Israeli Early Cinema

In memory of Jospeh Halachmi (1933-2019), Founder & Film historian

In her documentary film “Bergman – A Year in a Life”, Jane Magnusson discusses the topic of Ingmar Bergman and Nazism. In his memoir “Laterna Magica” and his interviews Bergman consistently emphasized his Nazi enthusiasm that lasted until well after the end of World War became convinced II when he learend of the truth about the Holocaust.
The trouble with Ingmar's account is that nobody confirms it.

I have never believed it because it is out of character. Nazism is consistent with what Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer called the authoritarian personality. Ingmar's personality was nothing if not anti-authoritarian. Since his first film credit, “Torment” (1944), Ingmar had a high profile in attacking authority. The account of the sadistic schoolmaster Caligula (played by Stig Järrel) was immediately understood as an anti-Nazi allegory. The young Bergman sympathized and identified with young non-conformists at odds with society. There is an affinity in Bergman's screenplay with Weimar cinema, its rebellious stance against an insane authority which had led Germany to the First World War.


In 1940–1941 Karin Lannby was the woman in Ingmar Bergman's life. Lannby (1916–2007) was the first woman with whom Ingmar Bergman lived together. Although she was only two years older than the 22 year old Ingmar she was already a woman of the world.

Lannby's mother was the director of the Swedish office of MGM and a co-owner of Hotel Carlton in Stockholm. Since youth Karin was well connected and travelled, participating with her mother on luxury cruises and trips abroad. Since Karin was 15 years she was also a militant anti-fascist, a member of the socialist student union Clarté and the Swedish Communist Youth. She participated in the Spanish Civil War as a volunteer interpreter and secretary at a hospital in Alcoy in red Valencia. She stayed for a year in Barcelona and became involved with the Comintern. She also published a collection of poetry, Cante Jondo, in 1937. After the Hitler-Stalin pact in August 1939 she cut her ties with communists and became a spy for the counter-intelligence of the Swedish Defence Staff (Försvarsstaben). Lannby was a hard-core anti-fascist not only in opinions but also in actions.

Lannby was Ingmar's partner at Sagoteatern and Medborgarteatern where they mounted plays for children (in which professional actors performed for children). Lannby had rarely been mentioned in the context of Bergman but when Mikael Timm asked about her Ingmar answered: "I have her to thank for a lot. She shook me from my intellectual lassitude". The multilingual Karin urged Ingmar to study new international drama. She was excellent in networking and financing. She played the mother in Bergman's production of August Strindberg's “The Pelican” at the Student Theatre in 1940. Among their successes at the children's theatre was H. C. Andersen's “The Tinderbox”. Karin recommended to Ingmar the dancer and choreographer Else Fisher who soon became Ingmar's first wife.

bergman nazism

William Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice / Kö pmannen i Venedig (1940), school play production at Norra Latin directed by Ingmar Bergman starring Gösta Prüzelius as Shylock and Erland Josephson as Antonio (top left).


In 1940 Ingmar Bergman started also his lifelong collaboration with Erland Josephson (1923–2012) whom he already knew before. Erland, author, director, theatre director and actor, became Ingmar's best friend.

In 1940 Erland was a schoolboy, a student at the Norra Latin Läroverket. The student society Concordia had decided to mount a production of William Shakespeare's “The Merchant of Venice” and they were auditioning for a director. Ingmar Bergman made an instant impression when he appeared in front of the Concordia accompanied with his woman-of-the-world companion Karin Lannby.

Although the production was a school play it drew fine reviews from the press, including from the leading newspaper “Dagens Nyheter”.

“The Merchant of Venice” is always sensitive material because of Shylock, one of the most famous / infamous Jewish characters in world literature. In Nazi Germany and Austria it was often produced in terms of anti-semitism. Werner Krauss played Shylock in Vienna in 1943 in a viciously ingenious interpretation that reportedly efficiently converted audiences to anti-semitism.

In contrast, Bergman's interpretation was philosemitic, portraying Shylock as a a victim of oppression and prejudice. Casting against type, Erland Josephson got to play Antonio, the merchant. Erland Josephson later remembered that the production was "clearly anti-Nazi". In the Concordia annual booklet that was available at the performances Tore Tegengren wrote: "For us Shylock appears as a tragic figure, a victim of racial hatred and Christian intolerance".

This experience inspired Erland Josephson to become an actor.

Erland's father Gunnar Josephson was the head of the Jewish Congregation of Stockholm, deeply involved in the congregation's activity to help Europe's Jews in 1933–1945. He was the CEO of Sandberg's Bookstore, Ingmar's favourite bookstore where he used to hang around because as a student he could not afford to buy many of the books he wanted.

The Josephson family is a prominent Swedish Jewish family, well-known members of which include Ernst Josephson (1851–1906, poet and painter), Erik Josephson (1864–1929, architect), Ragnar Josephson (1891–1966, head of the Royal Dramatic Theatre), and many more.

The interpretation of “The Merchant of Venice” was no exception in Bergman's work in the 1940s. Mikael Timm details a long list of productions with contemporary social relevance. Bergman was never a political director but neither was he escaping reality.

Ingmar had been banned from his home after a violent clash with his father. Ingmar envied Erland's liberal home "teeming with cultural figures". Perhaps the two homes in “Fanny and Alexander” are a reflection of this: the bishop's authoritarian home and the liberal Jacobi home. During their lifelong friendship Ingmar admired Erland's wisdom that "dated back thousands of years" as reported by Mikael Timm.


I had been puzzled by Bergman's Nazi claims for a long time, and provoked by Geoffrey Macnab's article in Sight & Sound, December 2007, I decided to ask Erland Josephson about them.

I was kindly given his telephone number by Jon Wengström at the Swedish Film Institute and called him on 29 November 2007, expecting to be answered by someone who would take a telephone appointment for me. But it was Erland Josephson himself on the phone, and I was not equipped with a recording device; I just wrote down notes after the conversation. I had to focus on listening and was not able to take notes simultaneously. I asked Josephson whether it would be possible to visit him and discuss the theme of Bergman and the Nazis. He apologized that he was not in particularly good health.

Erland Josephson told that he had learned to know Ingmar already in 1938-1939. He also confirmed that the “The Merchant of Venice” production was pro-semitic.

I then asked whether it was true that Ingmar was a Nazi sympathizer who only after the war woke up to the Nazi reality. Erland said that this was not true. About the Bergman family's Nazi sympathies Josephson said that it was more a case of German sympathies among the bourgeoisie.

He told that one knew in Sweden about the persecutions and the concentration camps in Germany, and facts about the Holocaust were well documented in Sweden already when it happened.

Referring to “Fanny and Alexander”, “The Serpent's Egg”, “The Touch”, and “The Goldberg Variations” I asked whether Bergman had any special interest in Jewish culture.

There was a long silence, and Erland said that nobody had asked that question before.

"Ja, det tror jag han hade", he said: "yes, that's what I think", but they never had a discussion about that, "aldrig någon diskussion""Aldrig på det sättet", "never in that way".

The one time Josephson played a Jewish character in a Bergman film was the role of Isak Jacobi in “Fanny and Alexander”. Josephson wondered whether there was a real-life model for him, "en förebild i verkligheten".

Josephson was also aware that Bergman may have had a childhood love affair with a Jewish girl.

Mr. Josephson said he is not able to write himself about these things, and he has never done it before.

I thanked him and expressed a wish to come to visit him to talk about this in detail. I waited too long and perhaps Erland's health condition would have prevented the visit anyway. He had long suffered from Parkinson's disease (he was even a "voice of Parkinson" in public discourse), but his mental presence was bright and clear when I called him.

About one year later in Judisk Krönika ([The Jewish Chronicle, the cultural journal of Swedish Jews] 2 / 2009) there was a remarkable dossier on Erland Josephson and Ingmar Bergman. There was an in-depth interview with Erland Josephson by Michaela Lundell, titled "I Want to Know Who I Am". There was also a translation of an interview with Morton Narrowe, a rabbi of the Jewish Congregation in Stockholm, with Katharina Schmidt-Hirschfelder. Bergman had become intrigued with the concept of "another dimension" in Judaism while he was preparing the production of “The Goldberg Variations”. He received a crash course in Judaism and was so impressed that he asked whether it would be possible to become "a honorary Jew". To Bergman's disappointment Narrowe replied that no such thing exists.


While there was initially a positive attitude towards the Nazi government in the Bergman family, the attitude changed. Erik Bergman condemned the Nazis in his sermons. In 1939 Erik and Karin Bergman rescued a German boy, Dieter Winter, whose mother was Jewish and who was in danger to be called to a "labour camp". He stayed with the Bergmans for years.

Movingly, his son Jan Winter (born 1950) is interviewed by Jane Magnusson in her film, and this year, in May, Winter published a book, Dieters bok – flykting hos familjen Bergman [Dieter's Book - a Refugee in the Bergman Family] about his father's stay with Erik and Karin Bergman (Förlaget Tongång, 2018).


There is a perverse sense of self-demonization in Ingmar's Nazi claims. He was living together with a militant anti-Nazi activist, Karin Lannby. He was a friend of the Josephson family, seminal in helping Jewish refugees. An anti-authoritarian stance was consistent in his plays and films. His family rescued a refugee of the Holocaust.

Perhaps Ingmar had an overdeveloped sense of guilt about his initial fascination with Hitler's Germany. There had been a musical evening in Thüringen, listening to the banned records from “The Threepenny Opera” by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. Bergman became infatuated with a girl called Rebecka. Rebecka wrote to him in Sweden, but Ingmar did not answer at once, and then he heard that the family had moved away from Weimar. "Her memory stayed with him like a minor chord" (Mikael Timm).

Perhaps the shame of not having helped Rebecka developed into a Nazi fabrication.


Article originally published on Sunday, August 12, 2018 by Antti Alanen, which kindly allowed its publication in this website.