[F]ilm is the great adventure — the costly, exacting mistress.
Ingmar Bergman’s legacy in the annals of cinematic history is secure. With over 60 films and documentaries to his name, Bergman brought Swedish cinema to the world stage while devising new ways to photograph and dramatize the inner life of the soul. When action and movement seduced other filmmakers, Bergman sought the dark corners of desire and inadequacy behind his actors’ eyes. Or was it his desire, his inadequacy he sought?
“Isn’t art always, to a certain extent, therapy for the artist?” he mused.
Yes, but somber tombs of doom and gloom these movies are not. Though they tackle heavy matters—death, old age, mental crack-ups, God’s silence, etc.—they do so with cinematic vim and vigor, with clowns and comedians, with joyous dancing, and loads of sharp wit. They are highly entertaining films, some even light at times, and there is no better place to start than 1957’s The Seventh Seal.
Bergman staple Max von Sydow plays Antonius Block, a knight who returns home from the Crusades only to cross paths with Death (Bengt Ekerot) on Sweden’s rocky shores. To delay the inevitable, Block engages Death in a game of chess while trekking home across a country vastly different than the one he left years before.
Thanks to The Seventh Seal’s success, Bergman had all the cachet he needed to further an already flourishing career. His next film, Wild Strawberries, once again took up the subject of mortality, this time against the backdrop of an aging professor (Victor Sjöström) returning home to receive a lifetime achievement award.
Similar to The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries is a road movie, one that wonders what good is it living in a world full of suffering. Both films find a joyous answer, but in 1960’s The Virgin Spring, the answer is not so joyful and certainly not as easy. Here, a young woman is raped and killed, and her father (Sydow) seeks revenge. Is he justified in his actions? Can one respond to immorality morally? Or is any cycle of violence doomed to consume all who inhabit it?
Watching these films chronologically, the French writer Jean-Claude Carrière concluded that Bergman’s main concern is religious guilt, one where the presence of God slips into the shadows and leaves men and women to their own devices. That is most evident in 1966’s Persona, a beautiful and layered masterpiece that defies explanation.
While the best movies illuminate, Persona haunts viewers the way a recurring dream permeates waking life. The line separating the two becomes blurred, and all things—life and death, hope and despair, love and sex—become one in the white-hot light of cinema—just the way Bergman wanted it.
A version of the above essay first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 26, No. 16, “Bergman at 100.”
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