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Interview with Liv Ullmann

01 Mar 2018

Legendary Swedish film and theater director Ingmar Bergman was born on July 14, 1918. Now, his centennial is being celebrated worldwide with numerous events, festivals and screenings. Here in New York City, Film Forum is having a whopping 47-film retrospective to add to the festivities. Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann, star of such Bergman masterpieces as "Persona," "Cries and Whispers," and "Scenes From a Marriage," was recently in town for several Q&As at Film Forum. Film journalist Stan Schwartz had a chance to chat with her.

You once told me when we were talking about Persona that you had a picture on which Ingmar had written, "We little playmates. Who will know about us later?" Well, here it is later and everyone knows about you and there is a worldwide Bergman Centennial celebration.
Exactly.  Even after Persona, he had trouble getting money to finance a film.  He would never have dreamt that 50 years later his movies would be shown all over the world, or even more importantly, that his writing would be published or adapted into plays or even operas.  He had no idea he would be who he is today. But I think he would have enjoyed it. And what he would have loved most of all is that his writing has now become so important. He always wished that he would be acknowledged as a writer, and he never really was.

Are you surprised by the scope of the Ingmar Bergman Centennial?
I was surprised at first but now I see it actually happening. I have received 25 or 30 invitations to the most incredible countries where they are doing this.  Autumn Sonata is an opera in Finland! Ingmar would have been delighted, again, because it is his writing. When I adapted Private Confessions as a play, I saw things in his writing which were absolutely astounding. I think the time may come when people will perhaps forget Sven Nykvist's images, or some of the actors, but Ingmar will be remembered for his writing.

Do you have a favorite Bergman film?
Scenes From a Marriage, because [my character] is like a lot of women. She is not neurotic, she grows and she is independent.

You once told me you didn't like the ending, where the two of them get back together briefly as lovers?
Yes, because at that point, they were each now re-married. And I don't think it is good to be unfaithful! Although it was many years ago when I said that.  I think today I can understand it.

And years later, in Bergman's last film Saraband, Marianne and Johan come together again, but in a very different context...
Yes, and he asks her, “Why did you come here,” and she says "Because you called me."  You know, I was with Ingmar the night he died. I was in Norway, and I just had a feeling something was going on, so I took a private plane -- I had never done that before -- I went to Fårö, I went in and he was lying there in bed and I took his hand and he died that night. I don't know that he knew I was there -- he was already on his way. But I said to him, "You called me."  And strangely enough, that night he died.

I saw my first Bergman film when I was 15 -- Sawdust and Tinsel --
Oh, THAT is my favorite Bergman film!  I forgot that one! It is definitely an early masterpiece. 

And then I saw Seventh Seal and Cries and Whispers, and I was immediately hooked for life. But I worry about the younger generation who either doesn't know the work, or would argue it is old-fashioned and irrelevant. Do you have those concerns?
Yes.  Look at what kind of movies are out there that they watch. It's like literature and any art. If it is not presented to them, they don't know about it. And then it will die. But that's the time we live in. People are busy with their robots (i.e., smart phones). But if they see the movies and talk about them, I think they will see they are relevant.

The extraordinary last sequence of Shame -- in the rowboat and the dead bodies in the water. That could be out of today's headlines.
Yes, Ingmar was prophetic when he made that.

Because of the centennial, you see so many articles now trying to formulate a kind of Bergman 101 for Beginners, specifically for the uninitiated, which is pretty difficult given the breadth and complexity of the entire body of work. But if you had to choose one single theme that best sums it all up, what would it be?
It would be the very human, very noble but very difficult attempt to achieve a state of grace.

And not just in the strictly religious sense...
Exactly.  In the broader sense of all human relations.

> Learn more about the Ingmar Bergman centennial festival at Film Forum: swedennewyork.com

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Stan Schwartz is a freelance theater journalist living in New York with a particular interest in Swedish theater. He has published in such outlets as The New York Times, Time Out New York, The New York Sun, and in Sweden, Dagens Nyheter and Expressen.

Last updated 09 Mar 2018, 1.12 PM