In 1964, Ingmar Bergman says in an interview with Playboy magazine, “I don’t believe that people can change, not really, not fundamentally. Do you? They may have a moment of illumination, they may see themselves, have awareness of what they are, but that is the most they can hope for.”
There you have the legendary filmmaker’s rather bleak view of the human condition. But then, Bergman would go on to film the most intimate of psychological dramas in cinema, with the finesse of a psychoanalyst, in an illustrious career that peaked from the 1950s to the 1980s.
Bergman is one of the seminal filmmakers of our time, and he profoundly influenced new wave cinema. To watch Bergman’s work on screen is to go on a long and winding journey into the deep recesses of the human psyche. No other director has explored the emotional vulnerabilities of our kind as the Swedish master.
In time, Bergman transcended the medium, pondering over questions about love, the meaning of life, faith in post-war Europe, the vagaries and virtues of human bondage, morals and mortality, and so forth, and in the process, became one of the quintessential auteurs of the 20th century.
One of the few philosopher-filmmakers, Bergman saw cinema essentially as an existential experiment. His obsession with death, human relationships in disarray, a godless world, the misery of existence, and all that is macabre is perhaps only matched in literature.
Bergman’s disciples, too, dabbled in similar themes but seem starved and out of depth in contrast. From Woody Allen to David Lynch and Wes Anderson to Alejandro Inarritu, something’s amiss.
Bergman’s love of the human face is quite the motif in his works. The brilliant craft seasoned with his experience in theatre, inspired much early in life by Ibsen and Chekhov, and his absolutist notion on the importance of mood lighting were always perfected by two great cinematographers, Gunnar Fischer and Sven Nykvist. Regular players Max von Sydow, Liv Ullman, Bibi Andersson, Harriet Andersson and others look as though they were simply created for Bergman.
“Faces are a big thing. The human face is the most cinematographic thing that exists. It is sensational and fascinating to look at a face,” Bergman would tell broadcaster Melvyn Bragg.
Bergman had his demons. Born in 1918, in Uppsala, he grew up as the troubled child of a Lutheran minister. Later, in personal life, he would be characterised by his arrogance, fits of rage, infidelity and reclusive nature, perhaps the result of a traumatised past. However, he was successful in turning those demons into powerful narratives on celluloid — reminiscent in the dark yet deeply aesthetic world that he created in his films, yet to be surpassed.
“I have learnt that if I can master the negative forces and harness them to my chariot, then they can work to my advantage. Lilies often grow out of carcasses,” Bergman told Reuters in 2001.
Critics may say watching Bergman is to embrace the stereotypical Nordic gloom, but he was only exposing the very nature of our virtues and follies in their most dramatic on film.
Bergman in Bengaluru
The city’s very own international film festival — BIFFes—is now honouring the auteur with a retrospective. The festival begins on February 21
and concludes on February 28. For the film-goer of the day, Bergman may come across as a provocateur. Indeed, he is, constantly pushing the limit, unravelling the intricacies of the self, and triggering introspection like none other on celluloid.
Today, many might dismiss a study of the psyche in cinema as too arty or intellectual, but in fact it is quite the opposite, and timely for the times we live in.
Screening the master’s work in this day and age sends a strong message as well — a message to those increasingly questioning artistic expression and demanding curbs on it, for reasons too silly.
One shouldn’t miss the avant-garde Persona (1966), so ahead of its time, for the most sensual portrayal of women in the history of cinema, Summer with Monika (1953), a tale of young love and loathing and later bastardised for audiences elsewhere, the deeply reflective Wild Strawberries (1957), the path-breaking Seventh Seal (1957), the fabled Virgin Spring (1960) and the painfully intimate Cries and Whispers (1972), among many other equally interesting and important films ever to be made.
Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), The Hour of the Wolf (1968), Through a Glass Darkly (1961), The Silence (1963), The Touch (1971), Scenes From a Marriage (1973), Autumn Sonata (1978) Fanny and Alexander (1982), all proclaim we have much more to understand about the inner workings of our own minds.
In the interview to Playboy, Bergman warns, “What matters most of all in life is being able to make that contact with another human. Otherwise, you are dead, like so many people today are dead.”
The year that passed saw the centenary of this prolific master who died aged 89 in 2007.