Director: Ingmar Bergman

by | May 11, 2020 | 0 comments

A Look at the Swede’s Existentialism Infused in His Filmography

Ingmar Bergman, one of the most versatile directors of his generation, has had a difficult relationship with religion and particularly death. This dilemma plagued many of his most prominent films, infused with his tough upbringing at the hands of a strict minister father and a cruel school system (according to his own accounts). As such the films analyzed, Wild Strawberries (1957), The Seventh Seal (1957), Persona (1966), Cries and Whispers (1972), and Fanny and Alexander (1982), will explore these existential concerns that Bergman was dealing with.

1957 was a banner year for Bergman, delivering two of his most famed and critically lauded pieces: Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal only 10 months apart. Wild Strawberries dealt more specifically with death through the lens of legacy and of a life lived. The film tells the story of an elder man, Isak, on a road trip to a university where he is to be honored for his work. On the trip, however, he begins to visit old summer homes and settings of his past. He also encounters various characters, mostly young people, which make him reminisce of his youth as well as realize certain regrets and scars buried inside him. The role is perfectly encapsulated by veteran actor Victor Sjostrom, but it is the delicacy with which Bergman navigates memory and the present that stand out most. Wild Strawberries frequently has scenes in which Isak wanders as his old self around memories where he himself was never present. Despite so much analysis of his past, he never once appears in a youthful form, making his recalling of certain events take on a more emotional dimension for the old Isak than a factually accurate one. Isak starts the film very arrogant and unemotional, but it on his trip with his daughter-in-law in tow and other youths who hitchhike with him, that he realizes that his pain and suffering are not exclusive to him, and don’t give him a right to be a snobbish. In many ways the film is the story of how Isak makes peace with his troubled past, something that he had sought to bury away deep inside himself due to certain infidelities and betrayals from his own family. It is when Isak’s daughter-in-law confesses to her suffering and unhappy marriage to Isak’s son that the old man realizes that he has been holding such hate and resentment inside for so long. Thus at the cusp of his final days Isak is able to make amends with his own history and past, finally confronting and accepting such difficulties in order to have no regrets on his deathbed. Such a theme would seem to come from an older filmmaker, but a 39-year-old Bergman was already exploring these aspects of death, legacy, and memory on his own. Perhaps the film was also a cry to his own father, as Bergman had become estranged from him in his college days due to a disagreement over one of Bergman’s girlfriends. This plea for reconciliation to his elderly father is a much more tragic yet emotionally congruous motivation behind a film that explores of the toxicity and egoism that hateful emotions and memories can have in us.

The Seventh Seal is the other film of Bergman’s to come out in 1957 and may be his most famous film. The Seventh Seal title comes from a biblical passage and is one of Bergman’s most explicitly religiously exploratory films. It is set in medieval Sweden when a knight and his squire return from the Crusades to the Black Plague-ridden homeland. It is at the beach that the knight, Antonius, meets a personified death. Instead of being taken immediately, however, Antonius proposes to play a chess match with death, with his life as the wager. Death accepts and Antonius is granted some days as the match is played and while he attempts to discover the truths of life and the afterlife. The Seventh Seal is a perfect illustration of many different dimensions of faith. There are those that are blatantly loyal to the church, which Bergman portrays as cruel, stealing from the poor, seeking to rape girls, and burning others at the stake. This portrayal of the church and its followers is no doubt also motivated by Bergman’s complicated relationship with his Lutheran-minister father. However, Bergman also admits that there are many other aspects to faith and spirituality. There is the agnostic Antonius, his blatantly pessimistic and atheist squire, or the independently spiritual and moral Jof, a clown in a traveling circus act. In fact, by the end of the film only Jof and his family survive the oncoming plague and death, indicating that Bergman perhaps sees this individually tailored spirituality as the proper optimism that humanity should lean into. The Seventh Seal would become one of Bergman’s most well-known thanks to his brilliant use of symbolism, imagery, and diverse and complex characters. Bergman was able to craft a spiritual film that at the same time was condemning the most popular spirituality in the world. There are many films that do either one of these things, but hardly both at the same time, which is what made The Seventh Seal stand out so much.

Into the 1960s, Bergman began to shift from his specific analysis of death and religion towards an equally connected issue of morality. This is seen in his most experimental and surrealist film: Persona. The plot is about a famed actress, Elisabet, who suddenly refuses to interact, speak, or do anything. Elisabet is institutionalized but doctors don’t find anything wrong with her; she’s just rationally given up due to the cruelties and hardships of the modern world.    Elisabet is sent to a beach house with a nurse named Alma. There, Alma cares for her while divulging all her life’s secrets to Elisabet, having become an excellent listener. The two women begin to have a complicated relationship and the reality that the film started off with fades away. Bergman uses a square framing and a very claustrophobic cinematography to indicate that these conversations and debates are perhaps not taking place in a “real” setting; this is also aided with the blank set design that rarely features a decoration too intricate or distracting.

There are multiple interpretations that could be brought to Persona: about another woman reconciling with her toxic past or about the struggles of females in a patriarchal world. However, given Bergman’s past exploring spirituality, Persona might be more of an inner conversation occurring inside one person. Alma is the nurse’s name but is also the word for “soul” in many Latin-rooted languages. To think of Alma as Elisabet’s soul makes many of their conversations and Elisabet’s entire dilemma seem logical. During the course of her career, Elisabet had buried her emotions, and in essence her soul, in order to make it through a cruel life that sexualized her and took away her autonomy, forcing her in an unwanted pregnancy. This made Elisabet a singularly thinking being who had completely lost contact with her heart/soul. It is only when she is finally broken by the harrowing current events that she finds a breather and time for introspection into herself. It is here that she “meets” Alma and they go to a secluded place in order to hash out the gap between them both. The entire film is a struggle of reconciliation between the “indifferent” Elisabet and the passionate and joyous Alma. Given the raging Cold War occurring while the film was being made – and Bergman even uses footage of real events, such as the burning monk in Tibet – Persona could be taken to be a pleading of Bergman to the world of taking a moment to rekindle their emotional side and rediscover their forgotten souls.

Continuing his exploration of female characters we come to the 1970s, where Bergman began with another stylistically intense film: Cries and Whispers. The plot is about a group of three sisters, the youngest, Agnes, of whom is terminally ill. The narrative goes about seeing flashbacks of the complicated relationship that these sisters had with one another and their own mother. Cries and Whispers takes place almost entirely inside in the mansion where Agnes is living, with its deep red color scheme. Bergman takes this color scheme into his own fade-ins and fade-outs, which use this same red color, a clear allusion to a pent-up passion, stuck indoors. The film is similar to Persona in that it is about pent-up emotion that needs to be desperately released or else heave a burden on others. The sisters have been stunted emotionally, leading to complicated relationships with their husbands and with others. In fact, it is only Agnes’ maid who is able to give her some comfort emotionally and even physically. For, the emotional distance is such that they even have difficulty being in physical contact with one another, flinching at the slightest caress of a cheek. Cries and Whispers could also be taken to be a more subtle critique of the wealthy elites, who have become so secluded and cold that they are killing off everything around them. A parallel is drawn to the English aristocracy when Agnes is read part of a Jane Austen novel in bed. This seems ironic since Austen’s novels are frequently about how emotional the elite can be. In the end, however, Bergman fails to find much redemption for the rich, only showing the maid as the real soul and savior of Agnes’ torment. Only a flashback scene of a walk in the park between the sisters gives a lingering hope of what can be achieved if they opened up to one another.

Bergman’ final theatrical film was Fanny and Alexander, a long epic of the story of two young siblings in early 1900s Sweden. They belong to a wealthy family of artists, but when their father falls ill and dies their mother marries a cruel bishop. The film seeks to contrast these two ways of life and champions the ideals of family and love above those imposed by society and institutions. Bergman’s film is so long because he seeks to bring a great deal of realism to his tale, taking time in creating the atmospheres of the family, especially at the Christmas dinner. We see the lush interiors of the grandmother’s home, and a joy and connection between adults and children alike. It seems like nothing can break this familial and happy bond, not even infidelities and rivalries which are brushed off as if they were nothing. These scenes are contrasted with the empty and grey interiors of the bishop’s home, where Fanny and Alexander are frequently seen alone in large rooms. It is only when their grandmother’s lover comes to rescue them that they are again crowded and cozied in an antique store.

However, Bergman also explores other aspects of his previous works such as his condemnation again of the church with his portrayal of the cruel bishop, but also with the legacy that the dead can leave on the living. Alexander is plagued by the ghost of his father, which is a positive feeling that is able to give him companionship and comfort about the afterlife and his own existence. The ending of the film provides the flip side of the coin when Alexander is tormented also by the ghost of the dead bishop. These “ghosts” are a clear representation of what sons and mentees inherit from their parents or teachers, the good and the bad. Bergman seems to be valuing the aspects of his own life, given that he wanted Fanny and Alexander to be his last film, it was almost an explanation of how he was seeking to value and spend time with his own family than with the big institutions of cinema and money. This perspective is also portrayed with the contrast of the rich and luscious lives of the artists compared to the cold and empty one of the powerful institution that the church is.

In the end, Bergman was able to explore his issues in many different settings in his career. However, his themes and films always seemed to be revolving around the meanings and ways of the human existence. From his more spiritual explorations in his earlier years, to overtures towards society and it lost morality, and coming down on a more personal side of finally being able to discover what is of true meaning and value of life: family. Many consider Bergman to be a depressed and gloomy director, whose films are full of dark themes of death and child abuse. However, it seems rather simplistic to see Bergman’s filmography in this way, for it is precisely in his explorations of these dark subjects that the Swedish auteur is trying to find comforting answers. It is true that Bergman’s subjects are rather dense and thematically difficult to delve into, but it is this challenge that spurs the director in finding answers to such scary propositions as to: the meaning of life, the effects of death, and the benefits and tolls of spirituality. All of Bergman’s films end with a sign of hope; that despite such horrible circumstances or feelings that his characters have gone through, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Even the hard-to-watch Cries and Whispers ends on a happy note of community and peace. Bergman is an existentialist in the most positive way, trying to change people’s perspectives of the darkest aspects of humanity; however, in order to change one’s mind a dive into such darkness is necessary.

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