Dark Comedy

Tony Pipolo on the centennial retrospective of Ingmar Bergman

Ingmar Bergman, Fanny and Alexander, 1982, 35 mm, color, sound, 312 minutes.

THIS YEAR is the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Ingmar Bergman. It is being celebrated with a retrospective at Film Forum in New York and multiple events throughout the year at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley—a wonderful opportunity for film buffs to acquaint or reacquaint themselves with one of the giants of film history. From the mid-1940s through the mid-1950s, Bergman wrote screenplays and directed more than a dozen movies. But after the international success of the elegant comedy Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)—the source of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music—followed by that of Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal (both 1957), each new film became a cultural event. Even Hollywood bowed to Bergman’s prominence, awarding him the Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film three times—for The Virgin Spring (1960), Through a Glass Darkly (1961), and Fanny and Alexander (1983). Although Bergman’s films were naturalistic psychological dramas, his name was so quickly associated with metaphysical or religious allegories that his style was often parodied—as in George Coe and Anthony Lover’s witty short De Düva (The Dove, 1968)—or paid left-handed compliments, as when the late Andrew Sarris lambasted the climactic sequence of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as “instant Ingmar.”

Bergman was a formidable director of a group of actors whose idiosyncrasies became familiar channels and surrogates of his persona, and whose faces and voices were the key features of his aesthetic. Yet few Americans knew the breadth of his talent until his theater work arrived at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the 1980s. The first was a mesmerizing production of Hamlet, to which none of the dozen-plus stage and film versions I’ve seen before or since hold a candle. In truth, to comprehend the extent of Bergman’s genius is to recognize that his staging of Hamlet, as well as his television productions of The Magic Flute and the Bacchae, were not just definitive treatments of Shakespeare, Mozart, and Euripides, but incontestably private, even domestic dramas, in which the director’s stress on the combustible relationships between men and women reflected his own family’s dynamics and their turbulent effects on his romantic entanglements.

Indeed, the circumstances of Bergman’s life and psychology are inextricable from his art. The son of a strict Lutheran minister, he wrestled early on with the paradoxes of faith. His repudiation of the Old Testament God and his repulsion of depictions of the tortured Jesus—both expressed in The Magic Lantern (1988), his second autobiography—are conveyed in several films. In Winter Light (1962), the agnostic pastor (Gunnar Björnstrand), one of Bergman’s alter egos, looks at the wooden carving of the crucified Christ above the altar of his church and declares, “What a ridiculous image.” The film is the centerpiece of a trilogy—with Through a Glass Darkly and The Silence (1963)—that remains one of the director’s strongest testaments to his struggle with “God’s silence.” Darkly ends with the banal sentiment that God is Love and vice versa, an equation echoed in Winter Light through the contrast between the self-centered pastor who drives a depressed man (Max von Sydow) to suicide and the secular devotion of his mistress (Ingrid Thulin). But in The Silence, neither Anna’s (Gunnel Lindblom) carnality nor her sister Esther’s (Thulin) intellect is an adequate bastion against the emptiness of their lives and the fear of death.

Ingmar Bergman, Through a Glass Darkly, 1961, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 89 minutes.

As is true of many artists’ earliest ventures, Bergman’s were efforts to work through the frustrations of childhood and adolescence. His screenplay for Alf Sjöberg’s Torment (1944) is drawn from his own experiences as a student, confronting indifferent parents and a patriarchal society, the latter embodied in the film as a split between a kind headmaster and a sadomasochistic Latin instructor. Mothers do not fare well in Crisis (1946) and Port of Call (1948). Three Strange Loves (aka Thirst [1949]) is a cynical portrait of the institution that is painstakingly dissected years later in Scenes from a Marriage (1973). The couple in To Joy (1950) was directly modeled on Bergman’s second marriage, moving from ideal to embittered circumstances and back again, with a cathartic ending set to the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Bergman’s preoccupation with women and society’s—and perhaps his own—failure to understand and address their needs was apparent from the beginning. When not depicted as a hellish trap, marriage is seen as an unfulfilling state (Summer Interlude, 1950), and several films imply that abortion and lesbianism are paths to independence. As the director’s failed romantic relationships accumulated, and as later films such as Persona (1966), The Passion of Anna (1969), and Cries and Whispers (1973) suggest, the psychology of women became nearly as abstruse an object of investigation as the existence of God.

Persona seems to be an attempt to exorcise some of Bergman’s childhood traumas through the medium of the very actresses with whom he was involved. Born of a feverish illness that left him withdrawn and speechless, the film is the study of two women whose identities are increasingly confused. Elisabeth (Liv Ullmann) is an actress who suffers a breakdown following a performance of Electra, leaving her mute and unapproachable. Alma (Bibi Andersson), the nurse assigned to bring her back to health, soon proves equally vulnerable. As Alma reveals her most intimate secrets to fill the silence, the interaction between the two begins to resemble the transference relationship between psychoanalyst and patient, which often leads, as it does here, to pleas for verbal response followed by hostility.

Shots of Alma’s and Elisabeth’s overlapping faces wavering between merger and individuation further stress the film’s psychoanalytic bent. In its opening and closing passages, a young boy, waking from disturbing dreams, moves his hand across a huge but blurry image of a woman’s face, as if trying to bring it into focus. His gesture evokes both the infant’s need for the mother’s reciprocal gaze and Melanie Klein’s theory of the “good breast” versus the “bad breast,” in which fluctuations between dependency and repulsion are only resolved when the child accepts that both breasts belong to the same person. Its projections onto the breast are thus the first instances of the dream screen, against which the child’s conflicting emotions enact a primal cinema.

In light of Bergman’s avowal that the patterns of his childhood were reenacted with his lovers (including Ullmann and Andersson), Persona can be read as the troubled dream of the boy who, as artist, chose the métier best suited to his unending search, face after face, for that reciprocal gaze. Obsessed with cinema at an early age, he was enraged when the mini-projector he hoped to receive for Christmas was instead given to his older brother, forcing Ingmar to give his toy soldiers in exchange for it. His fascination is captured in an early moment in The Silence, when another boy stands in the corridor of a train, transfixed by the flickering light, objects, and landscapes passing by him through the windows like the successive frames of a movie. For Bergman, the moment was more than metaphorical; it epitomized the virtual dream screen which he believed was the medium’s essence.

It follows that Bergman’s rapport with cinematographers was critical. Of Sven Nykvist, with whom he worked consistently from 1960, he remarked that they thought so much alike it was unnecessary to speak. Both were captivated by the incalculable range and problems of light in all its “gentle . . . dreamlike . . . calming . . . poisonous . . . living . . . and dead aspects.” These words describe Nykvist’s work on Cries and Whispers, for which he won an Academy Award. The film is a death watch: Karin (Thulin) and Maria (Ullmann) have returned to the family home where their sister Agnes (Harriet Anderson) lies dying of cancer, tended by Anna (Kari Sylwan), the family housekeeper. The relatively static vigil is intermittently interrupted by Agnes’s horrific gasps for breath and screaming bouts, but also by flashbacks to the sisters’ hypocritical lives. The idea came to Bergman in the form of an image of a room in a large house at the turn of the century, in which everything is red except for four women in white. Nykvist captures both the dazzling beauty of this tableau as well as its slow transformation into a portrait of ugliness and death as the sisters’ fears and mutual contempt emerge. The suffusion of red not only stresses the blood ties that suffocate their lives but the barely suppressed rage that poisons the atmosphere. Even the fades between present and past are bloodred, spilling over into scenes in which Maria’s husband stabs himself and Karin pushes a shard of glass into her vagina and sprawls bleeding on the marital bed.

Ingmar Bergman, Scenes from a Marriage, 1973, 35 mm, color, sound, 169 minutes.

For all his seriousness, Bergman suggested that his films were comedies, not in the popular sense, but as the classical opposite of tragedy, or in the sense that Balzac’s novels make up the human comedy. While comic is hardly the mode of Cries and Whispers or the unrelievedly bleak Shame (1968)—with its Hobbesian view of man as wolf to man—the point is nicely illustrated by The Magician (1958), an underrated film that plays fast and loose with the artist’s themes and the viewer’s expectations. The tale of Vogler, a quack magician (von Sydow), traveling with his wife (Thulin) and an array of eccentrics, initially engages as a gothic mystery with portents of doom and religious overtones. Mute and bearded to evoke Christ, the “magician” comforts a dying man on the road, but the skepticism of the local doctor soon reveals Vogler as a fraud. We are startled when he removes his wig and beard, and even more so when the dying man about to reveal the secret of death turns up alive and the horror show that Vogler orchestrates to frighten the doctor backfires. But Vogler is unexpectedly redeemed when the king summons him to court to demonstrate his powers. In its shifty conflation of genres and moods, as well as in its ability to entrance even as it debunks, The Magician is a compelling and witty fable about the irresistible powers of art and shows that Bergman was obsessed with self-exposure, as he alleged was true of Ibsen, but was not above self-mockery.

There is nothing self-mocking, however, about Fanny and Alexander, which was billed as Bergman’s farewell to the cinema. Though it was followed by a few television films—including Saraband (2003), his sequel to Scenes from a MarriageFanny, by all accounts, is considered his grandest achievement, a sweeping, lovingly detailed bildungsroman of memorable characterizations, embracing every theme close to his heart, etching a vivid portrait of his childhood, and invoking his fascination with theater and cinema with its very first shot. As the camera moves in to a cardboard stage with cutout figures, the backdrop suddenly ascends as the face of Alexander (Bertil Guve)—yet another young surrogate for the director—takes its place as the creator behind the scene. Moments later, Alexander falls asleep under a table, dreaming or imagining that a statue of a nude female is moving and that the figure of death, scythe in hand, hovers nearby. In less than five minutes, three of the themes that obsessed Bergman all his personal and professional life find expression. When Alexander’s life is disrupted by his father’s death and his mother’s marriage to a diabolically cruel bishop, the world of fantasy, imagination, and illusion takes on greater importance. Guided through the spectral labyrinth of his liberator’s shop by an assistant (played by Mats Bergman, the director’s son), he comes to know how artifice can be used to exorcise demons. So as we watch Alexander in the film’s final shot, nestled against his grandmother on a chair as she opens A Dream Play by August Strindberg—one of Bergman’s mentors—we can surmise that every word she reads to herself is being absorbed by the boy cozily crunched beside her.

A centennial retrospective of Ingmar Bergman runs Wednesday, February 7, through Thursday, March 15, at Film Forum in New York. “Bergman 100” runs throughout 2018 at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.