This piece is part of our double feature on Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words. Please see Moira Sullivan’s interview with Stig Björkman, writer and director of the film.
We have just formed a group of six girls, where we are playing theatre, and we have practiced a play called “The Green Elevator”. We set up a stage and benches and lamps, etc. I got very excited when I saw all that! A Stage! I ran up to it and I couldn’t help it, but I had never felt as happy as that ever before as when I stood there… Please God, make me a great actress!”
—From Ingrid Bergman’s “Dagbook” (Diary) (ca. 1930-31); translated from Swedish; Narrated by Alicia Vikander in Stig Björkman’s “Ingrid Bergman In Her Own Words.”
I have followed the evolution of Stig Björkman’s passionate film on Ingrid Bergman (29 August 1915 – 29 August 1982) from an early draft to the Cannes Film Festival in May, where the film had its world premiere, to the Swedish premiere in Stockholm at the Royal Dramatic Theatre on the centennial anniversary of her birth, and the U.S. premiere at the 53rd New York Film Festival in October when I was fortunate to have some words with Stig by phone before he went off to the Lincoln Center screening. It wasn’t until he got to New York that we had the chance to talk about the finished work. The festival icon in New York, as at Cannes in May, was Ingrid Bergman. The documentary was selected for the category “Cannes Classics” at its world debut on May 19. Her image was used in most of the festival’s daily programs and this, I believe, is because Swedish filmmaker Stig Björkman’s documentary brings her to life again. According to Anna Serner, CEO of the Swedish Film Institute, his documentary is the kind of quality film that she is eager to support. Stig is a perceptive and engaging film expert, who has written books and interviewed numerous film personalities such as Ingmar Bergman.
The summer of 2014 I was in Stig’s apartment overlooking Stockholm and watching the raw material that was going to form his beautiful documentary Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words. (Jag är Ingrid – “I am Ingrid” in Swedish). I watched his interviews with actresses Sigourney Weaver and Liv Ullmann and Ingrid’s daughter Isabella Rossellini as they discussed their memories of Ingrid. On the table, Stig had a copy of an intriguing and provocative study of biodiversity in animal mating rituals called Green Porno, written by Isabella. She later made them into short unforgettable films. Watching the talented and brilliant Isabella in the documentary brings to mind her mother in both appearance and voice. Stig and producer of the film Stina Gardell (Mantaray Film) met with Isabella that summer in Ockelbo, where her short films were screened and talked about the new documentary.
One year later, I was not only overwhelmed, but elated when I saw Stig’s final product at the Cannes Film Festival, which includes rare home movies that Ingrid made of her family life off the movie set. Ingrid’s filmmaking style has excellent continuity and is very far from the use of the camera with jumpy shots put hastily together by amateurs. Stig, together with editor Dominika Daubenbüchel, assembles these films in a relentless cascade of imagery that provokes tears and laughter for this Swedish artist who felt her life should be about devoting herself to her work; not at the expense of her children, but alongside them as often as her schedule permitted. Ingrid’s short films capture idyllic summers in the west coast archipelago of Sweden. We see Isabella when she was laid up in a cast for scoliosis. As Ingrid observed, she was also observed. Clips from newsreels bring another momentum to the documentary, such as a clip of Ingrid driving around the streets of Italy in her open top sports car with the kids in tow. She, in turn, films her children arriving by boat, by plane, by automobile to visit with her and leaving her, always cheerfully. The poignant soundtrack to Stig’s film by composer Michael Nyman (The Piano 1993) evokes tremendous nostalgia for the private Ingrid we really did not know and who is no longer with us. Her homemade films are a posthumous invitation to share her life with us.
The layered documentary combines interviews with her children and with Liv and Sigourney alongside biographical material of Ingrid’s career in the form of newsreels and photos. These are interspersed with readings by Alicia Vikander – as the voice of Ingrid – from Ingrid’s diary .The anecdotes in the film from Ingrid’s children and colleagues are brilliantly juxtaposed with Ingrid’s home movies and other family amateur films.
In Her Own Words follows Ingrid’s life from her childhood to her final years working in film. After several successful Hollywood films she became the source of a major scandal when she left her first child and husband to marry Roberto Rossellini in 1950. Through stories from her grown children we learn how Pia, Ingrid’s first child, was later integrated into the new Italian family. Moreover, we learn from her children how they felt about their mother who left them often to make movies. Their attitude reveals that they felt that they got the best of her time because when they did visit with her, she devoted her total attention to them and did not combine their holidays with work.
We learn that Ingrid Bergman was not only a brilliant actress, but an artist who studied the art instruments of film—the camera and editing—during her years with Italian neorealist Roberto Rossellini. She tired of making Hollywood films like Casablanca (1942) that she felt weren’t substantial enough. One of the films she made with Rossellini was Europa 51 (1951). Rossellini’s idea for the film was imagining how Saint Paul would be treated today if he lived—a wealthy man who forsakes his fortune to help the poor in his time. Ingrid plays a wealthy woman who gives up her way of life, her car, family, clothes, and fancy apartment to help the poor on the outskirts of town. She is accused of being a communist and later of being insane. The character winds up in an insane asylum, committed by her family. The people she has helped congregate outside the hospital and cannot understand why she has been forsaken and accepts her fate. Inside she feels safer than with her family.
This scenario is very different from the roles Ingrid played in Hollywood such as a vivacious nun in The Bells of Saint Mary (1945) or the reckless daughter of a Nazi spy in Notorious (1952), clips of which are shown in the documentary. She loved the realism of Rossellini’s films, which prompted her to write to him and ask for a job. After making their first film together, Stromboli (1950), they married. Stig traveled to this volcanic island and shows what it looks like today. The documentary helps us better understand why Ingrid “abandoned” Hollywood. In her 1982 biography Mitt Liv (Ingrid Bergman: My Story), released in a new Swedish edition for the premiere of the film, she writes that her marriage to Petter Lindström, father of her first child Pia, was over. We learn that she was enough of a realist that when she was finished with something she moved on. Ingrid had several spouses and lived in several countries in several homes. She liked that she had these homes where she kept her things and could go through them when she visited them and experience the parts of her that were cultivated and grew in different environments. We see these homes, these spouses in Stig’s documentary and the children she raised with them.
In Her Own Words touched every spectator at the Swedish premiere at the Royal Dramatic Theatre (“Dramaten”), where Ingrid first entered theatre school not far from her home on Strandvägen 3 and her father’s photo boutique. The film was screened for the centennial anniversary of her birthday and I was fortunate to be present in order to celebrate her life and work in the sold-out screening. In the audience were Ingrid’s grown children: Pia, Roberto, Isotto Ingrid, and Isabella. Present as well were many actors, producers, and filmmakers in Sweden such as Anna Serner. The principal cast and crew of the film were on hand, Stig, Alicia Vikander, Stina Gardel and filmmaker and vocalist Eva Dahlgren Dahlgren, one of Sweden’s most talented vocalists, wrote the theme song to the film, did some of the Super 8 filmmaking, and performed the theme song Filmen om oss (The Film About Us).
Liv, who co-starred with Ingrid as her daughter in Ingmar’s Autumn Sonata (1978), presented the film and provided humorous anecdotes of working with both “the genius” (Ingmar) and “the artist” (Ingrid). She recalled that Ingrid disagreed with Ingmar about a scene she was to play with Liv. In the documentary Liv recalls that Ingrid felt that it was not authentic, that she would not have comforted her daughter who neurotically complained about her famous mother not taking an interest in her and would have slapped her, not placated her. But Ingmar had his way, explained Liv.
Ingrid defied the conventions of Hollywood and never regretted the things she did, she said, but “what she hadn’t done.” As she got older, her choices for roles diminished, but she kept working. From the documentary we learn that by her side throughout her career were several strong women, including Irene Selznick, David O. Selznick’s wife. Her letters to them were always about her children. This extraordinary documentary makes you not only esteem Ingrid but also her children. All of them have her incredible charm and intelligence and relay many of their fondest memories of her. In many ways Ingrid never lost her Swedish roots, and we see her working in the garden, raking leaves and pushing a wheelbarrow shown in one of her private films, the tall Ingrid Bergman who remained down to earth. She worked with great directors, but although she could not control what was said about her abroad and in Sweden, in her own life she made her own images.