Together, Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman made some of the greatest films of all time: works like Shame, The Passion of Anna, Cries and Whispers, Scenes From a Marriage, and, of course, Persona (which our own David Edelstein, in his 2007 obituary for Bergman, deemed “the film against which all other psychodramas must be judged”). Their romance may only have lasted a few years, but their professional collaboration lasted for decades. (Ullmann eventually directed some scripts that Bergman had written, and she also co-starred in his final film, Saraband.) The tormented ups and downs of their relationship are charted in the new documentary Liv and Ingmar: Painfully Connected, which premieres tonight at the New York Film Festival. In it, Ullmann frankly discusses her epic relationship with Bergman and even shares some of the remarkably florid letters he wrote to her. Her admiration and love for the man remain vivid, as do some of the more troubling aspects of their romance (he once built a wall around their home and prevented her from leaving except on specific days). Ullmann recently spoke to us about her new film, her memories of Bergman, and about that time she introduced Woody Allen, perhaps his greatest admirer, to the Swedish genius.
I was touched by how honest this film is. You’re obviously very loving and admiring of Ingmar, but you also talk about how controlling he was, how difficult life was with him.
When we lived together — and this was so many years ago — it was at a time when women didn’t question things so much. Like, you know, living in a house where a big wall is built around so nobody can see you and having to come home at certain times. So, I didn’t question it at the time. But afterward, when Ingmar and I became friends and continued to do creative work together, I would question certain things that happened. But after the romantic relationship ended, it just became more neutral; two people working together and having a very, very deep kind of friendship.
I remember reading a story about how when you were working with Ingrid Bergman on Autumn Sonata, she actually rejected one of Ingmar’s directions and how thrilled you were to see somebody stand up to him.
I think I felt more thrilled that a woman in those days would really do that. More than I felt thrilled that “Oh, ha ha, there you go, Ingmar!” I sat there full of admiration for Ingrid, because I did know that if you are to work with Ingmar, you don’t discuss things like that. Most of the people I worked with didn’t question him. But Ingrid did, and I just thought it was wonderful.
What did he think of the films you made from his scripts?
Private Confessions he said was one of his favorite films, and he wanted me to do it because he felt that I really believed in God and did not question him. He claimed he could never do that film because, as he said, “I don’t believe in God.” But I don’t think it was true. With Faithless, he wasn’t allowed to see it until it was finished and edited. There, he had things that he didn’t like or wanted taken out of the film. Because the film was so personal, he felt maybe I had overspread or lied because I knew him so well. But the strange thing about the movie: There’s a character Erland Josephson plays, called “Bergman,” and Ingmar said that this character is not him, that he just happened to give him that name, which is funny. But there’s a scene where “Bergman” goes to a window and he looks out and sees himself walking on the beach. That scene is not in the script. And Ingmar said, “You have to take that out. Take that out.” And so I took it out when it was shown in Cannes, but later Ingmar called me and said to put it back in. And the strange thing is that when Ingmar made his own documentary much later, there is a scene where he’s sitting at his writing table, and then he gets up from his table and goes to the window and looks out, and who does he see on the beach but himself?
You mentioned that Ingmar always wanted to write a comedy for you. Do you have any idea what it would have been or what it might have been like?
Well, when he was writing Fanny and Alexander, he said, “I’m now writing a comedy. You’ll love it.” “Comedy, comedy” — he said this for a year while he was writing it … and then he hands me Fanny and Alexander! So I called him, and I said there’s no way I can do this. I can’t believe I did that. I didn’t do Fanny and Alexander. And he was upset and called me “Mrs. Ullmann” for a year, and he also said to me, “You have given up your firstborn right.” I don’t know what that meant, but it sounded terrible. And then we became friends again.
Speaking of comedy, I remember reading once that you introduced Woody Allen to Ingmar Bergman.
Yes, I did. They always had a mutual admiration of each other. Now, Woody Allen’s recollection of this meeting, of course, is very, very different from mine. But I remember that they were so in awe of each other that the whole dinner they just looked at each other and didn’t say anything. Meanwhile, Ingmar’s wife and I were talking about meatballs. And then when it was over, Woody sat in the car, and said, “Oh, Liv, thank you. What a great meeting.” And Ingmar phoned me and said, “Oh, Liv, thank you. What a great meeting.” Now, that may or may not have happened. It may have been different, the way Woody Allen sees it. I know he’s not happy about my story.
You talk a bit about Linn, your daughter with Ingmar, in the film, but you talk relatively little about her relationship with her father.
Linn is a fantastic writer, and she’s written five books now, and I think Ingmar was absolutely in awe of it. He really was in awe of her talent, because she had done a lot of the things that he never did. You know, he really wanted to be a writer. I don’t actually talk about her so much in the movie. For many years, I was kind of a single mother, and it was just Linn and me together. So I always talked about her and talked about her and talked about her. And as a grown-up, she told me, “You shouldn’t have done that.” I talked with love, but I realize now that famous people who show off their children, maybe that isn’t fair to the children who aren’t able to say yes or no. They may even enjoy it at the time but not as a grown-up. So I have promised my daughter not to talk about her. But the relationship between Ingmar and Linn: I know he was in awe of her. She’s his youngest daughter. And I know in the last year of his life, she was often at the island to be with him, and I think holding her hand must have been something tremendously important for him.