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Through the lens, darkly: Bergman at 100

On the occasion of Ingmar Bergman's birth centenary, a look at his unique and divisive legacy

A scene from ‘Persona’, one of Bergman’s most avant-garde films.
A scene from ‘Persona’, one of Bergman’s most avant-garde films.

The name of Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007) usually evokes scenes of mental suffering of an order and intensity seldom witnessed in world cinema before him. Increasingly, though, especially in the #MeToo era, it also conjures up the image of a certain type of mercurial auteur: a male genius with a glowering ego tormented by existential doubts, whose dealings with colleagues, especially women, were far from salubrious. From Alfred Hitchcock to Harvey Weinstein, examples of such types abound, including one of Bergman’s most ardent admirers, Woody Allen, who seemed to have followed in the Swedish master’s footsteps not only by adapting his tragic concerns into his signature comedic mode, but also by spending much of his life notoriously mired in personal controversies.

Romantically involved with at least three of his leading actors (Liv Ullman, Bibi Andersson and Harriet Andersson) at different stages of his life, married four times, and known for his sensitive temper, Bergman fathered nine children (for years, he spent the bulk of his income on child support). For those familiar with his work, his torturous relationships with women will hardly come as a surprise, nor the fact of his steady reclusion since the 1960s, when he began spending more and more time in the remote and sparsely populated island of Fårö, off the south-eastern coast of Sweden. Stridently apolitical, accused of being elitist by youthful anti-establishment protesters in 1968 Europe, and humiliated by the government for alleged tax evasion in the 1970s (the charge was later dropped), Bergman remained the archetypical outcast all his life.

His movies are emotional minefields on which the entire range of the troubles that afflicted him—a lifelong feeling of isolation, compulsive infidelity, sexual jealousy, loss of faith, desire for recognition, fear of old age and death—play out in excruciating, harrowing detail. Except for a brief interlude, the high point of which is marked by the lyrical comedy Smiles Of A Summer Night (1955), the majority of Bergman’s movies offer an unmitigated vision of the human condition as essentially dire. He brings comfort to his audience not by creating an illusion of happiness, but by making them alert to its unrelenting transience.

But even at his most morbid—in The Seventh Seal (1957), for example, where the scythe-bearing grim reaper is a literal presence—Bergman leaves room for surreptitious black humour. In this mixing of contrasting registers, he is recognizably Shakespearean. Comic relief comes into a Bergman drama the way it enters the universe of Macbeth, where the blubbering porter knocks on “the gates of hell", or the way it surfaces in King Lear, as the Fool follows the incoherent monarch around the stormy heath. As with the stories of Franz Kafka, a writer often dismissed as “too depressing", it is easy to miss, or misread, the tonal complexity of a Bergman movie.

A sickly child born to Erik Bergman, a Lutheran minister of severe principles, and Karin, who lends her name to some memorable characters in her son’s movies, Bergman recalled his boyhood years as being miserable, in his autobiography The Magic Lantern (1987). It isn’t surprising that the young Bergman told his school friends that his parents had sold him to a circus, a fantasy he vicariously lived out in The Silence (1963), where another little boy, staying at a hotel in a foreign country, has an uproarious tryst with a group of midget clowns. In a more obviously autobiographical work like Wild Strawberries (1957), 78-year-old physician Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström), an ungenerous soul like Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, harks back to Erik. His gradual transformation into a kinder man, inspired by some surreal epiphanies, is as much an answer to Bergman’s wish for Erik to be a different father as an acknowledgement of the director’s own prickly, intransigent temperament.

An intimation of that abject melancholy that stayed with Bergman since youth is dispersed among the various Karins—in Through A Glass Darkly (1961), for example, where patriarchy, spiritual crisis, incest and psychological disintegration shatter a family; or in Cries And Whispers (1972), a critique of the bourgeois experience of suffering and death. But it was only with Winter Light (1962), The Silence (1963) and Persona (1966), often loosely seen as a trilogy, that Bergman crossed over into another terrain—of stark, mute despair, all the more affecting for being so unutterable, ineffable.

A story of two sisters—one sensuous and full of life, the other austere and dying—The Silence is a study of the unbridgeable apartness of people, even between those who are umbilically tied. Persona deepens the hypothesis. Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullman), a stage actor, suddenly loses her power of speech while performing the Greek tragedy Electra. One of the most avant-garde of his movies, Persona is a masterclass in cinematography and editing. In it, Bergman emphatically makes us confront the “frontality" of his cinematic language, in one of the most powerful scenes in the history of cinema, as Vogler’s face seems to fuse with that of her nurse, Sister Alma’s (Bibi Andersson). The irony of the moment, which is revived like a refrain, is heightened by Alma’s failure to elicit a single response from Elisabet. Two individuals, inhabiting the same time and space, physically folded into each other—and are yet so impossibly separated. A more graphic articulation of alienation is hard to come by.

Bergman returned to a less stylized language in the 1970s, as he focused more on writing for theatre and television. Scenes From A Marriage (1973), initially made for television, is a classic illustration of this realist idiom. By this time, Bergman was working almost exclusively with a small group of actors (he also used the same musical props—Bach’s Cello Suites for example) in a number of movies, signalling affective and thematic continuities.

Fanny And Alexander (1982), first televised, later condensed and released as a movie, offered him perhaps the widest canvas. A story of siblings whose childhood is tainted by the death of their father and the entry of a cruel stepfather, Fanny And Alexander draws on the template of Bergman’s life and from a text close to Bergman’s heart, Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The adult world, seen through the eyes of the children, seems filled with inscrutable sadness but also lit by moments of magic. At a climactic moment in the action, as Alexander and Fanny escape from their stepfather’s clutches, thanks to a miracle, Bergman’s masterpiece returns us to feelings that have long remained hidden in our being—it thaws the ice that has frozen our jaded hearts.

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