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 Andrew Lloyd 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 springtime.

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 pianist, 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 Autumn warm 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 parson, who 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 years.  

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 hands. 

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 a 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 a hug.

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 troupe included 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 recognition.  

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 contact.  

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 Language Film. 

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 again, 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 interpersonal relationships.
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!

CST Approved

Höstsonaten (Autumn Sonata) (1977)   

Directed by: Ingmar Bergman    
Written by: Ingmar Bergman    

Primary Cast (in credits order)
Ingrid Bergman: Charlotte  
Liv Ullmann: Eva  
Lena Nyman: Helena  
Halvar Björk: Viktor  
Marianne Aminoff: Charlotte's private secretary  
Arne Bang-Hansen: Uncle Otto  
Gunnar Björnstrand: Paul  
Erland Josephson: Josef  
Georg Løkkeberg: Leonardo  
Mimi Pollak: Piano instructor  
Linn Ullmann: Eva as a child
Knut Wigert: Professor (uncredited) 
Eva von Hanno: Nurse (uncredited)  

Produced by: Richard Brick (english language version),  Katinka Faragó    

Music by:
Johann Sebastian Bach
Frédéric Chopin    (from "Les Préludes")  
Robert Schumann    (from "Piano concerto in a-minor") 

Pianist: Kabi Larete 

Cinematography by: Sven Nykvist    
Film Editing by:
Sylvia Ingemarsson    (as Sylvia Ingmarsdotter)  
Production Design by:
Anna Asp    
Costume Design by:
Inger Pehrsson   
Makeup Department: Cecilia Drott 
Assistant Director:
Peder Langenskiöld 

Sound Department, Boom Operator: Tommy Persson 
Sound Department Sound Mixer: Owe Svensson

Still Photographer: Arne Carlsson 
Continuity Clerk:  Kerstin Eriksdotter ....   

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Actress: Ingrid Bergman
Best Original Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman

Golden Globe Nominations and *Winners:
Best Actress: Ingrid Bergman
*Best Foreign Language Film

Other Awards:
New York Film Critics Circle—Best Supporting Actress: Ingrid Bergman
National Society of Film Critics—Best Actress: Ingrid Bergman
National Board of Review—Best Actress: Ingrid Bergman; Best Director: Ingmar Bergman

Release Information:

Studio: Home Vision Cinema
Theatrical Release Date:
8 October 1978 (Stockholm; Oslo; New York City)
Eastmancolor Widescreen
Filmed: on location at Molde, Norway, and at Norsk Film Studios, Oslo; from 20 September to 30 October 1977.

DVD Release Date: January 11, 2000
Run Time:
92 minutes
Production Company:
The Criterion Collection
Aspect Ratio(s):
Widescreen Letterboxed - 1.64:1
Available 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 Biography
Available subtitles: English
DVD Encoding: Region 1 encoding (US and Canada only)
DVD Extras: Theatrical trailer, Commentary

ASIN: 0780021118  

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 myself...

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