The Magazine

Cinema's Shakespeare

Ingmar Bergman, 1918-2007.

Sep 3, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 47 • By JOHN SIMON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

My 1972 book, Ingmar Bergman Directs, begins with a long interview. After that, the first sentence runs: "Ingmar Bergman is, in my most carefully considered opinion, the greatest filmmaker the world has seen so far." Thirty-five years later, upon news of Bergman's death last month, that is still my opinion. And an oeuvre that hasn't been surpassed in 35 years stands a very good chance that it will never be.

Let me put it this way now: What Shakespeare is to the theater, Bergman is to cinema. Neither of them has been or is likely to be equaled. There have been other great film directors: Fellini, whom Bergman loved; Bresson, whom Bergman selectively admired; Antonioni, whom he came to appreciate; and Renoir, who mostly left him cold. But none of them so expressed the whole human being, so encompassed human variety.

It is Bergman the completist--like Shakespeare--whom I want to address here, and show how he had it all, and not, like the best of the rest, only part.

Bergman scored bull's-eyes in almost all genres, which doesn't mean that, like all experimenters and pioneers, he escaped the occasional miss. But some benighted or uninformed souls think of him as merely a gloomy Scandinavian with no sense of humor. Wrong. A Lesson in Love and the brilliant elevator episode in Waiting Women are sheer comedy at its best; Smiles of a Summer Night, a great film, is serious comedy, and so even better. No less important is that, like Shakespeare, Bergman had bright moments in his darkest films, as dark ones in his lighter ones. And he never shied away from the great, tragic truths.

Biography and history excepted, Bergman tackled all genres, especially if you know his work in the theater, television, and opera. On film, he made thrillers and melodramas (early works); wonderful documentaries that he shot himself about simple people on his small island; the greatest filmed opera ever (The Magic Flute), horror (Hour of the Wolf), farce (The Devil's Eye, Now About All These Women); war, though not combat (the background in Thirst, The Silence, Shame), religion (The Seventh Seal, Winter Light, Through a Glass Darkly), family chronicle (Wild Strawberries, Cries and Whispers, Fanny and Alexander), the supernatural (The Virgin Spring and, intermittently, others), love and death (repeatedly).

He was a man who loved women, and sometimes resented them, which comes with the territory. In all his films, women figure as importantly as men, and often more so. He understood them and empathized with them; he was horrified by Hitchcock, whom he perceived as hating them. The uncut version of Scenes from a Marriage may be the profoundest movie treatment of man-woman relationships ever made.

He also understood and loved actors as no other director did. (Renoir, in a couple of films, approached this.) He had been, briefly, an actor, and all through his life directed theater, where the actor-director relations are closer than in film. Importantly, he had a kind of resident company of film actors on whom he could rely, and for whom he tailored his screen characters--only Kurosawa had something vaguely resembling it.

Over and over he spoke of his fascination with the human face, which his films invariably celebrated. Other directors have made much of close-ups; in Bergman, the close-up very nearly is the film. The Swedish title of what in America became The Magician was The Face. (American titles tended to be diminishing, if not downright gross, as in The Naked Night.) In Persona, the faces of the two women merge in what may be the ultimate cinematic meditation on personhood. Of course, the choice of actors for, among other things, the expressiveness of their faces helped.

Cinematographers were picked with equal care. Bergman used Hilding Bladh, Goran Strindberg, Gunnar Fischer, and above all, Sven Nykvist, with whom he made most of his finest films. "Sven and I are like an old married couple," Bergman would say, although the two of them never socialized. They carried black-and-white cinematography to extraordinary heights, and then proceeded to even greater advances in the use of color. Think of the emotional use of color in The Passion of Anna and the symbolic one in Cries and Whispers.

Unlike most directors, Bergman wrote most of his screenplays himself. There he exhibited his superb command of dialogue, another thing that brings him close to Shakespeare. English subtitles, to be sure, rarely if ever do his language full justice. His verbal gift comes across better in translations of his later fictions and autobiographies.

What distinguishes Bergman's films fundamentally from those of nearly all other directors is the love of music, and the conscious and unconscious influence of that love on his films. Lesser directors have been influenced by paintings, still lesser ones by (usually inferior) fiction. Bergman, who loved music from Bach to Bartok, and listened to it passionately, often got ideas for his films from it--most conspicuously in Autumn Sonata. But even more important, his films are built on musical principles: on duration and contrasts, on rhythm and harmony--even counterpoint. His soundtracks, always respectfully sparing of music (none of those Hollywood orgies), employed the best from the past and the present, such Swedish contemporaries as Karl-Birger Blomdahl and Daniel Bortz. One of Bergman's wives was the distinguished pianist Käbi Laretei, who further developed his musical tastes and was often heard on his soundtracks or providing background music for his stage productions.

Few other filmmakers made so many movies (50-plus) and none so many masterpieces. And how well he could write or talk about them, though never in excess. It is a great pity that he did not live another year. Come next Bastille Day he would have been 90, and major celebrations and retrospectives will take place worldwide. His reactions to, and comments on, them would have provided him with the perfect exit lines, and us with a great summation.

John Simon writes about theater for Bloomberg News.