I no longer have to think about the answer to the question “who’s the world’s greatest living director?” Eric Rohmer now has the title unquestionably all to himself.¹ Ingmar Bergman died Monday. Appraisals are already pouring in (including this pre-death one by, of all people, Joe Queenan) and I learned of this invaluable site.
More than any other director, Ingmar Bergman was the man who taught me that movies were, or at least could be, more than “just movies” or “mere entertainment.” That films could even be profound quasi-religious experiences. He was also one of the few artists who seemed to have a direct line to my soul — albeit in reverse overall, but while fitting near perfectly upon mine in certain details.
Bergman moved during the course of his career from being a tortured Christian to a tortured post-Christian. God was a constant character in Bergman’s late-50s and early 60s films, but He more or less disappeared after THE SILENCE. In that respect, Bergman played Virgil to my Dante.² Or as I put it here regarding him and Hitchcock: “both Christians who had enormous difficulty being believers.” In the latest edition of Crisis, Michael Foley writes:
There are, needless to say, a vast number of films that point to important truths about human existence without necessarily tapping into something that is quintessentially Christian or Catholic.
This can be true even of films that are bleak and godless — literally. If so many movies today are depressing and desperate, it is because they are an accurate (and hence instructive) mirror of the hell that is life bereft of grace or hope. As Pope John Paul II is reputed to have said, “We owe secular artists appreciation for showing us what the world without God looks like.”
It would obviously be a crude-minded injustice to reduce Bergman to an unintentional cautionary tale against atheism. Among other reasons, his films are far more complicated than that — partly because hell-on-earth cannot literally exist and partly because even though Bergman became an atheist, he was serious enough that he could never live happily with that thought.
The first two Bergman movies I recall seeing were the Medieval morality tales THE SEVENTH SEAL and THE VIRGIN SPRING, both of which I liked a lot. What was immediately obvious was that these movies were different — worth simply looking at and to think about. I also saw them, more or less, at the time I was recovering from adolescent atheism and reverting back to the Catholicism of my boyhood. I already knew of Bergman’s reputation for dark, brooding religiously-based Angst, but these movies spoke to my soul in a direct way.
In the early 60s, Pauline Kael mockingly described Bergman as appealing to “schoolboys who’ve just heard for the first time that God is dead.” But remember that “God is dead” was said by a man who saw that this was as terrifying as it was liberating. And that was exactly the appeal Bergman had. But when at the end of THE VIRGIN SPRING, a character makes a penitential vow, it somehow didn’t matter how relentlessly grim the rest of the movie was. The famous dance on the hillside at the end of THE SEVENTH SEAL works similarly — the last thing we see is the family in the background of the above image happily driving away to a few discreetly lyrical notes.
As I noted above, one of the fascinating things about Bergman’s whole ouevre is the way his films change as he ages. God hardly appears after THE SILENCE, except in the form of one or two one-scene faithless pastors, and in FANNY AND ALEXANDER. Thus, Bergman moves from the perspective of the Knight in THE SEVENTH SEAL to the Squire. Or rather, and this is what made him speak to me so specifically, he had moved to the perspective of the Squire who once was the Knight and wishes he could be again. Thus THE SEVENTH SEAL typifies why I like Bergman even when he poses challenges to my Catholic faith — that he is serious about the stakes in what Allan Bloom called “the most important question facing every man at all times — the religious question.”
Bergman doesn’t take God’s silence or even God’s cruelty as an excuse for smug posturing — he looks on the possibility with dread (Angst, even). Never forget that Heidegger, the man who gave us the current usage of Angst, began adulthood as an Catholic seminarian and that Bergman and existentialism were strongly influenced by Kierkegaard, to whom I was introduced by a fundamentalist Calvinist theology student.
Then, after a mystifying experience with PERSONA that cause me to dismiss the film for years as a mere exercise in cryptography, came WILD STRAWBERRIES. And the face of Victor Sjostrom. Very little, in conventional terms, actually happens during the film’s picaresque except the accumulation of flashbacks and events during the old professor’s car ride to receive an honorary degree. Some of these episodes are riveting in themselves as stand-alone sequences (the bickering married couple; watching the family gathering from his boyhood; the opening dream of clocks without hands, etc.). But Bergman famously said that the most interesting thing to photograph is the human face, and the whole drama in this film is in Sjostrom’s face. What matters is how Sjostrom reacts throughout to such moments as the two youths who debate God’s existence or the resemblance between the girl he picks up and his heartbreak of a lifetime.
WILD STRAWBERRIES was an surrealist/Expressionist visual stunner to be sure (the harsh lighting and silence in the opening dream sequence is a vision of hell without a single flame). But what has stayed with me for almost 20 years is that it was the first time I recall watching a film’s drama primarily through a psychological prism, through an actor’s face, through reactions and refractions, rather than action per se. This disposition, toward psychology and “the pilgrim’s progress of a soul,” is one I retain³ and WILD STRAWBERRIES was an early case of that sea change in my viewing habits. Like SEAL and VIRGIN, STRAWBERRIES ends with a moment of grace as Sjostrom lies back on his pillow to a few notes of music, like the Softened Scrooge of Sweden.
This pattern, of Hell drenched in a few cathartic final moments, continued throughout Bergman’s career. His famed Swedish TV mini-series SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (I’ve only seen the 170-minute theatrical cut; reputedly the five-hour version links the disintegration of the marriage to an abortion) is in no serious sense a “happy movie.” But its principal subject is love, and, in a perversely Existential way, SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE is actually a moving and romantic film about the subject because it shows how love can remain in the end, even when it is dead (“Love is Dead”?).
There’s nasty recriminations, abandonment, second marriages and even a hard-to-watch scene in which Erland Josephson beats Liv Ullmann and then screams at himself in a pitiless rage. There’s a rawness to the emotions in Bergman’s color movies that his black-and-white movies tended to politely and coolly intellectualize in that Scandinavian chamber-play way. I’m thinking first of THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY and even WILD STRAWBERRIES to some extent. And not just of SCENES among the color movies, but also Ullmann’s portrayals in FACE TO FACE and AUTUMN SONATA.
And yet. And yet — Johann and Marianne still love one another and still need one another. In their final reunion in the middle of the night in a dark house somewhere in the world, Ullmann cries out for him and the look on Josephson’s face as he rushes to her side says it all. They are forever part of one another and will be because even man’s best efforts can’t tear some things asunder. It’s even perfectly possible (although I don’t advise it, it makes the film less interesting) to leave SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE, if uninfluenced by SARABAND, thinking “well, maybe they can or should get back together.”
We get a similar catharsis in another of those Bergman color movies. FACE TO FACE, where Jenny sees her grandparents with one another and learns what the doctor meant in the atheist prayer about becoming real and so rejoins the “army of crippled wretches.” And the last shots of the epiphany in this very dark and mercilessly oversaturated movie (a common Bergman trait in color) is in bright sunlight. By the mid-70s Bergman had pinned all his faith on human relationships, often as symbolized by the touch of another.
But in AUTUMN SONATA, we got something very different. Here love fails, because Ullmann’s character (Eva) is clingy and needy, making demands upon her mother Charlotte, played by Ingrid Bergman. Or as Roger Ebert put it (it doesn’t seem to be on his site):
“And Ingmar Bergman, standing apart from this material and regarding it with clarity and detachment, refuses to find any solutions. There are none, I suppose. A lesser filmmaker would have resolved everything at the end in some form of neat Freudian bookkeeping, but Bergman finds in his story only two people, each demanding love from the other, each doomed by the past to fall just short of the ability to love.”
The key to this is that AUTUMN SONATA begins basically identifying with Eva and her preparations for Charlotte’s visit. But in the course of two virtuoso scenes — one at a piano, the other a late-night quarrel — identification shifts to at least neutrality. Here’s the earlier and first-named scene, unsubtitled, but it hardly matters.
In the latter scene, Eva becomes less and less sympathetic as she becomes more and more damning and becomes more and more demonstrative (there is a lengthy take of pure acting genius when Ullmann chokes back tears on cue). The look on Charlotte’s face as she spits out the half-known, half-revelation “you hate me” is also genius, because it’s when the film definitively shifts identification, but never entirely over to Charlotte. The film fits and contains “both/and” precisely because Charlotte is shown as neglectful, while Eva is shown as a clingy whiner (Pauline Kael hated the film for the latter reason, wrongly assuming that the film totally sides with Eva). I put it this way once:
There’s a similar long take focusing on Eva’s curdling face while Charlotte demonstrates all of Eva’s piano-playing faults, and your reaction then is “poor Eva, Charlotte is a pig.” Now it’s “poor Charlotte, Eva is a pig.” Each is in her own way a pig, but not a mere pig — that is, the pigdom of each feeds off the pigdom of the other in particular unique ways.
And so the open ending is absolute genius and hard-eyedly realistic. They DON’T reconcile because, as Ebert notes, Bergman realizes that the past can’t be set aside because we ARE our pasts, that Eva is as deluded in the end as she is in the beginning. The last lines of the letter are a letter Eva writes to Charlotte (paraphrasing from memory) — “I will never let you out of my life again. Even if it’s all for naught and it’s too late. It must not be too late.” The wish is father to the thought; Eva wants it all to happen again. I mean, if you were Charlotte, would you even look at that letter when it came to you (and it’s obviously from Eva) given what happened in the course of film time? The husband actually gets the movie’s last shot and the look on his face as he puts the note back into the envelope tells us everything. He is the wisest character in the film — awake to both Charlotte’s and Eva’s flaws. And yet … since the surface tone of the last scene is not hopeless and it doesn’t take an imbecile to think that the quarrel may have been cathartic — you can see this same movie playing itself out again and again — hopeful beginning, tension building, demons reign.
Eventually, I did come around to considering PERSONA a masterpiece, and I did so when I stopped trying to “decode” it, particularly the famous beginning and the rhyming middle sequence when the film “breaks.” I eventually came to realize that the film must, by design, disintegrate after this because Eden has been destroyed by sin’s introduction. The idyllic world of the film’s middle section, the two women set apart, and the start of the film, with nurse and patient clearly delineated — they cannot contain the pain and the hatred that the shard of glass has introduced into that world. And done so directly, as opposed to through representation as with Elizabeth facilely watching the TV, say.
The glass also represents the disintegration of identification and role (“who’s the hunter, who’s the game,” in Patty Smyth’s opinion), and so everything that happens after that may or may not be a dream or a fantasy. But to try to definitively answer what’s what misses the point — as opposed to Fellini’s 8 1/2 which, as I say in the footnotes, is rigorously tied to one subjectivity but which is hence completely transparent. PERSONA, at least by the end, is not and cannot be. In other words, I had been trying to impose order where disorder must reign.
And of course, at that point, PERSONA does basically fit together. For example, the confusion about who’s whose husband (including in the husband), especially when contrasted with the erotic charge of Alma’s famous long monolog about the boys on the beach, become possible. The monolog’s very unseenness means it comes from a united subjectivity, while the threesome’s(?) explicit displayedeness crushes eros under the weight of chaos. As the interview book “Bergman on Bergman” put it about the end:
Torsten Manns: That’s when Alma begins to become schizophrenic; her speech disintegrates. She notices that the other woman is projecting herself into her. With her.
Ingmar Bergman: Yes, words cease to exist for her.
TM: But that’s part of the schizophrenic syndrome.
IB: As I see it, Alma’s aggressions in this dream situation take on such enormous proportions, she finds she can no longer use words. She becomes violently disturbed; loses her ability to express herself. She’s like a machine that has gone to pieces but just goes on turning madly, and her words, without any ordered context, just come tumbling out. Bibi found it frighteningly hard to memorize those word-series. To learn a totally meaningless series of words by heart is said to be about the hardest thing you can do.
TM: It’s to be found in Beckett’s Godot
IB: Yes, Lucky holds his long monologue – sentences all chopped up. He makes an endless speech based on fragments of sentences. But in Persona, there aren’t even two words that fit together.”
All the subject matter in the world wouldn’t make any difference though, if Bergman weren’t the stylistic virtuoso that he is and didn’t have the actors that he did. Even if one finds Bergman a pretentious ass, there’s no denying that he assembled one of the greatest stable of actors ever assembled in one guy’s body of work. And as I wrote here about Sven Nykvist, his usual cinematographer:
Nykvist was able to get the kind of images that … made Bergman Bergman — a bold chiaroscuro in the overcast pearl-gray Swedish light in the black-and-white movies; a mercilessly bright, decadent and pastel-free hues in the color ones. Two movies in that latter category — CRIES AND WHISPERS and FANNY AND ALEXANDER — won Nykvist his two Oscars.
For an example, look at this shot from AUTUMN SONATA.** As I said about the Thai director “Joe” having a distinctive look to his films based on the lighting near the Equator, the Swede Nykvist seemed to work best when working with soft, diffused light in nature and a harsh interior contrast. Every time I see CRIES AND WHISPERS (one of my 10 all-time faves), I get a physical chill down my spine and goose flesh all over when we get the outdoor scene that ends the movie — so different in feel, look, breath and ultimately hope from everything that went before it.
And look at these two pairs of images, all shot by Nykvist — the first pair is from FANNY AND ALEXANDER:
this latter pair is from CRIES AND WHISPERS:
Notice how in both cases, in one image the color is dazzlingly saturated, almost to the point of ugliness, while in the other it’s far more muted, to the point of poverty in the FANNY AND ALEXANDER shot. Without seeing the movies in question, it might look like an empty trick, but Bergman/Nykvist played with color and light for dramatic and even theological purposes. In the pair of images from CRIES AND WHISPERS, for example, one is a human-lit interior, of both a set and the human soul, while the other is an exterior scene with natural light shining down to grace us.
Despite all these great achievements (and I haven’t gotten to the greatest yet), Bergman’s critical esteem has been slipping in recent decades, to the point where he’s basically been supplanted in the cinephile pantheon category of Dour, Dark, Boring European Killjoy by Robert Bresson, Andrei Tarkovsky and Carl-Theodor Dreyer. There’s some history here. When the cinephilia bug bit me in the late-80s, all of Bergman’s best and best-known films were already on good-quality home video and relatively well-distributed at video stores. By contrast, Bresson, Yasujiro Ozu and Dreyer — to name just a few “difficult” or “arty” auteurs — were either mere rumors or available only in one or two films only in quickie or pirated or public-domain forms.
But not Bergman. Along with the considerably less-”arty” Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa, his movies were easy finds at that time. And Bergman was himself a superstar, known to people who didn’t watch his movies (and would have hated them if they had). For about a quarter-century from 1955 to 1980, give or take, Bergman was the most recognizable “brand-name” art-house film-maker, and the knowledge of him lingers to this day. More than one person at work earlier today said he knew who Bergman was without having seen any of his movies. He made the cover of Time, back in 1960 (can you imagine Michael Haneke or Wong Kar-wai there today). Van Halen alluded to his works. SCTV parodied him. And the famous image of Death in THE SEVENTH SEAL was grist for comics from Woody Allen’s LOVE AND DEATH to BILL AND TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY. I even recall a MAD Magazine parody of a Garfield strip as done by Bergman (“We are insignificant specks in the scheme of eternity. We should die,” Jon says to Garfield. Then Odie enters the strip.) There’s more here too.
One night in that period, after coming back from the video superstore (a new concept at the time) with several tapes, a couple for the whole family to see, and Bergman’s THE MAGICIAN to watch by myself. My mother asked (you have to imagine this conversation in Glaswegian “patter”): “what’s that other one?” I said, “oh it’s a Swedish film.” She said: “are you watching manky⁴ Swedish movies?” My father rolled his eyes and said “I don’t think it’s THAT kind of Swedish movie. Probably the kind of Swedish movie where they winge about death.” On another occasion, a Swedish co-worker at the newspaper in Augusta, Ga., asked me, when she discovered I was a film buff, what I thought about Bergman. I started to launch into a panegyric before realizing that Karin was not herself a fan. “We don’t like him. He’s given all us Swedes the reputation for being gloomy,” she said.
Part of Bergman’s low standing today among cinephiles, I am convinced, is simply backlash against this unprecedented adulation, plus the related contempt that such familiarity breeds. It’s far easier to laugh at an allegorical Death, because we all have, than to laugh at, for example, an allegorical Donkey.⁵ But part of it is also that Bergman’s nakedly- and selfconsciously-serious style does not play well in The Age of Irony. Nor does his God-hauntedness play well in an era of evangelical atheism that makes best-selling authors out of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Angst and the long dark night of the soul are simply not emotions today’s viewers can easily tap into.⁶
But that very topic, unfortunately, is the subject of Ingmar Bergman’s greatest achievement — CRIES AND WHISPERS, one of my Ten Official All-Time Favorite Films.
It’s a stylized period piece about the ultimate existential fact: Death. Or more so, Dying. If you haven’t seen it, do so. It’s not an easy film to sit through: in fact, CRIES AND WHISPERS may be the most emotionally grueling movie I’ve ever seen. But seeing it was an epiphany like few I’ve ever had, inside or outside the movie theater. Counterintuitive though it may seem, it’s the ideal depressing movie for times of depression.
Agnes (Harriet Anderson) is dying of cancer. She and the servant Anna (Kari Sylvan) are joined at the family mansion by her sisters Karin (Ingrid Thulin) and Maria (Ullmann), for the last days. There are some flashbacks that reveal that the sisters have grown apart. The behavior of the two visiting sisters to their husbands is psychologically of a piece with what we see among each other in the present, and each has a husband they deserve: a prig and a cuckold, respectively. The only real love in the movie is between Anna and Agnes, exemplified in this famous Pieta shot (which has caused the crude to read lesbianism into the film). Only Anna prays in the whole movie, not even the film’s one pastor, who prays over Agnes’s body in the conditional tense.
Scene after scene plays with perfect, dream-like control, characters seeming to float slowly on the floor, talking in clipped, polished lines and remembering their pasts largely in enormous closeups. One especially great scene consists of Ullmann and Erland Josephson (the first picture above) looking into a mirror during a crude seduction attempt by Ullmann and, in one unbroken take, reading one another’s faces and seeing both the flaws in the other and in themselves as refracted through the other (as I said, the characters in CRIES get whom they deserve).
Then there is the ultimate and perfect Bergman scene IMHO to end with, and one especially poignant on this day. The present-tense drama is over: Agnes has died; her sisters have left the family mansion; Anna is left to read Agnes’s diary. And here’s the flashback to the end on YouTube, which I’ve watched so often that I know everything Agnes says, even though this Swedish clip only has Portuguese subtitles.⁷
I can’t watch this scene without tears welling up and physical chills coursing throughout my spine. The closing title-card words mean “and the cries and whispers cease.” Bergman has (kinda, after his fashion) come to terms with death by his character being “profoundly grateful” for the grace of life’s holy moments even in the midst of everything else. It’s a hope, but one that doesn’t come cheap or easily.
In the Criterion DVD of WILD STRAWBERRIES, one of the extras is a Swedish TV interview in which Bergman says he has come to grips with death being the absolute end. For him. But when he talks about his recently dead final wife, he refuses to believe that she is forever gone. Harsh judgment and existential authenticity is OK for himself, Bergman says, but not for others. But now, on this day, Bergman is one of those “others.” Who thus will never leave the rest of us. I doubt Bergman left the world on terms of friendship with God. Which makes all our prayers more needed than ever.
¹Among those film-makers for whom it’s reasonable to surmise that we have their whole career or near-enough-that.
² Yes, I know that sounds horribly pretentious, even for me. But that really is how intimately I have thought to know at least Bergman-the-artist and my reaction to him over the decades.
³ The four films on the very top of my Official All-Time Favorite List — A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, TIME OUT, REAR WINDOW, and 8 1/2 — can all fairly be called that, in spite of the four films having virtually nothing else in common.
⁴ In general, this word means “filthy,” with the here-extended meaning of “pornographic.”
⁵ My readership is extremely unrepresentative on the point, but I’m still confident at least a sizeable minority don’t get that allusion.
⁶ The two persons who’ve expressed the most contempt for Bergman in my presence and drawn my ire therein are both not simply atheists but anti-theists.
⁷ Here is one account of the voiceover, which seems to follow the Portuguese as best this Spanish semi-literate can discern, and is certainly consonant with my memory: “Wednesday the third of September — The tang of autumn fills the clear still air but it’s mild and fine. My sisters, Karin and Maria have come to see me. It’s wonderful to be together again like in the old days, and I am feeling much better. We were even able to go for a little walk together. Such an event for me, especially since I haven’t been out of doors for so long. Suddenly we began to laugh and run toward the old swing that we hadn’t seen since we were children. We sat in it like three good little sisters and Anna pushed us, slowly and gently. All my aches and pains were gone. The people I am most fond of in all the world were with me. I could hear their chatting around me. I could feel the presence of their bodies, the warmth of their hands. I wanted to hold the moment fast and thought, “Come what may, this is happiness. I cannot wish for anything better. Now, for a few minutes, I can experience perfection. And I feel profoundly grateful to my life, which gives me so much.”
** Still from AUTUMN SONATA from Matthew Desem at The Criterion Contraption