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Ingmar Bergman’s greatest gift was that he converted his insights about life into cinematic art

Ahead of the Swedish master’s centenary, a reminder of what makes his films such unforgettable experiences.

Ingmar Bergman was born just under a hundred years ago. And what a long time too since his passing away in 2007 as one of the immortals of cinema. To film buffs of my generation who came of age in the 1960s, his was a familiar and constant presence. For almost three decades from the early ’50s to the early ’80s, he was prolific, often releasing a film every year. The best among these were both milestones in the development of the modern cinema and the emergence of a contemporary outlook or sensibility that characterised post-war European intellectual life.

With their formal rigour and peerless scripting, acting and dialogue, each of them illuminated some aspect of the human psyche in a reconstructed and prosperous Europe. As Bergman himself famously remarked “When all the problems seem to be solved, then the difficulties come.”

But his films resonated with people from other cultures as well. For many of his quintessential themes such as doubt, loss of faith, shame and the fear of darkness and death cut across all cultural boundaries. His cinema fills us with an almost tangible and direct experience of our destiny as human beings.

To paraphrase TS Eliot, “...we are born, fornicate and die.” In between these resounding verbs one can place several of Bergman’s films. They are vital meditations on life as we journey through space and time, youth and old age, summers and winters, the bliss or joy in relationships and grief and pain in their curdling or breakdown.

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The Seventh Seal (1957).

There is a sense of complete or crippling humiliation sometimes, as in his early masterworks Sawdust and Tinsel (1953) and Smiles of a Summer Night (1955). At other times, there is the unbearable agony of doubt and personal tragedy, as in The Seventh Seal (1957) and The Virgin Spring (1960).

In his great middle period, Bergman made the so-called faith trilogy (Through a Glass Darkly, 1961, Winter Light, 1963 and The Silence, 1963) and Persona (1966) that gave us searing portrayals of human vulnerability and the madness that perhaps comes from excessive intensity of feeling amidst the intractable complexity of modern society. After these definitive works Bergman’s vision perhaps became even darker, culminating in the heartbreaking Cries and Whispers (1972), and the devastatingly incisive portrayals of marital and family crises in Scenes from a Marriage (1973) and Autumn Sonata (1978).

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Through a Glass Darkly, 1961.

Perhaps Bergman’s greatest gift was that he converted his deepest insights about life and the melancholy it can inspire into pure cinematic art. His use of close-ups and the direction of actors are unsurpassed even by his greatest contemporaries like Michelangelo Antonioni and Akira Kurosawa. Viewing the performances of his stock company of actors and actresses – among them Harriet Andersson, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, Max von Sydow, Gunnel Lindblom, Eva Dahlbeck, Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson – one has the sense that one’s own inner being is being bared and one’s own painful life experiences have been exposed.

It then occurs to one that perhaps very few filmmakers have dug so deep into the human heart and imagination: the pleasures of youth and love, the pain and joys of family life and marriage, the agony of disease and death. Bergman is immortal because he has covered the entire topography of human emotions, and in this respect he is in the company of the greatest masters like Yasujiro Ozu, Charles Chaplin, Jean Renoir, John Ford and Satyajit Ray.

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Persona (1966).

My favorite Bergman film is not The Seventh Seal with the great chess match with Death and the dance macabre that are indelibly imprinted in collective cinematic memory. Nor films like The Silence or Persona, which perhaps were the most admired in his oeuvre by contemporaneous audiences because they directly touched on the new sexuality, existential themes and anxiety about the future in a post-nuclear world. Nor am I thinking of his magnificent semi-autobiographical Fanny and Alexander (1982) which summed up a long creative, reflective and vastly influential life and career.

My favorite is his one completely humanistic film, Wild Strawberries (1957). In this film, everything in Bergman’s universe comes together in a pleasing balance: his artistic ambition, sincerity and compelling desire for significance and beauty in life.

As Isak Borg ( played by Bergman’s great Swedish predecessor Victor Sjostrom ) journeys by car from Stockholm to his alma mater in Lund to receive a career award as a scientist, each turning point and trauma of his life is shown in flashbacks and dreams with a baroque flourish. His idyllic childhood, his failed marriage and the entrenched coldness that gradually gives way to a new openness towards his son and daughter-in-law and the young people he meets along the way is marvelously portrayed by Sjostrom in a performance as unforgettable as Falconetti in Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) or Chhabi Biswas in Ray’s Jalsaghar (1958).

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Wild Strawberries (1957).

As in The Seventh Seal set in plague-ridden medieval Europe that was released in the same year, Bergman invokes the metaphor of the sweet and life-affirming taste of wild strawberries in the short-lived Swedish summer that Isak’s first love Sara (Bibi Andersson) is seen picking in a flashback. His relaxed speech during lunch at the seaside restaurant echoes the tortured Knight’s brief epiphany in that film when he first meets the innocent travelling players and shares a meal of milk and wild strawberries with them.

For both of them these shared meals and moments seem as precious as the gifts brought by the Magi at the nativity of Christ. (One is strongly reminded that Bergman was the son of a pastor.) In Isak Borg’s case, they also seal his reconciliation with others and his own past.

The art of Ingmar Bergman with its continuous unfolding of life, and the grandeur of his total oeuvre is reminiscent of profound religious thinkers, philosophers, poets and novelists. The theatre of life rolls on inexorably in front of our eyes in films that are equally real and surreal, painful to watch and at the same time a joy to have seen. The year of his birth centenary is a good time to reflect on his enduring legacy and for a new generation of film viewers to rediscover his genius.

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Bergman’s Dreams: A video essay.
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