Bergmans world

Print edition : August 24, 2007

Ingmar Bergman. A 1998 file picture.-GUNNAR SEIJBOLD/REUTERS

Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007) preferred to negotiate the problems of modern civilisation with a classical sensitivity.

Ingmar Bergman. A

INGMAR BERGMAN, Swedens most famous, indeed controversial filmmaker died on July 31. He was 89 and full of rage when the hooded fellow with a mace came to take him. There was no need for a Dylan Thomas to egg him on; he was always at odds with the world and, despite the many accolades he received, could not find peace within it like very many of the characters in his films.

His Lutheran pastor father Erik Bergman, both made and marred his life. Ingmar felt grateful to him in the years of celebrity for giving him the opportunity to rebel against an unjust world. The shadow of his cruel father haunted him as late as 1982 when he made Fanny and Alexander. The deranged preacher who becomes the childrens stepfather, following the death of their own father, torments them.

The preacher dies suddenly in a fire accident while trying to save a silent, house-bound, psychotic sister. Some critics saw this as Alexanders evoking the supernatural to free his mother, sister and himself from the tyranny of the man imposed on them by destinys sleight of hand. It can, in retrospect, be seen as Bergman trying to exorcise the ghost of his father who caused him so much misery.

When he was first noticed in the international film festival circuit in 1954, he had directed the romantic Summer with Monika a year earlier with Hariett Andersson in the lead bursting with good health and innocent sexuality. Then i n 1955, he made the lovely comedy of manners, Smiles on a Summer Night. His touch was heavier than that of Guitry Lubitsch or Renoir and his sense of humour closer to Vienna or even the Berlin of the Belle epoch. But the 37-year-old di rector revealed both flair and wisdom in this droll tale about fidelity, infidelity and the passage of time. He had his actors perform with great warmth and sensitivity. He had already acquired a reputation in the theatre as an actors director, and here in the cinema, it was confirmed.

His great gift for the dramatic was soon to reveal itself in The Seventh Seal (1957) set in the dark ages where superstition ruled over lack of knowledge; where a plague overruns the entire land, and people die like flies, witch-hun ting is a normal practice. A groom and his master, a gallant knight (Max Von Sydow) travel great distances to avoid the deadly pestilence and in the process also discover the fundamentals about life.

The favourite scene of most viewers and critics from the film is the one of the knight playing chess with death dressed in black, whose cohorts dance about madly in the distance, against the light, in silhouette to celebrate the impending surrender of a soul. However, two other scenes were more moving, namely, that of the crowned Virgin Mary dressed in white walking through the woods in limpid sunshine with the infant Christ.

Max von Sydow in Bergmans "The Virgin Spring".-JANUS FILMS/AP

Max von Sydow

There is also a short scene at the end of an actor, his wife and their teething son cradled in the arms of his father. While the actor talks easily about his baby sons restlessness, a gentle breeze suddenly brings alive the foliage on the trees behind him. The Seventh Seal catapulted Ingmar Bergman to international renown; a state he was to know for the rest of his life.

To probably offset the emotional strain of the previous film, he did in the same year a contemporary subject, Wild Strawberries, about an upright old doctor going to receive a prestigious award. His life was depicted in flashbacks i mpinging upon the present. Victor Sjostrom, a distinguished director of the silent era in Sweden and Hollywood, played the old protagonist with the right degree of subtlety and detachment.

Infidelity and deceit was also a recurring motive in the film. One of the highlights of the film as it was in The Seventh Seal was Gunnar Fischers almost tactile black-and-white photography. But, his association with Bergman was soon going to be over, supposedly because of a taciturn temperament. Bergman, a man driven, was at a loss to connect with his colleague who was allegedly concerned solely with the intricacies of lighting and camera movement and not in appreciating his dynamic directors inspiration.

In 1960 came Sven Nykvist to photograph The Virgin Spring, a dark take again about superstition in medieval times. Nykvist was deeply appreciative of what Bergman said and did and was as gifted as Gunnar Fischer. The film took the international Art House circuit by storm. In the same year, working at a feverish pitch, Bergman directed the Devils Eye and Through a Glass Darkly, a contemporary tale of a troubled young girl (Hariett Anders son) going mad on an island while on vacation with her family. She is airlifted by helicopter and taken to the mental asylum which will treat her.

Bergman seemed to possess boundless energy as he made film after film and continued to work prolifically in the theatre to become Swedish theatres greatest luminary. His repertoire included Strindberg, Pirandello, Camus, Shakespeare, Goethe, Ibsen, Marquis de Sade via Yukio Mishima, Euripides not to forget Moliere. He always saw himself as an interpreter, a recreator in the theatre.

A classicist at heart, he preferred to negotiate the problems of modern civilisation with a classical sensibility. Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light and The Silence (1963) deal with t he spiritual crisis in modern society. He cast off his faith in God holy rubbish that blocks ones view. (Ingmar Bergman, by Maaret Koskinen, Svenska Institutet, Sweden, 1997).

Then in his latter phase, he did The Hour of The Wolf, Shame (both in 1968) and The Passion of Anna (1969). All dealing with the crisis of faith in the artist and indeed the tenuous place of art in this alienating, scientific modern world. If personal unhappiness drove him incessantly to create works of art, it also pushed the characters in his film to the edge of the precipice and sometimes over it.

While receiving the Erasmus Prize in 1965, he said in his acceptance speech: Now to be completely honest I regard art (and not only the art of cinema) as lacking importance. Literature, painting, music, the cinema, the theatre beget and give birth to themselves Religion and art are kept alive for sentimental reasons, as a conventional courtesy to the past. (Maaret Koschkinen).

Victor Sjostrom, a distinguished director of the silent era in Sweden and Hollywood, in Wild Strawberries.-S. SIVA SARAVANAN

Victor Sjostrom, a

He was utterly contemptuous of the work of his contemporaries. He thought Orson Welles was a bore and a hoax and his Citizen Kane (1941) empty. He was equally severe on his one time champion Jean Luc Godard, whose films he felt were constructed, faux intellectual and completely dead. Of course, Bergman was utterly wrong in his judgment.

The films of the Jean Luc Godard Swiss French Lutheran are amongst the most elegant ever made. He is, in the eyes of many, the most trenchant social critic since the great German poet-dramatist Bertold Brecht. Godards films have a quality of spontaneous improvisation that was the hallmark of the music of jazz giants such as Charlie Bird Parker, Lester Young and Miles Davis. His engagement with the problems of contemporary Europe is deeply felt, perceptive and often witty. His films are not constructed, as Bergman alleges, but really organic.

Bergmans own films were as rigorously constructed as any play by an old (Western) master. Even after the advent of cinematographer Sven Nykvist and the introduction of soulful close-ups by the director, there is still a lot of dialogue in Bergmans films and his characters reveal themselves as much through speech as through the changes discernible in their visage or body language. He uses plenty of dialogue like the Japanese master Kenji Mizoguchi whose characters reside as much in the world as Bergmans and are as troubled in their souls. However, Mizoguchis touch is gentler and more meditative, he is interested more in spirituality than psychology.

Bergman approaches Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Melanie Kline et al through, it would seem, Fra. Savanorola, the Catholic monk burnt at the stake for heresy in medieval Italy. The sufferings of Bergmans characters are both physi cal and mental; they do very destructive things to themselves, for example, the artist (Max von Sydow) in the The Hour of Wolf. In many of his films they behave as if they have been cursed by the Fates.

His own tastes in cinema, particularly the works of the young Swedish directors were eclectic. In an interview to Stig Djorkman (Sight & Sound, September 2002) he said about Lucas Moodysson: a ge nius film narrator. Show Me Love is a masterpiece Moodysson is a talent we can pin our hopes on. He just needs to keep working. He found Dogme films to be a bag of tricks. People say the Dogme concept now needs fiv e people to work the camera one to hold it and the other four to shake him or her. But he was very generous about its chief practitioner Thomas Vinterberg who he thought was a wonderfully gifted film-maker and that Festen is one of the best films I have seen.

Lars von Trier, the most idiosyncratic of all the new Swedish film-makers, Bergman felt, was a genius, but one who doesnt always believe in his own genius he is always running away when instead he needs to calm down and search inward, inside himself.

Of the other new filmmakers at home, he felt Reza Parsa was the only one who stands out from the crowd he is a film-maker who seems passionately committed to the story he is telling and Before The Storm is a change fr om all the mysteriousness that is currently prevalent in Swedish cinema.

Unwittingly perhaps, Bergman saw himself in a Prometheus-like role in the cinema: an attitude that may have been fuelled by natures gift of inexhaustible physical energy and ungovernable libido. Not for him the inward, contemplative gaze seeking the key to the unfathomable mystery called life he believed in the gregarious, vigorous, enquiring approach. That the exercise would invariably end in failure could be attributed to (Western) societys inability to reach out to any of its members and each individuals failure to strike a rapport with his/her neighbour.

This anomaly led him to create a memorable cinema of alienation, which set him apart from the great humanists like Chaplin, Lubitsch, Renoir, Satyajit Ray and John Ford, who at one time was called the greatest film-maker in the world by Bergman.

In the last sequence of Fanny and Alexander, the childrens grandmother quotes from Strindbergs A Dream Play: Everything can happen; everything is possible and likely. Time and space do not exi st; on an insignificant basis of reality the imagination spins and weaves new patterns.

Bergmans last outing was Saraband (2003) shot in video. The estranged characters from his Scenes from a Marriage (1973) in old age go out in search of each other to renew their love, to heal old wounds. 226;

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor
×