I firmly believe that I can credit Ingmar Bergman with my understanding and appreciation of cinema as an art form. Looking back on my life, there have been distinct stages to my growing awareness of film as something more than entertainment, more than narrative, more than itself–in childhood, “Fantasia” clued me in to the essentials: sound plus image; in preadolescence, “2001: A Space Odyssey” forced me to acknowledge that storytelling needn’t be cinema’s ultimate goal, and that the unknown is far more pleasurable than what’s understood; and in adolescence, when I began to crave even stronger stuff, there was Ingmar Bergman, whose provocatively titled, in-every-way foreign films lined the shelves of my local public library. Growing up suburban, I had no choice but to first witness all classic films in full-framed videotape, with resolutely unrestored transfer and sound, yet this hardly demystified the experience of discovering these new forms of cinema (that were sometimes as “new” as forty years old). Askew images stared back from the boxes, and in the case of “The Seventh Seal“‘s death figure, literally beckoned me.
With my weekly bushels of Bergman films, usually watched on 13-inch television screens, so many of them impressed with the antiquated stamp of Janus Films, I began to slowly come to breathe in film in a completely different manner. In these movies –which at once seemed like unearthed relics of the past yet forecast a timeless modernity — characters reproached one another in ways unlike American films, and visuals were foregrounded and popped out of the narrative so naturally that nothing could distract me from the basic elements of lighting, camera placement, and cutting. I may have been far too young to fully comprehend the religious metaphor of “The Virgin Spring“‘s last image or the self-reflexive discourse of “Persona,” yet I was moved to tears nonetheless; these felt like horror films, and therefore somehow forbidden. These were ineffable terrors, films on dying in which death wasn’t the end but somehow the beginning: it somehow walked side by side with life.
Bergman gave me the tools with which to learn the language of cinema, to use an overextended yet here applicable expression. The Swedish master filmmaker’s death this week at age 89 strikes film culture hard, partly because it seems to close another door on an era of moviegoing that seems more and more distant, and also because in the years since his oft acknowledged “heyday” (the late 1950s to the early 1960s), Ingmar Bergman has been taken for granted as much as appreciated. Though I credit Bergman with providing me with the foundations of understanding film at a young age, his work could hardly be limited to neophyte cinephiles. As I’ve revisited his films countless times since those first viewings, I must acknowledge Ingmar Bergman as the most influential filmmaker of my short life, an artist whose aesthetics and outlook have informed my spectatorial makeup more so than the other “classic” foreign crossovers of the era: Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa, Jacques Tati. Many tag him as unremittingly bleak, yet there’s often a capping instance of transcendence to his films that momentarily lifts me out of my seat–think of Professor Isak Borg’s final reconciliation with his family and his dreams in “Wild Strawberries“; of Agnes’s ultimate reclamation of joy amidst death in “Cries and Whispers“; the literal end of film in “Persona“–the way out! Even “The Seventh Seal”‘s dance of death, the grim reaper’s procession of souls to the other side, silhouetted in the distance against a grey morning sky, is hopeful, as it’s the culmination of a triumphant moment of sacrifice.
With a background strictly in theater (he had early success at Stockholm’s student theater, and was appointed artistic director of Haelsingborg city theater at a remarkably young age), Bergman first transitioned to film when he was hired to read scripts for Svensk Filmindustri and subsequently submitted his first screenplay. Established director Alf Sjoberg immediately took notice of the script, titled “Torment,” and took it on as his next project, even hiring Bergman as his assistant director. Based on his own hellish boarding school experiences, “Torment” augured many of Bergman’s pet themes (isolation, psychosexual destruction, death) and pointed the way towards one of the most distinguished and lengthy careers in cinema: his directorial debut, “Crisis,” a sturdy melodrama about mothers and daughters that he nevertheless disavowed years later, premiered way back in 1946, and his last film, “Saraband,” was released in 2003–with an astonishing number of unforgettable films in between.
Though he had been consistently making films every year since “Crisis,” it wasn’t until the upstart distributor Janus Films first dared to bring his work to a smattering of U.S. art houses in the mid-Fifties that he broke out of Swedish cinema circles and into universal acclaim. “Summer with Monika,” his frank, unsparing anatomy of young love spoiled, wildly admired by then Cahiers du cinema critic Jean-Luc Godard, opened new doors; soon enough “The Seventh Seal” and “Wild Strawberries” were hitting North American shores, and along with concurrent works of Fellini and Kurosawa, something called an art-house audience was born.
Of course, to discuss the rosy days when city folk lined around the block to catch the latest subtitled smash is to engage with hallowed, romanticized subject matter, yet no matter how idealized the history becomes as the years roll on, Bergman’s influence and position are undeniable. Doubtless because Bergman always seemed to exist outside of trends (if he was part of any, he started them), he’s always been something of a genre unto himself. His repressive Lutheran upbringing and austere minister father are often regarded as the psychological underpinnings of his agonizing portraits of religious skepticism, and they coincided with the existential angst that defined that period of art, rather than grew as an extension of it. Bergman’s merging of classical narrative with modernist technique always allowed him to be on the cutting edge while practicing familiar narrative strategies, as in his terrifying Silence of God trilogy of the early Sixties (“Through a Glass Darkly,” “Winter Light,” and “The Silence“–the latter which outdoes even Antonioni in sheer existential dread). Later, in the midst of the various European and Asian new waves of the Sixties, Bergman showed them all up in metacinematic mischievousness with 1966’s astonishingly sophisticated “Persona.”
That film’s forthright contemplation of film’s form, as well as its further delving into the knotted bramble of human interaction led the way to films that have never ceased to stun me with their unwavering descents into madness and alienation (“Time of the Wolf,” “Shame“), or in other cases, their plumbing the depths of painfully recognizable humanity (“Scenes from a Marriage,” “Autumn Sonata“). The late-period gifts of the expansive family panorama “Fanny and Alexander” and the contemplative portrait of old age “Saraband” provide reminders that Bergman was often as poignantly humanistic as he was uncompromising in his views on the hypocrisies of mankind.
There’s simply not enough room here to properly pay tribute to the wonders of Bergman’s cinema, the ways in which he was able to capture a human face in close-up and make it seem like the most fascinatingly multivalent landscape on earth; how, along with his discerning cinematographers like Sven Nykvist or Gunnar Fischer, he could make the interior of a hotel room or a summer cottage seemingly pulsate like the walls of a living forest; how he so thoroughly created a unique cinematic mind space that filmmakers like Woody Allen and Robert Altman were able to borrow and rearrange its components into its own form, and as a result expand the boundaries of American cinema. Even if I began my immersion into Bergman with a furrowed brow and the dumbfounded inquisitiveness of youth, I look forward to uncovering his truths as I age, grasping a little more as years pass. And thankfully, with such a rich oeuvre left behind, my journey will never truly be through.
Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor at the Criterion Collection.
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