“No form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does, straight to our emotions, deep into the twilight room of the soul.” - Ingmar Bergman
Why should anyone care about a man named Ingmar? Ingmar--a name which is surely as foreign to most film-goers as the ostensibly unapproachable, dated and subtitled films that he made. Unfortunately, to talk about the importance or influence of this Swedish, Art-house filmmaker can perhaps be a bit fruitless in the world of cinema. On the one hand, like a game of telephone in the world of moving pictures, there are many who simply regurgitate praises upon the man all while uncritically creating a caricature and respect him because they are told that "Ingmar Bergman is to be respected". On the other hand, I can imagine that few of the words that I just wrote ignite any semblance of intrigue or interest for the average film-goer: Swedish, Art-house, (my potentially pretentious use of) the word "Cinema". I am sure that each of these descriptors (but wait, there's more!: philosophical--at times religious, formal--at times experimental, pessimistic--at times nihilistic) contain something within them that screams inaccessible, uninteresting, or unrelatable.
With that said, it is the goal and desire of this author and project to change that. Even if just a little bit, to turn the oblique, into the approachable; to turn the potentially pretentious into the introspective; and to turn the off-putting, into a space of critical response. Why? Because although from an early age a deep love for cinema had already been cultivated in me, it was not until I discovered Ingmar Bergman around the age of 17 that I stumbled upon an artist who would profoundly change how I would perceive both art and life. Never before had I experienced cinema’s potential for such profound, aesthetic beauty, philosophical relatability, or honest (albeit enigmatic) hope.
However, there is no need to take my word for it. The film world since the 1950's has succumbed to Bergman adoration. He was first praised internationally by many French critics and filmmakers--e.g. Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Eric Rohmer--and this influence would soon reach other international giants such as Andrei Tarkovsky, Satyajit Ray, Akira Kurosawa, and Federico Fellini. Moreover, this extends to American filmmakers such as David Lynch, Ridley Scott, Francis Ford Coppola, and Woody Allen. Martin Scorsese also expresses the magnitude of Bergman’s influence for his generation of filmmakers when he proclaims:
“I guess I’d put it like this: if you were alive in the ‘50s and the ‘60s and of a certain age, a teenager on your way to becoming an adult, and you wanted to make films, I don’t see how you couldn’t be influenced by Bergman. You would have had to make a conscious effort, and even then, the influence would have snuck through.”
(For more on the influence and legacy of Ingmar Bergman, a more expansive exploration can be found here: http://www.ingmarbergman.se/en/universe/bergmans-legacy)
Born in 1918, the son of a well-renowned Lutheran minister in Sweden, Bergman once stated that his relationship to religion (and by extension, philosophy) was intrinsically tied to his identity: “I’ve absorbed Christianity with my mother’s milk.” Despite this however, throughout his life and his work, he never stopped questioning, doubting, and rebelling against the worldview of his upbringing. As a result, it is not surprising to see Bergman forego complacency and instead experience him wrestle with questions such as the difficulty of self-awareness, communicating with others, and by implication the possibility of understanding an objective meaning to the universe.
This difficulty, or problem of communication, then finds itself related to Bergman's own opinions about cinema as an artistic medium as a whole. Particularly, he famously stated his belief that cinema, at its core, is a precognitive medium. In other words, a medium that is concerned with affect--feeling and emotion. Often he explicitly stated that film was most closely analogous to music--with its rhythms, its atmospheres, its moods. One can find within this the implicit challenge to the popular theory of narrative cinema:
"Film has nothing to do with literature; the character and substance of the two art forms are usually in conflict. This probably has something to do with the receptive process of the mind. The written word is read and assimilated by a conscious act of the will in alliance with the intellect; little by little it affects the imagination and the emotions. The process is different with a motion picture. When we experience a film, we consciously prime ourselves for illusion. Putting aside will and intellect, we make way for it in our imagination. The sequence of pictures play directly on our feelings.”
It is this awareness--or, at the very least, this interpretation--of the “receptive process” of cinema, united with his emotional/psychological intelligence, which allows Bergman to communicate ideas about humanity and existence so acutely and chillingly. And it is this attention to how his viewers feel because of his films that is necessary to understand the man himself. Throughout his life, he sought to understand and be understood by both himself and others. This is what the problem of communication is for Bergman. Practically speaking, he asked whether or not it is possible for one to truly and fully understand and express their own feelings so that another could receive and understand? Whether his films concern romantic, religious, artistic, or familial relationships, the practical problem of communication always stands in the way.
Despite the fact that many, including myself, find greatness in Bergman’s words, throughout his career one finds his trust in them waning: “Words are used to conceal reality, aren’t they? I’m not very good at words. When I try to say something in words, I always to seem to lose half of what I want to communicate.” As a result, it is not a coincidental, nor is it surprising that at the end of his, so-called “metaphysical” period, he concludes with two films which directly attempt to undermine our language systems (The Silence  and Persona ). Bergman had thus moved past specific, theological questions, to challenging our ability to contextualize and make sense of our reality as a whole.
However bleak this may appear (admittedly, it does get pretty bleak), our maestro tends to leave a sliver of nebulous hope for the viewer to grasp onto. In the heart of The Seventh Seal (1957), a communion of wild strawberries and milk emphasize a potential relief from existential anxiety; in the concluding moments of Through a Glass Darkly (1961) Minus exclaims "Papa spoke to me!" announcing some kind of communication taking place between father and son; in the depths of The Silence, the music of Bach and a handwritten note express the connection between aunt and nephew; and Anna's diary in Cries and Whispers (1972) expresses, as Marc Gervais notes, that "[a]ll the suffering, and deception, ambivalence, and even death itself, are worth it, if we can touch each other at certain moments."
Through a series entitled "Communicating Bergman", here at Cinema-Worcester we will be exploring the great Swedish filmmaker in relation to his explication of the problem of communication. First, in The Seventh Seal, Bergman explores how some attempt to communicate with the Divine, in Autumn Sonata (1978), how a mother and a daughter attempt to dissect their plagued relationship, in Hour of the Wolf, how an artist attempts to communicate with the unconscious “self”, and lastly, in Scenes from a Marriage, how a married couple attempt to understand themselves in order to attempt to communicate with the other.
- Jared Wagner