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Liv Ullmann – The Legendary Swedish Actress Recalls Life with Ingmar Bergman in Film and in Pe

Updated: Mar 10, 2021

Liv Ullmann in New York. Photo by Brad Balfour

Liv Ullmann

The Legendary Swedish Actress Recalls Life with Ingmar Bergman in Film and in Person

by Brad Balfour

One of the many things a benchmark film festival like the New York Film Festival can do is anoint a new documentary with the stamp of importance just by inclusion in the fest. Such is the case of Liv and Ingmar – a film that is touching, expressive on its own terms but resonates even more so when it spotlights the lives of two major figures in the history of cinema. The relationship between the late Swedish director Ingmar Bergman and his muse and protégé (and lover) Liv Ullmann is poetically illuminated here.

In the history of filmmaking, they were one of the great couples. Ullmann and Bergman met in 1965 while filming one his great dramas, Persona. Both were married at the time with more than a 20-plus-year difference in age between them – Liv was 25 and Ingmar 47 – but that didn’t matter.

They lived together for five years, had a child together and collaborated on 12 films. Now, 46 years later, though Ingmar is gone, their love never died. A film, Liv and Ingmar, was born as a homage to that shared experience.

An affectionate but truthful account of these intertwined lives, it reveals the full spectrum of their shared emotions as they survived through extraordinary times. In turn, they both left behind enduring creations as proof of their passionate relationship on and off-screen. Told entirely from Ullmann’s viewpoint through interviews and visually reflective moments, it was shot at the house Ingmar built for Liv on the spot where he had declared his love for her at Fårø, Sweden.

This extraordinary biopic is constructed as a collage of images and sounds from the many Ullmann/Bergman films, behind-the-scenes footage, still photographs, passages from Liv’s book Changing and Ingmar’s personal letters to his love. Ultimately a candid look, it not only documents two great artists as human beings, friends and soul mates, the 83 minutes film also encapsulates a time and an aesthetic. Liv and Ingmar was written and directed by Dheerai Alkolkar, with Hallvard Bræin as cinematographer. First shown on Monday, October 1, 2012, at the Walter Reade Theatre (165 W. 65th Street), Ullmann was in attendance for introduction and Q&A.

The following exclusive interview was conducted a few days after the first screening at a fine midtown Manhattan hotel.

What was it about Ingmar Bergman that captivated people so much?

It was his recognition of who people are and what they are feeling. Sometimes it may look violent or harsh and tough, but it’s because he’s describing what’s happening within you. He had a way of identifying with people. If you liked his movies it was because you were recognized and seen somehow. That’s what happened to us in Montreal when there was a Q&A after they saw this [film]. People didn’t come up with questions and answers, they just stood up and started talking about themselves.

Would you have been a very different person had you not experienced Ingmar and had the film reflect you as well?

Absolutely. That’s why we worked so well together, Ingmar and I. We may have seemed very different in age and experience and whatever, but we were very, very much alike. We were just who we are. We had the same need to be seen and listened to, both of us. That was said in the movie too – we came out from loneliness and felt less lonely because we knew we were understood by each other.

You had as much of an effect on him as he did on you.

Exactly. Obviously, it would show more in me because I was so much younger, and he was the director and seemed to be the master. But in terms of our long relationship until he died, I think I gave as much as I took. And all the people he worked closely with. Without us, his movies would have looked very different.

He depended on a consistent group of people; it was like a community for him.

For him that community was important because he was a child, he loved the games we played when there were intermissions between scenes. We didn’t sit and talk about the scenes between takes, we did practical jokes, gossiped and all of these things. He just loved it. When I directed the movie Faithless, he was absolutely forbidden from coming on the set. When he was to be there on the last day, it would be a surprise for the other people. So, when lunch came, he was to come and be a surprise when they came back from lunch. I tell you; he was like a little boy. It was in the hotel room and in the bed... and she’s in the bed and he said, “Put this thing over me and I’ll be in the bed when the rehearsal starts.”

He goes into the bed and people are coming back from lunch and we put the blanket over him. This blanket was shivering because he was under there laughing and laughing. He was so excited and thought it was so fun and I will never forget this bed going up and down because he was so happy. Then Lena Endre comes in and of course saw these two and she opens it up. He loved it. That was Ingmar and that was the Ingmar that nobody knows that didn’t work with him. He didn’t have to play the master because he was the master and we knew it, but we also knew he was like an old boy.

It’s like when a Zen master gives a Kōan, it’s often quite funny as it is meaningful.

But he didn’t know it. I remember it was so early in our relationship. We were going to travel for the first time. He had never travelled before because he’s scared too and insecure. We were going from Oslo to Denmark to Italy. It was his first long trip out of Sweden. We were stopped in Denmark and he wanted to wash his hands. In Denmark you have to take the lift down and then you go there and come up again. For most people this is very ordinary, and everyone can do it, but not this man with his leather jacket and his caps and whatever. He goes down with the lift and after a while he comes back up with the lift and comes out. It’s like the first-time momma lets you go. I cannot explain it, but this was Ingmar. Once you realized this was Ingmar, he can be controlling and do all that because it’s the same boy and you get tenderness for it.

He gave you a degree of freedom. His films might be dark like Scenes from a Marriage or Seventh Seal they were existential – neither bad nor good. They weren’t structured like Hollywood films.

Exactly. That’s why it had such a stark [effect] on people. Once you recognize this, once you knew this isn’t a man making difficult movies doing this, but this is so easy to understand because his movies are so easy to understand. Like you have in the movie where they’re eating breakfast together and there’s nothing to talk about that is so big at the moment. I could find a lot of people that haven’t done that scene at their own breakfast table. When people realized that they loved him, but if they thought they had to be intellectual they won’t get it.

There was a lot of silence and glances in his films. How was it different from working with him theatrically from cinematically?

Well, he’s an incredible theatre director and he directs in somehow a very different way. In films during the intermissions he would play, but in the theatre between 11 and 3 he makes it so important and tells stories around what you are doing. You feel like you are treading in a really holy place. We did Pirandello and he knows so much about Pirandello and telling stories. He wouldn’t say “you feel like this” or “you laugh like this.” He’d make you feel so gifted because you’d think, "Right now I’m doing Pirandello and I know this about Pirandello."

He would give wonderful blocking. He’d say, "you go from here to that chair and I hope that feels comfortable for you." But he would never, never say what you are feeling, why you go to the chair. Because he’s so good at this, something happens. “Why can’t I just stay here?” “No, there is a reason. You find out the reason for going to that chair.” That’s why he was such a genius. It was thrilling. I can remember this from film too. You go from that chair to that table. Then you end up sitting there. Why? Suddenly by doing that, something is unloosened within you and it is exciting. You show him that you saw something there. If it’s good, he will praise you in a way like you’ve found America.

You’re at ease with having your life with him on the screen?

It’s my life, but as an actress, that is what I do. I show the life of a woman. It’s not Liv, but it goes through Liv. I mean I’m not playing Liv, but whatever I’m feeling that this person is feeling, it goes through my knowledge and experience. It goes through me. It’s not me crying, but I allow that person to cry with my tears. I’m always two people. So many people think because the way I act that I go off to some actors’ studio, but never. I’m really there. I take such joy when my hand is shivering when it should be shivering, and I let it shiver more. It’s fantastic. It’s such fun to be an actor. Actors say, “oh it’s so strenuous and takes so much.” They’re bullshitting. It’s an incredible thing because we get out so many emotions that other people don’t get the chance to do. We shouldn’t be neurotic at all because we do a daily study of living our emotions.

When did you decide you wanted to direct?

It just came to me. Everything came to me. I had written a script on order for a Danish production [studio] based on a book. But it became much more my story than the book’s story and the producers really love it. They said, “You should direct.” Me? No. “Think about it. We’d really like you to direct that movie.” I couldn’t believe it. They wanted me to direct? That was in Denmark. I was going home, and they said let us know in a week. You know, I would have said yes at once, but I had to pretend I was so busy. I called Ingmar. I still remember it, from the airport in Copenhagen. I said “Ingmar, they want me to direct. Do you think I can direct?”

And he said, “Oh of course Liv, you can direct.” That was all I needed because I knew he knew me. If he thought so he would have said, “you’re too scared,” but he said, “You can direct.” And he was right. I can direct, because I am an actor and I understand. The best thing I know is what not to do. Maybe I don’t always know what to do, but I absolutely know what not to do. The bad directors, they don’t know that. They do not know what not to do. That’s why they are so bad.

When you and director Dheerai Alkolkar worked on this film, did you stay out of the editing process?

I had no power at all. Neither did I try. It was an understanding. I never saw the movie. I didn’t know what the movie would be. I said to the producer I’m doing two days of interviews and you can use my reading from Changing. I didn’t know what this was going to be. We even made a contract. I don’t want money, no responsibility. If I don’t like it, I’m not going to be quiet about that. He didn’t know about that, but I’m here because I feel he gave me a gift. I never even thought that Ingmar and my relationship could be shown by his movie.

When I saw that I said how is that possible? But then I remembered he made movies about all of us, so it looks like ours. We did not have a violent physical thing, but I know when Ingmar hurts or if I hurt, it’s worse than when somebody knocks you out. What I’ve heard is that nobody has made a documentary where they show the film master, what his life has been with someone through his films.

Yes, I am proud of this movie. Not because I made it in any way. I did the interviews. He really did this, and he gave me a gift. I had forgotten these letters which they have. And the door, I love that door. Now I know because the sun is bleaching it, but it’s going to be there forever and that means so much for me. There are things in the movie either I didn’t know, or I had forgotten. And it is there. Maybe it means nothing for anyone, but it means so much for me. It is incredible. Ingmar would have smiled. A young man from India is seeing something that maybe a lot of people never would have seen.

Do you want to make a documentary now?

I’ve wanted to do one before. Maybe travel somewhere in the Third World with some women. Show some incredible strong women. But I don’t have the time. I don’t have the time because I want to be a storyteller. You can’t go into the Third World and be a storyteller because that story is already there, and you show it. I want to be a storyteller, so I’m not going to make a documentary. I vote for Oscars, but if I had the possibility, I would vote for the documentaries. In this world we’re living in now, they are the most interesting to see because there are some really incredible film makers that are starting to become great documentary film makers.

You really rethink the role of an actress. Do you help push that process forward and take on that responsibility? You were thrown in at 25.

I know. I didn’t really understand and I’m easy to make a doormat. But I’ve been a good doormat, because if a doormat starts talking professionally, and I have been talking professionally, I can make it easier for other women. A lot of us are very insecure because we feel the men are dominant and they should be so. But if I can do it, anyone can do it. That is really so because I am not strong in that way, but I became [strong] because it is wonderful and has given me so much strength. For this I also have to thank Ingmar because he gave me that possibility. He used to say about me “you are made in one piece.” He was so wrong, and he realized that too. I am not made in one piece, but I can talk sometimes like I am made in one piece and I am grateful for that. That’s why I am really grateful for this movie. I see that in this movie.

You also stayed part of the community.

We are the best of friends. Bibi Anderson is my best friend in the world. Some of them are gone. Some of them are dead. But my friends, they are from when I was 20. I love it and I hope we stay friends. You also have to have young friends, creative young friends, so you can still feel pride and curiosity in what’s going to happen.

What do you have coming up now in your mid-70s?

I am going to Norway to direct Uncle Vanya for the National Theatre. I’ve been ordered to do an adaptation of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie. We should start in the beginning of April to do that movie. I had an offer which I said yes to do here on Broadway: A Doll’s House to direct. It all just came to me. Within one year if everything happens as it should, I will do [Anton] Chekov, Strindberg, and A Doll’s House [by Henrik Ibsen]. God has been nice to me. Maybe I’ve been nice? Who knows what happens, but that is the plan.

Do you have any actors you want?

The National Theatre is all cast with Norwegians. Miss Julie is cast, but it is a secret right now. A Doll’s House is open, and I will find the best people.

Did you make a list of actors you want?

Yeah, because a lot of actors can be great in a film but it’s something really different to be a stage actor. It has to be someone with knowledge, a voice and schooling to be on the stage. That’s difficult, to be on the stage. It’s not just a matter of turning on your feelings, it’s so much more than that. You've got to do with [the knowledge of working through] a beginning, a middle, and an end. Look at Cate Blanchett. She’s almost the best theatre actress I know. It is so much more than just turning on a feeling. I’ve worked with her and it was one of the best adventures I’ve had in my life – because she knows.

Is there anyone you still want to work with or hope you can?

No, that would mean me going back to acting. There are some directors that sometimes I dream I will have one more acting part [with], but I’ve been given so much, so that won’t happen. When you hear about this Michael Haneke [the director's film Amour] sometimes I wish to do it one more time to see if still can. I can do small roles in a film, but maybe that’s not what I’m dreaming of. I maybe just once more want to be creative as an actor.

Older actresses are getting parts these days.

Because we have these incredible actresses. People are seeing that you are alive after you’re 40.

Copyright ©2013 All rights reserved. Posted: August 27, 2013.

Photo Credits:

#1 © 2012 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.

#2 © 2012 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.

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