Jul 30, 2007

Death on the Beach... Remembering Ingmar Bergman

Above: "Death" and Max Von Sydow in The Seventh Seal.

Perhaps like many or most film-goers of my generation, my introduction to Ingmar Bergman was secondhand. Being born after the vital time period, one can only vicariously understand the impact an artist has made on his or her medium. This is why young journalists may not understand how revolutionary were the sounds of Charlie Parker, or the words of Allen Ginsberg. Similarly, it may be hard for younger viewers to understand the impact made in the 1950's by the prolific output of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. And usually, young scholars have seen the works inspired by the master before the original objects of inspiration. For instance, I doubt I'm alone when I say that my true introduction to Ingmar Bergman was through Woody Allen. While I had seen Fanny and Alexander, which I admired more than liked, it wasn't until I saw Woody Allen's Interiors, where I truly began my education on this Swedish master of international cinema. The angst-ridden performances, characters' yearning for faith, and minimal set design were letter-perfect evocations of the works of Ingmar Bergman. Woody Allen also scored in capturing his mentor's brooding isolation- one truly doesn't think a world exists outside of the narrow lives of the tortured characters.

In the late 1950's, there was an explosion of world cinema appearing on North American screens- works which changed the language of film in structure, theme, and style. And for the next decade, one literally would receive a new arthouse masterpiece every few months, with work by the French New Wave, Kurosawa, Fellini and Satyajit Ray, to name only a few. And of the filmmakers who made such challenging work from abroad, only Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais and Michelangelo Antonioni are left. Yet one could say that perhaps no work of international cinema mattered more than Ingmar Bergman. (It is for nothing that in the movie Diner, set in 1959, two characters go see The Seventh Seal.) In four years, eleven Bergman films premiered in America. Not only was he the most prolific, but every work, big or small seemed to be a new masterpiece... however not to everyone.

Even today, many viewers find such works as Wild Strawberries or The Seventh Seal confusing, and this is why the mention of his name is often to invite an accusation of "cine-snobbery" from his non-believers. But really, Ingmar Bergman's films are not incomprehensible. In fact, his stories and ideas are very simple, however what confounds many audiences is the figurative ways he tells his stories. He often chose to be allegorical or symbolic instead of realistic. For instance, in one scene of Hour of the Wolf, Liv Ullmann's suspicion of her husband's infidelity is realized by her dialogue she has with a woman... that represents part of her subconscious! In Bergman, reality and dreams, life and death, past and present all fold in on one another. Perhaps this is never so eloquently mirrored than in the finale of Wild Strawberries, when Victor Sjostrom sees his parents from seventy years prior, fishing at a river bank, and they wave back at him. But if this sounds heavy with symbolism, in truth his films are far less pretentious than, say, those of Antonioni. (The one time his use of figurative imagery did not work for me was The Silence (1963), the third of his "Faith" trilogy.)

Bergman's reputation was cemented just on the virtues of two films in the late 1950's. Wild Strawberries, features Swedish director Victor Sjostrom in a rare performance as a professor whose journey to the city becomes a journey through his past. This film is remembered for its opening dream sequence, where he sees himself in a coffin, and the famous image of a clock with no hands (later spoofed by Woody Allen in Stardust Memories). The Seventh Seal provides the famous scenario where a knight has a chess game with Death on the beach, with his life in the balance, and ends with the famous image of people dancing down a hill to another realm of existence. Yet there is so much more.

Above: Wild Strawberries

We must also remember the masterpieces of his early career such as Summer With Monika, a beautiful fable about a doomed love affair, and Sawdust and Tinsel, set in a traveling circus. And lest we forget, the delightful, magical Smiles of a Summer Night (later remade by Woody Who Else?) destroys preconceptions that all Bergman films are doom and gloom. Bergman continued making challenging fare well into the 1980's. The Virgin Spring (1960) ends with water spouting from the ground where previously laid the body of a dead girl. The personalities of two women intertwine with the well-remembered Persona (1967). In the 1970's, Roger Corman and his New World Pictures made Bergman more accessible to American audiences by distributing Cries and Whispers and Autumn Sonata at drive-ins, thereby shaking foreign cinema from the exclusionary claws of the arthouse. And within this body of work, Ingmar Bergman had a superb "stock company", with stellar performances by Max Von Sydow, Harriett Andersson, Liv Ullmann, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, and Gunnar Bjornstrand... and the frequent hiring of the superb cameraman Sven Nykvist. Nykvist's bare cinematography captured the intense drama of Bergman's scenarios. And when the two men could no longer make movies in their preferred black and white, their colour films have a muted or monochromatic pallette which adds an interesting texture.

After making a famous retirement statement upon the completion of Fanny and Alexander (1983), Ingmar Bergman still occasionally directed films for television, developed screenplays, and worked in theatre. In the 1980's he also published the memoir The Magic Lantern, which is as full of atmosphere and dream-like structure as one of his films, and certainly one of the best autobiographical works written by any filmmaker.

Of all of Bergman's considerable body of work, my preferred period is the films made on the island of Faro in the late 1960's. These works (Hour of the Wolf, Shame, Passion of Anna) best capture the sense of isolation so common to his films, and succeed in treading that thin line between waking life and the irrationality of nightmares.

So unique and singular is Bergman's style that it has been imitated by admirers (not just Woody Allen, but Andrei Tarkovsky), and lampooned in SCTV and Anthony Lover's superb short film The Dove (De Duva). Shortly after I began discovering Bergman's films such as Wild Strawberries, The Virgin Spring and Summer With Monika, I wrote a little Bergman spoof for my high school English class in which I play checkers on the beach with the ghost of Rod Serling. The teacher loved it, although most students wouldn't get the reference, since Bergman didn't play small town Ontario. Writing this passage, I am reminded of how many years have passed since I've watched any of his films, since most of my viewing time presently is spent researching for articles in progress. Yet, for this film enthusiast, the style of Ingmar Bergman had a tremendous impact, and expanded much of how I look at cinema. I see myself in my old living room 20 years ago, when I was seriously educating myself on films, and he's waving back at me.

Below: The famous ending of The Seventh Seal.

1 comment:


My introduction was back in 1976/77 when Second City Television did a spoof entitled, "Whispers of the Wolf". Tairteen, tairteen!

Bergman made the weather a character also. That Nordic weather can be gloomy, thereby creating something that Hollywood, or Southern California location filming can't even begin to mimic.