Liv Ullmann Talks About Kristin Lavransdatter

There have been rumors for years that the great Catholic novel Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset was to be made into a film. The rumor has finally become a reality, at least in part. The first volume of the trilogy, The Bridal Wreath, has been brought to the screen by the director Liv Ullmann. Ullmann, who is better known for her many film roles, especially those directed by Ingmar Bergman, talked with Crisis film critic Robert Lauder.

When did you first encounter the book Kristin Lavransdatter and what was distinctive about your experience of the book?

I think I was fourteen years old, and I thought it was just wonderful. It was one of my first meetings with what I looked upon as a grown-up book, and the most thrilling for me of course was the love story between the young woman and the man, the knight. And then I read it again when I played Kristin Lavransdatter on the stage at age nineteen. Again I was struck by this wonderful love story. I really didn’t think so much about the other great love story in it, the love story between the father and mother, and I did not think very much at that time about maybe the greatest of the love stories, between Kristin and God.

So you became aware of the religious dimensions of Kristin Lavransdatter later on?

Yes. There were several things I became aware of later because this is such a multifaceted book. It invites you in when you are young, but you are invited in again when you’re older, and you are invited in again when you’re even older than that. And each time you will find very different things. Undset’s great goal, I believe, is to portray how Kristin makes a choice, the choice between God and the life of the flesh. Kristin makes the choice for God, for the cross. That’s why the third book of this trilogy is called The Cross. Of course, when you are very young you don’t understand that. When I read the third book as a young girl it was a horrible story about how the plague came to Norway and how everybody died — a great horror story. I did not see the wonderful story of Kristin finding God and the great peace it gave her.

Someone has described the novel’s characters as existing under the loving gaze of God. Does that strike you as correct?

Yes, that is how I read it, and that’s how I’m sure that Sigrid Undset wrote it.

As you try to film characters existing under the loving gaze of God, could you give us some idea of how you get something like that into a film?

With Kristin Lavransdatter, because it is set in Norway many hundred years ago, you put people in nature. You put people by the mountains and you can show that in the mountains, its people, sounds, echoes, and strange voices in the wind there might be the forces of nature, but there also might be God. It might be God warning or blessing. With a tale like Kristin Lavransdatter you are very free because you’re dealing with people who believed in the forces of nature. These enormous mountains that go upwards to God to the sky help tell the story.

Also, I put people in churches and show what people were capable of building so many hundreds of years ago in the honor of God. It took them years and years and years to build their churches, but nothing was ever built as high as what you build when you build a church. People have never been so incredible in their building, in their dreams, in everything, as when they’re building something that has to do with death or the new life or eternity.

I also had the most incredible composer that I found when I was writing the script. His name is Gorecki. He’s a Polish composer and a very religious man. I thought, he will never allow me to use his music. But I called him when I was editing the film, and I said what an inspiration his music had been to me. He said he knew my work, and when I asked, can I please use your music, he said yes. So I’m using his music, some of which he wrote in connection with the Holocaust and the memory of people who died in Poland, not necessarily Jewish people. You know the Holocaust was for everyone.

Your own religious upbringing was Lutheran. Was that an aid or a hindrance to filming this story that has so much of Catholicism in it?

I think in a way it was an aid. Because when I did my first picture, which was about the Jewish religion, I did not know much about Judaism. If I had been Jewish then, I would have thought, I know this, so I’ll just go around and do what I feel is right. If this novel had been Lutheran, the way I was brought up, I wouldn’t have done any research. But because I knew there was so much I didn’t know, I did a lot of studying and read a lot of books. I worked very closely with a bishop in Oslo, who was absolutely wonderful. I had salons in my home, invited all the actors, and the bishop told us about this time in medieval Norway. He read the scripts and gave me advice. He wrote letters to churches all over Europe and got a lot of information for me. I have more than a hundred pages from this one Catholic bishop.

You’re internationally known as an actress who has starred in a number of Ingmar Bergman films. Sometimes Bergman’s films are described as religious. Do you think your film Kristin is religious in the same way as Bergman’s, or in some different way?

I think it’s religious. I believe that mine is religious because I, myself, believe God exists. Ingmar has a lot of doubts, and at the same time he’s a great believer. But probably when he makes images there will always be the doubt. He will always show the right side and the wrong side of it.

Undset was concerned about women who thought that the love of parents for their children participated in God’s own charity. Do you agree with that?

Kristin’s mother happens to love Kristin very much. Kristin’s father also loves her very much, and Kristin herself actually loves the father more than her mother because she doesn’t feel the love of her mother. The mother has a very different way of showing her love. But I do not think that anyone who becomes a mother suddenly has this Godly trait in her that loves incredibly. Many do, but it isn’t the same for all mothers. God is perfect. I do not know when God cries. I do not know when God holds me. I do not know how or when he answers my prayers. But I do know that he does answer my prayers one way or another.

Sigrid Undset said that the most important thing for people to think are the first and last things, the meaning of life. Do you think the novel and the film are about that in addition to being a beautiful love story?

Oh, yes. You know it is a love story but it isn’t only a love story. As I said, it is a love story among many people and between father and daughter. I think that in a very symbolic way this prepares for the final scenes between God the Father and the daughter, Kristin.

Did you write the screenplay as well as direct the film?

Yes. I could never have made Kristin if I did not also write the screenplay, because it is so personal, and because my screenplay had to be affected by the way I walked into Sigrid Undset’s books. I think that is why the film is such an incredible success in Norway. I have never had a movie in Norway that was such a success, and I was so scared because everybody has their own view of Kristin Lavransdatter and there would be so much disappointment. In the end I thought, I cannot make everybody happy. I just had to walk into it myself, make it big and slow and long, and let this music happen. Suddenly, I got the people with me, because, for Norwegians at least, it was so long and so real that they could put their own fantasy into it. That’s why I’m so furious that some stupid people are telling me to cut it down. I wouldn’t cut it down one minute — that might stop sales, but in the end, I don’t care. Because I know for Sigrid this is OK.

Is there anything else you want to say about the religious or Catholic dimension in the film?

The father at the end of the film — and this of course is only a dramatization of the first volume, The Bridal Wreath — says to the mother what he actually says in the second volume. In the first manuscript I wrote, he says to the mother, “You and I, we are the best of friends.” It was exactly like Carl Oscar said to Christina in my film The Immigrant. They had no way of saying “I love you,” but he always said to his wife, “you and I, we are the best of friends.” Suddenly I understood that Moback, who wrote The Immigrant, must have stolen this from Sigrid Undset who wrote it first. So I put it in there and thought, oh, this is great because I know this so well.

A friend of mine said that I shouldn’t use it because it looks like I’m stealing from myself. But then he read through the trilogy and found a thought of Kristin’s father which he doesn’t even say. He looks at his wife, just before he dies, and thinks to himself: you and I, we are not strangers to each other. And so in the end I have the father say to the mother, “You and I, we are not strangers to each other.”

That’s what I want to say with this movie. That you and I are not strangers to each other. And God and I, we are not strangers to each other — that’s what I wanted to say. Maybe nobody will understand. But I understand and that’s why I don’t want to cut the movie. If you cut it you have to take out everything about the father and mother which is where the real religious dimension is — their love between them and their child. Somehow it is God and Mary.


  • Rev. Robert E. Lauder

    Rev. Robert E. Lauder is a Brooklyn diocesan priest and professor of philosophy at St. John's University, Jamaica, New York.

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