Woody Allen once praised Ingmar Bergman as “probably the greatest film artist, all things considered, since the invention of the motion picture camera” – but it is also the most misunderstood. Ten years after Bergman his death, he received the wisdom of his work continues to obscure his legacy, and it discourages a new audience to discover his achievements.
Bergman’s main theme is not death but the possibility of the redemption of love
The obituaries of a decade ago, were predictably cliché: Bergman, the films ‘morbid’ and ‘ruthless’, ‘a long, dark night of the soul’. But the main theme of Bergman – the thread that links all his films together, all kinds of music – is not death, but the possibility of the redemption of love. His worst visions are not tied to the rate of mortality, but isolation and rejection; in particular, unrequited love.
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Sometimes, the caricatures have been totally misleading. Bergman’s relentless curiosity is characterized as ‘brain’, suggesting an abstract righteousness, when in reality, her work is deeply visceral. Bergman is classified as ‘austere’, despite its playfulness, exemplified by the Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), and the sensuality of many of his major works, including Persona (1966) and Cries & Whispers (1972).
In the same way, Bergman eloquence was mistaken for a bit of sophistry, when in fact he distrusts language, and his work perpetually on guard against what he called “the restrictive control of the intellect”. Those who consider Bergman as ‘elite’ to ignore the fact that his films are wary of the authorities (clerical or political) and its characters will find the wisdom beyond knowledge, in the comfort of the human communion.
What makes Bergman’s radical is its sincerity fashion
In more than 60 films in a career spanning six decades, Bergman, and tell the harrowing cost of what he calls “emotional poverty”. His work in all its variety has come out against the cynical, clinical, calculating, careless, and insensitive; he deplores the lack of compassion and our “empty but clever irony. What makes Bergman radical in our time is its fashion sincerity, that leaves it open to mockery and parody.
For all his seriousness, He had no pretensions about his art, his work is skeptical of his power, as seen in his 1958 film The Magician, and even more of the virtue of the artists, portrayed as a parasite, creatures feeding off the excitement of their subjects. But art can give consolation: Bergman found “the holiness of man” in the music of Bach, which offers its characters “a flickering light”.
Scenes from a soul
Unrequited love is started at an early age for Bergman. “I was a unwanted child in a hellish marriage,” recalls the protagonist of wild Strawberries (1957), which reflects the director’s own feelings. From his first screenplay, Torment (1944), his last, Saraband (2003), Bergman’s portrait of adolescent rebellion and the often futile attempts of reconciliation. In his autobiography, The Magic Lantern, he asks his mother: “they were given the masks instead of faces?” She kept the young Ingmar to distance (“I used to try to find the way to win her love”) and was prohibited from addressing his parents with the intimate du. In Person (the title comes from the Latin for ‘mask’), an isolated child reaches a fade-out image of his mother.
For Bergman, the Church was a place of compassion, but of obscure superstition
Bergman’s relationship with the discipline of the father, a Lutheran pastor, was openly hostile. In his surrealist horror film Hour of the Wolf (1968), an unsleeping anxious artist tells those physical and psychological punishment that he received as a child. Adult men in Bergman’s films are often emotionally stunted, hindered by pride and fear of humiliation – traits that pass on to their children. In Winter Light (1963), suggests that the greatest suffering of Christ was the pain of abandonment by his father: “my god, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
Absent spiritual father, if there is one, is inscrutable, and his face is hidden, and the devotion of his children is not reciprocated. Tomas, the doubt, the pastor in Winter Light, the senses, not a sweet father figure with “benign answers and reassuring blessings”, but “a spider god, a monster” – the form in which God appears to the schizophrenic Karin in Through a Glass Darkly (1961). It is Karin that memorable comment that we are “like children tossed into the desert night”.
Through a Glass Darkly, as the face to face (1976), is a reference to Corinthians 13, a love song. Yet for Bergman’s model of the Church of Christianity is not one of compassion, but of obscure superstition, tortured confession and obedience to a vengeful God. Nor clerics are the guardians of their sheep, which appear to be judgmental and devoid of sympathy. In Cries & Whispers, the pastor visits the death of Agnes, but offers a bit of consolation for his sisters, instead of denouncing “this dark and dirt of the earth, and under the empty and cruel heaven.”
In this context, it is appropriate to reconsider the Bergman’s most iconic work, The Seventh Seal (1957), which takes its title from the Book of Revelation 8:1, an allusion to the silence of God. The film’s protagonist is a disillusioned knight who has returned from a decade fighting in the Crusades, only to find the personification of Death accompanying him on his final journey. The famous confession scene is cited as an example of the burden of disbelief, but the knight is more troubled by his own alienation: “My heart is empty. The emptiness is a mirror turned towards my face. My indifference to my fellow men, isolates me from them.” When the knight speaks of his “unpleasant companion”, is not Death, but “myself”, has experience of respite only in the company of lovers. The knight in search of knowledge, but also the Grim Reaper can’t help him (“I am a non-knowledge”). Instead, he finds redemption through a “significant act”, an act of selflessness that gives him his purpose in life.
Looking for answers
Bergman Christian humanism is inspired by the theology, which is ambivalent, but by empathy, and values such as mercy, humility, and grace through good deeds. One critic wrote that “Bergman was interested not in saving souls, but in baring their own”, but it is possible that a sketch of a notion of salvation in his theory of Christian love and its virtues – faithfulness, holiness, and devotion.
Bergman associates a lack of love, with a loss of meaning
On the contrary, Bergman considers the silence of God as a symptom of a closed heart, rather than a closed mind. In Through a Glass Darkly, Karin suicidal father has a liberating epiphany: “I don’t know if love is proof of God’s existence, or if love is God himself… Suddenly the emptiness turns into abundance, and despair into life. It’s like a reprieve from a death sentence.”
Bergman associates a lack of love, with a loss of meaning. When we are loveless, the world appears to us as dull and deformed; when our love is not reciprocated, turns into resentment and contempt. For Bergman, the love is a form of protection, of care, of a balm that soothes and sustains. Love involves a partial abandonment of the self: the greatest privilege “to live for someone else,” the words of Tomas’ patience parishioner.
The heart of Bergman’s humanism is a commitment to intellectual and emotional honesty. Even when its subject is the medieval Crusades, Bergman’s concerns were contemporary to his audience. In the reflections of the anguished knight, it is possible to discern the arguments of Sartre in his 1946 essay Existentialism is a Humanism. Post-war and Cold War anxieties pervade the movie: a character that is the Hour of the Wolf asks: “The glass is broken, but what do the splinters reflect?”
Bergman has had a deep fascination with mirrorsand staring at the female human face (“no one draws so close to it as Bergman does,” said the New Wave director François Truffaut). Bergman has explored how our image of ourselves is refracted through the perception of others, distort the sense of self. “If anyone loves me as I am, I may dare to finally look at myself,” says Eva in Autumn sonata (1978).
Perhaps the most significant influence on Bergman outlook, the work of Freud – for his excavation of childhood trauma, and his analysis of the neuroses, and his theories of the unconscious. “It’s not my dream, but someone else’s, that I have to participate,” complains a character in the cinema of Bergman’s subtle anti-war film Shame (1968). His very own movie Fanny and Alexander (1982), inhabits the boundaries between fantasy and reality.
Despite his immersion in contemporary philosophy, Bergman was skeptical about the embrace of “free love” – even if his films were among the first to make a nude scene (Woody Allen recalls the excitement that greeted the Summer with Monika, 1953). For Bergman, the sex without love is meaningless: in the Silence (1963), lust and solitude are inextricably linked.
Bergman was also less trusting of marriage – he was divorced four times. Among its 170 theatrical productions, Bergman directed the work of Strindberg, and he shared his compatriot discomfort: Strindberg noted that the ‘marriage’ in Swedish means both “gift” and “poison”. In the harrowing Scenes from a Marriage (1973), Bergman suggests that the establishment oppresses and stifles the love. Liv Ullmann, the most brilliant of Bergman and repairing of the cast, attributed to them the end of their romantic relationship to her need to “mother” – the unconditional love that he lacked as a child.
For Bergman, the cardinal sins of humanism, selfishness, coldness, and indifference” (Cries and Whispers), each arising from a lack of love. But there is nothing easy for her I believe: love requires patience, forgiveness, and sacrifice your ego. Bergman worst movies such as The Passion of Anna (1969), the catalog, the insufficient commit to love.
Bergman once said that death is “very, very wise provision” offers a bookend to our lives, that we are able to infuse meaning, through love. There is suffering in the world, and we must try to understand, even in its absurdity, but above all, we must try to mitigate with mercy and generosity. Bergman I would like us to remember Agnes’s diary: “I received the best gift anyone could have in this life. The gift has many names: affinity, friendship, human contact, affection. I think this is what you call grace.”