Show Me Cinema #24: Summer Interlude

The filmography of Ingmar Bergman could very easily be divided into several different phases and periods in which he operated. Most people are primarily familiar with his work from the mid-1950s onwards, fair as it consists of most of the films he’s today known for. His early work is often dismissed or forgotten, sometimes by cinephiles and even Bergman himself, and there’s a clear reason why. From his directorial debut titled Crisis in 1946 until what is often considered his first international hit Summer with Monika in 1953, he made twelve films. The majority of them were more or less romantic melodramas such as the aforementioned Crisis, Music in Darkness, It Rains On Our Love etc. In 1949, Bergman got the chance to finally direct his own original screenplay with Prison (a fairly underrated gem in the Bergman oeuvre if you ask me), then in 1950 he directed a spy thriller (yes you read that right) titled This Can’t Happen Here. Bergman considered it his absolute worst film, disowned it, and for years tried to suppress it from circulation. Perhaps today’s film, which he made immediately after said spy film, could be seen as a response to the disappointment and sense of failure Bergman felt with his last film. I can’t verify that at this moment, but whatever the reason for making it, I don’t think it’s fair to count out today’s film as important to the Bergman canon as his first traces towards his almost religious status amongst cinephiles. According to the man himself: “For me Summer Interlude is one of my most important films. Even though to an outsider it may seem terribly passé, for me it isn’t. This was my first film in which I felt I was functioning independently, with a style of my own, making a film all my own, with a particular appearance of its own, which no one could ape. It was like no other film. It was all my own work. Suddenly I knew I was putting the camera on the right spot, getting the right results; that everything added up. For sentimental reasons, too, it was also fun making it.”

Summer Interlude (Sommarlek) can be considered a potential outlier in Bergman’s filmography when contrasted with the rest of his work due to the simplicity of the story. A ballerina with the Royal Opera in Stockholm Marie (Maj-Britt Nilsson), is sent the diary of an old boyfriend, and she relives their romance during a summer thirteen years prior. The boyfriend was a student named Henrik (Birger Malmsten). In that sense, I think the English translation of the original Swedish title is appropriate, as it is a relatively simple and light fare and the title fits that description. If there’s one thing Bergman deserves praise for it’s his titles because nearly all of his films have a good or at least memorable title, and Summer Interlude is included there.

As with most of Bergman’s films and plays, an incident in real life was the catalyst for what would become Summer Interlude. He was inspired by a fling he shared with a girl as he himself was an awkward sixteen year old student out of touch with his contemporaries, not being dressed properly and reading Nietzsche in his spare time. The script was first written right before the beginning of World War II in the same period he wrote Torment, Crisis and Woman Without Face, titled Marie at the time. In 1950, he would rewrite the earlier draft with his at the time frequent writing collaborator Herbert Grevenius, and it was shot that summer with the exteriors being shot on the same locations Bergman had his fling at the Stockholm archipelago. The film was shot by the vastly underappreciated cinematographer Gunnar Fischer, who was responsible for shooting a large majority of Bergman’s films in the forties and fifties before Sven Nykvist became his go-to dp, including The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries. Fischer lends a naturalistic look to the film, not an easy feat with the rapidly changing outdoor lights with 1950s film cameras, but the final result is a stunningly shot film from a cinematographic point of view. And as far as craft goes, I think Bergman does have a point where this does definitely feel like the first “proper” Bergman film on the technical side, as opposed to let’s say the thematic side.

Whilst the story and the film itself is on the lighter side of Bergman’s fare, there are early traces of what would become his trademarks such as the summer setting (which I gather mostly came about because summer was the only time he had to shoot films because he was committed to his theatre work in the spring and fall), a tragic romance, and even conversations about the existence of God, which amazingly doesn’t come off as either heavy-handed or out of place but rather feels natural in its said context. I must say the lack of story was somewhat testing my patience at times and I couldn’t help but think how Bergman would (inadvertently I guess) revisit similar themes and environments in Summer with Monika (a significantly better picture in my opinion), but it was nice to see him finding his own footing here.

Now, I will be indulging myself here, but at a certain point I couldn’t help but think of Pink Floyd’s classic album The Wall in the films closing half hour. And it’s not simply because I’m a crazy Pink Floyd stan looking to connect anything remotely similar in theme or look to them (okay it could have something to do with it I’ll admit), but more explicit dialogue that made me think of that masterpiece of an album. After having reminisced about her first love, Marie says the memory of that summer too painful to bare and live with thus she decides to build a metaphorical wall around her to protect herself from any and all harmful memories or experiences that occur to her. So I’m not just losing it with my Pink Floyd obsession, it actually has merit in this case if I dare say so.

Even if this is far from Bergman’s finest work or his most refined or mature or whatever, it’s still an essential film of his in my humble opinion if you consider yourself a fan. You don’t have to love it or hate it, but in order to see his evolution as a filmmaker one ought to see this seemingly insignificant film if you ever have the time to do it.

Published by davidalkhed

Co-creator, critic and columnist for A Fistful of Film.

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