Ingmar Bergman – “Every Film Is My Last Film” (1959)

April 8, 2009 at 6:43 pm (Cinema, Reviews & Articles)

Famous Bergman piece, written for Filmnyheter, May 19, 1959…
 

I. The script

[—]

Often it begins with something very hazy and indefinite – a chance remark or a quick change of phrase, a dim but pleasant event yet one which is not specifically related to the actual situation. It can be a few bars of music, a shaft of light across the street. It has happened in my theatrical work that I have seen performers in fresh make-up in yet unplayable roles.

All in all they seem to be split-second impressions that disappear as quickly as they come, yet nevertheless leave an impression behind just like a pleasant dream.

Most of all they are a brightly coloured thread sticking out of the dark sack of unconscious. If I Begin to wind up this thread and do it carefully a complete film will emerge.

I would like to say that this is not the case of Pallas Athene in the mind of Zeus, but an unconnected phenomenon, more a mental state than an actual story, but for all that abounding with fertile associations and images.

All this is brought out with pulse-beats and rhythms which are very special and characteristic of the different films. Through these rhythms the picture sequences take a separate pattern according to the way they were born and mastered by the motive.

This primitive life-cell strives from the beginning to achieve form, but its movements may be lazy and perhaps even a little drowsy. If in this primitive state it shows itself to have enough strength to transform itself into a film I decide to give it life and begin work on the script.

The feeling of failure occurs mostly before the writing begins. The dreams become merely cobwebs, the visions fade and become grey and insignificant, the pulse-beat is silent, everything becomes small, tired fancies without strength and reality.

I have thus decided to make a certain film and now begins the complicated and difficulty mastered work. To transfer rhythms, moods, atmosphere, tensions, sequences, tones and scents into words and sentences in a readable or at least understandable script.

This is difficult but not impossible.

[—]

Thus let us state once and for all that the film-script is a very imperfect technical basis for a film.

In this connection I should draw attention to another fact which is often overlooked. Film is not the same thing as literature. As often as not the character and substance of the two art forms are in conflict. What it really depends on is hard to define, but probably has to do with the self-responsive process. The written word is read and assimilated by a conscious act and in connection with the intellect and little by little it plays on the imagination or feelings. It is completely different with the motion picture. When we see a film in a cinema we are conscious that an illusion has been prepared for us and we relax and accept it with our will and intellect. We prepare the way into our imagination. The sequence of pictures plays directly on our feelings without touching the mind. There are many reasons why we ought to avoid filming existing literature, but the most important is that the irrational dimension, which is the heart of a literary work, is  often untranslatable and that in its turn kills the special dimensions of the film. If despite this we wish to translate something literary into filmic terms, we are obliged to make an infinite number of complicated transformations which most often give limited or no result in relation to the efforts expended.

I know what I am talking about because I have been subjected to so-styled literary judgement. This is about as intelligent as letting a music critic judge an exhibition of paintings or a football reporter criticise a new play.

The only reason for any and everyone believing himself capable of pronouncing a valid judgement on motion pictures is the inability of the film to assert itself as an art form, its need of a definite artistic vocabulary, its extreme youth in relation to other arts, its obvious ties with economic realities, its direct appeal to feelings. All this causes the motion picture to be regarded with disdain, the directness of expression of the motion picture makes it suspect in certain eyes, and as a result any and everyone thinks himself competent to say anything he likes in whatever way he likes on film art.

I myself have never had ambitions to be an author. I do not wish to write novels, short stories, essays, biographies or treatises on special subjects. I certainly do not want to write pieces for the theatre. Film-making is what interests me. I want to make films about conditions, tensions, pictures, rhythms and characters within me and which in one way or another interest me. I am filmmaker not an author, the motion picture is my medium of expression not the written word. The motion picture and its complicated process of birth are my methods of saying what I want to my fellow men. I find it humiliating for my work to be judged as a book when it is a film. Such is to call a bird a fish, and fire, water.

[—]

For a very long time I have wanted to use the film medium for story-telling. This does not mean that I find the narrative form itself faulty, but that I consider that the motion picture is ideally suited to the epic and the dramatic.

I know, of course, that by using film we can bring in other previously unknown worlds, realities beyond reality.

[—]

II. The studio 

It happens when I stand there in the half-light of the film studio with its noise and throng, the dirt and wretched atmosphere, I seriously wonder why I am engaged in this most difficult form of artistic creation.

The rules are many and burdensome. I must have three minutes of useable film “in the can” every day. I must kept to the shooting schedule, which is so tight that it excludes almost everything but essentials. I am surrounded by technical equipment which with fiendish cunning tries to sabotage my best intentions. Constantly I am on edge, I am compelled to live the collective life of the studio. Admist all this must take place a process which is sensitive and which really demands quietness, concentration and confidence.

I mean working with actors and actresses.

There are many directors who forget that our work in film begins with the human face. We can certainly become completely absorbed in the esthetics of montage, we can bring together objects and still life into a wonderful rhythm, we can make nature studies of astounding beauty, but the approach to the human face is without doubt the hall-mark and the distinguishing quality of the film. From this we might conclude that the film star is our most expensive instrument and that the camera only registers the reactions of this instrument. In any cases the opposite can be seen: the position and movement of the camera is considered more important than the player, and the picture becomes an end in itself-this can never do anything but destroy illusions and be artistically devastating.

In order to give the greatest possible strength to the actor’s expression the camera movement must be simple, free and completely synchronised with the action. The camera must be a completely objective observer and may only on rare occasions participate in the action.

We should realise that the best means of expression the actor has at his command is his look. The close-up, if objectively composed, perfectly directed and played, is the most forcible means at the disposal of the film director, while at the same time being the most certain proof of his competence or incompetence. The lack of abundance of close-ups shows in an uncompromising way the nature of the film director and the extent of his interest in people.

[—]

The director should not deluge the actor with instruction like autumn rain, but rather should make his points at the right moments. His words ought rather to be too few than too many. For his performance the actor is little helped by intellectual analyses. What he wants are exact instructions at the moment and certain technical corrections without embellishments and digressions. I know that an intonation, a look or a smile can often do far more good to the actor than the most penetrating analysis. This mode of action sounds like witchcraft, but it is nothing of the sort; it is only a quiet and effective method of control over the actor by his director. Indeed the fewer the discussions, talks, explanations, the more the affinity, silence, mutual understanding, natural loyalty and confidence.

III. Professional ethics

Many imagine that a commercial film industry lacks morality or that its morals are so definitely based on immorality that an artistically ethical standpoint cannot be maintained on anything so lacking. Our work is assigned to businessmen, who at times regard it with apprehension as motion pictures have to do with something as unreliable as art.

If many regard our activity as dubious, I must emphasise that its morality is as good as any and so absolute that it could almost cause us embarrassment. However, I have found that I am like the Englishman in the tropics, who shaves and dresses for dinner every day. He does not do this to please the wild animals but for his own sake. If he gives up his discipline then the jungle has beaten him.

I know that I shall have lost to the jungle if I take a weak moral standpoint or relax my mental punctiliousness. I have therefore come to a certain belief which is based on three powerful effective commandments. Briefly I shall give their wording and their meaning. These have become the very fundaments of my activity in the film world. The first may sound indecent but really is highly moral. It runs:

THOU SHALT BE ENTERTAINING AT ALL TIMES.

This means that the public who sees my films and thus provides my bread and butter has the right to expect entertainment, a thrill, a joy, a spirited experience. I am responsible for providing that experience. That is the only justification for my activity.

However, this does not mean that I must prostitute my talents, at least not in any and every way, because then I would break the second commandment which runs:

THOU SHALT OBEY THY ARTISTIC CONSCIENCE AT ALL TIMES.

This is a very tricky commandment because it obviously forbids me to steal, lie, prostitute my talents, kill or falsify. However, I will say that I am allowed to falsify if it is artistically justified, I may also lie if it is a beautiful lie, I could also kill my friends or anyone else if it would help my art, it may also be permissible to prostitute my talents if it will further my cause, and I should indeed steal if there were no other way out.

If one obeyed one’s artistic conscience to the full in every respect then one would find oneself doing a balancing act on a tight-rope and one would become so dizzy that at any moment one could fall down and break one’s neck. Then all the prudent and moral bystanders would say, “Look, there lies the thief, the murderer, the lecher, the liar. Serves him right”. Not a thought that the joy of creation, which is a thing of beauty and a joy for ever, is bound up with the necessary fear of creation. One can incant as often as one desires, magnify one’s humility and diminish one´s pride to one’s heart’s content, but the fact still remains that to follow one’s artistic conscience is a perversity of the flesh as a result of years and years of mortification and radiant moments of clear asceticism and resistance. In the long run it is the same however we reckon. First on the point of fusion comes the area between relief and submission, which can be called the artistic obvious. I wish to assert at this point that this is by no means my goal, but merely that I try to keep to the compass as well as I can.

In order to strengthen my will so that I do not slip off the narrow path into the ditch, I have a third good and juicy commandment, which runs:

THOU SHALT MAKE EACH FILM AS IF IT WERE THY LAST.

Some may imagine that this commandment is an amusing twist of phrase or a pointless aphorism or perhaps simply a beautiful phrase about the complete vanity of everything. However, that is not he case.

It is reality.

In Sweden film production was interrupted for a whole year some years ago. During my enforced inactivity I learned that because of commercial complications and through no fault of my own I could be out on the street before I knew it.

I do not complain about it, neither am I afraid or bitter, I have only drawn a logical and highly moral conclusion from the situation that each film is my last.

For me there is only one loyalty. That is loyalty to the film on which I am working. What comes (or fails to come) after is insignificant and causes neither anxiety nor longing. This gives me assurance and artistic confidence. The material assurance is apparently limited but I find the artistic integrity is infinitely more important and therefore I follow the principle that each film is my last.

This gives me strength in another way. I have seen all too many film workers burdened down with anxiety, yet carrying out to the full their necessary duties. Worn out, bored to death and without pleasure they have fulfilled their work. They have suffered humiliation and affronts from producers, the critics and the public without flinching, without giving up, without leaving the profession. With a tired shrug of the shoulders they have made their artistic contributions until they went down or were thrown out.

I do not know but perhaps the day will come when I shall be received differently by the public, perhaps together with a feeling of disgust in myself. Tiredness and emptiness will descend upon me like a dirty grey sack and fear will stifle everything. Emptiness will stare me in the face.

When this happens I shall put down my tolls and leave the scene, of my own free will, without bitterness and without brooding whether or not the work has been useful and truthful from the viewpoint of eternity.

Wise and far-sighted men in the Middle Ages used to spend nights in their coffins in order never to forget the tremendous importance of every moment and their transient nature of life itself.

Without taking such drastic and uncomfortable measures I harden myself to the seeming futility and the fickle cruelty of film-making with the earnest conviction that each film is my last.

Ingmar Bergman

(Translated from the Swedish by P.E. Burke and Lennart Swahn.)

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