essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
The first of a two part essay on Bergman’s films written after watching The Ingmar Bergman Collection, which gathers most of the Criterion and Tartan releases. The films I liked were the ones most people do, so these reviews represent the average person’s response to Bergman rather than the film student’s or critic’s response.
When I was in my twenties I watched a few of Ingmar Bergman’s films and that suggested the idea that cinema might conceivably be more than light entertainment, might, in fact, have something perceptive to say about human experience, might even be an art form comparable to a novel or a symphony. The idea was preposterous to me then, and I remember resisting it for some time, until eventually I saw The Seventh Seal. That ended the matter. I was convinced.
But Bergman is a special case among film directors. As I watched more and more of his films, I realised I disliked most of them. But I found nine or ten among the 30 odd I viewed to be among my favourite films, and in my view some of these are among the best films ever made, works of art that are also deeply involving for the viewer. So here is my survey. Films to watch, or watch again, and films to avoid, in my opinion.
Bergman began making films in 1946. By 1955 he had made 15, only two of which I thought worth reviewing. These are Summer Interlude (1951), which I thought had a moving story, brilliant acting, but was slow and obvious in places; and Summer with Monika (1953), of which I thought it poignant to anyone remembering a love affair that didn’t work; the lead actors were superb, but the film was marred by heavy handed symbolism, an obvious moral, faults Bergman was never able to leave completely behind.
Other early films, such as Port of Call (1948), The Devil’s Wanton (1949); and A Lesson in Love (1954) show Bergman honing his scriptwriting and producing some powerful scenes and some superb dialogue, and developing rapport with some actors who would be important to him, but not developing anything into a coherent well realised film.
At the same time Bergman was pursuing his film career he was also embarking on another career, as eventually one of Europe’s most influential stage directors. And at some point he began the practice of writing his film scripts as novels or of adapting play scripts. These activities were to have a great influence on his film work.
Smiles of a Summer Night
Then, in 1955, he made Smiles of a Summer Night, an almost perfect film that has been compared to an opera by Mozart many times.
Smiles of a Summer Night attempts to attain the magical touch of a fairy tale, and to a large degree succeeds. Well, a Swedish fairy tale! We are to understand, I think, that this particular summer night, in Swedish mid summer, is a very special night where ordinary mortals, as usual managing their relationships with lack of perception and selfishness, may just possibly reach some happiness. The light touch on relationships reminded me at times of Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise, where the romance that might have been is lost but the affection of companionship remains; or Renoir’s Partie de campagne, which also tells of mismanaged love, contrasted with the inexorable movement of the seasons. Bergman’s touch is not as delicate, but almost so.
I was also reminded of Menander’s Grouch, the Renaissance theatre of Shakespeare in plays such as All’s Well that Ends Well, or the comedies of Congreve such as The Way of the World: all these resolve the plot complications with a romantic but contrived happy ending where all problems melt away. “The good ended happily and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means”, as Oscar Wilde put it. One wonders what was happening in Bergman’s life at this time to give him such rueful wisdom. While showing the world as it might have been had some god intervened in human affairs, the film also conveys some compassionate humour about the attitudes that get us in so much trouble in the first place, humour directed by the resourceful female characters at the obtuse male ones.
The film is a good introduction to one of Bergman’s great strengths as a writer: his creation of dialogue that reveals a character’s inner state. It also reveals Bergman’s wit. He was often a witty writer, even in his bleak films. The Squire’s dialogue in The Seventh Seal succeeds in being very witty and very profound at the same time, a grim humour playing like sunlight over the landscapes of hell. In Smiles of a Summer Night Naima Wifstrand as Mrs Armfeldt has many sardonic and witty lines, and plays her part as the fairy godmother expertly.
The two lead actors, Gunnar Björnstrand as Fredrik and Eva Dahlbeck as Desiree, interact magnificently, each one playing off the other so that it is Desiree who reveals much of Fredrik’s feelings. She knows him that well. Dahlbeck is a very great actress who had worked with Bergman before, but never as effectively as here. She later retired from acting to become a successful novelist. Björnstrand of course went on to become one of Bergman’s most gifted collaborators. The other actors are not required to do much more than play types. Ulla Jacobsson as Anne and Björn Bjelfvenstam as Henrik are the young lovers, Harriet Andersson plays a lusty maid, Jarl Kulle a ferocious and swaggering army officer. This is a comedy of types. The actors are perfectly cast, but Bergman can’t help giving a bit more complexity to the central couple of Fredrik and Desiree.
The film is beautifully photographed by Gunnar Fischer and alternates perfectly composed and exquisite landscape shots that are indeed magical, with lighting that gives them dreamlike clarity, with closeups of the characters interacting, in this case literally so.
It was followed in 1957 by two even greater films. The Seventh Seal, and Wild Strawberries. With these three films Ingmar Bergman was suddenly a legend, possibly the greatest film maker of them all. What he had done was to take most of the achievements of the traditional stage play and the novel and made them work as cinema. The films are absorbing for those familiar with the contemporary theatre or novel, but an acquired taste for those more used to the light melodrama of Hollywood, with its obsession with heightened pseudo realism and simple narrative.
The Seventh Seal
In The Seventh Seal, fear eats the soul. Choosing a medieval period when black and while morality left all at the mercy of the Church’s mediation, and theatre was comprised of morality plays whose characters were simple metaphors for good and evil, Bergman made a film about the obsessions that were consuming him. The film has always astounded me. How can anyone make a film about lack of meaning and loss of faith, about rules for living in that beleaguered situation? Surely these are questions we ask ourselves, torments we deal with as best we can: but making a film about them? A captivating and absorbing film?
The film seems to me based on a series of photographs taken by a nightmare camera, horrifying images that are very beautiful. The motionless vulture staring down on the plague ravaged land while god unlocks the seventh seal. Death standing on the seashore and sweeping all within the black folds of his cape. The terrified flagellants staggering in a procession of self mutilation convinced they are being punished for their sins. The village girl driven almost senseless by her sufferings being burnt at the stake for having intercourse with the devil. The crusader meeting his wife after ten years killing infidels with a look that says ‘it was all for nothing’, and her sad acceptance. There are many others: all stills, snapshots of states of mind. It was a question that many must have asked during the sway of the black death that destroyed half the population of Europe. What is this terrible god that requires so much death? Must the blameless and innocent also suffer with the evil and the corrupt? Why? The hardest thing to accept, in the extreme case such as the agonising death of a little child as in all cases, is that we do not have an answer, and perhaps, cannot have an answer. And Bergman made a film of experiencing this state.
Like Hamlet with no place between killing his mother or taking his own life, tormented with the question, ‘to be or not to be?’, the knight Antonius Block has fought a war for god and lost his faith and has nowhere to turn. Could he be flagellating himself, not with a whip but with the search for theological meaning? He must learn acceptance. Bergman shows the adventure of the soul, the journey from fear to acceptance, to be more exciting than mere narrative, the journey the body takes.
If the film’s structure is founded on brutally dramatic and quite pictographic scenes, taken in some cases, Bergman tells us, from medieval art (the chess game with death, the actor hiding in the fruit tree yet not escaping his fate, the final dance of death and many more), these set pieces are bound together by one of Bergman’s most successful scripts. Bergman, a great writer as well as a great director, combines wit and humour with existential doubt. Encountering a seated man who is really a corpse, the knight Antonius Block sends his squire Jons to ask directions:
“What did he say?”
“Was he a mute?”
“…he was eloquent all right. But what he had to say was most depressing”.
The knight is consumed by doubt, and feels his life an empty facade, yet sees faith as merely the bulwark against fear. He yearns for one meaningful act before he dies. He seems to have thought kindness and generosity meaningful, for he attempts to help Tynan, the terrified 14 year old who is to be burnt to death as victim of everyone’s superstition. And he offers a momentary respite from death to the juggler Jof and his wife, touched by their simple happiness as a family. Yet it is the poor witch Tynan who really typifies his problem.
“Who watches over that child? Is it the angels, or god, or the devil, or only the emptiness? Emptiness my lord!”
In this film about emptiness, where people suffer, and seek to profit by a momentary gain, all the actors perform faultlessly. There is not an unconvincing performance. The evil seminarian Raval (Bertil Anderberg), the church painter (Gunnar Olsson) and the knight’s wife (Inga Landgré) are as fully realised as the juggler Jof (Nils Poppe), the knight (Max von Sydow), or the squire (Gunnar Björnstrand). The film is set in the 14th century, and acts out as a morality play in the tradition of Everyman. The central character of Death (Bengt Ekerot in a mesmerising performance) causes everyone a problem (as he does today). Some responses though are more valid than others.
The cinematography by Gunnar Fischer is extraordinary, and takes the concept of black and white to its fullest extent. This is a black and white world where Death walks the land and where girls have sex with the devil. Only god seems to be silent. High contrast, dramatic settings are lit and photographed to increase the intensity of the moral questions under consideration. There are moments where this is overdone, at least for a modern audience. Overall, after 55 years, this still remains one of the best films ever made. After 55 years, it’s still extraordinary that anyone could have made it.
Ten months after The Seventh Seal was first shown Bergman released Wild Strawberries, starring an actor and director who had helped him greatly in his early days in film, Victor Sjöström. It is a film that, through a memory trip to childhood, addresses the ways people isolate themselves. Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström) is as isolated as Antonius Block (or as Ingmar Bergman).
Isak takes a trip to the nearby town of Lund to receive an honorary degree, after a lifetime as a dedicated GP who has earned the gratitude and respect of his patients. The occasion unsettles him, and he has several dreams on the night before he takes his trip. It looks like the recognition has caused him to review his career and his life, and he finds much to be dissatisfied about. As he prepares for the trip we see Isak’s relationships with both his elderly housekeeper Agda (Jullan Kindahl) and his daughter in law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin). He appears to be a man they respect, but they find it hard to be affectionate towards him. Isak is an intensely honourable man who has spent a lifetime living up to his ideals, and has made the mistake of wanting other people in his life to do the same. He appears kind, but also cold and judgmental. Isak is not a man who doesn’t feel, but one who doesn’t express his feelings. The strong can sense them, like the young hitch hiker Sara he later meets: she can see how romantic Isak is. But those in need of support, such as Isak’s own son and his wife, find little comfort in Isak.
As Isak relives/dreams his life, we see him growing up in his parents’ house, one of ten children, a household managed by his aunt Olga (Sif Ruud), an authoritarian figure he looks up to and emulates. His parents seem to be absent. The atmosphere, with so many children, appears chaotic, not least in that Isak’s fiancée Sara (Bibi Andersson) is torn between her respect for him and her attraction for his scapegrace brother Sigfrid (Per Sjöstrand), whom she eventually marries. Later on we see Isak’s wife, Karin (Gertrud Fridh). Isak puts her too on a pedestal, and she commits adultery with a neighbour. These are dreams and memories, and Bergman is telling us I think that these processes trace emotional paths, and are little concerned with recollecting facts. The events depicted may or may not have occurred. But this is how Isak feels, and has felt.
In this film Bergman questions his emotional decisions, just as in The Seventh Seal he had questioned his intellectual ones. The film works wonderfully, and largely because of the superb acting abilities of Victor Sjöström. Not only does he give life to the character he plays, but his reactions give life to the parts played by other actors. It is a performance of enormous generosity. He plays a crotchety old man who grumbles at the housekeeper who cares for him after the early death of his wife, and she does the same. Underneath, not so very hidden, is the affection born of lengthy familiarity. Later, as he drives to receive his degree, we see his reaction to his daughter in law Marianne. He has made it hard for his son and his wife by insisting they repay a loan he has made them, with the interest due. It is the just thing, they both know he is right, but resent the hardship it is causing them. In the course of the film Isak learns to show his affection, and declare it as well, to these three people. Sjöström does a marvellous job of showing Isak melting the snowy peaks of his idealism out of regard of these people, whom after all are the ones he loves. He also learns that he may have lost Sara’s love in the past just as much by not encouraging her to express it as through any action of hers.
On the journey Isak and Marianne pick up some hitch hikers, who seem to offer a pointed lesson to Isak. The girl Sara (also played by Bibi Andersson) is accompanied by her two friends. She joins him as he sits in reverie in the grounds of his parents’ house, and seems for a while a reincarnation of his ex fiancée Sara. Her friends, both of whom she is attracted to, are a medical student full of intellectual sophistry and skepticism, and a man studying for the priesthood, full of poetry and idealism. The trio seem to be mirroring the choices that have determined Isak’s life, and through them he learns that these choices can determine the entire nature of anyone’s life. But the questions are always open.
In two scenes of reverie/dream we see the key changes in Isak’s life, as he relives it. As he sees the young Sara, whom he has loved so much, he relives the overwhelming pain of losing her. Sjöström does it with a look of such longing that it is impossible not to relive the experience from one’s own life. And towards the end of the film, Isak sees his missing parents. He sees them from a distance. His father is fishing, his wife sitting beside him. They are immensely happy in one another’s company. Isak’s mother waves to him, he waves back. On his face is such a look of love and affection it is a transformation. Isak’s parents are in love. The recognition of this unlocks an anxiety that has bound Isak’s affections all his life, and he is now able to show his feelings. Again Sjöström does it with a look, a look of such happiness it again causes the viewer to call on their own life experience for a correlation. This is very great acting.
In smaller but still crucial roles are the two female characters Marianne, played with much subtlety by Ingrid Thulin, and Sara, played (twice!) by Bibi Andersson with engaging zest and passion. Marianne, who feels she must leave her husband to save the child in her womb, victim of men’s lack of feeling. And Sara, full of life, bringer of both joy and sorrow to those who love her. Bergman was always well served by his actors.
The film has attracted a lot of attention because of the early nightmare scene in which Bergman shows such striking images as a clock with no hands, which he later sees in fact when he visits his mother, who shows him his father’s watch, which also has no hands. No hands, no time. Dreams and memories operate outside time. We are forever the same while we experience these states. In his reverie Isak is eternally in love with Sara, and she is forever out of reach. Bergman seriously means us to see that the young hitch hiker Sara represents the same woman Sara Isak loved in his youth. That there is always a second chance, at least regarding our feelings, take it if we may.
Reminds me of a Bob Dylan line: “When you ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose” (Like a Rolling Stone).
Beautiful black and white photography by Gunnar Fischer accentuates the process Isak is going through. Carefully framed images flicker through the viewer’s consciousness and are gone, such as the cradle, empty, in the forest, and the old man standing forlorn beside it. Or the gathering of wild strawberries, also seen in The Seventh Seal, and symbolising, as it does in that film, innocence, sharing and generosity, potent actions to ward off much self inflicted grief. There is evocative music on the soundtrack by Erik Nordgren, not a usual thing in a Bergman film.
This is a film you can see many times. Each time you do, you will see a different film, take away a different impression. There’s such a richness of feeling, such an honesty of revelation, that it remains one of the most memorable films I’ve seen. And there is a glimpse forward, to almost the last of Bergman’s films, Fanny and Alexander. The key to its appreciation, as in all good films, is in seeing not what is achieved, but how well it is achieved. Anyone could have made this film (several have), but few could have made it as well.
Bergman went on to make some bitter, nihilistic films over the next ten years, all very personal. The simplistic Virgin Spring (1960), from a script by Ulla Isakkson, between its long periods of inaction reads like a medieval Charles Bronson film. Bergman unsuccessfully adds a conventional coating of period religiosity to the story of rape and murder. Critics like to see the next three films as a trilogy, though they aren’t connected, and have themes common to all Bergman’s films, perhaps in a Bergmanesque reference to the Trinity. Through A Glass Darkly (1961) shows four characters going through emotional crises and forgoes drama for histrionics. The characters all mutter incomprehensibly about god, one goes mad. It seems almost a parody of Bergman. In Winter Light (1961) three characters are shown trapped in their self obsession and suffer despair, one commits suicide. A film that is static, rather obvious and ultimately sterile. In The Silence (1962), the action consists of just that: the silence, between two sisters (who are sometimes posed like Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson in Persona). All three films seem devoid of dramatic elements: they have no realised characters, no interaction, nor any development. Though Bergman himself referred to the films as plays, all three are essentially undramatic. Each is illuminated by brilliant cinematography and acting, but show Bergman at his most unapproachable. This development seemed to be continued in Persona (1966), but instead Bergman produced perhaps his greatest film.
In Persona (1966) Bergman retains the small cast and isolated environment of The Silence. But instead of a self reflexive exercise he succeeds in tackling one of the great enigmas of our existence in a meaningful way, as he did in The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries. The question we all ask ourselves is, is our experience a contact with something called ‘reality’ or is it a product of our sensory reactions? Put another way, is our brain, as it interprets sensory data, able to do more than synthesise this data, or can it observe a material world that exists beyond our senses? Like the existence of god, it is a question we cannot really answer, just as we can’t verify the products of memory. For us, all is illusion, as the Buddhists say. Have you ever criticised someone for a fault and realised it is you that has the fault and yourself you are criticising? In Persona Alma and Elisabet have this experience.
‘Persona’ is the actor’s mask, an exaggerated, fixed expression that can be understood by the audience from a distance. It registers laughter, fear or horror, but it doesn’t show what we feel, but what we consider important that others think we feel. Persona is in every part of our lives, in good manners, small talk, gossip, but for an artist it resides in media, plays, novels, film. Does the TV set in the corner show what’s really happening? Can an artist represent the real world? Bergman, who filmed material originating in his personal obsessions and traumas, was more concerned with authenticity that most artists. Especially when he was recognised as a great film maker. Was he playing the part of the great film maker or expressing something real? What is real? Do we experience it, or do we create it from illusion? When reality contains the arrest of Jewish children by armed members of the Gestapo or the self immolation of monks by fire in Vietnam, can we continue to represent it? Or do we not strive to misrepresent it?
The film Persona works by oblique methods. It could never tackle such a theme in narrative. So it tells a story, then goes back and tells it from another perspective, then another, till the mirror maze allows us to reject the surface of the story and look at the process the character or characters depicted are going through, in some kind of Sysiphian pattern from which they cannot free themselves.
Elektra is the daughter of Agamemnon, leader of the Greek army against Troy, who avenges his murder by helping her brother Orestes to murder their mother. Over two dozen plays have dealt with the subject, in one of which the actress Elizabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann) falls silent for a time, smiles, and after the performance, refuses to speak. Elektra is a tragedy in which everyone is guilty, and if we are all guilty, all we say is a lie. Silence is honesty. Elektra is the name of a complex identified by Jung in which a daughter competes with her mother for the affection of her father, and the film shows two women, Elisabet and her nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson) in competition. Again according to Jung, persona is the guise the self adopts for others, and alma is the guise it shows itself. Persona is a film about truth and falsity in relationships in which the film makers (Ingmar Bergman and Sven Nykvist) co-operate in showing matter that may refer to Bergman’s troubled relationship with his parents. Silence is truth but silence is illusion and how can we escape this quandary?
A film about reality and appearance, and the way these two, like a human being and their shadow, really only exist when observed. It’s only when the artist creates an illusion of reality that we can see the reality behind the illusions we live amongst. So Bergman and Nykvist become characters in the film, and film itself becomes a reality that is part of our experience of the film. Persona interrupts the pattern of its depiction from time to time to show the object of film, film burning, film lead in, film incomprehensively showing early cartoons, perhaps some seen by the small child shown sleeping in what looks like a hospital bed at the start of the film, who may be Elisabet’s child, or Bergman himself (played by Jörgen Lindström from The Silence). In one scene the boy explores wonderingly a huge image of Elisabet, then Alma (or Karin, Bergman’s mother). Later, we see a shot of Bergman and Nykvist consulting over a shot of Elisabet lying in a hospital bed. Marshall McLuhan’s book had been published only two years earlier, and Bergman could have been familiar with the phrase “the medium is the message”. Sigmund Freud said “Sometimes a cigar is only a cigar”. In the film Bergman seems anxious to say, a film is only a film.
The film is about Ingmar Bergman, the artist who remains convinced of the falsity of what he is saying and becomes silent. It is interpreted by Liv Ullmann, who plays Elisabet, and Bibi Andersson, who plays Alma. These are both highly skilled actresses, and in Persona they both give performances of a lifetime, aided by an insightful script which proves once again that Bergman understood women better than most men. Bergman loved both these women, and they him; Andersson and Ullmann were close friends, and had worked together before. The actresses bridge the gap between the process Bergman is recording and the experience we all have, sometimes facetiously referred to as an identity crisis. Who can answer the question “Who are you?” All we have is illusions such as sense data and memories, as Bergman has only film. The two actresses take us deeper into the search than we perhaps want to go, but for me it is a deeply moving experience. When the women begin to merge halfway through the film, and their faces become one image, I feel something like a child must feel being formed in the womb, slowly becoming a self. The merging of the two images, two faces, one persona, explores the experience of being separate, and alone.
Too much has been written, I think, about what the film really ‘means’. I don’t think Bergman meant it to mean anything. It’s a film without a plot. The narrative structure is merely there to set up a situation where Sven Nykvist can film Bibi Andersson’s and Liv Ullmann’s faces. The script gives the actresses the opportunity to project Bergman’s angry, frustrated, intensely disciplined enquiry into our subconscious, where, if we let it, it will set off depth charges. A key figure in the process is Nykvist, who sets up shot after shot, and lights and films it with an effect that goes beyond Dali and reaches out to Kandinsky and Klee, even to Matisse and Picasso, who once said: “Everyone wants to understand art. Why don’t we try to understand the song of a bird? Why do we love the night, the flowers, everything around us, without trying to understand them? But in the case of a painting, people think they have to understand…” Persona is just a film. It’s an expertly made film, and a profound film. Just a film.
I had found four films, of 27, and all four meant a great deal to me, and I had watched them again and again. I thought all four had interesting things to say, and were made with great skill, showcasing the abilities of one of the finest companies of film actors ever assembled. Other films, just as beautifully made, I thought best left to film critics or film studies presenters. There were another 18 films to explore, as well as four in which Bergman was the subject.
©2012 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.