Reintroducing Ingmar Bergman

Persona, 1966 (Ingmar Bergman) | Bright Wall/Dark RoomThis year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ingmar Bergman, and just as importantly for readers of this magazine, this month marks the release of the Criterion Collection’s thirty-disc box set, Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema—the closest thing yet to Bergman’s complete works for the screen.

As we’ve been preparing this special issue on Bergman to coincide with this release, I’ve been appreciating Criterion’s choice of cover image for this collection. It’s as near as I can imagine to a succinct visual summary of Bergman’s interests: the naked arm of a boy reaching toward a bright screen, upon which is projected the face of a woman—an artist, an actress, a mother, who suffers from a strange neurosis that makes her abstain from spoken communication. A woman whose face, and identity, dissolves into another woman’s until the boundary is undetectable.

This image from Persona elegantly condenses, to use the dream therapy term, a number of Bergman’s recurring preoccupations and showcases some of his greatest gifts as an artist, dramatist, and student of human nature. His early attraction to the film medium, to the mysterious pull of projected light, which he felt ever since he was a boy playing with his most treasured possession, his magic lantern. His lifelong contact with his childhood mind, its wonder, fear, and fragility. His Freudian intuition, shared by many of our best filmmakers, that the half-buried sense-memories of childhood are the key to describing the adult personality—particularly our memories of our parents. His familiarity with the fine points of psychic pain, exposure, humiliation—how it feels to be stripped naked before a too-knowing gaze. His awareness of the limits of language, the inexplicability of images, the irresolvability of symbols, the ineffability of experience. His awareness of the permeable membrane, the unmarked border, between conscious experience and our unconscious life; of the way our waking perception is, like a dream, tinted or tainted by our deep-seated desires, anxieties, and ambivalences. His interest in the fission and fusion of identity; his depiction of characters who, as his literary idol August Strindberg once wrote, appear to “split, double, multiply, evaporate, condense, disperse, assemble” in the mind’s eye. His fascination with the lives of performing artists—actors, musicians, those who work by intuition, by immersion into roles. His interest in women, and the roles the world asks them to play.

Criterion’s famous attention to these little details is always reassuring to me, because whether we realize it or not, we do judge movies by their cover.

There were three much more obvious choices at hand for the cover of Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema. These three have long been taken as the conventional signifiers for Bergman’s complete works, his worldview, and his thematic obsessions. All three mean more or less the same thing, and all three are taken from a single film, 1957’s The Seventh Seal. These are, from left to right, the arrival of Death, the game of Chess with Death, and the concluding Dance of Death.

The Seventh Seal (1957) | Bright Wall/Dark Room
The Seventh Seal (1957)

If you don’t know much about Ingmar Bergman, you might not know that you already know his work. He’s the guy who made that Chess with Death scene you’ve seen reproduced, referenced, and parodied in countless places, from 500 Days of Summer to Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey.

Almost all at once, these shots of Death went from symbolizing The Seventh Seal’s heavy metaphysical themes (the quest for certainty, the Kierkegaardian crisis of faith, the existentialist’s desire to commit a meaningful act before leaving this life) to symbolizing Bergman’s whole deal as a filmmaker (expressionist imagery, Nordic doom and gloom, heavy metaphysical themes) to symbolizing the idea of “art film” itself.

This association has much to do with Janus Films, a distribution company that two friends formed at Harvard in 1956 in order to bring international art film to the US. Ingmar Bergman’s catalog was one of their first big acquisitions, and The Seventh Seal was their breakthrough hit. Their success with Bergman’s late 50s films paved the way for successful releases of other important international films: Antonioni, Fellini, Kurosawa, Ozu, Truffaut. To this day, black-caped Death serves as a sort of mascot for highbrow cinephiles around the world, signalling a love for the serious, the subtle, and the subtitled.

For obvious reasons, The Seventh Seal and its followups played big with the college and coffee shop crowd in the late 50s and early 60s. Heavyweight critics stumped for Bergman’s philosophical bonafides. In 1959, Andrew Sarris called The Seventh Seal “the first truly existential film in the history of cinema” in a piece for Film Culture. At the New York Times, Bosley Crowther called The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, and The Magician “the most provocatively intellectual films and also the most poetic, so far as sheer camera imagery is concerned, that we have seen in this fairly blasé area since Rashomon.” The Times called 1959’s The Magician “a brooding story of reason and faith”; a 1960 awards news item mentions that Bergman’s “symbols and mysticism have intrigued hordes of moviegoers in many parts of the world.” American audiences found his questions fresh, deep, and daring, the sincere searching of a God-haunted humanist, whose protagonists worked through Bergman’s own religious angst. His films were hailed as “a marriage of movies and metaphysics”; a 1960 TIME cover story called him “the Bunyan of show business…whose glimpses into the dark heart of man are without equal in the history of cinema.”

Not all audiences were entranced. In Vilgot Sjöman’s production diary L136, which details the making of Bergman’s Winter Light, Sjöman describes opening the day’s edition of Dagen Nyheter only to find the illustrious Luis Buñuel ragging to an interviewer on the very filmmaker Sjöman was shadowing:

A man who squanders his talent on rubbish. He is a very good director, but he is taken up with questions that are not interesting. What is it he asks about in every film? God, evil, good, whether God exists—you can’t keep on with that sort of thing! I can hardly sit his films out. He can keep on selling his superficial quasi-philosophy to a decadent public. It’s typical that he has gained such success in America. The Americans, these gringos, are interested in that sort of thing.

Pauline Kael, predictably, saw in Bergman nothing more than a pseudointellectual who made films for pseudointellectuals. Her 1965 review of Four Screenplays of Ingmar Bergman was sardonic, and perhaps not wrong about the atom bomb part:

Perhaps after years of standardized, pretested, mindless entertainment, the movie audience was well prepared to accept 19th century metaphysical speculation as profound. […] Much of Bergman’s power to affect audiences derives from the peculiar circumstance that the 19th-century dichotomies of religion vs. science, faith vs. reason, and so forth, have a new pulling power in the post-bomb world.

The lovers and haters, in effect, were often in agreement on what Bergman was all about. If you wanted your cinema to offer seminars in metaphysics, you’d like Bergman. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t.

Varying tastes can partly be chalked up to civilizational differences between mid-century American and mid-century Scandinavia. To American cinemagoers in the late 50s, this open wrestling with faith and doubt—at the movie theater, no less—was bold and explosive stuff. Old World audiences had grown a bit bored with the subject over the last century or two; a good number of Swedish critics scratched their heads at Bergman’s new turn toward weird old atavistic obsessions with God’s existence.

Waiting Women (1952) | Bright Wall/Dark Room
Waiting Women (1952)

The Swedes, for their part, had come to know Bergman as a prolific young studio director of the 40s and 50s who, by the numbers, mainly made what film scholars retroactively call “women’s films”—the sort of films made by Douglas Sirk or George Cukor in America. As in America, these were commissioned by the studios with the female ticket-buyer in mind. Bergman made light sex comedies (A Lesson in Love) and frilly costume pieces (Smiles of a Summer Night), noir-adjacent romances (It Rains on Our Love, Prison), and bittersweet melodramas (Music in Darkness, To Joy, Summer Interlude). Some films twisted multiple stories together to explore the darker shades of modern love (Thirst, Dreams).

But nearly all of Bergman’s first 14 movies focus on couples, often with a young woman as the central focus—and so, to some Swedes, Bergman’s pivot to a medieval period piece about an existentially tormented knight did feel like a swerve. Some Swedish critics, like Bo Widerberg and Maria Ortman, accused Bergman of exoticizing Scandinavia for export, playing to American clichés about the somber and wintry North.

The result of all this is that critics and audiences worldwide began to see this relatively short period of Bergman’s career, from 1957’s The Seventh Seal through, say, 1962’s Winter Light, as quintessential Bergman, as representative of his major themes and interests—interests, at bottom, religious and existential. Bergman, for his part, thinks of this as a phase where he pretty fully worked out his spiritual questions. In his definitive filmmaking memoirs, 1995’s Images, Bergman calls The Seventh Seal “definitely one of my last films to manifest my conceptions of faith, conceptions that I had inhereited from my father and carried along with me from childhood.” It was also, by my count, one of his first films to explicitly focus on questions of faith and the quest for meaning, which should suggest that the period was, indeed, rather brief. In 1961’s Through a Glass Darkly, Bergman says, “my childhood inheritance is put to rest.”

If one takes these spiritual films of the late 50s as quintessential Bergman, the romantic and sexual threads in the films of the 60s may look like an unexpected departure; if on the other hand, one starts at the beginning of Bergman’s career, the relationship dramas of the 60s are in some ways a return to form, variations on his oldest themes.

Some Americans, incidentally, had seen a Bergman film before The Seventh Seal. The first opportunity to see Bergman’s work in America came courtesy of Kroger Babb, the shameless impresario of “sex-hygiene” documentaries. He acquired distribution rights to Summer with Monika for $10,000, changed the title to Monika: The Story of a Bad Girl, and commissioned lurid posters promising a very adult entertainment indeed. (Woody Allen first encountered Bergman because “word had got around that there was a Swedish film coming to our local foreign film house in which a young woman swam completely naked”). Thirst, Summer Interlude, and Sawdust and Tinsel also got the sexploitation treatment for their US releases, re-titled Three Strange Loves, Illicit Interlude, and The Naked Night, respectively. The marketing of these films and ones like them helped promulgate the idea that a “foreign film”—particularly one from Scandinavia—was a euphemism for a piece of softcore porn, whether or not the films actually delivered on the promised nude scenes. (Babb was the master of the bait and switch.)

The irony is that Summer with Monika—a lyrical, sexually frank, psychologically realistic relationship drama with a complex heroine at its center—may have been a better reference point for understanding Bergman’s body of work than The Seventh Seal ever was. The chumps Kroger Babb enticed into seedy movie houses in 1953 might, if they’d known what to look for, have been better prepared than the mainstream critics to understand Bergman’s masterpieces of the 1960s.

Summer with Monika (1953) | Bright Wall/Dark Room
Summer with Monika (1953)

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Werner Wiskari, the New York TimesStockholm correspondent, had nothing to say about Summer with Monika in his 1959 profile of Ingmar Bergman, but did introduce American readers to the plots of Summer Interlude, Waiting Women, and Brink of Life. “Ingmar Bergman has won international renown by asking searching questions about God and woman,” Wiskari began. “One of his two themes, man’s relation to woman, fascinates the Swedish public . . . . But his other theme, man’s relation to God—and this is really his main one—appears to be something of an embarrassment in Sweden, where churchgoing has largely been abandoned.”

Wiskari evidently intended his article, “Another Bergman Gains Renown,” as an introduction for Times readers who had not already been following the director’s career—the title implicitly reminded them not to mix him up with the more famous Ingrid Bergman (something my older relatives still tend to do when I say I’m writing about Ingmar Bergman’s work). So I was surprised to see that Wiskari stressed, here in one of Bergman’s earliest full introductions to the American public, that Bergman was to be understood as a director of women’s pictures, and was lauded in Sweden for his “uncanny insight” into women’s “problems and thoughts.”

But there was that confident parenthetical about the theme of man and God: ”and this is really his main one.” Times readers, film students, arthouse patrons, anybody in the know, should know better than to be too taken in by Bergman’s apparent, but comparatively insignificant, preoccupation with women’s “problems and thoughts.” I was surprised, I guess, to see spelled out so early, in black and white, the attitude that I think has been widely shared by Bergman’s fans and detractors ever since: when coming to a Bergman film, look for God first, woman second. The stuff about women—about sex, identity, the body—is really about God, or philosophy, or the inscrutability and chaos of existence, and not vice versa. Woman, perhaps, is a fruitful symbol for all this, a vessel of meaning. The physical is just a manner of speaking about the metaphysical, so there’s no need to be squeamish. This is the man who gave you Chess with Death, after all.

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We come to feel we know an Author from his or her Texts. But we can only read one Text at once, and we have to start somewhere, with a First Text. Few of us go in chronological order, nor is that guaranteed to grant us a more objective knowledge of the Author than going in some other order. We know that we’ll form an interpretation of an Author from the Text right away, whether we mean to or not, and so the choice of the First Text can be a vexed one. We have to use our best judgment. We might solicit recommendations from our friends or followers—hey Film Twitter, what Bergman should I start with? We might dispel the agony of choice by consulting a trustworthy published guide—Lauren Wilford says to start with Summer with Monika, like she did; the new Criterion edition curates a nightly program of private screenings for you that “opens” with Smiles of a Summer Night.

More often we go with our gut and follow our curiosity, which, if we’re pleased with what we find, might mean our sense of the Author has been permanently colored by our own interest; we found the Author we wanted to find, which means, in essence, we chased our own tail and found ourselves. If I like medieval poetry and decide to start with The Virgin Spring, Bergman will forever, in some small unconscious way, be first and foremost a medieval poet to me. If I like questions of faith, I might start with Winter Light, and that’s the Bergman I’ll get to know—the one I looked for.

More often, with a sufficiently famous and culturally-entrenched Text, the Text finds you, and you don’t have a choice. The Seventh Seal is one of those, whether it’s brought to you by Janus Films, your college professor, your college boyfriend, or Bill and Ted.

The only way out, really, is through—if you want your subjective take to tally more closely with the objective truth, if art even has such a thing, you have to have to watch as many of the films, read as many of the Texts, as you can, and at every stage partly acknowledge, partly suspend, and continually revise your take on the Author. But you can never be sure your take is free from the effects of ordering, of the irreversible path you took through the maze of Texts. It’s a bogus journey, however well you plan it.

The First Text—especially if it’s one that’s a little too widely agreed on, a little too ensconced in pop culture, a little too shrouded in prestige—tends to tell you what the next Texts ought to be: Texts that are like the First Text and confirm the conventional wisdom about the Author. Before long you not only have a sense of what the Author is like, but what the Essential Author Collection ought to look like.

This core canon may not even necessarily be based on the quality of the films. It may be more a matter of what’s been available to watch in your neck of the woods, what everyone’s told you to watch, and what everyone’s already been talking about. It may not be based on Bergman’s feelings about the films, their success with audiences and critics, their significance in their historical moment, or their influence beyond it. The nightly television broadcasts of Scenes from a Marriage reportedly made the divorce rate spike as Swedish couples realized they were seeing their own dysfunctions clearly for the first time. Ushers had to bring out the smelling salts during the birthing-room scenes at screenings of the once much-lauded, now all but forgotten, women’s film Brink of Life. The Silence, a tale of two women, helped establish Bergman’s deft, assured mature-period style; it was also perhaps the most sexually explicit mainstream release of its time, and, not incidentally, brought Bergman one of his biggest Swedish box office hauls. The Seventh Seal lost money at the box office, and didn’t get nearly the plaudits in its home country as it received in the US. No matter. The Seventh Seal, as your college boyfriend probably told you, is the Bergmanest Bergman, the most Bergmanesque. The Text teaches us the Author, and then we use that Author to grade Bergman on how Bergman he’s been in a given film.

Films that seem to track with The Seventh Seal—films that make explicit Bergman’s “main” interest, man and God, the search for meaning—may accordingly receive more attention in classrooms and dorm rooms than the ones that seem “less Bergmanesque.” They’re less educational, ostensibly—which is to say, they teach us less about what everyone knows about Ingmar Bergman.

More insidiously, though, the prioritization of metaphysical themes (“Bergman” themes, primary) over relationship struggles (women stuff, ancillary) can lead to readings that reverse Bergman’s own interest in his material, overlook his dramaturgical craftsmanship, and rob the film of its best insights.

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Nowhere is this more evident than in criticism about the films that deal with both God and women.

Birgitta Steene, in her magisterial survey of Bergman reviews and scholarship down through the decades, remarks, with characteristic restraint, that considerations of the Christian implications of Bergman’s work “constitute, quantitatively speaking, the most addressed aspect of Bergman’s filmmaking.”

It’s common for these critics to conduct exegeses on lines that Bergman, of course, intended to be very character-specific. Christian critics, in particular, may be eager to take the last lines spoken by David, the middling novelist and absentee parent in Through a Glass Darkly, at face value, and as Bergman’s own view: that God is love, that love is God, and that that’s reason enough for faith. Bergman saw the line as ironic, if not hypocritical, and we should too, given what had happened in the rest of Through a Glass Darkly. It’s certainly ironic, if not hypocritical, for these viewers to give more credence to David’s desperate toss-off than to his daughter Karin’s chilling description of the Spider-God with the stone face. It’s still more obtuse to focus on these slender religious threads, brilliant details that they are, if it means missing the larger tapestry of female sexuality, the highly-gendered experience of psychosis, and what men are likely to make of both.

Through a Glass Darkly (1961) | Bright Wall/Dark Room
Through a Glass Darkly (1961)

There are critics, too, who take the ending of The Virgin Spring seriously as redemptive closure on a fable on forgiveness. Bergman says what I think any modern female viewer would find obvious:

With The Virgin Spring my motivation was extremely mixed. The God concept had long ago begun to crack, and it remained more as a decoration than as anything else. What really interested me was the actual, horrible story of the girl and her rapists and the subsequent revenge. My own conflict with religion was well on its way out.

There are critics, too, who are most ready to talk about Agnes’ simple Christian faith and personal grace as if they were the lesson of Cries and Whispers—as if her moments of grace were more true than her moments of rage and agony, as if the theme were the purity of a good woman’s spirit, rather than the real-time decay of the female body, the fundamental indignity of dying, the torturous loneliness of the sick, the blindness of chance, and the acrobatic ego-defenses by which the healthy protect themselves from the thought of mortality.

There are critics who see Winter Light (a favorite for metaphysics-minded Bergman fans) as a primarily a relationship drama—between a man and his God, chiefly, and only between a man and a woman as a kind of B-plot. The nonbelieving schoolteacher Märta, Pastor Thomas Ericsson’s sometime girlfriend, is seen as ancillary to Ericsson’s search for meaning. Thomas’s quiet doubts about God in his church, not his quiet, brutal rejection of Märta in her schoolroom, are likely to get most of the class discussion time. And yet the schoolroom laceration is the structural heart of the script:

I’m fed up with your shortsightedness. Your clumsy hands. Your anxiousness. Your timid displays of affection. You force me to occupy myself with your physical condition. Your poor digestion. Your rashes. Your periods. Your frostbitten cheeks. Once and for all I have to escape this junkyard of idiotic trivialities. I’m sick and tired of it all, of everything to do with you.

Winter Light (1963) | Bright Wall/Dark Room
Winter Light (1963)

By the early 1960s, Bergman seems to have realized that having an actor play a scene opposite God is not always very dramatically interesting, nor even very theologically revealing. He retained a lifelong interest in the way the religious mindset intersects with the crises of a chaotic world, but made sure the conflicts were embodied, dramatized, as face to face confrontations where the very integrity of the psyche, not metaphysical abstractions, are what’s on the line. In this, Winter Light shares much more with Scenes from a Marriage than with The Seventh Seal.

The film director Vilgot Sjöman, working on a documentary and a diary about the making of Winter Light, was offered a copy of the script, and Bergman asked for his dramaturgical feedback, one director to another, before rehearsals began. One plotline concerns the fisherman Jonas, one of Thomas’s parishioners, who comes to him for pastoral help. Jonas is seized with uncontrollable anxiety about the atom bomb—the parallels to the Knight’s anxieties in The Seventh Seal come quickly to mind, partly because both characters are played by Max von Sydow. Thomas’s words of comfort are unconvincing, and Jonas commits suicide. Sjöman told Bergman he had an objection to the timing of these scenes in the script:

[Sjöman:] “Let me put it like this: which theme is the more important? The Jonas theme or the Märta theme?

[Bergman:] “The Märta theme.”

[Sjöman:] “What! Surely the Jonas theme is the main theme, from a religious point of view? So shouldn’t the Märta theme be subordinated to it, so that the outburst of hatred against Märta comes before Jonas’s suicide….”

[Bergman:] “But the relationship to Märta is the main theme. It too is a religious theme, isn’t it? It’s in relation to her that Thomas’s religious failure is evidenced: his inability to accept her love.”

Here the existential questions are made concrete, immediate, urgent, personal. Two characters of flesh and blood, searching for certainty, finding faith or doubt, in one another—flawed mortals who are liable, unlike God or Death, to change their minds impulsively in a moment and destroy a relationship out of spite, panic, or shame.

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It’s hard to correct for decades of clichés about an artist’s work—the black-caped figure of Death casts a long shadow.

But the best medicine is better access to a director’s complete works, and with it, a greater freedom to choose for ourselves where to begin, to decide which films we’ll view the other films through. This month, Criterion is giving us a chance to start fresh and reintroduce ourselves to the filmmaker we may assume we already know, to trace any path through his work we choose, and to decide for ourselves which of Bergman’s interests are primary, and which secondary, in any given film. And it presents an occasion for new critics to persuade us that new things may be more important to notice, more important than the things we’ve been hearing about Bergman from our professors and local film buffs.

As a critic, I’ve felt grateful to be born in this generation—we’re one of the first who not only has access to home media and streaming, but never lived at a time when they didn’t exist. Our opinions about international film were shaped by fewer gatekeepers, less influenced by critical consensus and conventional wisdom, than the generation that came of age in the 70s and 80s and 90s—when the great international filmmakers of the 50s and 60s were in decline and rarely releasing new material, and their old classics could only be seen catch-as-catch-can, in university libraries or revival houses. In most ways, we’re even in a better position than the critics of the 50s and 60s. Dependent on distributors who inevitably jumbled the release timelines, they inevitably jumped to conclusions about a director based on limited information. Their good faith best efforts to explain the director’s work had a significant effect on which films got noticed, which ones had revivals, which ones were printed on 16mm and screened in film studies classes, which films were seen at all, and which were neglected. We’re increasingly free of these cycles of hearsay and say-so. We’re living in a kind of Reformation, where anyone can read the canon in her own language, in her own home, form her own interpretation, and be her own priest.

Ingmar Bergman in The Rite | Bright Wall/Dark Room
Bergman’s cheeky cameo in the confessional scene from The Rite (1969), dressed like Death in an equivalent scene in The Seventh Seal.

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In this issue, particularly, we’re trying to combat the clichés by highlighting the work of female writers. As any measure of the popular and academic literature shows—and as any woman in criticism or film studies could anecdotally tell you—Bergman criticism and fandom skews male. As this essay has tried to demonstrate, there is much in Bergman that a male viewer is liable to overlook.

This month, you’ll have a chance to read:

  • An intimate interview with one of Bergman’s chief collaborators, actress and director Liv Ullmann
  • Ethan Warren on Hour of the Wolf, mental illness as marital crisis, and Liv Ullmann’s Alma as the heroine of the film
  • Karina Wolf on the violence and loneliness at the heart of The Passion of Anna
  • Kim Davies on the power of Scenes from a Marriage as a television event
  • Travis Woods on a rarely-seen early Bergman film, It Rains on Our Love
  • Jeva Lange on women on boats in Bergman’s work
  • Corbin Dewitt on The Magic Flute and the flowering of Bergman’s youthful fascination with opera
  • Violet Lucca on the earthy artistry of Harriet Andersson
  • Lauren Wilford and Ryan Stevenson on Bergman’s most sustained, harrowing inquiry into the psychology of neurosis, Face to Face
  • Helena Fitzgerald on Mark Rothko, Cy Twombly, and the raw redness of Cries and Whispers
  • Veronica Fitzpatrick on the closeup as a narrative unit in Persona
  • Lauren Wilford, Ryan Stevenson, and Jackson Clark on the craft of Sylvia Ingemarsdotter, Bergman’s last and sharpest editor, in the two versions of Fanny and Alexander

When asked about whether there is a “central theme” in his work in a 1971 interview with John Simon, Bergman responded:

Yes and no. I want very much to tell, to talk about, the wholeness inside every human being. It’s a strange thing that every human being has a sort of dignity or wholeness in him, and out of that develops relationships to other human beings, tensions, misunderstandings, tendernesses, coming in contact, touching and being touched, the cutting off of contact and what happens then. That’s what is fascinating. I feel that I have come out into an enormous field, and I can now get started.

This is what Bright Wall is all about, and we hope you’ll join us this month.

 

Lauren Wilford and Ryan Stevenson, editors