic and neophyte filmmaker has queried the master, almost impertinently as an equal might have done, and we frequently see full frontal closeups of Sjöman expressing his questions and thoughts. To some extent this is a strength of this film, because by placing himself on an equal footing with Bergman, Sjöman achieves a more intimate and conversational interaction with him, thereby eliciting more thoughtful responses. But Bergman puts his interlocutor in his place in the end. He slyly reminds Sjöman how distraught he (Sjöman) had been when he had seen the first, damning review of his own first feature, The Mistress. And with this needling, the sober and thoughtful Bergman erupts with an uproarious horselaugh.

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