He hadn’t made a theatrical motion picture since 1982’s Fanny and Alexander, vowing to retire after completing the highly autobiographical project. He spent his later years dabbling in theater, and working in television in his native Sweden. He even penned a few screenplays, some directed by his son Daniel, others directed by friends and former lovers. Yet it’s clear that, even in his absence, the influence and importance of Ernst Ingmar Bergman to the language and art of cinema remains as solid today as it did when he first splashed onto the international stage some six decades ago. With a creative canon that spans considered masterworks like Wild Strawberries (1957), The Seventh Seal (1957), and Scenes from a Marriage (1973), he almost singlehandedly defined the whole foreign film/arthouse genre. While many others can also claim part of this title, Bergman remains the consummate example of personal and professional philosophies folded into one other and presented -- open handed and open hearted -- for the world to witness.
Like a select few famous names -- Kurosawa, Fellini, Hitchcock -- that actually helped to evolve and develop the technical and aesthetic merits of film, Bergman was a true motion picture visionary. Some might argue with that determination, viewing his stark, darkness driven efforts as generic and plain, or worse, gloomy and dull. But with his reliance on extreme close-up, static tableaus, and monochromatic contrasts, he captured both the bitter cold of his numb Nordic home, as well as the often hidden yet simmering emotions of its people perfectly. Some considered him the consummate actor’s director. Others viewed his work in far more metaphysical, even ephemeral, terms. In true contrast to the pictures coming out of other countries -- Hollywood’s sensationalized pulp fictions, Italy’s earthy Neo-Realism, France’s deconstructing New Wave -- Bergman boiled down his awful early childhood (his Lutheran Minister father was a haughty and strict task master) into melancholy expressions of man’s place within God and nature’s overall design. In doing so, he elevated ennui into something close to epic.
The battle between religion and reality was essential to his creative concerns. He mused on faith, the power of personal belief, the notion of mortality vs. the promise of an afterlife, and the distinct tug of war between living, dying, and dealing with both. He could be arcane and obtuse, making his points with symbols and noticeably non- sequitored imagery, yet he considered himself a rather forthright presenter of existence’s larger mysteries. Whatever the case, few directors can claim influence over modern day moviemakers as diverse as Wes Craven (who based his 1972 breakthrough The Last House on the Left on Bergman’s 1960 The Virgin Spring) and Woody Allen, and yet such was this director’s strength that even the most divergent of artists could experience his work and take away something very personal, and very purposeful, from his oeuvre. Names as significant as Robert Altman and Andrei Tarkovsky more or less based their careers on his influence.
For some, his seminal effort remains 1957’s existential masterwork The Seventh Seal. An unusual narrative focusing on a medieval knight, fresh from the Crusades, traveling back to his home only to discover a country ravaged by plague, it offered the allegorical imagery of the hero -- a golden Max Von Sydow -- playing chess with a white faced, ghoulish Death. The stakes? The champion’s life. The motive? The meaning of life. In between, Bergman used clever iconography and fresh perspectives (a traveling caravan of circus performers, the ceremonial burning of a witch) to express the ongoing struggle between existence and the end, the significance of survival and the promised bliss in shrugging off this mortal coil. Very theatrical, almost Shakespearean in his approach, Bergman often stated that it was his belief in the intuitive relationship between actor and director, one where both worked together to achieve a greater, grander end, that marked the success of his films, not the ideas or issues they raised. Seal certainly celebrates both.
Through a Glass Darkly
Yet the ‘60s/‘70s remain Bergman’s main decades of artist triumph and acclaim. He won two Oscars (out of a total of three) for Best Foreign Film -- for The Virgin Spring and 1961’s Through a Glass Darkly -- and would go on to receive nine more nominations over the course of his time behind the camera. His name became synonymous with the growing movement toward the incorporation of world cinema in the discussion, and along with other noted names mentioned before, formed the basis for much of the film scholarship of the era. Indeed, it’s clear that Bergman remains one of the several noteworthy components that ended up transforming into the post-modern aesthetic that’s driven cinema over the last 30 years. Thanks in part to his scattered output over his so-called ‘retirement’, the current cinephile tends to relegate this formative founding ‘father’ among the artifacts of an important, if no longer resonant time.
By doing so, they are missing out on some of the most profound and provocative films of the 20th Century. Bergman remains a true lyricist within the medium, translating unspoken thoughts and unexpressed feelings into novel-like narratives filled with inference and depth. But he’s not merely an intellectual -- he’s a devotee of all the artform’s facets. There’s the dreamlike imagery of Persona (1966) and the brilliant cinematography and oversaturated colors of 1972’s Cries and Whispers (contrasting the film’s dark obsession with death). There’s the cruelty and comeuppance of The Virgin Spring, the charming choice of rather risqué subject matter (sex) for Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), and the hidden evils of a post-World War I Germany in The Serpent’s Egg (1977). To his credit, Bergman managed to stay true to his austere and sometimes tragic designs while avoiding repetition. Some viewed his work as the perfect reflection of the environment in which it was created while others noted that, while subtle, the filmmaker appeared to be dismissing the detached, distant stereotype associated with Sweden. There was no denying the personal nature of his canon. In fact, the parallels between his life and his livelihood are almost too similar to compare.
Fanny and Alexander
For all the considered and/or perceived perfectionism on screen, Bergman remained a decidedly incomplete and flawed figure in his personal life. Married five times -- four ended in divorce, the last with the death of his wife from stomach cancer -- he fathered nine children. A man of complicated political views, he waged a rather public battle with the Swedish government over charges of tax evasion (he eventually left the country for Munich until 1982, when he returned to make Fanny and Alexander). While some considered him warm and kind, others noted a tendency toward highly strung behavior and a very quick temper. Often, his interpersonal problems were blamed on an early life overloaded with discussions of sin and confession, allegiance and conformity. As much as he fictionalized his life through his films, Bergman truly remained forever linked to the emotional complexity and metal malaise found in his characters.
And now, with his passing on 30 July, 2007 at age 89, the last legitimate old school cinematic giant has fallen. He follows other luminaries into the realm of legend, and eventually through time, into the epiphany of myth. There will be retrospectives and reissues, fans will muse on what could have been while novices will note waiting too long to discover his undeniable talents. Yet all one has to do to see Bergman’s lasting impact is recall the numerous noteworthy films they’ve seen by students of this amazing auteur. Had he continued contributing directly to film post-Fanny and Alexander, had he not decided to divide his time between personal projects, stage work, and the occasional documentary foray, it’s possible that he’d once again remake movies in his own aging image. For what it's worth -- and it’s a great deal indeed -- Ingmar Bergman will be forever associated with the maturation of the motion picture paradigm. Its influence will shroud cinema in the shadows of the man who made such a visual dichotomy possible -- and poetic.
Trailer for The Seventh Seal