Ingrid Bergman’s early years

Ingrid Bergman was always first and foremost an actor rather than a star, and her formative years on screen in Sweden, and later Germany, shaped the remarkable talent that would soon make her a Hollywood legend.

Pamela Hutchinson
Updated:

Originally published in our September 2016 issue as Always Be Yourself: The Making of Ingrid Bergman

Ingrid Bergman

Ingrid Bergman
Credit: Getty Images

Ingrid Bergman’s Hollywood exit was far more dramatic, and famous, than her entrance. In 1949, fresh from the success of Casablanca (1942), Gaslight (1944) and her Hitchcock movies – Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946) and Under Capricorn (1949) – the Swedish star went to Italy, to work with a director she hugely admired: Roberto Rossellini. On the set of Stromboli (1950), admiration turned to love, and the married Bergman embarked on an affair with her director, which resulted in a pregnancy, and a ferocious scandal in the US.

Bergman lost custody of the daughter she had with her husband Petter Lindström, but the row soon grew beyond tabloid interest in their divorce, and her swift remarriage. The actor flew back to Europe after she had been denounced as a terrible role model in the newspapers, while religious groups complained that her conduct tended to “glorify adultery”, and in Washington, the influential senator Edwin C. Johnson labelled Rossellini a drug addict and “an infamous Nazi collaborator”, thundering: “Out of Ingrid Bergman’s ashes will grow a better Hollywood.”

Even a scandal that deep can’t last for ever in show business. Bergman was back on American screens six years later in Anastasia (1956), in a role that won her a second Oscar. An official apology was made for that vicious attack, in the senate in 1972. Stig Björkman’s sensitive new documentary Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words diligently covers the actor’s disgrace, and the difficulties it exacerbated in her relationships with her children, but refreshingly that is not its sole focus. The film, which is shaped by Bergman’s diaries and letters (read by Alicia Vikander), as well as her copious home-movie footage, reveals the fascinating beginnings of her career too. Bergman’s early years reveal not just her ambitions as an actor, but the way she separated her work and home life, and the quiet assurance with which she approached her Hollywood debut. It’s a joy to learn, also, that the performances Bergman gave in her Swedish films offer us a glimpse of her accomplished English-language work. Years before her career was shaken by scandal, a portrait emerges of Bergman as an actor who was privately very independent, and at her best playing mysterious women with secrets they dare not tell.

Ingrid Bergman as a girl

Ingrid Bergman as a girl

Bergman was born in Stockholm in 1915. Her Swedish father Justus, an artist and keen photographer, and German mother Friedel had lost two infant children before she was born. Bergman was named after a toddler princess in the Swedish royal family and her father began as he meant to go on, recording his daughter’s life in pictures. “I was perhaps the most photographed child in Scandinavia,” she joked to her biographer Charlotte Chandler. When Bergman was just two years old, her mother died, a trauma she was too young to comprehend at the time, but which she later described as “living with an ache”, one that “began so early and was so constant, I was not aware of it”. Throughout her childhood, Bergman’s father continued to photograph and film his only child, and young Ingrid, who was already fond of dancing, soon became relaxed in front of a camera. In 1929, when Bergman was 13, her father died of stomach cancer, a loss she felt very keenly, and which precipitated her move to live with relatives.

Aged 15, Bergman took her first job in a film studio, as an extra. Entering the studio “felt like walking on holy ground”, she wrote, and she found it so thrilling that she wanted to stay, and she left her vivid yellow make-up on for her journey home, so that anyone who saw her would know that she worked in the movies. A still from Landskamp (1932) reproduced in Björkman’s documentary shows Bergman at the tail-end of a queue of extras, craning her neck either to ensure her face appeared on camera, or to take in the sights of the hallowed soundstage.

Landskamp (1932). Ingrid Bergman is second from left

Landskamp (1932). Ingrid Bergman is second from left

In the early 1930s, Sweden had a stable and productive film industry, even if it continued to feel the absence of two directors who had been crucial to its golden age in the early 1920s – Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller – and the star power of Greta Garbo. Bergman was impatient to be a part of it, and while she was studying at the Royal Dramatic Theatre School she asked her Uncle Gunnar, a florist, for a favour. One of his customers was the former actor and sometime director Karin Swanström, who was now artistic director at the Swedish Films Studio. Gunnar persuaded Swanström to give Bergman an audition, a poetry recital that she described in self-deprecating terms. “Karin watched me emoting all over the room,” she wrote in her memoir, “and she didn’t look ill, so that wasn’t a bad start.” Far from sickened, Swanström arranged a screen test for Bergman with director Gustaf Molander.

When she first saw herself on screen, despite her ease in front of the camera, Bergman was shocked and disappointed. “I didn’t look very good, did I?” she told Molander. “I think if I did some more I could be better later.” Molander reassured her, telling her that her personality came across well on film, and saying: “You have great possibilities.” Nevertheless, she would become known at the studio for this combination of self-criticism and optimism, which punctuated almost every take, and she was nicknamed ‘Betterlater’ by the crew. More than a decade later, accepting her first Best Actress Oscar for Gaslight, she expressed the same thought, saying: “I hope that in the future I’ll be worthy of it.” Bergman credited Molander with teaching her to underplay emotion, and for offering the pragmatic advice: “Always be yourself, and always learn your lines.” The films she went on to make with him in Sweden were among her very best.

The Count of the Old Town (Munkbrogreven, 1934)

The Count of the Old Town (Munkbrogreven, 1934)
Credit: Getty Images

Molander did not, however, direct Bergman in her first speaking role, in The Count of the Old Town (Munkbrogreven, 1934); that job fell to actor Edvin Adolphson, a known flirt who was at that time attempting to divert Bergman from her more formal courtship with Lindström. It’s a comedy, and Bergman plays a cheery chambermaid wooed by a charming and mysterious gadabout. Bergman appears breezy and cute, but when she shares a love scene with her leading man, she displays a hint of the reserved passion of her Ilsa Lund in Casablanca – fear mixed with affection and desire. Bergman already felt at home on a film set, able to evoke complex emotions rather than falling back on stage-school mannerisms. Many reviews praised her, welcoming an actor of great talent and confidence, although Bergman, who was 5ft 9in tall, remembered best the stinging comments that she was “somewhat overweight” and “hefty but quite sure of herself”. The garish and unflattering striped dress she was given as a costume may have been more to blame for that impression than anything else.

Soon Bergman had a contract with Swedish Films for 75 kronor a day and the bonus, perhaps especially important for a 19-year-old woman, that she could keep all the clothes she wore in her movies. Unsurprisingly the director of her theatre school, Molander’s brother, was horrified, but Bergman was determined to work in the cinema, and comforted herself with the thought that the studio would pay for her to take more drama lessons.

Whether it was due to the lessons or Bergman’s own perfectionism, her career progressed very happily at Swedish Films. Within Sweden, she became a star. “I love the freedom I feel in front of the camera,” she wrote in 1935. “I hope I’ve not made a mistake, and that one day I’ll be a great actress.” She read the reviews of her performances, which were soon glowing with praise, but feared believing in them too much. “There’s a rumour I’m the greatest talent around… I hope I’ve not become vain.”

In 1936, she made the film that would eventually take her to Hollywood. Bergman had made a handful of films with Molander already, but Intermezzo was to be a showcase for her talent: “I created Intermezzo for her,” said Molander, “but I was not responsible for its success. Ingrid herself made it successful.”

Intermezzo (1936)

Intermezzo (1936)
Credit: Getty Images

In this film, Bergman plays Anita, a piano teacher who falls in love with the married father of her pupil, a concert violinist. It was a wonderful role for Bergman, and the plot echoed her own conflict between her devotion to her work and her personal life – problems that were only just beginning to appear at this time. As Anita, Bergman can be sweet and girlish, but also – when playing the piano and in the romantic scenes – riven with passion. She also has chic costumes, glamorous make-up and lingering close-ups to show her to her best advantage. Molander’s film is lyrical and emotionally complex, drawing out the chemistry between his attractive May-December leads. Playing opposite Bergman was Gösta Ekman, a legendary and very handsome theatre and film actor whom Bergman had worked with once before, and professionally speaking, utterly worshipped. Intermezzo, and Bergman’s performance in it, were rapturously praised by critics in Sweden and around the world. Now, Miss Betterlater could afford to become ambitious.

First Bergman returned to the stage, and then she started getting picky about her film roles. Unimpressed at being offered yet another ingénue role in Molander’s Only One Night (1939), Bergman demanded to try something new, asking to play a disfigured and bitter character in the director’s A Woman’s Face (En kvinnas ansikte, 1938) first. Anna, Bergman’s character, is a vicious, unsympathetic criminal, grimly scarred by burns. Bergman’s face was distorted by glue, make-up and a brace worn inside her cheek to push it out at an angle.

A Woman’s Face (En kvinnas ansikte, 1938)

A Woman’s Face (En kvinnas ansikte, 1938)

Elegant in posture despite her mangled visage, Bergman gives a sharp and chilling performance. As the film proceeds, Anna has plastic surgery to smooth her features, and Bergman shows her character softening too. Still, it’s often a bleak chamber piece, and a forerunner of the psychological horrors Bergman would portray in Gaslight. Bergman was nervous about the film’s reception (“My life’s role, but I wonder what people are going to say when they see me as this terrible witch”), but she needn’t have been. Anna was just an ugly version of the troubled, secretive women she played so well. A Woman’s Face was remade by MGM in 1941, with Joan Crawford as the lead, and a happier, less complicated ending.

Ride with the devil

Bergman’s next bold move was more precarious. She had itchy feet, and the Swedish film industry couldn’t offer her everything she wanted. “I never had the intention of staying in Sweden,” she wrote. “It was too far away and too small a country. I wanted to go to big places.”

In spring 1938, newly married to Lindström, and pregnant with their daughter Pia, she took a contract with UFA, the German studio. If Bergman was naive about the political situation in Germany when she signed the paperwork, the truth was hard to avoid when she arrived in Berlin, and she quickly regretted her decision. In her memoirs she said: “I saw very quickly that if you were anybody at all in films, you had to be a member of the Nazi party.”

She made one film at UFA, a movie intended to launch her international career (“The bridge that would bring me over”), in which she plays the most glamorous of four young female graphic designers setting up their own agency, while having the requisite romantic misadventures on the side. The Four Companions (Die vier Gesellen, 1938) was directed by Carl Froelich and it’s a disarming mixture of bright comedy, feeble feminism and romantic drama interspersed with now poignant street scenes in late 1930s Berlin.

The Four Companions (Die vier Gesellen, 1938)

The Four Companions (Die vier Gesellen, 1938)

Despite her qualms about the language, Bergman’s performance is excellent, and it’s a charming film. However, concerned by what she saw in Berlin, Bergman returned to Stockholm to have her baby, abandoning her commitment to UFA, if not formally cancelling her contract. Bergman later suggested that her guilt about working for UFA at this time was the motivation for her volunteer work entertaining the American troops during World War II and for her final screen performance in the TV biopic A Woman Named Golda (1982), about the Israeli prime minister Golda Meir.

After the failure of the German experiment, Bergman found herself at home, with a husband and a baby and contemplating a smaller life than the one she had begun to dream of. But without her knowledge, Intermezzo was working its magic on the other side of the Atlantic, and although there had been previous overtures “from the heart of the film world”, the next call would be different.

The producer David O. Selznick had sent the head of his New York office, Kay Brown, to scout out European films that would be ripe for a remake, and she didn’t have to look far to find Intermezzo. The Swedish immigrant parents of the boy who ran the elevator in her Park Avenue building had loved the movie, and knowing that Brown was looking for tips, he passed on their rave. So Brown saw the film, but wasn’t quite as impressed. “I reported on Intermezzo to David as story material, but I did not go overboard about it,” she remembered. “But I went madly overboard about the girl. I thought she was the beginning and the end of all things wonderful.”

Selznick disagreed. He thought Intermezzo “one of the best screen stories in the world”, but took his time to fall for Bergman. His son remembered a wide range of concerns: “She didn’t speak English, she was too tall, her name sounded too German, and her eyebrows were too thick.”

Intermezzo (1939)

Intermezzo (1939)

When Selznick changed his mind, Brown was dispatched to Sweden to sign up Bergman. When Brown had first tried to call, she was in labour with Pia, and Lindström simply told her: “Miss Bergman is busy at the moment and cannot talk to you.” A personal visit was called for, where Brown discovered – in Bergman’s words – “a diva who had just given birth” who sat calmly knitting while the contract negotiations took place. Bergman refused the conventional seven-year contract, but did say yes to Intermezzo (1939), a remake of the original, with Leslie Howard as her lover. Bergman returned immediately after that shoot to make the noirish romance Juninatten (1940) in Sweden, but Selznick soon lured her back with a five-year deal.

Hollywood would be Bergman’s home for a decade, and more. And when she sailed to America alone – her family would follow later – she was happy to be independent and sure that she had made the right decision. She wrote to a friend that one night on the crossing, a stranger made the mistake of commenting that she couldn’t possibly become an actor, because she was too tall. Bergman made no reply, but told herself: “He knows nothing about me.”

More from this issue

Find out more

Access the digital edition

Back to the top

See something different

Subscribe now for exclusive offers and the best of cinema.
Hand-picked.