Two Summers With Bergman

SPOILER WARNING: The following essay on Summer Interlude and Summer with Monika contains some spoilers. Otherwise, there’d be no way to fully discuss Ingmar Bergman’s direction, themes or the films themselves.

Summer Interlude and Summer with Monika were together a new sunrise on Ingmar Bergman’s filmmaking career.

The films, the auteur’s 10th and 12th directorial efforts, were released two years apart from each other and are signs that Bergman’s career as a filmmaker had reached a point of understanding, realization and total mastery.

‘Summer Interlude’ and ‘Summer with Monika’ are early signs of Ingmar Bergman’s eventual cinematic achievement and total mastery.

I had always felt technically crippled—insecure with the crew, the cameras, the sound equipment—everything,” Bergman wrote about himself in 1971 about the 1951 title Summer Interlude. “Sometimes a film succeeded, but I never got what I wanted to get. But in Summer Interlude, I suddenly felt that I knew my profession.”

It is in these few reflective words that Bergman reveals Summer Interlude as a point where the director, a native of the theatre, began to understand all he could accomplish in film. Mixing theatre life and the cinema in one, Summer Interlude is a mostly retrospective story of two once-young lovers, Marie (Maj-Britt Nilsson in what was the first really strong female performance in a Bergman film) and Henrik (Birger Malmsten).

The film, told mostly through flashbacks to the summer Marie and Henrik fell in love, is a stellar and stark gaping eye on relationships, love, life, death, loneliness, isolation, distanced family and many other themes Bergman would continue to explore through portions of his career that would be put under a microscope by the entire cinematic world.

I’ve always championed Bergman’s greatest films as carrying importance in every frame. My beliefs were reaffirmed to me after watching Bergman create Winter Light in the documentary Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie. Every moment, precious or not, seemed to catch the detailed eye of Bergman. Instructing actors to take one place rather than another, advising them greatly on line pronunciation or fixing their body language (for better or worse) all seemed to be available strategies that were a deviation from his work in the theatre.

This still from ‘Winter Light’ depicts one scene Bergman spends a lot of time fixating on in the documentary ‘Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie.’ His attention to detail ranged from lighting to posture.

With Summer Interlude, Bergman begins to find and create his eventually affixed detailed style that would define him through black and white masterpieces like The Seventh Seal, Persona and Wild Strawberries and into the colorful era of Fanny and AlexanderCries and Whispers and more.

But thematically is where Summer Interlude really leaves a mark on the minds of all  Bergman enthusiasts, as it so definitely is a bright beginning to themes and concepts that would be explored in greater detail by Bergman. Marie and Henrik, young lovers, experience life and death together as their love blossoms in front of their eyes. The entire film is devoted to Marie’s bittersweet memories of summer boat trips, exploring “secret” locations away from the rest of the world and eventually their first romantic moments.

In an instant everything changes when at the film’s peak Henrik fails to dive into the water, resulting in his rather shocking and immediate death. Only moments earlier were the two very youthful lovers hanging around Henrik’s aunt and a reverend, who play chess together in a precursory style to The Seventh Seal‘s bouts of chess with death as they simply and fearlessly wait for the aunt to die. Those are the understood expectations. The old are supposed to die, not the young. The four speak about how Henrik is waiting for his aunt to die as he stands to inherit from her and the reverend mentions how is presence there is directly related to death. This displays, so starkly, the fragile nature of life and how in an instant Bergman’s laughter, love and romance can turn into death and depression.

The scene of an old, dying woman playing chess with a reverend in ‘Summer Interlude’ might be a precursor to this now legendary scene from ‘The Seventh Seal.’

The tragic loss of Henrik from Marie’s life transitions into another much played up Bergman theme: God’s presence, or lack thereof. My first Bergman experience, The Seventh Seal, is perhaps one of the most startling examination of religion’s  place in a persons life. I’ve used Bergman films like it and many others to mold my own opinions and moral values on life. His works have become as important to my understand of human nature and society as any college class on anthropology, sociology or religion could be. But before I transition too far off track, Marie’s very mixed and changing attitude towards life is on display after the death of Henrik. Her wonderment about God’s presence is one thing, her ability to figure out whether she’s actually happy or sad is another. It is in these multitude of feelings that Bergman is able to create great chaos within his character’s minds and ours.

It must be remembered that Summer Interlude‘s story is spurned by the arrival of Henrik’s diary to Marie 13 years later. An anonymous delivery has it land in her lap the day of a dress rehearsal for Swan Lake. This causes Marie to revisit her summer house and the places she and Henrik spent their only summer together. This gives even greater reason to throw acclaim at Nilsson for her performance as Marie. A 13-year gap is huge and Nilsson does a tremendous job at creating the acting illusion that Marie has actually changed over those 13 years by changing the sliders on her appearance, expressions and delivery. There is actually a belief that Marie’s been hit hard by the afflictions of life and because of it has become more mature.

The beautiful Maj-Britt Nilsson dazzles in ‘Summer Interlude,’ playing the younger and older Marie in convincing fashion.

Female characters and the actresses that portray them played a bigger part in Bergman’s career than almost any other filmmaker. Nilsson’s performance here is the start of a long-running streak of terrific performances by female actors. While Nilsson wouldn’t join the ranks of Liv Ullmann, Harriet Andersson and others, she had a part in Bergman’s early film career. This performance could certainly be her absolute best.

Andersson assumed the lead role in Summer with Monika, a film that breaks ground in a number of ways, both similar and dissimilar to the previously discussed summer venture. I found it to be the more stylistic of the two films. Where the two films stand pat together is in their display of young love. This time, the young and blossoming couple is Moninka (Andersson) and Harry (Lars Ekborg), who meet and get along on the common grounds of hating their jobs and being bored of their lives. The two travel away together on Harry’s father’s boat, somewhat like the adventures of Pierrot le Fou‘s Ferdinand and Marianne (Godard did love this film), to spend time on the shore together, often secluded and detached from outside connection.

The two turn their backs on life and the world as they know it. They are fugitives, rebelling from what held them captive in their family life and at work. They now only exist to serve each other. But as their relationship and moments of happiness run its course through ups and downs, we’re exposed to the evil that lies fitted within it. Just when you think a story in a Bergman film is going well, you’re spun around and challenged by their challenges. These two early films might present two of the better examples of just that.

Perhaps the greatest single shot of Bergman’s early career comes late in the film when Monika sits at a cafe across the table from a man she is presumably going to cheat on Harry with. The camera zooms close on Monika’s face, capturing every emotional detail, before the light around her turns into darkness. Andersson stares deeply into the camera, as if she is fixed on the audience and allowing herself to be judged by us for what we assume she is going to do next. The joyful noise around her becomes distorted. We are staring into evil, into darkness, into a broken life. We can’t help it. We can’t look away. We can only imagine and decide for ourselves what Monika does and Bergman allows us our own courtroom and gavel to judge her.

Harriet Andersson’s terrific performance as Monika can nearly be summed up in this startling scene. View the brief yet stunning scene here.

Bergman presents a great connection between the emotions and psychology of his characters and the visual cues that make us feel those emotions. Jean-Luc Godard wrote in 1958: “Bergman always manages to integrate them into his characters’ psychology at the precise instant when he must evoke a precise feeling.” The them in Godard’s sentence are the unique compositions, angles and shots of nature: lakes, clouds, rocks and more. These aren’t just filler, they aren’t just a visual description of where our characters currently sit. They relate in conjunction to the characters.

Strangely enough, Summer with Monika has a place in history for reasons other than being one of Bergman’s strongest and most defining early works. The rights to its release in America were purchased by Kroger Babb and the film was recut and edited down to 62 minutes to appear like it was an exploitation flick. Because the movie broke ground with its display of nudity and sex, it did seem like prime Swedish material to be advertised as such. The film entered American markets known as Monika, the Story of a Bad Girl and Bergman became somewhat known for it in the country.

Here is how Kroger Babb decided to advertise his recut version of ‘Summer with Monika.’

After getting over the fact that art was turn into dubbed crap, you can once again begin to appreciate just how important these two films are in the grand scope of all things Bergman. There’s even more to talk about as far as these two great films are concerned in the way of characters, the performances, the style and the remaining themes Bergman would continue to explore in his career. As we approach the end of summer and the beginning of autumn, these two midsummer love adventures would serve well for a Bergman double feature, in any order, on any night. It’s easy to see why the Criterion Collection release the two titles on Blu-ray simultaneously.

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