Thomas Elsaesser
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Bergman transnational
Munich–Rome–Los Angeles, or ‘The last temptation of Ingmar Bergman’

This chapter deals with Bergman’s close contacts with transnational film producer Dino de Laurentiis, working out of Rome, and with legendary Hollywood talent agent Paul Kohner. Bergman discussed potential film projects with both of them over the years, and their correspondence is traced in detail here. Bergman was contacted by De Laurentiis in the early 1960s regarding a possible adaptation of the story of Jesus, which in the end came to nothing. Bergman also enjoyed close contacts with Kohner, who was the agent of Bergman actress Liv Ullmann. As with predecessors like Mauritz Stiller, who had entered Hollywood in the 1920s accompanied by Greta Garbo, Bergman’s possible entrance into Hollywood was connected to his leading female star. Kohner was also involved with certain distribution deals regarding Bergman’s films in the USA. The possible projects discussed by Bergman and Kohner mainly concerned a possible Hollywood adaptation for the cinema of Franz Lehár’s operetta The Merry Widow, starring American actress Barbra Streisand, a project which also involved de Laurentiis as producer. Had the film been made, it would have become the fourth film version of this story. Although it was discussed for several years and went through various stages of development, Bergman’s enthusiasm for the project eventually waned, and Elsaesser emphasizes Bergman’s difficulties in adapting to Hollywood professional strategies. As for de Laurentiis, he would eventually produce Bergman’s English-language film The Serpent’s Egg (1977), shot in Germany during Bergman’s self-imposed exile from Sweden.

With this chapter I am essentially revisiting my experience during 2006–2007 when I was the Ingmar Bergman Professor. I was attached to Stockholm University but was appointed by the Ingmar Bergman Foundation, and it was the year that turned out to be the final one of Bergman’s life. Among the official aims of the appointment was that I should work in the newly housed Ingmar Bergman Archives at the Swedish Film Institute, and open up the holdings to fresh areas of research, including for international scholars.

As I had written about The Serpent’s Egg (1977) for another Bergman conference—one also attended by several of the authors in this volume—this to my mind under-appreciated film seemed like a good place to start. And while going through the various papers and files of the Munich years, I made some notes from the letters, telegrams, and business correspondence which Bergman exchanged with Dino De Laurentiis in Rome, and with Paul Kohner in Los Angeles. Thus, when Erik Hedling invited me to write this chapter, I first remembered these notes I had taken.

But I also vividly remembered The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman—a 2009 radio musical by the legendary duo Sparks (aka Ron and Russell Mael) and commissioned by Sveriges Radio (SR). After being broadcast in Swedish on SR and in English on BBC Radio 3, it was issued as an English-language album. But it made international headlines when the Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin expressed interest in turning it into a film in 2011, and the Los Angeles Film Festival commissioned Maddin and Sparks to do a live preview of the film on the festival’s opening night.

The plot premise is that immediately after his 1956 success at Cannes (nomination for the Palme d’Or and first prize for poetic humour) with Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), Bergman was enticed to Hollywood, where he was greeted by none other than Greta Garbo herself. One enthusiastic commentator wrote:

Ron and Russell Mael’s yarn of the famed film director leaving Sweden for Hollywood is an […] easily followed fable in which Bergman (Finnish actor Peter Franzén) is tempted and prodded and pushed and pulled by studio chiefs (a charmingly viscous Russell Mael), fawning fans, flacks, concierges and shapely ‘welcoming committees,’ all of whom would have our serious auteur bring some of that delicious Euro art-film angst to their twinkly little town […]. Bergman spends a lot of time mulling over the possibilities; of course he also spends a lot of time agonizing over the cost of such a move. Would he sell his soul? And what is his soul, exactly? Indeed, is there a God? He can’t help himself, he’s sucked into the maelstrom.1

Set in 1956, this is obviously a fantasy: Bergman had no intention of relocating to Hollywood at that point. But fast-forward twenty years, to 1976, and there may have been more reality to the seduction scenario than we might at first think.

For at first glance, the situation in 1976 was the exact reverse of the one twenty years earlier. Rather than Hollywood beckoning Bergman in the afterglow of his triumphs in Cannes and then in Berlin, where he won the Golden Bear for Wild Strawberries (1957) in 1957, Bergman in 1976–1977 was at rock bottom, having had a nervous breakdown, fearing for his future as a film director, at odds with his country, even though the lawsuit was quickly dropped, while generally unmoored and uninspired by his German surroundings. What could be more natural than that he would cast his eyes elsewhere, to look towards Hollywood, rather like his somewhat younger colleagues Roman Polanski and Milos Foreman had done, or as Louis Malle was to do at about the same time: the mid-1970s saw Hollywood in crisis and in transition, but with the emergence of the so-called New Hollywood and its movie brats, it was also one of the most cinephile, experimental and innovative times in American cinema’s long history.

As I try to picture this moment in time, imagining Bergman’s ‘last temptation’ rather than his ‘first seduction’, and endeavour to reconstruct the narrative of Bergman’s Munich years, I’m relying on these notes scribbled in 2007. When I finally sat down to transcribe them, I realized that I, too, had been concocting a fantasy, insofar as Bergman’s contacts with major Hollywood figures had started much earlier, were more continuous, but were also more surprising in their twists and turns than either Sparks’s and Guy Maddin’s fantasy or my own musings had imagined.

Here, then, is something of a timeline, as I was able to reconstruct it, of Bergman’s encounters with Hollywood, many of which centred on or were initiated by Bergman’s contacts with Dino De Laurentiis, the powerful transnational producer, working out of Rome, but with long-standing interests in the Hollywood picture business.

The first relevant document in this respect dates from 9 January 1963, when De Laurentiis wrote to Bergman, inviting him to direct an episode in an omnibus film he was about to produce, called The Bible. De Laurentiis argues that he had already secured the co-operation of Orson Welles and Federico Fellini, as well as Robert Bresson and Luchino Visconti. He intimated that Bergman would be ideal for directing the episode of Abraham, sacrificing his son Isaac, but that he, De Laurentiis, was also open to other suggestions. Bergman’s reply was a telegram, dated 24 March, which read: ‘Very thankful – have no possibility to discuss your proposal, owing to my own projects.’ The Bible film—eventually called The Bible: In the Beginning—was made in 1966, no longer involving any of the names mentioned by De Laurentiis but solely directed by John Huston, with a cast that included Richard Harris, Ava Gardner, George C. Scott, and Peter O’Toole.

What is intriguing is that Bergman, interviewed on SR in August 1959 about his future film plans, offered a sort of fable or parable. When asked by Torsten Jungstedt whether he might work in France, Bergman had this to say: ‘With me it’s like a violinist who received an offer in France. They said, you should come down here and play, but you must play on a French instrument. But the violinist didn’t want to do that. It’s the same with me.’ This is a very perceptive remark when you think of Roman Polanski and Andrzej Wajda, not to mention more recent names such as Michael Haneke, Abbas Kiarostami, or even Aki Kaurismäki. But when Jungstedt mentions Dino De Laurentiis and The Bible project, ‘Bergman denies any knowledge of this and referred to Dino as one of those people who “[go] to bed as Don Quixote and [get] up as Sancho Panza”.’

Be this as it may, De Laurentiis was not put off by Bergman’s curt reply but kept up a correspondence with him throughout the 1960s. Early in 1968, Bergman was in discussion with De Laurentiis about a two-part film project called ‘Love Duet’ (where Fellini was to write and direct the second part). Bergman seems to have written a script, but Fellini never did his. At a press conference in Rome on 5 January 1969, the film was announced as a co-production of De Laurentiis’ DEG (De Laurentiis Entertainment Group) and Universal Studios, together with Bergman’s newly founded Swiss production and distribution company Persona Film—the company that would give him so much grief with the Swedish tax authorities. Each director was to make a film based on his conception of love. A lengthy correspondence ensued—with litigation about a sum of $73,000 that was part-payment due to Bergman for his script.

Six years later, the thought of a Bergman–Fellini collaboration was revived in 1975 and discussed in early 1976, when Bergman talked about a Warner project involving his unpublished script ‘The Petrified Prince’. In an interview, Bergman said: ‘It’s a sweet thought that Fellini and I might work together.’ Could this be the project that Bergman referred to in a letter to Kohner from 7 August, 1975?

Dear Paul… I am deeply involved in the writing about the last days of Jesus Christ. Honestly, I have a feeling that it will be very difficult to find time for the pornographic picture before the other project, but I will make my final decision in the middle of August when I have met the Italian producer from RAI.

It was in 1972 that the contacts with Hollywood began to be conducted with increasing seriousness on both sides. This is in part due to the efforts of Paul Kohner, a legendary figure, and by then a veteran Hollywood fixer, the spider in the web of several decades of transnational film relations, going back to the time of the German émigrés in the 1930s and 1940s. Of Czech-German origins, Kohner left for New York in 1920, where he worked for Carl Laemmle’s Universal Pictures. He subsequently moved to Hollywood still contracted to Universal as production supervisor and casting director. In 1938, Kohner founded the Paul Kohner Talent Agency and had as his clients Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Maurice Chevalier, Billy Wilder, but also Dolores del Río, Henry Fonda, David Niven, Lana Turner, as well as John Huston. Kohner headed the agency until his death in March 1988.

Kohner made contact with Bergman because he was also the agent of Liv Ullmann, whose American career took off after she won a Golden Globe Award and a Best Actress Academy Award Nomination for her role as Kristina in Jan Troell’s The Emigrants in 1971. It was after the success of her next—sixth—film with Bergman, Cries and Whispers (1972), in the USA that Kohner became seriously interested in representing Bergman, and took him on as a client.

However, on 12 January 1972 Kohner had already approached Bergman with a proposal about the possibility of producing a Broadway musical based on Smiles of a Summer Night. The producer was to be Harold Prince, who put on Cabaret in 1966 and had a string of successes collaborating with Stephen Sondheim throughout the 1970s. Cries and Whispers premiered in the USA in December 1972, doing very well at the box office, and garnered exuberant reviews, especially from the New York critics. Bergman kept The New York Times review of Sunday 15 January 1973, which says that Cries and Whispers is ‘a film of which each and every frame could hang in an art gallery’. There was also a proposal to do a dubbed English version of Cries and Whispers which Bergman rejected.

Somewhat ironically, but in actual fact quite a common occurrence, it was the fame of a female star—Liv Ullmann—that opened Hollywood doors to yet another European director. This had been the case with Ernst Lubitsch in 1921, whose path to Hollywood was smoothed by the box office promise which Hollywood saw in Pola Negri; and this was the case with Mauritz Stiller, who travelled to Hollywood on the first wave of Greta Garbo mania. So the idea of having Bergman be greeted by Garbo in Sparks’s The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman is suggestively apt.

From then on, Kohner and Bergman exchanged letters and telegrams quite frequently, including one from 18 April 1972, when Kohner asked Bergman to please drop a line to Jean Renoir, who was in poor health. On 16 June 1972, Bergman mentions his brother-in-law Paul Britten Austin, the husband of his sister Margareta. Britten Austin was an English author, translator, and broadcaster, as well as an extremely well-respected scholar of Swedish literature, who had moved to Stockholm in 1951. For some reason, Bergman fell out with him, and in this letter to Kohner he bluntly calls him ‘a real idiot’. On 31 October 1973, Kohner confirmed that he was organizing the shipment of the prints that Bergman had ordered for his private film collection: Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932), Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (1937), Chaplin’s Goldrush (1925), Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), and possibly Citizen Kane (1941), as well as Erich von Stroheim’s Merry Widow (Mae Marsh, 1925) and DeMille’s Ten Commandments (1956).

Perhaps by way of thank you, Bergman sent Kohner a Goethe poem from 1776 as a Christmas telegram:

Feiger Gedanken / bängliches Schwanken,

weibisches Zagen, / ängstliches Klagen

wendet kein Elend, / macht dich nicht frei.

Allen Gewalten / zum Trutz sich erhalten,

nimmer sich beugen, / kräftig sich zeigen,

rufet die Arme / der Götter herbei.

Cowardly thoughts / fearful wavering,

Womanish hesitations, / anxious lamentation

Do not end misery / nor will set you free.

Staying firm / in the face of your foes

Never bending / Displaying strength

Brings on the helping arms / of the gods.

But not everything goes smoothly in the Kohner–Bergman relation, possibly reflecting on Bergman’s inexperience with the ways of Hollywood, or his mounting anxiety over money not flowing back to him. It came to a head when, in early 1973, Scenes from a Marriage, which was to prove an enormous success in Europe and once more featured Liv Ullmann, a bidding war started over the US distribution rights. Having upset Kohner by trying to do separate deals with Janus Film, Bergman reacted in a peevish manner and said he wanted nothing to do with the practicalities. Yet Harry Schein as well as Ingrid (Bergman’s wife) also became involved, until everybody was thoroughly upset. Here is a passage from Kohner’s March 1973 letter:

My dear Ingmar,

I had long and good talks here with Kenne Fant and Mrs. Kuhn, and […] I could clarify my position regarding the six television segments [of Scenes from a Marriage]. I explained to them that I feel it detrimental to the generally very high standards which we have achieved for the Ingmar Bergman trademark, […] that the sub-agent of Janus Film (who are not agents at all, but distributors) indicates that these segments could be bought at low prices – and is doing so at a time when he can show no prints in this country.

[I have now] received information that the situation here had changed: namely that the sub-agent demanded $150,000.00 per segment and suggested to fly to Stockholm to look at the TV films and this of course, was a satisfactory basis, which would make stepping in unnecessary.

Under these circumstances I feel that I have rendered an important and unselfish service in seeing to it that the actions in this country for these television films do not start out on an unreasonably low basis. And I shall be ready again to step in, should a situation develop which involves a danger of disturbing our general efforts for your work by bargain basement competition: Ingmar Bergman against Ingmar Bergman.

In the same letter, Kohner also mentions another project, perhaps the best known of Bergman’s unsuccessful Hollywood ventures: a film version of Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow, with Barbra Streisand in the lead role—in what would have been the fourth film version of this popular operetta. The project also connects to Dino De Laurentiis, because he seems to have been the driving force. A telegram dated 18 December 1972 opens, in typically breathless telegraph style, some rather breathtaking possibilities:

I am pleased to tell you after two long meetings with Barbara Streisand’s people together with Paul Kohner there exists the possibility of arranging a final contract stop Al Pacino does not feel himself right for Danilo and he is very unhappy that he won’t have a chance this time to work with you but hopes there may be another opportunity stop Alain Delon insists he can play only Danilo stop Danny Kaye would like have a conversation with you he [is] coming to Europe near future will phone you and try come and see you stop on January 5th I will have the below the line budget and from January 5th to 13th I am in Rome stop would be delighted if you could come and spend couple of days with your wife in Rome as my guests so could meet for discussions stop if you cannot make trip then I would like arrive Stockholm Saturday January 12th for meeting with you and Kenne Fant Saturday evening to make final decisions about everything stop Merry Christmas to you and yours and very happy New Year – yours Dino.

Kenne Fant at that time was CEO of Svensk Filmindustri, and therefore a key partner in the venture, which would have been a De Laurentiis–Svensk Filmindustri co-production.

At the end of the year, on 30 December 1973, Bergman wrote to Kohner:

1. After Feb 1st I am ready to go to Rome or New York or anywhere else (Ingrid now says, don’t promise too much).

2. Please tell Dino that I will never accept Alain Delon as Danilo. We must find somebody who is warm as a Vulcan and desperate as a security conference in the White House. I vote for Thommy Berggren [a favourite actor of Bo Widerberg], but if somebody could find a ‘star’ with his qualifications I will be ready to accept.

3. When you make the agreement with Mrs Streisand please tell me in advance about her conditions and rights in relation to the materialization of the picture (crossed out: i.e. I don’t want her people on the set or seeing the daylies or involved in any respect).

One can sense that Bergman is anxious about the possible power relations tilting in the star’s favour. A letter to Kohner from 5 February 1974 is almost offensively explicit: He calls Streisand ‘that stinking little lady’, but goes on to say ‘I feel pity for her wonderful, extraordinary genius, that generous, beautiful genius living in a greedy, narrow and destructive mind.’ However, The Merry Widow project was still alive on 23 March 1974, in an interview reportage in Aftonbladet titled ‘Bergman and Streisand agree: We shall make a movie together’. There is also a note from Kohner, suggesting that Bergman should have a look at Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music to get a feel of how Hollywood does musicals. But, it seems, a month later, the project was definitely called off, and on 13 April 1974, Bergman wrote to Kenne Fant: ‘Now I have finally liquidated the Widow. It was with great relief that I dismissed the troublesome lady.’ He had already written to Kohner on 17 March:

my first reason for dropping The Widow is an artistical one. […] I have already lost too much creative time. I have always the feeling that my life as an artist is very short (even if I will go on until I’m 95). I always feel that I’m only in the beginning of my artistical investigations. I always feel curious to see what’s going on round the corner behind the shadows in my mind, or in the workshop of my imagination. That passion is my only real treasure and I feel responsible for it in every moment.

The next challenge ‘round the corner’ with Hollywood came when Scenes from a Marriage proved Bergman’s biggest box-office success in the USA, and Walter Mirish, then President, invited Bergman to become a member of the Academy of Motion Pictures. To my knowledge, Bergman did not accept; and there is another note which indicates the director’s degree of ambivalence when he wrote to Kohner, on 25 September 1974, to denounce his own favourite actor Max von Sydow, for taking on ‘silly pictures’ that make him a lot of money, but are ‘a catastrophe for his creative mind. … This will slowly but firmly destroy him as an artist and a human being.’ Presumably he was thinking of von Sydow’s role in The Exorcist (1973).

In March 1975 Bergman visited New York to meet up with Paul Kohner and Dino De Laurentiis in order to arrange a distribution deal for Face to Face (1976). It proved a success, financially as well as critically, and got him an Academy Award nomination for Best Director. It also made De Laurentiis keen to have Bergman direct an English-language film for his company. This is when the possibility of The Serpent’s Egg was first mooted, and there is a telegram from Dino, saying that he thought the script was very ‘powerful’.

On 9 June 1975, Bergman had renewed his contract with the Paul Kohner Agency for three years. By way of presumably ironic encouragement, Kohner sent Bergman a telegram on 1 July 1975. ‘Dear Ingmar, now that your monumental chore is finished, you are fully entitled to that nervous breakdown stop let no-one deprive you of it stop I hope you enjoy it to the fullest. Fondly Paukoner.’

Three years later, on 2 October 1978, Bergman extended the contract once more with the now renamed Paul Kohner–Michael Levy Agency. This suggests that Bergman had not given up on the possibility of making a film in Hollywood, but there are other signs that he was not actively pursuing specific projects. Two incidents in particular seem noteworthy: first, Bergman and Ingrid were to spend the summer of 1976 in Los Angeles, to work on the contract details for The Serpent’s Egg. This is how Bergman describes the visit in The Magic Lantern:

The heat wave of the century had struck California. We arrived two days before mid-summer and sat in the tomb-like air-conditioned chill, watching boxing on television. We tried walking to a nearby movie theatre in the evening, and the heat hit us like a falling concrete wall. The next morning Barbra Streisand telephoned and asked whether we would like to bring our bathing gear with us for a little party by the pool. I thanked her, put down the receiver, turned to Ingrid and said: ‘let’s go back to Faro at once and spend the summer there. We’ll just have to put up with the scorn and the laughter.’ A few hours later we were on our way.2

The second incident came a few years later, in 1981, after a disagreement over the US distribution of From the Life of the Marionettes (1980). This time, Bergman did not write to Paul Kohner himself but asked Jörn Donner, then Director of the Swedish Film Institute, to do so on his behalf. This is Donner’s letter to Kohner:

I have visited Bergman at Fårö yesterday. He feels he has to cancel the US visit because commercial release of Marionettes has been tied to visit. The only way of having him come is to delay release until minimum two weeks after his departure. The only screening he has consented to is in LA, but even if you succeed in the above and he changes his mind, he is not going to attend the Critics luncheon because it is paid for by the distributor, nor is he going to attend the Academy presentation. Please give all this your earnest attention and telex me back soonest.

In between the two episodes is the history of The Serpent’s Egg, in particular the struggle over finding the right male lead. The extended search, the mishaps, and the final choice are described in some detail by Bergman himself in Images, so I can keep it short. Bergman’s preference was for Dustin Hoffman, as this telegram written to De Laurentiis on 5 May 1976, from the George V Hotel in Paris, indicates: ‘Dustin Hoffman and I had a six-hour meeting Saturday I was deeply impressed by his artistic integrity and intellectual abilities; we came to an immediate emotional understanding please help me to solve if possible all the difficult technical problems.’

De Laurentiis’s answer came a week later, on 12 May:

Am trying do everything possible to give you dustin hoffman for your picture but after negotiating with his agent, situation is as follows:

1) if you wish to start picture in September with dh I would have to give world wide distribution of picture to first artist warner bros, which for me is very difficult to accept but which I would do to make you happy, but even then there is yet another essential condition they insist on, and that is that picture must not cost more than 300,000 dollars. In my opinion it is impossible to make the picture with this amount.

2) Second alternative is to postpone picture to January when dustin hoffman will be free from his commitment with first artist. Please let me know your feeling, in order to enable me to answer hoffman.

In the end, Bergman had to settle for David Carradine, straight from the TV series Kung-Fu, whom Bergman nevertheless called ‘a gift from heaven’ because he reminded him of Anders Ek; but Carradine was so out of it that he regularly fell asleep during the filming. The Serpent’s Egg was a critical and commercial disappointment, so much so that Bergman’s next project, Love without Lovers, was turned down by both De Laurentiis and Horst Wendlandt, Bergman’s German producer, whereupon Bergman cannibalized the script and made From the Life of the Marionettes for television and on a much more modest budget. For The Serpent’s Egg, De Laurentiis had been able to offer him $500,000 for directing and another $250,000 for the screenplay, plus a BMW for his personal use.

In his autobiography, Bergman says relatively little about his various attempts to establish a presence in Hollywood. At the start of chapter 8 of The Magic Lantern—the chapter dealing with his tax troubles starting in January 1976—we find the following cryptic passage:

Slowly and with some hesitation, I had begun to turn in the direction of America, the reason being the greater resources for myself and my company Cinematograph. The chances of producing quality films with American money, directed by others, were increasing sharply. I was extremely amused by playing film mogul, a role I now think I did not manage particularly well.3

After what I have tried to document, this would seem to be an understatement, but it indicates that, by the time Bergman left Sweden, and by the time he signed the contract with Dino to make The Serpent’s Egg, the temptation of Hollywood had already receded, and Bergman seemed to know it. Although The Serpent’s Egg was made in English, with an American actor as the male lead, and with Dino De Laurentiis’s Hollywood company, Bergman considered the film not even German, but Swedish:

From the Life of the Marionettes is my only German film. The Serpent’s Egg may at first glance appear equally German. But I conceived it in Sweden [he had been working on the story since before he filmed Face to Face] and I wrote it at about the same time I was receiving the warning signs of my own personal catastrophe.4

Without going back into the archive and doing more work on the complex relations with Dino De Laurentiis which spanned at least twenty years, as well as looking into the economic benefits of his US fame and reputation, it is difficult to decide whether Bergman ever seriously considered making a film in and for Hollywood, or whether ‘American money’, as he calls it, was his only incentive. The parable of the violinist probably comes closest to how we may think of it. Perhaps few directors with as global a reach and as transnational an appeal to audiences as Bergman have drawn as much from themselves and as little from Hollywood, and yet his commerce and correspondence with Hollywood during the 1970s casts a fascinating light on this most turbulent and for many scholars last great decade of both European and American cinema.

2 Ingmar Bergman, The Magic Lantern, translated from Swedish by Joan Tate (New York and London: Penguin Books, 1988), pp. 105–106.
3 Bergman, The Magic Lantern, p. 84.
4 Ingmar Bergman, Images: My Life in Film, translated from Swedish by Marianne Ruuth (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1990), p. 215.
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Ingmar Bergman

An enduring legacy



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