Wednesday, 14 June 2017

On discovering Ingmar Bergman

I don’t know how to write about Ingmar Bergman.
There are good directors, there are great directors, and above them are the masters, the maestros, the visionaries. A few years ago I discovered Federico Fellini, for example. I had always loved films, but it was 8 ½ that made me truly realise the power of the medium and what a film could do, and forever changed my view on cinema.
Now I’ve found Ingmar Bergman.

This is a true artist, who deals with metaphysical questions, relationships, emotions, and human consciousness. He’s serious, very serious, without being solemn or lacking humour; he explores resentment, hatred, selfishness, anguish and despair without lacking compassion and humanity. My favourite Wild Strawberries is about a professor’s road trip, mixed with memories and dreams, during which he thinks about his career and relationships and reflects on his whole life. There were some failures, some resentments and regrets, but the trip helps him understand his daughter-in-law, who earlier finds him egotistical and cold, and understand himself, bringing them closer to each other. Ending with acceptance and a peaceful dream, it’s a compassionate and uplifting film. The most interesting part is that Wild Strawberries doesn’t employ the conventional flashbacks; instead, we see the old professor walking into his memories and watching (even seeing things his younger self couldn’t have seen), which Woody Allen copied. As Ingmar Bergman himself put it, “So it struck me — what if you could make a film about this; that you just walk up in a realistic way and open a door, and then you walk into your childhood, and then you open another door and come back to reality, and then you make a turn around a street corner and arrive in some other period of your existence, and everything goes on, lives.” That is the idea behind Wild Strawberries.

Another favourite of mine is The Seventh Seal. The film tends to be associated with the iconic image of a medieval knight playing chess with Death, but it’s not really about the game, nor Death. It’s not even about God and religion. The Seventh Seal is about Antonius Block’s quest for meaning and his search for answers, not only answers to the questions he does ask, about God, the devil, knowledge and a sense of purpose, but also the meaning of everything—the plague, people’s extreme behaviours and the meaning of life. He prays, he talks to a priest, he joins the crusades, he reaches out to anyone who may know, from Death to the woman accused of being a witch and causing the plague, he looks for something certain and definite, he yearns for knowledge and wants to do a meaningful deed. In the end, the knight gets no answer, as there is none, but he finds meaning—he creates it himself. Is Antonius Block comfortable with dying at last? I don’t know. But I know, and he knows, that if he loses to Death in the chess game, he wins somewhere else.
Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light are also great films. Both touch on the theme of God’s silence, the question haunting Ingmar Bergman, who was brought up in a religious household with his father as a Lutheran minister. Winter Light is in a way a response to Through a Glass Darkly—a quote from the earlier film, about love as proof of God’s existence, is repeated, word-by-word, and mocked in the later film. However, these films are so deeply affecting to someone like me, not brought up religious and never really bothered about a higher power, because they’re not about God’s indifference or nonexistence as much as about the coldness of human beings, embodied by a character in both films portrayed by Gunnar Björnstrand, and people’s inability to love, to connect to each other and to say something truly meaningful.
In Through a Glass Darkly, there’s a scene in which the writer talks to his son-in-law about his suicide attempt, but what we see is not the suicide attempt and his actions then, but the man’s face as he recalls and tells the story and the son-in-law face as he listens to it for the 1st time. Ingmar Bergman stays on the characters’ faces when another director might change to another image for fear of boring the audience. He’s especially interested in the study of the human face. He constantly uses close-ups. He sometimes juxtaposes faces on the screen to show characters talking without facing each other, conveying the feeling of loneliness or incommunicability. He sometimes lets a character look straight into the lens, and thus, directly at the audience.

His films are profound and thought-provoking. At the same time, Ingmar Bergman also shows what cinema could do and achieve. Before, I thought his films were just full of talk like plays, with nothing remarkable in visuals like Woody Allen’s films. I was wrong. His films are visually stunning, with lots of striking images such as the dream sequence with the handless clock in Wild Strawberries, Death’s appearance and the knight playing chess with him in The Seventh Seal, the king uprooting a tree and preparing for vengeance in The Virgin Spring, a woman mutilating herself and smearing her face with blood in Cries and Whispers, and so on. Ingmar Bergman didn’t merely tell stories and depict actions and relationships; he explored the inner life and human consciousness whilst playing with the visual medium and testing the possibilities of cinema.
Having discovered Ingmar Bergman, I’m now no longer the same.


  1. strong and informative post... tx for explaining some of the mysteries re Bergman that i've wondered about from time to time....

  2. Bergman makes great demands of his audience. I am fine with that: I expect artists to make demands of their audience. But Bergman also uses this most public of art forms to communicate the most private of visions, and, since I don’t always share his concerns, I can’t always follow him. But even when I fail to follow him, it is good to see the medium treated seriously. The ambition itself is to be applauded.

  3. Counting up, I see that I have only seen four real Bergman films, which ain't many, and makes what I am about to say a bit ridiculous, but, as we say now, whatever.

    1. After his retirement, Bergman wrote a number of screenplays, mostly in some way autobiographical. The two I have seen, The Best Intentions and Sunday's Children, are wonderful movies.

    2. Also wonderful is Bergman's memoir, The Magic Lantern, which is as much about his work in theater as in film. His life was enviable in many ways.

    1. Which ones?
      You should watch more :D
      I've just read that the director of Sunday's Children is Ingmar Bergman's son. That's interesting.

    2. Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Persona, Winter Light.