The idea that Ingmar Bergman was a bourgeois film director was almost a truism in the Swedish cultural debates of the 1960s and 1970s. Maria Bergom Larsson summarized the contemporary view in the following quotation from her influential book Ingmar Bergman and Society of 1978: ‘He is ideologically tied to a traditional puritan Protestantism and a humanism with deep roots in Western bourgeois culture.’1 Although Bergman himself had time and again stated in personal interviews that he was a social democrat, his claims were either ignored or regarded as implicit confirmations of his bourgeois sympathies, as leading Marxist-Leninist-Maoist voices in the debate viewed Sweden’s Social Democratic Party as class traitors and social fascists.2 Likewise, Bergman’s enthusiastic embrace of feminist authors such as Germaine Greer was ignored by leading Swedish feminists such as Gunilla Granath and Ebba Witt-Brattström, who regarded Bergman and his films as thoroughly reactionary.3
Two decades later, critic Leif Zern tried to pin down Bergman’s political views in his book Se Bergman (‘See Bergman’, 1993); but this time, it was an attempt to paint the director as a critic of the social-democratic project. ‘In Bergman’s films, the mirror of the Swedish Welfare State is smashed’, Zern declares, whereupon he asserts that the films show ‘what we had repressed, what we thought of as outdated and, at worst, [as] unfit to live’.4 These sweeping statements suggest that Bergman’s works conjured up the idea of a spiritual sanctuary threatened by the rationalist extermination politics of Sweden’s Social Democratic Party. In fact, Bergman himself continued to emphasize his social-democratic sympathies even in interviews held long after the 1976 tax-evasion affair, and he never expressed any sympathy towards other parties or ideologies.5 But that was of no concern to Zern and his disciples in the right-wing cultural war of today. His attempt at ideological appropriation is not a unique case: against the director’s explicit protests, Jan Troell’s documentary Sagolandet (Land of Fairy Tales, 1988) was also used by some critics to portray a social-democratic utopia turned dystopian nightmare.6
These interpretations aside, yet another image of the writer-director emerges when one takes a closer look at Bergman’s own works and statements. Bergman was an artist in the modernist and cultural-radicalist tradition of August Strindberg and Henrik Ibsen. This is evidenced by his attacks on social repression in those institutions with which he was most familiar: the school in Frenzy (Hets, 1944), the church in Winter Light (Nattvardsgästerna, 1963), and the bourgeois patriarchal family in The Lie (Reservatet, 1970) and Scenes from a Marriage (Scener ur ett äktenskap, 1973). If anything, these works are attacks on the bourgeois ideology, values, and class society that the social-democratic project sought to reform.
Much has been written about Strindberg’s influence on Bergman, not least by Egil Törnqvist (see Strindberg’s ’The Ghost Sonata’, as well as other works by Törnqvist). Moreover, in interviews and other texts, Bergman himself said that he did in fact view Strindberg as his lifelong kindred spirit.7 From the late 1950s onwards, Henrik Ibsen joined Strindberg as a prominent source of artistic and political inspiration for Bergman.
In her award-winning book Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism, Toril Moi portrays the playwright as a revolutionary in opposition to the nineteenth-century hegemony of the German idealism expressed in texts such as the 1796 manifesto Das älteste Systemprogramm des deutschen Idealismus(The Oldest Programme for a System of German Idealism) by Friedrich Hölderlin.8 Idealism fused aesthetics, ethics, and religion into a utopian vision of human perfection. It prescribed the triumph of ‘humanity’ over ‘animality’, which essentially signified the sublimation of sex. Since the idealists regarded women rather than men as the bearers of human sexuality, they stressed the importance of the idealization of female sexuality. Their view was that the spirit must rule the body, and morality and duty must trump sexual impulses. Moi asserts that Ibsen sought to deconstruct both the idealization of women and Idealism as an aesthetic theory by attacking these notions in his plays, thereby deconstructing the bourgeois patriarchal family.9
In my book Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Face to Face’,10 I analyse how Ibsen’s ideas correspond closely with Bergman’s own artistic project, especially when Bergman sought out a mass audience by exploring the artistic possibilities of the TV medium in the late 1960s. As early as 1948, Bergman had written a screenplay adaptation of A Doll’s House (Et dukkehjem, 1879), introducing it as ‘a tale about the little doll wife Nora and her way out of dreams and lies to clarity and liberation’.11 Almost a decade later, in 1957, Bergman staged Peer Gynt (1867) at Malmö’s municipal theatre—Malmö stadsteater. This spring production coincided with his work on the screenplay for Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället, 1957), filmed in July–August of the same year. Ibsen’s critiques of bourgeois Idealism as ‘living a lie’ and of the patriarchal family as an ‘institution of the living dead’ feature prominently in Wild Strawberries’ story of Isak Borg (played by Victor Sjöström), whose sentimental self-aggrandizement coupled with unyielding principles is reminiscent of Torvald Helmer in A Doll’s House.
Bergman’s next engagement with an Ibsen play involved staging Hedda Gabler (1890) at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm in 1964. Hedda Gabler also became Bergman’s first-ever stage production outside Scandinavia, performed at the London National Theatre in 1970. He later described the play as ‘the only one of my productions that gave me any satisfaction’.12 The play also served as a source of inspiration for Bergman’s film Persona (1966). In his Hedda Gabler production, Bergman portrayed Hedda as pregnant and as feeling disgust for the result of her unwanted sexual desires—so much so that she even tries to abort the foetus with her bare hands.13 In Persona, we see this same inner struggle staged as a ‘dream play’ set in the mind/womb of a woman split into two entities that are locked in a power struggle. Nurse Alma (played by Bibi Andersson) is the idealist woman clinging to utopian ideas about marriage and family, while modern actress Elisabet (played by Liv Ullmann) rejects the way idealist ideology defines her as a wife, mother, and woman. In the film, Alma tries to encourage Elisabet to re-enter the fold of womanhood as defined by the bourgeois hegemony, only to be confronted with her own deep-seated sentiments that are at odds with her persona. Alma’s ultimate decision to return to her gender-play act and ignore her inner voice of doubt, as personified by Elisabet, exemplifies what Bergman later described as women’s ‘inner sabotage of themselves’.14
Although Persona represents a significant artistic achievement on Bergman’s part and is a classic piece of cinema, it never reached a mass audience and consequently did not have any notable social or political impact on contemporary society. However, Bergman did achieve such an impact when he turned his attention to television production in the late 1960s through his newly founded company Cinematograph. His first TV production was the provocative drama The Rite (Riten, 1969, also known as The Ritual); it was a succès de scandale and a thinly disguised allegory of his troubles with Sweden’s film censorship agency and especially with Erik Skoglund, who headed the agency for many years. Bergman quickly went on to achieve his popular breakthrough in the television medium with the documentary Fårö Document (1970) (Fårödokument, 1969)—a pointedly political film about social conditions on the small, remote island that became his beloved home in 1967. Attracting an audience of 2 million viewers, the film launched Bergman as a mass-market artist and helped promote his next TV production later that year, the marital drama The Lie: A Tragicomedy of Banality (Reservatet: En banaliteternas tragi-komedi, 1970). An audience of 1.2 million Swedes viewed the first broadcast of The Lie on 28 October 1970. Later, as the Swedish contribution to the European Broadcasting Union’s Eurovision-exchange of TV plays in 1970, it had an audience of approximately 50 million viewers in Western Europe.15 A British version was subsequently produced by director Alan Bridges in 1971, and it was broadcast as part of the BBC drama series Play for Today. In addition, CBS produced a US version directed by Alex Segal in 1973.
Although the Swedish version of The Lie was directed by Bergman’s friend and colleague, actor-director Jan Molander (who played one of the students in Frenzy), the media referred to it as a ‘Bergman production’, and not unfairly so, as it was produced under his close supervision. This ninety-one-minute TV play was only shown once, however, and it has been unavailable in any format since its premiere.16 Although the screenplay was published in 1973, the unavailability of a cinematic version has certainly contributed to the lack of studies of The Lie by Bergman scholars. For this reason, I have chosen to focus on The Lie rather than on Scenes from a Marriage, Bergman’s other, better-known, and more-often-analysed marital drama made for TV.
In his autobiography entitled Images: My Life in Film, Bergman wrote: ‘I do understand the techniques used in both melodrama and soap opera quite well. One who uses melodrama as it should be used can implement the unrestrained emotional possibilities available in the genre.’17 The key factor in The Lie’s critical acclaim and public success was the ease with which Bergman merged elements of his own artistry with elements of Strindberg’s play The Father(Fadren, 1887), Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and The Wild Duck (Vildanden, 1884), and melodrama in order to reach a mass audience with his portrayal of a middle-aged bourgeois couple in marital crisis.
The Lie is the first work in what I refer to as ‘The Djursholm Trilogy’, alongside Scenes from a Marriage and Face to Face (Ansikte mot ansikte, 1976). All three are contemporary melodramas that reveal the discord between individual desires (love, identity, self-fulfilment) and bourgeois conformity. They are set in the materially comfortable world of the social elite with which Bergman came into close contact while he and his fourth wife, Käbi Laretei, were living in the affluent Stockholm neighbourhood of Djursholm between 1959 and 1966.
In 2015, Professor of Business Administration Mikael Holmqvist presented an in-depth study of Djursholm in book form that attracted much attention. Subtitled Sweden’s Community of Leaders, the book recounts Djursholm’s history as a neighbourhood founded in 1889 as part of the international, utopian Garden City Movement, with the intention of becoming a patrician idyll distinctly segregated from the plebeians, that is to say, the working class. The Lie portrays Djursholm not only as a socio-political ‘reservation’, but also as a closely guarded mental sanctuary far removed from the world, its madding crowd, and its conflicts. Not only that, The Lie’s characters are even sheltered from themselves—from their own innermost thoughts and feelings. Theirs is a ‘theatrical’ society of conformist, bourgeois personas with no room for failure in either career or family life. The moments of reality that occasionally seep into the characters’ lives cause them brief pangs of distress and awareness until the carefree sanctuary offered by creature comforts comes to their rescue, scotching any perturbing emotions.
The drama’s protagonists introduce themselves in a Brechtian prologue that reveals the common origin of The Lie and Bergman’s earlier film A Passion (En passion, 1969, also known as The Passion of Anna) in a draft entitled ‘Annandreas’ and subtitled ‘Proposal for Scenes from a Marriage’.18 The two main characters in The Lie, married couple Anna and Andreas Fromm (played by Gunnel Lindblom and Per Myrberg), address the camera in separate monologues, telling us their names and occupations before going on to talk about their carefree lives. They are very well aware of the privilege and security afforded them by their material wealth in a life that only rarely intersects with the outside world and its problems.
Bergman employed this same type of introduction to the protagonists in the opening scene of Scenes from a Marriage, this time staged as a magazine interview. In this interview, the two married protagonists again talk about themselves in a manner that suggests that they wish to convince themselves (more than the readers—or viewers) of their prudent choice of personas, setting, and narrative, thereby underlining the theatricality of their family life, just as Ibsen does in his most famous plays. Bergman concludes Scenes from a Marriage with an ironic twist in which Marianne (played by Liv Ullmann) thoughtfully adds, ‘the very lack of problems is a serious problem’—a comment that also rings true for Anna and Andreas Fromm in The Lie.19 That similarity aside, Bergman’s two marital dramas involve different contexts: Scenes from a Marriage is a response to second-wave feminism under the artistic influence of Ibsen’s A Doll House, which is explicitly referenced in the TV series (though not in the film version). By contrast, The Lie locates its marital drama in the context of contemporary social and political turmoil; its external conflicts reflect internal ones and vice versa.
Ibsen’s influence is evident in the English title chosen for Reservatet (The Lie); and in fact The Lie premiered in between two celebrated Bergman stage productions of Ibsen’s works: Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre in London (1970) and The Wild Duck at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm (1972). The latter also embarked on an international tour and went on to become one of Bergman’s most successful, artistically important, and celebrated productions.20 Bergman would later name the protagonists in Fanny and Alexander (Fanny och Alexander, 1982) after the Ekdahls in The Wild Duck, ironically undercutting the film’s supposed celebration of bourgeois family life and values.
The political subtext in The Lie is more explicit than in any of Bergman’s preceding or subsequent productions. To begin with, The Lie is set in contemporary Stockholm; the main characters live at Djursholm and work in Stockholm’s city centre—Andreas as an architect at some governmental department, Anna as a lecturer in Slavic languages at the university. They have two children—Henrik, eight, and Veronica, five—and a housekeeper, Berta.21At an earlier point in his career in the 1960s, Bergman had deliberately chosen to avoid any references to specific times and places in his films. He wanted his works to be timeless and universal, lamenting the inclusion of any hairstyling or clothing that suggested a more specific setting and hence made the films look dated only a few years after their premiere. One notable example of Bergman criticizing himself for departing from this principle of timelessness occurred in connection with A Passion, in which Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann wear miniskirts and trendy hats in the meta-cinematic interview segments.22
Bergman’s change of tack in this respect in connection with The Lie was therefore a conscious choice, and it might well have come about in response to authors Lars Forssell and Sara Lidman’s criticism of his film Shame (Skammen, 1968).23 The two writers considered Shame to be a dangerous metaphorical abstraction of the Vietnam War, and Forssell, whose play Show Bergman went on to stage in 1971, thought the film misanthropic ‘since all forms of commitment seemed meaningless’.24 By contrast, The Lie makes lack of commitment a theme in that we are introduced to protagonists whose sole ambition is to go on living their non-committal, carefree lives, avoiding any obligation to confront the real world and the lie of the happy bourgeois family life they lead.
Bergman began working on the ‘Annandreas’ project in April 1968, and his notes for the screenplay soon became tinged with reflections on the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., which affected Bergman deeply.25 King’s murder became a point of reference in the film, a sobering contrast to the ‘tragicomedy of banality’ presented by the mundane existential and marital problems of the wealthy protagonists. At the same time, this reference serves to remind the main characters of the real world they seek to shut out, just as they repress their true feelings about each other and about the family life they lead. From the prologue, we sense that the two protagonists are educated, intelligent people who are very well aware of the absurdity of their privileged life in a world full of social injustice. They consciously choose to avert their metaphorical gaze and to theatricalize their lives and marriage because doing so brings them comfort, even while they harbour deep-seated fears and aggressions that later rise to the surface despite their best efforts to prevent this. These repressed feelings are initially reflected in their encounters with hostile people in town, and thus outside of their physical ‘sanctuary’ at Djursholm. Later, in the couple’s final altercation, these emotions are forced to the surface with a volcanic force that shatters their sanctuary of illusions.
Following the prologue, The Lie’s storyline begins on the morning of 5 April 1968, the day after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. In the US, the greatest outbreak of urban violence in the nation’s history has already begun, and King’s murder is likewise fuelling protests and riots around the world.26 At the Fromms’s home, eight-year-old Henrik is ill; but he awakes early to the sad news of Dr King’s death and is rebuffed upon seeking consolation from his mother. Although Anna herself experiences one of her pangs of distress and awareness upon hearing from her son about the murder, her vexation is almost instantly expelled from her sanctuary of comfort, along with her motherly sentiments. In this way, physical violence in the outside world is mirrored in the psychological cruelties of the bourgeois family. Unlike the speech in Fanny and Alexander that celebrates the Ekdahl family’s ‘little life’—one that does not concern itself with the ‘big life’ of the world—the two poles are clearly connected from the outset in The Lie. In this instance, the cold-womb symbolism found in Wild Strawberries and Persona assumes a new, political significance, most probably owing to the influence of Bergman’s close friend and former screenplay collaborator Ulla Isaksson.
Around 1970, Isaksson was working on an Ibsen-inspired novel called Summer Paradise (Paradistorg), which was subsequently published in 1973. Bergman went on to produce a film version of Isaksson’s novel in 1977, directed by Gunnel Lindblom. Summer Paradise is the story of family lies that lead to the suicide of one of the family’s children for much the same reason that Hedvig committed suicide in The Wild Duck. Moreover, the novel’s voice of moral consciousness, social worker Emma, prophesies about the ‘Aniara generation’. Inspired by both Harry Martinson’s 1956 science fiction poem Aniara, which depicts the crew of a doomed space expedition losing all moral inhibitions, and Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange, Isaksson envisions the children of post-war consumerist parents as cold, egotistical, and ruthless.27 Bergman connects Isaksson’s ideas with his own cold-womb motif in depicting the Fromm children as unloved and uncared for, as treated as if they were commodities, and, hence, as learning to seek comfort in consumer goods, such as TV and toys, rather than in interaction with other people. In fact, we never see the children play with each other or with others; and in a moment of existential crisis, Andreas reflects on their upbringing as one of material safety but emotional coldness: ‘They get all the fucking vitamins they should have, but no physical affection.’28
Later in the film, Anna and Andreas return from a dinner party to find Henrik asleep in front of the TV, in the sole and symbolic company of a bottle of Coca-Cola. As he goes to his bedroom, Henrik mutters about all the cruelties he has witnessed on TV—no doubt referring to the violent uprisings that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and to the horror-filled daily reports from the Vietnam War. His sister Veronica has enveloped herself in a sea of toys and children’s books—her sanctuary. They are Aniara children in the making. Bergman revisited this motif in Face to Face, in which the protagonist Jenny (played by Liv Ullmann) emerges from a suicidal depression triggered by childhood trauma only to find that she herself has continued the legacy of the cold womb in her raising of her own daughter.
The Henrik and Veronica characters in The Lie are just two casualties of the world of war and conflict from which Anna and Andreas Fromm, like the protagonists in Shame before them, try so hard to escape, only to become part of—and even complicit in—its campaign of destruction. When Anna meets a less successful colleague at her university, and Andreas runs into a working-class man in the street who has witnessed his feeble attempt to abscond from a minor traffic accident, both are confronted with a naked aggression incited by what they represent: class privilege and moral indifference in an unjust world. In addition, in keeping up the façade of a happy family, Anna and Andreas are on the run from commitment to each other and to authentic life itself. Later that same day, Anna goes to visit her lover of seven years, her next-door neighbour Elis (played by Erland Josephson). Their love nest is a bland apartment located in a quiet, downtown side street, an apartment that mirrors their passionless feelings for each other. Meanwhile, Andreas experiences an attack of existential angst and goes to see his doctor, only to achieve a temporary release from his pain by having a bland liaison of his own with the nurse, Ester, whom he afterwards dismisses in an offhand manner.
Referring to Strindberg’s Miss Julie (Fröken Julie, 1888) as a play in which ‘the man and the woman never stop swapping masks’, Bergman claimed in an interview to ‘make no special distinction between male and female’.29 He employs this idea in the contemporary melodrama of The Lie, endowing it with a gender twist that truly deconstructs the idealization of women while ironically undercutting patriarchal ideology. In The Lie, it is Anna who is the Strindbergian ‘strong one’; she wears the colloquial trousers in the family, exhibiting all the traits of a privileged male: success at work, good looks, the envy of others, and the prospect of an international career. For Anna, as for male characters in melodramas and soap operas mainly geared to female audiences, the covenant of marriage is more an arrangement of convenience than of love. Andreas, on the other hand, is weak—an aged, balding upstart whose professional career has stalled as younger men stand poised to overtake him on the ladder to success. When confronted in the street, Andreas chooses ‘flight’ rather than ‘fight’. At home, he is at best a sexual substitute for his neighbour, Elis, who is far more skilled in satisfying Anna’s sexual needs. In melodrama/soap-opera terms, Andreas is much like the classic housewife character—trusty, faithful, needy, and boring; like a frail Sue Ellen to Anna’s tough, cold JR in the TV series Dallas that Bergman both loved and influenced.
In a moment of clarity, Andreas tries to come to grips with his situation by writing a letter to his wife—a dramatic device we recognize from previous Bergman films such as Winter Light. Like Nora in A Doll’s House, Andreas is tired of the lies and the charade of the bourgeois family; he wants to break out and find a new way of life. His emotional insights go hand in hand with an awakening social consciousness:
I think we make mistakes, somehow. Perhaps we simply live the wrong way, isolating ourselves in a small clan of people who all live a privileged life far removed from most people’s reality. […] Isn’t it true that our marriage is a bloody parody of what it should be, of what it was originally intended to be? Isn’t everything a wretched lie? Can we change this? Can we? Or are we stuck? Trapped in our sanctuary. Our comfortable […]30
Ultimately, he aborts his letter-writing and discards the unfinished letter. Later, when he tries to convey his thoughts to his wife during their final showdown (a no-holds-barred quarrel that might have been inspired by Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which Bergman staged at Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theatre in 1963), they both agree that their marriage and their way of life has, indeed, been a tangle of lies. Nevertheless, the truth is still a more threatening proposition than falsehoods: it triggers violent emotions of shame, hurt, and hate, and calls for uncomfortable changes in their family life and social standing. While truth might set them free, comfort is what their family life has revolved around—and truth is not comfortable. Bergman leaves his protagonists at a moment of hesitation, just as the quarrel seems to end in the prospect of divorce. In an echo from Strindberg’s play The Father (adapted for film in 1969 by Bergman’s mentor, Alf Sjöberg, with Gunnel Lindblom as Laura), Anna considers leaving her husband and taking their children with her, since she is capable of taking care of herself. Then, suddenly, she stops, pained, and says: ‘I don’t want to. No, I don’t.’31 When Andreas asks Anna what it is that she does not want, she makes no reply.
In this final scene, Bergman leaves his protagonists on a razor’s edge between their old life of lies and a possible new and uncertain life of truth. Perhaps they will return to their old ways, like Tomas the minister in Winter Light, who keeps writing sermons and conducting services while seriously doubting God’s existence, or Alma in Persona, who chooses to return to her former way of life after confronting her innermost doubts about motherhood and the prospect of being a wife. If so, Anna and Andreas would join these Bergman characters in a life that consists of going through the motions without faith or a sense of purpose. That would amount to joining ‘the living dead’. Whichever alternative they choose, Bergman presents the decision as a choice between ideologies: to remain within the fold of the bourgeois family would mean preserving the lies and conformity, as well as the social order and privileges inherent in the concept. The alternative would entail a jump off a cliff into the unknown. Bergman pauses at the moment of decision.