As my phone interview with Liv Ullmann draws to a close, I hear papers rustling in her New York hotel room. “I had all these notes about Bergman,” she confides with a laugh, she never referred to them. So much the better, for the great actress (and accomplished director, in her own right) had been wondrously in the moment, drawing on a pinpoint memory to elucidate the essence of her alliance with the Swedish icon Ingmar Bergman.
“I had been an actress for seven years, [and] I felt that I had been an actress my whole life,” Ullmann says, recounting their meeting in the mid-1960s. “I had worked with one of his closest collaborators, Bibi Andersson, and I came to Stockholm to visit her. He was an incredible filmmaker in my mind already then. I met him on the street and he had heard about me and seen my films, and he said immediately, ‘I would like to work with you.’ Though that movie never happened, Persona happened because of that meeting. I think he was very struck, standing there on the street with Bibi and with me, by our alikeness in the way we looked and in the way we talked.
“When the picture I was supposed to be in was cancelled, Bibi and I went on a cultural tour to Poland and Czechoslovakia. We were told that Ingmar was ill and was in the hospital. But he always became ill when he didn’t want to do something. [In] Czechoslovakia we were told by the embassy that we had to come back to Sweden because he was well again and he had made a new script in the hospital, and that was Persona.”
A harrowing portrayal of the identity and power dynamics between an actress who’s stopped speaking (Ullmann) and her nurse (Andersson), Persona (1966) made international stars out of both actresses. It’s the natural choice to open Bergman 100: A Tribute to Liv Ullmann on Thursday, Feb. 1, the first of five programs in BAMPFA’s year-long celebration of Bergman’s centennial.
Ullmann’s in-person appearances at BAMPFA, at this show and for Shame (1968) on Feb. 3, are both sold out. Screenings have been added on Feb. 3 and 4, respectively, but she won’t be present. The Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael hosts Ullmann for an evening of conversation and clips on Feb. 2, and a discussion following Autumn Sonata (1978) on Feb. 4. Ullmann will then introduce Faithless, the 2000 film she directed from Bergman’s screenplay.
“He was struck by something that he had seen with Bibi and me, and he built Persona on that thing,” Ullmann says. “We never saw it as an incredible movie at the time. I was 25 years old, I didn’t really understand it and neither did Bibi, but we understood the feelings. I knew one thing very well, and that I was him. Not that I could verbalize what I knew or understood about him but I recognized him, and I think he recognized me. He was almost 50, he had come to a sad moment where he wanted to isolate and not talk and turn away from society and people and love and everything. And he put all of that into my part. Bibi was the other part — maybe she was him, too — that wanted to connect, to understand.”
A small film but a penetrating character study, Persona marked a change in Bergman’s moviemaking as well as Ullmann’s breakthrough. While the director advised his stock company of Max von Sydow, Erland Josephson and Bibi and Harriet Andersson not to travel or take roles in big films, he wasn’t opposed when Ullmann did it.
“Ingmar would sometimes be asked, ‘What about Liv, and all this world fame she got suddenly?’ ‘Well, it doesn’t matter for her because she’ll always be this girl from Norway. That’s who she is,’” Ullmann recalls. “I think what we recognized in each other was that I was doing things that he would have liked to do but he just couldn’t. That’s why very quickly after I met him he decided to live on [the island of] Gotland.”
Ullmann describes Bergman and his wife jetting to New York for one night in 1975 to see her play Nora onstage in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, which prompts a singularly incongruous anecdote.
“He came once to Los Angeles and thought maybe he would do a movie there, but he packed up immediately,” Ullmann says. “Barbra Streisand called him and said, ‘I’m having a swimming pool party tomorrow, just bring your bathing suit and come over.’ That’s when he decided he had to go home very, very, very quickly. Home, and to his island. That would have never happened to me, because I would have thought, ‘Oh, what fun. I’m going to do that.’”
The power of Ullmann’s acting derives from her bravery — her willingness to explore raw, painful situations — matched by an ability to express thoughts and emotions with extraordinary immediacy and transparency.
“I’m not a character actor, because I can’t do this wonderful thing that [Gary Oldman], who played Churchill [in Darkest Hour] did. But whoever I’m supposed to be, I can let the feelings of that person go through me but it all goes through Liv. It goes through the face. I don’t have to act. I can be, and that’s my way of being an actress,” she says.
Bergman certainly recognized, and appreciated, that quality in Ullmann over the course of the dozen films that they made together. But she suggests that it was her ability to recognize Bergman in her characters, without their discussing it, that he appreciated the most.
“Like all great directors, he doesn’t tell you what you’re feeling and where you came from and your background and all those things,” Ullmann says, referring to the late director in the present tense. “But you are never allowed to change the words, and he gave you wonderful blocking without explaining too much why you get up from the chair and you walk a little here, and there, and [say] these lines, and then you end up sitting in another corner on another chair. I would always think, ‘It’s not about [my character]. This is something about Ingmar.’”
A related memory comes unbid to Ullmann, making her pages of notes superfluous.
“I did a suicide scene in Face to Face (1976) and he never told me what to do, except to take a lot of pills and end up on the bed where I was sitting and more or less die. The only thing he did was I heard him say to somebody, ‘Did you take away the sleeping pills and put sugar pills?’ He knew I heard it. So he gave me that private fantasy: ‘Oh, maybe they didn’t.’ But I was thinking, this is a suicide that Ingmar really would like to do. And that he would do in his mother’s home.”
Ullmann adds, “He never said, ‘thank you, thank you,’ so I just had to invent new things. But it was all in the framework of Ingmar. It’s very hard to explain, but that’s how it was.”
Bergman 100: A Tribute to Liv Ullmann runs Feb. 1—24, 2018 at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. For more information, click here.