How Scenes from a Marriage spurred a Swedish marital crisis
Most directors aim to inspire breakthroughs, not breakups, but Ingmar Bergman provoked both with the highly influential 1973 miniseries Scenes from a Marriage.
The six-part series starring Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson was watched by nearly half of Sweden's population, who took the drama's searing examination of marriage to (broken) heart.
Linda Haverty Rugg, a professor of Scandanavian literature and film at UC Berkeley, explains that Bergman gravitated toward television precisely because it had this level of reach. "One of the reasons that Bergman liked television was because it had such broad appeal," she says. "Often people don't think of Bergman as being populist; they think of him as an elite, tiny viewership thing. [But] he was very keen on having a large audience for his work."
Bergman, who was married five times himself, was intent on giving viewers a realistic portrait of a marriage falling apart. But it was maybe too real for many viewers, and legends persist that the series was responsible for causing divorce rates to skyrocket in Sweden.
Divorce rates spiked to record highs after the series aired. While a direct correlation is debatable, viewers did flock to Sweden's marriage-guidance service, a publicly available counseling program for Swedish couples. "[The Stockholm office] saw a huge increase in calls, and the waiting list went from three weeks to three months," notes Rugg. "People started talking about what they had observed in the television show, and they were encouraged to go and talk to a marriage counselor."
Stockholm's three offices offered 19 counselors, which was far from the number required to meet the surging demand.
Rugg says that audiences responded to Marriage as if it were a documentary because of the hyper-realistic framing and script. "Even though audiences may have known, consciously, that it was not a documentary, they absorbed it as if it were a documentary film," she explains. So much so that some of the press thought Bergman not offering greater context and discussion around the film was irresponsible.
"The television critic for one of the big evening newspapers expressed some concern," she adds. "It wasn't so much that he criticized Bergman for having made it as that he said there should have been a framing. There should have been some guidance for people before they watched it and there should have been a follow-up for people. He was concerned that people should have had some help to understand why the characters acted the way they did."
As the Ingmar Bergman foundation recounts, TV critic Hemming Sten wrote, "People should have some assistance to understand the characters and their actions. An interview with Bergman afterwards, a discussion among experts, perhaps a phone-in service." There was even a suggestion that Sweden organize evening classes, a popular pastime throughout the nation in the 70s, to foster conversations sparked by Marriage.
And it wasn't only the Marriage Guidance Service that had their phone lines overloaded. Per Swedish custom, Bergman had a publicly listed number…until a deluge of callers seeking marital advice necessitated a private line. "I couldn't just turn into one of those public service bureaus," Bergman is reported to have said of taking the rare tactic of removing himself from the national phone directory.
A version of this story appears in the September issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now and available to order here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.