THE LAST EXISTENTIALIST: INGMAR BERGMAN, 1918-2007
[Copyright: Mark Crimmins, 5 August 2007]
To call Ingmar Bergman a master of the cinema is to be parsimonious with praise. That The Seventh Seal is the greatest filmic representation of the Middle Ages is axiomatic (is its closest rival—Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966)—even imaginable without it?) and Wild Strawberries has been called—not without justification—a Mahler symphony in film. Perhaps even more astonishing than either achievement is the fact that Bergman produced these antithetical yet somehow structurally related masterpieces in the same annus mirabilis, 1957. Taken together as a diptych of sorts, the two films stand as the pinnacle of his achievement, but early masterpieces precede them, Sawdust and Tinsel (1953) and Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), to name two that also demonstrate the antiphonal movement of his interest—torment, suffering, and humiliation in the former, serenity and lyric retrospection in the latter. Once the existential framework has been established in the Fifties, it is followed by restless visually poetic ruminations on existential themes in films including The Magician (1958), The Virgin Spring (1960), and Through a Glass Darkly, which initiates the ‘Silence of God’ trilogy in 1961, until a second climax of sorts is reached in 1966, with the riveting intensity and sheer cinematic force of Persona, Sven Nykvist, the great cinematographer and Bergman’s single most influential collaborator, producing masterful feats of composition in his portrayal of the stark beauty of the North European landscape and in his iconic photographic portraits of Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann as they shimmer and shatter into psychic fusion. Persona is also especially notable as a technical tour de force, Bergman’s most brilliant formally experimental film, a reminder, perhaps, to the practitioners of French, Italian, German and Japanese New Wave cinema that Bergman was not completely averse to the reinvention of basic cinematic vocabulary taking place in Sixties avant garde cinema—with Persona the collaboration between Bergman and Nykvist (between director and cinematographer) reaches its apotheosis and Bergman boldly projects his mastery of all modes. But the achievements don’t stop there, of course. Before the summa cinematica of Fanny and Alexander in 1982, Bergman will give the world a missa solemnis of pain, 1972's Cries and Whispers and—antiphonically again—the magisterial operatic affirmation of 1975’s The Magic Flute, a marvelous tribute to the fluid adaptability of Mozart’s German operas into Swedish. Nykvist becomes a poet of the human face with his explorations of the audience in this film, and the singing is frequently sublime, rising to a peak of perfection in the "Sonnet to Woman and Man" sung by Haken Hakergard’s Papageno and Urma Urrila’s Pamina. Bergman’s origins in the theater are particularly in evidence in this attempt to recreate the original 1791 production of the opera in Vienna. The work is an amazing aesthetic synthesis, with direction by Bergman, photography by Nykvist, music by Mozart, and glorious singing by a resplendent cast, one of the great triumphs of film adaptation, a perfect marriage of image and sound, in addition to being a deft translation of Die Zauberflotte into Trollflojten. The theatrical side of Bergman is in evidence throughout his career, both in his impeccable casting and in his genius for extracting command performances from compelling actors: men such as Anders Ek and Viktor Sjostrom, Gunnar Bjornstrand and Max Von Sydow; but especially women, including Harriet Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, Bibi Andersson, and Liv Ullmann, a group whose individual and collaborative performances, taken together, must (along with those in Mizoguchi's masterworks) remain one of the supreme achievements in the history of the filmic representation of women. If Bergman's cinematic oeuvre is vast, his theatrical oeuvre is vaster—he came from, continued in, and finally, after the architectonic culmination of Fanny and Alexander, returned to the stage. In particular the influence of two playwrights—Ibsen and Strindberg—seems to permeate the Bergmanian screenplays (yet another distinct genre of which he is master) and what could almost be called the distinctly Bergmanian screenstage: it may well be that it was his peculiar genius to fuse the best qualities of both in a way and to a degree never before seen in film. A fine glimpse of his fluid and free ranging intelligence can be found in Bergman on Bergman, published in Swedish in 1970 and translated into English in 1973. Taken together, the interviews amount to a memorable self portrait and are essential reading for those who wish to penetrate the mystery of the man. (The enigma of the artist will not be deciphered, but at least readers will find more of Bergman here than cinephiles found of Eisenstein in the 1983 translation of Immoral Memories, which is comparatively notable for the obliqueness of its self-portrait and the elusiveness of its subject.) One of the many aspects of Bergman’s immense cinematic legacy is his brilliance at creating unforgettable sequences: Anders Ek carrying Gudrun Brost in Sawdust and Tinsel, Victor Sjostrom in the metaphysical and Kafkaesque dream sequences in Wild Strawberries, Max Von Sydow’s revenge ritual in The Virgin Spring, and of course the single most quoted cinematic image of Bergman’s career: the dance of death sequence concluding The Seventh Seal. The American director who shows most cinematic homage to Bergman is Woody Allen, who has produced numerous comic parodies and also some serious tributes, notably Interiors (1978), the most accomplished of Allen’s 'straight' responses, and A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982), a brilliant comic intertext for Smiles of a Summer Night. Allen also employed Nykvist as cinematographer in Another Woman (1988) and Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), but perhaps Bergman’s most brilliant and abstract disciple was Andrei Tarkovsky, who used Nykvist as cinematographer in his last film, The Sacrifice (1986), and in some ways Tarkovsky’s work can be seen as a sort of extension or extrapolation of Bergmanian cinematic implication, though of course Tarkovsky—whose work is itself forbidding and sui generis—can never be reduced to this. But Bergman’s influence on others is just one part of his legacy. The most potent aspect of his work is its nature as an expression of ceaseless cinematic enquiry into basic human realities: the problem of meaning, the relations between the sexes, the phenomenon of dread, the centrality of memory, the varieties of psychopathological experience. Bergman is understandably regarded as a prophet of dread, but he is also an avatar of the luminescent moment: in even his grimmest films there is an element of visual rapture, and there is a distinct suggestion that, through all human torments and triumphs, the most incandescent joys are cinematic, the most lyrical nostalgias and the most rhapsodic reminiscences are visions, pictures. Bergman is one of the great visual poets, a magisterial mythographer of the modern mindscape. With his death, the last of the great postwar masters joins the only directors among his contemporaries who could conceivably lay claim to a similar stature: Akira Kurosawa and Federico Fellini.