Life and Death
Reconsidering Sweden's great filmmaker, Ingmar Bergman.
No salute to Sweden would be complete without recognizing the prolific output of the country’s cinematic genius, Ingmar Bergman. In the conversation as one of the five greatest filmmakers of all time in any language (I’ve got him second behind Akira Kurosawa), Bergman has a reputation for making “intellectual” movies, art-house fare with — shudder — subtitles. He sounds inaccessible, doesn’t he? But Bergman made movies that were about what it’s like to be human, souls and bodies stripped of artifice and considered in all their glory and dysfunction. Admittedly, they’re not Caddyshack, but his comedies are plenty funny — sly and exuberant and easily recognizable — and his dramas are full of a thematic meat mostly disappeared from today’s cinema (with a few exceptions).
His movies are as distinct from each other as the seasons in Sweden — from the summertime land of the midnight sun to the winter-long darkness and pleasantly mild intervals — but are still all citizens of the same country.
Bergman was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won another three. He’s best known for 1957’s The Seventh Seal, starring Max von Sydow as a knight returning home from the Crusades who encounters Death, a sinister black-clad figure. Trying to avoid his fate, the knight challenges Death to a game of chess, spawning the film’s most famous imagery. The Seventh Seal is scarily compelling but still considerably charming. In it, Bergman expresses an earthy appreciation of small things, like the knight considering a bowl of fresh milk, fragile and bound to spill, like all life.
The film touches upon a major through-line in Bergman’s oeuvre, man struggling to deal with a silent God. It’s an existential angst Bergman, the son of a strict Lutheran minister who grew up devout before having a crisis of faith as a youth, contended with. Indeed, most of his works explore fractured relationships: between man and God, parents and children, siblings, and married couples. Bergman frequently engages his subjects when they’re most imperiled, when their emotional broken bones are either going to heal or will never.
Coupled with his grasp of pronounced themes and vivid characters and his ability to get the best from the company of actors with whom he repeatedly worked, what makes Bergman such a great director is his command of technical filmmaking. Few have ever taken as much advantage of the particular benefits that the medium of film allows. Working with cinematographers and fellow Swedes Sven Nykvist and Gunnar Fischer, Bergman composed visually ecstatic films that magnetize the eye. Chiefly notable is the avante-garde opening to Persona, the history of the world in 5 minutes: In the beginning there was light, the light of a movie projector.
Taking into consideration the forest rather than the trees, Bergman’s greatest accomplishment may be in how he pulls against the undertow of the seeming fate of modern man, anesthetized against true feelings by commercialism. Western society labors to keep us from really experiencing death, sickness, insanity, sexuality, loss, loneliness … these “unspeakable” artifacts of our human condition.
Bergman cuts through the tissue of lies and forces you to look at who and what you are. His camera makes for a powerful mirror.
One of my favorite moments in all of film occurs in my favorite Bergman, Autumn Sonata. Swedish icon Ingrid Bergman (no relation to Ingmar) plays Charlotte, a world-class pianist who visits Eva (the sublime Liv Ullmann), her adult daughter from whom she’s estranged. Eva has been taking piano lessons, and Charlotte insists on hearing her play. Eva produces a lovely rendition of Chopin’s “Prelude No. 2” — gentle, not completely sure of itself, full of hidden pain. Charlotte looks at her daughter as if she has never seen her before.
After Eva is finished, the overbearing, didactic Charlotte reproves her daughter’s technique and shows her how it should be done. Charlotte’s “Prelude” is cocksure, bold, but nevertheless similarly pained. Bergman puts his camera on Eva’s face with a single long shot as she considers anew her mother. Without a word, Ullmann expresses all of the years of ache and mistrust and sympathy and hate and love. It’s tour-de-force acting, of course; but who but Ingmar Bergman so eloquently and simply urges us to look at those who made us and ponder what it might mean to have been made and neglected? His films continue to reveal answers in the posing of the questions, long after he has gone.
Memphis in May and Indie Memphis are screening 35mm prints of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, on May 8th and 15th, respectively, at Studio on the Square. Got to indiememphis.com/sweden for more information.
Greg Akers is a film critic for Memphis magazine’s sister publication the Memphis Flyer and editor of MBQ: Inside Memphis Business.