Ingmar Bergman: Life Without Death

19 August 2015

Over a career spanning seven decades and more than fifty films, Ingmar Bergman has crafted some of the most singular, emotive and reflective works of art in cinematic history. Many of his films (Wild Strawberries, Persona and Cries and Whispers to name a few) are cited by critics and filmmakers as bold and inspiring reflections on the human condition and how we face and grapple with mortality. Whether you consider yourself an avid movie fan or a curious observer, I would encourage anyone who is interested in cinema to seek out his films.

Born in Uppsala, Sweden, Bergman was raised by a conservative Lutheran father whose strict parenting and overbearing religious teachings profoundly impacted him during childhood. Often abused and locked in the dark for disagreeable behaviour, Bergman was left emotionally distraught and devoted a large degree of his career to focusing on family relationships. At the beginning of his career he worked as an assistant director, before making his first films in the late 1940s. In 1955, Bergman achieved international acclaim with his film Smiles of a Summer Night. He was granted complete artistic control of his films from then on.

Bergman’s work recursively assesses themes such as death and mortality (The Seventh Seal), the absence of God (Through A Glass Darkly, Winter Light), and family and marital disintegration (Scenes from a Marriage, Fanny And Alexander). Like many great film artists, Bergman chose to continually reassess these themes as he felt deeply confronted by their impact on his life. His characters embodied his own longing for emotional stability, often expressing feelings of despair and self-persecution. Bergman chose to express these emotions through imagery rather than words, often creating nostalgic dream sequences or filming characters’ faces close up in a long, single take. This latter technique became a defining characteristic of Bergman’s work who, along with cinematographer Sven Nykvist, stated that it was in the subtleties of the human face that true emotion was conveyed.

When I was a little younger, I sought out an Ingmar Bergman film (Wild Strawberries, in fact) on the recommendation of directors such as Martin Scorsese and Wes Anderson – both of whom preached of the subtle power of his films and their ability to stir up submissive inner emotions. Intrigued, I sat through the movie, more and more bored as it ticked over. After it finished, I discarded it and thought nothing of it. But then a strange thing happened. I noticed how the questions raised by the characters in the film held a startling relevance to my own insecurities and inner frustrations. More importantly, the more I searched and questioned the meaning of occurrences in my own life, the more I recognised how insightful and sensitive the movie was in not only posing these questions, but in suggesting and dramatizing them in a thematic way.

I am recalling this initial hesitance to Bergman’s work to demonstrate that as such with many great works of art, they can initially be perceived as impenetrable and therefore disengaging. I think this is the case particularly with old movies which are so different from the way we engage with a moving image today. In our consumerist culture, we are constantly surrounded by sporadic, quick cut media fragments, and thus find ourselves struggling when we are placed in front of a movie that slows down and asks us to do the same.

Bergman’s films have a compelling power; they confront us and they force us to turn the questions on ourselves. If you can, take the time to explore the work of a great artist who was just as interested in life as he was tormented by it.

Image credit: Public doman via Wikimedia Commons

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