In Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979), Mary (Diane Keaton) relegates the filmmaker Ingmar Bergman to her “Academy of the Overrated,” to which Alvy (Woody Allen) responds, “Bergman? Bergman is the only genius in cinema today, I think.” Mary’s hilarious counter is one of the more memorable bits of dialogue in a film brimming with unforgettable moments:
God, you’re so the opposite, I mean you write that absolutely fabulous television show, it’s brilliantly funny and his view is so Scandinavian, it’s bleak, I mean all that Kierkegaard, right? It’s really adolescent, you know, fashionable pessimism, I mean The Silence, God’s silence, OK, OK, OK, I mean I loved it when I was a graduate student but I mean alright, you outgrow it, you absolutely outgrow it!
Allen was in fact a devoted student of the films of Ingmar Bergman, who died Monday at the age of 89. In a 70th-birthday tribute in 1988, Allen called Bergman “probably the greatest film artist, all things considered, since the invention of the motion-picture camera.” Allen’s attempts at direct imitation of Bergman, as in Interiors, rank among his worst films, but many of Allen’s best comedies play off central motifs from Bergman.
At an early age, Bergman, at least partly as a means of escaping the oppressions of his family life, became fascinated with film, and it was perhaps inevitable that he would begin making films. Born in 1918 with a Lutheran minister for a father, Bergman achieved notoriety with Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), a romantic comedy, and then two years later with what was to become his most well-known film, The Seventh Seal, a film that raises a host of big questions about God, death, guilt, and love, and that features the famous scene in which a medieval knight (Max von Sydow) plays chess with death. Also released in 1957 was Wild Strawberries, an initially bleak but ultimately hopeful, almost elegiac, story of an elderly professor’s confrontation with his vanity, his mortality, and his family. In the 1960’s, Bergman’s filmmaking took an even darker turn with his famous faith trilogy: Through a Glass Darkly (1961), which won the Academy Award for best foreign film, Winter Light (1962), and The Silence (1963). These three films trace out in agonizing detail the psychological vertigo that accompanies the loss of faith and orientation in a world where God no longer speaks. That dissection of inner torment and the vanishing of any clear definition of the self continue in Persona (1966) and Cries and Whispers (1972).
His greatest international success came in 1983, with Fanny and Alexander, a film that tapped into the joys, humiliations, and mysteries of his own childhood. After that film, Bergman announced his retirement from film, but he continued to direct for the stage and to write screenplays, most notably for the remarkable Faithless (2000), a film directed by Liv Ullman. He returned to directing in 2003 with Saraband, a film starring two of his favorite actors, Ullman and Erland Josephson, who reprised their roles from one of Bergman’s most accessible productions, Scenes from a Marriage (1974).
As Woody Allen’s testimony indicates, Bergman is regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century, a towering influence, particularly in Europe. As Diane Keaton’s character’s comments indicate, he is also regarded as pretentious and grim; the sort of filmmaker for whom seriousness means bleakness and for whose fans the appreciation of fine art means the exquisite endurance of pain. Bergman was of course much more than this, as his successful attempts at romantic comedy (Smiles of a Summer Night) and horror (Hour of the Wolf, released in 1968) attest.
Because of his focus in the late 1950s and early 1960s on the God question, he is perhaps best known, alternately celebrated and reviled, as the filmmaker of big ideas, particularly existentialist and psychoanalytic ideas. In interviews, Bergman repeatedly rejected the notion that any theoretical apparatus influenced his vision. Eschewing the thesis that his characters were vehicles for philosophical debates, he commented, “The people in my films are exactly like myself—creatures of instinct, of rather poor intellectual capacity, who at best only think while they’re talking. Mostly they’re body, with a little hollow for the soul.”
The big ideas were certainly there, but in his best films, the ideas emerge indirectly, in the midst of other matters. If Bergman had merely staged philosophical arguments, his films would have been much less successful.
What marks Bergman’s explorations of characters afflicted by nihilism is his unflinching honesty. Indeed, at a time and place (mid-20th-century Europe) when atheistic existentialism was being promoted as a great liberating force, and in advance of the similar sort of celebration of deconstruction, Bergman demonstrated the horror that results from the loss of any divine, natural, or human orientation, the terrifying splintering of the self into a series of disconnected masks. His best film on this score is not The Seventh Seal or any of the films in the faith trilogy, but Persona, starring Liv Ullman, playing an actress gone mute as a result of a spiritual and psychological crisis, and Bibi Anderson, as the nurse assigned to care for her. Not only does the film illustrate the vanishing of Ullman’s self — indeed it merges beyond the point of distinction into Anderson’s at one point — but it also reflects persistently on the constructed nature of film, with the allusion in the title to Greek masks and an opening montage with images of a film projector.
Alongside guilt and humiliation, Bergman was also capable of humor and hope, as is evident in numerous scenes from the rich depiction of childhood in Fanny and Alexander and in the lush imagery and narrative unity of Wild Strawberries. The latter is to my mind his best film, a film that embodies, in Bergman’s peculiar idiom, Tennyson’s assertion that “old men ought to be explorers.” Here, however, the main character is not seeking a new adventure or conquest but is swept up into his past, to which he becomes wonderfully reconciled in the film’s final frames.
With Bergman, it is always important to remember that he got his start, and remained anchored in, the theater. That influence is evident in many ways: the simplicity of his sets, his attention to the staging of just a few actors in relation to one another, and his careful crafting of dialogue He is willing to allow silence to linger—not God’s silence, but the silence of fully human characters for whom the absence of speech can express a range of emotions and states, from frustration and anger through thoughtfulness and attentive listening, to adoration or the dissolution of the ability to communicate at all.
The nuance and subtlety of the theater are especially pronounced in Bergman’s films about married couples, particularly in Scenes from a Marriage and its quasi-sequel, Saraband, his last film, to which must also be added his script for Faithless. These films contain moments of genuine humor, and capture — in remarkably observed details of posture, facial expression, and tone of voice — the regret and hope, guilt and longing, characteristic, in varying degrees, of all human families.
Of course, Bergman specialized in the depiction of certain kinds of familial affliction — infidelity and divorce. To borrow from Diane Keaton’s line, Bergman never “got over it.” In his inability to get beyond the gravity of infidelity and the searing tragedy of divorce — as much as in his unvarnished style and his preoccupation with life’s big questions — Bergman set himself apart from contemporary filmmakers. As his script for Faithless — a telling line has it, “Divorce is no common failure . . . with one cut it slices more deeply than life itself.”
Why does infidelity matter? Why should we be plagued with guilt over past misdeeds, over harms caused to others? Why be burdened with a need to confess, to put into words and to come to see clearly where things went wrong? Why the insatiable desire for forgiveness? Despite his claim that, after the faith trilogy, he simply dropped the religious issue, these questions are as prominent in Bergman’s last artistic creations as in his earlier films.
Bergman’s inability to shake these terrifying questions, his direct and supple depiction of the strains, sorrows, and pains of infidelity, distinguish him as a master craftsman who will remain worthy of our attention for many years to come. Comparing himself to the craftsmen who built medieval cathedrals, he accurately observed in an interview with Andrew Sarris: “Whether I am a believer or an unbeliever, Christian or pagan, I work with all the world to build a cathedral because I am artist and artisan, and because I have learned to draw faces, limbs, and bodies out of stone.”