The Magazine

Swede Success

Ingmar Bergman was wildly overrated -- but he still made some great films

Nov 27, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 11 • By JONATHAN LEAF
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Given such early movies as these, one cannot but wonder why his work abruptly became so emotionally monochromatic and why humor mostly disappeared for a time. In certain ways, Bergman's career was rather like Eugene O'Neill's: Early success at straightforward stories about recognizable people brought fame, and a taste of fame whetted a desire for greater acclaim -- which only the most unrelenting "seriousness" could achieve.

Like most of us, Bergman was capable of being impressed by the attention of the famous, and a reader of his autobiography, The Magic Lantern, can't help but notice that he neglects to mention Max Von Sydow, but includes accounts of Garbo, Chaplin, and Streisand, among many other celebrities.

Bergman's father had been one of Stockholm's most well-known pastors. The city's leading citizens often visited the family's house. As an adult, Bergman must have been especially sensitive about the intelligentsia's changing attitude towards belief. He was desperately unhappy in the postwar years, and he must have asked himself if celebrity could be a balm for his distress. How, having briefly grasped hold of fame, could he keep this transient prize?

The sophisticated crowd was hostile to organized religion and fond of formalistic exhibitionism. Bergman in the 1960s, like O'Neill in the late 1920s, began producing work for the au courant. Only at the end of his career did the director, like O'Neill with the posthumous Long Day's Journey Into Night, revert with the unaffectedly somber Autumn Sonata and his valedictory fairy-tale, Fanny and Alexander.

Still, there lingers in the popular consciousness the perception that a Bergman film is something long and opaque. This reputation derives from the sequence of films that he produced beginning with the once much-trumpeted 1956 film, The Seventh Seal, a movie that was actually produced in between Smiles of a Summer Night and Wild Strawberries. Though the film is not as over-the-top as many remember it to be (and as many later Bergman films are), it did declare his fondness for expressionism, modernism, and bombast.

Frequently parodied, of course, is the scene in which the inevitability of death is indicated by the appearance of Death himself, on the beach and playing chess with a knight returned from the crusades. The knight is much concerned with the silence of God -- though one might think he might be more worried that the Crusades ended in 1271 and that the particular outbreak of the plague which is clearly being depicted, the Black Death, took place in the mid-fourteenth century. Regardless, Bergman has more in store for him. For there, on the beach, this knight, with his unbeatable timing, manages to run into the Holy Family, who, it turns out, have just been brought back to life in the middle of plague-stricken Sweden. This, the critics explained, was genius.

To be fair, few men could have failed to be seduced by the reaction to the film. Told that he was both a poet and prophet in his self-conscious obscurity and nihilism, Bergman was persuaded by its critical and commercial success to make three films on the theme of the purported death or silence of God, a subject which could not have been more perfectly selected to appeal to the international liberal intelligentsia.

The second movie in this trilogy was Winter Light. (It is indicative of Bergman and of his disdain for anything remotely "easy" that he has said that he considers this the most excellent of his films.) The story of a disaffected Lutheran pastor and his attempts to break free from his dowdy mistress, a woman cursed with horrible eczema, Winter Light is an uncompromising attempt to reckon with the question of how a man should carry forward his religious duties in the absence of belief. At a mere eighty-one minutes in length, though, it is ponderous and wearying, a film that seems to be easily an hour longer. Empty of comedy, devoid of music, and filled with lengthy scenes shot in long, rolling takes, it is a draining experience to view.

Yet critics saw depth in its humorlessness and gravity in its slowness. And the critical approbation emboldened the director to move further in the direction of idiosyncrasy and deliberate vagueness. He also seemed spurred on by the fact, which he acknowledged his own awareness of, that foreign critics were then showering even more praise on the purposefully laborious work of Michelangelo Antonioni. Now convinced that he could use the tools of cinema to render almost any psychological nuance and that critics and audiences would be tolerant and appreciative of his experimentation, Bergman did not back away from the direction in which he had headed.