For the 62nd Sydney Film Festival Australian film critic David Stratton selected ten “essential” Ingmar Bergman films to screen as part of a major retrospective of the maverick Swedish director.
After watching all ten of them, below is an account of my experience:
To watch Bergman is to watch a human being looking death in the eye. Like other great modernist writers and thinkers, Bergman contemplates what it means to be alive through its corollary- what it means to die. Moreover, characters and temperaments reveal themselves most clearly in the face of death.
From the first film in the series – and the ten films were screened chronologically – Bergman’s earliest, the 1955 Smiles of a Summer Night (but by no means his first film – his 16th to be precise!), this intimate relationship with death is explored through the brilliant, macabre scene wherein Fredrik and Count Malcolm, rivals in love, rather than face each other in a duel (since Count Malcolm, as a military man, feels he would have the upper hand), instead opt for a game of Russian roulette, taking it in turns to place a pistol to their heads. Bergman here rewards Fredrik’s courage in the face of death by substituting a blank for the bullet, and leaving him in the arms of his former mistress and one true love, Desiree.
More famously, of course, one year later in the 1956 The Seventh Seal, Max von Sydow as the Knight will challenge his own Death to a game of chess. Once again the Knight will look Death in the eye, here figuratively, and will win for himself a grace in the knowledge of the perfect life, represented by the free, simple life lived by a troupe of actors and their child. Moreover, the Knight’s death is contrasted with the fearful death of a young woman (a “witch”) burned alive at the stake. She, unlike the Knight, believes that the Devil is inside her, and this belief, Bergman suggests, is a construct of her own fear.
In the opening of the 1957 Wild Strawberries, the next film in the series, Isak Borg, an elderly professor, has a surreal dream – incidentally, in one of cinema’s most powerful moments – in which he witnesses his own death. This knowledge drives his course of action through the rest of the film, in which he seeks to make amends for his past behaviour, and tries to understand, through a sequence of memories, how he has become his current bitter self. In this way, Death functions as a cathartic principle, allowing us to face the truth within ourselves, if we so choose. The choice to do so, to win at the end of one’s life a kind of redemption, to use an appropriately loaded term, is what, for Bergman, counts. In this way Bergman suggests it is never too late to seek redemption.
Vogler the Magician (also played by von Sydow) in Bergman’s 1958 film The Face (released by US distributors as “The Magician”) appears to cheat death by staging an elaborate hoax, substituting in a coffin another body for his own. In this way Bergman explores how theatrics, that is Art, can to some extent rival death. Vogler challenges the scientifically-minded Dr Vergerus to suspend his disbelief in the irrational, though Dr Vergerus will ultimately, just as Bergman has already done with “the witch” in The Seventh Seal, assign his own temporary belief in the irrational as a weakness arising from fear. In this complex film, it is Dr Vergerus, appearing as the villain throughout, for whom Bergman saves his greatest admiration – for a character who, once again, displays tremendous courage in the face of death.
In the 1960 The Virgin Spring Tore, a landowner, (also played by von Sydow), will seek retribution for the rape and murder of his virgin daughter by killing the murderers who have unwittingly sought solace in his own house. Bergman seems to suggest, somewhat provocatively, that there are some circumstances where it is justified to take another’s life, since Tore is ultimately rewarded for his actions by the divine miracle of a virgin spring appearing where his dead daughter lay. Bergman specifically admires Tore in the way that he, singlehandedly and fearlessly, puts his own life at risk to avenge the death of his daughter. It is this fearlessness in the face of Death, as discussed above, that Bergman most admires. To a great extent this fearlessness is connected to the character’s faith in God. It is, incidentally, important to distinguish in Bergman’s work, his parody of religion from his attitude towards God.
The revelation of the series was for me Bergman’s 1963 The Silence. In this immaculately photographed and performed film, Ester, the older of two sisters, must face her own deadly illness in her bed in a hotel room. It is interesting to see Bergman changing tack in this film, wherein he becomes more interested (as he will be in his later films) in the characters who are no longer fearless in the face of death but fallible. It is as if Bergman is trying to understand, to humanise and sympathise with, in a way that he hadn’t done so previously, our fears in the face of death, and how this causes us to behave in this life. Ester displays all the signs of fear as she lies dying: she is jealous of her younger sister, Anna; she is angry that Anna and her child should abandon her in the hotel room; she feels tremendous pain, exhaustion, loneliness and helplessness.
In his 1966 Persona, Bergman seems to contemplate the death, or limits, of language, of cinema itself, and, with it, the limits of representation; or, specifically, what separates us from each other. There is a tragic death of “self”, which prompts Elisabeth Vogler (played by Liv Ullman in her first of many appearances in a Bergman film), to lose her voice, and, gradually, her mind. Once again Bergman is now using female characters to explore our sense fallibility in the face of death, or loss of self, as the two identities of Elisabeth and her nurse Alma blur with one another, uncovering feelings of love, hatred, envy, vengefulness, and, ultimately, instability.
In Bergman’s first colour film, the beautiful but almost unbearably austere 1972 Cries and Whispers, cut with a surgeon’s precision, it is the dying Agnes around which all the action and characters revolve. Here again using female leads Bergman explores the plethora of human emotions that are brought to the surface when a sister dies. The extended death of Agnes is wrought unflinchingly, full of excruciating strenuous breathing sounds and a body wracked with pain. Death is cruel and pitiless, and seems to reflect the compromised natures of the other sisters. It is only for Anna, the family’s devoted servant, that Bergman reserves admiration, once again for a resolute faith, even after the death of her own small child.
The unexpected death of Oscar, a husband and father, in the 1982 Fanny and Alexander, propels the actions of his wife Emilie and children Fanny and Alexander. In this beautifully tender film, Bergman is more interested in exploring the effects that grief can have have, even without us realising it, on our lives. Emilie remarries a priest, who is almost the incarnation of grief itself in all his solemn black austerity, and she thereby almost completely loses contact with her children and family of her previous life. In the closing scene uncle Gustav seems to be a spokesperson for Bergman himself when he proclaims the joy of the simple life, of family and children. Once again played through a male character the young Alexander is fearless in the way that he stands up to the priest figure and it is his fearless actions that will precipitate a redemption for himself, his mother and sister.
In the final film of the series, his 2003 television film Saraband, it is the death now of a wife and mother, Anna, that propels the emotions and actions of the characters. It is hard to tell whether the incestuous relationship between father and daughter, Henrik and Karin, has occurred prior to the mother’s death, but in the logic of Bergman it feels, controversially, like a product of their mutual grief. Once again characters are acting in a fallible way in the face of death, and it is the wisdom of the older characters, the long-divorced Johan and Marianne, who try to hold these younger, more fallible, characters to account for their choices. In this final film in the series, Bergman reminds us that without courage we are bound to let each of the decisions in our lives be overly determined by the presence of death. The path to redemption can only be achieved through fearlessness or faith, the two, for Bergman, closely related to one another.