Bergman 100: A Weekend with Liv Ullmann

It was the Smith Rafael Film Center’s great honor and sincere pleasure to recently host legend of international cinema Liv Ullmann for a weekend of programs showcasing the works of master filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. Ullmann’s life has been notably intertwined with Bergman’s since they first met in 1964, instigating a life-long partnership played out on cinema and television screens around the world in classic international films Persona, Shame, Hour of the Wolf, Scenes from a Marriage, Face to Face, The Passion of Anna, Cries and Whispers, Autumn Sonata, Saraband, Faithless and more. Personally, in Bergman’s words, the two were “painfully connected,” resulting in a brief love affair and the birth of their daughter Linn, as well as decades of professional collaboration in film, theater and television, producing some of the greatest achievements known in any of those genres.

2018 marks Ingmar Bergman’s centenary, and celebrations of his life and work will exhibit worldwide throughout the year. Ullmann will participate in many of these programs, as the well-known muse of Bergman’s work – and as a great actress, director and writer in her own right. The Rafael was fortunate to host Ullmann for three programs during a weekend retrospective of Bergman’s work, including An Evening with Liv Ullmann a career tribute on Friday, February 2nd, and a full slate of films on Sunday, February 4th including a Q&A with Ullmann following a screening of Autumn Sonata, an introduction by Ullmann for a 35mm screening of her film Faithless, followed by a private reception.

Preceded by a screening of Dheeraj Akolkar’s documentary Liv & Ingmar, A Tribute to Liv Ullmann featured an engaging onstage conversation conducted by the Rafael’s Director of Programming Richard Peterson, interspersed with clips from Persona and Scenes from a Marriage, followed by a question-and-answer session between the audience and Ullmann.

During the tribute, Ullmann regaled the audience with insightful, witty and touching stories, on topics wide ranging in scope from working with Bergman, to falling in love, to the spiritual nature of artistry itself, to the innumerable moments of compassion, humanity and genuine connection in her life and work. On the subject of Persona, Ullmann discussed Bergman’s notion of the ‘mask’ and the stripping away of façade, as well as the implications of a mask’s construction, exploring what it means to be connected, as well as what is means to be disconnected – a feeling, according to Ullmann, that Bergman wrestled with in his personal life, infusing so much of his work with this internal struggle. The theme of longing to connect and being unable to reach this connection informs a great deal of Bergman’s works, and his ability to relay that struggle in such relatable terms illuminates why audiences are so universally affected by his films.

Peterson pointed out that much of Bergman’s work prior to meeting Ullmann had focused on the existential nature of life – a presumed “silence of God”- while after meeting and collaborating with Ullmann, his films turn to the emotional territory of human relationships. Ullmann conceded that these explorations still represent that yearning for connection, and are in many ways driven by the fear of loss, as Bergman had lost a true relationship with his father, a preacher and man of God. The intertwining of the personal and the spiritual continued as themes through all of Bergman’s works, highly influenced by his complicated relationship with both of his parents, as well as his many relationships with women.

In regards to her great love for and reverence of the art of acting, Ullmann spoke about the level of authenticity required of film acting that she learned from Bergman: “The camera is like a lover who can see everything. You can come right from the soul and people will recognize themselves. Acting, forget about that, go right from your soul. Show what is behind the face.”

Ullmann’s conversation was peppered with anecdotes from her life and work, such as the shooting of a scene from Face to Face in which her character attempts suicide with sleeping pills. Ullmann convinced herself that the pills were working, in no small part due to an off-screen comment from Bergman to a production assistant about whether or not they had put the correct pills in the bottle. Of her experience shooting the scene, Ullmann humorously and self-effacingly remarked, “I got very moved by myself”. She spoke often of how she learned from Bergman to reject artifice and occupy the space unique to acting that is real and not real, a kind of uncanny reckoning of the self within the experience of another self. She remarked “What a gift, at times, it is to be an actress.”

Of her years working in American cinema and stage, Ullmann employed a wonderful metaphor of a boat’s figurehead, envisioning herself as the female bust striking out valiantly against the waves and the unknown future ahead, all the while bound inextricably to the boat, which was, for her, her own country of Norway, to which she eventually returned for good.

Ullmann discussed at length the pleasure of working on Autumn Sonata with Ingrid Bergman, whom she admired greatly for her willingness to defend her choices as an actress, even as the working relationship between Bergman and Bergman “didn’t work out so well.” Ullmann also discussed her experiences as a director, working from two scripts written by Bergman (Private Confessions and Faithless) and her direction of Lena Endre, in particular, as well as her short film Parting, which she cherishes for its intimate depiction of people largely ignored by society who still have so much inside of them to share in the privacy of their lives.

During the question-and-answer portion of the evening, Ullmann was asked by an audience member to identify her most rewarding moments outside of acting. Sharing one of the most moving stories of the night, Ullmann spoke eloquently about working with UNICEF and the International Rescue Committee and the experience of recognizing the scent of her own beloved grandmother in the arms of a Vietnamese refugee in a leper colony. It was this moment that Ullmann recognized as a personal touchstone for contemplating universal humanity – how everyone, even those with immense suffering, are loved somewhere by someone, just as she loved her grandmother.

As the evening wound its way to its conclusion, Ullmann spoke again in support of Bergman’s misunderstood optimism. Although his films are often interpreted as dour, existential and pondering, Ullmann relayed that “to be in his movies was joy” and that he was, in essence, “someone who has a lot of hope of what people can be.”

At the conclusion of the documentary Liv & Ingmar, screened early that day, Ullmann shares two final illuminating stories regarding her relationship with Bergman. Speaking with him on the phone late in his life, she commented on how she is so often asked about working with him. He responded that those questions are actually about her, too, as he acknowledges her profound role as his muse: “You are my Stradivarius”. The documentary ends on a final note of happiness mixed with deep emotion when Ullmann reveals that the small teddy bear wearing overalls seated on the windowsill beside her had belonged to Bergman and, tucked within the front of the overalls, a note from her to him saved across many decades in which she wrote of the time he told her that their lives were “painfully connected.” She acknowledges this in the note, but also that “such a connection is full of grace”, as a few tears fall from her eyes.

It was our great joy to witness the grace of that very special connection, as shared with such genuine warmth, humanity and elegance by the iconic Liv Ullmann.

Check out the entire tribute program 

Photos and video by The Understory