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On Being Human

The Films of Ingmar Bergman

June 1, 2004  |  12:00am
On Being Human

When in conversation, people rarely hold each other’s gaze for more than a few seconds. There’s an intimacy in eye contact that’s typically too intense for us. We look away, pretending to be momentarily distracted or lost in careful consideration, afraid to peer too closely into the windows of the soul. The films of Ingmar Bergman do not allow for such distraction. They’re a conversation held eye-to-eye, unblinking. He achieved this effect not only through his trademark use of tight close-ups, but also through his poetic examination of the Big Questions: mortality, love, joy, suffering and spirituality. As a result, Bergman’s films are unrivaled in their range and excellence.

In his book, Images: My Life in Film, Bergman reflects extensively on his creative process, noting,“I suddenly realized that my movies had mostly been conceived in the depth of myself, in my heart, my brain, my nerves, my sex, and not the least, in my guts. A nameless desire gave them birth.”

Such a visceral description of his work is telling when one considers that the director himself was born to an emotionally guarded mother and a harshly disciplinarian Lutheran minister father. By his own acknowledgement, two of his greatest works, Wild Strawberries and Fanny and Alexander, were fueled by his desire to reconcile himself with these defining role models. Thankfully, his poetic spirit was nurtured by an early love of the theater, helping him channel a unique sensitivity through storytelling.

Bergman entered film as a script doctor (which proved an excellent apprenticeship considering his eventual mastery of story structure), but he soon found himself in the director’s chair. After honing his skills over some 10 films, Bergman established a solid reputation in Sweden. Then he delivered Smiles of a Summer Night in 1954 (his second film of that year). A subtle and bittersweet comedy that follows the amorous fumblings of the bourgeoisie, Smiles expanded Bergman’s reputation internationally. While the film betrayed the influence of Chekhov and Strindberg in form and style, Bergman’s keen insight into complex human motivations was clearly established.

The following year Bergman delivered the two films that would establish him as a leader in World Cinema. The Seventh Seal, shot on a tight schedule with Bergman’s loyal ensemble of actors (including Max von Sydow as the stoic knight, Antonius Block) was nothing short of a revelation. A fable-like allegory set during the Crusades, the film is a masterpiece of Expressionism. With its striking imagery (such as the iconic game of chess between Death and the knight, as well as Death leading a dance along a silhouetted hilltop), it was the director’s first forthright exploration of the human struggle for meaning, a theme that would return in some of his finest work.

Bergman followed with Wild Strawberries, the deeply moving portrayal of a bitter and aging professor who makes a journey, both physical and spiritual, when accepting an honorary degree. In the lead role, Bergman cast noted director Victor Sjöström, who delivered a revelatory performance. With its use of dreams and flashbacks, blurring the line between reality and the inner-self, Wild Strawberries established techniques that we now take for granted in film. For those who wrongly think of Bergman’s work as ponderous and cerebral, the film’s deeply affecting message of love, forgiveness, and redemption is particularly noteworthy.

The director’s next major project was a trilogy of films that found him refining his focus and scope to closely examine the nature of human existence. Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light and The Silence (both 1963) remain some of his most representative work, bridging his expressionistic influences with a more frank, often harrowing view of modern life. Bergman spoke of these films as chamber dramas, not only for their intimate settings and modest scope, but because he drew his inspiration and structure from chamber music. (His love of music would be realized in a completely different context with his charming film adaptation of Mozart’s The Magic Flute in 1975).

Winter Light is perhaps the most remarkable of the three films. Set in a dwindling parish, the film follows a spiritually excoriating afternoon in the life of the pastor (Bergman stalwart Gunnar Björnstrand in an atypically serious role) as he struggles bitterly with his own crisis of faith, the suicidal despair of a parishioner, and his relationship with his lover, the local schoolteacher. Bergman described the film later as, “A Swedish man in the midst of a Swedish reality experiencing a dismal aspect of the Swedish climate. In general, the film lacks highly dramatic moments.” Not a promising summation on the face of things, but it is the lack of histrionics that makes the film so effective. With its deceptively simple structure, crisp photography (by the brilliant Sven Nykvist) and bravura performances, Winter Light still carries a profound impact.

Bergman didn’t always hatch masterpieces, and he continued on through the ’60s without major successes. But the early ’70s found him hitting a new creative stride. Shocking in its intensity, Cries and Whispers (1972) tells the story of three sisters, Karin, Maria and the cancer-stricken Agnes. As the two sisters see Agnes through her final days, they reflect on shattered romantic and filial relationships. The film found Bergman employing magical realism to great effect with the death and reawakening of Agnes, as well as the bold use of black, white and red to underscore the film’s tensions.

Several years later, the director applied his genius to the medium of television. Scenes From a Marriage (1974) was originally aired in Sweden as a five-hour miniseries, the same year Happy Days became a hit on American TV. Through a series of fairly intimate scenes, Bergman charts the dissolution and aftermath of a marriage. While that may sound to some as a rather tedious exercise, Bergman’s skillful hand and legendary performances by Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson work together to convey a portrayal of married life that’s still startling. Bergman later edited it to a more easily digestible 170 minutes for an American theatrical release.

Many argue that Bergman’s crowning achievement came in 1982 with the release of Fanny and Alexander. A thinly veiled recollection of his own childhood, the film wove together all the elements of Bergman’s talents into a perfectly unified whole, effectively resolving the bitter existential questioning of his early work into a blissful and affirming acceptance of life’s beauty. As he wrote in his autobiography, The Magic Lantern, “To be honest, I think back on my early years with delight and curiosity. My imagination and senses were given nourishment, and I remember nothing dull; in fact the days and hours kept exploding with wonders, unexpected sights and magical moments.” It’s an apt description of the film itself.

Bergman announced his retirement from feature filmmaking after Fanny and Alexander but has continued to work in theater and television. To enjoy his movies is to appreciate what is best about humanity: the ability to question, to wonder and to love.

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