Terrence Rafferty of The New York Times wrote ("FILM; On the Essential Strangeness of Bergman) that throughout the 1960’s, when Bergman “was considered pretty much the last word in cinematic profundity, his every tic was scrupulously pored over, analyzed, elaborated in ingenious arguments about identity, the nature of film, the fate of the artist in the modern world and so on.”
Darkness Unto Light. The Cinema of Ingmar Bergman - Harvard Film ... Carson Lund from Harvard Film Archives, September – November 2018
In the months following Bergman’s peaceful passing in 2007 on the same day as Michelangelo Antonioni, reconsiderations of the director as the outmoded, self-serious ghoul of postwar art cinema nearly outweighed the celebratory remembrances, with Jonathan Rosenbaum claiming that “his movies aren’t so much filmic expressions as expressions on film” in an article insolently titled “Scenes From an Overrated Career.” Such pieces planted the seed for a pattern of critical thinking that has persisted for some time since, though with the recent resurgence of the director on the occasion of his centennial, audiences can be newly baptized by the primal force of his art and decide for themselves if his films are, per Rosenbaum, “too self-absorbed to say much about the larger world.” To be sure, if Bergman’s life story is any indication, the filmmaker certainly may have been less than enamored with the “larger world,” but to sympathetic eyes, the torrid soul searching and private epiphanies of his films at best work to instill a yearning, for those not always blessed with such energy, to find meaning in life.
Scenes From an Overrated Career - The New York Times Op/Ed by Jonathan Rosenbaum from The New York Times, August 4, 2007, with a reprint of his earlier, unedited draft: Ingmar Bergman Today | Jonathan Rosenbaum
Defending Ingmar Bergman | Interviews | Roger Ebert Roger Ebert’s response to Jonathan Rosenbaum’s New York Times Op/Ed piece, August 7, 2007
In memoriam, Ingmar [Chicago Reader blog post, 8/7/07, with 109 ... Jonathan Rosenbaum from the Chicago Reader, including comments, August 7, 2007
Bergman, Antonioni, and the stubborn stylists - David Bordwell David Bordwell responds to Rosenbaum at Observations on Film Art and Film Art, August 11, 2007
Remembering De Düva (The Dove) The best Ingmar Bergman parody, ever, from Timothy Noah at Slate
It takes nothing away from Ingmar Bergman's greatness as a 20th-century artist to remember with pleasure an extremely funny 15-minute parody of his films, titled De Düva (The Dove). Made in 1968 (and nominated for an Academy Award), De Düva is notable, among other things, for marking the film debut of Madeline Kahn. It was directed by and starred George Coe, who later would surface briefly as a founding member of the Saturday Night Live troupe. To watch Coe's hilarious short, click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L1TlAd6M-xU
De Düva: The Dove, aka The Dove, (1968): directed by George Coe and Anthony Lover, starred by Pamela Burrell, George Coe, Sid Davis, Madeline Kahn, Stan Rubinstein and Tom Stone. (14 min)
This short film is a parody of some of Ingmar Bergman's best known films, including Wild Strawberries (Smultronstaellet) and The Seventh Seal (Det Sjunde Inseglet). The dialog, seemingly in Swedish, is actually a Swedish-accented fictional language based on English, German, Latin, and Swedish, with most nouns ending in "ska". The principal character, Professor Viktor Sundqvist, 76, is being driven to a lecture at the university, when dove droppings splatter the car's windshield. Detouring at his uncle's old house, his mind wanders back to his youth, when Death came to a family picnic to claim his sister, Inga. Knowing that Death is a gambler, Viktor has Inga challenge Death to a single-point game of badminton for her life.
BFI | Sight & Sound | Stealing Beauty Geoffrey Macnab asks about Favorite Bergman scenes from Sight and Sound, January 2003
Ingmar Bergman's huge body of films retains a fascination few other directors' work can rival. So much so that he is featured in these pages more often than most. Yet it was still a welcome surprise that his long family saga Fanny and Alexander came third in our poll of best films from the last 25 years. Now, as the National Film Theatre is preparing its long-awaited full retrospective to run in January and February, we ask Terence Davies, Lukas Moodysson, Thomas Vinterberg and Gillies MacKinnon to describe the Bergman scenes that have meant most to them.
Lukas Moodysson: Fanny and Alexander
The first time I saw Fanny and Alexander I was ten or twelve years old. I saw it first at the movies, and then I watched the long version (which is better) on television around Christmas time. I was home alone, crying in the kitchen because I felt so sorry for Alexander. I suppose I identified a bit with him - I guess I was really feeling sorry for myself.
It was the scene where Alexander has lied in school - he's said he's from a circus family and now he's going to be taught right from wrong by his stepfather. It's a scene about justice and imagination and falsehood and truth and power - and about never, not even when you've lost, letting yourself down. I don't have a clue about its technical qualities. I seldom think about things like that. The same goes for the acting - if it's good you don't think about it, you're just pulled into the universe of the film. I've often wondered what happened to Bertil Guve, the boy who played Alexander: where does he live, what does he look like, what work does he do? But I don't think I want to know.
The scene isn't typical of Bergman. There's a warmth and love that's sometimes missing from his other films. It's also unusually political: it's about the oppressing of a dissident by a person in power.
I like Bergman, but I don't think he's inspired me much. I've possibly been inspired by his attitude as an artist, which is that he takes himself completely seriously despite working within an artform that's often stupid and infantile.
Gillies MacKinnon: Persona
I first saw Bergman's films at Glasgow School of Art's film society. I must have been about 18 and I'd never seen anything like them before. There was something complex about them - they were like novels but in pictures. They left you thinking. At art school film was seen as second rate, but I guess that's where I realised I wanted to be a film-maker.
There was one scene in Persona that really struck me: it's when the nurse delivers the letter the actress has written. She stops the car and reads it. She realises the actress is writing about her with contempt - as "this sweet little nurse who is maybe a little bit in love with me." Then she returns to the house. She breaks a glass, I think, and leaves it on the doorstep and the actress walks in and out of the house with bare feet. You know she's going to stand on the glass - she doesn't the first time but then she goes back and stands on it. It's a wide shot and there's a cruelty about it. The nurse really adores this person and this person has betrayed her so she leaves a trap for her.
I remember the faces in Persona, the way he used big close-ups and big wide shots, the tracking shots and the way he used sound. I seem to remember him cutting out sound - you'd see the ocean behind the figures of the women and the sound of the ocean wouldn't be there. There were all kinds of things happening which reminded me that cinema wasn't necessarily what Hollywood had brought me up with, much as I loved all that.
There are certain film-makers I look at when I'm going to make a movie, even if there's no direct connection with the story I'm going to tell. Bergman is one, Tarkovsky the other. I've not watched Persona from beginning to end for a number of years, but I dip in and out of it. It was one of the films I looked at when I was making my new film Pure. At dinner time, when I went into my wee trailer and had a few moments to myself, I used to put on scenes from Bergman and Tarkovsky. There's that dreamy sequence in Persona where the actress comes into the nurse's room at night, drifts in like a spirit. There was no particular reference to the scene in the movie I was making, but I watched it again and again. It's an emotional reaction. It's to do with putting you in the right state of mind to deal with the problems in the film you're making.
Terence Davies: Cries and Whispers
I can't remember when I first saw Cries and Whispers. I think it was on television. The history of the film is that Bergman had the idea for the scenario in a dream - he saw these women wandering around in a red room.
After the sister dies and the other sisters go to look at her, Liv Ullmann sits on the bed and you see the sister's dead hands come up and grab her face. The obvious interpretation is that the dead exercise more power over us than the living - I assume there's a metaphorical meaning though the one I've extracted is rather superficial. In any case, it's very surreal and frightening. It's shot as if it's pure realism, which gives it a feeling of being both real and nightmarish. A dead person tries to hold on to you - it's an extraordinary moment.
The maid holds the dead woman. She's like mother earth, she can accept it. She seems able to accept everything with absolute equanimity - it's almost beatific. The sisters can't accept it because the relationships between them are so fraught. Nothing is said openly but clearly it's a very unhappy family.
Bergman does three things: he shows us the actual death, which is very painful, not an easy death; then the dead sister is washed and dressed and everything is made to look perfect, as if she's merely asleep, so death becomes decorous; but then that decorousness is broken because she appears to come back to life. So there's the agony of death, the way we try to prettify it because it's too horrible to contemplate and then the dead coming back to haunt us and exercise their power over us.
I've never really thought about the way Bergman uses the colour red so heavily. Perhaps it's the colour of blood, which is life-affirming but also claustrophobic and enclosing. Perhaps he's trying to say that the life blood of the family is its very dysfunction. I've no idea what the metaphor is - I just accepted it.
It's only when you've gone through the entire film that you realise how powerful and surreal it is. The end scene shows the sisters - all in white, all in a park - and the woman who has died says: "The people I am most fond of in all the world are with me." It's heartbreaking. You assume what you've seen is a flashforward not a flashback.
At one point you see the Liv Ullmann character gently touching the maid's face, having already decided to get rid of her. You realise what a monster Ullmann's character is - she appears to be loving and gentle but she's terrifying, manipulative and cruel. Perhaps that's what the film is about.
I don't regard Bergman as a religious film-maker. I think he's an atheist and he's saying that there's nothing beyond this life. But that doesn't stop him from being spiritual and humanist.
When I was a child, between five and seven, my father died of cancer at home. It took him two years to die. So I saw someone in agony, dying over two years. It had a very profound effect on me. He hadn't paid any National Insurance so my mother didn't get any widow's benefit. And I had to sleep in the bed he died in, which was quite traumatic for a seven-year-old. The scene in Cries and Whispers reawakens that terror.
Thomas Vinterberg: Fanny and Alexander
We did a steal from Bergman in Festen. I can confess to that. At one point they dance around the house in a chain dance, which Bergman did in Fanny and Alexander. But they also did it in Visconti's The Leopard - so Bergman stole it too.
I love Fanny and Alexander so much. It's my childhood. That's what people keep saying about Festen - they think it's a portrait of their own lives. With Fanny and Alexander I get that feeling especially from the chain-dance scene - it's like a picture of my upbringing in a commune in Copenhagen. All the hippies ran around at Christmas time all over the house. It was the very same ceremony.
I'd also like to comment on a scene from Bergman's real life. I heard a rumour he was in a shit-house in Sweden. There's this hole and he's sitting there and his foot is paddling through some old newspapers. On one of the front pages he finds some of his actors and they're holding the Palme d'Or in their hands - that's how he found out he'd won. It's a role-model situation for life as a film-maker.
Fanny and Alexander is one of his most sentimental and least consequential films. You can say others are closer to being masterpieces, but Fanny and Alexander had a great effect on me emotionally. You could say it's his worst film - it was made for television, it's very sentimental, it's a mix of genres. Other films have more authority, but it's Fanny and Alexander I really like. It wins my little race of Bergman films.
Dark Comedy - Artforum International Tony Pipolo, February 5, 2018
THIS YEAR is the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Ingmar Bergman. It is being celebrated with a retrospective at Film Forum in New York and multiple events throughout the year at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley—a wonderful opportunity for film buffs to acquaint or reacquaint themselves with one of the giants of film history. From the mid-1940s through the mid-1950s, Bergman wrote screenplays and directed more than a dozen movies. But after the international success of the elegant comedy Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)—the source of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music—followed by that of Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal (both 1957), each new film became a cultural event. Even Hollywood bowed to Bergman’s prominence, awarding him the Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film three times—for The Virgin Spring (1960), Through a Glass Darkly (1961), and Fanny and Alexander (1983). Although Bergman’s films were naturalistic psychological dramas, his name was so quickly associated with metaphysical or religious allegories that his style was often parodied—as in George Coe and Anthony Lover’s witty short De Düva (The Dove, 1968)—or paid left-handed compliments, as when the late Andrew Sarris lambasted the climactic sequence of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as “instant Ingmar.”
Bergman was a formidable director of a group of actors whose idiosyncrasies became familiar channels and surrogates of his persona, and whose faces and voices were the key features of his aesthetic. Yet few Americans knew the breadth of his talent until his theater work arrived at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the 1980s. The first was a mesmerizing production of Hamlet, to which none of the dozen-plus stage and film versions I’ve seen before or since hold a candle. In truth, to comprehend the extent of Bergman’s genius is to recognize that his staging of Hamlet, as well as his television productions of The Magic Flute and the Bacchae, were not just definitive treatments of Shakespeare, Mozart, and Euripides, but incontestably private, even domestic dramas, in which the director’s stress on the combustible relationships between men and women reflected his own family’s dynamics and their turbulent effects on his romantic entanglements.
Indeed, the circumstances of Bergman’s life and psychology are inextricable from his art. The son of a strict Lutheran minister, he wrestled early on with the paradoxes of faith. His repudiation of the Old Testament God and his repulsion of depictions of the tortured Jesus—both expressed in The Magic Lantern (1988), his second autobiography—are conveyed in several films. In Winter Light (1962), the agnostic pastor (Gunnar Björnstrand), one of Bergman’s alter egos, looks at the wooden carving of the crucified Christ above the altar of his church and declares, “What a ridiculous image.” The film is the centerpiece of a trilogy—with Through a Glass Darkly and The Silence (1963)—that remains one of the director’s strongest testaments to his struggle with “God’s silence.” Darkly ends with the banal sentiment that God is Love and vice versa, an equation echoed in Winter Light through the contrast between the self-centered pastor who drives a depressed man (Max von Sydow) to suicide and the secular devotion of his mistress (Ingrid Thulin). But in The Silence, neither Anna’s (Gunnel Lindblom) carnality nor her sister Esther’s (Thulin) intellect is an adequate bastion against the emptiness of their lives and the fear of death.
As is true of many artists’ earliest ventures, Bergman’s were efforts to work through the frustrations of childhood and adolescence. His screenplay for Alf Sjöberg’s Torment (1944) is drawn from his own experiences as a student, confronting indifferent parents and a patriarchal society, the latter embodied in the film as a split between a kind headmaster and a sadomasochistic Latin instructor. Mothers do not fare well in Crisis (1946) and Port of Call (1948). Three Strange Loves (aka Thirst ) is a cynical portrait of the institution that is painstakingly dissected years later in Scenes from a Marriage (1973). The couple in To Joy (1950) was directly modeled on Bergman’s second marriage, moving from ideal to embittered circumstances and back again, with a cathartic ending set to the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Bergman’s preoccupation with women and society’s—and perhaps his own—failure to understand and address their needs was apparent from the beginning. When not depicted as a hellish trap, marriage is seen as an unfulfilling state (Summer Interlude, 1950), and several films imply that abortion and lesbianism are paths to independence. As the director’s failed romantic relationships accumulated, and as later films such as Persona (1966), The Passion of Anna (1969), and Cries and Whispers (1973) suggest, the psychology of women became nearly as abstruse an object of investigation as the existence of God.
Persona seems to be an attempt to exorcise some of Bergman’s childhood traumas through the medium of the very actresses with whom he was involved. Born of a feverish illness that left him withdrawn and speechless, the film is the study of two women whose identities are increasingly confused. Elisabeth (Liv Ullmann) is an actress who suffers a breakdown following a performance of Electra, leaving her mute and unapproachable. Alma (Bibi Andersson), the nurse assigned to bring her back to health, soon proves equally vulnerable. As Alma reveals her most intimate secrets to fill the silence, the interaction between the two begins to resemble the transference relationship between psychoanalyst and patient, which often leads, as it does here, to pleas for verbal response followed by hostility.
Shots of Alma’s and Elisabeth’s overlapping faces wavering between merger and individuation further stress the film’s psychoanalytic bent. In its opening and closing passages, a young boy, waking from disturbing dreams, moves his hand across a huge but blurry image of a woman’s face, as if trying to bring it into focus. His gesture evokes both the infant’s need for the mother’s reciprocal gaze and Melanie Klein’s theory of the “good breast” versus the “bad breast,” in which fluctuations between dependency and repulsion are only resolved when the child accepts that both breasts belong to the same person. Its projections onto the breast are thus the first instances of the dream screen, against which the child’s conflicting emotions enact a primal cinema.
In light of Bergman’s avowal that the patterns of his childhood were reenacted with his lovers (including Ullmann and Andersson), Persona can be read as the troubled dream of the boy who, as artist, chose the métier best suited to his unending search, face after face, for that reciprocal gaze. Obsessed with cinema at an early age, he was enraged when the mini-projector he hoped to receive for Christmas was instead given to his older brother, forcing Ingmar to give his toy soldiers in exchange for it. His fascination is captured in an early moment in The Silence, when another boy stands in the corridor of a train, transfixed by the flickering light, objects, and landscapes passing by him through the windows like the successive frames of a movie. For Bergman, the moment was more than metaphorical; it epitomized the virtual dream screen which he believed was the medium’s essence.
It follows that Bergman’s rapport with cinematographers was critical. Of Sven Nykvist, with whom he worked consistently from 1960, he remarked that they thought so much alike it was unnecessary to speak. Both were captivated by the incalculable range and problems of light in all its “gentle . . . dreamlike . . . calming . . . poisonous . . . living . . . and dead aspects.” These words describe Nykvist’s work on Cries and Whispers, for which he won an Academy Award. The film is a death watch: Karin (Thulin) and Maria (Ullmann) have returned to the family home where their sister Agnes (Harriet Anderson) lies dying of cancer, tended by Anna (Kari Sylwan), the family housekeeper. The relatively static vigil is intermittently interrupted by Agnes’s horrific gasps for breath and screaming bouts, but also by flashbacks to the sisters’ hypocritical lives. The idea came to Bergman in the form of an image of a room in a large house at the turn of the century, in which everything is red except for four women in white. Nykvist captures both the dazzling beauty of this tableau as well as its slow transformation into a portrait of ugliness and death as the sisters’ fears and mutual contempt emerge. The suffusion of red not only stresses the blood ties that suffocate their lives but the barely suppressed rage that poisons the atmosphere. Even the fades between present and past are bloodred, spilling over into scenes in which Maria’s husband stabs himself and Karin pushes a shard of glass into her vagina and sprawls bleeding on the marital bed.
For all his seriousness, Bergman suggested that his films were comedies, not in the popular sense, but as the classical opposite of tragedy, or in the sense that Balzac’s novels make up the human comedy. While comic is hardly the mode of Cries and Whispers or the unrelievedly bleak Shame (1968)—with its Hobbesian view of man as wolf to man—the point is nicely illustrated by The Magician (1958), an underrated film that plays fast and loose with the artist’s themes and the viewer’s expectations. The tale of Vogler, a quack magician (von Sydow), traveling with his wife (Thulin) and an array of eccentrics, initially engages as a gothic mystery with portents of doom and religious overtones. Mute and bearded to evoke Christ, the “magician” comforts a dying man on the road, but the skepticism of the local doctor soon reveals Vogler as a fraud. We are startled when he removes his wig and beard, and even more so when the dying man about to reveal the secret of death turns up alive and the horror show that Vogler orchestrates to frighten the doctor backfires. But Vogler is unexpectedly redeemed when the king summons him to court to demonstrate his powers. In its shifty conflation of genres and moods, as well as in its ability to entrance even as it debunks, The Magician is a compelling and witty fable about the irresistible powers of art and shows that Bergman was obsessed with self-exposure, as he alleged was true of Ibsen, but was not above self-mockery.
There is nothing self-mocking, however, about Fanny and Alexander, which was billed as Bergman’s farewell to the cinema. Though it was followed by a few television films—including Saraband (2003), his sequel to Scenes from a Marriage—Fanny, by all accounts, is considered his grandest achievement, a sweeping, lovingly detailed bildungsroman of memorable characterizations, embracing every theme close to his heart, etching a vivid portrait of his childhood, and invoking his fascination with theater and cinema with its very first shot. As the camera moves in to a cardboard stage with cutout figures, the backdrop suddenly ascends as the face of Alexander (Bertil Guve)—yet another young surrogate for the director—takes its place as the creator behind the scene. Moments later, Alexander falls asleep under a table, dreaming or imagining that a statue of a nude female is moving and that the figure of death, scythe in hand, hovers nearby. In less than five minutes, three of the themes that obsessed Bergman all his personal and professional life find expression. When Alexander’s life is disrupted by his father’s death and his mother’s marriage to a diabolically cruel bishop, the world of fantasy, imagination, and illusion takes on greater importance. Guided through the spectral labyrinth of his liberator’s shop by an assistant (played by Mats Bergman, the director’s son), he comes to know how artifice can be used to exorcise demons. So as we watch Alexander in the film’s final shot, nestled against his grandmother on a chair as she opens A Dream Play by August Strindberg—one of Bergman’s mentors—we can surmise that every word she reads to herself is being absorbed by the boy cozily crunched beside her.
Where Are We with Bergman? - Film Comment Olivier Assayas, July/August 2018
Ingmar Bergman would have turned 100 on July 14, 2018. His final feature, Saraband, was released more than a decade ago, though he had decided to stop making films in 1982. Putting these dates side by side allows us to consider his body of work through the lens of time, posterity, and the history of cinema. You could ask what Bergman’s work has to tell us today, but you could just as well reverse the question and ask what our relationship to his films says about us.
Let’s speed through Bergman’s status in our cultural pantheon. He has achieved a dizzying level of recognition. We have never stopped watching his roughly 40 films, which are accessible in many formats and languages. Among his abundant and diverse filmography audiences can make their own selections and will always find masterpieces matching their sensibilities. His 1987 autobiography The Magic Lantern is a striking literary feat; a rich variety of books have been devoted to his life and films; and there is a foundation dedicated to his memory that preserves his home, personal belongings, and environment so that artists from all over the world can come seek inspiration from his model and aura and enter into dialogue with his ghost.
One could even add that Bergman has the privilege—or the curse—of having crystallized in the collective imagination as an archetype of the filmmaker: introspective, chatty, misanthropic, and also a kind of Bluebeard who left little space between life and art in his relationship with his actresses. In that, he is irreducibly connected to his time. In thinking about Bergman in the present tense, we also question our relationship to his era.
Like most great artists, Bergman is both singular and multiple. He was by turns a young screenwriter for Alf Sjöberg, a novice director influenced by French poetic realism, an early disciple of Italian neorealism, and by the age of 40, an internationally recognized artist whose films had rightly or wrongly left their mark on their era and the history of cinema. The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Smiles of a Summer Night all came before he was recognized as one of the pioneers and key figures of the cinematic modernism of the early ’60s, and he pushed further with every film, to the peaks of Persona, Scenes from a Marriage, and Fanny and Alexander.
And yet this is only one of the lives of Ingmar Bergman, a product of the long history of Swedish cinema who never ceased returning to the model of Victor Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage. There is yet another Bergman, one haunted by the figure of August Strindberg. This Bergman grew out of a different modernity, that of the audacious, tortured, and pessimistic interiority of Scandinavian theater from the late 19th century. Which version of Strindberg did Bergman chase his whole life? Was it the cruel and often misogynistic observer who wrote The Dance of Death? The hallucinating author of Inferno who wandered through Paris on the edge of madness? The playwright fascinated by his actresses Siri Von Hessen and Harriet Bosse, to whom he wrote unforgettable letters? Or perhaps the underappreciated painter, a precursor of abstraction with his tormented seascapes, experimenting on the fringes of the art of his time with his Celestographies?
One must first consider Bergman as a man of the theater, like Fassbinder, whose relationship to film and the film image and its aesthetic is an extension of the relationship to the spoken word, writing, and the stage. And while his films participate in and determine the history of modern cinema, what inspires them comes from a much earlier place. In this, Bergman is in dialogue with the peaks of contemporary theater, and if he had never made a single film, he would still be one of the greatest dramatists of his time.
My favorite image of Bergman is found in the 16mm films documenting his shoots in the ’60s: the weather is nice and he is cheerful, even childlike. At the time, he was running the Malmö City Theatre, directing one play after another all season long. When the theater would close for the summer, he would bring together his troupe to make a film in which cinema, vacation, and love seemed to combine in a utopia that may be the key to the duality that defines his work. The underside was depression, which would later be the source of some of his masterpieces.
Bergman’s schooling in cinema is not particularly relevant. His first films—in which one is perfectly entitled to be interested—are very much in the spirit of their time, immersed in the existential gloominess of the postwar years. What is more interesting is the way Bergman struggled to get rid of his influences, to become himself by leaving behind cinema’s old-fashioned baggage, which led him on the path to a luminous and timeless present, that of modern syntax.
This connection to dramaturgy is absent in the French New Wave, which is founded on that idiosyncratic relationship to cinema known as cinephilia. However, it is omnipresent in England, where the British New Wave was written by Harold Pinter, John Osborne, Alan Sillitoe, and Keith Waterhouse. But Bergman’s singularity is in what differentiates him from the English: in his work, the most important thing is that the spoken word is embodied. The relationship to the performer is not through the assertion of the text but in its transcendence. This alchemy is the deepest and most mysterious thing at work in cinema, its very essence. And it is the discovery of this particular fragile and ephemeral truth on the faces of his actors and actresses that defines the most intimate, most secret space in cinema—one that Bergman tirelessly explored, pushing beyond words. Thus we could envision an arc from cinema to writing, and finally to embodiment surpassing both.
But what happened in 1982, when a 64-year-old Bergman announced that Fanny and Alexander would be his last film? That can be interpreted in several ways. You can consider that this film—longer, more ambitious, and more novelistic than all the others—was supposed to be his crowning achievement. Or else that Bergman himself wanted to produce the only legitimate commentary on his oeuvre, since in 1992 he published Images, his artistic autobiography, which was supposed to close the case once and for all. One could also have chosen not to believe him, as was my case: I imagined that Bergman wouldn’t keep his word, like Jean Racine, who after 12 years of silence returned to the theater with two masterpieces, Esther and Athalie. Indeed, Bergman soon contradicted himself. In 1984, he directed After the Rehearsal for television—the film was distributed in theaters against his will, and to prevent that from happening, he never shot on celluloid again—and then regularly continued producing important works on video, all of which have a fully legitimate place in his filmography. This extended to his late masterpiece Saraband, made in 2003 when Bergman was 85 and shot not merely on video but on HD—and, incidentally, the first feature film projected digitally in Paris.
What can be observed is that starting with After the Rehearsal, Bergman stakes a claim to the “small form,” like Racine when he wrote Esther and Athalie for the pupils of the Saint-Cyr boarding school for girls. These new films were absent from movie-theater screens, film festivals, and the radars of film critics and historians, to instead hide in the flow of images. Who at the time paid attention to The Blessed Ones (1986), Sista Skriket / The Last Gasp (1995), or In the Presence of a Clown (1997), to name only the most notable? At this point, Bergman was devoted to a cinema liberated from cinema. He was done with visibility and issues of economic success or failure. No explanations were owed, either to journalists or the audience, or even to the present, from which he moved further and further away to enter the light-soaked, otherworldly eternity of Saraband.
Yet Bergman was never more active than during his years of “retirement.” He directed an ever-increasing number of productions at the Royal Dramatic Theatre, getting up to two or three a year; published his memoirs and The Best Intentions, a novel he then adapted into a miniseries directed by Bille August (and which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes); and wrote screenplays for his son Daniel and Liv Ullmann. He regularly granted long interviews (including to me, in 1991), increasingly haunted with concern over his legacy, as if he was making his final pronouncements for future generations.
What changed? Why the abrupt shift? And what’s missing? If not the eroticization of the relationship to bodies, to light, to his actresses, that limpidity that always defined his films, in part due to his collaboration with Sven Nykvist, which began with Sawdust and Tinsel in 1953 and came to a close over 30 years later with After the Rehearsal. The sensuality of the image in Bergman is the secret link between desire and his films.
Could it be that this desire left him? To be reformulated as something else? Something that would allow a withdrawal into himself, through the introspective movement of writing, the humility of a chamber cinema, concealed, deceptively inconsequential, detached from the world and even more so from cinema, but inhabited only by what is most important: an inner necessity. What if in the twilight of his life Bergman wanted to be a different artist? What if he wanted to be something other than Bergman? Or else return in a severe mode to the clarity of his youth, being a man of the theater sovereignly making films whenever he felt the urge. But he was now concerned with the literary work that had always haunted him and for which he never found the time off or the peace, for cinema and the powerful desires it sets off never left him the space or leisure. At this point in his life, Berg-man became aware that his days were numbered and that there were too many things left to do to allow film to remain the focus of his work. And so he chose to shift its center of gravity.
Bergman occupies a unique place in French cinema. Though an icon of the New Wave, admired both by Godard and Truffaut, it is to the next generation that he would serve as a magnetic north. Indeed, the only thing Philippe Garrel, André Téchiné, Benoît Jacquot, and Jacques Doillon have in common, aside from being deprived of a dialogue with their French elders little interested in passing on their experience, is that in the ’70s and ’80s, after the years of political radicalism, they went looking to Bergman for the tools that would allow them to reconstruct a relationship not with novelistic, non-Brechtian narrative but with embodiment, at the intersection between the character and the actress or actor—a cinema that scrutinizes humanity by scrutinizing the mysteries faces reveal.
But what exactly can we do with Bergman today? He who X-rayed relationships between men and women—more so from the woman’s perspective, one should add—and who used his camera to explore the paths opened by psychoanalysis and what it tells us about the machinery of our subconscious, its language, its silences, too, and the ways of the invisible? Are we still interested in the mysteries of the human being, the turmoil of faith, the torments of love, and the dialectic of the couple, which inspired the greatest filmmakers to make some of the deepest works of art of the last century, or are we over that? Has the world changed so much? Where are we at with psychoanalysis? Where are we at with time, as the poet Arthur Cravan asked?
It seems to me that there is a lack of psychoanalysis in cinema today, just as there is a lack of Bergman and a lack of relationship to time, or of what is built with time, the way Bergman’s body of work was built with time, for example. Yet cinema, which examines the soul through the features of its performers and records both silence and speech, both the visible and the invisible, has always been the best path to approach the chasms of the unconscious and the part of us that irreducibly escapes us. The truth is that we’ve always known this; Bergman wasn’t the first to discover it. Yet one step at a time, his path led him to understand and choose as his subject what is most precious in the ontology of cinema: its capacity to represent the complexity of human experience, to face its contradictions and ambivalences, to look at what is simultaneously destructive and full of hope, transcendent and maddeningly trivial in humanity. Like Bresson, Bergman turned his back on faith, which was no simple matter. Bergman did not like family, he had a terribly ambivalent relationship to his own children, and he didn’t much like men either. Does this sincerity of a tormented soul make him a bad person or our brother? Ultimately, he only believed in one thing: women as salvation.
It’s hard for me to find Bergman in contemporary cinema. Or rather, I see his absence as a terrible void. We move away from Bergman when we move away from our dark side and the necessity to face it. We move away from psychoanalysis, as is the case today, both in society and on screen, not because we have something to hide but because we don’t want to know or see what we have to hide.
Once this time has passed and we are again interested in questions and doubts in our exploration of humanity through cinema rather than in certainties, preconceptions, and social stereotypes, Bergman’s work will still be there to guide us.
Ingmar Bergman, Theologian? | America Magazine Richard A. Blake, August 27, 2007
At age 89, on July 30, 2007, Ingmar Bergman left us. Tragically, he won’t be widely mourned by today’s movie audiences. His unblinking, introspective examination of the human condition places heavy demands on his viewers. His last film, “Saraband” (2002), was greeted respectfully as a curiosity from an 82-year-old director; it received only limited distribution. Audiences today find his characters narcissistic and his themes lugubrious.
The observation has some merit. Bergman rarely turned his lens on the cheerier side of the human condition, but he never averted his eye from the truth as he saw it. He created films for adults, especially for adults who, he believed, were as serious as he was about making sense of their own humanity. More than any other single director, he established an uncontestable niche for cinema as a true art form. After Bergman, intellectuals no longer had to apologize for writing and thinking about films.
Bergman’s legacy staggers the imagination. Looking over his filmography is like picking up a volume of Shakespeare’s complete works. One wonders how a person could create so much in one lifetime, and most of it extraordinary. In addition to the more than 50 films Bergman scripted and directed, he wrote for the stage, for radio and television; he authored novels and an autobiography; he taught theater and staged performances of classic plays and operas all over the world. Ever true to his own sense of the self, he remained in Sweden, confident that if he had something important enough to say, audiences would make the effort to overcome linguistic and cultural barriers to listen. He never needed Hollywood, the English language or international stars to ensure his success, since he defined success on his own terms, and these did not include huge box-office returns.
In a flurry of obituary notices, he has been universally praised as one of the great artists of his time. I would like to add a note of appreciation for Bergman the theologian, or at least, Bergman the religious thinker. No doubt he would reject both terms. He uses images where theologians use words. He crafts dialogue where they construct concepts. He exposes the messiness of the human condition, where they seek clarity. He focuses on the struggling, solitary human figures reaching outward, where they begin their inquiry with a God reaching down, revealing himself. But looking at the films, one sees a congruity in their tasks.
Bergman’s religious interests came naturally. His father, Erik, was a Lutheran pastor of the old school. One of his associates in Sweden described him to me as “dour.” Their relationship was less than cordial, but as a child Ingmar traveled with his father to country parishes, where he listened to the sermons and hymns and studied the icons and architecture to pass the time during services that seemed interminable to a restless young boy. His mother, Karin, was a difficult woman, and Ingmar grew up as a somewhat lonely child, who lost himself in his puppet theater and his primitive movie projector.
University life in Stockholm provided the opportunity to react against his family upbringing. He studied literature, but also devoted himself to an amateur theater group. During the war years, he remained active in the Stockholm theater community and began working at Svensk Filmindustri, the national film production company. His first films reflect a sense of late adolescent angst and rebellion against the older generation. The titles say it all. He wrote “Torment” (directed by Alf Sjöberg, 1944), and then wrote and directed “Crisis” (1945), “It Rains on Our Love” (1946), “Port of Call” (1948), “The Devil’s Wanton” (1948), and “Thirst” (1949). By the early 1950s, after three failed (of five) marriages and several liaisons, his films began dealing with the mysteries of love, loneliness and commitment. The director, like his protagonists, struggled throughout his life to establish lasting relationships with the women he loved.
Bergman could not exorcise his religious background, however. In the early 1950s, while teaching theater at Malmö, he wrote a one-act play, “Wood Painting,” as an exercise for his acting class. It was based on the images he saw as a boy in a country church: devils, flagellants atoning for their sins and Death chopping down the tree of life. By 1955, this germ of an idea had blossomed into “The Seventh Seal,” the story of a knight, played by a very young and very blond Max Von Sydow, who returns from a Crusade, tormented by his loss of faith and awareness of his own mortality. The film established Bergman’s reputation in art houses and campuses around the world.
It also began a series of seven films that explored the possibility of faith in a post-Holocaust, nuclear age. In “The Virgin Spring” (1960), “Through a Glass Darkly” (1961), “Winter Light” (1962) and “The Silence” (1963), he poses traditional faith questions in identifiably religious language. The characters struggle self-consciously with their inability to believe in God and form relationships with one another. In “Wild Strawberries” (1957) and “The Magician” (1958), the issues are veiled in layers of metaphor. The theological questions become apparent only by placing them in the context of the other films of the period. With “The Silence” he concludes that God is unknowable, and the human person must simply continue life’s journey seeking understanding and happiness however one can. At that point, God-questions drop out of his films altogether.
Or do they? For the next 25 years, his self-centered and self-destructive heroes squirm in their own loneliness, unable to find salvation in human terms through their own efforts. In keeping with good Lutheran tradition, Bergman supplies redemption from without, inevitably in the form of a life-giving woman. He never coddles his audience with Hollywood happy endings, however. The hero can reject the woman’s advances as in “Scenes from a Marriage” (1981), or the God-surrogate can be destructive as in “Autumn Sonata” (1978), when the God-Mother (Ingrid Bergman) lacerates her daughter (Liv Ullmann) for failing to meet her expectations. The resolution can be complicated by multiple relationships as in “Fanny and Alexander” (1982), or it can be therapeutic as in “Persona” (1966). These later films of relationships can legitimately be read as a continuation in metaphorical terms of the theological questions he explored in his seven “God films.” In other words, I’m suggesting a unified rather than disjunctive reading of his work.
The inherent unity of Bergman’s sense of alienation from both God and humanity appears most clearly in the dual narrative strands in “Winter Light.” One story rests squarely on theology. A Lutheran pastor in a remote rural area senses that he is losing his faith. His congregations are dwindling, he has little to say to those in need, and he finds the rituals “ridiculous.” The second story centers around his inability to accept human love offered to him by a parishioner, who remains devoted to him even after what appears to be the end of their previous involvement. She is a redeemer for him, but he rejects the food she offers, just as the congregations stop coming for the Eucharist he provides. Each story stands on its own, but each comments on the other, providing a different optic for viewing the pastor’s essential alienation. He longs to find some form of love in his life, but when it comes, he cannot recognize or accept it. In a terrifying final shot, he continues the Communion service before an empty church, as though resigned to continuing his search for meaning in the sparse light of a Scandinavian winter.
During his “God period” Bergman worked endless variations on the first story. After he had banished God in “The Silence,” he turned his attention to the second. I’m suggesting something more than parallel narratives or interlocking themes in Bergman’s work—that is, a cohesive unity in his divine and human quests. The search for love in the later “post-God” works at the very least reflects the strong influence of his earlier theological concerns. Ingmar Bergman expresses the human search according to a religious template. But I would dare to go further: these troubled human relationships also reflect in metaphorical and poetic terms our contemporary, ongoing struggle to discover an authentic relationship to God.
Through a Glass Darkly: Bergman as Critical and Cultural Bellwether ... Richard Shaw from Bright Lights Film Journal, April 30, 2003
As Bergman goes, so go attitudes toward European art cinema.
Nowhere in the history of European art cinema, nor alternative cinema generally, is the fickleness of critical taste more marked than in Ingmar Bergman‘s fall from 1960s auteur preeminence to recent neglect. Along with Fellini and Antonioni, Bergman was regarded as the greatest hope of attaining for the screen the same status as painting, poetry, and literature. He confronted modernist themes and developed instantly identifiable stylistic motifs. Since the mid-1970s, however, a tendency toward structuralist and feminist approaches to film criticism have conspired, together with a postmodernist mainstream, to undermine Bergman’s once most revered oeuvre. The intention of this study is to examine the impact of these changes and, having done so, to carry out a brief assessment of what if anything a Bergman text still has to offer today’s savvy audiences. Initially, however, let us provide a context for such a discussion by looking at Bergman’s early success.
As can be seen in the above excerpt from a review of Crisis (1945), criticism of Bergman’s films between 1945 and 1954 was less than favourable in his native Sweden. Critics there decried Bergman’s pessimistic existentialism — his preoccupation with marginalized, disaffected, young figures — urging domestic filmmakers to avoid diverse formal techniques, in particular, the gritty mise-en-scéne and harsh expressionism of Rossellini and the Italian Neo-realists. Instead, they pushed for greater alignment of Swedish cinema with Hollywood; its three-point lighting systems, its spatial and temporal continuity, and its classical narratives.
In spite of this, Bergman went on developing what would become his authorial hand, establishing by the time of Summer Interlude (1951) his concern with not only the female protagonist and circus clown, but also layers of memory and existentialist quandaries, chief among them, how to derive meaning from life in the apparent absence of God. It was not until Summer with Monika (1953) and Godard‘s “Bergmanorama,” a Cahiers du cinéma article in celebration of Bergman, however, that the director’s tendency toward the idiosyncratic began to pay off.
For the writers in the increasingly influential Cahiers, cinema was primarily a means of self-expression. The filmmakers held in highest esteem were those perceived to imbue their material with a single sensibility, auteurs like Bresson and Renoir who acted, in Truffaut’s words, “[to] bring something genuinely personal to [their] subject . . . instead of merely transferring someone else’s work faithfully and self-effacingly.” The influence of the politique des auteurs — taking seriously, often for the first time, great directors from both America and Europe — spread quickly, and with it the attention paid to Bergman’s increasingly complex, increasingly personal cinema.
Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, critics on either side of the Atlantic, following the approach of Godard and Cahiers, carried out close textual analyses of both Bergman’s early films and, as his authorial intensity strengthened, each new release: The Seventh Seal (1956), Wild Strawberries (1957), Through a Glass Darkly (1960), Winter Light (1961-62), The Silence (1962). In so doing, they hoped to establish the continuity of themes and style. Of particular interest, beyond those formal-thematic signatures recognised already, was the growing use of symbolism, temporal layering, sexual metaphor, and, with the refined “chamber dramas,” the close-up. Continuity of personnel was also considered important, both in front of and behind the camera. Here, repeated casting of, for example, Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, and Bibi Andersson was vital in allowing the identification of the audience to pass from the characters to the author himself. Never before had Bergman’s work, nor that of any other alternative filmmaker, been treated with such deference. Books by auteur-based critics rolled off printing presses and, with Persona (1966), Bergman began to indulge himself, offering commentators and art-house audiences even greater tests of their emotional and intellectual commitment. Such intense interest and acclaim, however, would prove transitory. For as early as the turn of the 1960s, the first signs of the politique des auteurs‘ move from a way of ordering film history to a means of assessing a film’s worth were in evidence.
By 1961, Cahiers writer and filmmaker Jacque Rivette had developed the notion that it was a “divine spark” that divided the auteur from what had by now become known as the metteur en scene, defining the ability of the former to make a film truly his own and the inability of the latter to disguise the fact that the spirit lies elsewhere. It was only when American critic Andrew Sarris took on the politique des auteurs, however, that this distinction became more regimented. Herein, the preoccupation with the “wholeness” of a director’s work meant even the failures of the auteur were considered to be of more artistic value than the successes of the metteur en scene. Amid this, Sarris’ auteur theory appeared ever more like a cult of personality. Forgotten was the social and industrial context from within which the filmmaker creates, the emphasis squarely placed on the demonic author creating independent of time and place. The auteur theory had become a criterion of value but one to which critics, both emerging and established, were less and less inclined to subscribe.
If the late twentieth century can be defined in cultural terms by the devaluation of its artist and their works, it is arguably here, with the critical shift toward a structuralist approach in the late 1960s, that the process begins. In Signs and Meanings in the Cinema, first published in 1967, Peter Wollen observes:
In recognising a separation between the real person behind the camera (Bergman) and the artistic personality represented on-screen (“Bergman”) — between structure and intention, as it were — Wollen infers that only when a text reaches the listener or reader does it find meaning. The conscious awareness of the filmmaker is, thus, subordinated. Just a year later, Roland Barthes published ‘The Death of the Author” with the same implication. This essay, together with Michel Foucault’s “Fiction of the Author/Author of the Fiction” (1969), theorised that the individual artist, and by extension his art, is historically and socially constructed, such things as language setting limits on that which can be thought and said. A film, in this context, is not the original thought of the author, but merely a rearrangement of those preexisting in his language.
The structuralist approach was short-lived and, for many of its more militant advocates in the film medium, constituted little more than a rebellion against the auteur-based critics’ deification of its leading directors, principal among them Antonioni, Godard, and Bergman. Nevertheless, it was successful in opening the floodgates for a greater degree of irreverence toward the previously sacrosanct work of the auteurs.
Writing in the late 1960s, Robin Wood had contended that Bergman, even above the more obvious choice of George Cukor, should be considered the greatest director of women. Indeed, from Summer with Monika onward, Bergman had come to be regarded by (largely male) critics as the director unique in his understanding of the female psyche and female sexuality. During the 1970s, however, Joan Mellen led a revolt. She observed the conformity of Bergman’s “chamber dramas” to what was essentially a conventional male perspective on female subjectivity. Here, in films like Through a Glass Darkly, Persona, and Cries and Whispers (1972), the failure of the women protagonists to find meaning derives from an inability to choose a lifestyle independent of the female sexual role. “In this sense,” Mellen argues, “Bergman is arbitrarily far harder on his women than on his men. They are depicted as if on a lower notch of the evolutionary scale.” Indeed, even those characters who refuse the constraints imposed by their physiology — the frigidity of Ester in The Silence by way of contrast with her submissive sister Anna, for example — must suffer death for their rebellion.
Joan Mellen’s indictment of Bergman’s treatment of women broke new ground, leading to a critical about-turn among even previously approving female critics. Like Mellen, Pauline Kael also recognised the conventionality of Bergman’s fascination with women — the sense of “women as Other, women as mysterious, sensual goddesses of male fantasy.” Birgitta Steene, in her 1979 essay “Bergman’s Portrait of Women: Sexism or Subjective Metaphor,” meanwhile, derided the director’s equation of femininity only with states of hysteria and heightened emotion. In the relentless progress of modern criticism, modern society, and, as it would transpire, modern cinema, Bergman was being left behind. The auteur once considered to be, along with Antonioni, the woman’s director par excellence now stood accused of preventing a liberated image of women on film.
Such irreverence toward Bergman, together with other European auteurs, also permeated a formerly deferential mainstream. As the 1980s approached, Bergman became the subject of derision. In a world where commitment to the notion of the “popular” rather than the “personal” was of increasing value — the “physical” rather than the “metaphysical,” as Richard Corliss observes it — Hollywood homages and television spoofs painted Bergman as the chief proponent of art cinema gravitas. This shift left each new Bergman release, with its earnest dedication to modernist themes, latterly the predicament of the artist with Hour of the Wolf, The Shame (both 1968) and The Ritual (1969), looking increasingly irrelevant in a postmodernist age. The questions Bergman asked by the turn of the 1980s had it seemed been answered, commercial attention shifting toward the auteurs of the new Hollywood cinema, such as Robert Altman, Woody Allen, and Francis Ford Coppola. Less serious and, arguably, less sincere in approach than their marginalized art-house antecedents, the auteur credit increasingly provided little more than a basis on which to market a film. Names like Altman, Allen, and Coppola here offered, in the tradition of Hollywood’s best-loved genres, a guarantee of a certain cinematic experience.
It was for this reason that critics grew wary of the excessive foregrounding of a director’s formal signatures. Thus, where academics had previously delighted in noting and analysing for significance the inclusion of, for example, an infamous Bergman close-up, they now regarded it as little more than self-parody. For them, the icon of the alternative cinema was cynically giving the audiences what they wanted and expected from a Bergman film. It was yet another form of hegemony. Writes Peter Matthews of Autumn Sonata (1978) and the internationally successful, if for Matthews and other more ardent fans “Bergman-lite,” Fanny and Alexander (1982):
Surveying the impact a changing view of authorship has had on the critical approach to Bergman’s films, we can better understand his continued absence from film academia. Today, as with so many of his contemporaries, Bergman represents nothing more or less than a period in the cultural history of Europe and the alternative cinema. Yet Bergman is more than formal experiments overcome by newer progressive models; more than the mere sum of his authorial signatures; more than an artist to be placed on a pedestal and admired from afar. Bergman is a filmmaker of the people and for the people. And to forget the ability of his films to act as a form of catharsis for the viewer as well as the author is to forget what first attracted early critics and, more importantly, early audiences.
Bergman’s characters are shown to be caught in a conflict between the inner world and the often menacing outer world. Regardless of gender, age, or status, Bergman’s interest is rooted in how they choose to compromise the two. As Godard observes in his essay: “the cinema is an art. . .. One is always alone; on the set as before the blank page. And for Bergman to be alone means to ask questions.” Time and again, Bergman challenges our sense of both individual and collective identity (who are we and how do we live with others?) — ethical, political, and social considerations every bit as relevant to the current climate, modernist or otherwise, as any moment previously. It is for this reason, however valid the re-evaluation of the alternative critics, however necessary the revisionist approach, that the study of film cannot afford to be without such a cinematic force, and particularly one so central to its institutionalisation, as Ingmar Bergman.
Reintroducing Ingmar Bergman | Bright Wall/Dark Room Lauren Wilford and Ryan Stevenson, November 5, 2018
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ingmar Bergman, and just as importantly for readers of this magazine, this month marks the release of the Criterion Collection’s thirty-disc box set, Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema—the closest thing yet to Bergman’s complete works for the screen.
As we’ve been preparing this special issue on Bergman to coincide with this release, I’ve been appreciating Criterion’s choice of cover image for this collection. It’s as near as I can imagine to a succinct visual summary of Bergman’s interests: the naked arm of a boy reaching toward a bright screen, upon which is projected the face of a woman—an artist, an actress, a mother, who suffers from a strange neurosis that makes her abstain from spoken communication. A woman whose face, and identity, dissolves into another woman’s until the boundary is undetectable.
This image from Persona elegantly condenses, to use the dream therapy term, a number of Bergman’s recurring preoccupations and showcases some of his greatest gifts as an artist, dramatist, and student of human nature. His early attraction to the film medium, to the mysterious pull of projected light, which he felt ever since he was a boy playing with his most treasured possession, his magic lantern. His lifelong contact with his childhood mind, its wonder, fear, and fragility. His Freudian intuition, shared by many of our best filmmakers, that the half-buried sense-memories of childhood are the key to describing the adult personality—particularly our memories of our parents. His familiarity with the fine points of psychic pain, exposure, humiliation—how it feels to be stripped naked before a too-knowing gaze. His awareness of the limits of language, the inexplicability of images, the irresolvability of symbols, the ineffability of experience. His awareness of the permeable membrane, the unmarked border, between conscious experience and our unconscious life; of the way our waking perception is, like a dream, tinted or tainted by our deep-seated desires, anxieties, and ambivalences. His interest in the fission and fusion of identity; his depiction of characters who, as his literary idol August Strindberg once wrote, appear to “split, double, multiply, evaporate, condense, disperse, assemble” in the mind’s eye. His fascination with the lives of performing artists—actors, musicians, those who work by intuition, by immersion into roles. His interest in women, and the roles the world asks them to play.
Criterion’s famous attention to these little details is always reassuring to me, because whether we realize it or not, we do judge movies by their cover.
There were three much more obvious choices at hand for the cover of Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema. These three have long been taken as the conventional signifiers for Bergman’s complete works, his worldview, and his thematic obsessions. All three mean more or less the same thing, and all three are taken from a single film, 1957’s The Seventh Seal. These are, from left to right, the arrival of Death, the game of Chess with Death, and the concluding Dance of Death.
If you don’t know much about Ingmar Bergman, you might not know that you already know his work. He’s the guy who made that Chess with Death scene you’ve seen reproduced, referenced, and parodied in countless places, from 500 Days of Summer to Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey.
Almost all at once, these shots of Death went from symbolizing The Seventh Seal’s heavy metaphysical themes (the quest for certainty, the Kierkegaardian crisis of faith, the existentialist’s desire to commit a meaningful act before leaving this life) to symbolizing Bergman’s whole deal as a filmmaker (expressionist imagery, Nordic doom and gloom, heavy metaphysical themes) to symbolizing the idea of “art film” itself.
This association has much to do with Janus Films, a distribution company that two friends formed at Harvard in 1956 in order to bring international art film to the US. Ingmar Bergman’s catalog was one of their first big acquisitions, and The Seventh Seal was their breakthrough hit. Their success with Bergman’s late 50s films paved the way for successful releases of other important international films: Antonioni, Fellini, Kurosawa, Ozu, Truffaut. To this day, black-caped Death serves as a sort of mascot for highbrow cinephiles around the world, signalling a love for the serious, the subtle, and the subtitled.
For obvious reasons, The Seventh Seal and its followups played big with the college and coffee shop crowd in the late 50s and early 60s. Heavyweight critics stumped for Bergman’s philosophical bonafides. In 1959, Andrew Sarris called The Seventh Seal “the first truly existential film in the history of cinema” in a piece for Film Culture. At the New York Times, Bosley Crowther called The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, and The Magician “the most provocatively intellectual films and also the most poetic, so far as sheer camera imagery is concerned, that we have seen in this fairly blasé area since Rashomon.” The Times called 1959’s The Magician “a brooding story of reason and faith”; a 1960 awards news item mentions that Bergman’s “symbols and mysticism have intrigued hordes of moviegoers in many parts of the world.” American audiences found his questions fresh, deep, and daring, the sincere searching of a God-haunted humanist, whose protagonists worked through Bergman’s own religious angst. His films were hailed as “a marriage of movies and metaphysics”; a 1960 TIME cover story called him “the Bunyan of show business…whose glimpses into the dark heart of man are without equal in the history of cinema.”
Not all audiences were entranced. In Vilgot Sjöman’s production diary L136, which details the making of Bergman’s Winter Light, Sjöman describes opening the day’s edition of Dagen Nyheter only to find the illustrious Luis Buñuel ragging to an interviewer on the very filmmaker Sjöman was shadowing:
A man who squanders his talent on rubbish. He is a very good director, but he is taken up with questions that are not interesting. What is it he asks about in every film? God, evil, good, whether God exists—you can’t keep on with that sort of thing! I can hardly sit his films out. He can keep on selling his superficial quasi-philosophy to a decadent public. It’s typical that he has gained such success in America. The Americans, these gringos, are interested in that sort of thing.
Pauline Kael, predictably, saw in Bergman nothing more than a pseudointellectual who made films for pseudointellectuals. Her 1965 review of Four Screenplays of Ingmar Bergman was sardonic, and perhaps not wrong about the atom bomb part:
Perhaps after years of standardized, pretested, mindless entertainment, the movie audience was well prepared to accept 19th century metaphysical speculation as profound. […] Much of Bergman’s power to affect audiences derives from the peculiar circumstance that the 19th-century dichotomies of religion vs. science, faith vs. reason, and so forth, have a new pulling power in the post-bomb world.
The lovers and haters, in effect, were often in agreement on what Bergman was all about. If you wanted your cinema to offer seminars in metaphysics, you’d like Bergman. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t.
Varying tastes can partly be chalked up to civilizational differences between mid-century American and mid-century Scandinavia. To American cinemagoers in the late 50s, this open wrestling with faith and doubt—at the movie theater, no less—was bold and explosive stuff. Old World audiences had grown a bit bored with the subject over the last century or two; a good number of Swedish critics scratched their heads at Bergman’s new turn toward weird old atavistic obsessions with God’s existence.
The Swedes, for their part, had come to know Bergman as a prolific young studio director of the 40s and 50s who, by the numbers, mainly made what film scholars retroactively call “women’s films”—the sort of films made by Douglas Sirk or George Cukor in America. As in America, these were commissioned by the studios with the female ticket-buyer in mind. Bergman made light sex comedies (A Lesson in Love) and frilly costume pieces (Smiles of a Summer Night), noir-adjacent romances (It Rains on Our Love, Prison), and bittersweet melodramas (Music in Darkness, To Joy, Summer Interlude). Some films twisted multiple stories together to explore the darker shades of modern love (Thirst, Dreams).
But nearly all of Bergman’s first 14 movies focus on couples, often with a young woman as the central focus—and so, to some Swedes, Bergman’s pivot to a medieval period piece about an existentially tormented knight did feel like a swerve. Some Swedish critics, like Bo Widerberg and Maria Ortman, accused Bergman of exoticizing Scandinavia for export, playing to American clichés about the somber and wintry North.
The result of all this is that critics and audiences worldwide began to see this relatively short period of Bergman’s career, from 1957’s The Seventh Seal through, say, 1962’s Winter Light, as quintessential Bergman, as representative of his major themes and interests—interests, at bottom, religious and existential. Bergman, for his part, thinks of this as a phase where he pretty fully worked out his spiritual questions. In his definitive filmmaking memoirs, 1995’s Images, Bergman calls The Seventh Seal “definitely one of my last films to manifest my conceptions of faith, conceptions that I had inhereited from my father and carried along with me from childhood.” It was also, by my count, one of his first films to explicitly focus on questions of faith and the quest for meaning, which should suggest that the period was, indeed, rather brief. In 1961’s Through a Glass Darkly, Bergman says, “my childhood inheritance is put to rest.”
If one takes these spiritual films of the late 50s as quintessential Bergman, the romantic and sexual threads in the films of the 60s may look like an unexpected departure; if on the other hand, one starts at the beginning of Bergman’s career, the relationship dramas of the 60s are in some ways a return to form, variations on his oldest themes.
Some Americans, incidentally, had seen a Bergman film before The Seventh Seal. The first opportunity to see Bergman’s work in America came courtesy of Kroger Babb, the shameless impresario of “sex-hygiene” documentaries. He acquired distribution rights to Summer with Monika for $10,000, changed the title to Monika: The Story of a Bad Girl, and commissioned lurid posters promising a very adult entertainment indeed. (Woody Allen first encountered Bergman because “word had got around that there was a Swedish film coming to our local foreign film house in which a young woman swam completely naked”). Thirst, Summer Interlude, and Sawdust and Tinsel also got the sexploitation treatment for their US releases, re-titled Three Strange Loves, Illicit Interlude, and The Naked Night, respectively. The marketing of these films and ones like them helped promulgate the idea that a “foreign film”—particularly one from Scandinavia—was a euphemism for a piece of softcore porn, whether or not the films actually delivered on the promised nude scenes. (Babb was the master of the bait and switch.)
The irony is that Summer with Monika—a lyrical, sexually frank, psychologically realistic relationship drama with a complex heroine at its center—may have been a better reference point for understanding Bergman’s body of work than The Seventh Seal ever was. The chumps Kroger Babb enticed into seedy movie houses in 1953 might, if they’d known what to look for, have been better prepared than the mainstream critics to understand Bergman’s masterpieces of the 1960s.
Werner Wiskari, the New York Times’ Stockholm correspondent, had nothing to say about Summer with Monika in his 1959 profile of Ingmar Bergman, but did introduce American readers to the plots of Summer Interlude, Waiting Women, and Brink of Life. “Ingmar Bergman has won international renown by asking searching questions about God and woman,” Wiskari began. “One of his two themes, man’s relation to woman, fascinates the Swedish public . . . . But his other theme, man’s relation to God—and this is really his main one—appears to be something of an embarrassment in Sweden, where churchgoing has largely been abandoned.”
Wiskari evidently intended his article, “Another Bergman Gains Renown,” as an introduction for Times readers who had not already been following the director’s career—the title implicitly reminded them not to mix him up with the more famous Ingrid Bergman (something my older relatives still tend to do when I say I’m writing about Ingmar Bergman’s work). So I was surprised to see that Wiskari stressed, here in one of Bergman’s earliest full introductions to the American public, that Bergman was to be understood as a director of women’s pictures, and was lauded in Sweden for his “uncanny insight” into women’s “problems and thoughts.”
But there was that confident parenthetical about the theme of man and God: “and this is really his main one.” Times readers, film students, arthouse patrons, anybody in the know, should know better than to be too taken in by Bergman’s apparent, but comparatively insignificant, preoccupation with women’s “problems and thoughts.” I was surprised, I guess, to see spelled out so early, in black and white, the attitude that I think has been widely shared by Bergman’s fans and detractors ever since: when coming to a Bergman film, look for God first, woman second. The stuff about women—about sex, identity, the body—is really about God, or philosophy, or the inscrutability and chaos of existence, and not vice versa. Woman, perhaps, is a fruitful symbol for all this, a vessel of meaning. The physical is just a manner of speaking about the metaphysical, so there’s no need to be squeamish. This is the man who gave you Chess with Death, after all.
We come to feel we know an Author from his or her Texts. But we can only read one Text at once, and we have to start somewhere, with a First Text. Few of us go in chronological order, nor is that guaranteed to grant us a more objective knowledge of the Author than going in some other order. We know that we’ll form an interpretation of an Author from the Text right away, whether we mean to or not, and so the choice of the First Text can be a vexed one. We have to use our best judgment. We might solicit recommendations from our friends or followers—hey Film Twitter, what Bergman should I start with? We might dispel the agony of choice by consulting a trustworthy published guide—Lauren Wilford says to start with Summer with Monika, like she did; the new Criterion edition curates a nightly program of private screenings for you that “opens” with Smiles of a Summer Night.
More often we go with our gut and follow our curiosity, which, if we’re pleased with what we find, might mean our sense of the Author has been permanently colored by our own interest; we found the Author we wanted to find, which means, in essence, we chased our own tail and found ourselves. If I like medieval poetry and decide to start with The Virgin Spring, Bergman will forever, in some small unconscious way, be first and foremost a medieval poet to me. If I like questions of faith, I might start with Winter Light, and that’s the Bergman I’ll get to know—the one I looked for.
More often, with a sufficiently famous and culturally-entrenched Text, the Text finds you, and you don’t have a choice. The Seventh Seal is one of those, whether it’s brought to you by Janus Films, your college professor, your college boyfriend, or Bill and Ted.
The only way out, really, is through—if you want your subjective take to tally more closely with the objective truth, if art even has such a thing, you have to have to watch as many of the films, read as many of the Texts, as you can, and at every stage partly acknowledge, partly suspend, and continually revise your take on the Author. But you can never be sure your take is free from the effects of ordering, of the irreversible path you took through the maze of Texts. It’s a bogus journey, however well you plan it.
The First Text—especially if it’s one that’s a little too widely agreed on, a little too ensconced in pop culture, a little too shrouded in prestige—tends to tell you what the next Texts ought to be: Texts that are like the First Text and confirm the conventional wisdom about the Author. Before long you not only have a sense of what the Author is like, but what the Essential Author Collection ought to look like.
This core canon may not even necessarily be based on the quality of the films. It may be more a matter of what’s been available to watch in your neck of the woods, what everyone’s told you to watch, and what everyone’s already been talking about. It may not be based on Bergman’s feelings about the films, their success with audiences and critics, their significance in their historical moment, or their influence beyond it. The nightly television broadcasts of Scenes from a Marriage reportedly made the divorce rate spike as Swedish couples realized they were seeing their own dysfunctions clearly for the first time. Ushers had to bring out the smelling salts during the birthing-room scenes at screenings of the once much-lauded, now all but forgotten, women’s film Brink of Life. The Silence, a tale of two women, helped establish Bergman’s deft, assured mature-period style; it was also perhaps the most sexually explicit mainstream release of its time, and, not incidentally, brought Bergman one of his biggest Swedish box office hauls. The Seventh Seal lost money at the box office, and didn’t get nearly the plaudits in its home country as it received in the US. No matter. The Seventh Seal, as your college boyfriend probably told you, is the Bergmanest Bergman, the most Bergmanesque. The Text teaches us the Author, and then we use that Author to grade Bergman on how Bergman he’s been in a given film.
Films that seem to track with The Seventh Seal—films that make explicit Bergman’s “main” interest, man and God, the search for meaning—may accordingly receive more attention in classrooms and dorm rooms than the ones that seem “less Bergmanesque.” They’re less educational, ostensibly—which is to say, they teach us less about what everyone knows about Ingmar Bergman.
More insidiously, though, the prioritization of metaphysical themes (“Bergman” themes, primary) over relationship struggles (women stuff, ancillary) can lead to readings that reverse Bergman’s own interest in his material, overlook his dramaturgical craftsmanship, and rob the film of its best insights.
Nowhere is this more evident than in criticism about the films that deal with both God and women.
Birgitta Steene, in her magisterial survey of Bergman reviews and scholarship down through the decades, remarks, with characteristic restraint, that considerations of the Christian implications of Bergman’s work “constitute, quantitatively speaking, the most addressed aspect of Bergman’s filmmaking.”
It’s common for these critics to conduct exegeses on lines that Bergman, of course, intended to be very character-specific. Christian critics, in particular, may be eager to take the last lines spoken by David, the middling novelist and absentee parent in Through a Glass Darkly, at face value, and as Bergman’s own view: that God is love, that love is God, and that that’s reason enough for faith. Bergman saw the line as ironic, if not hypocritical, and we should too, given what had happened in the rest of Through a Glass Darkly. It’s certainly ironic, if not hypocritical, for these viewers to give more credence to David’s desperate toss-off than to his daughter Karin’s chilling description of the Spider-God with the stone face. It’s still more obtuse to focus on these slender religious threads, brilliant details that they are, if it means missing the larger tapestry of female sexuality, the highly-gendered experience of psychosis, and what men are likely to make of both.
There are critics, too, who take the ending of The Virgin Spring seriously as redemptive closure on a fable on forgiveness. Bergman says what I think any modern female viewer would find obvious:
With The Virgin Spring my motivation was extremely mixed. The God concept had long ago begun to crack, and it remained more as a decoration than as anything else. What really interested me was the actual, horrible story of the girl and her rapists and the subsequent revenge. My own conflict with religion was well on its way out.
There are critics, too, who are most ready to talk about Agnes’ simple Christian faith and personal grace as if they were the lesson of Cries and Whispers—as if her moments of grace were more true than her moments of rage and agony, as if the theme were the purity of a good woman’s spirit, rather than the real-time decay of the female body, the fundamental indignity of dying, the torturous loneliness of the sick, the blindness of chance, and the acrobatic ego-defenses by which the healthy protect themselves from the thought of mortality.
There are critics who see Winter Light (a favorite for metaphysics-minded Bergman fans) as a primarily a relationship drama—between a man and his God, chiefly, and only between a man and a woman as a kind of B-plot. The nonbelieving schoolteacher Märta, Pastor Thomas Ericsson’s sometime girlfriend, is seen as ancillary to Ericsson’s search for meaning. Thomas’s quiet doubts about God in his church, not his quiet, brutal rejection of Märta in her schoolroom, are likely to get most of the class discussion time. And yet the schoolroom laceration is the structural heart of the script:
“I’m fed up with your shortsightedness. Your clumsy hands. Your anxiousness. Your timid displays of affection. You force me to occupy myself with your physical condition. Your poor digestion. Your rashes. Your periods. Your frostbitten cheeks. Once and for all I have to escape this junkyard of idiotic trivialities. I’m sick and tired of it all, of everything to do with you.”
By the early 1960s, Bergman seems to have realized that having an actor play a scene opposite God is not always very dramatically interesting, nor even very theologically revealing. He retained a lifelong interest in the way the religious mindset intersects with the crises of a chaotic world, but made sure the conflicts were embodied, dramatized, as face to face confrontations where the very integrity of the psyche, not metaphysical abstractions, are what’s on the line. In this, Winter Light shares much more with Scenes from a Marriage than with The Seventh Seal.
The film director Vilgot Sjöman, working on a documentary and a diary about the making of Winter Light, was offered a copy of the script, and Bergman asked for his dramaturgical feedback, one director to another, before rehearsals began. One plotline concerns the fisherman Jonas, one of Thomas’s parishioners, who comes to him for pastoral help. Jonas is seized with uncontrollable anxiety about the atom bomb—the parallels to the Knight’s anxieties in The Seventh Seal come quickly to mind, partly because both characters are played by Max von Sydow. Thomas’s words of comfort are unconvincing, and Jonas commits suicide. Sjöman told Bergman he had an objection to the timing of these scenes in the script:
[Sjöman:] “Let me put it like this: which theme is the more important? The Jonas theme or the Märta theme?
[Bergman:] “The Märta theme.”
[Sjöman:] “What! Surely the Jonas theme is the main theme, from a religious point of view? So shouldn’t the Märta theme be subordinated to it, so that the outburst of hatred against Märta comes before Jonas’s suicide….”
[Bergman:] “But the relationship to Märta is the main theme. It too is a religious theme, isn’t it? It’s in relation to her that Thomas’s religious failure is evidenced: his inability to accept her love.”
Here the existential questions are made concrete, immediate, urgent, personal. Two characters of flesh and blood, searching for certainty, finding faith or doubt, in one another—flawed mortals who are liable, unlike God or Death, to change their minds impulsively in a moment and destroy a relationship out of spite, panic, or shame.
It’s hard to correct for decades of clichés about an artist’s work—the black-caped figure of Death casts a long shadow.
But the best medicine is better access to a director’s complete works, and with it, a greater freedom to choose for ourselves where to begin, to decide which films we’ll view the other films through. This month, Criterion is giving us a chance to start fresh and reintroduce ourselves to the filmmaker we may assume we already know, to trace any path through his work we choose, and to decide for ourselves which of Bergman’s interests are primary, and which secondary, in any given film. And it presents an occasion for new critics to persuade us that new things may be more important to notice, more important than the things we’ve been hearing about Bergman from our professors and local film buffs.
As a critic, I’ve felt grateful to be born in this generation—we’re one of the first who not only has access to home media and streaming, but never lived at a time when they didn’t exist. Our opinions about international film were shaped by fewer gatekeepers, less influenced by critical consensus and conventional wisdom, than the generation that came of age in the 70s and 80s and 90s—when the great international filmmakers of the 50s and 60s were in decline and rarely releasing new material, and their old classics could only be seen catch-as-catch-can, in university libraries or revival houses. In most ways, we’re even in a better position than the critics of the 50s and 60s. Dependent on distributors who inevitably jumbled the release timelines, they inevitably jumped to conclusions about a director based on limited information. Their good faith best efforts to explain the director’s work had a significant effect on which films got noticed, which ones had revivals, which ones were printed on 16mm and screened in film studies classes, which films were seen at all, and which were neglected. We’re increasingly free of these cycles of hearsay and say-so. We’re living in a kind of Reformation, where anyone can read the canon in her own language, in her own home, form her own interpretation, and be her own priest.
The Magician (Ansiktet) (1958)
The Silence (Tystnaden) (1963)
Shame (Skammen) (1968)
The Passion of Anna (1969)