In all likelihood, Ingmar Bergman was not biologically related to Karin Bergman, the woman considered to be his mother. This is the sensational result of a new DNA test by the National Board of Forensic Medicine. Freelance journalist Eva Hernbäck has uncovered a story that sets the film director's life and work in a whole new light.
What is significance of confusingly similar facial features? What do rumors and secrets heard since childhood mean? In reality, they may mean nothing or nothing that can be substantiated. In our times, however, a DNA test is solid evidence to be weighed most seriously. This Spring, DNA samples analyzed by the National Board of Forensic Medicine in Sweden provide sudden proof that Ingmar Bergman was not the biological son of Karin Bergman, the woman who was his mother.
The importance of this fact may be downplayed, since everyone who has studied and written about his life and upbringing, and not least Ingmar Bergman himself, attest that the relationship between him and his mother Karin was full of love and affection. But there are few families in the Swedish cultural circles that have been turned inside out to such degree as the Bergman’s have, examined to the naked skin and utilized as the inspiration for film, drama and literature. It would therefore be fascinating if the rumors about his descent which have been circulating in certain families for more that half a century could be substantiated.
The mystery is even greater given that Karin Bergman, who kept extensive diaries, recording both events and thoughts, was by all accounts unaware that Ingmar was not the child to whom she gave birth July 14,1918 but a surrogate child. She had the Spanish influenza or some other severe flu infection when she went into labor and the newborn arrived in poor condition. The child was hastily baptized in the hospital for fear that it would not survive. According to Ingmar Bergman's own description in The Magic Lantern, the feeble newborn infant was soon after sent to Dalarna by his maternal grandmother, who found a wet nurse for him. According to written accounts kept by the both parents at the time, the child was then baptized again, one month later at the family summer house in Duvnäs, Dalarna.
For what reason would the same child have been baptized twice? And who might have falsified the parish records? Perhaps Karin's husband, Eric Bergman, the curate and later parish priest of Hedvig Eleonora Church in Östermalm, Stockholm. He had access to these family records and adequate opportunity to write his own version of the family’s history. He would have been motivated perhaps by the anxiety that Karin might desert him and it could have been a measure to shore up their marriage. In an existing letter from Karin’s mother there is discussion that her daughter might leave Erik if something happened to the baby. No contemporary letter from Karin herself around that time has been preserved, so her thoughts on the matter are unknown. Her mother, though, was persistently skeptical of the marriage to Erik. Accepting that motivation existed to replace an infant who died shortly after birth, then comes the question of how Erik Bergman could have gained access to another child.
Two women, Louise Tillberg and Veronica Ralston, both artists with links to Ingmar Bergman, have now outlined events that had not previously been given deeper notice. Their research in a quest for the truth about their own lives has provided new facts about one of the world's most famous filmmakers.
The revised history of Bergman's parentage first came up when Louise Tillberg, an artist and author of children's books, known to the general public as the foster mother of the famous theatrical chimpanzee Ola, took it upon herself to write a book about the animal’s youth and upbringing. The main characters in the book were her closest relatives, especially her own parents and paternal grandmother. She sought out relatives and others who had been close to the family, and plowed through the letters and documents left by those already deceased. She could not ignore the absence of a paternal grandfather from the family history. It was a subject about which no one willingly spoke. Nearly all the relatives who were alive at the beginning of the millennium whom she contacted tried to dissuade her from digging in the past. But Louise Tillberg had tired of the secrecy; she really wanted to know who he was and if she had other relatives unbeknownst to her.
The book was a labor of three years. In January 2010 came out under title "Those I gaze upon I cherish”. The citation comes from her father, Holger Tillberg. Born on August 14, 1915, three years before Ingemar Bergman, Louise Tillberg’s father was a colorful, charming but complex character who over the course of three decades ran one hotel and two restaurants by the sea in the Baltic port of Nynäshamn. As a källarmästare, the manager with responsibility for the wine cellar, he worked long shifts, stretching late into the nights. In his free time he was a painter.
The moving words from her father came the last time she visited him before his death in 2001. She recalls that despite suffering partial memory loss, he looked straight at her at the time.
The spark that finally set Tillberg writing was question from her four-year-old granddaughter Elsa: "Grandma, what sort of person was your grandmother?”
Tillberg remembers her paternal grandmother Hedvig Sjöberg (later Tillberg) as strong woman with an impenetrable personality who bore her secrets to the grave. After much anguish and hesitation, Tillberg decided to investigate her family and write about it, including the subject of the unknown grandfather. Besides writing about her grandmother, she also made her a subject in one of the paintings she painted at the time. In it Hedvig Sjöberg Tillberg is depicted with a gag.
At the end of Those I gaze upon I cherish, Tillberg makes the startling assertion that Ingmar Bergman was Sjöberg’s son, and the brother of her own father Holger. There was a third brother, Gösta, who was a year older than Holger. All three were born prior to Sjöberg’s marriage to Tillberg. Everyone about Louise Tillberg gave her to understand that her father and two uncles were fathered by the same person, a married man with whom her grandmother had a longstanding love affair. There was also mention of a fourth son who is shrouded in vagueness.
Holger Tillberg and the world-famous Ingmar Bergman were however so alike that they could have been taken for identical twins. For those who knew Holger it was possible to confuse the two. When Tillberg completed the research phase, on July 9, 2007, she wrote a letter to Ingmar Bergman informing him that he would appear in a book she was writing. She attached a photo of her father taken late in his life. Her intention was to alert him and she also hoped for a reply from him. Three weeks later, on July 30, 2007, Bergman died, and she never learned whether the letter reached him.
The media paid little attention to the book, but a year after it was published in December 2010, it found one avid reader in artist Veronica Ralston. She and Tillberg first made acquaintance at an exhibition in Stockholm in which they both took part. For 7 years Ralston, too, had been writing a book about her own family. Although she was Bergman’s niece, Ralston had almost no contact with her uncle until very late in his life when he invited her for several extended stays on the island of Fårö. Having been excluded from and then suddenly admitted into the circle around the filmmaker had bewildered her. For Ralston Tillberg’s book filled in many missing pieces of the puzzle of her own life.
By coincidence the two women turned out to be almost neighbors, both living in the Stockholm suburb of Skarpnäck. As Tillberg puts it they lived across the street a few doors down. They often met to discuss childhood in a family with secrets. Ralston found the long journey of the sickly infant Ingmar to Dalarna implausible. The two women noticed that photographs of the Holger Tillberg and Ingmar Bergman in old age were so very similar.
Tillberg’s book motivated Ralston to take a decisive step in search of the truth. Through her relationship with Ingmar Bergman, she had access to the Bergman-Calwagen archive managed by the National Archives. From it she picked out fourteen letters and postcards written by Ingmar Bergman. Along with a sample of her own blood she sent the postal material with the stamps that might contain his DNA to the Department of Forensic Genetics at the National Board of Forensic Medicine in Linköping. She also added a chapter to her, soon to be published, book The love child and the changeling to relate her meeting with Tillberg and the discovery of her book. Ralston’s book ends with a copy of the reply from the Department of Forensic Genetics.
The analysis, which reached her April 12, 2011, established with certainty that Ingmar Bergman was not the son of Karin Bergman, supporting Tillberg’s hypothesis about her own family. It is not yet certain who Bergman’s mother was, but a great deal of circumstantial evidence suggests that it was Tillberg’s grandmother, Hedvig Sjöberg (later Tillberg), who in July 1918 gave birth to a son in Stockholm who was immediately given up for adoption.
Both Tillberg and Ralston agree that Hedvig Sjöberg Tillberg bears a decided likeness to Ingmar Bergman. Holger Tillberg’s elder brother Gösta, whose last name was Bäckström since he was given up for adoption to an aunt of Hedvig Sjöberg Tillberg, also resembled Holger. So alike were they that, when he visited his brother’s hotel and restaurant in Nynäshamn, the staff mistakenly thought that he was the manager they met daily at work. At the time the two men pretended to be old friends in deference to their mother’s strict instructions to conceal their blood tie.
Louise Tillberg, who in her youth, desired to be an actress, worked a couple of years as a dressing room assistant and extra at the Royal Dramatic Theater when Ingmar Bergman was the director there. Bergman, she says, sounded just like her father Holger when he spoke.
Hedvig Sjöberg Tillberg had to deal with speculation that the three men shared a common father, but she kept silent on the matter until her death. When people dared to question her she would redden and could become aggressive toward those who had the temerity to ask her about Ingmar Bergman. The subject was so taboo that few dared to broach the subject out loud about it in her presence. Once a female cousin of Holger went straight to the point and asked her directly, she replied: "How did you find out? I know nothing about it.” That was the end of the discussion but the woman interpreted her response as a positive admission.
After his birth, Holger was turned over to the care of Hedvig Sjöberg Tillberg’s mother. He grew up believing that his maternal grandmother was his mother and his mother his elder sister. When he was 14, his then 49-year-old mother married and he was informed who his mother was. His stepfather, Captain Birger Tillberg, adopted the 14-year-old who took his surname. Holger was thus the only one of Hedvig Sjöberg children born out of wedlock who remained with her. She denied the existence of the others and forbid all others to mention their existence. According to the eldest, Gösta, she promised eternal silence when she gave up the third son, the one now believed to be Ingmar Bergman.
Regular payments from the Hedvig Eleonora parish in Stockholm to Hedvig Sjöberg went on for many years, lending credence to the suspicion that the priest who made the arrangement Erik Bergman
Veronica Ralston is convinced that it is Erik Bergman who is the father of the three, which would explain both the payments and the fact that he had access to the newborn baby in July 1918. She spent considerable time with her maternal grandfather and thought that Ingmar Bergman advanced in years was similar to him both in manner and appearance.
Louise Tillberg's parents divorced when she was eight years old and her father gained custody of the three children. Their mother was at times mentally ill and had problems with alcohol. A number of housekeepers and nannies came and went from the home of Holger and the children, but the most significant one was Gunhild Broman, a young woman from island Fårö. The children called her Gunna and she stayed with them between 1956 and 1959. Cheerful and affectionate, she took all three children every summer to the farm of her parents and even during one winter holiday. Broman, who married a man named Björklund, also kept in contact with Hedvig Sjöberg Tillberg, whom she called “Grandmother” until her death in 1981. As a consequence of this relationship, Hedvig Sjöberg Tillberg made several visits to Fårö manor. From the nearest beach three minutes walk from the house, one can see Hammars Penninsula, where Bergman shot many films. Often all were there, both Holger’s children and his mother Hedvig, just a stone throw from Ingmar Bergman’s Fårö home. Hedvig often sat on a bench on the shoreline within sight of the peninsula, recalled Gunhild Broman to Louise Tillberg.
Sometime after 2000, Gunhild Björklund was in a queue in Bungehall on the northern island of Gotland and saw and older man whom she recognized. “There’s the restaurant manager,” she thought and was about to greet him when she realized that Holger Tillberg had died a few years ago. "Ah, yes," said she to herself, "that's Ingmar Bergman. They are really just alike!"
She also told Louise that in the 50s, when she worked for Holger Tillberg in Nynäshamn, one evening as he sat by the easel and had had a one or two whiskeys, he told her he was the brother of Ingmar Bergman and that they had the same father and mother. But Holger never sought out the famous director. The same was true of his brother Gösta, who was also convinced of the family tie. There were many who were cowed by Ingmar Bergman, according to Louise Tillberg.
But beyond all the rumor, speculation and opinion, the DNA comparison now weighs in. Associate Professor of Forensic Genetics Gunilla Holmlund and Professor Bertil Lindblom at the National Board of Forensic Medicine, who performed the comparison of Veronica Ralston and Ingmar Bergman, reported that "differences in the test sequence could be detected in 13 positions." Ralston and Bergman, were not related on their mother’s side. In other words, Karin Bergman could not be the biological mother of Ingmar Bergman.
Gunilla Holmlund, who was responsible for the case, explained that the National Board of Forensic Medicine never comments about individual cases, but she offered that differences in 13 positions means that the result is "very, very certain". The two individuals concerned simply can not be related. In a study of this type, mitochondrial DNA which is only passed on from mother to child, differences of three positions are significant, but this case the all 13 are different. “It is crystal clear from a statistical point of view," she said.
Louise Tillberg and Veronica Ralston, were driven by their unhappiness with the secrecy, say they have done what they could to remove the mists surrounding Ingmar Bergman's origins. Tillberg’s book came out a year ago but those in Bergman’s circles have not acknowledged it. Now, the two women say, a second book, Ralston’s, is coming if those interested in Bergman want to know the truth.
Eva Hernbäck has been working at Dagens Nyheter about 39 years.
Translation and editing Davrell Tien
• ”The Magic lantern” by Ingmar Bergman.
• ”The double reality”, diaries and letters of Karin and Erik Bergman edited by Birgit Linton-Malmfors.
• ”Love child and changeling” by Veronica Ralston.
• ”Those I gaze upon I cherish” by Louise Tillberg.
• ”Chapter 14 of the Day when everything was dark”, a play about parents' divorce by Louise Tillberg.