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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In 1972 an international film critics' poll, conducted by Sight and Sound magazine, determined that two of the ten greatest films ever made had been written and directed by Ingmar Bergman. Almost thirty years later, as the ballots for this decade's Sight and Sound poll go out, the Swedish director's work is almost totally neglected. Ingmar Bergman is still alive, but increasingly ignored.


Francois Truffaut once said that he had watched Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes twenty-five times and that every time he had become so absorbed in the story that he forgot to study the film's technical details. Could anyone say the same about Bergman's much-acclaimed The Silence, an almost plotless film about the experiences of two disturbed sisters, whose relationship is never adequately explained, in an unnamed country whose language they do not know? Seen more than once or twice, many of Bergman's most famous films remind one of that old joke about the man who had suffered for his art and now wished others to as well. Do any of Bergman's films deserve to be called classics? Certainly none of Bergman's avant-garde films, like The Silence or Persona, do. But is this the Bergman work deserving attention?


Bergman's reputation for artiness isn't completely deserved. Several of his earliest films to attract attention outside of Sweden are light and engaging. Dreams, A Lesson In Love, Smiles of a Summer Night, and Wild Strawberries all are. These movies are often portentous when they are meant to be funny, but they also have wit and a gentle, melancholy spirit reminiscent of the plays of Jean Anouilh. Additionally, these Bergman films are mostly conventional in style, so much so that Bergman made use of a film composer, Erik Nordgren, whose scores, although saccharine, amplify both the pace and the sentiments of the last two of these films.


Dreams, in particular, is an alternately ironic and despairing look at the affairs of two women, one young and one old. The younger one is a fashion model who meets a rich old man who finds that she reminds him of his beloved but deranged wife, now in confinement. The scenes of their brief interlude together are handled with a dramatic efficiency that draws little attention to itself. The young Bergman was no show-off. He skillfully used soft-focus close-ups to hint at the couple's initial attraction and remote, wide-angle photography that emphasizes their ultimate and inevitable estrangement.


A Lesson In Love, the story of a doctor's elaborate scheme to regain his wife's attachment by revealing her lover as a dipsomaniac, has two virtues most people do not associate with Bergman films: genuine laughs and graceful plot twists. It seems unjust that it is not better remembered, though it announced that Bergman was capable of light, clever writing.


That style is displayed as well in the more famous Smiles of a Summer Night. This is a film that could have used some sharper editing to clip away its undue length -- one-hundred and eleven minutes is surely a bit long for a farce -- and it is at times excessively sententious. However, it does ably display the author's affection for Marivaux and Feydeau, harking back to the elegance and fancy of traditional French comedy.


In all these films, Bergman had been gradually working toward a more psychological approach. He particularly loved Vittorio de Sica's movie Umberto D., which was released in 1955. Two years later, he used its example to make what is probably his greatest picture, Wild Strawberries. Here, Bergman managed to capture one of cinema's most memorable and affecting performances, given by a non-actor, the retired Swedish silent film director Victor Sjostrom, playing a doctor facing intimations of his mortality.


What at the time seemed experimental about the film -- Bergman's decision to shoot scenes of Sjostrom talking to figures from his youth as he revisits them in memory -- seems anything but experimental today, and, as is the case with each of these movies, we are captured by the mix of whimsy and pathos. These qualities were also notably present in his sensuous but bleak story of the failure of a marriage between a sensitive young man and the tart he takes up with in Summer with Monika.


Bergman was still striving to entertain in his almost equally memorable wry comedy-fantasy of 1960, The Devil's Eye. Neither sensational nor purposelessly ambiguous, the film examines the easy ways in which love in its earliest stages can founder -- by using the idea that Satan has sent Don Juan back to seduce a loving but flighty virgin.


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.


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.