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”In the end the daughter gives birth to her mother”

That’s how Ingmar Bergman envisioned the cathartic final resolution between concert pianist Charlotte Andergast and her daughter Eva. He wrote the first draft of the script for Autumn Sonata during a sleepless night on Fårö island on the 23rd of March, 1976, right after harrowing tax evasion charges against him had been dropped. Bergman’s reacted to the decision with unadulterated bliss, which manifested itself in a surge of creativity. He instantly knew that the main characters could only be played by Liv Ullman and Ingrid Bergman.

Nevertheless, as he wrote in the book Bilder (Images – My Life in Film, 2008), he could never realize his vision of how the daughter would give birth to the mother. He simply could not “drill deep enough.” Instead, Bergman allowed himself a surprising luxury: he was mildly unhappy with the entire film.

– My dear Ingmar, it has after all gone down in history as one of your best, it’s a real classic! Anyone who’s ever been moved by Autumn Sonata will remember it forever – and there are so many of us!

Why does Ingmar Bergman fail in his ambitious attempt? How could a daughter give birth to the mother so that two women, as he imagines,”are for some brief moments joined in total symbiosis?”

Höstsonaten; Anne Sofie von Otter
Anne Sofie von Otter sings the role of Charlotte Andergast.

The drama’s conflict revolves around two women who are agonizingly close to each other. They both feel the need to connect, yet each find it impossibly difficult to respond to the other’s craving.
The two women are desperate to be loved, but neither seem to be certain about their own love. Are they capable of loving – or would they even want to love? The answer is ambivalent, particularly in Eva’s case. Does she want to forgive? Does she want to “give birth”? How could the two switch roles, making the daughter a mother to her own mother?

Ingmar Bergman’s script for Autumn Sonata ends in an epilogue, a letter that Eva writes to Charlotte without knowing whether it will ever reach her. In the letter, she professes to understand that she should’ve faced her mother with tenderness instead of consumed by her old, bitter hatred – that despite everything there can be compassion, “the incredible possibility that people might look after each other,” and that she, Eva, should have looked after Charlotte

Don't we ever stop being a mother and a daughter?

Trailer of Ingmar Bergman’s film Autumn Sonata

Eva, however, has had a child of her own, a child she’s given birth to and looked after. This child, Erik, died in an accident at just four years of age. As we discover that Charlotte hasn’t seen her daughters Eva and Helena in seven years, it becomes apparent that she never met her grandchild. She didn’t come when he was born, never visited during his short life – didn’t even turn up for his funeral!

I have to admit that, when working on the libretto, this startled me. What kind of lack of emotion or indifference or fear does it reflect in our Charlotte? And what in the world did Bergman have in mind here?

In this light, how excessive are the requirements he sets for Eva’s ability to forgive? And, how is it possible that Autumn Sonata gives so little attention to the way Charlotte disappointed Eva, the mother of Erik? The abandoned other daughter, the sick Helena, is a living reminder of Charlotte’s need to escape whenever she feels inadequate. Eva has also been looking after Helena.

How clearly Charlotte lacks interest in the mundane life of the parsonage, which is completely devoid of brilliance, talent or fame. She appears to be someone who seeks constant recognition and finds it in the concert halls of the world. Was her conclusion that a four-year-old could never offer that?

Does this explain why the character of Eva must resist, nonetheless, when Bergman seeks a psychological opportunity for finding “symbiosis”. There are different levels of disappointment. Is Charlotte trying to take the role of another, real child?

 Still, Autumn Sonata resonates with some kind of a reconciliation throughout – if only in Eva and Charlotta’s desperate but genuine attempt to reach out to each other, despite the confusion and complications.

Charlotte’s failure can only be understood in the light of her own loveless childhood and the survival strategy it provoked: music, accomplishments, and loneliness.

At one stage, however, Eva has a chance to blame Charlotte for living a lie. Bergman give her words so much power that they really hit home.

”You always wanted there to be special exceptions for you. You’ve established a kind of a discount system in life. But at some point you must see that you are in debt, just like everyone else.”

A discount system in life? What an apt wording!

And, at the same time, it’s an unpleasant truth that could describe every one of us.

This is where he, Ingmar B., succeeded in drilling very deep indeed.