In the first instalment with Liv Ullmann on Dheeraj Akolkar’s Liv Ullmann: A Road Less Travelled (a highlight of the 14th edition of DOC NYC), we start out with greetings from Wim Wenders (Liv’s executive producer partner on Margreth Olin’s Songs Of Earth), whose film Anselm in 3D on Anselm Kiefer is the Special Presentation selection.
Jeremy Irons on Liv Ullmann: “To lend one’s voice to the voiceless can be quite powerful. I think we are alike in that life is what we’re here for.” On Liv receiving an Honorary Oscar in 2022: “She is a jewel.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl looms large In Liv’s life and work and we connect the tale to the Brothers Grimm’s Die Sterntaler (The Star Coins). Ingmar Bergman, Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Liv’s Nora and Sam Waterston’s Torvald on Broadway (in 1975) and Jessica Chastain’s Nora (in 2023) came up, as did her chasing Greta Garbo in Central Park, while Liv was performing in Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie on Broadway, in the title role, immortalised by Garbo in Clarence Brown’s 1930 movie. Henry Kissinger and Liv’s work with the International Rescue Committee and Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle intertwined with the world events of today.
When I arrived at her suite at The Pierre, I noticed Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse on the table next to the sofa. I had seen Margreth Olin’s documentary the previous day and commented on the glorious nature shots. Liv mentioned also how the director in Songs of Earth was following in her father’s footsteps.
Anne-Katrin Titze: It’s interesting, because you see in the middle of the film a group of elks, literally doing the same, following in the footsteps.
Liv Ullmann: Exactly!
AKT: By the way, greetings from Wim Wenders!
LU: Oh, when did you meet him!
Jessica Chastain on Liv Ullmann: “She celebrates brokenness, in a way, because when something breaks and it’s healed, it’s far more beautiful.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
AKT: We’ve been in touch. He’s not here in New York right now, he was not able to come. We’ve been emailing. I saw Anselm last week.
LU: Oh his film is part of DOC NYC? That’s a documentary?
AKT: Yes, on Anselm Kiefer. It’s fantastic. I emailed him that I was going to meet with you, as you are both executive producers on the same film.
LU: Right! It’s really strange to have two films here, in a way.
AKT: How is it strange?
LU: I love and care for many movies, but somehow when they are at the same place, I’m here for the movie that I didn’t make at all.
AKT: That you are the subject of.
LU: I’m the subject. I’ve been interviewed at different times during one and a half years in different places of the world. But that’s where my heart is because I didn’t know what was coming before I saw it. And I’m really very happy and I didn’t know about the director that this was really his view and what he had chosen to do. And I was very grateful for that and proud. And then suddenly I hear, oh yes, we are there, too. And that is strange.
AKT: It’s all your different tentacles!
LU: It is! And I have been a tentacle my whole life. So why am I suddenly reacting now?
Cate Blanchett on Liv Ullmann: “Everyone talks about Liv’s eyes, and my god, you could just fall into them. But it’s because she’s always looking out at the world with sort of a face of unconditional love.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
AKT: I see someone is reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (the book lies on the table next to the couch in her suite).
AKT: I love the book so much. Are you reading it right now for a project?
LU: No, I decided that I’m very happy with no more projects. I want to find out what it is to be old. What I can do, not in terms of creating or things that I’ve done my whole life since I was 17, but what I can do maybe even with myself? With my friends. They want me to write a book.
AKT: A third book?
LU: A third book. But I can’t because my husband from 30 years ago is sick, so I won’t have that peace. Although a friend of mine said maybe you can do a podcast. I may do that.
AKT: What I found fascinating in the documentary on you is how much began and how much in your life comes back to The Little Match Girl.
LU: Oh I love you! You’re the first one to say that!
AKT: The tale shines through your entire career. In your UNICEF ambassadorship she is there again. It’s as if this Little Match Girl has been guiding you through your whole life.
Liv Ullmann on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl guiding her life: “She did! I’m very moved by that.” Photo: Vidar Nordli-Mathisen, courtesy of Teddy TV
LU: And she did! I’m very moved by that. To be honest, now being old, I just got this idea suddenly. You know, my favourite person I knew from youth was my grandmother. And now suddenly, because so many of my friends are dead - I was always the youngest, now I’m suddenly the oldest and my friends are younger, so many of them. But now I’m getting close to my grandmother again. And oh, just by you saying that, I feel that there is something there that I want to take care of.
Actually somebody, we were in Florence, and the head of the festival there - we just came from there - he also said something really good. He said that he has always chosen in life to find roads where other people are putting shining on it. So he knows where to go. It was so lovely. And now you really put a shining on my road. I’m telling you, I really don’t know what to do except being old. The Little Match Girl!
AKT: My grandmother told me that tale when I was little and it touched me very much. When you start talking about it in the documentary, I first thought it was the Grimms’ tale Die Sterntaler, The Star Coins. It is about a little girl who gives away her piece of bread and her clothes until at the end Star Coins are falling from the sky.
LU: The Grimms! Hans Christian Andersen, that was going to the warm feeling and understanding, though he could be grim too. But Grimms’ fairy tales, oh yes, that is so much of my upbringing. But the coins, when you say that, I think I do remember it. The coins start falling?
When Liv Ullmann was starring in Anna Christie on Broadway (in 1977) she chased after Greta Garbo (Anna Christie in 1930): “I’m frightening this lady!”
AKT: After she had given away everything. People keep coming to her, saying “help me!” And she does and gives away everything she owns in the world. She stands there in her little shift in the forest and has nothing when suddenly cold coins fall down on her and she collects them in her dress.
LU: But that’s beautiful! It’s a little really like my belief, you know. I wouldn’t say God, a higher power - and I’m not talking alcoholism, the higher power - I know, I am so sure that when this is over - but everybody’s dead who could agree with me - there is something which is so endless and incredible that we don’t have words for it. Because we don’t get too much always. Something where the energy is from everyone who has been - that is Star Coins. If you had an okay life, you will meet all these star coins. Maybe this man in Florence when he said somebody’s shining on your road. That shining of people that you met, and I met such incredible people, maybe that is the star coins and you will meet them all again.
AKT: The knowledge the tales have and transmit over the centuries - there’s the oral tradition again. We know so little about their origins, but they seem to return to us.
AKT: Storytelling in the clearest sense.
LU: Oh that is my acting, directing, anything! I’m a storyteller. Oh I feel very excited now!
AKT: I’m so happy! The other episode I loved so much is when you were stalking Greta Garbo and following her into Central Park. And that you were so convinced that she would be happy to talk to you!
Liv Ullmann and Margreth Olin Songs Of Earth invitation
LU: To talk to me! And I am doing, and I am doing … We don’t realize that about ourselves before suddenly - what am I doing? I’m frightening this lady!
AKT: I’m sure she would have been happy to talk to you.
LU: No, oh no! Why? There comes a young person in the park…
AKT: Well, not there! But in another situation. It’s often about how you meet.
LU: Not by chasing.
AKT: Right, you’d probably run if I saw you on the street, shouting Little Match Girl!
LU: No, that I would have taken! But not if I was walking and you were suddenly running after me.
AKT: It’s a privilege to sit down with someone and talk.
LU: Oh it is. And they come all the time and you just have to know. Seeing somebody siting there on the street and you sit down and you are enriched.
AKT: The moment in the film when you talk to the man in Central Park
LU: That’s out of the movie.
AKT: I saw the one in three chapters.
LU: They cut it because it was so strange, it’s almost as if it was staged. But I do that a lot. It’s not staged. He just went on.
AKT: It says a lot that you do that. People hesitate and don’t do that. You were probably the fist person to talk to him that day.
Changing inscribed by Liv Ullmann to Ed Bahlman after their conversation following Faithless at the New York Film Festival in 2000 Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
LU: But you have to, because that is what it’s all about. I feel that if someone in these horrible times we are in now, if someone stopped and looked at little children that are like two and three. Life is new and they have something strange on and you smile - oh they smile back! But if you think about these children are killed en masse everyday. To take revenge on something. That will not do revenge. And those children will never be walking and saying, oh this is the world and it’s so new! If certain people who are bombing and using guns, if they knew what a little child is, they may think differently. And one has to be so careful with talking because it’s like you’re taking sides.
AKT: I see you’re speaking perfectly in code.
LU: Yes, I’m speaking in code. There is no way of making something right by killing little children. And children were killed both ways.
AKT: And it’s not the only place where it is happening on Earth. When you spoke with Henry Kissinger, there is this question in the room - do those in power think of the little child or do they not? You seem to have got to him!
LU: I got to him because as he says “She’s so naïve.” And maybe I am. But he listened to me, too. And he’s done so much he shouldn’t have done.
AKT: There’s a second part to what he says about you: “Naïve, but with a range of human sensitivity that eludes me very often!”
DOC NYC poster Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
LU: And that was our friendship. It was a friendship - And I was thinking why does he want to talk to me? But I was good for him to talk to.
AKT: Maybe he liked himself a little bit more when he was talking to you?
LU: Yes, because he told me about his father, he made scrapbooks. He could be a child himself. Is it in the movie when I became part of the International Rescue Committee?
LU: What did he do: “You know where I am?” I said: “No, I just need to know this.” He said: “I’m with Mao!”
AKT: In A Doll’s House women and children are seen together in the sense of not being taken seriously. Like fairy tales, not to be taken seriously.
LU: Exactly. But you know, I think Nora is a wonderful woman. I just think that Henrik Ibsen, he kind of forgot to do the last little act.
AKT: That she returns?
LU: That she returns. And I told Jessica Chastain about that and she thought that I was crazy. But I know she returns, because she sees it, she’s bright, she’s everything. But she has to go out and leave the children for a little while, and be sure that she can stand up for who she is.
AKT: When Jessica Chastain tells the story, I thought, this is how I always felt. It’s why I could never feel that her leaving in the end is such a terrible thing. What’s the fuss? Of course she comes back
LU: Of course she comes back! And she’s tough and she knows there are certain things I have to stop doing. I remember when I did Nora, I would do something when I was doing the Christmas tree and Helmer put something that was there to another place. And the moment he left the room she took it down. You see in all she does that she knows it. She’s just so occupied with: Please love me! Please care for me! And maybe the only way is that I say you are better than me.
AKT: She leaves in the end to scare him a little bit.
Liv Ullmann: A Road Less Travelled screened at the IFC Center during DOC NYC Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
LU: Of course. Because she suddenly sees the truth. That’s not in the movie, but Sam Waterston told me that Ingmar came to see A Doll’s House. And he said that Ingmar said to him: “You mustn’t cry when she leaves!” Ingmar said that, and, you know, “Helmer would never cry when she leaves.” But that was a man talking to an actor, also a man. And he continued to cry. And two years after that Ingmar did A Doll’s House in Sweden at the theatre. And it was a headline in one of the newspapers: For the first time we see Helmer cry!
LU: They do it even to men!
AKT: It always comes back. Maybe we can continue with Tolstoy and the quote that is in the movie: “I sit on a man's back choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am sorry for him and wish to lighten his load by all means possible… except by getting off his back.”
LU: Well, you see it’s dangerous to quote this. But I like to quote it. It is about today. There’s certain people of power: Don’t say you’re sorry, but we have to do it! Don’t say we must defend ourselves because you can. Don’t say we have to kidnap and show who we are. Don’t do these things because all this time you are sitting on somebody’s back and that’s not how you’re going to solve anything. If we start with little babies, don’t kill little babies.
AKT: And there is The Caucasian Chalk Circle.
LU: Oh, that’s the same! You are so wonderful! How did you know that?
AKT: You mentioned it briefly.
The Pierre in New York City Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
LU: But that’s what it is! That’s Brecht, you know.
AKT: The tearing apart of a baby is in the centre.
LU: It’s horrible, it’s Gaza, it’s wherever it is. Everybody is escaping and she is escaping, this lady. I’ll demonstrate, I don’t usually do this. [Liv gets up and performs the scene for me]. That’s fantastic what you say! I did this at the rehearsal for the director. He wanted me to show when she finds the child. It’s Gaza, it’s terrible, everybody is running away. She runs away and then she sees a child. Oh my God!
And she goes back and she takes the child and she understands. But when she runs on, it’s not like she’s the hero of the world. She’s more afraid now because she’s with that child, but she takes the child and she saves the child. And in the end she meets the real mother. And they put the child in the middle and each of them is to pull on a rope. Who lets go of the rope immediately?
AKT: Of course it’s Grusche. I was in that play. I played the evil mother in high school.
LU: Oh you did?
AKT: I did not like having to play such an evil woman.
LU: Oh that’s terrible! When I showed that director, and he was a very famous director, who worked side-by-side with Brecht - it was in Norway - when I showed my version to see if he wanted me or not, and I picked up the child, I was like this, oh, running. And he said, no, no, you are afraid and I want to see if you know how to do that.
AKT: There is a moment in the documentary where you speak about a mother who had to make the decision to let her baby die of thirst or give it poisonous mud.
LU: That’s a true story, I saw that in Ethiopia. They were sitting in the desert sand and they were told it’s poisonous, poisonous water. I saw this woman and she knew it. The child was dying of thirst. It wasn’t maybe going to help him.
Liv Ullmann on A Doll's House: "I think Nora is a wonderful woman. I just think that Henrik Ibsen, he kind of forgot to do the last little act. " Photo: Vidar Nordli-Mathisen, courtesy of Teddy TV
AKT: That is an impossible choice!
LU: That’s where we’re back to the children. It is to have no choice at all. Because those little children in Gaza, maybe in Israel too, when it comes back, and maybe before the Gaza bombing there, little children that were kidnapped too. Suffering is to have no choice at all. And that is another thing that they are choosing to do, those in power on both sides. To have no choice at all, that is real suffering. That’s where we women have to stand up. And men too.
AKT: Thank you so much!
LU: Are you an actress?
AKT: Oh no.
LU: You said you were in that play?
AKT: That was in high school, at the Bertolt Brecht Gymnasium. An all girls school name after Brecht, imagine! Thank you for this conversation!
LU: Oh thank you!
Coming up - Liv Ullmann on not winning the Academy Award for the Emigrants, writer Tove Ditlevsen, being 13 and also very grown up at the same time, Some Like It Hot on Broadway, Faithless and forgiving yourself, being nervous with Lawrence Olivier, and how to deal with the feeling of being a nobody.
Liv Ullmann: A Road Less Travelled will be available online through Sunday, November 26.