Ingrid Bergman in ‘Stromboli Land of God’ © BFI

Beguiling Bergman

21st August 2015

As the British Film Institute releases on DVD/Blu-ray three films from her post-war collaboration with Roberto Rossellini, Jack Watkins celebrates the centenary of the birth of Ingrid Bergman...

IN 1981, Ingrid Bergman was interviewed before a live audience at the National Film Theatre (NFT) by John Russell Taylor, film historian and editor of Films and Filming, the late lamented (and arguably the last decent) mainstream movie monthly to grace newsagents’ shelves. Aged 66, Bergman seemed as graceful, dignified, and essentially self-contained and unknowable, as she had in her celluloid pomp. It was also clear that she took her work for stage and screen extremely seriously. She lifted the veil of formality occasionally to allow glimpses of vulnerability, and there were moments of laugher, but Russell Taylor was a sober interviewer and Bergman was clearly no sufferer of fools. She certainly wasn’t someone you could imagine trading inanities on a modern-day Friday night chat show.

That evening, she looked well, and Russell Taylor ended the chat expressing the hope that she’d soon return to the South Bank to talk again. Bergman laughed politely, but the planned interview wasn’t to be. She’d been fighting cancer for seven years and died on her birthday in the summer of the following year, after bravely summoning the energy to toast the occasion with friends, and claiming she must be a great actress because she “had acted on the last day of her life.”

There may have been bigger, more alluring film stars in movie history, but over thirty years from her passing, Ingrid Bergman remains a figure of great fascination. Born in Stockholm in 1915, when she arrived in Los Angeles in 1938, already a name in her homeland, the Hollywood publicity machine went into overdrive, acclaiming her as ‘Sweden’s greatest export since Greta Garbo.’ She’d arrived at the same time as Garbo’s popularity was on the descent, and, in fact, the older woman would retire three years later. It’s true that Bergman lacked the Garbo-esque mystique, but she had a sense of stoic femininity, sadness and sensuality that was entirely her own. She didn’t do an awful lot while on screen, but neither did Garbo. There may be something in the Scandinavian nature that enables performers from these lands to suggest much on camera with making little obvious effort.

The first film Bergman made in Hollywood, Intermezzo (1939), was a hit. She was all the more striking for allegedly playing the part without makeup and with unplucked eyebrows; the eschewal of the trappings of glamour in favour of what was, for the time, a more ‘natural’ look won her extra public approval. After a weak remake of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, with Spencer Tracy miscast in the title role, her next major film was the monster romance Casablanca. This was Bergman at her yearning best, her character Ilsa Lund caught between between Humphrey Bogart in his first leading man role as Rick Blaine (“we’ll always have Paris”) and Paul Henreid’s rather stodgier Victor Laszlo. Yet Bergman hated the film, believing it wasted a great cast that went all the way down to the supporting character players. “I see my face in the film and it has no expression whatsoever,” she later joked, explaining that it was a reflection of a ‘bad’ script that had left her uncertain during the process of filming as to which of the two characters she was truly supposed to favour.

Bergman, at around 5’ 9”, was an unusually tall leading lady, something about which she was painfully conscious for a large part of her career. Short males playing opposite her were forced to stand on a box. At least, they did until she was paired with Yul Brynner in the Anatole Litvak film Anastasia in 1956. “You think I’m gonna play the whole movie on a box?” an indignant Brynner (5’ 8”) told her. “No, I’m going to show the world what a racehorse you are,” he went on, banishing a relieved Bergman’s height complex in a sentence. Who worries about leading ladies being too tall now?

In fact, she won an Oscar for Anastasia, which actually marked her Hollywood comeback. There had been no more loved actress in America in the mid to late 1940s, with the exception of Betty Grable, but the country had reacted with hostility and moral indignation when she went off to work with Roberto Rossellini in Italy in 1949. This culminated in her being denounced in the US Senate, after she had an illegitimate child by him, resulting in an ugly divorce action with her first husband. Yet the film-making collaboration between the pair was fruitful, and it’s the three classics they made – Stromboli Land of God, Journey To Italy and Fear – that form the basis of the BFI’s new Blu-ray Roberto Rossellini/Ingrid Bergman box set (the films are also being individually released on DVD). The box set can be highly recommended, coming with various extras, including the Russell Taylor interview, but if you are going down the DVD route and are not a Bergman completist; out of the trio of films, I’d recommend Stromboli and Journey to Italy as the ones to choose – though, in their own way, they are all masterpieces, bearing repeated viewing.

These roughly-made films were a far cry from the slickly produced artificiality of Hollywood dramas like Casablanca, though. It was the extra authenticity of Italian cinema that had attracted Bergman to work there in the first place. She had watched Rossellini’s Rome, Open City and, marvelling at this new so-called neo-realist form of film-making, written to the director expressing her admiration and a wish to work with him.

Stromboli came first, and what a stirring piece it is. In it, Bergman plays a Lithuanian woman who, in her desperation to get out of a refugee camp, accepts a marriage proposal from a simple Italian fisherman. The mismatch is increasingly apparent as he takes her back to his home, the island of Stromboli, with its live volcano. Making the film couldn’t have been easy for Bergman, however. Rossellini, like many of the neo-realists, shot his films with a lyrical eye – Bergman said he “wrote with his camera”– and the film had many outdoor scenes of raw, rugged beauty. However, he wasn’t greatly interested in the business of acting and frequently cast real people in important parts. In Stromboli, the male who played Bergman’s husband was plucked from a beach only hours before shooting began.

At least in Journey to Italy her husband was a bona fide leading actor. George Sanders was the master player of a rare vein of suave and superior weariness and disdain. The pair are a married couple seemingly long past the point of mutual boredom, but their visit to Italy to sell off a villa they have inherited from a deceased relative forces them to confront the tepid reality of their union. Once again Rossellini’s powerful use of location underscores the psychological turmoil of the characters, and when they visit the ruins of Pompeii, where an excavation is being conducted, it is as if they are watching the uncovering of the bones of their own emotions, which have lain buried for years.

The Rossellini films were not commercial successes at the time, leading to the break-up of their partnership, and Bergman’s eventual return to America. One of her last films was made with another great Swede, Ingmar Bergman, Autumn Sonata, in 1977, playing an ageing concert pianist trying to reclaim the love a daughter she’d lost emotional contact with in pursuit of her career. Some said this wasn’t acting, it was autobiography. If so, it was bad luck for her family, but good luck for audiences. And though she never did make the hoped-for return visit to the South Bank in 1981, she’s with us in spirit in the BFI’s appealing new box set.

The Roberto Rossellini/Ingrid Bergman Collection is available as a limited edition Blu-ray box set, with the films ‘Stromboli Land of God’, ‘Journey to Italy’ and ‘Fear’ also available as individual releases on DVD: www.bfi.org.uk/shop

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