At one point in Ingmar Bergman’s 1977 film The Serpent’s Egg, a Jewish acrobat named Abel Rosenberg (David Carradine) sits alone at the edge of a cobblestone street in Berlin late in 1923. Having lost his brother under mysterious circumstances in the film’s first scene, and having since been targeted by anti-Semitic forces, Abel is in a despondent state of mind.
Bergman, for whom no line of dialogue is incidental, then gives us the most revealing and memorable exchange in the film. When a prostitute offers her services to Abel, he snaps back at her: “Go to hell!” But the woman takes Abel’s reference to “hell” at face value — not as a mere rejoinder but as a metaphor for the wanton, festering city in which they find themselves. “Where do you think we are?” she answers in a sing-song voice, declining to distinguish between Berlin and the setting of Dante’s Inferno.
In a career that unfolded over close to six decades, stretching from Crisis in 1946 to Saraband in 2003, Bergman again and again created characters who might have compared their existence to a hell on earth — characters who found themselves contending with pain, remorse, or bewilderment. Think of the craggy-faced professor who laments the course of his life in Wild Strawberries (1957), the stage performer who loses the will to express herself verbally in Persona (1966), or, most agonizingly of all, the woman withering away with cancer in Cries and Whispers (1972).
A native of Uppsala, Sweden, Bergman, who was born in 1918 and died in 2007, would have celebrated his 100th birthday earlier this year. He received more than his share of recognition during his lifetime, collecting no fewer than seven prizes at the Cannes Film Festival and a total of four Academy Awards: In 1971, for his life-to-date’s work, he was bestowed the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, while three of his best films — The Virgin Spring (1960), Through a Glass Darkly (1961), and Fanny and Alexander (1983) — were given statuettes in the category of Best Foreign Language Film. (All of the films discussed here are included in a new set from the Criterion Collection.)
Throughout his career, Bergman was considered a guru of cinematic despair, which was thought to reflect his own sullen disposition (recall Tropic of Cancer writer Henry Miller’s humorous assessment of the taste for alcohol among the “dull people” of Scandinavian nations: “The men are terrible — the men are mutes — until they get a gallon of stuff down their throat”). Yet could it be that Bergman was celebrated for the wrong reasons? That his films were too often honored for the mere fact of their bleakness — as exemplars of a kind of bleakness chic — rather than for their abundant craftsmanship and creativity?
Sometimes, Bergman’s most devoted followers seem to prize his films mainly for the sense of solemnity they project. Such admirers call to mind Susan Sontag, who was drawn to Simone Weil not for the substance of her writings but for their overall air of gravity. “We read writers of such scathing originality for their personal authority, for the example of their seriousness, for their manifest willingness to sacrifice themselves for their truths, and — only piecemeal — for their ‘views,’” Sontag wrote of Weil in a famous 1963 essay in The New York Review of Books.
Consider, for example, the headline that accompanied Saturday Review critic Thomas Meehan’s review of Cries and Whispers: “He May Be the Greatest Filmmaker of All Time.” Fair enough, but in support of his thesis, Meehan focused on the film’s incorrigible pessimism rather than its cinematic virtues. To be sure, Meehan extolled its cinematography and performances, but he was clearly more engaged with its grim storyline and despairing tone. When Meehan wrote that, its use of Chopin notwithstanding, Cries and Whispers was “not a movie that you come out of cheerfully whistling the tunes,” he was being complimentary.
Meehan was far from the only critic to write as though gloom rather than talent conferred greatness. When Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert reviewed William Friedkin’s horror film The Exorcist — which arrived in U.S. theaters not long after Cries and Whispers — he compared the works favorably to each other but could not resist the temptation to place them on different planes of cinematic excellence. While conceding that both concerned “the weather of the human soul,” Ebert nonetheless concluded that “the Bergman film is a humanist classic,” while “the Friedkin film is an exploitation of the most fearsome resources of the cinema.”
Yet Ebert made Bergman sound duller — and more unalike Friedkin — than he really was. Indeed, Bergman himself had made a film widely considered to belong to the horror genre, 1968’s brilliant Hour of the Wolf. As for Cries and Whispers, its famous all-red decor at times seems to sear through the screen, rattling the viewer at least as thoroughly as The Exorcist does.
An alternative school of thought, however, regards Bergman not as an outlier in service to a higher purpose — “one of the cinema’s prime explorers of psyche and spirit,” as New Republic critic Stanley Kauffmann once rather pretentiously contended — but as a regular working director. As a storyteller, was he so different from John Ford (whom he admired)? As a creator of strange, powerful images, was he operating so outside the tradition of F. W. Murnau or Fritz Lang?
It is doubtful that any living director is more yoked to Bergman than is Woody Allen, who fruitfully raided the master’s filmography to produce a series of accomplished domestic dramas, including Interiors (1978) and Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). Yet Allen did not undersell Bergman’s sense of showmanship, either. “The fact that he’s got a mind and an intellect, and the films are about something and they’re substantive and they’re philosophical, and that they’re profound on a human level, that’s all great, but he’s first and foremost an entertainer,” Allen said in an interview with critic Mark Kermode. “So it’s not like doing homework.”
Indeed, Bergman — who made theater people the subjects of such films as Fanny and Alexander and After the Rehearsal (1984) — was eager to connect his chosen medium with its gaudy antecedents. In a 1978 profile in the New York Times, the filmmaker was quoted as having written that “it is in no sense degrading for the film to admit its origins in jugglers, clowns, itinerant entertainers.” In the same profile, Bergman said that he preferred to operate in images, not words — surprising for a director prized for the intellectual heft of his work. “Words do not suffice for me to communicate my message; images do,” he said.
If the content of Bergman’s films can be heavy, their style is often scintillating — electric, even. Take the famous scene in Persona in which the nurse (Bibi Andersson) who draws the assignment to provide help to the mute performer (Liv Ullmann) sips from a glass on a bright, breezy day. Andersson rests the glass beside her on a bench; when she reaches for her hat, however, she causes the glass to fall and shatter. In a long shot, Bergman captures Andersson as she walks inside to fetch a broom and dustbin and then returns to gather the shards. Upon hearing the rustling of Ullmann, however, Andersson elects to leave one sliver of glass behind. Bergman’s camera swings between close-ups of Andersson’s guilty-looking eyes and Ullmann’s bare feet as she traipses just past the glass; the near-misses are like something out of Hitchcock. Finally, Ullmann cuts herself and faintly cries, “Ohh!” — the lone line of dialogue in a scene that expresses resentment, and communicates danger, silently.
Such breathtaking passages of visual storytelling are not unique to Persona. At the start of The Serpent’s Egg, for example, Bergman’s camera is a participant in, rather than an observer of, Abel’s shock at happening upon the body of his brother in their room at a boarding house. As Abel takes in the scene from a doorway, the camera remains outside with him; Bergman zooms in on Abel only when he turns away from the carnage and toward the audience. Meanwhile, merrymakers in the boarding house continue to drink and sing — a striking illustration of the way in which tragedy can isolate a man. Life has been forever altered for Abel, but not for anyone else in the house.
No less impressive is From the Life of the Marionettes (1980), in which the main character’s dream is visualized as taking place in a white, washed-out set. In choosing a blank canvas, Bergman makes the point that in dreams, emotions — in this case, the character’s maniacal, murderous hatred for his wife — often emerge more clearly than background details. Fanny and Alexander — Bergman’s masterpiece, recounting the youthful odyssey of a brother and sister whose extravagant lifestyle is curtailed when their widowed mother weds a steely, entirely unsympathetic bishop — brims with touches that depart sharply from realism: A statue is seen to be capable of movement; the bishop’s obese, unspeaking aunt resembles Jabba the Hutt; and, at a key moment, the siblings are sprung from the bishop’s palace (a spartan nightmare of a place) by magical means.
From time to time, Bergman played into his reputation as a maker of homework, evidenced in such talky, relatively uncinematic efforts as 1955’s Smiles of a Summer Night (reimagined more gracefully in Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music and Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy), 1978’s Autumn Sonata (which even Allen admitted was “not one of his best films”), and After the Rehearsal (possibly the director’s weakest film, 70 minutes on a stage with some theater folks).
Yet no one could say the same of Cries and Whispers, which concludes with a scene that brings to life the contents of a diary entry penned by the cancer-afflicted sister. In the same way that John Ford visualized a letter written by Jeffrey Hunter to Vera Miles in The Searchers by having his performers act out what was being described, Bergman imagines the scene as the sister remembers it: Figures in long white dresses carry parasols among the dull light and falling yellow leaves of a day in September. Here, the beauty of Bergman, as well as the bleakness, shines through, and we are again reminded that he was not a philosopher-king but an image magician.