Where to begin with Liv Ullmann

As a new season of her work launches at BFI Southbank, we plot a beginner’s path through the career of actor, director and winner of one of this year’s honorary Oscars: Liv Ullmann.

Liv Ullmann in Ingmar Bergman’s Face to Face (1976)

Why this might not seem so easy 

Liv Ullmann was just 25 when she met Ingmar Bergman. He was 47 and already recognised as one of the world’s greatest filmmakers. Ullmann, meanwhile, was still making a name for herself as an actor, mostly in her native Norway. She had recently played alongside Bergman’s regular collaborator Bibi Andersson in Short Is the Summer (1962), and it was Andersson who introduced her to the Swedish maestro. 

Struck by the resemblance between the two actors, Bergman cast them in Persona (1966), and the resulting film catapulted Ullmann to fame. By this time, she had become Bergman’s lover. The pair spent five years in a relationship, had a daughter, and made 12 films together (she starred in 10 of Bergman’s films and directed two of his screenplays). 

Ever since, the discourse on Ullmann has been dominated by Bergman. If she has been widely hailed as one of the acting greats, she remains best known for the work they did together, and it’s arguable that the shadow he cast over her career has obscured her other achievements – such as those in the director’s chair. Indeed, much of her directorial work remains frustratingly overlooked. Similarly, her two brilliant, insightful memoirs have fallen out of print (Bergman’s, of course, remain readily available). 

Still, the cult of Bergman isn’t solely to blame: the lack of success of Ullmann’s English-language projects is also a factor (see, for comparison, the career of her regular co-star Max von Sydow). Ullmann refused to see herself as a character actor, and has claimed that – first and foremost – she remains ‘Liv’ in all her performances, drawing from her own emotions and experiences. If this personal approach made her something of an ill fit for Hollywood, her unending compassion is precisely what makes her so compelling on screen. 

The best place to start – Persona

In Persona, Ullmann played Elisabet Vogler, an actor who suddenly stops speaking. She spends most of the film in silence, externalising Elisabet’s thoughts and feelings through shifting glances and elusive expressions. 

Persona (1966)

Bergman is famed for shooting faces, and an apocryphal story recounts how, for a scene in which Elisabet listens to a long confession from her nurse (Andersson), he asked Ullmann to place all of her emotions into her lips. If the story isn’t true, it’s nevertheless representative of Ullmann’s nuanced subtlety – in her hands, or lips, a small quiver speaks volumes. 

Ullmann has talked about her desire, when acting, to simultaneously portray conflicting emotions – to show the grimace behind the smile – and this extraordinary ability is readily apparent in Persona.

What to watch next

Ullmann’s deep emotional intelligence continued to enliven the films she made with Bergman, and her contribution to their creation shouldn’t be underestimated – Bergman wrote the parts especially for her, and gave her a large amount of freedom when performing. Highlights include Marianne, the cheated-on wife in Scenes from a Marriage (1974) and Saraband (2003); Eva, the embittered daughter in Autumn Sonata (1978); and Maria, who tends to her dying sister in Cries and Whispers (1972).

Faithless (2000)

In addition to acting for Bergman, Ullmann directed two of his screenplays: Private Confessions (1996), inspired by his parent’s troubled marriage, and Faithless (2000), inspired by one of his many infidelities. If these films feel part of the Bergman universe, that’s because Ullmann is part of it too – for they are unmistakably hers, and of a piece with her other directorial work.

Indeed, Ullmann had already proved herself behind the camera with Sofie (1992), about a Jewish woman coerced into an arranged marriage, and Kristin Lavransdatter (1995), a captivating portrait of a woman’s life in medieval Norway. The latter, like Private Confessions, was shot by Bergman’s regular cinematographer Sven Nykvist, who also directed Ullmann in his excellent drama Oxen (1991), about a man who steals his master’s ox out of desperate poverty.  

The Emigrants (1971)

Despite such constant associations with Bergman, Ullmann maintains that her best work is the two-part epic The Emigrants (1971) and The New Land (1972), made with another Swedish master: Jan Troell. Running to almost seven hours, the diptych charts the mid-19th-century emigration of a rural family from Sweden to America. Acting as his own cinematographer, Troell keeps things intimate despite the scale, and fills the narrative with small details and improvisations. 

The films proved popular, and Troell headed to Hollywood. There, he cast Ullmann as Gene Hackman’s mail-order spouse in the low-key western Zandy’s Bride (1974). This time, Troell was forbidden to operate his own camera, and the experience was unhappy – but the film is better than its muted reception implies. Pope Joan (1972), directed by Michael Anderson, also suffered from outside interference: its distributor jettisoned a modern-day storyline and retained only the medieval-set narrative of the eponymous pope. Nevertheless, Ullmann’s committed performance in the central role shone through, imbuing the film with real power. A 2009 restoration, released under the title She… Who Would Be Pope, reinserted the lost footage. 

Back in the director’s chair, Ullmann worked in English for her masterful 2014 adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, about the daughter of a landowner who attempts to seduce her father’s valet. Dampening Strindberg’s famed misogyny with her female perspective, Ullmann also drew note-perfect performances from her cast, and highlighted the contemporary relevance of the story’s class divide. 

Jessica Chastain as Miss Julie in Liv Ullmann’s 2014 film of the Strindberg play

Where not to start 

Ullmann’s Hollywood debut, Lost Horizon (1973), was a luminously coloured musical about the utopia of Shangri-La, and a notorious flop upon release. Still, Ullmann had good chemistry with her co-star Peter Finch; they paired again in the weightier The Abdication (1974), about Queen Kristina and the cardinal who probes her religious conversion. It’s a plum role for Ullmann, but the film is tonally uneven and her performance lacks the vitality of her best work. Director Anthony Harvey gave her another meaty role in Richard’s Things (1980), about the relationship that forms between a man’s wife and his lover after his death, but elicited only intermittent sparks within the emotionally flaccid melodrama. 

Today, Richard Attenborough’s war epic A Bridge Too Far (1977) is perhaps the best remembered of Ullmann’s English-language films, but, effective though she is, her role is little more than a cameo. She had more screen time in the action thriller Cold Sweat (1970), directed by three-time James Bond director Terence Young, but made even less of an impact – her talents were wasted as Charles Bronson’s kidnapped wife, and she later regretted being part of a film built around violence. 

She shone brighter in 40 Carats (1973), an enjoyable romcom about a 40-year-old woman courted by a 22-year-old man. Ullmann brought gravitas to the film’s lightweight fluff by showing us, once more, the grimace behind the smile. 

Liv Ullmann: Face to Face runs at BFI Southbank in April.

Cries and Whispers is back in cinemas around the UK for its 50th anniversary from 1 April.

BFI Player logo

Stream landmark cinema

Free for 14 days, then £4.99/month or £49/year.

Try for free