Bonjour classe! (When I say “bonjour classe,” you say “Bonjour, messieur Seibold.”) Welcome back to your computerized classroom where I, your hardworking, very-mildly-pretentious cinema professor, will dole out little important nuggets of film knowledge for you to chew on for the week. It's time for another edition of Crave Online's Free Film School. Our motto: “You get more than what you pay for!” Today's lesson: Ingmar Bergman.
Ingmar Bergman. The man's reputation precedes him, sometimes in unfortunate ways. When film neophytes and satirists attack foreign language films, they're usually referring to a vague combination of Federico Fellini's sex-soaked Italian carnivals, Alain Resnais's slow-moving French ennui-fests, and Ingmar Bergman's particular brand of Swedish contemplative angst. In the case of Ingmar Bergman, this is perhaps unfair (and I'll get around to making apologetic defenses of Fellini and Resnais another time), as Bergman has made some of the finest and most thoughtful films you will run into. Stick with me on this one, kids, as you may discover some of the best movies ever. Like for real.
They don't currently give out Nobel Prizes for cinema, and it's difficult to think of anyone who might be eligible for such an honor (even talented working American directors like Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen have made their share of stinkers), but should the decision ever be made, Bergman is right at the front. His films were not just well-made, and well-written, but each was suffused with a powerful undercurrent of existentialist philosophy that pointed out the true meaning of what it was to be a modern human being. Does that sound pretentious? Perhaps so. But I've always subscribed to the theory that being challenged, being moved, being elated, even being emotionally devastated, is a form of entertainment. By that gauge, Ingmar Bergman made some of the most entertaining films ever. He also has a reputation for making some of the most depressing ever, but we'll start slow, and work our way toward Shame (1968) in good time.
Legions of kids have seen Ingmar Bergman parodies just like this one. Legions of adults never bothered to watch 'The Seventh Seal' so that it actually makes sense.
Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007) was born in Sweden, and was raised as a child of the theater. For anyone of you who has ever taken a theater course, or acted in any plays during your high school career (and was subsequently bitten by the hyper-dramatic theater bug; think Glee, but real), you know the significance of that. He started making films in the late '40s, but didn't really hit in the U.S. until 1957 when The Seventh Seal hit our shores. Bergman was soon hailed the world over as a neo-philosopher, was used as a central argument supporting the artistic merit of cinema (an argument that is sometimes still brought up today), and became a darling of the burgeoning art house circuit, where double features of his films would play to would-be New Yokr and Los Angeles bohemians.
Let's take a look at The Seventh Seal. This is the film that famously featured a knight (Bergman regular Max Von Sydow), newly returned from the Crusades, playing a game of chess with Death (Bengt Ekerot) with his life at stake. This indelible image has been parodied endlessly (I was fond of Death playing Battleship and Twister in Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey), but reflects an often forgotten philosophical conceit: How much of your life is chosen by you, and how much is swept up in the grim auspices of death's eternal grasp on all things living? Bergman announced, with The Seventh Seal, that he was not interested in cheap melodrama or vague Hollywood fantasy. He was interested in opening a discussion with the audience about choice, about faith, and about the chasm that can sometimes separate humanity from their own warmth. The Seventh Seal is also the perfect introduction for the Bergman newbie, as it features The Plague, corpses, a few noisy bullies, a witch burning, and Death himself parading across the screen. In a few scenes, you may actually giggle. Don't listen to the film teachers who implore you to start with his so-called “comedies” like Wild Strawberries (1957) or Smiles of a Summer Night (1955). See those ones, but wait on them.
Two women. One island. One… person?
Ingmar Bergman's 'Persona': one of the great films.
Another good gateway into Bergman would be his 1966 film Persona (incidentally one of my favorite movies), featuring his one-time lover Liv Ullmann and the spunky Bibi Andersson as a mute actress and a naïve nurse respectively. Persona is about an actress who finds herself suddenly unable to speak while in the middle of a performance. A doctor orders his nurse to take her to a remote island where the nurse will apply a new kind of psychological therapy. While there, though, the two women find that they are growing so close and intimate (and, yes, there is a goodly amount of Sapphic tension between them), that their personalities begin to merge in a curious way. That famous shot that you've heard so much about – with one actress facing the camera, and the other actress blocking one half of her face with a close-up profile – is from this film. Yes, it's also been parodied a lot. This video spot from Mystery Science Theater 3000 makes me giggle:
Death… Taxes… Bergman.
Persona plays like a simultaneous clinical study, a battle of wits, and the most subtle psychosexual thriller you've ever seen.
Now that you're used to Bergman's shaded tones and serious banter, we can move into his so-called Chamber Drama period (a period marked by long interiors of people having subtle arguments about their relationships, and the nature of hope, etc.) where he made a series of films often referred to as the Silence of God trilogy. Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1962), and The Silence (1963) all follow similar themes about questions of faith, and the creeping depression that can enter one's life when you suspect (in fleeting flashes) that perhaps your prayers are going unheard. Bergman was not content to keep his religious struggles to himself, and he put 'em right on film to share with us. Through a Glass Darkly is about a family coping with the encroaching madness of one of their younger relatives. Winter Light is about a priest who fears he may have lost his faith. The Silence is about a pair of traveling sisters who get into a subtle sexual rivalry in a posh hotel, and how their young son/nephew seems to have a firmer grasp of humanity than either of them. There is a lot of despair in this exploration, but that Bergman was willing to go to those dark places shows further what a bold and wise filmmaker he was.
'The Magic Flute' is Bergman at his lightest. It is, however, still Mozart.
But, I hear you cry, did Bergman make anything even the slightest bit uplifting? Am I gonna be depressed and suicidal after every single one of his films? Will they all make me want to kill myself? At first glance, it's easy to say that he didn't make anything “fun,” as he was more interested in dissecting the nature of angst and depression than making frothy comedies. Luckily for us, as he aged, he mellowed a bit, and started to make films that were more peaceful and less torn. In 1975, we filmed a stage production of Mozart's operetta The Magic Flute, which is, even for cynical teens who snort at the idea of watching an opera, well-staged, involving, and actually rather funny. There's nothing broad or slapsticky about it, but there is a truthful, innocent entertaining power to it.
Do I have time for a few more? Very well, let me also recommend, briefly, a slightly larger Bergman sampling. The Virgin Spring, about a couple who finds that they're kindly hosting the same men who just raped their daughter, is a Rod Serling-esque morality pay that inspired Wes Craven's first features, the still-terrifying The Last House on the Left (which was, like most horror successes, recently remade). 1972's Cries and Whispers (another one of my favorites) is a gorgeous film about a trio of embittered sisters coming to peace with the death of the innocent one of the three (although you may want to close your eyes for the scene where a shard of glass gets inserted into a very uncomfortable place. And no, I don't mean the back of a Volkswagen). In 1983, Bergman won an Academy Award for the three-hour theatrical version of his 5-hour TV miniseries Fanny & Alexander, which is a film about two peaceful children coping with the death of their father, and is perhaps one of the best-looking films ever shot (by Bergman's regular photographer, Sven Nyqvist). See either version (three or five hour): they're both good. It's like a Dickens story with philosophy thrown in.
It's been said that the best films are the ones that don't just tell a story, but effectively convey a philosophy, a mood, a tone, a way of thinking. Any mildly capable filmmaker can tell a story, but it takes a master to convey an idea. No filmmaker was more full of large ideas, and conveyed them more effectively and with more devastating emotional impact than Ingmar Bergman. He was an artist in the true sense, using his craft to share his own conflicted view of the world. There were certainly thoughtful films before Bergman, but not to the degree of wit, theatricality or devastation. To this day, any filmmaker working who has made something small, personal, meaningful, had their path paved by Sweden's master.
Bergman died at the end of July in 2007. He made 63 feature films in his life. It's now time for us to find them and open our own subtle, peaceful, enraged, and amused philosophical dialogue with the man.
HOMEWORK FOR THE WEEK: Why, watch Ingmar Bergman films of course! Start with either The Seventh Seal or Persona. Be sure to watch them with someone, so as to open up a discussion afterwards. At the very least, find a friend who has also seen them, and be sure to call them up for a discussion. After that, watch Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey and note how well actor William Sadler emulated Ekerot's Death. Watch The Virgin Spring and The Last House on the Left back-to-back if you're daring. If you're feeling particularly ambitious, pick up a book on Søren Kierkegaard, and try to see how his particular brand of Christian existentialism played into Bergman's films. But, y'know, only if you're a freak like me who actually enjoys reading philosophy books.