Not Only Punched by Ingmar Bergman

Not Only Punched by Ingmar Bergman

Review of a TV interview, by Stefan Stenudd

I just saw the rerun of a TV interview with Ingmar Bergman, the world famous Swedish movie and theater director, not long before he died. He confessed that he had punched a critic to make sure that he would not be able to write any more reviews about Bergman's work. He seemed quite proud about it.

       In 1969, the major morning daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter theater critic Bengt Jahnsson visited the rehearsal of a play Ingmar Bergman directed. Jahnsson had written quite harsh words about Bergman in past reviews, so the latter went up to him and pushed him around (or punched his face, it's a bit unclear). It made the news, and Bergman was fined SEK 5,000 (USD 1,000 at the time).

       Here is an account of the event.

       Bengt Jahnsson has since been made kind of a laughing-stock, even beyond his death in 1991. The vicious critic who was defeated by the brilliant director, like a knight defeating a dragon. I was 15 when I read about it in the newspapers, and my sympathy was with Bergman. The poor artist had enough of insensitive words about his art, I thought.

       Years later, in the 1980's, I started to work for Dagens Nyheter as a rock critic (also coming to do some theater reviews). I got to know Bengt Jahnsson, without realizing at first that it was the one who had been attacked by Bergman. I found him to be an intelligent and gentle man, with penetrating eyes and a magnificent sense of humor. So I was quite surprised when learning that he was the critic Bergman despised (and continued to do so until his death).

       I couldn't understand why. Bengt Jahnsson impressed me as someone worth reading, his thoughts meriting some serious contemplation, so why would Bergman want to beat him up?

       The TV interview made me realize that it was all strategic. Bergman wanted to disqualify Jahnsson from reviewing any more of his work, since Jahnsson was one of the most critical reviewers of it. As far as I remember, it worked. Others took over at least most of the reviewing of Bergman's work, maybe all of it.

       That's cheating, of course. Critics don't work for artists, but for the audience, the readers of the newspapers who consider seeing a play, or just want to compare their opinion with that of a critic. That's true for any genre of critique. Bergman sabotaged it by interfering with the process, which was no less immoral than if a critic would make noise to obstruct a performance. It doesn't flatter Bergman's memory that to his last day, he was proud of it.

       Actually, I got the idea that something else was involved in Bergman's hatred. I had the impression that Bengt Jahnsson was gay. I don't remember if he said it out loud or not, but he gave me the distinct impression. And Bergman had a thing with that. He wanted desperately to be a macho man, although the actors at the theater joked about him being so deep in the closet he didn't even realize it himself.

       Bengt Jahnsson might have touched a Bergman nerve right there.

       Also, contrary to Bergman as well as most of his reviewers, Jahnsson had a working class background. Different worlds, different perspectives.

       Anyway, I find it sad that on the Internet as well as in other sources, Bengt Jahnsson is mentioned very little, and for little else than the conflict with Bergman. Jahnsson wrote a lot of theater reviews worth reading. He also wrote several books, including essays and poetry. He is worth being remembered for more than that Bergman assault.

       When I worked at Dagens Nyheter, I also got to review one of Bergman's plays, a radio theater performance. I don't remember how critical I was, but surely not altogether praising it. But that was when he was older, so I didn't worry much about his punching power. I guess that the artist's temper didn't hinder him from choosing his victims with some caution.

Stefan Stenudd
December 11, 2010

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