Ingmar Bergman 100: What He Gave Me, by Scott Nye
2018 marks the 100th anniversary of Ingmar Bergman’s birth. Though he died in 2007, his legacy lives on, and I’ll be taking the opportunity throughout the year to celebrate my favorite filmmaker.
The headline, as headlines tend to be, is a tad reductive. I couldn’t summarize everything Bergman has given me, never mind what he continues to. He’s been my favorite filmmaker virtually from the time I saw Wild Strawberries eleven years ago, and that film alone is far from through with me, nor I with it. That said, the man has garnered a reputation in the years since his death (mere months after I first saw Wild Strawberries) as somewhat mannered and writerly and stodgy, and seems to have fallen out of fashion into the horrid realm of “admired but not loved.”
But I love Bergman. Wholly, madly, deeply, and very personally. And I thought it worth saying a bit about why. Don’t get me wrong, there’s the usual stuff; I adore everything about his mastery of form, his wit and depth of language, the sensitivity with which he treats his lofty themes, and the unpredictably harrowing work he draws from his actors. All of that goes a long way. I expect I’ll get terribly academic about that business as the year and this series continues. Right now, I’m going to be selfish and talk a little about myself.
In the summer of 2007, I had just finished my sophomore year of college, and was genuinely uncertain about what I wanted to do with the rest of that time, or indeed the rest of my life. I had taken it upon myself to watch as much of Bergman’s work as I could. Looking back, it seems like a whim. I knew almost nothing about his reputation, his films, or anything. The first film I saw was Smiles of a Summer Night, and as far as I was concerned, that was what his films would be like. The second was The Seventh Seal and I really didn’t know what to think.
The third, Wild Strawberries, didn’t only solidify my commitment to cinema and the arts in general. It changed my life internally, opening up an avenue of thinking I would spend years exploring – that of faith, and doubt.
I was raised Christian, spent eight years in Catholic school, and still believe in God and Jesus and redemption and all that good stuff. I take a lot of my morality from these teachings, especially my pacifist and socialist ideals. But like a lot of casual believers, having a “relationship” with God feels odd. He can be like a live-in parent; comforting one moment, troublesome the next. I don’t always know what to do with Him. In his personal life, Bergman cast Him aside. He held onto the Protestant reflection with which he was brought up, and left behind everything outside himself.
His films, however, do not. Some are playfully faithful (The Devil’s Eye, most notably), some don’t even touch on God at all in any overt way (most of his early work), but most of the big ones – Wild Strawberries, The Seventh Seal, Persona, Through a Glass Darkly, Hour of the Wolf, Fanny and Alexander, Cries and Whispers, The Virgin Spring, etc. – have some active engagement with a spiritual force one can loosely, collectively, and contextually identify as at least Christianity-informed. God exists. He might be silent, He might be cruel, He may occasionally show a bit of grace and grant a genuine miracle. His presence is not an answer though. It’s a beginning for a series of questions that will never totally get resolved and which must be actively considered.
I had never seen that expressed before, let alone at the movies. I had long sensed, but never considered, that gulf between what you’re certain is there but which you cannot resolve. There are stories of doubt in the Bible, of course, and we were always taught that doubt was perfectly healthy. So long, in both cases, as it was processed and overcome. To feel God there, but not fully comprehend His purpose, and to even sense in some way that it was not your place to do so…this is not the subject of a Sunday sermon.
It very much is Bergman’s subject. There’s grace, to be sure. Where else do Isak’s dreams, reflections, chance encounters, and ultimate peace come from in Wild Strawberries? Antonius Block’s beautiful moment of respite with some traveling actors in The Seventh Seal? Fanny and Alexander’s brushes with ghosts and spirits, or their miraculous teleportation at a key moment? The wave of peace at the end of the anguish in Cries and Whispers? What are these if not the grace of God, whom the characters often confront but who does not directly answer to their satisfaction.
“If there is a God,” Alexander announces, “then he’s a shit, and I’d like to kick him in the butt.”
So comes to the torment of God. Many read Through a Glass Darkly cynically, that only the mentally ill believe in God. I find in it instead a harrowing consideration of how a direct encounter with God makes someone go mad. This is also a key component in Hour of the Wolf, to my mind. The Virgin Spring sees a faithful man try to justify horrible violence in God’s name. The God-granted miracle of childbirth is shown to be a truly nightmarish, ruinous force in Brink of Life. Never mind children themselves, often viewed by Bergman’s characters as aliens or genuine devils in our homes. Bonds between parents and their offspring, meant by God to be beautiful, are soured, ruptured, or severed altogether in nearly every film he ever made. Parents often wish their children outright dead.
And what of creation itself? Surely a God-fearing artist must find redemption in that. But Bergman was also a workhorse; in Fanny and Alexander, Autumn Sonata, Summer Interlude, The Seventh Seal, Sawdust and Tinsel, The Rite, or From the Life of the Marionettes, creation is at best a job one falls into due to some calling. Maybe it offers a moment of epiphany. Often it becomes just another way to be ruined.
Fanny and Alexander comes to closest to finding the peace God promises and which his characters spend their lives (and ours) searching for. As noted, a genuine miracle saves the children from their plight. How could their lives ever be the same? Their return to their family is something of a second Eden. It feels paradisiacal. Then a brief note at the end assures Alexander, and the audience, that his physical freedom does not equate psychologically; that terror will always be with him. As a capper on decades of spiritual uncertainty on film, of knowing God but not knowing what He wants, it’s an assurance that the anxiety will never leave. Peace is fleeting and circumstantial. Paradise can be lost again, and Eden can fall. It’s up to us to try to maintain it, but ultimately such destruction may blow us away all its own, like the wars in Shame and The Silence or the threat of nuclear annihilation in Winter Light.
As befits the subject of this post, I have no real conclusion here. I wrestle with all of this almost daily. What Bergman has given me, though, is comfort in the storm. To genuinely appreciate the meals with good friends and other times of peace, and genuinely confront the loneliness, silence, and demons when they come knocking. Some have attributed this attitude to the Swedish climate, which only gets about six weeks of summer that one must enjoy before returning to the otherwise unpleasant weather the rest of the year. No doubt there’s some of that in there. I see too a spiritual cycle, one that anticipates anguish in contentment, and contentment in anguish, which sometimes experiences suffering and serenity all at once.
At the end of Wild Strawberries, Isak is still in conflict with his son, and unable to fully connect to his mother. He says goodnight in joy, though, to his daughter-in-law, with whom he has had much argument, and drifts into a childhood memory. There, the fully-aged Isak is a teenager again, being lead by the girl he’ll never truly have to the lakeside where his cousins are fishing. The past, present, fantasy – the memory is almost too ideal to be fully real – all collide, unease and satisfaction side by side, all the pain of life and all the joy. “If I have been sad or worried during the day,” Isak reflect, “it often calms me to recall childhood memories. I did so on this evening too.”