Scenes From a Marriage: Between “cool media” and “codes of intimacy”

Ingmar Bergman and his cinematic works are mainly associated with the idea of film as art, established and reproduced in the era of auteur-filmmaking, to which most of his production certainly and rightfully belong historically. But even though there have been a number of propositions on how to understand Bergman as a cross-media artist (for example by approaching the connections between the stage and the screen, or the written word and the moving image) it is rarely highlighted that with Scener ur ett äktenskap (1973), Bergman actually produced TV in a time where it was the dominant mass medium and where its ways of shaping communication left an in-erasable blow to the production of social semantics in the West. I’ll enter a revisited view on Scener ur ett äktenskap concerned with the medial implications of its form as television. By tracing down some basic structures of TV-communication and their possible connections to the idea of amour passion as an anachronistic code of love, I shall argue that Scener ur ett äktenskap can be understood as a performative comment on the medial changes and their impact on the semantics of love at the time. This approach is a reaction to an analysis provided by Jono van Belle, where he is mainly focusing the discourses on love during the sexual liberation at the time and its representations in mass media. The main distinction between van Belles views and mine is that I’ll be concerned with television in a narrow, media-historical sense overshadowing the ‘message’ of the series. I will, therefore, be less occupied with the notion of ‘ideology’, which van Belle stretches to a large degree. This will become clearer when I draw a sketch on a direct opposition of our readings, concerned with the symbolic function of candles in the series.

To begin with, it is important to identify a potential intersection between two distinct but equally influential concepts in modern cultural studies: Namely Marshall McLuhan’s distinction between hot and cold media and Niklas Luhmann’s concept of love as symbolically generalized medium of communication, based on the code amour passion that switched from passive to active during a historical turn to what Luhmann calls modern societies. I shall stretch the premise that Scener ur ett äktenskap allows us to draw conclusions on medial and semantic changes of the time and important for this is that both of the presented ideas capitalize on implicit, yet fundamental notions of an anachronism within social communication. Anachronisms, due to both authors, are fundamental yet problematic links between the contemporary patterns of modern societies and the historical structures used to understand them.

In his work Understanding Media (1964) McLuhan provides a history of mankind determined by the impact of different media, or what he calls “extensions of man”. Due to this narrative, the western world has to a significant degree been shaped by linearity and sequence established by the dominance of the written word, causing a lasting epistemological frame based on these forms. As McLuhan suggests, the most challenging shift of perception has come with the introduction of electricity into human affairs: Electricity’s consequences for social communication have led to a society less structured in accordance to the linearity of the written word, but more in accordance to the fluid and instant TV-image. He emphasizes this change by drawing a distinction between a mechanical age, that allowed societies and subjects to spread and expand in time (writing) and space (machines), and our electric age, that has caused a medial implosion and thereby is narrowing the expanded world down to being within constant reach, or as he puts it, to “a global embrace, abolishing both time and space” (McLuhan, 1964, 3). These two ages are mainly characterised by the influence of two distinct sorts of media effects, where the mechanical age was shaped mainly by ‘hot’ media and the electric age by ‘cool’ media. His distinction goes as follows:

“[H]ot media do not leave so much to be filled in or completed by the audience. Hot media are, therefore, low in participation, and cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience […which] is a basic principle that distinguishes […] a hot medium like the movie from a cool one like a TV” (McLuhan, 1964, 24ff).

The historical timeline that McLuhan draws within this concept shows that the move to “cool” media, caused mainly by electricity, will – in a kind of dialectic turn – reunite mankind with the culture of orality in premodern societies: The spoken word is the archetype of a “cool” medium. To no surprise, McLuhan is not much interested in the messages different media carry, but in the effects their specific kind of being might have: Whilst the movies still occupy all the attention of the consumer by providing a dense flow of information, TV opens up towards to the audience and involves the act of reception into the narratives it generates. This will be central to my understanding of Scener ur ett äktenskap. What remains inevitable is McLuhan’s observation, that these shifts in modern media culture come at a cost of conflict between the anachronistic patterns of understanding, which were established within the structures of the mechanical age, and the functions of our contemporary electric age. This conflict generates a certain degree of ‘numbness’, blinding us to the effects of the medial paradigm shifts. Therefore, human subjects as much as anthropoid artefacts are constantly incongruent to new media’s most profound consequences, a matter caused “by the literary bias of the West for the printed form” (McLuhan, 1964, 36ff). Considering these premises, it is tempting to say that Scener ur ett äktenskap does not represent or provide any specific ‘message’ about love, but by itself performs a recodification of love bound to equivalent recodifications within the system of mass media: If we take McLuhan’s distinction between the movies and TV seriously, Scener ur ett äktenskap gains a sort of hybrid status of the type that while conserving the form a fictional, moving image, its venue of reception was effectively relocated in space (from the cinemas to the homes) and time (from a closed, immersive story to open, fragmented episodes), thereby enforcing a differing kind of communication-based on involvement and completion by the audience, in the way McLuhan describes it.

Let’s take a look at the opening scene of the series: The iconic interview situation where Johan and Marianne are located on the sofa, side by side, investigating their thoughts on love and marriage. A boulevard journalist has entered their home to mediate the happy couple’s thoughts to a potential readership, all of this in front of a real TV audience. It is strikingly evident that the generated frame provides as much a mirror  as it provides a window to the ‘real’: The mise-en-scène picturing a married couple at home in a (more or less conscious) dialogue with (popular) mass media provides an instant reflection on the expected situation of its own reception. It presupposes the series’ own capacity of producing involvement and participation. The initial and constitutive conflict of the series takes off by this very penetration into the protected sphere of romantic love, namely the bourgeois’ home. A popular medium enters and leaves a closed social system, leaving an irritation that generates a change of communications within the system it entered and thereby driving the narration through all of the six following episodes. From this igniting act of unexpected communication, the ‘message’ of the series is more or less set but it also effectively disguises its own social operations, consisting of the very same production of irritation from one fictional home into countless real ones. Once the boulevard-journalist leaves, the real scenery begins and I want to propose that the same goes for the reception of the series itself; once the episode is finished, the involving character of the TV medium becomes transparent by allowing Anschlusskommunikation (Luhmann), which means that the irritation necessarily generates a follow-up communication as it does not provide a closed story-line but instead produces expectations and possibilities. This is what makes TV a cool medium and dependent on social codes to regulate its duration. But how do these codes work and what do they share with love, in other words; how is the relationship between form (TV) and subject (love) to be understood?

Luhmann repeatedly encountered the production of binary codes to allow unlikely communication to occur. One kind of communication-system being in desperate need of complexity-reduction are intimate relations, according to his views. Therefore, in different ages of humanity, a number of heterogeneous codes have arisen to regulate intimacy, with amour passion being the dominant one in western, modern societies, as he states in Liebe als Passion (1982). Love, due to Luhmann, is therefore not a feeling but a code allowing for communication that encourages a certain development of feelings. This codification, love as passion or simply amour passion, produced a semantic change, turning the original meaning of passion as something you suffer from to something you actively establish for a functional relationship. Luhmann finds the first traces of this change in French novels of the 17th century and identifies its climax in the literary tradition of romanticism, using the fragmented form of epistolary writing, producing a telos of emotional urgency.2 This code, the amour passion, is the pendant to McLuhan’s concept of linearity: An anachronistic frame, incongruent to the challenges of modern societies. Why is this interesting for our revisited view of Scener ur ett äktenskap? First of all, it shows that the codes produced to regulate intimacy seem to derive from aesthetic artefacts, like novels. Secondly, this medial effect on the western ideals of love is strikingly coherent to McLuhan’s history of media influence. By raising the issue of the medial side of communication and suggesting that the hot medium of the written word was decisive for the social organization of the West and still is, McLuhan’s approach makes it tempting to characterise the code amour passion as genuinely influenced by the dispositive of hot media, like the novels that Luhmann exemplifies his theory with. Respectively, for the matter of love and its codification, amour passion seems to be as anachronistic as the literary medium, that carried and produced it. The change from “hot” to ‘cool’ media equivalently should evoke a change from ‘hot’ (read passionate) love to some “cool” substituent code for communicating on and within love.

One finds an expression of desire for this yet undefined, “cool” code of love in the ongoing interview scene, that we discussed earlier. Marianne gives a hint on who the victims of amour passion could be towards the fictional readership and at the same time towards the real TV-audience: “Människor som ramlar ihop under obegripliga krav på känsloprestationer”. After asking, whether this was understandable she gets the response: “Att livet blir lite mer romantiskt?” All she can reply is: “Nej, det menade jag faktiskt inte. Jag menade tvärtemot”. In this case, the journalist represents a hot medium like print, obviously unable to decode the cool message Marianne provides. Due to the limitations of the print medium, or as the journalist puts it, due to the expectations of her readership, Marianne’s message does not fit. But at the same time, the TV viewer (in opposition to the boulevard readership) has a privileged access to her critique of the code by observing this dialogue and therefore hearing Marianne out. It seems, that TV can decode, mediate and reinforce Marianne’s proposition in a way that boulevard press cannot. This regardless of its position within high/low frames, that have usually been stressed while approaching the TV medium.  The effect of intimacy created in the opening scene draws on the very same idea that McLuhan’s describes when he writes “[t]hat everybody in the world has to live in the utmost proximity created by our electric involvement in one another’s lives” (McLuhan, 1964, 39).

Taken together, the example shows that rather than reflecting current ideological breakouts in the primary mass medium of the time (TV), what Scener actually allows us to conclude, is that the choice of the medium itself (also TV) signifies and produces a switch within social relations, especially intimate ones, from “hot” to “cold” by contrasting it with codes expected in the anachronistic medium of print. The stunning impacts the series might have had on the divorce rate in Sweden has often been debated and has also become a kind of cinematic myth itself; for example, the kind of impact has been quoted both by Ruben Östlund during his launch of Turist (2014)and most recently by Fanni Metelius while referring to her film Hjärtat (2018). By highlighting the motifs of self-reflection in the opening scene, I have tried to show that the impression that a TV series can have a ‘real’ effect on ‘real’ relationships could be traced back to McLuhan’s idea of cool media being more involving and participatory than hot media, like print. This also implies that by regarding aesthetic artefacts as potential sources for semantic changes within the social system of love, TV is for the same reasons that I’ve sketched an interesting case: If the hot medium of print could enforce a switch from passive to active operations of passion within intimate relations, like Luhmann states, why shouldn’t the cold and involving medium of TV have similar impacts? This is not to say, that the series actually had a causal effect on the divorce-rates; it is merely an effort to explain for why it has been discussed the way it has and why it has been seen as representative for a certain historical change in the perception of marriage and love. In the earlier mentioned paper, van Belle raises these questions too and I’ll quickly grasp a difference in our arguments. He states that:

“[A] symbolic aspect throughout the series is the use of candles and light. Candles seem to symbolize the traditional, conservative moral obligations within marriage, with sometimes deteriorating consequences” (van Belle, 77).

It is clear that there is an idea of anachronism operating in this reading too, only that the candles are being discussed as symbols, where I’d like to see them as media. They do not only represent but certainly are anachronistic sources of light, being outdated by the possibilities electricity provides. So, as we’re both focusing the topic of something in Johan and Marianne’s marriage being obsolete, it is for me of greater importance to see that the ongoing disappearance of candles during the couple’s shared dinners is not only a simple symbol for the fading light of their passion, but a clear hint towards the change the codes of intimacy have to face as they are confronted with a medial evolution from hot to cold. The ‘deteriorating consequences’ therefore do not derive as much from ideological incongruences, as from the effects that evolving media have on our disposition for coding and decoding communications on and within love.

To provide a short look-out on how the linkage of anachronistic media and obsolete ideas about love have been continued in the aesthetic discourse concerning Bergman and Scener ur ett äktenskap, I’ll finish with a quick comparison of a contemporary adaption of the series’ topics. The Swedish Film Institute (SFI) has together with Sveriges Television (SVT) financed a number of short films, adapting Bergman’s styles and topics, under the name of Bergman revisited to pay attention to Bergman’s 100th birthday this year. One of these is Patrik Eklunds 16-minute short Infektionen (2018).

The opening shots examine the spaces of a futuristic family house, zooming out from the wide-screen TV and zooming in on a dishwasher. The photography generates a glossy, superficial look at the surfaces of what seems to be a contemporary family home, most likely located in the upper middle class. In the next sequence the viewer gets introduced to the main figures, Krister and Kristina, in a shot where they are both located on a sofa – a clear reference to the opening scene of Scener ur ett äktenskap, only that this time the featured couple is not confronted with questions from a boulevard journalist, but from a family therapist. Therefore, these questions target not the virtues, but the issues of a marriage. During the session, one main conflict involves the very same dish-washer, that was shown to the audience in the intro of the film: Krister doesn’t seem to accept the anachronistic expectation to clean the dishes before using the machine that is supposed to do it for him. In the effort to find solutions for the couple’s dysfunctional communications, Krister is asked what his contribution to resolving the conflict might be and his answer goes “Köpa en ny diskmaskin, kanske. Det är väl en början, antar jag.” A line that gives Krister the last word and finishes the session at their therapist off. What can be said of the impact of media effects in this case? My proposition would be to see the dishwasher as another “extension of man”, and therefore as a medium restructuring time and space (working time is minimized, material space is integrated in the working process), which produces incongruences with the codes of intimacy: The machine as such suggests that the splitting of housework, as a classic gender-role issue, can become obsolete by letting technical solutions fill the gaps. Obviously, this suggestion fails, as the anachronistic conflict about dishes generates new communicative issues despite the work relief the dish-washer provides. To stretch the medial implications created by this symbol of work relief and time optimization it could be argued, that the function of the dishwasher can be read as a comment on the medial channel through which Infektionen reaches its audience: The view on demand-service that SVT provides is the main platform the film has been and will again be accessible through. In a similar style to a dish-washer, the constant access provided by this service is an optimizing promise of not ever to be bound to limit time and space to be able to watch whatever can be watched. Equally, it can create an analogue anachronistic pressure on locating the right time and space to watch anything at all. The impact of digital accessibility on individualism and freedom as modern virtues are as much a possible irritation to functional social systems regulated by the different codes of intimacy, as the unregulated flow of information (as maximized coolness of media) is a restructuring irritation for the programming of TV. If this is accepted, Infektionen can be productively read as an adaption of not only the main conflicts of Scener ur ett äktenskap, but also an adaption of the strategic use of anachronisms and medical implications, to comment on switching codes of communication on and within the social system of intimate relations.

2. An interesting convergence with this notion can be found in Friedrich Kittlers media-historical description of the handwriting as immediate subjectivity, determing the specific styles of romantic literature (Kittler, Friedrich: Grammophon, Film, Typewriter, 1985)


  • Luhmann, Niklas: Liebe als Passion: Zur Codierung von Intimität, Suhrkamp (1982).
  • McLuhan, Marshall: Understanding Media [1964], Routledge (2001).
  • van Belle, Jono: »Changing Love in `Scener ur ett Äktenskap (Ingmar Bergman, 1973)«, 71-84, Tijdschrift voor Skandinavistiek 35(1), 2016/17.