Are the Adults All Right?

On Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage

Scenes from a Marriage | art by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

I spent my early 20s with my metaphorical nose pressed up against the glass of the Brooklyn brownstones I walked by every day, aglow like shop windows displaying bookshelves and art and families eating dinner together and all the other consumer goods of upper-middle-class existence. I had two degrees and five jobs and skipped meals at the end of every month while I waited for my rent check to clear. The people I dated were indifferent or violent or sometimes both. I longed desperately for a future with a partner who’d build with me the kind of comfortable, safe home that I craved, rich in music and culture and matching silverware. Someone ambitious and accomplished, intelligent, witty, a doctorate who’d help me hang curtains. I imagined myself cherished by someone it’d be easy to admire.

I imagined, actually, something quite similar to the first scene of Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 miniseries Scenes from a Marriage. Perhaps less Swedish, but—given the trends in home décor in Brooklyn at the time—just as much mid-century modern. The first episode, “Innocence and Panic,” opens on a chic blonde reporter effusively directing Johan (Erland Josephson), Marianne (Liv Ullmann), and their two young daughters for a photograph that’ll feature in an article about the couple for a women’s magazine. As soon as the photo is taken, the daughters scamper off while their parents remain for the interview. We’ll never see the daughters again. This isn’t about them. Or, rather, Scenes from a Marriage tells the side of a marriage that the children can never know.

Johan and Marianne sit on what may be television’s most bourgeois sofa as they awkwardly pose for the photographer and field the reporter’s questions. In a foreshadowing of what’s to come, Marianne’s already offering to make herself smaller to fit in the photo. “I generally use a standard opener to put people at ease,” the reporter informs them, and then asks the uneasiest of questions: “So, how would you describe yourselves in a few words?”

The camera remains flatly trained on Johan and Marianne, as if we as viewers might also be putting them under the microscope. Johan replies with a self-deprecating bravado, as if by keeping an ironic distance from his compliments to himself he can have his self-satisfaction without losing his sensitive male bonafides.

JOHAN: That’s tricky.


JOHAN: I might give the wrong impression.

REPORTER: You think so?

JOHAN: It sounds cocky if I say I’m bright, youthful, successful, and sexy. My mind has a global scope, I’m educated, and I’m a great mixer. What else? I’m a good friend, even to those less fortunate than myself. I’m sporty, and I’m a good father and a good son. I don’t have any debts, and I pay my taxes. I respect our government, no matter what. I love our royal family. I don’t belong to the state church. Is that good, or do you want more details?

He’s already provided ample copy for some male Bergman aficionado’s OkCupid profile 40 years in the future, but even as the reporter starts to ask him another question, Johan barely pauses for breath. “I’m a fantastic lover. Isn’t that right, Marianne?” He turns his head to smile at his wife briefly, almost perfunctorily, but Marianne, consumed with nerves, barely registers a reaction. She’s not in on the joke.

The reporter laughs. “Maybe we should skip that question. Your turn, Marianne.”

Marianne laughs shyly. She lacks Johan’s confidence, his ready wit. “What can I say?” she asks, thinking for a moment. “I’m married to Johan and we have two daughters.” She waits; she draws a blank. “I can’t think of anything else.”

And yet already we know how little Johan and Marianne know about themselves. We know, even though Johan doesn’t, that he needs attention: he needs to be admired for his intelligence, his charm, his humor. We know, even though Marianne doesn’t, that she needs to be needed, that right now she doesn’t know who she is on her own.

As the interview progresses, we learn that Marianne and Johan were each other’s rebounds from breakups but realized they “got along famously” and decided to move in with each other. By the time they married six months later, they were in love, and their relationship seems to have moved along smartly ever since, a paragon of modern, egalitarian rationality. He’s a professor of psychology, which is already ironic. She’s a lawyer specializing in divorce, which will not come in handy later.

“People saw us as the perfect couple,” Johan remarks.

“And it’s been that way ever since,” Marianne adds.

“Without any hitches?” the reporter asks.

No, says Marianne, they have everything they need. Johan sums it up for her: “Security, order, contentment, loyalty.”

It all makes sense, I think, watching Erland Josephson exchange pleased glances with Liv Ullmann. Too much sense. In this little scene are contained the seeds of Johan and Marianne’s destruction. Their relationship is a machine without a ghost. The smug security of their lives is what makes their love story so insecure. And when Johan and Marianne step away momentarily, just long enough for the reporter to crack open their bedroom door and peek inside, there it is: a jumble of clothes and toys hastily hidden away so the rest of the apartment could appear pristine.

On May 4, 1972, Dagens Nyheter, a Swedish newspaper, published an interview with Bergman with the exciting announcement that for the first time he’d be making a series for television; it’d be about “the absolute fact that the bourgeois ideal of security corrupts people’s emotional lives, undermines them, frightens them.” Primetime stuff. Television wasn’t an entirely new medium for Bergman: he’d directed theater plays for television broadcast, and a few years previously he’d made The Rite, a tightly-contained chamber piece about three theater actors. Scenes from a Marriage did mark a shift in his work, though: from then on, almost everything he made, even if it were later released in cinemas, was intended for television—a surprising change, perhaps, for someone who’s held up as the foremost filmmaker of his time. In a way, Bergman anticipated the moment we’re in now, when the proliferation of prestige television has started to fill the gap left by the erosion of independent cinema, and the highbrow auteurs who in a previous era might’ve exclusively worked in film—Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, Woody Allen, among others—are now expanding their reach.

Bergman didn’t seem to view television as a step down, a compromise. If the digital vs. film debate had raged in the 1970s, he would’ve spent scant time grieving the loss of celluloid. He was interested in television as its own medium. “What Bergman has made for television are not simply films on television,” commented his cinematographer Sven Nykvist, “they are television films.” Nykvist shot Scenes from a Marriage on 16mm in a ratio of 1.33:1; not ideal for the diffuse lighting and expansive wide shots that marked much of his earlier work with Bergman, but perfect for the grainy, painfully intimate close-ups on the actors’ faces that were to be emblematic of the visual style of Scenes from a Marriage.

Why the move to television? Dagens Nyheter asked Bergman. “When you live on Fårö you become an avid television viewer,” Bergman quipped. “It opens up the whole world.” He had made his home mainly on the remote Swedish island since the late ‘60s, and Scenes from a Marriage would be almost entirely shot there, in a retrofitted old barn. In that regard, television may have had a more than merely aesthetic appeal: Bergman was able to make six entire episodes for only about 2/3 of the cost of one of his feature films. But it was the response to Scenes from a Marriage that would answer Dagens Nyheter’s question most emphatically: when it was broadcast in the spring of 1973, the miniseries reached a viewership of 3.5 million. Not only had Bergman reached nearly half the population of Sweden, he’d reached a far larger audience than had ever come to see one of his features in the cinema.

It might seem disingenuous to talk of the ability to reach an audience as a reason to choose a particular form in which to tell a story, or even as an essential part of that form’s aesthetics. Bergman’s reputation as a notoriously remote and “difficult” filmmaker would suggest that he wasn’t very concerned with his audience at all. He considered Persona a particular achievement because it was the first film for which he “did not care in the least whether the result would be a commercial success,” for which he could finally reject the “gospel according to which one must be comprehensible at all costs.” But to not care about being completely comprehensible to one’s audience, after all, isn’t to not care about invoking any reaction whatsoever. At other times Bergman joked that he was an “audience whore,” as if he were just as concerned with entertaining his audience as any of the attention-starved artist characters portrayed in so many of his films. More consistently he spoke of his work in more mundane terms. “I do my work for everyday purposes and not for eternity,” he wrote in his essay “The Making of Film,” “and my pride is the pride of a good craftsman.”

We tend to think of Bergman primarily as a film director who “started out” in theater, although Bergman continued to work in theater throughout his life and indeed initially made films as a way to work with his theater actors during the summer off-season. And if the most important Bergman to us is the auteur of cinema, then the shift from theater to film feels like a shift between different mediums, two parallel careers that might be in conversation with each other but remain fundamentally separate bodies of work. The later shift to television, then, also feels like a separate impulse.

But as much as we lionize auteurs of stage and cinema for their grand visions, these are still forms that hinge on the performance of actors, because these are narrative forms that are molded on the fact that we, the audience, are fundamentally social creatures, that the subtleties of an actor’s voice and expression can affect us as deeply as the expression of someone we know in “real life.” Bergman was not only a director who manipulated light and sound to explore metaphysical ideas about death and God, he was a writer concerned with human beings and a director concerned with actors—and an artist whose fundamental medium, you could say, was his audience. In a 1958 interview, Bergman tells a parable about a woodcarver tasked with building a stand for the bells in a temple. When the carver is distracted in his work by hopes of money, love, and immortality as an artist—anything but the stand’s purpose—he fails. But when he focuses on merely making a stand to support the bells, he succeeds in creating a work of art. Bergman made work for the distinct purpose of engaging with his audience on a visceral, human level; he created narrative objects that could support their attention and their engagement with the task of living with and understanding other people.

Bergman must have first learned how to shape his audience’s attention as a director for theater, where the relationship between audience and performance is a volatile, living thing; where silence can be alternately euphoric and deadly. Of all the narrative arts, theater is, ironically, the least available to pretension: laughter never lies, a gasp of breath can never be faked. You will never not know how boring your work is, no matter how polite your colleagues are. As a director of film Bergman must have discovered the ability to even more exquisitely manipulate the audience’s sense of time and space, but celluloid wasn’t his medium any more than greasepaint and stage light had been. It was merely the flesh that housed the spirit of his work, which didn’t turn on anything pretentious or intellectual so much as it hinged on his incredible gift for directing actors in visceral, authentic performances. What was really great about his work is that his matter—the excruciating pain and ecstasy of human communication—happened to also be his mode. In Scenes from a Marriage, Erland Josephson and Liv Ullmann portray characters that fight bitterly and reconcile movingly, just to wound each other again—often in the space of only a few minutes. Although the series is tightly focused on them (other characters appear only rarely), it’s their complex, unpredictable relation to each other that persuades us of the reality of their entire world. Bergman understands that the mundane detail is often the most heartbreaking: when Johan shows up late at night and informs Marianne that he’s fallen in love with someone else and intends to leave in the morning to join his mistress in Paris, she offers to pick up his dry cleaning before he leaves the country.

Bergman’s shift towards television may have been a synthesis of what drove him toward theater and toward film. Scenes from a Marriage, for instance, he described as “an aesthetically superior everyday product for TV.” It’s a description that’s perhaps a little tongue-in-cheek, rings of something from the IKEA catalogue, maybe feels a bit like false modesty coming from one of the world’s most revered directors. On the other hand, though, how wonderful to make something that could become part of people’s real lives. Scenes from a Marriage in its original form wouldn’t be a profound cultural event that people would go to attend, but a mundane, familiar story that for a few weeks would live with viewers at home. Johan and Marianne would be less like ideas and more like people they knew, but they’d know these fictional characters on a level so intimate that with real people it would’ve been an invasion of privacy. In a way, viewers would come to know Johan and Marianne’s marriage more thoroughly than they knew their parents’—or even their own.

Before encountering Scenes from a Marriage, I’d survived a film undergraduate degree and spent much of my early 20s in New York City bars, and I’d come to think of Bergman as the director men talked about when they explained Life and Women and Film to me, and didn’t let me finish my sentences. I understood so thoroughly how little my perspective was required that it seemed unnecessary for me to explore his work further at all. When I finally revisited Bergman on my own, though, the simplicity and directness of his relationship-focused work like Scenes from a Marriage or Summer with Monika came as a welcome, glorious surprise.

Scenes from a Marriage might be considered “light” Bergman, in that it doesn’t prominently feature many of the themes the more vocal of his fans are used to considering worthy of intellectual inquiry. Discussion of God is kept to a minimum, death hardly makes an appearance let alone receives a screen credit, and the deep questions of life are shunted in favor of the immediate questions of life—who is going to tell their parents about the breakup? Which of them will be paying for their daughter’s school trip? Will Johan stay the night or just for dinner? It’s almost a shame that Bergman is known as such a remote, intellectual director, because these are the interesting, vibrant questions of which drama is made, and it takes a truly profound artist to understand that humans grapple with their imminent mortality much more immediately in the choice to pick up a phone or pour a glass of brandy than they do in long, ponderous conversations reminiscent of Plato. I have always thought that the existentialist theological questions were subordinate to those of the flesh. But also I’m shallow.

There’s a question of gender here as well: the existentialist themes for which Bergman is most noted are most frequently given to male characters, while his films that deal with human relationships are more frequently driven by female characters. The powerhouse of Scenes from a Marriage is undoubtedly Liv Ullmann as Marianne, and so much of the power of the series comes from her collaboration with Bergman on this character. The writing of Scenes from a Marriage is especially powerful in how delightfully unromantic it is about male privilege; although Bergman is often drawing on his own experience with infidelity (he was married five times, had multiple affairs, and fathered nine children with six women), he resists the impulse to romanticize Johan’s character. His writing understands that the “battle of the sexes” is not a battle between men and women: it’s a battle between man and himself, and women are merely the territory. Liv Ullmann portrays a Marianne who is not fighting Johan exactly; she’s fighting a reality in which she exists merely to show Johan the reflection of the better self he wishes he could see.

Accordingly, the broadcast of Scenes from a Marriage was rumored to have substantially increased the divorce rate in Sweden (though it’s worth pointing out that the ‘70s were also happening at the time). What is documented, however, is that the social welfare office was inundated with requests for marriage counseling: the waiting list to see a counselor in Stockholm went from three weeks to three months. Scenes from a Marriage is ruthlessly clear-eyed about the prospects of marriage for women: Even after their breakup, we see Marianne take on all the childcare duties while continuing to work full-time and organize the family’s life, while Johan lives with his mistress, meanders around in his academic career, and experiences some emotional issues. Ironically, it’s the higher expectations placed on Marianne that push her to rise to the occasion: she seems to thrive and become stronger after the end of her marriage with Johan, since she’s not given the privilege of collapsing. Johan, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to know what to do with himself once he has no one but himself to blame.

The evolution of Scenes from a Marriage was, in a way, a mirror reflection of Bergman’s career: from television it became film became theater. It first existed as a six-part, five-hour miniseries made for Swedish television. It was then recut into a feature film for international release, mainly because Americans wouldn’t watch television with subtitles. And finally, it became a work of theater: Bergman adapted it for Munich’s Residenztheater in 1981, and Ivo van Hove first staged an adaptation with Amsterdam’s Toneelgroep in 2005, which after several other productions was adapted into English by Emily Mann and staged by van Hove at New York Theatre Workshop in 2014. This production was my first encounter with the story.

His production of Scenes from a Marriage, designed by Jan Versweyveld, tore out the insides of New York Theatre Workshop and rebuilt it in the production’s image; instead of one theater, it became three, the stages at the center and the audiences extending out like the curls of a pinwheel. The three scenes of the first act were presented in these three spaces: you’d watch the actors do a scene, then move on to the next space as the actors behind you reset to play the scene once more. Thin walls separated the playing spaces with their separate audiences only in the most cursory way, and the rhythms and echoes of the scenes bled over into each other. Since you experienced the scenes in a random order, you might hear the echoes of arguments you hadn’t yet seen happen, or be stricken again by the sound of the weeping you’d already witnessed in another room.

Scenes from a Marriage as a miniseries was about linear time: the rhythm of the shared history that brings Johan and Marianne apart and together, again and again. Scenes from a Marriage as a play exploded the illusion of linear time, and every moment of Johan and Marianne’s relationship became freighted with the memory of past love, past betrayal, but also the ghosts of future heartbreak, future joy. A relationship, then, is not something tidy and rational to be developed and refined over time; every moment is messy, the play suggests, and time and time again we both show up and leave with the same baggage.

As a play, a film, and a television series, Scenes from a Marriage examines a relationship in brutally exacting, loving detail. In theater, Johan and Marianne’s relationship has all the immediacy of a memory you can’t shake; on film their relationship falls apart as inexorably as a Greek tragedy. But in television, their original form, they live among us, more familiar than our own family. Theater is an event to be witnessed, film an event to be watched. But television—television, you take home with you.