On the Edge of the Volcano: Isabella Rossellini on Ingrid Bergman, Roberto Rossellini, and Stromboli (1950)

stromboli_posterIt all started with a letter. In 1948, Ingrid Bergman (at the height of her Hollywood career) wrote to Roberto Rossellini (triumphant director of Rome, Open City and Paisà) to express her admiration for his films. She hoped to act for him in the future.

Her letter not only set into motion one of the most notorious celebrity scandals of the 20th century, but also sparked one of the most fruitful director-muse collaborations in cinema history.

At the Cinémathèque Française this summer, Isabella Rossellini, one of Bergman and Rossellini’s three children, shared memories of her parents and reflected on their legacy. Her interview in French* with Serge Toubiana, following a screening of Stromboli, was the highlight of the Cinémathèque’s retrospective to celebrate the centenary of Ingrid Bergman’s birth.

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Isabella Rossellini in conversation with Serge Toubiana on the stage of the Cinémathèque Française’s Salle Henri Langlois (my photo).

Rossellini explained that her mother’s letter was by no means an unusual gesture for her. “Mama wrote many letters to directors whose films she liked. Sometimes she’d say, ‘If you have a character that you think would be right for me, I’d really like to work with you.’”

Unwilling to let studios dictate role after role for her, Bergman actively sought out cinema’s innovators. In her daughter’s words, “She wasn’t vain at all, not the way people think beautiful actors are. She was a great actress and a great artist who had an enormous curiosity about working with many directors with different styles.”

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In this case, however, the proposed partnership seemed an unlikely one. What could a neorealist director, who favored working with non-actors, do with a talented top movie star who, by her own confession, could say only “ti amo” in Italian?

Rossellini found his inspiration one day while driving past a refugee camp, where women from northern European countries lined up along a barbed wire fence. The director stopped to observe and the guard motioned him away—but not before a Latvian woman, with a look of “mute intense despair” seized his arm. When Rossellini returned to the camp with a pass, he discovered that the mysterious woman had married a soldier and left to live in the Lipari islands.

As he replied in a letter to Bergman, “I tried to imagine the life of the Latvian girl, so tall, so fair, in this island of fire and ashes, amidst the fishermen, small and swarthy, amongst the women with the glowing eyes.” His vision for Stromboli, the first of 5 films he’d make with Bergman, was born out of this chance encounter.

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Shortly after Bergman travelled to Italy, Rossellini and his then-married star became lovers. Bergman’s resulting divorce from Petter Lindström and her pregnancy outside of marriage ignited gossip columns and outraged the American public.

The affair destroyed Bergman’s image of ethereal, on-a-pedestal purity and stirred up prejudices still rankling from WWII. As Isabella Rossellini noted, “The idea that she fell in love with an Italian, from a country that 5 years before had been America’s enemy, that shocked people.”

Bergman’s Swedish nationality made her an easy target, according to her daughter: “She was already a foreigner and Americans tend to distrust foreigners…. The Senate took a position against my mother, saying that foreigners who came to live and work in America, since Hollywood could have such a phenomenal effect on someone’s success, needed to be under moral control.”

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While the American press gloated over the fall of an angelic icon, Bergman had more pressing challenges. Like the character she plays in Stromboli—Karen, an urbane Lithuanian bound to a primitive culture by a marriage of desperation—Bergman was ill-prepared for tribulations of life on a rugged Mediterranean island.

Bergman “was used to sets with very specialized crews, hundreds of people, but they made Stromboli with about 15 people who all carried the equipment,” Rossellini says.

Fascinating behind-the-scenes footage of the arduous production exists, thanks to one of Bergman’s hobbies: “She made little home movies for herself, and we see that everyone carried these heavy burdens, for example, to the top of the volcano.” (You can watch snippets shot by Bergman’s camera on YouTube courtesy of the Criterion Collection.)

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The actress also had to adapt her technique to a cinematic style—and cast—very different to what she was accustomed to. As her daughter said, “Mama found herself without Cary Grant, without Spencer Tracy, with a fisherman that Papa picked!”

“If Papa needed a fisherman, he got a fisherman,” Rossellini explained. “A real fisherman will have the gestures, the sunburned face, the authenticity you’d never get with an actor.”

In the starkly sensual Stromboli, Bergman’s conflicted, expertly communicated emotions set her apart from the borderline awkward naturalism of the other cast members. This contrast, far from a drawback, contributes beautifully to the film, since Karen rebels against, and is largely rejected by, the island’s benighted world.

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To achieve the improvisational feel he sought, Rossellini had to work around his non-actors’ unease. As his daughter told her audience at the Cinémathèque, “Italian films are often dubbed, so you don’t have to know your lines. My father would direct by saying, ‘There’s a scene where you come in for lunch and people are sitting down, so act like you would in real life. Say “Hello, goodbye, how are you, and so on.”’

“That was difficult for an actor [Bergman] who was used to learning a text, to having everything written beforehand…. A bigger challenge was that the non-actors were extremely intimidated by the camera and wouldn’t speak. Instead of saying, ‘Hello. How are you? Have a seat,” they’d stand there frozen with terror.

“So, Papa would say, ‘Listen, it doesn’t matter what you say, because I’m going to dub it afterwards.’ So, Mama would come in and say, ‘Hello, how are you?’ and the non-actor would go ‘One-two-three-four-five-six.’”

Describing such odd “dialogue,” Isabella Rossellini laughed, “Rossellini’s realism was just on the screen, because if you visited the set, it was surrealism!” (To be fair, though, I think most of us would freeze up in the radiant presence of Ingrid Bergman.)

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Though lauded as a epiphanic neorealist masterwork today, Stromboli flopped at the box office in 1950—despite all of the inflammatory free publicity. However, “the French recognized that a film that didn’t work at the box office, that didn’t sell a lot of tickets, could be an important film.”

Cinémathèque founder Henri Langlois in particular saw the genius in Rossellini’s work and was a good friend of the director’s family. Isabella shared an amusing personal reminiscence of Henri Langlois and his wife as somewhat, ahem, fragrant and unwashed bohemians: “My mother and father would say, ‘Isabella, you mustn’t say that they smell bad. Shush!’”

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the cinephiles bred by the Cinémathèque would latch onto Stromboli and the other Bergman-Rossellini collaborations as examples of the kind of personal, documentary-style cinema they respected. “My father was more of a director who’d influenced other directors than a box office success,” Rossellini recalled. “It was Cahiers du Cinéma that rediscovered my parents’ movies.”

Roberto Rossellini returned the favor by becoming a mentor to the future Nouvelle Vague directors: “When I saw Godard three or four years ago, he told me, ‘Your father was kind of a like an uncle to me. He said, “Why be a critic? Why not make your own movies?”’ So my father also encouraged Truffaut and Godard—when they were movie critics—to make films.”

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When her father passed away in 1977, Rossellini’s family received a touching tribute from Godard: “the most moving telegram I’ve ever gotten. He wrote, ‘We are alone in the woods.’ Because my father was such a patriarch. He was my dad, but he was also the Taviani brothers’ and Godard’s father in a way.”

The Taviani brothers paid tribute to Roberto Rossellini somewhat differently: by offering Isabella her first significant film role, in Il Prato (1979). Remembering Rossellini’s objections to movie careers for his children, “I thought, ‘Dad’s going to turn over in his grave. He would be furious. He gave the Tavianis a prize and now they want me to act for them.’”

But Ingrid Bergman urged her daughter to accept the offer. “My mom came in and said, ‘No, you have to take advantage of this. It’s an adventure. You can’t turn up this chance to try to be an actress. And, in any case, they work in your father’s style, with non-actors, so you’re not going to be an actress…. You’ll have an experience with great artists.’”

The diverging opinions on Isabella’s acting career were typical of Bergman and Rossellini, a striking case of “opposites attract.” She was introverted and methodical. He was outgoing and unpredictable.

“My father was infinitely disorganized,” Rossellini said. “He was Italian, so we don’t have very many of his things left. My mother was Swedish—and infinitely organized. She saved every letter, every photo, every film poster.”

At one of the most poignant moments of her interview, Isabella Rossellini revealed the insight that motivated her mother’s methodical collecting. “I remember when my mother was sick, she had cancer, there was a big room where she was storing all these things. Mama was very humble, very simple, and extremely shy. I said, ‘Why did you keep all this? You were born in Sweden, you went to America, then you went to Italy, then you went to live in France… why did you drag all of these photos, all of these letters, all of these newspaper clippings with you?’

“She gave me a response that totally shocked me. She said, ‘Because I’ve always known that my life as an artist was very important.’

“I was scandalized by this pretension! But she said, “You know, I think that we’re part of the most influential art of the last century. When we were young, we all watched movies as much as we read the great classics. We read the classics in school because we have to, we go to museums from time to time, but everyone goes to the movies and loves the cinema.’”

It’s reassuring to know that Ingrid Bergman recognized her place and significance in cinema history—from Intermezzo to Autumn Sonata, from Casablanca to Stromboli, from Gaslight to Elena and Her Men.

100 years after her birth, Bergman’s versatility, her spontaneity, and her fearless defiance of convention remain as modern as ever. Will we ever quite catch up to this goddess of incandescent contradictions? I doubt it.

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*Please note that all quotations of Isabella Rossellini in this article are my translations.

(My) Top 10 Shots in Casablanca

posterSo many people have written mind-blowing thematic analyses of Casablanca that I decided to go another route. This movie invites you into it—and invites you to take souvenirs from it: favorite lines, cherished scenes, fragments of tunes and soundtrack music, and, of course, images.

Casablanca encourages you to turn it into your own personal collection of memories and does so more successfully than any other Hollywood film. So here’s my collection of its most meaningful, mythical, and tantalizing shots.

10. Casablanca Noir

If you were to show me this shot and say, “What’s it from?” it would take me more than a minute to realize that it’s from The Greatest Hollywood Movie of All Time (according to some people, though I don’t like those kinds of judgements). Here, Ilsa is watching Victor as he risks his life by going out to the Free France meeting after curfew. The low-key lighting, the venetian blinds, and the obscured face all scream NOIR.  The image clearly plays with our genre-recognition abilities. This noirish quality, largely thanks to expressionist-influenced director Michael Curtiz and director of photography Arthur Edeson (also the DoP for Frankenstein and The Maltese Falcon) consistently add a palpable ominousness to what could’ve been a frothy, unbelievable quip-fest.

9. In the Shadows

Now, this isn’t a shot that slaps you across the face with its importance. It occurs very early in the film when Captain Renault warns Rick not to help Lazlo. The shot doesn’t last particularly long. However, I think this moody shadow silhouette of Rick serves a key function of insisting on his dark side… the dark side that we’re about to see when he coldly watches the Nazis nab Ugarte. This film only works if we believe that Bogie (who, leading up to Casablanca, had played some pretty vicious guys) might actually let Victor Lazlo die because of a grudge against Ilsa. That ugliness needs to lurk in him to counterbalance the sentimentality. And this shot knows it.

8. The Airfield Two-Shot

We all know the famous two-shot of Rick and Ilsa saying goodbye, but there’s a marvelous swooping crane-in movement on the pair which we would also do well to recall with fondness. It adds to the shock, tension, and pathos of Rick’s noble switcheroo as Ilsa copes with the fact that she’s going, not staying.

7. The Nazis are Coming

How brave was it, in 1942, to include a shot like this? Raw, grainy, obviously the real deal, and totally terrifying. Not only does this footage of a genuine Panzer division ripping through the French countryside lend psychological weight and menace to Conrad Veidt’s sinister Major Strasser, but it’s also the scariest shot in the film, for my money, because it reaches beyond the diegesis to frighten us. For the people watching this in 1942, it might have felt like a coming attraction. And not a pleasant one. As Strasser asks Rick, can you imagine the Nazis in New York? I bet Casablanca‘s audiences could, in their nightmares.

6. The Weeping Letter

How many times have we seen letters in movies as a short-hand for plot revelations? And how often does it feel flat and lame? Well, apparently, just add (rain)water and the ink bleeds and weeps into instant devastation. The words cry the tears that tough-guy Bogie can’t and infuse the scene with an ineffable feeling of loss and things falling apart.

5. Trouble in Paradise

Ilsa tries to enjoy her last moments with Rick, but this tight framing tells us that some mysterious inner struggle is killing her. It’s pure agony and irony—since Rick blithely has no idea. The Paris dream is about to come crashing down.

(Note: Nick Ray would later copy this tight framing for the nightclub scene in In A Lonely Place, again, with Bogie, but it’s much more effective here, I’d argue.)

4. The Penetrating Searchlight

The beam scans the night sky as peaceful harps sing on the soundtrack, telling us what really happened between Rick and Ilsa. As Rick later admits to Laslzo, “She pretended she was still in love with me… and I let her pretend…” One of the most alluring, evocative ellipses of all time. Thanks, Joseph Breen and your blue-pencil brigade, for being a real pain and burning this remarkable hole in the narrative!

3. La Belle Aurore

One shot encompasses all of the frames above. We get a tilt up from the shadow. Rick’s at the bar. A dolly movement follows him over to the piano. He pours some champagne as Sam plays the then-untainted “As Time Goes By.” Instant nostalgia.

Do you ever have a memory where you see yourself? Like you’re watching a movie of your past in your mind? Then you think, “Wait, I can’t see myself in real life. I must be embellishing this…” This lyrical long take captures that sensation of a romanticized remembrance, colored and enhanced by longing. Nothing could ever be this perfect and beautiful and romantic. But, then again, it’s broadcast to you from the mind of a drunk, lonely saloon owner. Of course it will look pure, friendly, intimate, and untouchable—the antithesis of his own saloon.

2. The Last Shot

This crane shot contains the paradox of Casablanca. How can I be a good person, one who cares for others and, if necessary, makes sacrifices for them, and still be an individual instead of another senseless follower? Won’t my drama get lost in the drama of a world in crisis? As the shot rises, Rick and Louis look small, but their voices stay more or less the same. No matter how immersed they are in the tide of history, the force of their personalities, their desires, and the uniqueness of their goodwill gestures maintains their integrity as characters.

Integrity has many forms and many representatives, including venal bureaucrats and sad-eyed bar owners—idealized Lazlo isn’t the only option. You don’t have to lead the Resistance to stand out in a sea of change, we realize, as Rick and Louis walk down the runway mist which shimmers around them like a starry firmament.

1. Ilsa x 2

It really is true. No matter how many times you watch Casablanca you discover some clever detail that you hadn’t noticed before. Just before this shot, Victor shows up at Rick’s and Ilsa is hiding in Rick’s room. Now, as much as I admire Ilsa’s spirit and decency, I confess that, as a character, she annoys me personally. It took this image to set her free in my mind. Because here she’s doubled, split, divided.

This image translates the forked path of destiny, so central to Casablanca, a movie about not just one choice, but many choices. It’s a tale of possibilities and “what-ifs,” and therein lies the key to its beauty and resonance.

Casablanca is a story that doesn’t know its own ending. In my opinion, that is why it is such a great story.

Now, I know that the claims that the cast were kept in the dark as to the dénouement practically until they filmed it (because the screenwriters were scrambling to wrap it up) have been exaggerated. Nevertheless, even the characters persistently talk about this up-in-the-air conclusion. “Does it have a wild finish?” asks the nasty, inebriated Rick. “It’s still a story without an ending,” he later observes to Ilsa. In that scene, when she comes for the letters of transit, they finally unburden themselves of their misunderstandings by figuring out the exact chronology of their own story.

Without the slightest bit of “meta” cynicism, Casablanca manages to unravel the complications of storytelling—not in an artistic sense, but in a human one. The fact that Warner Brothers produced it during the war means that, of course, the entire world had to agree with Rick: “It’s still a story without an ending.” The epic of World War II wasn’t over yet. But, then again, when is anything really over? Even Casablanca’s ending is a beginning and the characters’ relationships open all kinds of room for our imaginations to fill in the time before the beginning of film. Still, on an even more universal level, Casablanca touches the viewers by reminding us of all of the loose ends in our own lives.

Casablanca endures because it dwells in these big little questions. What’s going to happen to me? Will we always be together? What will the future bring? How are we to make sense of all the encounters and losses that life sets, like landmines, in our path? Nobody knows the way it’s going to be.

Those twin visions of Ilsa peering at us suggest that every reality is teetering on the brink of not one, but several futures, several possible endings. And we don’t know which until it happens.

Honorable Mentions: 

Because, really, I’m a little screenshot-happy. What movie blogger wouldn’t be?

Waiting in Casablanca

Every time I think about this film, this long sweep over the huddled masses, gazing upward towards the plane, sticks out in my memory. The fatigued faces and the hope in their eyes reminds me of the American immigrant experience and, within the story, suggests the stakes of getting the Hell out of Casablanca. This shot also tells us of a multitude of stories that we won’t have time to hear in this film, but which are just as valid, poignant, and personal. Casablanca is not an egocentric film. It realizes that for every story told, there are millions more worth listening to.

Everybody Goes to Rick’s

In those first shots of the nightclub a whole era of between-the-wars escapism comes alive. The textures, the smoke haze, the silky gowns, the pierced, lacy screens, as though to filter out the harsh light of truth—it’s all there, inviting and numbing.

O.K. Rick

One of the best character introductions of all time. Champagne cocktail = sophisticated, drinker. Cigarette = cool. Chessboard = thinker. Alone = lonely. Shadowy background = noirish badass with a knack for decorating. Any questions?

The Foursome

When Rick sees Ilsa for the first time in Casablanca, we get a few very overwrought close-ups. If we had to linger in their reunion, the scene would descend into bathos. Fortunately, Lazlo and Renault arrive—and the tension is palpable as the four of them crowd this shot with their worries and surprise. It’s gonna be a bumpy night.

Face-Off

Rick and Lazlo bump into each other in the doorway of the Blue Parrot… as the shadow of a belly dancer’s arm undulates over them as a reminder of the love versus lust aspect of the plot.

Shoot Me

Umm… did I miss something? Did my DVD cut to Double Indemnity? In all seriousness, this indelible shot drives home the risk of losing one’s humanity to war—even far from the battlefield. If Ilsa shot Rick, she would be just as bad as Major Strasser.

Okay, maybe not quite, but you see my point. According to the logic of this film, you can’t fight for principles by abandoning all principles. Ilsa can’t bring herself to shoot Rick, which is why she does triumph. She’s still human. She’s still filled with love for Rick, love that reminds him of his own humanity, of that time before his insides got kicked out. However, she comes mighty close to pulling that trigger—which allows Curtiz to show us that war is indeed Hell. Divided loyalties turn almost every relationship into a noirish collision course.

Vol de Nuit

Escape and loss, relief and regret—inscribed on the image. It will haunt my dreams. I’m sure that it’s haunted dreams for 70 years. And will do so for many more as time goes by.