The other night I decided to take in some Bergman. I had a few choices, thanks to Amazon’s instant video streaming service. It made it possible for me to avoid my old standby, “The Seventh Seal” (“Det sjunde inseglet”). While it does feature a young, gaunt, and very Nordic looking Max von Sydow, whose hair appears blond and lit like a fire even in black-and-white, after a hectic week at work a scene of him playing chess against Death with a capital D or people dying from the bubonic plague was not necessarily the stimulating intellectual fare I had in mind.
Imagine how delighted I was to come across “Summer with Monika” (“Sommaren med Monika”). What an idyllic title and how beautiful it sounds in Swedish. In addition, frankly, remembering from years stills of the lovely and voluptuous Harriet Anderson as Monika in the nude against the backdrop of the sea and an island, both the reptilian part of my brain and its more reasoning areas were in a receptive mode.
I should have known that Ingmar Bergman would not disappoint. Even my wife, who upon learning that I was going to watch one of his films, was not disappointed, as she retreated to the other end of the house with the dogs and catalogs and a home improvement show on the television. She soon announced, while I turned down the volume, “I can hear lots of Swedish angst screaming!” “Well, that’s just how he is,” I said, almost feeling the need to defend Ingmar Bergman for not having worked on “Saturday Night Live!” or produced “Scooby-Doo.”
I don’t know why I had expected Bergman to produce something that was not full of pain, disappointment, with maybe only a moment or pinch of hope. “Sommaren med Monika” is a 1953 film, made when Bergman was young, so why should it have had peace and beauty, even the healing power of love, as offered by the more recent films of Woody Allen, a great admirer and, by his own admission, student of Bergman’s work. At least Woody Allen’s early works display a sense of humor that is neither biting nor cruel.
“Sommaren med Monika” offers a love story of two young persons. Monika needs no further introduction. The male character, with the unlikely name of Harry Lund, is played by Lars Ekborg. Harry Lund has a very boyish, almost pretty, and innocent look, and his hands tremble when a very assertive Monika asks him to light her cigarette in dreary a bar. She approaches Harry with an aggressiveness that today would earn her the title of “man-eater.” Wonder how she came across to film audiences in the 1950’s.
The young couple escapes their dead-end jobs and an unsatisfying home life on both fronts by motor-boating to a world of islands that are so lovely in the Swedish summer. Dialogue early on is idyllic in a way that unfortunately turns even the most kind and optimistic filmgoer into a snarky observer. The manner in which the couple carries on about the man getting an education so the two can buy a house, have a child, and the woman stay at home, would make even the most ardent Palme hater hiss with disgust. Bergman manages to ruin any kind of good memories we might have of youthful idealism or loving support of such we might muster. How cruel and sarcastic Bergman is!
The clouds in “Sommaren med Monika” are a recurring tableau, watchable without a soundtrack, even as they heavy-handedly spell out trouble in paradise. And how hard to tune out we are being told that the couple is on a journey when toward the beginning of the film when we are shown the motor boat owned by Harry’s father running through bridge after bridge to escape the city and civilization.
We must forgive also Bergman for rendering as if he were stage and prop master intent on not remaining invisible when we watch Monika becoming savage in the absence of civilization when she steals a roast and begins to eat it like an animal. Then there is the almost-killing that the author of “Lord of the Flies” would be proud of which Bergman assigns to Harry Lund.
Since this is a Bergman film and joy and beauty must not be allowed to rule, the couple returns to civilization. And o what a paradise it is not. Monika is pregnant, Harry has to get a job that is still not fun, and what money he brings home to Monika is not enough. Monika makes this very clear. The story continues with the noble Harry trying to study and still the screaming baby while Monika does nothing to help the couple build their future together. Harry, as directed by Bergman, appears a puppet of good and one can only wonder if Bergman wants us to suffer watch the good man suffer or if he wants us to help Harry grow a spine and take action to put an end to his suffering. Monika is a bitch and whore the way Bergman depicts her (I choose these words to convey tone compliments of Bergman and not because I want to use bad language), as she sleeps around while good Harry exists only to show suffering. Even the most diehard feminist upon watching Monika and Harry will be turned into a man’s rights activist if there is such a role.
On the other hand, is Ingmar Bergman’s portrayal of Monika a once-in-a-lifetime situational sketch? Can we understand and forgive Bergman the artist for perhaps using the film as a therapeutic vehicle for Bergman the man? Many of us know, either from personal experience or having friends whose relationships have ended badly, that anger, even bitterness has its unfortunate place in the lives of human beings. Can we forgive Bergman’s heavy-handed moving of the pieces across his chessboard of a film because it is the work of a young filmmaker? Is the lens through which we view “Sommaren med Monika” today clouded by experiences of a world so different from the 1950’s that we fail to laud Ingmar Bergman for having created something that was indeed artful when the film first appeared? Do we need to make any excuses for Bergman the artist or man?
When and where will we–Swedes, Swedish-Americans, citizens of the globe–watch Ingmar Bergman films? Will his work endure and more so than simply as a national treasure or monument that is only visited dutifully or not at all? When is the last time you watched an Ingmar Bergman film? Should Swedish school children watch Bergman’s work? Will they watch it or is Bergman yet another dying giant who in our current generation is dead on arrival?
As Bergman wrote on a note to his housekeeper, “Om den här osten är Jarlslbärg är jag Kalle Anka!” (“If this cheese is Jarlsbärg, I’m Donald Duck!”) Perhaps we have lost our artistic taste buds and ability to appreciate anything that deviates from safe staples.