o art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls” -- Ingmar Bergman
The author of a foolish number of masterpieces, Bergman remains undiscovered territory for far too many. Admittedly, at times, the terrain he asks us to negotiate can be arduous. However, it’s a landscape like no other. Bergman’s mature kind of cinema is always startlingly intimate, full of paradoxes (at once familiar and alien, cruel yet forgiving) and propelled by a probing curiosity. So full of searching faces and wandering eyes, his lesser films would be the defining masterworks of many more celebrated directors. From Summer Interlude
to Journey into Autumn
and from Sawdust and Tinsel
to Hour of the Wolf
, it becomes vividly apparent that Bergman is a writer and director for the ages, an enduring creator who can reckon with the very best the medium has ever produced.
Pulling together German Expressionism and French Poetic Realism, Bergman’s films make for a strange form of crooked psychological naturalism. In the past he has been criticized for being trapped in a kind of private nostalgia, juddering through his dark visions of men, women and life. Yet whatever personal feelings might obscure the morbid but enlightening depth of his method, it’s inarguable that only a very few have reached the kind of raw, emotive power that Bergman seemed to dwell within for most of his active career. He leaves us with a body of work that amounts to a life lived—from an artist, any artist—what more can you ask?
Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)
Watching graceful pedant Gunnar Björnstrand parody the stiffs that Max von Sydow would play seriously in later dramas is only one of this comedy's many delights. There's no trace of the dourness of which Bergman is so often accused; liberated from the demands of the chamber dramas he was only then beginning to understand, he found solace in the whirlygig verbal felicity of Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game
and Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise
. Directing with a touch as delicate as skein, Bergman bade farewell to the formalism of a society that was already an anachronism when actresses Eva Dahlberg and, specifically, Harriet Andersson were about to play their contemporaneous liberated daughters and granddaughters in his other films; psychoanalysis and Strindbergian self-laceration substituted for repartee and coyness. That this was our loss as much as Bergman's dims this enchanting film not a whit.
Wild Strawberries (1957)
He has been preparing his deathbed for decades. When he was only 39, Ingmar Bergman wrote the script for Wild Strawberries
—the story of an old man near death. The director always agonized over the big existential questions, and it took him most of his career to reconcile with oblivion. Though he could be flippant (“Everything is worth precisely as much as a belch, the difference being that a belch is more satisfying”), Wild Strawberries
is less poised, more sad and scared. Its symbolism could only be described as relentless—arms reaching from coffins, clocks without hands, laughing corpses. But Bergman is almost hopeful—on the sly—as if afraid of deluding himself and his audience about the worth of life. He’ll only go so far; this isn’t Kurosawa, and there is no final act of significance, no good-byes. But Bibi Andersson is youthful and luminous, and she recites a little poem, and she doesn’t yet understand the ugliness of life (in Persona
, Bergman will ruthlessly educate her).
Still, the old man lives at the end of Wild Strawberries
. And now we think of Bergman in the past tense. I find myself worrying about how things went last Monday, how he held up. He was afraid of death and he showed it, and that scared me. I don’t like to think of him waiting.
Winter Light (1962)
To me, one of Ingmar Bergman's great contributions to cinema is the way he transmuted deep spiritual and emotional turmoil into an oddly comforting and affirming experience for his audience. Winter Light
, part of the director's trilogy on faith, is full of such conflicted souls. Gunnar Björnstrand's Tomas Ericsson is a brooding pastor seemingly abandoned by the deity he's supposed to be serving. After church one Sunday Märta (Ingrid Thulin), the schoolmarm with whom he began a relationship after the death of his wife, hands him a long letter cataloging his failings and proclaiming her resolve to accept them, only to be cruelly and immediately rebuffed. The pastor is then conscripted into suicide counseling, and the subsequent evidence of his failure there seems to confirm the existential bleakness of his world. Somehow, though, Bergman reminds us that Märta's persistence and Ericsson's own determination to carry on with his ministerial duties is sufficient reason to keep hope alive.
The Silence (1963)
Following the enormous success of films like The Seventh Seal
and Wild Strawberries
, Ingmar Bergman shunned the grand presentations pervasive throughout his earlier work in favor of a more stripped-down aesthetic. Releasing three films in quick succession that would later be loosely grouped together into a trilogy, Bergman began to confront the darkest fears of mankind without restraint. Next to Winter Light
, The Silence
stands as Bergman's most austere film, if not his most dismal. It presents us with two sisters, Ester and Anna, forced by a sudden military conflict to spend the night in a foreign hotel.
Accompanied by Anna's son who desperately attempts to connect with the hotel's bellboy, the two women must endure each other's presence as Ester, plagued with sickness, grows unnatural amorous toward her sister while Anna, burdened by the trouble of caring for Ester, finds it impossible to conceal her hatred. The Silence
finds Bergman at his most pessimistic as well as his most evasive as he constructs a world in which all hope for communication is essentially futile and God meets all are pleas with insoluble indifference and absolute silence.
I watched Persona
again this morning on old VHS. I saw it first in the late 60s in a ratty arthouse in upstate New York that still has the same upholstery and carpeting now. A few movies you recall seeing somewhere specific, as part of the world, even as this one—like an uncropped photograph—starts with the projector’s lantern and ends when the light dies after the celluloid unspools. There’s always something new. More in those close-ups that so changed how we see faces onscreen, or that forlorn, abandoned son searching the billboard-sized face of his mother, or the revelations of chatty nurse Alma (Bibi Anderssonn) about her day at the beach with Katerina and the boys.
Today, in the scene where Bergman inserted the TV news clip about Vietnam—by degrees, first the announcer’s voice, then Elizabeth Vogler (Liv Ullmann), who has stopped speaking because “everything is lies and cheating,” turns to watch the TV pouring light onto her carpet, then footage of street fighting that pans to the monk’s self-immolation—today I saw the actress/mental patient cover her mouth in horror as the burning torso topples over, stopping her own cry. Her psychiatrist had warned her that, even in this seaside refuge, the world trickles in. A free artist adopting the discipline of artists in hostage societies who must speak in parables, Bergman reminds us we are all citizens of the world.
[Nancy Keefe Rhodes]
Out of print for many years until a ravishing 2004 Criterion reissue, Shame
was Bergman's last great drama. As usual, the premise—a couple (Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann) disintegrates while a war rages between unnamed belligerents—requires not merely a suspension of disbelief, but of sense; there is, I think, the risk of obscenity in linking "relationship issues" with an unnamed national holocaust. Yet the black and white images of villagers confined to a hovel of a prison, their faces tear-streaked, muddy, and dumb with fear, are the most searing of Bergman's career. As always, there is Ullmann, on whose endlessly pliable features the film's psychic and collateral are shown without inhibition. It's only in the last fifteen minutes, as the realization that Ullmann may stick with the wretched von Sydow for better or worse, that Bergman earns the risks he took.
For more of
Stylus on Bergman, visit movie writer Dave Micevic’s blog, The Children of Marx and Cola