Content warning – Ingmar Bergman’s films frequently deal with mature issues concerning sexuality, cruelty, or both.
Many significant spoilers below, in case you are a budding Bergman fan and don’t want to know. In fairness, all of the movies noted below are at the very least thirty-six years old.
It’s not every day one’s favorite director turns 100, even if the last eleven birthdays have been in absentia. For the occasion, I’ve decided to break out the Seven Sevens model again, in which I discuss my seven favorite examples of seven topics which run through an oeuvre. (This is going to really home in a few of Bergman’s movies at the expense of some others; I thought about doing a straight ranking of all his movies, but by the time this goes up I have no doubt that Vulture or some other similar site will have such a ranking.) Movies I’ve reviewed are linked to the first time they are mentioned.
Seven Monologues – the most stirring long speeches of Bergman’s movies
1 – The diary entry from Scenes from a Marriage
I can barely read my own writing…Here it is. ‘Suddenly I turned and looked at an old school picture from back when I was ten. I seemed to detect something that had eluded me up to then. To my surprise I must admit that I don’t know who I am. I haven’t the vaguest idea. I’ve always done as I was told as far as I can remember I’ve been obedient, well-adjusted, almost meek. I did assert myself once or twice as a girl, but Mother punished any lapses from convention with exemplary severity. My entire upbringing, and that of my sisters, was aimed at making us agreeable. I was ugly and awkward, a fact I was constantly reminded of. I later realized that if I kept my thoughts to myself, and was ingratiating and predictable, my behavior yielded rewards. The most momentous deception began at puberty. All my thoughts, feelings, and actions revolved around sex. But this I never told my parents. Or anyone at all for that matter. Being deceitful and secretive became second nature to me. My father wanted me to follow in his footsteps and become a lawyer. I dropped hints that I wanted to be an actress or do something else in the world of theater. But they laughed at me. Since then I go on pretending. Faking my relationships with others, with men. Always putting on an act in a desperate attempt to please. I’ve never considered what I want but only “What does he want me to want?” It’s not unselfishness, as I used to believe. It’s sheer cowardice. Even worse, it stems from my being ignorant of who I am. Our mistake was that we never broke free from our families to create something worthwhile on our own terms.’
By the time Scenes from a Marriage was released, it had been twenty years since Summer with Monika. There’s a major shift in Bergman’s films and their attitude about women in those two decades. Summer with Monika treats its title character like a villain in disguise, a wickedly sensual girl who tempts her boyfriend into hasty decisions and entraps him in a marriage with a child she doesn’t care for. Scenes from a Marriage—this monologue is from the fourth of six episodes—looks in an entirely different direction. In this film, a husband has basically punted on his own marriage with children in the throes of what is generously called a midlife crisis. Marianne has begun to see a therapist in the time that Johan has been away, and this diary entry points to what was lacking in her life beforehand. Trained to be someone’s daughter and then someone’s wife, she was never given opportunities to train to be herself; thus, “being deceitful and secretive became second nature to me.” Marianne reads this passage to her husband who she hasn’t seen in some time, and ever since I first watched this scene I wondered why she felt so open with the man who left her so completely. Only recently has it occurred to me that the poisonous lessons of our childhood are not drawn out, like snake venom from a wound, in a single powerful suck, but repeated cathartic rejection. Marianne has not had the time to reject those lessons, not with decades of reinforcement under her belt already. The vulnerability of this monologue, emphasized in the photographs of a young Liv Ullmann which pepper it, is within the knowledge that she is still struggling to extricate herself from a way of thought which has bound her for a lifetime.
2 – The sexual recollection from Persona
I went to the beach on my own. It was a warm and lovely day. There was another girl there. She’d paddled over from another island because our beach was sunnier and more secluded. We lay there sunbathing beside one another, completely naked, dozing now and then, putting suntan lotion on. We had those cheap straw hats on, you know? I had a blue ribbon around mine. I lay there peeping out from under my hat at the landscape and the sea and the sun. It was kind of funny. Suddenly I saw two figures leaping about on the rocks above us. They would hide and then peek out. ‘There’s a couple boys looking at us,’ I told the girl. Her name was Katarina. ‘Let them look,’ she said, and then turned over on her back. It was a strange feeling. I wanted to jump up and put on my robe, but I just lay there on my stomach with my bottom in the air, not at all embarrassed, completely calm. Katarina lay there next to me the whole time, with her breasts and thick thighs. She just lay there sort of giggling to herself. I noticed that the boys had come closer. They just stood there looking at us. I noticed they were terribly young. Then one of them, the more daring of the tow, came up and squatted down next to Katarina. He pretend to be busy picking at his toes. I felt so strange. Suddenly I heard Katarina say, ‘Hey, why don’t you come over here?’ She took him by the hand and helped him off with his jeans and shirt. Then suddenly he was on top of her. She guided him in with her hands on his behind. The other boy just sat on the slope and watched. I heard Katarina whisper in the boy’s ear and laugh. His face was right next to mine. It was red and swollen. Suddenly I turned over and said, ‘Aren’t you coming over to me too.’ And Katarina said, ‘Go to her now.’ He pulled out of her and fell on top of me, completely hard. He grabbed my breast. It hurt so bad. I was ready somehow and came almost at once. Can you believe it? I was about to say, “Careful you don’t get me pregnant,” when he suddenly came. I felt it like never before in my life, the way he sprayed his seed into me. He gripped my shoulders and arched backwards. I came over and over. Katarina lay on her side and watched and held him from behind. After he came, she took him in her arms and used his hand to make herself come. When she came, she screamed like a banshee. Then all three of us started laughing. We called to the other boy, who was sitting on the slope. His name was Peter. He came down, looking all confused, and shivering despite the sunshine. Katarina unbuttoned his pants and started to play with him. And when he came, she took him in her mouth. He bent down and kissed her back. She turned around, took his head in both hands, and gave him her breast. The other boy got so excited that he and I started all over again. It was just as good as before. Then we went for a swim and parted ways. When I got home, Karl-Henrik was already back from town. We ate dinner and drank some red wine he’d bought. Then we had sex. It’s never been as good, before or since. Can you understand that?
This is the most erotic scene I’ve ever seen in a movie, and it’s done entirely with Bibi Andersson’s voice and Liv Ullmann’s spare reactions sitting some feet apart. There’s a vague hint of sexual chemistry between the women, although the operative word there is “vague,” and what comes through most of all is a sense of growing trust. Alma has begun to interpret Elisabet’s silence as friendliness, maybe even real kindness. Eventually that silence is broken, although not with real noise, and Alma is given reason to understand that there is something more cruel in her patient than she originally believed. But it’s that initial trust that makes this scene erotic. During the scene, while Elisabet is on the bed and Alma is in the general area of an armchair, Alma begins by avoiding real eye contact with Elisabet. She looks away, she looks towards the ceiling, she curls herself into the chair and burns a hole in the armrest. But then the story goes on, and on, longer than we think is possible, and although the camera has closed in on her face, we can tell that she is looking into Elisabet’s eyes. The eroticism in the scene is not about the story (which I, uh, definitely wasn’t expecting) but within the trust that Alma is placing in Elisabet. The caretaker asks earnestly to be taken care of.
3 – The Danse Macabre from The Seventh Seal
I see them, Mia! I see them! Over there against the dark stormy sky. They are all there…And Death, the severe master, invites them to dance. He tells them to hold each other’s hands and then they must tread the dance in a long row. And first goes the master with his scythe and hourglass, but Skat dangles at the end with his lyre. They dance away from the dawn and it’s a solemn dance towards the dark lands, while the rain washes their faces and cleans the salt of the tears from their cheeks.
Excepting only the scene where Death arrives on the rocky beach to play chess with a knight who is not yet ready to die, this must be the most iconic scene of Ingmar Bergman’s most iconic film. Ironically, these words are spoken by Nils Poppe, an actor whose connection with Bergman is fairly slim; all the same he is the one who can see the events at hand. Jof is a little touched, as even his pretty young wife will attest to, but as is often the way with fools, he has gifts far beyond those of mortal men. (Whether Jof appreciates that the knight has drawn Death away from the actor and his little family is something of a mystery, although Mia must understand it on some subconscious level.) He can see the dance of death, the world’s most undesirable line dance, strung out with figures familiar and unfamiliar to him alike. All the same he problematizes the movie’s premise itself. The film has primarily been about a long, frightening run from Death in a time and place where life could hardly be cheaper. Antonius Block’s chess game, Jons’ streetsmart maneuverings, Skat’s darkly funny pleas, the witch’s sudden realization of her own mortality: each is a moment to desire to live a little longer. Only Jof seems to realize the purity of death in this vision: when one is dead, the pain goes away. Few other entries in Bergman’s oeuvre will be so rational, if rather short of sanguine, in their perspective on what it means to die.
4 – The wine from Smiles of a Summer Night
My dear children and friends: According to legend, this wine is pressed from grapes whose juice gushes out like drops of blood against the pale grape skin. It is also said that to each cask filled with this wine was added a drop from a young mother’s breast and a drop of seed from a young stallion. Those lend to the wine secret seductive powers. Whoever drinks hereof does so at his own risk and must answer for himself.
Of the many great monologues in Bergman movies, this is one of the shorter ones and perhaps the most mystical of them all. Its brevity is not synonymous with simplicity; in Naima Wifstrand’s intonation, somehow matter-of-fact and ominous at the same time, we hear immense possibilities for the assembled party. First of all, this is an earthy wine which seems to incorporate in the bloody grape juice as well as the breastmilk and semen the most important (or at least the most enticing) fluids of life. There’s power in that kind of symbolism (which one fervently hopes is only symbolism, or otherwise we just watched half a dozen people drink horse jizz), and the movie takes it quite seriously. Not one person drinks quickly from his or her goblet, and indeed one person declines to do so at all. The young wives pause to utter the words to their toasts before drinking. Others, like Magnus or old Mrs. Armfeldt herself, simply pause before they savor the heady taste of the wine. From there, the movie reignites its zaniest inclinations: a failed suicide, a bed transported through a secret hole in the wall, rolling about in the hay, Russian roulette without bullets (which I think is really called Polish roulette, but I may be overstepping myself), a man runs off with his stepmother and everyone is a little relieved. Not to overstate the obvious here, for the monologue certainly doesn’t overindulge itself that way, but the elder stateswoman finds a way to pass along a little advice to her younger guests. Surrounded by a company of individuals made haggard by their worries about cheating spouses, cheating lovers, disinterested spouses, zealous lovers, and so on, she says magic words: “must answer for himself.” The film never forgets these words, as it turns Fredrik Egerman’s great shame into an opportunity for him to straighten out his life. Bergman’s movies are often cast as these highly existential works, but this monologue, like its host movie, is not overly concerned with the mind strangling itself with thought. There’s something intensely liberating, as virtually everyone in the movie finds, in taking responsibility for one’s feelings, which can only lead to taking responsibility for how one acts.
5 – The letter from Winter Light
We find it difficult to talk to each other. We’re both rather shy, and I tend to retreat into sarcasm. That’s why I’m writing. I have something important to say. Do you remember last summer, when that awful rash broke out on my hands? One evening we were in church arranging flowers on the altar, preparing for a confirmation. Do you recall what bad shape I was in? My hands all bandaged, and itching so much I couldn’t sleep? The skin had flaked off, and my palms were like open sores. We busied ourselves with daises, or cornflowers, or whatever they were, and I was feeling irritable. Suddenly I got mad at you and challenged you angrily, asking if you actually believed in the power of prayer. You replied that you did. In a nasty tone I asked if you had prayed for my hands, but it hadn’t occurred to you to do so. I melodramatically demanded that you do it then and there. Oddly enough, you agreed. Your compliance enraged me, and I tore off the bandages. You remember the rest. The sight of those open sores affected you greatly. You couldn’t pray. The entire situation disgusted you. I came to understand you later, but you never understood me. We had lived together for some time at that point. Almost two years – which at least represented some capital in the face of our emotional poverty. Our caresses and our clumsy attempts to evade the lack of love between us. When the rash spread to my forehead and scalp, I soon noticed how you avoided me. You found me repugnant. Though you tried to spare my feelings. Then the rash spread to my hands and feet. And our relationship ended. That came as a shock to me. I had to face the fact that we didn’t love each other. There was no way to hide from that fact or turn a blind eye to it. Tomas: I have never believed in your faith. Mainly because I’ve never been tortured by religious tribulations. My non-Christian family was characterized by warmth, togetherness, and joy. God and Jesus existed only as vague notions. To me your faith seems obscure and neurotic, somehow cruelly overwrought with emotion. Primitive. One thing in particular I’ve never been able to fathom: your peculiar indifference to Jesus Christ. And now I’m going to tell you about answered prayers. Laugh if you feel like it. Personally, I don’t believe the two are connected. Life is messy enough without taking the supernatural into account. You were going to pray for my weeping hands but the rash left you dumbstruck with repulsion, something you later denied. I went berserk and tried to provoke you. ‘Since you can’t pray for me, I’ll do it myself. God, why have you created me so eternally dissatisfied? So frightened, so bitter? Why must I realize how wretched I am? Why must I suffer so hellishly for my insignificance? If there is a purpose to my suffering, then tell me so I can bear my pain without complaint. I’m strong. You made me so very strong in both body and soul, but you never gave me a task worthy of my strength. Give my life meaning, and I’ll be your obedient slave.’ This autumn I realized that my prayers had been answered. I prayed for clarity of mind, and I got it. I realized that I love you. I prayed for a task to apply my strength to and I received one. That task is you. This is what the thoughts of a schoolmarm might run to when the phone refuses to ring, when it’s dark and lonely. What i lack entirely is the capacity to show you my love. I haven’t a clue how to do that. I’ve been so miserable, I’ve even considered praying some more. But I still have a shred of self-respect left in spite of it all. My dearest Tomas: this turned out to be a long letter. But now I’ve put down in writing what I never dared say when you were in my arms. I love you. And I live for you. Take me and use me. Beneath all my false pride and independent airs, I have only one wish: to be allowed to live for someone else. It’s so terribly difficult. When I think about it I can’t see how I will be able to pull it off. Maybe it’s all just a mistake. Tell me I’m not wrong, darling.
In the opening scene of the Sondheim musical Passion, one of the lovers sings, “I thought where there was love, there was shame.” Bergman’s monologue for Ingrid Thulin’s Marta expands that thought to its breaking point. Everything about her love for Tomas is connected intimately with the idea of shame. From her position as an aging single schoolteacher, a sad female stereotype if ever there was one, to her unsolvable skin ailment, to her affection for a man who doesn’t love her and whose entire life is pointed in a direction she cannot understand. She doesn’t write about a collection of traits which are faults stemming from her mistakes to be corrected later; these are aspects of herself that she feels wrongness for. Tomas prays for her peeling skin and colonizing rashes with disgust which he tries to hide. A later monologue will show Marta that it’s not the rashes but herself that disgusts the man she loves; yet she does not leave. Apart from the symbolic aspects of this letter (and a presentation thereof which occasionally reminds us of what it might be like to be Marta’s shrink), I also think it’s a very full explication of Marta and Tomas as people. Both are badly withdrawn, deformed from keeping themselves inside all the time. Neither can vocalize how they feel towards the other, at least not at this point in the story. But Marta has enough temerity to write it out; Tomas’ reaction is haggard, haunted, as if he is reading a letter that Marta has passed on to him from beyond the grave.
6 – Isak’s story from Fanny and Alexander
A young man journeys down an endless road in the company of many others. The road leads across a rocky plain where nothing grows. The sun’s fire burns from morning to evening. They can’t find shade or coolness anywhere. A harrowing wind stirs up huge dust clouds. The youth is driven forward by an incomprehensible anxiety and tormented by a scorching thirst. Sometimes he asks himself or his traveling companions about the goal of their pilgrimage. But the answer is uncertain and tentative. He himself has forgotten why he ever set out on his journey. He’s also forgotten his native land and the journey’s final destination. Suddenly, one evening, he finds himself standing in a forest. Dusk sets in and all is quiet. Perhaps the evening wind sighs through the tall trees. He stands amazed but also anxious and suspicious. He’s all alone and he discovers his hearing is weak since his ears are inflamed from the merciless light of day. His mouth and throat are parched from the long pilgrimage. His lips are cracked, pressed together around curses and harsh words, so he doesn’t hear the ripple of flowing water and doesn’t notice its reflection in the dusk. He stands deaf and blind at the edge of the spring unaware of its existence. Like a sleepwalker he wanders unaware between the sparkling pool. His blind skill is remarkable, and soon he’s back onto the road in the burning, shadowless light. One night by the camp fire he’s seated near an old man who’s telling some children about the forests and springs. The youth recalls what he’s been through but faintly and indistinctly as in a dream. He turns to the old man, skeptical yet courteous, and asks, “Where does all this water come from?” “It comes from a mountain whose peak is covered by a mighty cloud.” “What kind of cloud?” the youth asks. The old man answers, “Every man carries within him hopes, fears, and longings. Every man shouts out his despair or bears it in his mind. Some pray to a particular god. Others address their cries to the void. This despair, this hope, this dream of deliverance, all these cries, all these tears, are gathered over thousands and thousands of years and condense into an unmeasurable cloud around a high mountain. Out of the cloud rain flows down the mountain forming the streams and rivers that flow through the great forests. That’s how the springs are formed where you can quench your thirst, wash your badly burned face, cool your blistered feet. Everybody has at some time heard of the mountain, the cloud, and the springs, but most people anxiously remain on the dusty road in the burning light.” “Why do they stay there?” asks the youth in great astonishment. “I certainly don’t know,” replied the old man. “Perhaps they’ve convinced themselves or each other that they’ll reach their unknown destination by evening.” “What unknown destination?” asks the young man. The old man shrugs his shoulders. “In all probability the destination does not exist. It’s deception or imagination. I myself am on my way to the forests and springs. I was there once when I was young and now I’m trying to find my way back. It’s not easy, let me tell you.” The next morning the youth set out with the old man to seek the mountain, the cloud, the forests, and the rippling springs.
I don’t know that this has always been the case in Fanny and Alexander studies, but at some point people started to get really interested in Isak Jacobi and his family, who are the source of most of the movie’s supernatural moments. Isak is in the Vergerus mansion when the Ekdahl kids are abducted from the house but appear to be in their bedroom at the same time. His two children, Aron and Ismael, are entire different individuals. The former makes puppets, including one of God himself that floors Alexander (and me) when it bursts through the door one night while Alexander is looking for a chamberpot. He is a non-believer, skeptical and canny, and he is entirely unlike his androgynous sibling. Ismael is mysterious, somehow intangible, reported as the most intelligent and imaginative person anyone has ever met. In person, caged up in a little room, he reads Alexander’s desires well enough to report on—or perhaps even cause?—a fire some distance away. In other words, there’s more to this monologue than meets the eye, down to the cut to a desert exodus away from Erland Josephson’s glassy-eyed interpretation of the story. There is no better place to start interpreting Bergman’s understanding of the human condition than this monologue: existence is not simply meaningless, but almost cruel in how tantalizingly close and how desperately far relief is for the average person. Blinded by our conditions, we cannot reach for the salves and balms which might cure us. Isak’s legend is particularly meaningful for the Ekdahl children listening to the story. Their childhood ended, for all intents and purposes, on the day their father died. For someone as old as Isak, there isn’t time to return to the forests and springs. Fanny and Alexander seems to believe in its heart that there may yet be an opportunity for the children, as they have fewer miles to make before dark.
7 – The post-pageant sendoff from Fanny and Alexander
My dear friends, for twenty-two years in the capacity of theater manager, I’ve stood here and made a speech without really having any talent for that sort of thing. Especially if you think of my father who was brilliant at speeches. My only talent, if you can call it that in my case, is that I love this little world inside the thick walls of this playhouse, and I’m fond of the people who work in this little world. Outside is the big world, and sometimes the little world succeeds in reflecting the big one so that we understand it better. Or perhaps, we give the people who come here a chance to forget for a while, for a few short moments, the harsh world outside. Our theater is a little room of orderliness, routine, care and love. I don’t know why I feel so comically solemn this evening. I can’t explain how I feel, so I’d best be brief. My wife and I, and the rest of the Ekdahl family, my brother Carl—I think Carl is here—we wish you all a happy and joyous Christmas. I hope we meet again on St. Stephen’s Day, strengthened in body and soul. Merry Christmas.
In a movie so long, it’s only right that we get two monologues, although, granted, this one is much shorter than the other. By the time we get to “I don’t know why I feel so comically solemn,” it’s a question that begs to be asked. Why, with Christmas just hours away, is Oscar Ekdahl so sad? What has gotten into his veins that has made him so dour and pensive? The film will eventually answer the question on its own, for Oscar hasn’t long to live. Perhaps on this, his last Christmas Eve, he feels the end approaching in the same way that we can feel the tickle in our throat signifying the onset of a cold. Or maybe he is having a moment of self-realization during the Christmas season, rather like Gabriel Conroy, and he is embarrassed in this moment for a lifetime of being a middling actor with a middling theater house to his credit. In any case, it has seeped into this expected little speech which has gone in an unexpected direction. It also acts as a warning for us in the early stages of Fanny and Alexander, as it lets us know something is wrong and cannot remain all right in the Ekdahl house. The rest of the film expands on it; this short monologue is the tower of blocks ready to tumble.
Seven Actors – the performers most essential to Bergman’s movies
1 – Gunnar Bjornstrand
I’m as surprised as you are that Bjornstrand ranks as my most important Bergman actor, but to me he is the essential bridge across the several eras of Ingmar Bergman. In the fifties, he plays the men who speak Bergman’s doubts: Jons in The Seventh Seal, Evald in Wild Strawberries, and especially Vergerus in The Magician. Meaningfully, none of them are irredeemable. Evald Borg, who tells his wife that if she remains pregnant she will have to choose between him in the baby; Evald Borg, who has lived a hateful relationship with his father throughout his entire life; Evald Borg, who openly wishes to die. He comes to a place of peace towards the end of Wild Strawberries eclipsed by his father’s epiphanies but certainly not unimpressive in its own right. Even Fredrik Egerman, who is humbled (and not without reason) at the end of Smiles of a Summer Night, is a cynical man who is redeemed, essentially, by the love of a good woman. In the last years of Bjornstrand’s life, he fell into smaller roles for Bergman—the last one we might call a secondary lead, even, is Jacobi of Shame—and his last collaboration with Bergman places him in the role of Allan Edwall’s successor at the theater. Even in the small role of Filip Landahl, Bjornstrand stands out. He sings the Fool’s song from Twelfth Night in the last theatrical performance of Fanny and Alexander, imbuing it with more melancholy than one is typically used to; Bergman is always a little cautious of unbridled laughter. The real reason that Bjornstrand stands out to me as Bergman’s most important actor is because he is the lever between Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light, which themselves stand out to me as the lever in Bergman’s career. Through a Glass Darkly ends with one of my least favorite monologues in any movie, spoken by Gunnar Bjornstrand. He expounds on the power of love, and the connection between love and God, and how the two of them may even be the same. In Winter Light, Bergman’s next movie, Bjornstrand plays a minister named Tomas; Tomas is religious in the extreme and profoundly unspiritual. Ingmar Bergman is at his best when he struggles with God’s presence. Viewed back to back, we see an optimistic vision of God’s place in our lives balanced immediately with the actions of a man who has given up on believing that God loves us at all. It’s no accident that in both cases, Gunnar Bjornstrand is the man in front of the camera.
2 – Liv Ullmann
From Persona through Autumn Sonata, Ullmann dominates Bergman’s output, and her versatility plays into the unusual (and indelible) films that he made during that time. While the Hour of the Wolf-Shame-The Passion of Anna trio is less powerful than the Through a Glass Darkly-Winter Light-The Silence trio he made earlier in the decade, there isn’t one actor who pervades the former works as Ullmann fills the latter. In Hour of the Wolf, she plays a relatively normal person who is wrapped up so conclusively in her husband’s horrors that she cannot, in her words, adequately “protect” him from himself. In Shame, she gives us a glimpse of the different people she can bring out from a single body. Over the course of the film, which begins in a “we’ve always been at war with Eastasia” sort of society and ends with a “Wouldja look at that, Eastasia is actually invading” sort of society, Eva changes with it. She is a take-charge type, ruling the roost at home, telling her husband he’ll need a coat, pushing a pragmatic economic vision for their future. After the invasion, her burst of cynicism only lasts for so long before she succumbs to her husband’s tender point of view; she becomes a protector without the power to protect anyone any longer. Ullmann fills Eva with anger, with frustration, with energy, with softness, and ultimately with defeat. The quiet voice of a personified kitten gets some play over a picnic lunch; the angry screech of a woman at the end of her rope is there as well. Without Ullmann’s incredible range, it’s difficult to see Bergman achieving as much as he did during this later stretch of his career.
3 – Ingrid Thulin
Like Gunnar Bjornstrand, Ingrid Thulin doesn’t strike me as an especially iconic Bergman actor, but like Bjornstrand she stretches across decades of his career. Her characters are unstintingly brainy, occasionally difficult, and often self-mortifying; nowhere does this combination come through more powerfully than in Winter Light, although her leading performance in The Silence anchors a picture which would be aimless without her. In supporting roles—increasingly, as in the case of Hour of the Wolf, Cries and Whispers, and After the Rehearsal, in parts which rely heavily on the memory of others—she was often put into positions which were unflattering. Thulin was a great beauty, but in The Magician she wears a black wig so she can pass as a young man; in Cries and Whispers and Wild Strawberries, her beauty is expressly made inferior to that of Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson, respectively. Of all of Bergman’s acting collaborators, Thulin has, in my opinion, the most interesting star image, and with the possible exception of Ullmann, she is the one who I’d expect to be most successful if we transplanted her into the present day. She has eyes which are always active, always showing the audience that the character’s brain is powerfully engaged with some riveting thought which is just about to come to the screen. In Bergman’s most cerebral movies, she is typically among the most cerebral characters.
4 – Erland Josephson
Erland Josephson played bit parts for Bergman in the ’40s and ’50s, culminating with a role where he is just shockingly young and callow in The Magician. After a ten-year hiatus, he became as essential as any non-Liv Ullmann actor to Bergman’s corps, performing in supporting roles in the majority of Bergman’s major movies from Hour of the Wolf through Saraband, which was Bergman’s last. Josephson’s characters are as intelligent as Thulin’s, but where hers hide a darkness which cannot be hidden, Josephson brings a wiseacre sensibility to the fore with all of the different flavors that entails. He is sardonic and tough in Cries and Whispers, ironic and well-meaning in Fanny and Alexander, aggressive and frightening in The Passion of Anna, and most of all, smarmy and immature in Scenes from a Marriage. There’s a strong case to be made that his performance in Scenes from a Marriage is the best of any man’s in Bergman’s oeuvre. Over six hours or so, he exemplifies the male mid-life crisis at its most noxious, basically unsure of himself in each decision. He projects to the viewer a man whose interest in his wife is fading rapidly, even though he does just enough to ensure she doesn’t figure it out. He sells to us a man who wants to leave his wife for a woman half her age; he sells to us a man who wants to come home on the precipice of divorce papers. Marianne (played by Liv Ullmann in a bravura performance of her own) does not change much until we’re past the midway point of the film. Josephson, playing against Ullmann without a single other person on screen for better than four hours, is the engine of Scenes from a Marriage. Probably there is no other actor in Swedish who could have done it better.
5 – Max von Sydow
He’ll always be Karl-Oskar Nilsson to me first, granted, which may be why I have von Sydow a little lower than I think most other people would on a list like this. (‘Sup, Jan Troell.) It could also be that von Sydow is the only one of Bergman’s actors who really made something of himself in Hollywood; say what you will about The Exorcist or The Greatest Story Ever Told, but imagine telling von Sydow in 1977 that he was going to be in a Star Wars sequel as an old man. Anyway, after The Passion of Anna was released in 1969, he never again made a movie with Ingmar Bergman, but in those twelve years he was an absolute fixture, albeit something of a declining one, in his movies. He is the lead in The Seventh Seal and The Magician, a force in The Virgin Spring and Through a Glass Darkly, and billed lower in smaller works like Brink of Life. After Winter Light, he worked far more with Troell than he did with Bergman, although he does have those memorable turns in all three of Bergman’s trauma trilogy of movies: Hour of the Wolf, Shame, and The Passion of Anna. It’s in those three movies that he fully undoes the brawny work of a decade before. Gone are the medieval noblemen, the knight who returns home from the Crusades and the lord who kills the men who raped his daughter with his bare hands. Long live (erm) the neurotic, the anxious, the artistic. In Shame he is a violinist who is a true peacenik for much longer than anyone else around him; in Hour of the Wolf he is haunted by a past lover and driven to strange deeds due to strange visions. Even in Through a Glass Darkly he is content to be a husband who wears spectacles and gives lectures and goes on family vacations. The true constant in his roles is that voice, which I could recognize fifty years from now with the same immediacy. Though its baritone horn qualities are probably best for oration or for disparagement, his sotto voce conversations are the ones that stand out to me, for when it is quiet his voice fills the room with even more effect than it does when he shouts.
6 – Harriet Andersson
Of all the actors listed here, Andersson is probably the most sporadic contributor of the lot. She is essential to breakout films like Summer with Monika and Sawdust and Tinsel, one of the essential cast members in the Smiles of a Summer Night ensemble, the center of Through a Glass Darkly, and then absent for about ten years before playing the narrative center of Cries and Whispers and joining the Bergman actor reunion tour in Fanny and Alexander. There’s something to be said for the fact that she is present in major transitional works. In Summer with Monika, one of the earliest Bergman movies to make an international impression, Andersson is a lightning rod, sexy and annoying and argumentative and as much as anything else, deeply transgressive. People do far worse things in movies than steal chicken, but Andersson manages to turn that moment of shame into an incredibly painful viewing experience through her performance, which makes us feel for the young woman who is desperate to never go home again. In Through a Glass Darkly, where spirituality becomes an intense inner experience, Andersson is simply flawless. And in Cries and Whispers, which redefined the way Bergman made movies in color, Andersson was there again shrouded in red sheets against red walls and controlling the narrative of the three sisters despite her sickness. There is less of Andersson than there is of other actresses, but Andersson’s presence can count double with an ease that one never sees in, for all their greatness, in Thulin or Ullmann.
7 – Gunnel Lindblom
I have no doubt that putting Gunnel Lindblom here instead of Bibi Andersson or, heck, even people like Ake Friedell, Bengt Ekerot, or Eva Dahlbeck probably feels weird. More than any other actor, though, Lindblom played the Others of Bergman’s oeuvre. One begins with her role as Ingeri in The Virgin Spring, in which she invokes the power of Odin in flagrant contradiction to her foster family’s Christian beliefs, and, if the signs are to be believed, this is the first step in a series of events which will end in some serious bloodshed. She is positively swarthy in this part, her usually blonde hair hidden beneath a metal band’s black wig, her face dirty, her eyes dark. The comparison to Karin (Birgitta Petterson) is immediate, for where Ingeri is dark Karin is blonde, and where Ingeri is angular Karin is round. Eventually Ingeri redeems herself somewhat within the mores of the tale, helping her foster parents find Karin’s body before converting to Christianity and washing her face in the spring where Karin’s body lays. In The Seventh Seal, a movie which indulges in bizarre characters, Lindblom’s mute servant is particularly weird. Seemingly indifferent to the world around her, including, in most respects, the way Jons bosses her around and is obviously smitten with her, she is scenery for most of the movie. Perhaps it is a miracle, or maybe it’s just the greatest self-preservationist in all of The Seventh Seal giving up when she knows resistance is futile: the words “It is finished” escape from her lips, and they are some of the most chilling, wonderful words in the talkies. Even in minor roles she brings the ability to surprise or to express hidden possibility. In Winter Light, she plays a pregnant housewife who appears to be the only person in Sweden capable of a smile, hope, or life. In a pair of brief appearances in Scenes from a Marriage, she tempts Johan in an early episode and tries it again in a later one; could things have been different if Johan had not played so boldly, had opted for the safer Eva rather than Paula? Wherever Lindblom is, something scintillating is bound to follow.
Seven Crises – the most striking troubles within the mind, heart, and most likely both at once
1 – Karin in Through a Glass Darkly
In the Old Testament, to see God is to despair of one’s own life. After Jacob’s wrestling match with God and is renamed “Israel,” he does some renaming of his own. The place he fought it out with the Almighty becomes “Peniel,” for “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” Hagar did much the same thing when she called it “Beerlahairoi,” “Well of the Living One Who Sees Me,” for it was there that she believed she may have seen God and lived. I personally like an example from Judges, where one person simply says, “We shall surely die, for we have seen God.” I like to think the son of a Lutheran minister had verses like these in mind when Karin saw God and screamed. Certain that God was hidden from her sight, was perhaps behind the closed door of a closet, the door ultimately opens. What Karin saw, and felt, and knew, was an enormous spider. Karin’s schizophrenia is basically untreated—the film ends with that Gunnar Bjornstrand monologue which happens because Karin has just been taken on a helicopter to be institutionalized—but madness and God have never been mutually exclusive. The link between Karin and Julian of Norwich, as I’ve written before, is particularly strong, but where Julian took strength from the cure of her visions, it turns Karin to dust. For much of the movie, Harriet Andersson is charmingly blithe. In the image above, the joy has been sucked out of her body as a spider sucks the juices from its prey.
2 – Isak in Wild Strawberries
It seems incredible that we’ve gone this long without mentioning Isak Borg, the depressed old doctor on his way to pick up a lifetime achievement award for a life he thinks of as an enormous waste. Played by Victor Sjostrom, the man who might have been Sweden’s greatest director had our buddy Ingmar not come along, Isak personifies the lonely ennui of the elderly, but his mind is still cursedly full. The journey to Lund is, big shocker, an opportunity to explore the inside of Isak’s brain. Beginning with a prologue of an interesting nightmare Isak has (which we’ll talk about later), Isak cannot stay out of his memories. The old man living in ’50s Stockholm appears in the countryside half a century earlier, chatting with the woman he fell in love with and lost to his elder brother. There are enough Borg in that countryside to fill an episode of Star Trek: Voyager, all of them stunningly young, many of them actual children, and all of them are lost to Isak in one way or another. Sara is still alive, but she has fallen out of Isak’s life. He has a vision even stranger, somehow, of his wife and her lover in a glade. Most importantly, not all of the choices he’s made are thrown into relief through the quiet magic of memory. Isak looks at his life as if it’s been happening to someone else, but occasionally something will happen which reminds him that he was there for his own life. As he’s getting gas, he shares some words with Akerman (played by Max von Sydow in the other movie he made in ’57), who treats the doctor like a prince. Remember you? he says. How couldn’t I? He has a wife expecting a child; he suggests that “Isak Akerman would be a good name for a prime minister.” He chats about Isak’s old mother, refuses to let him pay for the gas. In my opinion, this is an understated turning point in Isak’s journey. Maybe I should have stayed here, he murmurs. That he can be a happy fixture, even a distant one, in such a buoyant person’s life signifies the possibility that his long struggle for meaning might even bear fruit.
3 – Alma and Elisabet in Persona
At first I was just going to write about Alma, and then I realized that was stupid, and so we must recognize their crises as a singular crisis: nothing less is at stake than their beings. After enough time in the hospital and then in the beach house, Alma and Elisabet have shared everything. The movie could have been called Negation and that might have been more fitting. Alma is Elisabet’s nurse, in charge of her recuperation, and ensures that Elisabet will impale her foot on some carefully placed glass. Elisabet is the stage actress who refuses to speak anymore, the patient whose recuperation is probably an act. Elisabet has a son she never wanted; Alma aborted a child who might have made her happy. When Elisabet’s husband shows up, he has sex with Alma believing she is Elisabet. No wonder the faces merge, and more than that, no wonder that Alma has to say aloud that she is not Elisabet. In The Passion of Anna, Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson star together again, and Ullmann’s character says of Andersson’s that she is a person who only exists to be filled up by others. In context, that’s a passive-aggressive dig at a friend who probably doesn’t deserve the criticism. What’s frightening about Persona is that Alma and Elisabet are incredibly open to being filled up by another, and even when they start to push back—Alma is betrayed by one of Elisabet’s letters, Elisabet realizes that Alma has the strength to maim her—it only furthers the melding of souls in the cottage.
4 – Tomas in Winter Light
Tomas’ suffering is special because, as is true for a great many of us, his pain is largely self-inflicted and yet he has no means to stanch the flow. He has withdrawn himself entirely from his life because to live it with any sort of emphasis would be to give it stakes, and he cannot stand a life with stakes. After the Spanish Civil War, he tells a congregant in a moment of surprising (and frankly unhelpful) vulnerability, it seemed like human beings could no longer fix themselves or their problems. After his wife died, an existential sense of loneliness was replaced by a physical one as well. His professional life is a sham, for he is one of the ministers who is “indifferent” to Jesus Christ. In the end the film ends more or less as it started, minus one person who cannot stand the uncertainty of the geopolitical situation any longer. It’s hard to read that in doing exactly what he’s been doing Tomas finds some kind of peace, much less personal growth, but it’s a way to live one’s life. In Winter Light Bergman refuses to give us the sense of hope that one can find in earlier works like The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries; what he finds for Tomas is the tyranny of inertia mixed with the rejection of friction.
5 – Charlotte in Autumn Sonata
The great sufferers in Autumn Sonata are the ones connected to Charlotte and emphatically not Charlotte herself. Her partner recently died mostly unresponsive in one of the sparest hospital rooms I’ve ever seen; he is not the only partner she has outlived. One of her daughters, Helena, is paralyzed and unable to communicate verbally. The other, Eva, is taking care of Helena in lieu of her drowned son. Still beautiful, charming, and desired as a pianist, Charlotte appears to have walked through a quiver of hissing, spitting cobras and emerged without a bite. Where she may believe it has something to do with her own resplendent qualities, more likely it has to do with human shields who shudder and collapse in the path behind her. In visiting Eva for the first time in many years and by failing to conform to the sobriety (or the gentleness) of her surroundings, she accidentally opens herself up to contradiction. Eva is a miserable woman and might even have been if her mother was affectionate and soft; importantly, though, Eva traces the seeds of that misery to a mother who was gone on tour often as not, and when she returned home seemed sick with the boredom of not being away from home. (I can always have more Ingrid Bergman in my life, and this sole collaboration with Ingmar is especially fitting because Bergman’s star persona even today is built on the movies she made in America and the movies she made with Roberto Rossellini. In other words, Ingrid Bergman appears intensely foreign and instantly recognizable all at once, which is just brilliant.) Over the course of the movie, repeated pickaxe pressure bears down on her until she has no choice but to at least affirm that she may bear some responsibility for the detritus she has cast away.
6 – Ester in The Silence
The old saying asks: “If you can’t live without me, why aren’t you dead yet?” Anna asks Ester a similar question after reminding her sister that she once said she didn’t want to live anymore: “So: why are you still around?” she says. Ester refuses to answer Anna’s queries about what might be tying her to life despite the basically mortal illness she’s carrying around with her, but mere hours later she is thrashing in her sickbed for air, begging for a doctor and even for her mother. Don’t let me die alone, she breathes, and it turns out as much as any other reason she has for not giving up the ghost, this is the most important. All of the important characters in The Silence are alone, occupied territory within a foreign nation, and none of them exemplify this loneliness more than Ester. Unlike Anna, she does not have a child she can instinctively pull towards her or ask favors from when she wants the company. (It isn’t that her nephew dislikes her, and in truth he probably cares more about Aunt Ester than his mother. But the bond between them is necessarily complicated by the fact that both Ester and Johan know his first duty is to Anna.) Nor does she have the strength to reach out and grab a man for a night’s worth of companionship, as, once again, Anna can and does. Ester spends the majority of The Silence in bed, propped up or spreadeagled, lucid with pain or bleary with alcohol to dull it. The only person who can be relied on to care for her and prevent her from a literal solitary death is a well-meaning employee of the hotel who tries to succor the invalid woman as best he can. The great irony of it, of course, is that Ester, a respected translator, does not speak the language of the hotel employee, and he of course cannot speak hers. Communication breaks down with her vital functions.
7 – Andreas in The Passion of Anna
The Passion of Anna is underrated, I think, and it deserves more attention as a movie which recognizes that the mind is its own fertile ground for nightmare and fantasy while knowing that the body is physical and lives in a physical world. Subtly The Passion of Anna brings out the latter in the person of Andreas, who lives alone in a small cottage without electricity; he carries a lamp around with him when it’s dark, and it is dark in the house when night falls. A neighbor is willing to give him a loan, but he says carelessly that Andreas would do well to get a job so that he can actually pay the loan back. What his prospects are is difficult to say; they live on a little island away from the mainland, and it turns out that Andreas has a prison term behind him. Loneliness is his primary state in the beginning of the movie, and it’s hard to say that a little more loneliness may not have served him well once we get to the end. Involving himself with Eva seems like a fairly safe thing to do, as she presents herself as a laid-back person and her husband is a distant type who travels frequently for work. Involving himself with Anna is to involve himself with Anna’s ghosts which are, from a certain point of view, of her own making. Andreas struggles badly in this zone, finding it difficult to live alone once he has touched a measure of human company again, and yet his character and his sorry wish for peace of mind imply that he ought to reject other people entirely.
Seven Settings – the places which are most important to the stories inhabiting them
1 – the Ekdahl House from Fanny and Alexander
One could choose any number of places from Fanny and Alexander for this exercise—intellectually I know I probably should have chosen the Vergerus house—but part of the reason I think Fanny and Alexander is more magical than any Disney movie for its first ninety minutes has to do with the house. Very early on, Alexander thinks he sees a statue moving; something is clearly afoot in this place which cannot be explained away. When Alexander’s father explains how an ordinary looking chair is in fact imbued with power and history due to its previous homes, we begin to understand how Alexander’s imagination was first ignited. As the house fills with people, both family and servants, it seems like it should be impossible to get around in the place. It’s so full of furniture and curtains and trappings and tchotchkes and decorations and energy that the aforementioned “Nu ar det jul igen” dance should probably end with someone suffering a high ankle sprain. Christmas dinner, which puts masters and servants and children at the same table, requires a pretty enormous table. This is, in not so many words, the quintessential grandparent’s house where one goes for holidays and a sense of safety, and the universality of the place mixes its architecture with whatever architecture we supply from our own memories.
2 – the mansion from Cries and Whispers
Research suggests that painting a room red can make someone angrier over time, spiking their pulse and inducing belligerence. Cries and Whispers would not be half the movie it is if it were set in a mansion painted a more normal color, or even if the walls were all kelly green or dark yellow. The longer we spend in that house, the more dangerous and pugnacious the world contained within it becomes. Resentment becomes chastisement becomes mutilation becomes death. The house could, it’s worth noting, stand some contrasting colors. With walls in blue or yellow or white to counter the encroaching incarnadine threat, the mansion is fashionable, perhaps even posh by its old-fashioned standards. With entirely red wells, the room closes in on Agnes, surely in league with the cancer that wants to kill her. She wears white, as do most of the other characters in the film; white and the outdoors are the only possible escapes, and yet they are feeble compared to the power of those walls.
3 – the foreign country from The Silence
As far as I can tell, the unnamed nation where the whole of The Silence is set is called “Timoka,” which I don’t find terrifically important. What matters most about this country is the language, which is obscure. totally defies two-thirds of the named characters, and is barely more than a curiosity to the other third. In this busy but small city where the sisters get off the train, the tanks roll and the soldiers bark and the merchants holler and the valets mutter in an impenetrable other language. It adds powerfully to the loneliness of the film, which for Ester in particular feels terribly significant. Nothing emphasizes that one is away from home faster than hearing a language that isn’t one’s own; you could put in me in the Outback or in Nunavut, but if I’m surrounded by people who speak English it wouldn’t be so foreign as a place which shares my home’s economy or climate or even social mores. Language is the unifier, and in…Timoka, I guess…distinct disunity is emphasized between our principals and the place they have happened upon. Insofar as any Bergman movie can touch on something Kafkaesque, The Silence does so by actively setting itself outside of Sweden.
4 – Faro from Through a Glass Darkly (and about a zillion other movies too but we’ll stick with this one)
There is a little island just north of a much larger but still small island in the Baltic. The little island is Faro (“Fårö”), and from 1961 into the mid-’70s, Bergman used the island again and again as a setting for his pictures. The first of them, Through a Glass Darkly, gives special attention to the singular beachfront. Rocks called “stacks” poke out seemingly at random, of varying heights but the great majority taller than a man. Something alien comes through from their presence, as if they were placed there with some meaning in mind which people like us cannot know. This is perfect for Through a Glass Darkly, which of course implies that either God or schizophrenia is having their way with a woman who cannot tell the two apart. Through a Glass Darkly, more than the other movies set on Faro, seems glad to spend time outside. It’s a little surprising at first to see people eating outside in a Bergman movie—one imagines them being tremendously anxious about shooing bugs away in between bites of food and being tremendously anxious about whether or not God is real—but not only do they dine in the late evening shadows of a tree, but they stay outside to partake in a short play. Compared to the outdoor scenes, the upstairs room or the rotting hull of a ship are positively claustrophobic.
5 – the cottage from Shame and The Passion of Anna
When I first watched The Passion of Anna, I was fairly sure that I had seen the cottage where Andreas lives before; perhaps seeing Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann trundle around it made it clear, but after looking it up I was confirmed: it’s the same place where the Rosenbergs live in Shame. The cottage and the little plot of land around it—good for a vegetable garden, some chickens—is either extremely old-fashioned or extremely impermanent. In Shame, it’s a place where Jan and Eva have come to hide from more potent danger; they have made a life for themselves in the country, but there’s no question that if the war were to end and things were to return to the status quo antebellum, they would not live at their smallholding a moment longer than was necessary. In The Passion of Anna, the fact that the house doesn’t appear to have electricity and could be basically self-sufficient in skilled hands means that it is the fitting fortress for Andreas’ initially self-imposed solitude. He is handy, which we know, and even if it requires the occasional grocery trip into town, he can manage his affairs without too much contact. The cottage, at least when fighter jets aren’t screaming overhead or when lovers are screaming inside, seems fairly pleasant. For the right people in a calm time, it could be the source of as much happiness as the Ekdahl house. Those people and situations simply cannot come together in Shame or The Passion of Anna.
6 – the early medieval countryside from The Virgin Spring
Karin and Ingeri set out to take the candles to the church in the woods and follow the path. The sun shines through the treetops, the trees themselves stretch into the sky, and a hill bends into a valley. Specifically, though, what I’m thinking about here is the location of the spring where Karin is raped and murdered, a spot that I think I could sketch out reasonably well from memory. Bergman is in the habit of using places more than romanticizing them, but where Karin is left without even the courtesy of a burial to hide the crime by the three shepherds does become literal sacred ground. The spring which comes up where her blood had run the day before will, Tore swears, become the location of a church he intends to build as penance. Tore’s hall is itself a fairly interesting setting, often dark and gloomy even when the people inside haven’t been committing capital crimes against the host. At one breakfast, the porridge is the big draw. More powerful and memorable on the whole is the place where water gushes at the end of the film.
7 – the contemporary countryside from Summer with Monika
It’s a cliche to talk about how Nature, Sex, and Women
walk into a bar all fit together in some sort of cosmic way, and it is probably regressive to continue creating such settings, but Summer with Monika does just that. On an impulse which is precipitated by some rash comments at work and at home, respectively, teenagers Harry and Monika decide to abscond with Harry’s dad’s boat and head out away from Stockholm into the countryside. There’s a reason that this movie is not “Summer with Harry,” after all. He is always connected to the boat, somehow. (In a sequence which at least evens out some of the most “women=nature” takes one might make, Harry takes on masculine challenge from another male competitor. They fight in much the same way they would if they were bucks.) What Nature, and the boat and the occasionally dire supply situation all pull together is an ultimate indifference to tomorrow. When they come back to Stockholm, both Harry and Monika are forced to pay the piper, and in the end Harry’s interest payments are a heckuva lot higher. But this summer would not matter so much if the two of them went on a series of dates in town, got coffee together, and smooched in badly lit alleyways. The high point is in the golden sun on the green grass near the water and the deciduous forests alike.
Seven Agonies – the most frightening and painful moments
1 – Self-mutilation in Cries and Whispers
Movies have frightened me before. Movies have kept me up at night before. Movies have made me feel physically ill before. This is the only moment I’ve ever watched in a movie that made me want to hide. I’m not going to talk this up much, because either you’ve seen it before and you know exactly what I’m talking about, or you deserve to experience the full-body revulsion that comes from watching this shot without someone ruining it for you. Happy trails! Don’t drop your wine glasses!
2 – the rape and murder of Karin in The Virgin Spring
Psycho, which pooled up some blood in a shower drain, was deeply offensive to many of the most prominent movie critics working at the time. The Virgin Spring was released in the same year, has a scene in which a teenager looks up at her murderer with her dying breath while the blood trickles from her nose and mouth, and picked up the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 33rd Academy Awards. You can never predict how people will react. It’s 1960, so the “What can I get away with before this turns into an NC-17 movie?” impulse is not present in here. What is present is still deeply disturbing within the bounds of what can be made at the time. There are no breasts or sexual organs of either sex, and because of that there can be no mistake, not even from the perspective of a hardened MRA, that this is the definition of rape. There are few words in the scene, which is punctuated mostly by Birgitta Petterson’s cries and moans and the scuffling on the dirt, between the branches, and upon the dress of the victim. Physically it appears that there can only be one rapist, though the other adult goatherd appears to do his best to participate. One of them takes it upon himself to deliver a fatal blow to her head with his club; she falls to the ground, pushes herself up, looks back at her attacker, and then collapses. The film, perhaps knowing something about complicity or silence, whichever word suits you more, notes a pair of onlookers besides ourselves. One is the third goatherd, who is still a child; the other is Ingeri, who traveled into the forest with Karin. They are both shocked by what is going on, obviously hurting themselves, and just as obviously both are powerless. The boy cannot stop it, although he would merely be beaten for trying to fight the two bigger men. Ingeri is even less able to change the situation, for should she try to defend Karin there is no question that the men would overpower her as well. It is a realistic scene and a terrible one, and to its credit eliminates whatever voyeuristic pleasure perverts might take from similar sequences in, say, A Clockwork Orange or Straw Dogs.
3 – the facial merging in Persona
I had a difficult time with this moment as well as the presumptive mute’s “It is finished!” in The Seventh Seal. Neither one is a particularly unhappy moment, at least not as far as a director with a list of movies this deep goes. But neither one is joyous, either; hardly does one catch feels or shout “Yippee!” at the conclusion. What the clip above totally cuts out is a long scene—really it’s more like two—in which Alma and Elisabet essentially repeat the same monologue back to each other in sequence. It is an entirely original moment, since most movies neither have the patience to repeat a scene immediately nor do most movie expect their audiences will sit through it. Without that back-to-back monologue to emphasize the famous merge (which is totally unexpected the first time one sees the movie), the merge feels more stylistic than anything else, unusual but not jawdropping. Within the context of the entire picture, this is the end of the Fourth of July fireworks display when your local town decides to send everything they’ve got up at once. The payoff of that scene which actively considers what might happen if Alma and Elisabet did become a single person floors me. It’s what ought to be meant by “psychological horror.”
4 – the open door in Through a Glass Darkly
The door opens in that upstairs room, which is totally bare. Nothing is on the cracked walls, no rug hides the rough wooden floor, no shutters stop the sun coming in. We know that something must break in this scene, know that Karin cannot be wrong about somebody emerging from the closet, and most of all that the tension cannot build any further. The door opens slowly. We wait with shallow breaths. Nothing we can see emerges from the door, but that’s not particularly important. Karin can see something, and can feel it on her body, and she screams with the sort of scream that makes the marrow in your bones freeze. Later on we learn that what she expected to be God was a great spider, and that the spider was on her body trying to rape her, for lack of better terminology. One rejects the premise that it’s God on general principle, though the fact that Karin firmly believes after the event that she has seen the Almighty makes this scene ever more terrifying.
5 – Johan leaves in Scenes from a Marriage
The funny thing about Johan telling Marianne that he’s going to Paris with a young woman he met at a conference named Paula (Love is patient, love is kind, etc.) is that she more or less takes it on the chin. The viewer does too, but then again we’ve been waiting for this sort of speech from Johan since, oh, about ten minutes into the first episode. She is obviously upset with the idea, but she does not explode or throw nearby objects or insult Johan, as we might expect her to do. It’s not until he says that he intends to be gone for the better part of the year—”eight or nine months”—that the panic really starts to set in. As I’ve written in my review of “Paula,” it’s the first time that Bergman has used a rapid zoom to get all of Marianne’s reaction, and it’s a tremendously gutsy type of shot to use. It works to perfection. Marianne looks hurt throughout the back half of this episode almost exclusively, but it is a pain that mostly remains in her eyes and her brows. Only when she calls up some mutual friends does she find out that everyone else knows that Johan is going to have a long honeymoon with Paula, and it’s only then that she begins to react with the vocal fury we expected her to lead with. By then it’s too late. She has already, like the grown-up she is, helped her husband pack his bags for his tryst.
6 – the TV interview in Shame
As much Hour of the Wolf is “the horror movie” of Bergman’s oeuvre, to me Shame is probably the scariest movie he ever made. I could have put any number of scenes in this slot, but I have a special place in the pit of my stomach for the scene where the neighboring country the Rosenbergs’ nation is at war with invades. Jan and Eva are confused more than anything, except perhaps “defenseless,” and they are stuck where they are, having already tried to cross the bridge and found it littered with a dead and intractable tank. Back at their cottage, the invading forces arrive. They intend to do a quick spot in which they show how they have liberated the unfortunates of this country; it is not clear to Jan and Eva that that’s happening, though, and neither one of them has a political position beyond “Let’s not get ourselves killed tonight.” Eva goes first, stuttering and hedging her way through the interview. It is dark outside and the lights illuminate her face only. Jan cannot even get that far; he faints dead away, unable to continue. It’s the sort of scene that feels eerily realistic; perhaps Bergman, who was admittedly a Nazi enthusiast as a young man until he found out about the Final Solution, knew something of how the blitzkrieg swept at speed and only stopped to force naive citizens to voice their approval at being “liberated.”
7 – Monika ditches Harry in Summer with Monika
Ingmar Bergman’s movies are not frequently noted for their use of music, but there’s an opportunity for a tenor to burst in toward the end of Summer with Monika and begin singing “La donna è mobile” at the top of his lungs. Monika is the personification of caprice, unwilling to contribute financially to the household and the very picture of an impoverished spendthrift; Harry, wisely, tells her that they cannot afford to go out to the movies with their expenses. She is totally against her mother-in-law’s criticism at the expense of the babysitting she does for free, and not in the least interested in motherhood. I’m young! she cries, and she certainly is. She is one of those cases where a child is taking care of a child (and Harry is the child taking care of both of them), and her youth has bred in her some sense of obligation. Because I am still young, she reasons, I should be able to escape this life of penury and onerous responsibility and return to the life I led, essentially, on the boat. It’s a cruel decision, because as much as Harry is doing Vincent Adultman cosplay to stay in a barely adequate job, one gets the sense that he too would like to make the escape that Monika is making. Only one of them can take a powder.
Seven Ecstasies – conversely, the most glorious and fulfilling moments
1 – Riding to church on Christmas morning in Fanny and Alexander
The first chapter of Fanny and Alexander is about ninety minutes long, and it is a basically perfect Christmas movie. Only small morsels of those ninety minutes stand out as unhindered joy, which I think adds to the Christmas spirit. There is a mediocre Christmas pageant, a sad and very un-Christmasy speech, hints of a death in the family, a weird sexual encounter, a married couple fighting over money and shame, and more. Fanny and Alexander and their cousins do not suffer from what the others suffer, for when the adults fight with or reminisce to or bone one another, they do it behind closed doors. What remains for the kids are the stuff that golden memories are woven from, and while it may not be the happiest or most raucous occasion, the ride to church in troikas as the sun is just rising is some of the most beautiful moviemaking I’ve ever seen. The parishioners not blessed with wealth walk in the snow, although all people hold great candles to light the way. After a fair bit of noise and bother, this is nearly silent. Alexander can hardly stay awake, but when he closes his eyes fifty years later and thinks of Christmas, doubtless this will be the scene that comes to mind first. It’s so lovely it breaks my heart.
2 – Wild strawberries and milk in The Seventh Seal
Aside from the inherent humor of two great movies from the same year using wild strawberries in a scene, there really is something tender about what the knight finds when he stumbles across the actor and his wife and their infant child. Before this, we see scenes where the squire mocks a painter depicting vignettes of pestilential hell, or where the squire intervenes before a young woman can be raped, or where the knight engages Death himself in a board game. By now the movie has made it clear what kind of world the knight has returned to, and it is clear that the knight doesn’t think much of it. But in the middle of this muddy, heaving world, a couple smiles at one another and greets him hospitably and offers him simple refreshment. In the sun, with the breeze blowing through the grass and the relative safety of the actors’ wagon, it smells like hope; in the end, the knight dies to preserve it.
3 – In the middle of the night in a dark house somewhere in the world in Scenes from a Marriage
Scenes from a Marriage would be exhausting at half the length. It is so emotionally draining, so intent on rending its viewers as certainly as it rends its protagonists that only the stonehearted can watch without gasping. After all that mess, the marital equivalent of popping a huge zit and having to clean the pus off the bathroom mirror, the film ends with a sixth chapter: “In the Middle of the Night in a Dark House Somewhere in the World.” The ungainly title is said as Johan holds Marianne in a little house not unlike the one where, seven years before, he told her that he was leaving for months to indulge in a woman not much more than a girl. Both divorced and both remarried, they reunite and drive out to the countryside. They are more natural without the pressure of their marriage to each other, more open with each other and so much kinder. As Marianne curls up in Johan’s arms (and puts one of them to sleep), they cut out the philosophy, the hypotheticals, the what-ifs. What they know is that they have each other in this tiny corner of the world, and that the sun will rise on them while they sleep. It’s a delightful ending to a movie rather like a gulp of good, clean water after a bottle of soda or one too many whiskeys. I suppose the lesson is that the dirtier one is, the better it feels to get clean.
4 – The “duel” from Smiles of a Summer Night
Jarl Kulle was a national treasure, and it is just unbelievable to me that he never collaborated more with Ingmar Bergman. His two great roles, as Count Malcolm in Smiles of a Summer Night and Gustav Adolf in Fanny and Alexander, are robust and hilarious, amusing and luminous. Carl-Magnus, insulted for the last time by Fredrik Egerman, who absolutely did not come to the country to continue insulting the ridiculous and thin-skinned soldier, challenges him to a duel over Fredrik’s conduct with the Countess Malcolm. Fredrik is not having such a good night and allows himself to be impressed into the duel. Horror falls like a curtain over the estate as a gunshot rings out, and then more gunshots; it turns out that Russian roulette appears to be Carl-Magnus’ method of choice for a duel, seeing that Fredrik cannot honestly challenge him in any other way. Certain that Fredrik is dead and that her off-and-on paramour is responsible, Desiree rushes out onto the grounds to find that Carl-Magnus has emerged, laughing to himself. It turns out that Carl-Magnus, who wasn’t likely to kill himself over Fredrik Egerman, put soot in the gun, and the soot has just made quite a mess on the lawyer. It’s a funny moment not least because everything Carl-Magnus has done is funny, but mostly because it’s the right fate to befall Fredrik, who always wants to be so dignified and proper and who keeps walking into the most ridiculous situations possible.
5 – Saying goodbye to the hitchhikers in Wild Strawberries
Another bittersweet moment, for Sara and her competing hitchhiker lovers, Anders and Viktor, have become essential members of the company en route to Lund. Meeting Sara, who bears a remarkable resemblance to the Sara he thought he would marry all those years ago (and no wonder, as Bibi Andersson plays both of them), does wonders for Isak. He is touched by her laughter, her affection for him, her willingness to endure his stories. He looks at the young men, both so different from one another and both united by their inexhaustible passion for their pretty friend, and remembers what it is like to be one of those ambitiously randy types. Singing and accompanied by Anders’ guitar, they appear beneath his balcony and bid farewell to the fellow who got them that much closer to Hamburg. Anders and Viktor mess with each other a little more, although it doesn’t seem quite as ill-tempered as it has earlier. But it’s Sara who has the kind words for the Doctor Jubilaris: “Do you know that it is really you I love, today, tomorrow, and forever?” They do not stay long, and Isak does not try to hold them; they are in a rush as young people frequently are, and he has miles to go in his mind before he sleeps. It’s a marvelous little scene, though, a brisk foreshadowing of the peace that in a few minutes envelops Isak as he enters his memory one final time.
6 – “Nu ar det jul igen,” Fanny and Alexander
It’s a short little moment in a very long movie; my very impressive arithmetic finds that it is about .3% of the movie. But as soon as I saw this, it stood out immediately. Everyone in the Ekdahl house, servants included, is part of a line of clasped hands and bouncing about the house, dodging the aforementioned clutter and laughing. No matter how old or young, Christian or Jewish, dour or blithe, everyone takes part. (Grandmother Ekdahl leads the little parade, followed immediately by Alexander; Isak Jacobi brings up the rear.) Occasionally a member of the train drops out. Some are old and out of shape. Others, like Gustav Adolf and Maj, drop out to plan an old-fashioned game of fin-de-siécle Tetris in the wee hours. And in one case, someone must stop and rest against the banister because he is dying. The sheer unfettered happiness of the moment is undeniable in this scene in which everyone sings a repetitive ditty about what order Christmas and Easter go in:
Now it’s Christmas again
And now it’s Christmas again
And Christmas lasts well till Easter,
Now it’s Christmas again
And now it’s Christmas again
And Christmas lasts well till Easter.
But that was not true
And that was not true
Because in the middle there is Lent,
But that was not true
And that was not true
Because in the middle there is Lent.
To me, who speaks not a word of Swedish, it basically sounds like someone saying “A-nyinanyinanyin” over and over again, but maybe that’s why I enjoy this so much.
7 – Vergerus gets his comeuppance, The Magician
I love this scene, which has some good old-fashioned horror techniques woven into an object lesson about smarmy arrogance. Dr. Vergerus, a mid-19th Century scientist, is utterly certain that Vogler the mesmerist and his company are tricksters and frauds. In a late-night conversation with Vogler’s wife, she said as much, yet he is not the sort of man who uses that as his primary proof. No, hypnotism and mind-reading are simply outside the range of possibility, Vergerus says, and anyone who practices these “arts” must be cut down to size by Vergerus himself. When it appears that Vergerus has been murdered by a servant who was rubbed the wrong way by the magician, Vergerus happily goes to the autopsy in an attic and discovers all is not what it seems. Body parts move. He sees a tall, gaunt man about the size of Vogler (though without his makeup and false hair) leering at him from the mirror. Vergerus’ glasses disappear. Functionally blind, he crawls around the attic entirely at the mercy of a younger and more powerful man who happened to see the doctor flirting with his wife the night before. It’s a great scene well worth the watching. It also is the ghost story that Vergerus believes in while fear rules his endocrine system, and no matter what else Vergerus has up his sleeve for Vogler, scientism is the recipient of a blow that leaves its teeth on the floor.
Seven Favorites – because “best” is overrated, and because I admire his two best, Persona and Cries and Whispers more than I love them
1 – Through a Glass Darkly
One of my most frequent complaints about media—not just movies and books and whatever fiction you have, but media—is that everyone has an opinion about religion and so few people have an honest sense of what religious belief looks like. The difference between religious faith and religious culture ought to be obvious to an impartial observer, but there are a great many (credulous…so credulous) reporters in fiction and journalism alike who cannot tell the difference. Through a Glass Darkly is about a faithful person who really does believe she is in the presence of God, and who is willing to put down everything else to run towards that presence. Karin has a good husband (probably as good a husband as Ingmar Bergman, five times married and notorious for sleeping with his leading ladies, could imagine) and a family which is imperfect but affectionate. She is compelled to throw it away, absolutely forced to change, for what she believes God is doing. No other movie I’ve seen so perfectly evinces genuine faith, nor do I think it necessarily assumes that her faith is borne of her mental illness. It seems every bit as likely to me that Karin’s faith has so completely consumed her that it has made her sick, for the truly faithful often seem unwell to the unfortunates who believe they have to care for them.
2 – Fanny and Alexander
The television version of Fanny and Alexander is five-plus hours long, and it really ought to be watched in a single stretch. (I know I overuse food analogies in my writing, but look, there are some meats that just deserve to be smoked for a long time.) I can’t help but feel that part of the magic of watching the movie is in the ever more tangible atmosphere: the buildup of the supernatural and the sadly down-to-earth, the check-ins with the many far-flung members of the Ekdahl family, the innocent hopefulness of Alexander, the young grief of Emelie, the great pragmatism of Grandmother Ekdahl, the villainy and verisimilitude of Bishop Vergerus. I’ve written before that Fanny and Alexander is the culmination of Ingmar Bergman’s career not just as a quality picture which happened to be one of his last features, but in terms of his themes and subjects as well. I don’t think I was wrong to say so, but aside from God and unbelief and mysticism and sex and family, Fanny and Alexander is very much about childhood, too, and that is not a subject that Bergman had ever spent much time with, nor is it a subject that he had done a particularly good job with when he had it in front of him; I’d argue that Johan, the little boy from The Silence, is probably as weak a thread in that picture as any. Adolescence, as evidenced by Summer with Monika or Minus’ struggle in Through a Glass Darkly to appeal to the girls outside his family as well as his dominating father, is just fine. Childhood is quite different, and the fact that Bergman has enough time to dodge in and out to what he’s more comfortable with means that we avoid the sappy perspective of “childhood” that fires the imaginations of doting grannies and puts the rest of us to sleep. Childhood is intensely fragile in Fanny and Alexander and that fragility is almost entirely the fault of grown-ups. Only Alexander’s father, who dies at a fairly young age, is basically blameless. His mother remarries the first man who says a soft word to her (and that soft word is “discipline,” of all things), and our eponymous siblings are thrust from a happy, carefree life to one of binding horror. Adults should have interceded earlier; when they do intercede, it takes a literal miracle to set things right. In the end, Alexander is the magic lantern projecting images on the screen, not the images themselves, and that makes all the difference to this movie. I cannot wait to carve out time to watch it again.
3 – Scenes from a Marriage
In terms of thinking about it, writing about it, and watching it, none of Bergman’s movies have filled my time the way Scenes from a Marriage has. Aside from being about 280 minutes long, which gives it a head start over some of these other flicks, I am continually amazed by the movie’s focus. From the midpoint of episode 2 to the end of episode 5 (out of six episodes total), the only two people on screen are Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, and this doesn’t consider how much time in episode 6 is only theirs. (For comparison: Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, which I adore, is 290 minutes total and frequently prods Jesse and Celine in the first and third movies.) We get an obsessive look at their relationship, watching it turn from troubled to doomed to hateful to friendly over the course of some years. The long fight in Before Midnight, as spellbinding and awful as it is to watch, lacks the ferocity of the “The Illiterates.” Scenes from a Marriage isn’t shy about sucking out poison over and over again, as the end of the first episode, “Innocence and Panic,” strongly suggests must occur. And it does, bit by bit, as Marianne begins to come to terms with what it would mean to live her life for herself, and as Johan is forced to reckon with the wreckage of his arrogance.
4 – Winter Light
Winter Light is barely over eighty minutes long, which makes it a short feature by basically any standard. Where most movies about the length can usually be described as “tense” or “brisk” or “fast-paced,” Winter Light is an exacting eighty minutes where nothing much happens. There’s no rush in Winter Light. In my humble opinion, the best scene of the movie occurs when Tomas reads a letter from Marta. He is seated; we see her sitting down and speaking to the camera; we see them kneeling together at the altar. The emphasis remains entirely on words, and the emphasis of the words is on stagnancy. Gunnar Bjornstrand’s voice tells us how little energy Tomas can put into any emotion short of scorn. Ingrid Thulin presses words like “love” or “marriage” into the conversation only to hear them swatted away. Winter Light is a movie about suffering of all kinds, but its slow pace and measured emotional reactions don’t beg or force their way into the viewer. Winter Light is a movie without solace, and that makes it unique and fascinating to me.
5 – Wild Strawberries
There may be an age gateway before a director can make a great movie about an aging person reaching the end of his/her life. Maybe you have to be in your late thirties before the question even begins to influence your thoughts, or maybe you don’t know enough about what it means to grow old before you start to get old yourself. I like to think it’s a question of empathy. But here are some of the great movies about growing old and being forced to reflect on your own past, and here’s how old their directors turned in the year the movies were released:
- The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp – Michael Powell, 38
- Sunset Boulevard – Billy Wilder, 44
- Ikiru – Akira Kurosawa, 42
- Harold and Maude – Hal Ashby, 42
- The Mirror – Andrei Tarkovsky, 42
- Make Way for Tomorrow – Leo McCarey, 39 (Yasujiro Ozu was 49 when Tokyo Story was released, incidentally.)
- Citizen Kane – Orson Welles, 26 (which, in the context of these other guys, is absolutely ridiculous)
- Wild Strawberries – Ingmar Bergman, 39
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the magical time just before or after forty makes a difference, nor is it a surprise to me that when Bergman made the best movie he would ever make about what it means to grow old and come to terms with the life you’ve lived, he was in that sweet spot. Wild Strawberries is warm to the touch all these years later, and you don’t have to collect your Social Security or even be thirty-nine to appreciate Isak Borg’s path from self-pity to self-acceptance.
6 – Autumn Sonata
I may have a Hollywood-shaped foot on the scale for Autumn Sonata, which is something of a minor work on the whole but does have that marvelous starring role for Ingrid Bergman. (There’s a good case to be made that aside from Bergman herself, Max von Sydow is the most Hollywood actor Ingmar Bergman ever worked with successfully. A few years earlier, Bergman made The Touch with Elliott Gould, which, uh, didn’t take.) Part of my affection for the movie is in the movie’s appropriately autumnal color scheme. Orange and light brown and yellow fill the sets, touched off by the red dress Charlotte wears at dinner one night and the perpetual hint of fireplaces. As much as black-and-white photography suited Bergman, there’s no doubt that his color pictures, especially those with Sven Nykvist’s command of photography, were sensationally beautiful. Autumn Sonata is also one of the very few Bergman pictures which eschews romance entirely. Even though Eva is married and her mother has gone through a series of lovers, there’s no hint of that erotic touch in the movie. And indeed, the husbands bow out entirely. Charlotte’s husband dies in a flashback; Eva’s husband has a chance to involve himself in the clash that his wife and mother-in-law are having downstairs, but recuses himself. It’s the right choice on all levels, for Ingr. Bergman and Ullmann are two great actresses and, in the traditional Ingm. Bergman style, he lets them have at each other. (There’s some Hollywood on the scale in their fight, too, which is dynamic and toothy and extremely familial.)
7 – The Seventh Seal
The Seventh Seal was the first Bergman movie I saw, back when I was a teenager who knew that “Ingmar Bergman” and “The Seventh Seal” were good Trivial Pursuit answers and knew nothing more of the guy. I had even read the screenplay before I watched the movie—I’d picked up a small volume of some Bergman screenplays at a yard sale just because—and I was a little amazed at how exciting I found a movie which had been advertised as pensive. It’s an exciting movie! There’s a reason we always return to the sight of Death appearing on a rocky beach and confronting the unwary knight: it is tremendously cinematic. The characters, no matter where they get picked up, are always on the run from death. Apart from Block, who is actively running from death, or Jons, who is doing it without having met the fellow, think of Skat, the self-involved actor who tries to go to sleep in a tree only to find that Death is there with a saw to cut him down. The scenes of religious mania interpolating scenes of quiet reflection makes both that much more real; not that I’m complaining, but heaven knows Bergman was glad to use murmured monologues and quiet conversations as much as anyone. Something about the impending threat of a witch burning the old-fashioned way (i.e., dropping her into a pit of fire) and the harangues of a monk followed by a brigade of folks alternately walking on their knees or undergoing some flagellation adds an important depth of feeling to the movie. It is not merely Death who stalks the cadre of survivalists, but his boss, God Himself. There are better Bergman movies out there, but I can’t imagine that any of them will ever become as iconic as The Seventh Seal.