July 14 marks the birthday of legendary Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. The quintessential art house filmmaker would have turned ninety-five this year. Bergman crafted mesmerizing, and, often, disturbing films which explored existential themes of dread and isolation. To the average moviegoer, the films of Bergman seem heavy-handed and inaccessible; in other words, his films should be reserved for film theory classes and artistic types who genuinely understand the language of the enigmatic Swede. Yet, once this veil of intimidation has been lifted, moviegoers will realize Bergman's films are unexpectedly accessible and compelling. Bergman is one of my favorite directors of all time. I revisit his films as if they are musty old novels, and I am always surprised to discover something new about a character (and sometimes myself), in one of Bergman's spellbinding works.
I like to think of Bergman as a sort of filmic philosopher and psychiatrist. Bergman explored ideas such as the "Silence of God" in his early films, while in his later films, Bergman focused on the complexities of the self. Bergman's philosophical interest is most notably explored in the epic The Seventh Seal (1957), in which a knight returns from the Crusades to his native Sweden, only to encounter the ravages of the Black Plague personified by Death Himself. The iconic image of the knight (played by Max von Sydow), sitting across the chess table from Death on the craggy Swedish seacoast is an iconic movie image which was brilliantly parodied by Monty Python.
Bergman's obsession and frustration with "God's Silence" is evident in three films known as the "Trilogy of Faith." They are Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1962), and The Silence (1963). Each film becomes more spare and chilling in stylistic simplicity: Through a Glass Darkly concerns a father, his teenage son and his daughter and her husband. His daughter, played by Harriet Andersson, suffers from schizophrenia. After a major breakdown (one from which she may not recover), the other family members begin to doubt the existence of God in a world which allows for such sadness and suffering. Winter Light concerns a pastor (played by Gunnar Bjornstrand), who cannot offer a doubtful fisherman comforting words of the Lord since he has lost faith himself. And The Silence, the most abstract and pared-down film of all three, follows two women (sisters, lovers?) and a young boy travelling by train throughout an undesignated country in Eastern Europe. The three travelers seek refuge in an eerily quiet grand hotel where Ester, played by Ingrid Thulin, is slowly dying of tuberculosis. Comforted only by the foreign-speaking butler, Ester cries out in agony only to hear silence.
Persona (1966), I believe, marks Bergman's transition from cinematic philosopher to cinematic psychiatrist; that is, instead of questioning philosophical ideas such as faith, Bergman shifts his focus to human behavior, where he depicts it onscreen and invites the audience to engage with his complex and, often, troubled characters. Persona eschews the concept of faith in favor of the intricacies of the self, centering on guilt, frustration and longing. Nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson) is treating her patient Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann, in her breakout role), who has willed herself to stop speaking. Secluded at a seaside cottage, the seemingly content Alma begins to unravel. She recounts a long buried tale of guilt through drunken tears one rainy night -- an extramarital sexual encounter and a subsequent abortion. Alma's guilt over the adultery and death of the unborn child are captured with great intimacy by Bergman's camera, which sits at the side of the bed capturing Alma's face, Elisabet's face, and the bedside lamp. I feel as if I am sitting on the bed alongside the two characters, finding myself utterly immersed in the dialogue between them viewing after viewing.
In Cries and Whispers (1972), Bergman dissects three troubled sisters at their country mansion in 19th century Sweden. Agnes (Harriet Andersson) is dying of cancer, and is visited by her sisters Karen (Ingrid Thulin) and Maria (Liv Ullmann). While Agnes believes her sisters are well-intentioned and caring, Bergman presents them as cold and selfish, almost witch-like as they glide through the red draped halls of the mansion in tightly bound black gowns. Thulin's performance is a study in acting: Karin is utterly frustrated, angry and unhappy, yet she controls these irrational feelings with as much strength as she can muster; however, her deepest feelings manifest themselves in subtle eye and hand twitches and gnashing of the teeth. The interrelations between the sisters provide an incredibly intimate window into self-hatred, sibling rivalries and selfish desires many of us think but would never dare speak aloud. In this respect, Bergman's cinema becomes so emotionally exploratory that it ventures into the purely psychological.
Bergman achieved immense popularity with his six-hour miniseries Scenes from a Marriage (1973), an in-depth study of the disintegration of a seemingly content modern marriage between two highly intelligent, but, as Bergman notes, "emotionally illiterate" individuals. The miniseries focus on day-to-day moments such as arguments before bedtime, or when Marianne (Liv Ullmann) futilely attempts to cancel Sunday dinner with her mother. These small moments that constitute a marriage form the entirety of the miniseries. My favorite line from the film occurs when Marianne, a divorce attorney, claims: "Sometimes it's like husband and wife are talking on telephones that are out-of-order." Bergman implies miscommunication is the ultimate failure of many modern marriages.
What defines Bergman as a revered cinematic master is his ability to transform his acute and intimate understanding of human behavior into works of cinematic art. Invite Ingmar into your home and don't forget to wish him a Happy Birthday!