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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Consequently, from 1964 to 1972, his films ceased to adhere to the most ordinary notions of what cinematic syntax and grammar are, the rules of how a movie -- any movie -- should be made. The Passion of Anna did not bother with proper alternation between close-ups, full shots, reverse shots, establishing shots, and masters. Cries and Whispers lacked ordinary movement between interior and exterior scenes and between day and night sequences. Its sets were unrealistic, its time and place vague. Indeed, its fantastic elements, meant to be shocking, are useful only as unintentional comedy.

In The Silence Bergman decided to present whole scenes completely lacking in dialogue and normal human interaction -- as in the segment in which the audience is asked to watch for several minutes as a group of dwarves merely walk down a hotel hallway. In Hour of The Wolf the director dispensed with the story line -- and we are supposed to think it profound that Bergman in the role of writer-director can't make up his mind as to whether or not Max Von Sydow's character has or has not engaged in the senseless murder of a child.

As a seal of modernistic authenticity, these films are largely composed of what editors call "cold" film, pictures without music and often without sound. With respect to crisp and efficient editing, Bergman could now hardly be bothered: Persona, famously, even included a scene which is repeated seemingly for no other reason than to show the filmmaker's daring, avant-garde sensibility.

All this expressionistic modernism failed to cover up a multitude of problems which had emerged both on and off Bergman's sets. Problems emerged in part because of lack of funds. As Bergman rarely had money for rehearsals or re-shooting, some of his early films had included glaring instances of what actors call "indicating," the tendency of a performer to respond to a gesture before the cue for it has been given. (In Smiles of a Summer Night, Harriet Andersson shrinks from a slap before it is given; in Through A Glass Darkly, Lars Passgard gets up to follow the same actress before it is clear that she is going anywhere.)

A second problem was liquor. Bergman has admitted that an actor's repeated drunkenness forced The Magician to be changed from a comedy to a melodrama and that he was himself at times intoxicated and abusive during shoots.

The difficulties though just as often had their origins in the scripts. Was it really possible that, as in Naked Night, a circus ringmaster could be almost blind drunk one moment, and then, hardly an hour later, able twice to knock a man's hat off with a bullwhip at a distance of roughly thirty feet, humiliating the man without injuring him in the slightest? Has there ever really been an actress like the one Liv Ullman plays in Persona, one who refuses to speak for months and months as a means of gaining attention? (That there may be many theater directors who might like to meet such an actress is not proof of the possibility.)

The defense that this is all supposed to be symbolic is no defense. What, after all, is the point of using experimental devices as a means to reveal psychology if the characters are not rendered in a plausible manner?

Bergman must have had some awareness that these films were pretentious and boring because his work began to change, much for the better, after Cries and Whispers. His reliance on cheap modernist tricks halted. In his film version of Mozart's The Magic Flute, the director again accepted the idea that one could edify and amuse. As rich as the film is in visual wit and imagination, it is regrettable that Bergman selected a cast with only one first class singer (Hakan Hagegard as Papageno) and a Tamino (Josef Kostlinger) with the naturalness of Al Gore. His following film, Scenes From A Marriage, was likewise straightforward and intermittently impressive -- if fatally flawed. In attempting to unite the subtlety of Chekhov's plays with the trenchancy of Strindberg's, Bergman produced a four-hour-long film with Strindberg's subtlety and Chekhov's trenchancy. (The truncated two-and-a-half-hour American version is a gross distortion of the original as it cuts out the wife's abortion and virtually eliminates the couple's children.)

That interest in Bergman's work has declined in his own country is unsurprising. His was not an exemplary life. He married five times. He philandered greatly. He was an often absent father. In his maturity, he cheated on his taxes. In his youth, he applauded Hitler. (His suicidal brother even helped found the Swedish National Socialist Party.)

It is the decline of his reputation outside his homeland that is telling. Bergman hoped that film could be made to be as psychological a medium as the novel or the stage-play, and his experimental films aspired to render the inner landscape of the mind. That the characters in Persona do not begin to have the vividness, richness, and lasting power that Hamlet or Anna Karenina has is no great judgment against him, but rather a reminder that film places much less emphasis on words -- the one truly supreme instrument we possess for the precise delineation of complex shades of mood, thought, and feeling. It is no accident that Bergman's best films were mostly romantic comedies and fantasy adventures. These are what film, utilizing its speed of narrative, its music, and the faces and personality of its greatest actors, best brings to life.

It is too bad that Bergman, and the critics who cheered his turn toward the obscure and sloppy, didn't have more respect for the genres of fantasy and romantic comedy, where his own achievements are principally found. It is doubtful that Smiles of a Summer Night and Wild Strawberries were among the greatest of film masterpieces, but they were surely something of which to be proud.

Jonathan Leaf is a playwright living in New York.