From his days in ‘Take the Money and Run’ in 1969 to his recent 2014 film, ‘Magic in the Moonlight’, Woody Allen has consistently made films which make us laugh but far more than that, he has developed an appreciation for the subtlety of existential crisis and the absurdity of modern life.
Apart from The Marx Brothers there is another influence in Woody Allen’s life, the great Swedish auteur, Ingmar Bergman. Here are ten points which link the two filmmakers:
1. Scenes From a Marriage/Scenes From a Mall
1973 saw Bergman write and direct his TV series (and also an edited cinema release) of ‘Scenes from a Marriage’, about the marriage breakdown of a middle aged Swedish couple. Liv Ullman and Erland Joesephson starred in this intense study of the intricacies of of a middle aged couple as they come to terms with whether or not they love each anymore and throughout the process they offer the viewer an almost microscopic study of long term relationships.
Much of the film is shot in a very up close and personal style, with close-ups and very long takes as the characters perform intense monologues and duologues about their innermost feelings. It is an intense experience to watch and almost impossible not to somehow relate your own romantic experiences to the situation unfolding in front of your eyes. Bergman wrote and directed a sequel, in 2003, his last directorial effort, ‘Saraband’, where it catches up with the characters from the first film.
Linking with ‘Scenes from a Marriage’ is the 1991 comedy drama, ‘Scenes from a Mall’, written and directed by Paul Mazursky and starring than none other than Bette Midler and Woody Allen, in one of his few acting-only film roles.
Allen plays, Nick Fifer, with Midler as Deborah Fifer, both comfortable middle class parents blooming into their middle age. The film opens with their son leaving for college and the two of them proceed to the mall for a usual day of shopping, and of course, with hilarious consequences. As the day develops we discover that their marriage is in fact under incredible strain and they are both unsure of the future of their relationship.
Almost the entire film from this point is a madcap duologue between these two veterans. Much like Bergman’s ‘Scenes from a Marriage’, Mazursky’s ‘Scenes from a Mall’, unravels the facade of an established couple until they are all at breaking point. But ‘Mall’ is far more than a comedic version of Bergman’s ‘Marriage’, for example, the issues the couple go through are certainly real-life relationship issues and they are played out for drama as well as for laughs.
‘Scenes from a Marriage’ is also reminiscent of Allen’s ‘Husbands and Wives’, a film he wrote, directed and starred in in 1992. Husbands and Wives’ is a complex tale of the relationships between men and women and despite the frantic documentary style camerawork, is far closer to Bergman’s film in tone.
2. Persona/Love and Death
By this point in Allen’s career it had become known that he was an admirer of Ingmar Bergman, and if you didn’t know it then his farcical, ‘Love and Death’ from 1975, would certainly let you know.
Whilst ‘Love and Death’ is essentially a Russian satire of the literature of Dostoyevsky and his novels ‘Crime and Punishment’ and ‘The Brothers Karamazov’, they also feature a heavy influence of Ingmar Bergman’s, ‘Persona’, particularly in the visual style. Bergman’s 1966 psychological drama, was hailed a masterpiece in both its emotional story of death, mortality and pain but also in its provocative aesthetics of colour, light and space.
The most striking visual aspect of ‘Persona’, is in the framing of overlapping faces between the two protagonists, portrayed by famous Swedish actresses Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman. This framing technique emphasised the merging of the two characters throughout the film and worked as a narrative device of pushing the story forward. The effect is subtle to begin with but soon progresses to have the two women sharing screen space and eventually merging with the use of framing and dissolve transitions.
Almost ten years later Woody Allen made his farcical Russian influenced film, ‘Love and Death’ but the influences didn’t end there. There are scenes, particularly towards the end of the film, in which Woody Allen’s character and Diane Keaton’s character are framed in exactly same manner of the characters in ‘Persona’.
This is certainly not an accident as even the style of editing transition is similar as the characters converse between each other. The ‘Love and Death’ references are certainly funny and most definitely meant in the spirit of homage rather than parody.
3. Cries and Whispers/Interiors
After the phenomenal success of Allen’s Oscar winning film, Annie Hall in 1977 he started work on his 1978 Woody Allen Summer Project, which materialised as ‘Interiors’, his first full fledged drama film.The film, a bleak tale of deteriorating relationships, suicide attempts and psychological turmoil is so Bergman-esque in both its context and visual approach that it drew comparisons with the Swedish master from it’s initial release.
Even the poster, a black and white portrait of the film’s characters staring out of a window whilst trapped in the psychological prison of the house, is reminiscent of a Bergan film with its use of clever framing. It almost looks like a still from ‘Persona’ or ‘Cries and Whispers’ with its use of serious looking women wistfully staring into the distance as they contemplate the mortality of suicide and the human condition.
‘Interiors’ received very positive reviews on its release, which was a huge relief for Allen as he felt his first full dramatic presentation was a risk both professionally but also for his loyal fanbase.
4. The Seventh Seal/Death Knocks
Allen’s one-act play, ‘Death Knocks’, is a farcical parody of Bergman’s most famous film, ‘The Seventh Seal. In Allen’s version, Death appears at the house of Nat Ackerman, a balding middle-aged dress manufacturer, struggling to sleep as the night approaches midnight.
Death, the mythical figure of the afterlife and dressed in his conventional black robes, clumsily trips and falls in Ackerman’s room. The remainder of the play sees the two unlikely characters converse on the nature of life and death, with Nat Ackerman becoming increasingly bemused by Death’s nonchalant attitude to his job.
Bergman’s ‘The Seventh Seal’ tells the story of a medieval knight, played by Max von Sydow, searching for meaning as he converses and plays a game of chess with Death. Filmmakers both serious and comedic have heavily drawn upon the iconic film. For example, in the 1991 comedy, ‘Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey’ the titular characters are also faced by Death and challenged to play a game for their souls. In this film, however, Death loses out to a game of Twister.
‘Death Knocks’ has Nat and Death play cards rather than chess but the parody is still certainly clear. Rather than accept Death for who he is, Nat openly challenges him and initially refuses to accept that it is indeed Death, in fact, in one scene Nat tells Death, ‘I always thought you’d be taller’. In this version of the story it is Nat who wins the game of cards and therefore wins himself an extra day of life. He tells Death that he’ll have to come back tomorrow but Death has no money and can’t even book into a hotel.
The two agree that Death can come back another day so he can have a chance of winning his money back. The short play ends with Death leaving and Nat calling his friend Moe on the telephone: ‘Hello, Moe? Me. Listen, I don’t know if somebody’s playing a joke, or what, but Death was just here. We played a little gin … No Death. In person. Or somebody who claims to be Death. But, Moe, he’s such a schlep!’
5. Sven Nykvist – Cinematographer
Sven Nykvist was a Swedish cinematographer who was arguably one of the greatest and most influential directors of photography in cinema history. He’s most famous for his work with Ingmar Bergman and the films, ‘Cries and Whispers’, ‘Persona’, ‘Autumn Sonanta and Bergman’s last cinematic release, the 5 hour epic, ‘Fanny and Alexander’.
As Allen’s continued into the 1980s and he began to extend his repertoire into drama in a more effective manner, he sought out Nykvist to serve as cinematographer for his critically acclaimed comedy/drama, ‘Crimes and Misdemeanours’. The results were spellbinding as Nykvist brought with him Bergman’s sense of exquisite aesthetic emotional identification.
What is remarkable about this collaboration is that despite Allen hiring one of the most visually striking cinematographers of all time, ‘Crimes and Misdemeanours’, continues in Allen’s storytelling style by simultaneously adhering to his past work like the classics of Annie Hall and Manhattan but also embracing new approaches.
It is no wonder that’ Crimes and Misdemeanour’s is one of Allen’s most loved and well critically received films. The narrative follows a similar structure to that of Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’ (something which he returned to with ‘Match Point’) but has the emotional intensity and tale of death and mortality of Bergman’s ‘Cries and Whispers’.
Sven Nykvist went on to work with other famous auteurs such as the Russian filmmaker, Tarkovski and his films ‘The Sacrifice’. But then he also photographed, ‘Sleepless in Seattle’.