The Dala Horse in Exile

“What one expects with growing impatience from this brilliant technician and director of actors,” says Bo Widerberg of Ingmar Bergman in his 1960 pamphlet Visions of Swedish Film (Visionen i svensk film), “is for him to move on as our Dala horse to the world.”

For the early part of his career, Ingmar Bergman became just that: Sweden’s cultural Dala horse. Indeed he was, alongside the Dala horse, one of Sweden’s only exports. 1946, the year he directed his first films, Crisis (Kris) and It Rains on Our Love (Det regnar på vår kärlek), was a decade before post-war reforms transformed Sweden from a feudal backwater to the Socialist utopia we admire today. 1946 was nineteen years before Roseanna, the first of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck novels set in motion the now international sensation of ‘Nordic Noir’, and twenty-eight years before ABBA won Eurovision with Waterloo, introducing the world to Swedish pop for the first time.

Bergman’s films marked the beginning of a British fascination with Scandinavia and Bergman was, without doubt, the first Swede to grasp international attention long enough to mould an image of a harmonious (if homogenous) society bound together by an unbreakable welfare state. But Bergman’s own relationship to his homeland was a troubled mix of admiration and antagonism, much like the marriages of his films.

Rapidly modernising, Swedes were slow to embrace Bergman, and even when they did it was but skin-deep. The philosophical brevity of his films felt entirely out of place in their increasingly functionalist surroundings; so too, among growing secularisation, was his Lutheran upbringing. When rumours of Fascist sympathies emerged (he had publicly declared support for Hitler before the War and his brother, Dag, was a founding member of the Swedish Fascist Party) cracks in his compatriots’ tolerance began to appear. When rumours of sexual relationships with actresses, money laundering, bribe taking and demonism emerged, his private life began to look something like a soap opera, studied and scorned by an increasingly vexated nation.

On 30th January 1976, that vexation came to a head. During rehearsals for Strindberg’s Dance of Death (Dödsdansen) at the Royal Dramatic Theatre (Dramaten) in Stockholm, two policemen came up on stage to arrest Bergman for tax evasion. Humiliated, Bergman suffered a mental breakdown (for which he was hospitalised) and spent a month and a half in custody while the police studied an alleged 500,000 SEK transaction between his Swedish company, Cinematograf, and its Swiss subsidiary, Persona, used to pay salaries to foreign cast and crew. His passport was confiscated and his apartment cleared of all personal documentation. The trial, however, lasted little more than two months, and on 23rd March all allegations were dropped. Bringing charges against him, said special prosecutor Anders Nordenadler, would be “like bringing charges against someone who has stolen their own car, thinking it was someone else’s”.

But Bergman was disconsolate. In April that year he left Sweden vowing – deaf to the pleas of Prime Minister Olof Palme and leading members of the Swedish film industry – never to work there again. All upcoming projects were suspended and his studios on Fårö closed. Though they were to lose their only cultural voice, Bergman’s compatriots showed little remorse. He was, they assumed, a remnant of elitist culture: a highbrow, a fossil, a bourgeois, and a crook. Aftonbladet newspaper, which once had written highly favourably of his films, summed up popular feeling to his departure with the headline ‘Go, Bergman, We Won’t Miss You!’

But Bergman’s exile would come back to haunt Sweden. For, though he felt he did not need it – his primary audience was abroad, and it was large enough to provide him well – Bergman’s self-inflicted exile was an unmissable political opportunity. While he may have been cast off from it, Bergman remained Sweden’s only worldwide cultural voice and, as such, he alone had the power to adjust perceptions of his country overnight. Bergman set about turning his downfall into a Kafkaesque warning of what Sweden, dominated by a single far-left party for more than thirty years, could become. He questioned, morbidly, just whether the unstoppable progress of the Social Democrats – what in 1968 he had called Sweden’s “provincial cultural revolution” – was actually growing into something larger and much scarier: a repressive Communist uprising.

Bergman said that during his trial he had been “harassed and humiliated” by “prestige-seeking poker players”; that the police had tried to blackmail him to “save face” and that he had been a “convinced Social Democrat” who believed Sweden was “the best country in the world” until he was attacked by “a particular kind of bureaucracy that grows like a galloping cancer”.

“I come from a land I never thought I would leave on my own accord,” Bergman said when he picked up the 1976 Goethe Prize in Frankfurt, “while my exodus externally appears voluntary, internally it was an inexcusable duress.”

Though his comments were met at first, unsurprisingly, with ridicule in Sweden, gradually some Swedes began to change heart; a few even starting to regret his very public humiliation. Was he really a remnant of elitist culture? Is it worth throwing out the international voice of our nation for the sake of a few scandals? They began to ask.

Time, in an article entitled ‘Cries and Whimpers in Socialism’s Showcase’, picked up on the growing malaise his trial was starting to form. It stated that Bergman’s arrest was but one example of the Swedish government’s growing oppression. It noted that the Swedish suicide and divorce rate had shot up, that there were growing cases of alcoholism and it claimed that young Swedes had, as a direct result of Social Democratic policies, lost “ambition and all sense of direction”.

“Someone who wants to repaint their house must use officially approved colours,” the article said, “and someone who owns a forest cannot forbid others to walk in it. If they build a fence, they can be forced to take it straight down again.”

For three years Bergman travelled the world but was based at the Bavaria Film Studios in Munich, where he had his home. Though he spoke German, Bergman continued to direct in Swedish. His 1978 film Autumn Sonata (Höstsonaten) was entirely in Swedish, starred Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann and was filmed almost entirely by a Swedish crew. By 1982, when he directed one of his best-loved films Fanny and Alexander (Fanny och Alexander), Bergman had effectively resigned himself to the notion that he couldn’t work abroad forever.

Just two years later, in April 1984, he admitted defeat for good and returned to his homeland a prodigal son. His production that month, perhaps ironically, of King Lear at Dramaten, the same theatre in which he had been arrested seven years before, had full houses until June. Its opening night, on which Bergman is said to have spent most of the performance wandering the streets of Stockholm alone, was attended by dignitaries that included Prime Minister Olof Palme.

When he returned to the theatre for the curtain call Jarl Kulle, the actor playing Lear, coaxed a dazzled Bergman on stage, quieted the audience and said, quite simply, “Welcome home”. There was applause, foot stamping and, most importantly, a collective agreement that this was indeed Bergman’s home. Sweden needed Bergman as much as Bergman needed Sweden. He was their Dala horse, after all.


Written Sources

Baxter, B. (30th July 2007) Igmar Bergman Obituary [Online] The Guardian Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2007/jul/31/guardianobituaries.obituaries

Bergman, I. The Magic Lantern University of Chicago Press; New Edition (published 15th May 2007)

Feder, B.J. (15th April 1984) Bergman’s ‘Lear’ Rescuing Theater [Online] The New York Times Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/1984/04/15/theater/bergman-s-lear-rescuing-theater.html

Macnab, G. Ingmar Bergman: The Life and Films of Europe’s Last Great Director I.B. Tauris and Co. Ltd. (published 17th June 2009)

Steene, B. (28th July 2009) Ingmar Bergman and Sweden: An Epoch’s End [Online] Open Democracy Available at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/article/art_culture/film/bergman_sweden

Unknown Author (18th October 2011) Bergman and Sweden [Online] Ingmar Bergman Official Website Available at: http://www.ingmarbergman.se/en/universe/bergman-and-sweden

Unknown Author (30th July 2007) Ingmar Bergman [Online] Wikipedia Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ingmar_Bergman

Unknown Author (23rd April 1976) Ingmar Bergman Decides to Move Out of Sweden [Online] The New York Times Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/1976/04/23/archives/new-jersey-pages-ingmar-bergman-decides-to-move-out-of-sweden.html

Weinraub, B. (16th March 1976) Ingmar Bergman’s Taxes: Swedes Brew Over Case [Online] The New York Times Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/1976/03/16/archives/ingmar-bergmans-taxes-swedes-brood-over-case-ingmar-bergmans-taxes.html