It is now more than two decades since Ingmar Bergman directed his last film. While it would be going too far to suggest that Bergman's work has fallen into neglect -- any film history course worthy of the name still screens such early classics as "The Seventh Seal" and "Wild Strawberries" -- he has perhaps attained the curious but not uncommon stature of an artist whose work is more often praised than it is actually experienced.
All the more reason, then, to rejoice in a major citywide retrospective of more than 25 Bergman films opening on Wednesday, the master's 86th birthday. Over the course of six weeks, viewers will have the chance to see brand-new 35mm color prints of celebrated works including "Cries and Whispers" (1972), "The Magic Flute" (1975) and "Fanny and Alexander" (1983), along with such relative obscurities as "Three Strange Loves" (1949), "Hour of the Wolf" (1968) and "The Rite" (1969), in what has been well described as "glorious black-and-white."
At the same time, Criterion and MGM Home Entertainment have brought out a representative sampling of Bergman films on DVD. Many of these have extra features: interviews with Bergman and his casts, original theatrical trailers and the like. Criterion's "Scenes From a Marriage" is presented both in its original form as six hour-long episodes fashioned for Swedish television in 1973 and in its subsequent, truncated but tauter theatrical release the following year. And then there is the first release of "Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie," a two-hour documentary by Vilgot Sjoman that chronicles the evolution of "Winter Light" (1962) from the beginning of the scripting process to the grave, austere masterpiece it would become.
Still, while acknowledging the care and taste with which these DVDs have been fashioned, the fact remains that Bergman makes his strongest impression in a movie theater. It is all but impossible to get anything out of a complicated film such as "The Silence" (1963) amid ringing telephones, barking dogs and the general tumult of a busy household. More perhaps than any other filmmaker, Bergman demands -- and repays -- total immersion, immersion in a darkened room where he can cast his monumental shadows on a screen.
His own immersion began at the age of 10, when his family acquired a primitive projector that Bergman quickly appropriated for himself. All his pocket change went for scraps of film, which he would splice together into ad-hoc stories. He was writing and directing plays before he was out of his teens and sold his first screenplay at the age of 26; it was called "Torment," which turned out, in retrospect, to have been a representative Bergman title, indicative of what was to come. His debut film as a director, "Crisis," was released a year later, in 1945. From then on, for the better part of four decades, Bergman was seldom without a movie project.
"Artistic creation always manifested itself to me as hunger," Bergman wrote in 1966. "It goes without saying that film became my means of expression. I made myself understood in a language going beyond words, which failed me; beyond music, which I did not master; beyond painting, which left me indifferent. I was suddenly able to correspond with the world around me in a language spoken literally from soul to soul, in phrases which escaped the control of the intellect in an almost voluptuous way. With the whole stunted hunger of a child I seized upon my medium and, tirelessly and in a kind of frenzy, I supplied the world with dreams, intellectual excitement, fantasies, fits of lunacy."
This statement, while illuminating, is much too modest. In fact, one of the qualities that set Bergman's films apart is their profound sensitivity to music and visual art. In his later films especially, he loves music enough to use it sparingly and with overwhelming effect (the score for "Cries and Whispers," for example, employs only a Chopin mazurka and a movement from a Bach cello suite, but anybody who knows the film well will remember exactly when they make their appearance). And, from a visual perspective, it is hard to find a single frame in a Bergman film that is not a distinguished composition in itself. Bergman, who spoke on several occasions of his dislike for what he called the "goddamn technical slovenliness" of the French New Wave filmmakers, left nothing to chance in his own work.
He chose his actors carefully and then employed them again and again, in a wide variety of roles; viewers who followed his oeuvre closely came to consider his casts a sort of celluloid family. Harriet Andersson was both the breathtaking vision of erotic health in "Summer With Monika" and the agonized, cancer-wracked sister in "Cries and Whispers." Max von Sydow was equally at home as a pilgrim in "The Seventh Seal" and a con man in "The Magician." Liv Ullmann was in most of Bergman's later films: More recently, she directed one of his scripts, "Faithless," which was released to critical acclaim in 2001. And let us not forget Gunnar Bjornstrand, Ingrid Thulin, Gunnel Lindblom and Bibi Andersson, all of whom populated Bergman's universe repeatedly, reliably and indelibly.
The popular image of Bergman as a gloomy, brooding philosopher of the North is too reductive. He made comedies throughout his career, some of them excellent (Stephen Sondheim was so taken with "Smiles of a Summer Night" that he adapted it into "A Little Night Music"). "Fanny and Alexander," Bergman's final film, is as generous and jubilant a celebration of life and living as anything by Fellini. Even "Scenes From a Marriage," after some of the most excoriating domestic arguments in the literature, concludes with an affirmation of love's possibility for regeneration and continuum, despite all.
Still, few artists have plumbed what Saint John of the Cross called "the dark night of the soul" so repeatedly and courageously as Bergman. "Through a Glass Darkly" is "about" a lot of things, but on the most basic level it is the story of a lovely young woman's descent into madness. "Winter Light," Bergman's favorite among his films, addresses loss of faith, suicide and the possibility of nuclear holocaust. "Cries and Whispers" is aptly titled, and "Shame" is among the most brutally realistic depictions ever made of war and its attendant chaos. And yet the effect of these films is not morbid but cathartic, in the manner of Greek drama.
It is perhaps frivolous to speak of a great artist "falling from fashion." But many of the values that are so highly prized in artworks of the early 21st century -- irony, multiculturalism, a certain breeziness of affect -- are quite different from those that Bergman offers. He is an unapologetically "high culture" European modernist, from a very specific time and place, one deeply influenced by the Lutheran faith (which he abandoned but not without a struggle), by psychoanalysis and existentialism, and by the dreamlike chamber plays of his great countryman August Strindberg. To this heritage, he has added his own filmic innovations, his own anxieties and obsessions, and a matchless linear intensity.
Not all of his films are successful.
"Sawdust and Tinsel" (also known as "The Clown's Evening" and "The Naked Night") has its admirers but has always struck me as a failed mating of "The Blue Angel" and "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" -- crabbed, none-too-subtle German expressionism imported from away. "The Touch" -- with a hysterically over-the-top performance by (of all people!) Elliott Gould -- is one of three films Bergman, in his autobiography, refers to as "embarrassing failures." (The other two, for the record, are "Face to Face" and "The Serpent's Egg": Only the last of these is generally available.)
Bergman was always an astute critic of his own work. During "Autumn Sonata" (1977), his sole collaboration with a Swedish Bergman even more famous than he was -- actress Ingrid -- he discovered that he had begun to repeat himself. "I have never been able to appreciate [Luis] Bunuel," he offered by way of explanation. "He discovered at an early age that it is possible to fabricate ingenious tricks, which he elevated to a special kind of genius, particular to Bunuel, and then he repeated and varied his tricks. He always received applause. Bunuel always made Bunuel films. So the time has come for me to look in the mirror and ask -- where are we going? Has Bergman begun to make Bergman films? I find that 'Autumn Sonata' is an annoying example."
There would be only one more major film, but it was major indeed. Bergman called "Fanny and Alexander" "a huge tapestry filled with masses of color and people, houses and forests, mysterious haunts of caves and grottoes, secrets and night skies." Note the word "tapestry," as opposed to anything suggesting a unified narrative: Bergman wants a viewer to "pick the images and the incidents and the characters that fascinate." There are two versions of "Fanny and Alexander"; the one more generally available (and the one that will be shown here) is 188 minutes, but there is also a five-hour edition that Bergman augmented for television release.
Bergman cited the German fantasist E.T.A. Hoffmann and the Victorian novelist Charles Dickens as the two "godfathers" of "Fanny and Alexander" -- and one can feel their influence throughout. Here Bergman embraces filmic spectacle ("Fanny and Alexander" probably cost as much as any 10 of his films from the '50s and '60s) without giving up his extraordinary gift for intimacy. The story is of the joys and sorrows of a family of actors, struggling through at the beginning of the last century, as witnessed by the young, sensitive Alexander, who we can already tell will grow up to be an artist.
"Fanny and Alexander" is charged throughout with a sense of childlike wonder. Bergman, while denying any factual autobiographical elements in the film, did set down what might have been Alexander's credo: "To be honest, it is with delight and curiosity that I think back on my childhood. My imagination and senses gained nourishment and I cannot remember ever being bored. Rather the days and hours exploded with these strange wonders, unexpected sights and magical moments. I can still roam through the landscape of my childhood and re-create the lighting, smells, people, places, moments, gestures, intonations and objects."
Since concluding "Fanny and Alexander," Bergman has devoted his energies to directing plays, writing novels and occasional scripts. He lives today on an island off Sweden, where he built a home in the 1960s (and where much of Ullmann's "Faithless" was shot). "I prefer to leave filmmaking to younger people," he said while wrapping up "Fanny and Alexander." "I need too much energy. Besides, it can never be more fun than it is right now!"
In electing to retire at the peak of his powers, Bergman observed one of the oldest and most useful dictums of the theater -- he left us wanting more. Still, merely to think on some of the images Bergman has given us -- the old man, transfigured with joy, at the end of "Wild Strawberries"; the glossary of a few "words in a foreign tongue" that is the sole legacy from a stricken scholar dying in a foreign town in "The Silence"; Ingrid Thulin's naked and devastating monologue in "Winter Light"; the three sisters walking on a bespangled autumn day in "Cries and Whispers" -- is to feel enormous gratitude that we lived in his time. When we come to the end of one of Bergman's best films, we are not quite the same people we were before. Of how many artists can that be said?