As I sat down to write a Film Alert I switched on the radio and heard news of the death of Ingmar Bergman. News Radio was running a report from the BBC’s Arts Correspondent who gave a quick rundown on a career that lasted over fifty years making almost sixty feature films. For cinephiles I suspect that their individual discovery of Bergman, particularly if that occurred in the fifties, was a moment that opened eyes and minds to ideas far beyond what had previously been regarded as the norms of narrative cinema. Bergman’s stories were different and so were his methods of telling them.
A teacher at my high school gave me a copy of four Bergman scripts published in a single volume. I read Wild Strawberries and confessed my puzzlement at its mysterious combination of flashbacks and dreams. It was patiently explained to me but it was a year or so later, at a MUFS screening, before I saw the film and ‘understood’ Victor Sjostrom’s journey. That was followed by Smiles of a Summer Night, dripping with sex but as well with entirely uninhibited behaviour. There was the quite intense The Face a k a The Magician and then The Seventh Seal. That last seemed to be the most profound film ever made, grappling with death and God’s vengeance in an almost fearful way. His actors and his technicians, especially the photographer Gunnar Fischer, seemed to be in a different league to everyone else.
Yet fashions changed and we sated ourselves on directors like Frank Tashlin, Budd Boetticher and Anthony Mann. Bergman seemed to be too po-faced, too serious. His comedies like The Devil’s Eye and Let’s Talk About Women weren’t funny. Not like Frank Tashlin’s anyway. Bergman became an occasional controversialist, only making a splash with films like The Silence which was deliberately obscurantist but heavily into carnal sex. We didn’t get to see such films in their entirety anyway. It took me years to ascertain for sure whether the rumour about the couple having ‘actual’ sex in the cinema was true or not. It wasn’t.
Bergman’s mature years seemed to be his greatest. The trilogy of Persona, Hour of the Wolf and Shame, made between 1966 and 1968 remains a landmark and probably will be his most enduring work. He was fifty when he completed those films and went on to make almost twenty more films including some of his most popular. He won Oscars. I thought he won for Cries and Whispers but the SMH today only mentions for Fanny and Alexander.
His last film Saraband was made for TV in 2003. It featured Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson and picked up on the characters from the earlier Scenes from a Marriage taking both of them through to a quieter, more contemplative time in their lives. As with all of his work however, it’s the woman who has gained a sense of repose, the man is still in a modest state of turmoil. It’s Josephson whom Bergman makes to bare not only his soul but his rather gnarled and knobby body. Ullmann provided Bergman with a continuous, near miraculous, portrait of woman in all her glory and you imagine that the director contemplated her beauty, her resolve and her strength with continual fascination over thity years or so. There is a sense about his films with Ullmann that no matter how often he did contemplate this Galatea he could never quite fathom all her mysteries.
In recent years the magic of DVD distribution has allowed almost all of Bergman’s work to be revealed again. This has included all the films made before 1955, the year that he made Smiles of a Summer Night. Those films are generally more straightforward, more melodramatic and, possibly for budgetary reasons, much more constrained in their locations and range of characters. They are still eternally fascinating and they include magnificent works like Sawdust and Tinsel, Secrets of Women and A Lesson in Love.
It’s hard to say that Bergman has been ‘an influence’. Perhaps the dark foreboding of much Scandinavian cinema owes something to him but really his stories were so much his own that they were never really absorbed into the mainstream method. Only Woody Allen, whom I’ve also heard paying tribute as I write this, seemed to want to go so far as both parodying and imitating him. The rest of the film world finally just stood back in awe at his continued exploration of his themes and his continued fascination with death, decay and the possibility that we might have to account for ourselves to a maker. His talent was unique and I suspect that for a long time to come his films will feature in all those lists of Ten Bests and Persona in particular will forever be regarded as one of the very few finest works of art produced for the cinema.