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An artist must eat his animals

Andre Müller looks back on a memorable talk with film and stage director Ingmar Bergman

He couldn't smile. Ingmar Bergman's physiognomy would not permit a smile to spread over his face, opening it up. We sat across from one another in a sparsely furnished hotel room in Munich. The photographer working with me was allowed to take a few photos at the start. In them we see Bergman's eyes, as if behind a veil of sadness, sloping diagonally down to his temples, and thwarting the intentions of his smiling mouth.

Ingmar Bergman on the day of the interview in 1976. All photos © Otfried Schmidt, courtesy of Andre Müller

These are the eyes of a lonely man, who has spent his life fighting to escape his loneliness. He put it like this: "My whole life as an artist is the attempt to come into contact with other people, to leave this aloneness (alleinigkeit)." He didn't say 'einsamkeit' (loneliness). His unpolished use of a foreign language blurred this critical difference. After all, this man who was by now into his fifth marriage had never been alone.

His wife Ingrid placed mineral water and two glasses on the knee-high table without saying a word.

"My wife is my secretary," Bergman said and laughed.

His laughter was resounding. He had just put the worst catastrophe of his life behind him. On January 30, 1976, he was escorted out of rehearsals in the Stockholm Royal Theatre by the police and charged with tax evasion. While in custody he suffered a nervous breakdown and tried to take his life. Although the charges were eventually dropped, Bergman stayed away from his Swedish homeland for five years, directed plays at the Munich Staatschauspiel and shot, among other films, "The Serpent's Egg and (in Norway) "Autumn Sonata."

My interview with him, which I carried out for the Münchener Abendzeitung, was the first he'd given to a paper since emigrating. "Why do you not accept loneliness?" I asked. Then, as if I'd said something completely mad, a second fit of laughter ensued. "I believe," he said, without really calming himself, "that no one can accept this, no one in the world. My God! Every child knows from the age of four knows that this human isolation exists, this loneliness. And every human being yearns to leave it and find something that will get them out of there. Don't you agree?"

He sat bent forward. I now saw that the veiled look in his eyes was that of a child. Gesticulating with his graceful hands, he gave emphasis to the sentences that he spoke onto my tape.

"I try with my films and theatre stagings to make the world a better place, even if only microscopically, you understand? Infinitesimally. I have striven to do this all my life, and I do it for purely egotistical reasons. It's built into my... How do you say it? Machine?"

Again that failed attempt at a smile flitted over his lips.

"I'm a director, why are you a journalist?" "I can't tell you that now..." I mumbled. "Why ever not?" he asked.

So I turned off the tape recorder for a moment. When an interviewer suddenly has the questions turned on him by the interviewee, especially when that person is someone he worships as much as my thirty-year-old self worshipped Ingmar Bergman at the time, he looses his cool. Bergman's films illuminated my adolescence and darkened them at once, like a storm. I turned to stone, when at the age of 15 in the back row at the "Urania" cinema, I sat staring at the rape scene in "The Virgin Spring". No I thought, no, I don't want to see that! Afterwards I wandered in a daze through the night streets until the shock had liquefied into thoughts compatible with the everyday life of a schoolboy who could be cheered just by looking into the eyes of the girl next door.

The disturbing art of Ingmar Bergman made it difficult for me to watch most of what was otherwise available in the cinema. I would love to have told him this, perhaps even thrown it at him, as he sat opposite me, inconspicuous in his grey woollen jacket and brightly patterned shirt. But then he asked me this child's question. Why? "I have a problematic relationship with my profession," I said. "Yes, why's that?" he persisted. "Sometimes," I replied, "Instead of asking questions, I'd rather say something about myself." I was embarrassed as soon as I'd said it.

Bergman though, this fisher of men, was overjoyed. "I see, yes, something personal? You want to be creative? Then we're not so different after all. That's lovely. I think that's lovely. Then you have the answer to why I say that I create and seek out contact and try to make the world a little better. I want to, how d'you say it? Überreichen (hand over) my experiences to other people?" "Vermitteln" (communicate)," I said, clinging to the correction of his somewhat peculiar formulation, although it was the magic of the incorrect that made our conversation so special.

In his autobiography "Laterna magica" which came out in 1987, Bergman describes how he lost his belief during surgery. When he woke from a six-hour narcosis, the six hours seemed like one second to him. "The lost hours of the operation," it says in the book, "gave a calming verdict: you are born unintentionally, you live without meaning... and when you die, you are extinguished." In our interview, ten years previously, he had told me the same story in his tentative German." Although he didn't use the German word for extinguish (verlöschen).

He said: "This one second, these six hours, were a fantastic experience for me. Because I arrived at the conviction that you live, you are switched on, and then suddenly one day, you are switched off. That is an existence and then a non-existence. And this fantastic time, from birth to death, contains everything, the cruel, the beautiful, the immense, the unlikely, the atrocious, it's all there. And I find that fabulous. That's enough for me."

He pointed to the ceiling, from which a spherical lamp was hanging.

"That was a fine moment, when I understood there's no God up there and no one's watching me. Suddenly I had a feeling of security. I'd always been afraid of the Lord God up there. When you're young you're so afraid, and then you get so unhappy and so intolerant. You're afraid of so many things, and that makes you so evil…"

"And then?"

"Then you've got to recognise this evil, and accept it. Once you've recognised it, accepted it, looked it in the eye and, I don't want to say made friends with it, but got to know it, then you can fight it all the better."

"Have you ever played with the thought of undergoing psychoanalysis?" I asked.

Bergman's exploding laughter filled the sparse room. That I amused him so much made him well disposed towards me. At first he'd only wanted to accord me twenty minutes. Now we'd been talking for almost two hours. "You know," he said, "an artist practices therapy on himself, and he shouldn't have a bad conscience about it. A tiger doesn't have pangs of guilt when it eats a beautiful animal. The artist has to eat his animals. That's all part of it. We have to have the best conditions for our work. An artist must be free. Or else you can forget it."

Dostoevsky's sentence, as famous as it is banal, occurred to me. "Money is coined liberty." Already in my mind I was working out how much I'd be able to ask for the interview with Bergman. He asked: "Do you have the freedom to do what you want?" I was so shocked I answered truthfully: "Perhaps with your help." Never in my professional life have so many embarrassing things happened to me as during this interview. And never has anyone treated me so generously when I tripped up as Ingmar Bergman. "When I started out I wasn't free at all," he said. "Not in film, and not in the theatre. But today I'm one hundred percent free." "Are you happy now?" I asked.

He poured himself more mineral water, but didn't touch his glass.

"No," he answered, "I'm not happy. But I feel comfortable. You know, I'm like a fish, and I've got my aquarium. It has it's limits, but I don't accept them. For me they're just symbolic. Of course like everyone I'm fenced in all around by things, and in myself. But I've got my aquarium, and I like it, and you're welcome to come visit me inside it."

Now he took the glass and emptied it.

I flipped through my notes. I was supposed to get some details out of the world-famous director about "The Serpent's Egg," which he was planning to shoot at the Bavaria Studios in Munich. That's what my editor had said. But he didn't want to talk about it.

The film takes place in 1923, the year of Hitler's failed putsch, and shows – that much I knew – the human drive to self-destruct in the example of the looming catastrophe. I asked: "Do you think people are destructive by nature?" He laughed once again with his sad eyes and said:



The recollections
originally appeared in Die Weltwoche on August 9, 2007.

Andre Müller is an Austrian journalist and writer. His interviews with prominent figures have been collected in book form.

Translation: lp, jab. - let's talk european