Woody Allen Pays Tribute to Ingmar Bergman: 'His Approach Was Poetic'

5 FEA Ingmar Bergman
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On one of his movie sets during the 1960s, the prolific Bergman -- whom Allen calls a poet of cinema -- takes a break for a cup of tea.

The director tells the current issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine why the Swedish master's films -- to be presented in a Berlinale retrospective -- remain great.

The following story appears in the current issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine on newsstands now. Subscribers can read the issue online.

Woody Allen has been an ardent fan of the Swedish master Ingmar Bergman since stumbling into a showing of Summer With Monika as a teenager in 1950s Brooklyn — lured by the promise of a naked Harriet Andersson. Now, as the 61st Berlin International Film Festival shines its spotlight on the late director, Allen discusses why Bergman’s movies turned him on. Bergman, who died in 2007 at 89, helmed more than 60 films, and in a major retrospective, Berlin plans to screen them all during its Feb. 10-20 run. 

Back in the 1960s, the arrival of each new Bergman movie was treated as a major event by the film cognoscenti. But what do you think is Bergman’s status today?

The younger generation is just basically film-ignorant. Not just about Bergman, but Antonioni, Truffaut, Kurosawa, Bunuel. Film is not part of their general literacy. But the Bergman films remain great. They are great films — just as are the Bunuel films, the Kurosawa films, all of the films of that great flourishing of European cinema — all those films were great, great movies. The Seventh Seal was great then, and it’s great now. They don’t know The Bicycle Thief; they don’t know Grand Illusion. And many, many of them don’t know Citizen Kane. If they do know it, they know it as something they happened to see on television. They don’t have the same general reverence — which I’m not criticizing them for — there’s no reason why they would or should. It’s just a different time. Their icons and their heroes lie in a different area.

You were in high school when you first saw Summer With Monika. What do you remember about your first encounter with a Bergman movie?

Yes, yes, I remember that. The first Bergman I ever saw was that one because there was talk in the neighborhood that there was a nude scene. This was unheard of in any American film, that level of advancement. It’s so funny to think of it that way. I saw it, and it was a very, very interesting film apart from the utterly benign nude moment. A short time after that, I just happened to see Sawdust and Tinsel. I had no idea it was done by Bergman — that is, the person who’d done Summer With Monika — and it was just a fabulous movie. I was riveted in my seat by it all. I thought to myself, “Who is this guy?” It was a sensational movie. Again, I filed it under just another wonderful foreign movie, which was a fairly common experience that one could have in those days. There were so many foreign-film houses and so many good films. And then there was a little rush in New York where there was some press heat on Bergman for Wild Strawberries and The Magician and then The Seventh Seal. They didn’t necessarily come out in that order, but those three. Those were electrifying films — they were sensational.

What did you respond to? Was it their style, or their themes, if you can separate the two?

It was a combination of three things. It was the fact that thematically, the material resonated with me so strongly. Secondly, his cinematic technique, his style, was so interesting, so intense and so riveting to me. And the third was that his approach was poetic. It wasn’t prose; it was a poetic approach. The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Magician were really poetic films in the same sense as that, when years went by, you see in a film like Cries and Whispers — there is really very little dialogue in it. You are hypnotically riveted by the camera moving around this red house. It’s watching poetry in motion.

The critics, particularly when you began making more serious films, cited Bergman as a major influence in your work. Do you agree?

This is what happens in all art forms, whether it’s music or film or comedy. You have certain people that you adore, and when you start out, you have the tendency to be influenced by them. Bergman had that himself, by his own explanations, with Victor Sjostrom [the director who starred in Wild Strawberries]. He idolized him and his films, and his films were very derivative of Victor Sjostrom’s. This is just how it works. Then, gradually, you either remain an imitator your whole life, or that influence influences your work and adds a certain rich element to your work, combined with your own contribution. I was in an odd position because I was a Brooklyn stand-up comic, doing stand-up comedy and doing comic films. It’s an odd influence. If you say this guy does comic movies, and he’s influenced by the Marx Brothers or Charlie Chaplin or Preston Sturges, that’s completely rational. If you’re influenced by Ingmar Bergman — who is, even among dramatic filmmakers particularly poetic, heavy thematically, heavy in technique — it makes for an unusual end product. And it did for me, for better or for worse. It gave me a certain kind of comedy that resonated with a large enough number of people to keep me going my whole life, and yet I always had a smaller audience.

For all your reverence for Bergman, your first impulse was to offer up a parody of The Seventh Seal in Love and Death. Was that image of death Bergman created just something you couldn’t resist poking fun at?

Sure, but you really only parody and satirize things that you love. So when you’re doing comic art and comic satire, it’s invariably about things that you feel affectionate about. If you feel hostile about a subject, you can include some material, but very often it becomes mean-spirited or unfunny. But when you love something and you satirize it, it’s fun to do, and it comes out funny.

You finally met Bergman in the ’70s. How did that go?

I was shooting the film Manhattan when I first met him, at his request. Liv Ullmann was a mutual friend. She said Ingmar was in town and wanting to have dinner. It was just Ingmar and his wife and Liv Ullmann and myself in Ingmar’s hotel suite. We had a long dinner and chatted all night. I was extremely nerve-racked going up there because I expected to see this Martha Graham-style black-cloaked figure, but he was nothing like that. He was just like every other common anxiety-ridden director I know — worried about his material, worried about his grosses, worried about the projectionist making the reel changeovers on time. He was very easy to talk to. There was a number of subsequent phone calls from his island after that.

Style and themes aside, your filmography seems to reflect his in that you both have turned out so many films on such a regular basis.

I feel I copied that. He felt that he didn’t want his films to be a big production — he just wanted to work. He was uninterested in the criticism of them. He was uninterested in the box office of them finally. He was uninterested in making a big event out of their openings. I felt the same way. I just like to keep turning them out and doing them and not looking up at how they are responded to because that can drive you crazy. You can obsess over that for good or bad. You can languish in great praise, which you get sometimes, or become depressed with great criticism, and it’s all just a waste of time. You’re better off working. And that was a feeling of his. He didn’t like weekends, he didn’t like holidays, he didn’t like sunshine. Those are all traits that I’ve had. I’ve never liked weekends, I’ve never liked holidays, I’ve never liked sunshine. It’s not the work of an alcoholic, it’s pleasure. It’s like working at your hobby. And it was that way for him, too.