Bergman's images of Bergman

By , David Sterritt is the Monitor's film critic.

THE MAGIC LANTERN: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY by Ingmar Bergman

New York: Viking. 308 pp. $19.95

ONE of the most vivid and enduring images in postwar European film - a vision of Death and his victims dancing toward eternity against a stormy medieval sky - occurs just before the end of ``The Seventh Seal,'' winner of the Cannes Film Festival's special jury prize in 1957. By what combination of artistic insight and technical mastery did Ingmar Bergman devise this indelible moment? The answer comes in his autobiography:

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``The image ... was achieved at hectic speed because most of the actors had finished for the day. Assistants, electricians, a make-up man and two summer visitors, who never knew what it was all about, had to dress up in the costumes.... A camera with no sound was set up and the picture shot before the cloud dissolved.''

So much for notions of Bergman as a cinematic Prospero, conjuring his visions with magical ease and assurance. For him as for less fabled directors, filmmaking turns out to be a cumbersome, unwieldy, and sometimes exasperating process.

Stage work has similar challenges to offer, and in his autobiography Bergman is frank about his businesslike response to them. ``I hate tumult, aggression or emotional outbursts,'' he writes. ``My rehearsals are operations in premises ... where self-discipline, cleanliness, light and quiet prevail. A rehearsal is proper work, not private therapy for producer and actor.''

Yet film and theater are forever bound to vicissitudes of human emotion, and no amounts of self-discipline have allowed Bergman to escape them. For all the practical details that pepper ``The Magic Lantern,'' from backstage feuds to administrative decisions, this is an impressionistic book overflowing with powerful moods and feelings. Ranging with dreamlike abandon through Bergman's past and present, it mingles fears, fantasies, and confessions with less exotic sketches of everyday life and work.

Like many another autobiographer, Bergman makes arbitrary decisions about what to explore in depth and what to gloss over with a few words. Certain personality conflicts in the Swedish theatrical world are discussed in some detail; but don't look for any insights into why Bergman's family life has been so unstable, or where his artistic abilities have their roots.

When it comes to the deepest questions about Bergman and his art, some of the best clues emerge from meandering passages that don't seem to bear directly on his work. His earliest memory from childhood, for example, is a recollection of shifting his head to get different perspectives on reflections in a plate of food, and simultaneously becoming violently ill. Bergman seems to offer this image as a telling precursor of his visually sophisticated, personally Angst-ridden career.

Bergman's impressionistic approach gives ``The Magic Lantern'' an evocative structure, beginning with an account of childhood tensions and ending with a rambling meditation on his mother that culminates (in a Joycean touch) with his mother's own words as recorded in a diary. He frequently touches on more mundane considerations, but doesn't worry much about chronology or even thematic coherence. Issues that could have been connected in the narrative - his parents' casual acceptance of Nazism, for instance, and his own shocked response to the assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme - nod to each other across many pages, leaving the reader to give them order and meaning.

In tone and style, ``The Magic Lantern'' has more in common with the ambiguities of ``Persona'' than with such comparatively conventional Bergman achievements as the autobiographical films ``Fanny and Alexander'' and ``Scenes From a Marriage.''

Like a number of Bergman's films, ``The Magic Lantern'' has verbose passages, and its prose is pretty awful in spots - it's hard to excuse the likes of ``Tedium hung like a damp dishcloth round my soul.'' Such a moment may be the translator's fault, or it may be Bergman relying on instinct rather than judgment. Fortunately, the instincts of this melancholy Swede serve him well enough most of the time to compensate for occasional lapses.

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