Mama, is it so? Is the daughter's tragedy the mother's triumph? Mama, is my
grief your secret pleasure?
- Eva, in Ingmar Bergman's Autumn Sonata (1978)
My daughter's fingers are confident and masterful on the yellowed ivory keys
of the Steinway piano. She's playing the theme from
Webber's Phantom of the
Opera and, to my untutored ears, playing it pretty well.
In the last year, since we inherited Grandpa's Steinway Model L, her skills have advanced impressively. She has mastered rhythm
and tempo, and is beginning to impart that indefinable sense of passion to the
music flowing from her hands. These skills haven't come easily and, as a
father, my heart swells with pride as I watch and listen to her. This isn't an idiom, I can literally feel my
callous old chest
fill with emotion, like a red-winged blackbird fluffing its new coat of feathers in the
An image forms in my mind: a closeup of Ingrid Bergman's elegant hands on the keys of a
Steinway similar to ours, working through the
first few haunting bars of Chopin's Prelude Number 2 in A minor. The music
is evocative and deliberate. Every note follows
the one before it with a haunting precision that speaks directly to the soul in a
language more primal and intuitive than mere words can convey.
Ingrid Bergman plays Charlotte, the mother of Eva (Liv Ullman) in Ingmar
Bergman's stunning movie Autumn Sonata. In the film, Eva plays her
rendition of the Chopin piece as her mother Charlotte, a renowned concert
watches her from behind. Charlotte sensitive face resonates with feeling
as each note registers palpably. As her daughter begins, a pleased smile graces
her lips, but as the music proceeds, the smile fades slowly and is replaced by the agonized mask of an artist confronted with a
ruined masterpiece. At
Eva's insistence, Charlotte replaces her daughter at the keyboard to illustrate her own
interpretation of the prelude. Her playing is so polished and nuanced that it
serves as a crushing rebuke to Eva rather than helpful guidance. Eva
is emotionally shattered by her mother's unflinching brilliance, and the stage is set
for one of the most psychologically powerful explorations of the mother and
daughter relationship ever filmed.
My daughter rises from the piano bench and wanders into the kitchen to finish making breakfast. As she opens the door to the
refrigerator, music swells from the living room again. This time it's her
mother, my wife, tearing into a Clementi sonata. Mom's a natural, the kind
of musician who can pick up almost any instrument and begin to ferret out the
scales and eke out the beginnings of a tune after a few minutes. She's
never taken her talent seriously and hasn't even played much in the twenty years
I've known her. Ever since the kids have started taking lessons,
her interest has returned as well. The swelling manic complexity of the
Clementi catches us by surprise and, even though she makes a mistake or two, the
mathematical relentlessness of the sound is impressive. She finishes with
a flourish and joins us in the kitchen, flushed and triumphant.
Autumn Sonata, filmed in 1977, occupies a unique position in Ingmar Bergman's portfolio for several reasons. It was made during a troubled period in his
life, just after he had been arrested on suspicion of tax evasion in Sweden and
was living in virtual exile in Germany. Autumn Sonata is also one of Bergman's most literal
films, relying less on the deep symbolism and fantasy sequences that are prevalent in many of his earlier films. The film was made in forty days at
the Norsk Film Studios, in Oslo, Norway, and
is performed in Swedish.
It was also the only film that Ingmar Bergman made
with the other Swedish cinematic national treasure, Ingrid Bergman (they are not
related). It was her last
major theatrical role before she succumbed to the battle with cancer that
eventually claimed her life. The beginnings of the collaboration between the two
famous Bergmans occurred at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973. Ingrid
Bergman, who was there as a juror, slipped a note into Ingmar Bergman's pocket
reminding him that he had promised her that they'd do a film together someday.
Four years later, when he sent her a script, she accepted the part of Charlotte
immediately. Ingrid Bergman called Autumn Sonata her last film, and one gets the
feeling that it took her a lifetime to prepare for it.
Sven Nykvist, Bergman's lifetime cinematographer is at the peak of his
form in Autumn Sonata. The mood is dark but, paradoxically,
the lighting and visual mood isn't. The vibrant oranges, reds and yellows of
even the most tense and emotionally stressful scenes. Bergman's use of extreme and
prolonged close ups, combined with Nykvist's masterful cinematography and
explicit lighting reveal every
painful nuance of expression. The net effect is to leave the
viewer physically exhausted and wishing for the comfort of shadows and quiet.
My son and I are smiling and clapping at my wife's unexpected performance, but my
daughter is obviously boycotting the celebration. Her back is turned and
there's a whiff of sullenness in the air. What we'd taken for
happiness on Mom's face apparently looks more like a smirk or a rebuff to our angsty teen daughter.
As the young woman turns to face the older one, they
are suddenly locked in a stare down. The tension in the room is a palpable
thing, as if an invisible battle were being waged and casualties mounting on
both sides. Rich, ripe, truculent silence screams in our ears. Neither of them has given an inch in this subtle battle.
Hollywood insider and E2 movie critic riverrun has suggested that, "Ingmar
Bergman, the man, is the subject of Bergman the artist's work."2
This is certainly the case in Autumn Sonata where Bergman's fascination with
the troubled relationships between women is taken to an extreme. The discordance
between mothers and daughters is also the subject of several other Bergman
films, most notably: Cries and Whispers, The Silence and Persona.
In Autumn Sonata, we are treated
to an encyclopedic examination of bitter recrimination as Eva and her
mother, Charlotte, wrack the viewer's sympathies back and forth. As the film opens, we are introduced to Viktor, a gentle country
explains to us how he met his beloved wife, Eva, who we can see writing a letter
in an elegant sitting room. Eva approaches with her finished letter, an
invitation to her estranged mother Charlotte whom she hasn't seen in seven
Charlotte's longtime partner has died and this pause in her busy life as a
professional concert pianist allows her to accept Eva's invitation for an
intimate visit at the parsonage that will change their relationship forever. Multiplying
the tension is a surprise Eva has in store for her mother. She has removed her
disabled sister Helena, played brilliantly by Lena Nyman (I am curious
yellow), from her rest home and brought her to the parsonage to live with she and Viktor.
Helena suffers from a disabling degenerative nerve disease and the pain, shame and
guilt that Charlotte feels towards Helena becomes a weapon in Eva's vengeful and merciless
The nominal events that transpire over the course of Charlotte's visit at the
parsonage – a walk in the country, a dinner, a little piano playing – are
insignificant in comparison to the vast landscapes of the human psyche that are
traversed. The powerful interplay between the two women is almost unprecedented
in the history of cinema.
Eva has a lifetime of anger stored up for Charlotte, whose career required
her to be absent for much of the time Eva was growing up. She has many
valid and insightful indictments of her mother's behavior, complete with
compelling examples. At first, we are convinced by Eva's accusations
against her mother but then, subtly, the
tide turns and we are slowly drawn to the viewpoint that Eva's reproaches may be
little disingenuous. In a flashback sequence, Charlotte arrives
home after a long concert schedule. We see the young Eva, confronted with the long desired presence of her beloved
mother, becoming mute and sullen, unable to show her affection in any
way. Eva's words in voiceover convey her pain and frustration, while the
filmed action shows the confusion, hurt and
dismay that Charlotte feels towards a daughter who won't speak or even give her
Eva's accusations mount relentlessly in a late night confrontation as the
women share some wine, a common Swedish symbol for opening one's soul.
Charlotte tries at first to smooth the situation over and rescue some semblance
of a pleasant visit with her adult daughter, but it's not meant to be. Eva has
been waiting for a lifetime to even this score and she will not be denied.
The litany of misdeeds that Eva attributes to her mother culminate in a claim
that Charlotte's absence is the cause of Helena's illness. As this frightening reproach is leveled, Eva towers over
Charlotte triumphantly. Upstairs, the disabled Helena has somehow squirmed free from her invalid's bed and is edging across the floor toward the landing
above them inch by painful inch. Eva has crushed her mother
psychologically and is temporarily triumphant,
but we sense that it is a Pyrrhic victory.
My son and I are careful not to break the spell in the kitchen, as we back slowly out of the room with our
eyes on the floor. This is weird girl
stuff and neither of us understand it or want any part of it. When we are
safely out of range we exchange knowing looks and shake our heads in puzzlement.
What the hell was that all about? He slugs me softly in the arm and I bend
his gangly frame over in a headlock.
The tension on the set of Autumn Sonata mimicked that in the script as the
elegant and accomplished Ingrid Bergman arrived with her lines memorized, and
her interpretation of the action well in hand. Bergman's company consisted
of a group of actors and film makers who had
worked together for many years and had the process of producing Ingmar Bergman's
"Chamber Films" well tuned1. The
Bergman's one time lover Liv Ullman (Eva) and their daughter Linn Ullman who played the younger Eva.
Ingmar Bergman's filmmaking methods didn't easily accommodate any preconceptions of the roles
by his actors. The result of
this discrepancy in expectations was an early showdown between the two Bergmans.
When the dust settled, Ingrid Bergman adopted the group's methods and began the
process of reinterpreting her role as Charlotte under Ingmar's
direction. From this turning point, the work proceeded with only the usual
bumps and ruts in the road, the jostling of talented artists engaged in their
craft. Symbolism, imagery and fantasy, staples in most Bergman films, are
used sparingly and to good effect. Bergman's cinematic genius for expressing
feeling without sentimentality is displayed brilliantly.
The performances wrung from Liv Ullman and Ingrid Bergman are among the most
extraordinary ever to be filmed. Both actresses are seasoned and
experienced performers. The script is penetrating, powerful and
explicit. The dialog is gut wrenching to the point where it is sometimes painful to continue watching. A
notable example of the spectacularly rendered performances is the range
of expression one sees in Ingrid Bergman's face as she listens to her daughter
Eva playing the Chopin prelude and then plays the piece herself to instruct her
daughter in the fine points.
The film's pianist, Kabi Larete, recorded the music for this scene
twice: first, interpreted as a student would play it; then again, with the full mastery
and subtle emphasis of a professional concert musician. This musical juxtaposition deepens the texture of the scene for the viewer
relative to their
understanding and appreciation of the underlying piano technique. As a
result, the more times you watch this
scene, the richer it becomes.3,4
Notwithstanding the film's general excellence it is, in essence, a depressing
vision. The chasm separating mother and daughter is never really closed.
They part further from one another than they met. The traditional
interpretation of the dynamics between Charlotte and Eva, is that of a cold and
distant mother both emotionally and physically withdrawn from her defenseless young
daughter, who is unable to satisfy her need for maternal approval and
As a parent and close observer of the mother-daughter relationship, this doesn't
sit quite right with me. The facts of the case are all too common; a
professional mom who's on the road a lot, Charlotte's career comes to
dominate her life and she looks to her family only as a brief respite from the stress of a busy and demanding life. Her daughter, Eva, is a
sourpuss, plain and simple, as some children (and adults) are. She whines
for her mother when she's absent and resents her when she's present. The
young Eva (played impressively by Linn Ulman, the daughter of Liv Ullman and
Ingmar Bergman) seems to know how to annoy and confound her mother on every
Over time, Eva develops a theory of life based around the perceived
injustices dealt her by her mother. Eva's piercing hatred of her mother is
unveiled step by step in the course of the film. It is compelling at times
and one begins to believe that, in fact, Charlotte is indeed the monster that
Eva portrays her as. Charlotte's reaction to most of this is weariness and
dismay. One feels that her devotion to her career in favor of her family was
both, a recognition that her piano playing was essential to her own well-being
and yet, ultimately, a conscious act of selfishness. Eva's condemnation only reinforces what she already
knows, and yet part of her stubbornly resists the judgment. Charlotte's own childhood
was barren and loveless and her music was the only place her emotions could be
expressed. She has been true to herself and to her art, and she's tried as best
she could to be a good wife and mother within that context.
There's no happy ending in store for either of these women. The final
scenes show Charlotte looking with resignation at her own reflection in the
window of an elegant pullman car as she travels to her next concert date.
We then see Eva sitting on a cold stone wall in the parsonage cemetery, near the
grave of her drowned child Eric. Eva's voiceover reads a letter she has
written to Charlotte that apologizes for her brutal accusations and expresses a
hope that they can see each other again for a reconciliation. She's the
lost and lonely childlike Eva once again, pleading for her mother to come home
again. But this time we sense that Charlotte won't be back.
This stark and depressing outcome may account for the tepid popular reception
that Autumn Sonata received when it was released in 1977. The film was
more warmly received by the critics and judges, garnering a long list of awards,
including Academy Award nominations for Ingrid Bergman (Best Actress) and Ingmar
Bergman(Best Original Screenplay), and a Golden Globe award for Best Foreign
Their differences forgotten for the moment, my daughter and her mother are sprawled in a tangled heap on the couch
in our living room, like a pile of kittens. They are best of buddies
laughing over the events of the day and planning a shopping trip for the
weekend. My son gives me a slightly skeptical look and I shoot back a
wink, but we're both smiling.
Footnotes and References
1 Bergman produced a series of "Chamber films" in
the 1970's that used a small cast to focus deeply on the psychology of
2 Wild Strawberries by riverrun
Movie reviews of Autumn Sonata by Jeremy Heilman, Rod Armstrong, Roger
Ebert and many others helped to shape and inform my ideas for this piece.
The excellent audio commentary provided on the Criterion Collection
DVD version of Autumn Sonata by film historian
Peter Cowie, author of Ingmar Bergman: A Critical
Biography, provided many insights into the background and production.
Many thanks to kthejoker, telbij, morven, haze, and most
especially, ch'i-lin for their copy edit artistry!
Höstsonaten (Autumn Sonata) (1977)
Written by: Ingmar
(in credits order)
Aminoff: Charlotte's private
Bang-Hansen: Uncle Otto
Pollak: Piano instructor
Ullmann: Eva as a child
Wigert: Professor (uncredited)
von Hanno: Nurse (uncredited)
Brick (english language
Chopin (from "Les Préludes")
Schumann (from "Piano
concerto in a-minor")
Pianist: Kabi Larete
Editing by: Sylvia
Ingemarsson (as Sylvia Ingmarsdotter)
Design by: Anna
Design by: Inger
Assistant Director: Peder
Department, Boom Operator: Tommy Persson
Sound Department Sound Mixer: Owe
Still Photographer: Arne
Continuity Clerk: Kerstin
Actress: Ingrid Bergman
Original Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman
Globe Nominations and *Winners:
Actress: Ingrid Bergman
Foreign Language Film
York Film Critics Circle—Best Supporting Actress: Ingrid Bergman
Society of Film Critics—Best Actress: Ingrid Bergman
Board of Review—Best Actress: Ingrid Bergman; Best Director: Ingmar Bergman
Home Vision Cinema
Release Date: 8 October 1978 (Stockholm; Oslo; New York
Color: Eastmancolor Widescreen
Filmed: on location at Molde, Norway, and at
Norsk Film Studios, Oslo; from 20 September to 30 October 1977.
Release Date: January 11, 2000
Time: 92 minutes
Company: The Criterion Collection
Aspect Ratio(s): Widescreen Letterboxed - 1.64:1
Audio Tracks: Swedish (Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono), English (Dubbed) (Dolby Digital
2.0 Mono), Commentary by film historian Peter Cowie, author of Ingmar Bergman: A Critical
DVD Encoding: Region 1 encoding (US and Canada only)
Theatrical trailer, Commentary
The problem of Helena
I'm adding this section as a postscript rather than integrating it into the
body of the review because it is "deeply speculative" in nature and,
thus, most likely incorrect. My research into Autumn Sonata left me
feeling frustrated at the lack of critical analysis into the role played by
Helena, the disabled younger daughter of Charlotte. Helena's part in the
drama is superbly acted by Lena Nyman, who convincingly portrays a young woman
whose bright and active mind is trapped in a body that she no longer
controls. When the situation is calm, Helena is able to communicate
somewhat through Eva who has learned to decipher her inarticulate attempts at
speech. As the tension and drama rise during the course of Charlotte's
visit, Helena loses access to even this minimal link to the world, culminating
at the end of the film in a terrifying spastic fit of anger and frustration.
It's clear that she too has things to say to Charlotte, and her inability to
give voice to her feelings provides a deeply disturbing backdrop to the
interaction between Charlotte and Eva.
But why did Bergman add the character of Helena to the film at all?
What message is she there to convey? What role does she play in this drama
between her sister and her mother? There are few clues and no clear
answers. I have read dozens of reviews of Autumn Sonata and, almost
without exception, they praised Nyman's acting, but failed to address what it
meant. This seems odd to me in the context of the vast and complex
analysis that has been lavished on most of Bergman's films. The sometimes
arcane symbolism of his scripts has been deconstructed, parsed, and decoded to
the point where a civilian, like myself, would hesitate to even venture a
comment. But with respect to the problem of Helena the critics seem mute.
So, at the risk of venturing into troubled waters far beyond my depth, I'd
like to posit a theory of Helena. Many of Bergman's films explored the
psychological theories of Sigmund Freud using dream sequences and fantasy as a
vehicle for the underlying symbolism. For the most part Autumn Sonata
foregoes those techniques and lays the story before us as an explicit and linear
dialog. What if the old master, at the peak of his
brilliance, was experimenting with symbolism at an entirely new level.
What if the three women in Autumn Sonata symbolized the three components of Freud's structural theory of the mind, ego,
superego and the id?
To wit: the selfish and self indulgent Charlotte serves well as the
ego. The self possessed and restrained Eva is a credible superego. And
most interestingly I think, the sub-vocal but demanding Helena reflects the
mysterious subconscious id. It's a small idea, but it yields some very
interesting and somehow resonate interpretations to the mysteries of Autumn
Sonata. Together the three women form the parts of a single being, and the
entirety of their story becomes a balancing act between the three components of
the Freudian mind.
I'm not going to indulge in elaborating on this idea any further here. Lord
knows this piece is long enough already and unless you've watched Autumn Sonata
a dozen times already, it won't make any sense to you anyway. And if you
have examined the film in that detail you can easily extrapolate the
interactions through this filter and make up your own mind about its
value. If nothing else, this interpretation will provide some
entertainment for Bergman aficionados.
If anyone knows Bergman's phone number lemme know, and I'll ask him
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