High Tension and Bergman – A Year in a Life both screen at the 62nd BFI London Film Festival
Cinephiles, like most obsessives, dream of opportunities to see films long invisible for one reason or another.
The works in question might be totally lost: think Alfred Hitchcock’s The Mountain Eagle (1926), or the complete versions of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) or Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970).
They might have been banned: the original uncut version of Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), for example.
They might have been left incomplete at the time of the director’s death: Orson Welles’ recently assembled The Other Side of the Wind is a case in point.
Or they might have been, to all intents and purposes, disowned by their creators: Stanley Kubrick didn’t want people to see his feature debut, Fear and Desire (1953), for example – and when it was finally given a DVD release a few years ago, it was easy to see why.
Ingmar Bergman presents a different but equally intriguing case.
It being the centenary of the great Swedish writer-director’s birth, it’s appropriate that this year’s BFI London Film Festival boasts screenings not only of a new documentary about him – Jane Magnusson’s Bergman – A Year in a Life, which deploys a focus on the insanely productive breakthrough year of 1957 as a springboard for a wide-ranging survey of the man and his work – but also of the film which Bergman used to insist should never be screened in retrospectives or tributes.
Made in 1950 in two versions – one in Swedish, one in English (it’s the former being screened at the LFF) – High Tension (or This Can’t Happen Here, to translate the Swedish title) is that most improbable Bergman movie: a spy thriller.
It was made, perhaps unsurprisingly, with the hope of making big money. Not so much for Bergman (though he certainly entertained hopes of that kind when he took on the project) but for the Swedish film business, which was then undergoing a financial crisis.
Hence the adaptation by theatre critic-turned-screenwriter Herbert Grevenius of a recently popular novel by Norwegian writer Peter Valentin (real name Waldemar Brøgger). Hence, too, the lead casting of Signe Hasso (who’d been working in Hollywood for years) and Alf Kjellin (who had just embarked on an attempt to establish himself in America).
All this, coupled with a rising young director like Bergman (he turned 32 during the summer shoot), was intended to raise the profile of Swedish cinema, especially in the Anglo-American market.
In principle, Bergman had nothing against working in a more commercial genre. He had been happy shooting adverts for Bris soap, which not only brought in welcome income but let him have fun with stylistic experimentation. And he got on well enough with Hasso, even though she was unwell during the shoot and would sometimes turn up at the set feeling depressed.
But he quickly came to feel that the plot’s treatment of Cold War tensions – it concerns Soviet-style agents infiltrating Sweden in an attempt to take back, or otherwise silence in one way or another, refugee dissenters – was trivial in comparison to contemporary realities.
He would later write in his book Images – My Life in Film: “I met the exiled Baltic actors who were going to participate. The encounter was a shock. Suddenly I realised which film we ought to be making. Among these exiled actors I discovered such a richness of lives and experiences that the unevenly developed intrigue in This Can’t Happen Here seemed almost obscene.”
Almost immediately Bergman begged the head of Svensk Filmindustri to stop the shoot, but to no avail. Characteristically, the director, plagued throughout his life by health issues probably related to his anxieties, went down with flu and sinusitis for the duration of the shoot.
The movie was a critical and commercial failure, and he later described the experience of making it as “complete torture from beginning to end”.
Moreover – unlike The Touch (1971), which he also claimed to detest – he did everything in his power to prevent its being seen. Only now, thanks to the Swedish Film Institute and the Bergman family, is a restored version being made available for a very limited number of screenings during the centenary year.
So how does the film look today? Well, unlike The Touch, it’s neither a great film nor recognisably a Bergman film. Nor, mercifully, is it anywhere near as bad a film as the aforementioned Fear and Desire.
It’s an intelligent, efficient, pretty entertaining espionage drama, notable partly for its evocative use of Stockholm locations, partly for the predictably fine camerawork of Bergman’s then regular director of photography, Gunnar Fischer, and partly for the timely notion of dissenting expats at risk from agents from the old country.
It’s undeniably more conventional than Bergman’s other work, but certainly nothing to be ashamed of. But then Bergman was always extremely self-critical, and – as we saw with The Touch, when the restoration of the dual-language version was revived earlier this year – his feelings about the worth of his movies seem to have been coloured more by his memories of the experience of making them than by any detached assessment of the finished work itself.
High tension? Agreed, it’s not what you’d call a classic thriller, but don’t forget that when Bergman wanted to – as in The Face, The Virgin Spring, Hour of the Wolf, Shame, From the Life of the Marionettes, and the many nightmare sequences scattered throughout his work – he was no slouch at ratcheting up suspense.