MUBI is showing the retrospective The Inner Demons of Ingmar Bergman from June 8 - August 28, 2017 in the United Kingdom.
I've told this brief story of how I fell under the spell of cinema so many times I've become brazen to it. At eighteen years, in February 1993, I found Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers (dubbed) at the video store. As Woody Allen spoke of the Swede in hushed tones, I decided I should try a film. Ninety minutes later I sat stunned and spellbound, not sure what to do or think, but surely sure I must be onto something. Cinematic rapture still has a psychical aspect for me, the torque the sedentary body goes through while coping with the images before it. I can always tell how good a film is if my armpits smell after. The body doesn't lie. Ingmar Bergman is an easy crush—one writer I know didn't want to admit he loved Kurosawa about all else, because it was too predictable. Others may come to be more important in other ways—like Cassavetes, who had the brio to say, I can do anything and I only need a camera and film to do it, a rallying cry for anyone. But I should write it unabashedly: Ingmar, you are my most favorite filmmaker.
It's astonishing to think how Bergman and his films were so widely influential between the late fifties and the mid-to-late seventies. After 1983's Fanny and Alexander, his self-proclaimed swan song, he directed two other features, After the Rehearsal and Saraband, and his late screenplays were made into acclaimed films by his son, Billy August, and Liv Ullmann. Only Hitchcock and possibly Orson Welles have more books written about them. Cries and Whispers was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and the New York Film Critics named it best picture of 1972 over The Godfather. He was a touchstone for Tarkovsky and Kubrick, who wrote a letter to him saying, “Your vision of life has moved me deeply, much more deeply than I have ever been moved by any films.”
In childhood Bergman was fascinated by moving pictures. At age nine he acquired a magic lantern (his autobiography is named The Magic Lantern) an image projector made in the 17th century which, using two glass slides, can produce images in motion. He did this endlessly, creating many theatrical effects, including enlarging the slides so the images blow up (early in Fanny and Alexander, Alexander uses one).
The religious aspects of his films (his father was a Lutheran minister) have been played up for years, but his overall fascination lies more with an outgrowth of religion—the spectral side of life most luminously presented by ghosts, demons, and dreams. Mishmashing this with death, psychosis, and the war between men and women results in the essential compote of almost any Bergman film. He once said, “It’s the same film we make every time. The only difference is we are older.” Though admittedly afraid of death, he wasn’t afraid to have people speak to each other in the most cruel ways imaginable. In Cries and Whispers, one sister says to the other, “Do you realize how I hate you?” But don't discount his comedy, as evidenced by the extended “farting” scene in Fanny and Alexander, as well as the bed collapsing during sex in the same film, before the free and easy first hour gives way to doom, rebellion, and mysticism of the next two.
Godard sang the praises of Summer with Monika, calling its Paris reissue in the late fifties, “the cinematographic event of the year.” A film of youth made by youth, it is about the first blush of eros, the long days of a short love affair, and how people disappear from our lives. Its most remarked upon scene, the wordless track into a close-up on Harriet Andersson's face, is an early example of Bergman's propensity, for his female faces especially, to reveal a character's soul wordlessly, through all its colorations and tangle of emotions—the complete obverse of an audience's perspective at the theatre, where Bergman enjoyed a storied career, directing over 170 plays. The cinematograph, an outgrowth of that magic lantern, probes and bears into his characters like few others in the cinema were able to exploit. Gunnar Fischer, who favored more medium shots and characters walking into close-up (as in Death's first appearance in The Seventh Seal), photographed Bergman's films up to The Virgin Spring, when Sven Nykvist took over. The style of the Nykvist/Bergman was refined from more deep-space composition in Through a Glass Darkly and a frame stuffed with faces in Persona, to the zooming close-ups and a more free-range camera in Cries and Whispers and Fanny and Alexander, where it often moves with the characters, intimately bringing the viewer into their spaces, as when Alexander walks into a voluminous room in the family house at the beginning.
Why the close-up? That is cinema's plainest advantage, as film gets one closer to the face than any other art can. People's minds and faces propel his work, never landscape, architecture, or machines. Fittingly, Bergman is the psychologist of the cinema, and—perhaps because his dream-like films, with a hankering to excavate our many glorious neuroses, came at the same time as growing numbers swarmed to psychoanalysis in the flowering sixties and fad-happy seventies—he enjoyed a notoriety and success unsurpassed by any art-house director. Mental breakdowns and people going into psychiatric hospitals dominate, the outgrowth of those demons and the death-focusing—especially in the latter films, when often a relative of the main character, is locked up in one or kept in house as a shut-in. In Fanny and Alexander there is the enigmatic Ismael, retained in a cage. He takes Alexander under his wing while Alexander is hiding out at Ismael's uncle's house from his evil bishop stepfather. A magi of sorts, Ismael shows him the fantasy of his stepfather dying can come true.
Being the psychologist, equally in Freudian (drives) and Jungian (mythopoetic) manners, there is a greater emphasis on the numinous and uncanny, which fill the oeuvre from the character of Death in The Seventh Seal and the revisiting of the past and many characters long dead in Wild Strawberries, to a woman waiting for God to appear in the attic of an island house (and doing so as a spider) in Through a Glass Darkly, Persona's and Cries and Whispers's fugal dream states, and then the continuing blending of reality and fantasy in Fanny, twinned by the main character's propensity to indulge in the latter, and lies.
In a wonderful book from 1990, Images: My Life in Film, Bergman wrote, “Today I feel that in Persona—and later in Cries and Whispers—I had gone as far as I could go. And that in these two instances when working in total freedom, I touched wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover.”
1966's Persona, where a nurse (Alma) watches over an actress (Elizabet) who has had a breakdown and gone into a voluntary silence, retains its inexplicable status. It can be read many ways: as a commentary on the work-a-day innocent layperson versus the bloodsucking artist, as an essay on psychosis, an essay on doppelgangers, or a treatise on seeing, in which a long conversation, centered on the Elizabet's unseen son (whom she hates), appears twice, once from each woman's perspective. It remains enigmatic and biting because of its minimal settings: a psychiatric hospital and an island house, each populated only by a few actors. There aren't a lot of contemporary foibles to date it, though the outside world is present obliquely, with the TV news showing the Vietnamese monk immolating himself and the photograph of arrests in the Warsaw Ghetto, including a close-up of a boy with hands up, Nazis guns aimed, both overwhelming Elizabet, the latter a reminder of her son. Made at roughly the same time as other cinematic landmarks—2001, Faces, Two or Three Things I Know About Her, and Blow-Up—the film’s images simultaneously speak to the conscious and unconscious, with its slim eighty minutes filled to bursting, including a prologue and epilogue showing an unidentified boy in a hospital setting (few think it represents Elizabet's son, though he is reaching for the projected women's faces of the narrative to follow). Persona is as much about actual motion picture film, what we see on (what is projected), as it is about the main story of the two women, interpolated into the overall like a long dream in a short night of sleep. It first begins with a movie projector along with a seemingly random set of images, then halfway through the film is Alma's violent revenge on Elizabet (Alma reads a letter from Elizabet to her husband speaking poorly of her after Alma many confessions) by leaving a piece of glass out that she will step on while barefoot—an act that literally breaks down the film, giving way to the more hallucinatory second half. Just before the end, there is the meta flash of the actual shooting of Persona (with Nykvist in the cinematographer chair), as Alma leaves the seaside house. Why? Something too encoded to explain. It is being meta without the thought of what the meta implies, certainly when shot 52 years ago. The end of the film (one of many endings) is celluloid running off a spool and projection light coming away from the projector leaving darkness. Throughout, the grain of the black and white film speaks, and it is especially visible on non-film formats is the early morning fog scene after the Alma's orgy/abortion confession, where there are the first intimate scenes and blurring of identities. Most of Persona came to him while not so ironically in the hospital for exhaustion and he added of it, “When I was a boy, there was a toy store where you could buy used film...I put...forty yards into a strong soda solution...the emulsion dissolved...images disappeared...the strips of film became pictureless...With colored india inks I could now draw new pictures...the strip of film that rushes through the projector and explodes in...brief sequences...I had carried around with me for a long time.”
What does it all mean, all this Bergmanian celluloid from 30, 40, nearly 70 years ago? Maybe it is a reminder of how a spiritual life, no matter the configuration, used to be taken much more seriously. The main conversation of those days didn't detail a sub-human puppet president by a plethora of emboldened cultural critics, many self-appointed and bereft of proper spelling and grammar. In April 1966 Time magazine ran a cover story “Is God Dead?” a few years after Bergman's loose trilogy (though he rejected the term) on God's silence—Through a Glass Darkly was the first. Beyond that, the question echoed the heavy, headstrong works of August Strindberg, a Swedish playwright that might have been the most important artistic influence on Bergman, which is to say, his incredibly hewn screenplays, and, of course, the redoubtable Nietzsche, who originated the phrase and had an epistolary relationship with Strindberg. Today, the ego, as demonstrated by social media and our text-happy world, has won out. How is a spiritual life possible in such a techno-Gomorra as we inhabit? That is why the recent parade of Terrence Malick films, investigations of joy, love, and hate, albeit through very different narrative means, are, outside of the cinephile's pantheon, largely rebuked and belittled as out of touch with the zesty snark of the age. But if joy is retrograde, what of Bergman's sine qua non? Call it harrowing, or Aristotelian melancholia, defined by Julia Kristeva as, “not a philosopher's disease but his very nature, his ethos...With Aristotle, melancholia, counterbalanced by genius, is coextensive with man's anxiety.” Why are we here and what are we doing with our time? When something truly awesome occurs, how do we react? Are we too apathetic and sanitized from death to appreciate the marvel of the sick sister Agnes, in Cries and Whispers, coming back to life after she dies?
I hear the outcry from the collective pop chorus. I don't want to watch something that is too depressing. Melancholia is easily dispelled by drugs, pills, violence, and fucking people or fucking with them. Bergman is not a tonic for our neo-pagan age. His confrontations and dream states endure, but not because they should pop the shilling balloons of our most airbrushed selfies. The filet du jour is something along the lines of “the assault on truth,” but of course, Bergman was always calling out the delusions of his characters—Alexander, though surely treated unfairly by the bishop, still has to mend of his ways, as the bishop's ghost bittersweetly reminds him he will always haunt him. In Cries and Whispers, one of the sisters has a flashback to a scene in the loveless marriage she still inhabits. After a strained dinner, she retires to get ready for bed, and alone, calls what the couple has “a monumental tissue of lies.” Then she mutilates her vagina with a broken piece of glass (a glass broke during their dinner) before her husband joins her for bedtime. She reveals her bloodied thighs and smears the blood over her lips. It's an image speaking directly to the renewed cruelty of our dehumanizing age, because we seem to still take violence at its word. Lying, which many, especially politicians and their apologizers, view as a harmless vice, is one thing, but violence speaks to the impossible to shed primal.