Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007-) Part Two
For close to 40 years Bergman was a dominant figure in Swedish Theatre and in cinema. He was among the select few filmmakers who could consistently use the medium as a creative outlet for personal expression. And throughout the latter part of his career (from the 1960s on) he was among the few directors in the world with total artistic control and freedom over his films.
Now for most of his life Bergman balanced three full time careers. He was a playwright, a theatre director and administrator and an internationally renowned filmmaker. That reputation began in 1954 when his film The Naked Night won a festival award in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Then in 1956 he won a major prize at the Cannes Film Festival for Smiles of a Summer Night. Wild Strawberries (1958) won a prize in Berlin and The Virgin Spring (1960) won the Academy Award as best Foreign Film. Fanny and Alexander (1981) what he called officially his last film was given the Academy Award as well. He retired from movies in 1984 and from directing in the theatre in 2003.
As a filmmaker Bergman often incorporated theatrical and TV devices such as monologues, soliloquies and interviews as well as direct address along with such literary conventions like diary and journal entries as a means of revealing the inner workings or psyche of his characters. Throughout his career he gave great roles to women ad was romantically involved with several of them as well. Of the men he worked with two stand out. Max Von Sydow with whom he made 13 films. And Erland Josephson, reputedly his best friend, he made fourteen. All his actors worked with him in the theatre during the regular season and then with him in the summer on a film. Many including Bibi Anderson (13 films), Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Thulin (10 films each) went to successful international film careers due to their appearances in his films.
His best films the ones that constantly and sometimes ruthlessly investigate the “psychology of man” have resulted in Bergman becoming one of the most written filmmakers ever. Books, studies, doctoral theses and many other psychological interpretations have been published debating his so called theme of “man searching for God in a merciless world”. For many years moving into decades Bergman was among the most discussed and imitated filmmaker in the world. But the viewing of Bergman’s mature work requires some acceptance of certain key elements that is common to his work. They include: philosophically complex scripts, restrained and highly selective use of music and ambient sounds, generally slow and thoughtful pacing, raw intense performances, along with moments that are both unexpected and shocking (Cries and Whispers (1971), The Silence (1962) and Persona (1965). These films are not for the faint of heart or anyone who is easily offended by frank sexual language or images. In many communities in the US and other places several of Bergman’s films have either been condemned or repudiated from the pulpits of the local churches. So the approach to a Bergman is paradoxical. He is often difficult to comprehend for the uninitiated yet if past conceptions of what cinema is or how it should utilized in telling a story are relaxed he is extremely accessible. So the idea that “Bergman is for intellectuals” only is true only if one rigidly wants to hold on to old ideas of what cinema is or isn’t. But if those strictures are loosened or better yet, abandoned Bergman’s films are a breath of fresh air for their simplicity and straight forwardness.
I remember when I saw my first Bergman. It was in 1959 when I first arrived in the US. I was in New York city and was excited about experiencing all the cultural wonders the city had to offer especially the ones relation to cinema and theatre. The first play I saw was A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry and the second was The Three Penny Opera by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. My guide was the New York Times which had praised both works. Raisin was exhilarating for a young man from the Caribbean who was hoping to make a career in theatre. The Three Penny Opera was troublesome. I had trouble understanding the action because I had never seen a play done like that before. And also because I was expecting the Ballad of Mack the Knife to be sung in the style of Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin both of whom had hit recordings of the song. Still once I got over that the experience was fine. One of the first films I went to see, this time guided by a rave in Time Magazine was Bergman’s The Magician (1958). This one completely baffled me. I had no idea what I was watching and neither did the friend who accompanied me. We left the theatre wondering what the enthusiasm was all about. And although we dismissed it as non starter as far as we were concerned I couldn’t help but feel that the fault wasn’t so much in the film but in me. After all I was only 19 and hadn’t had all that much experience in viewing films that strayed from the Hollywood Studio formats. I needed to cinematically broaden my horizons and start looking at films coming from other countries. So I looked for what else was around and started with the films of DeSica and Rossellini coming out of the neorealistic movement. They were easy for me to comprehend. These led to me looking at the films of Fellini and Bunuel. After that Bergman was a snap. Today he is among my all time favorite filmmakers. I treasure his films the way I treasure certain books in my collection. The Melville’s, Hawthorns, Kafka’s etc. I return to them for inspiration, intellectual gratification and for entertainment too. Because they are. Bergman was a populist and that’s why he ran Sweden’s most successful theatre for all those years because he knew how to provide entertainment for a large number of people on a continuing basis. This ability he brought to his films as well, so that even the very dramatic ones have their share of humor within the context of all that soul searching.
If I sound like I’m advocating for Bergman, which I am, I hope I’m not doing it too strenuously for two reasons. One: Because I don’t believe or encourage pushing one’s cinematic preferences on other people. I know I hate when friends do it to me. And two: Bergman does not need me to champion his work in any quarter. There are enough people out there who do it with more eloquence and influence than I could ever manage.
So view my musings here as just suggestions of a direction you might want to look into when seeking offbeat film entertainment.