One of the disappointing and unfortunate inevitabilities of being an Ingmar Bergman fan is the fact that he gets pigeonholed as nothing but that “depressing Swedish guy“. To be fair, his films bend towards the melancholic side of the cinematic spectrum. Despite this however, it is always confusing for me to hear this because when I think of his films I see a bright, poignant beauty rather than depression. He was a man with a complicated but deep, passionate love for humanity and it is this foundation which is necessary for such deep philosophical and psychological excavation. The contrast between light and dark is necessary to balance out and emphasize both sides: the darker the dark, the lighter the light.
For example, look at his film The Silence (1963): this film concluded his so-called “Faith Trilogy”, where he is in real time, I would argue, chronicling his own deconversion experience. His religious upbringing and his crippling fear of death were dissolving and his belief that humans could love each other and communicate their feelings to support a “happy life” was slipping. Birgitta Steene explains this period in his work and life when she notes:
“When God dies away, when the father fails or withdraws from his child and leaves it alone, language loses its communicative and healing power. Bergman’s exploration of the god-parent-child syndrome takes then, in part, the form of a philosophical testing of language. His conclusion is that conventional language cannot be used by people to convey love. Nor can it be trusted, since it tends to destroy relationships or else lull people into a false sense of security.”
This is a film that should be nothing but depressing (granted much of it is) but it also contains what I would argue is one of the most subtly beautiful and hopeful moments in all of his work.
On their way back to Sweden, a woman (Anna), her son (Johan), and her sister (Ester) stop off in an Eastern European city where they spend the night in a hotel examining their relationship while the boy wanders the halls of the foreign and strange hotel. Though of course a film entitled The Silence is never going to contain an immense amount of dialogue, when the characters do speak they tend to speak in short, biting, and penetrating insults.
Yet, towards the beginning of the night, this family find themselves quietly sitting in their room when the music of Bach’s Goldberg Variations comes onto the radio. Here, they sit and listen. Finally, a reprieve from the tension, a moment where something is touched. Bach’s music provided the space for these women to sit with each other, just sit. This brief suspension from the bitterness is a transcendent moment of impalpable human contact. All brought to the forefront by Bach, Johan Sebastian Bach.
This brings us to the pinpoint of light that Bergman uses the darkness to highlight: just because one cannot necessarily communicate with 100% accuracy and trust, does not mean that one cannot communicate anything. Even at his most skeptical in The Silence, he gave something. Something that communicates without specificity but with visceral, constructive power. The two sisters sit peacefully listening to Johan Sebastian Bach. Words may distort and confuse. Nevertheless, Bach exists. Music exists. Cinema exists. So it seems, for Bergman communication is possible. Just that: possible.
Words are concession. Accuracy is not possible. But Bergman’s films insist that accuracy is not necessary. The continual back and forth of Johan and Marianne in Scenes from a Marriage (1973) is a dialectical movement: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Over and over, and somehow, someway, it appears to push towards some kind of understanding. Some semblance of communication is birthed. But it is accurate only insofar as it is enigma.
It seems for Bergman, that connection is a wild and untamed animal, something almost entirely outside of our control--a random memory for Agnes in Cries and Whispers, Bach on the radio in The Silence--but mostly, it seems to be deceptively small and subtle moments, or characters where we see love and at least the potential for connection, and consequently communication.
Subtle moments within a sea of critique or pessimism begin to show their respective importance. What is a brief moment of respite in a film like The Seventh Seal worth? Everything. In fact, the very possibility of the strawberries and milk scene reveals a not so subtle and radical statement that often gets left out: Bergman’s humanism. So, instead of just saying The Seventh Seal is a depressing movie too concerned with death, once contextualized, it begins to possess a perceptively beautiful, albeit nebulous, form of hope--not optimism, but the recognition of the chance for some hope not just in spite of humanity, but because of the potential of humanity.
One cannot have the bright, beautiful moments in Bergman without the respective, darkness--the chiaroscuro if you will. Chiaroscuro is a painting technique utilized by artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Carvaggio which highly contrasts light and shadow. Thus, I am apparently making an argument that Bergman is formally a descendant of these masters who used the darkness itself to draw the eye towards the light. It is the contrast that makes the dark, darker, and the light, lighter.
Though surely not an airtight analogy, the existential and borderline deconstructive critique of language within Bergman can be seen to highlight what ends up the primary focal point (regardless of how small and subtle it may be) that just because one cannot necessarily communicate with 100% accuracy and trust, does not mean that one cannot communicate anything. Marc Gervais emphasizes how essential this potentiality is when he notes: “The ‘real answer’ for Bergman himself? All the suffering, and deception, ambivalence, and even death itself, are worth it, if we can touch each other at certain moments.”
To conclude I shall quote another poignant, beautiful moment, this time from the film Cries and Whispers. Anna, a young servant woman reads the diary of the recently deceased woman, Anna, where she recalls a beautiful memory with her sisters:
“I closed my eyes and felt the breeze and the sun on my face. All my aches and pains were gone. The people I’m most fond of in the world were with me. I could hear them chatting round about me, I felt the presence of their bodies, the warmth of their hands. I closed my eyes tightly, trying to cling to the moment and thinking: come what may, this is happiness. I can’t wish for anything better. Now for a few minutes, I can experience perfection. And I feel a great gratitude to my life, which gives me so much.”
Meaning, communion, contact is transient. It is randomly stumbled upon; it is contrived for unknown periods of time, but it exists. It is possible. It is Bach on a foreign radio.
- Jared Wagner