The timelessness of Ingmar Bergman

  • August 13, 2007

{mosimage}When death came for Swedish film and theatre director Ingmar Bergman in late July, it found a lonely old man living on a desolate island, whose most important accomplishments in art lay far in the past. He still had numerous fans, as we were reminded by the outpouring of tributes. But despite the polite homage often paid him by younger directors, he had no followers in Scandinavia or anywhere else.

Most of his ardent admirers these days, I imagine, belong to an older generation — my generation — that witnessed the premieres of the masterpieces Bergman produced around 1960: Wild Strawberries (1957), The Seventh Seal (1957), The Virgin Spring (1960), The Silence (1963) and others.

Even then, Bergman’s cinema was easier to respect than to like.

Though frequently humourous — charming scenes break through the visual frostiness of Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal, for example — his films were utterly serious and devoid of irony. He told his greatest stories with a few remarkably talented actors — a troupe that included Gunnar Björnstrand, Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann — and seemed blithely able to do without the special effects that directors these days find so indispensable. Most important, Bergman used his camera to probe hard topics in human life with penetrating clarity and no pulled punches: the anxiety of facing death, the loss of religious conviction, the ruthless violation of a child’s innocence, the disintegration of marriage.

Bergman’s themes are, of course, timeless, and they give the films urgency and freshness that persist down to the present day. But these themes had special meaning for many of us coming of age during the height of the Cold War. The nuclear standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union pressed upon us the threat of imminent death. Traditional values — the integrity of marriage and the family, the moral teachings of religion — were being undermined in  Europe and North America by the aggressive hedonism and materialism of post-war culture.

In those days, and ever since, young people were offered a plethora of panaceas to dull the pain of this difficult time: saccharine romance movies, TV sit-coms and the greedy pleasure of consumerism, Valium and sexual promiscuity, and, a little later in the 1960s, recreational drugs, various pop “spiritualities” and the utopian promises of the leftist student movement.

One thing compelling about Bergman’s cinema in this period was its absolute refusal of all popular consolations for the dread and hopelessness he felt to be the fate of contemporary humankind. If God and enduring values had withdrawn from the world, as Bergman believed, then the results must be exposed for what they were: dire, desperate, unrelieved. In Winter Light (1962), the village pastor is losing his faith and thus has nothing to say to a troubled fisherman who comes to him seeking spiritual guidance; the fisherman later commits suicide. The elderly professor in Wild Strawberries — played with conviction by the actor and film director Victor Sjöström — is forced by nightmares and chance encounters to acknowledge the futility and meaninglessness of his life.

It’s little wonder that Bergman’s films were often criticized as gloomy and ponderous — a judgment that only gathered strength as the pleasure-seeking 1960s wore on. For the Christian and unbeliever alike, however, they did, and do, have the virtue of being entirely fearless when it came to setting out the truth of the human condition. Bergman chose to portray a world without God. And, indeed, without God — without the goals of justice, love and mercy God commands us to pursue, even in deepest darkness — the world of human experience is indeed a prison from which there is no hope of parole, a deadly routine without meaning.

But at the same time that Bergman gave us unforgettable parables of life without God, he also warned his viewers against accepting any substitute for the God we have lost or rejected. In film after film, with unrelenting force, Bergman ruthlessly exposes the futility of those substitutes: sexual passion, worldly learning, self-contained individuality, sentimental piety, even the pleasures of family life. His admonitions were valid then, and they are valid now. Our hunger for God will be satisfied only by God, without whom we have nothing.

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