The Immortal World of Ingmar Bergman

This year marks the centenary of the birth of Ingmar Bergman, and, for
any New Yorkers keen to pay homage, the journey starts now. Over the next five weeks, starting on Thursday with “The Seventh Seal” (1957), Film
Forum will be showing forty-seven films. One of Bergman’s most appealing
traits is that, though the mood of his movies could be famously
difficult and fraught, they poured forth in generous profusion, as if he
could hardly help himself, and knew no other release. He dreamed, drew,
pondered, probed, and agonized on film, and what resulted, more often
than not, bore the grip of a thriller and the elegance of a waltz. If
you wish to be reminded of what the medium can do, or if you doubt the
depths that lurk beneath the flat skin of celluloid, waiting to be
fathomed, Bergman is your man.

Not the least of the pleasures, for anyone with the stamina for the
complete retrospective, will be the chance to make connections. As the
flighty heroine of “Dreams” (1955), for instance, Harriet Andersson
explores a row of gramophone records in the house of an ageing roué,
plucks one out, and reads the label aloud, saying “Saraband” and “Bach”
(which she pronounces “batch”). For a second, our minds are spirited
forward to “Cries and Whispers” (1972), in which the mournful saraband,
a movement from Bach’s fifth cello suite, is heard during a scene of
reconciliation—as it is, once again, during one of Bergman’s final
works, made for Swedish television in 2003, and simply titled
“Saraband.” In both cases, Liv Ullmann, another of Bergman’s
indispensable performers, is onscreen as the music plays. You want one
more link? The role of the woman who dies, of cancer, in “Cries and
Whispers” is played by Harriet Andersson. All these movies pass each
other in orbit, sometimes decades apart. The more of them you observe,
in wonder, the greater their gravitational pull.

Even people who have never seen a Bergman movie know about the guy who
plays a game of chess with Death. Why else could it be parodied so
fondly in “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey” (1991), in which the grim—and
increasingly pissed—reaper gets trounced at Battleship and Clue? But the
added thrill, for those watching “The Seventh Seal,” which plays through
the rest of this week at Film Forum, will be doubled by coming back, on
February 20th or March 10th, for “Summer Interlude” (1951), in which an
elderly lady sits opposite the local pastor, with a chess board between
them, and two young lovers standing near. “I like living too much, and
that’s why I’ll outlive the lot of you,” the old woman says, before
getting up to fetch a blanket. Alone with the lovers, the pastor admits
to “a professional interest,” adding, “I have a feeling of sitting next
to Death himself.” All this is said with a smile, in a sunlit garden
beside the sea. Mortality need not always be a source of terror, and
Bergman, despite his reputation, is not the merchant of unshakable
gloom. He did attempt straight comedies, but seldom with success; I
found “All These Women” (1964), a Fellini-flavored farce, about as
amusing as pleurisy, whereas the richly shadowed stories, like “Wild
Strawberries” (1957), are all the more telling for their streaks of
comic light.

That is true even of those tales whose subject matter, in synopsis,
sounds unappealingly tough. “The Virgin Spring” (1960), which won the
Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, is about a rape and murder in
fourteenth-century Sweden. “Winter Light” (1963) is about a pastor, in a
rural community, who has to contend with the amorous advances of one
parishioner, whom he claims to despise, and with the suicide of another,
who shoots himself beside a foaming river. Yet, having watched them both
again, on the big screen, I can testify to the stillness of the audience
around me, rapt and tensed as the dramas unfurled. And they are dramatic;
never, with such force, has the act of giving and receiving
the bread and wine been granted its cinematic dues, as Bergman—the son
of a minister—cuts from one communicant to the next, inspecting them in
turn. (He is the only filmmaker who can derive as much from a profile as
he can from a full-face shot.) Even the most atheist viewer will sense
the momentous nature of this everyday rite, and will also notice the
inquiring glance that the pastor directs to each kneeling figure as he
takes back the cup. He could almost be a detective, mustering a row of
suspects. Critics have fretted and argued as to what extent Bergman
believes in God, but that is not what matters. What matters is that he
believes in the people who do believe, and in what it costs them to
wrestle, like Jacob, with the angel of faith.

It is fourteen years since Film Forum hosted a hefty season of Bergman
films. I wrote about them at the
, for
this magazine, and suggested that the best—indeed the only—way to reach
the metaphysical, as we confront such work, is via the physical. In
other words, let’s not deny the solemn burdens that Bergman chose to
shoulder: hope and despair, shame and silence, and what Samuel Beckett
once called “that desert of loneliness and recrimination that men call
love.” The intervening years have only strengthened my conviction, however, that Bergman’s movies cannot and must not be mistaken for
abstract ruminations, let alone cautiously balanced debates. They are
violently, ecstatically open to the evidence of the senses; you can feel
every particle of experience drumming on the characters like rain. The
parents who cradle their dead child in a forest, at the finale of “The
Virgin Spring,” are joined and bowed in grief, but because we regard
them from overhead, in a tableau of lamentation, and because the light
that floods the glade is beatific, the tone is calmly and peculiarly
blessed—as is proved, shortly afterward, when they raise her body and
water flows from the earth on which she lay. The title, we now realize,
refers to a miracle.

From his earliest days, Bergman learned to set a scene with the minimum amount of dialogue. In the opening minutes of “Thirst” (1949), say, the camera
prowls a cramped hotel room, keeping pace with a young woman as she
sighs, smokes, brushes her teeth, tries to read a newspaper, and fails
to wake her sleeping partner. We know almost nothing about her, so far,
and yet, thanks to the prowling, we know all we need to know. The room
could be a cage at the zoo. As the movies proceed, you start to wait,
with a prickle of anticipation, for the instant at which the camera will
suddenly, with a kind of suave intensity, glide at speed toward a
character’s face, as he or she approaches a point of crisis, be it of
clarity or mystification; Bergman reminds us that, when we are struck by
a thought, or a memory, we are truly struck, as if by the slap of a
hand. In the case of “Wild Strawberries,” not only do we home in on the
old man who is the focus of the film as he sits, aghast, in the seat of
a car, but everything around him goes dark, as if he were trapped on
stage and pinned down by a single spotlight.

You don’t have to watch “Face to Face” (1976) to understand the primacy,
for Bergman, of the human face. It emerges from his movies as the most
special of effects: a living landscape, swept by squalls of emotion, and
forever demanding to be mapped and remapped. Why else should we attend,
with equal fervor, both to Alma (Bibi Andersson), the nurse who chatters
incessantly throughout “Persona” (1966), and to Elisabet (Liv Ullmann),
her patient, who utters not a word, but whose gentle features register
everything from mirth to horror as she listens and looks? (A poignant
addendum: the two stars are still alive, but Andersson, unfortunately,
has had a stroke. She is now the mute one, and it is Ullmann who goes to
visit her and talks. Nature and time have reversed the roles of art.)
Both actresses return in “The Passion of Anna” (1969), a lesser-known
yet formidable work, which finds Bergman shifting from black and white
to color and, in snatches, to a freer handheld style. But the closeups
are no less concentrated than they were in “Persona,” and, as usual, it
is the female face at which we unflinchingly stare.

That dominance, in body and soul, could scarcely be more timely. The
list of women nominated for Best Actress at this year’s Oscars, in
leading and supporting roles, is tremendously strong, and all of the
films in which they appear are worth watching. On the other hand, should
you seek a demonstration of female centrality—not the empowerment of
women so much as the instinctive power with which, whether in suffering
or in flourishes of joy, they can assume dramatic command of a
movie—then the Bergman season, I would argue, will be the better and
more inspiring option. If there is a more shattering breakage of the
fourth wall in the history of cinema than the sight of Harriet
Andersson, in “Summer with Monika” (1953), turning to the camera, with a
cigarette, and coolly meeting—and defeating—our gaze, I have yet to
discover it.

That movie, notoriously, was sliced up and marketed in the U.S. as a
skin flick: “Monika—the Story of a Bad Girl!” the posters yelled.
“Naughty and nineteen! The devil controls her by radar!” And all
because, in one sequence, she takes off her clothes and goes for a swim
in the ocean, on a heavenly day. That’s it. You have to laugh, I guess,
and yet there is something pitiful as well as preposterous in the
American response. The blend of puritanism and slavering prurience is
nothing new, but you have to feel sorry, too, for viewers who weren’t
allowed to grasp the impulse of liberation—only partly sexual—that
propels the entire film. Monika is not a bad girl; she is a woman,
striving to untangle herself from the bonds of social expectation. To
reduce that struggle to a mere erotic display is, in effect, to tighten
the bonds by yet another notch.

What’s remarkable is not that the film survived the travesty but that
its portrait of restlessness and rebellion endures to this day, and we
are thereby led toward one of the many mysteries of Bergman. Why does he
not seem parochial? By rights, he should be both outdated and remote: a
man from a small Nordic nation with a burgeoning welfare state, who, in
the wake of the Second World War, began to create intimate studies of
private lives. All of his characters are white; many of them hail from
the loftier ranks of society, and some from theatrical circles. Most of
them converse in Swedish. So why should we care? How come their exploits
and tribulations continue to resound? (One could say the same of the
great screwball comedies. Invariably grounded in the antics of the rich
and the footloose, they still find an echo, nonetheless, in anyone who
has ever indulged in the sport of desire.) One answer would be: think of
Bach. Think of the cello suites, played with such impassioned and
relentlessly practiced skill that they echo down the ages. If we want to
get the measure of Bergman, maybe the person to ask would be Pablo
Casals. Another answer would be that given by the kindly theatre manager
in “Fanny and Alexander” (1982):

My only talent, if you can call it that in my case, is that I love
this little world inside the thick walls of this playhouse, and I’m
fond of the people who work in this little world. Outside is the big
world, and sometimes the little world succeeds in reflecting the big
one so that we understand it better.

Bergman was the master of such reflection, so much so that—be warned—he
will leave you itchy with impatience at most of the movies that
currently come our way, especially those that pride themselves on their
strident relevance to our times. For one thing, a lot of Bergman is
short, all the more potent for its brevity, and nobody has made a more
compelling case for the virtues of the ninety-minute flick. The
terrifying “Hour of the Wolf” (1968) is bang on the mark, at an hour and
a half. “Through a Glass Darkly” (1961) is one minute under; “Cries and
Whispers,” one minute over. “Persona,” unbelievably, lasts for
eighty-three minutes, though you may need half a lifetime to get over
it, and, with a splintered narrative (the image actually cracks at one
moment, under the strain), its modernist strategies make most of the
stuff you go to see on a Friday night—either at a thunderous multiplex
or at your local arthouse, if you have one—seem lazy, stretched-out,
old-fashioned, and dangerously safe. I have been lucky enough, in recent
weeks, to catch plenty of Bergman’s work on the big screen, where it
indubitably belongs, and the pattern of regular viewings has been not an
ordeal but an adventure, wholly consuming, and spiced by the strange
feeling that I was watching movies I thought I knew pretty well as if
for the first time. Conversely, the few I had never seen before had the
consoling allure of old favorites. Bergman died in 2007, aged eighty-nine,
and the enigma of his achievement has only grown and ripened with the

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