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Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 24, No. 12. 1961.

Faith, Death and Doubt— the films of Ingmar Bergman

Faith, Death and Doubt— the films of Ingmar Bergman

When "Time" magazine devoted its cover and a lengthy article to the biography and work of Ingmar Bergman in March last year it was a belated recognition of Sweden's enfant terrible as a figure in world cinema. Arthur Everard, our contributing editor, now discusses Bergman's films with particular reference to "Wild Strawberries," recently screened in Wellington.

The first mention we heard of Bergman's name was as the scriptwriter of Hets (Frenzy), a film directed by Alf Sjoberg in 1944. frenzy was highly regarded at the time of its release, but seen in perspective now it emerges as not much more than a fairly competent exercise in the story about adolescent love and its destruction by a sadistic schoolmaster and lack of adult understanding. How much of the lack of tension was due to script and how much to direction is not obvious, but certainly there was nothing in the script to stamp it distinctively as Ingmar Bergman's. The scenes of the schoolmaster Caligula's cat and mouse torture in the classroom were beautifully done, and the overwhelming air of melancholy and hopeless adolescent love permeating the story created a tragic atmosphere.

Sjoberg made the film a specific protest against authoritarianism and, more important within the context of the times, a protest against totalitarianism. The film was a warning to neutral Sweden about the Nazis, but little of this can be found in the film today unless one has the knowledge of hindsight. Generally, the film is somewhat better than an average commercial product, but of no real lasting interest.

His Early Films

While Frenzy was a great success for its director and scriptwriter, when Bergman turned to his first directorial assignment (at the age of 27), he did not write his own screenplay but adopted a Danish play. Thus film Kris (Crisis) was made in 1945, and was followed closely by Det Regnar Pa Var Karlek (It Rains on Our Love) in 1946, and Skepp Till Indialand (Ship to India) with Musik i Morker (Music In The Dark) in 1947. All these films had similar elements—young lovers and social interaction, but as to be expected of early attempts, they were often clumsy and unreal, exaggeration of emotions leading to melodrama.

Then in 1948 he made Hamnstad (Port Of Call) in which he used a documentary influenced style to tell the story of a sailor and the girl he meets—a girl who has a past of delinquency, institutions and probation—and the strength they derive from each other. This was realistically handled, set against the harbours and wharves of Goteberg and enabled Bergman to make some sharp comments about the social milieu. This was the first film he made for Svensk Film industri and he had the services of Gunnar Fischer as cameraman for what was to be the first in a very long series of films in partnership. A craftsman himself, Fischer photographed the docks of the harbour in a harshly beautiful but unromanticised style.

Fangelse (Prison), made in the same year, is in a completely different style. Here, Bergman started his experiments in expressionism and allegory that were to become so familiar in his later work. He was developing also that analytical style in which he loves to probe among the sources of suffering. Guilt, fear, humiliation, horror, sadism; the elements are shortly to emerge which can be recognised as hallmarks of his method in later films.

A Vision of Hell

A maths teacher has a conversation with his pupil, now a film director (and in prison) about making a film with Hell as its subject. Bergman used this introduction as the basis of a film in which he regarded life itself as a vision of hell. He peopled his conception with a poet, a prostitute, and a pimp and used a treatment in which symbolism, naturalism, nightmares, film within film and violent action and editing make uneasy bedfellows. A confused failure (Bergman called it "a morality play for the cinema"), the diretcor had overreached himself.

Self realisation—father and daughter-in-law, and (below) childhood sweetheart and lover. Two scenes from "Wild Strawberries."

Self realisation—father and daughter-in-law, and (below) childhood sweetheart and lover. Two scenes from "Wild Strawberries."

In 1949, Torst (Thirst) marked a return to a more humane theme.

The main characters, Ruth and Bertie, are travelling through Europe just after the end of the war. Their past lives continually intrude upon the present and their marriage is now reduced to bickering and mutual torment (cf the later couple in Wild Strawberries). Ruth remembers an operation which robbed her of the child of an earlier lover (and planted in her the unquenchable "thirst" of the title); Bertie recalls an affair with the neurotic Viola. But the journey ends with an uneasy reconciliation—both realise that they still have each other and that loneliness is more difficult to bear than anything else.

Erich Ulrichsen has described Thirst as "the film in which Bergman gets closest to real human beings and moves us most." It also provides perhaps the most extended variation on one of his favourite themes: the acute stage in a marriage when love is replaced by uncertainty and distrust. Thanks to the fine playing of Eva Henning and Birger Malmsten (and Bergman's direction), the film becomes a kind of plea for more honesty and decency in personal relationships.

An Unsuccessful Juxtaposition

Till Gladje (To Joy) contained familiar Bergman trademarks—a snarling couple, anguish and jealousy in love, love-hate relationships—but with some attempts to inject tenderness where appropriate. This juxtaposition proved unsuccessful and the various elements were never fully integrated.

His first film in the fifties was a crime thriller called Sant Hander Into Har (High Tension, or It Can't Happen Here). This was a stereotyped "bread and butter" piece and was immediately followed by his first film of major importance, Sommarlek (Summer Interlude), in 1951.

Marie, a young recruit at the Opera Ballet School falls in love with a student and they spend an idyllic holiday together. But tragedy strikes: her lover meets with an accident. The years pass and Marie becomes a prima ballerina. Another man comes into her life, a sympathetic journalist called David. Now torn between memories of her first love and her feelings for David, we are shown how she strives to achieve love and lasting happiness.


This is one of Bergman's "Summer" films, in which he continues his exploration of young love. Summer Interlude is an almost wholly lyrical film and its portrait of the young lovers finds Bergman in his most tender mood (despite some characteristic, and perhaps intrusive, symbolic elements involving a diabolical ballet master). Gunnar Fischer's luminous photography gives the film a rare visual elegance, especially in the holiday scenes and the interiors showing the Stockholm Ballet in Swan Lake. Maj-Britt Nilsson plays with much youthful charm as the dancer Marie—another aspect of womanhood as seen through Bergman's searching eye.

One summer evening, four women, each married to one of four brothers, sit and reminisce as they wait for their husbands to arrive on the boat from Stockholm. One recalls how her marriage was temporarily interrupted by the arrival of a past lover; a second tells of her student days in Paris and an idyllic romance with a young painter; a third laughingly recalls how she and her husband were forced to spend a night in a broken lift. The film ends with the youngest member of the group starting off on her own adventure . . .

Here, in Kvinnors Vantan (Waiting Women), 1952, we find Bergman in a generally more relaxed mood. It might almost be termed a "tragicomedy," for although the mood is intermittently serious, this shrewd study in female psychology is laced with acid wit. The 20 minute episode in the lift is a tour de-force of sophisticated irony (apart from being very funny) and is played for all it's worth by Dahlbeck and Bjornstrand. The cast, in fact, is one of the most brilliant yet assembled by its director, and stories neatly dovetail into each other to make up a most civilised entertainment.

It is here that we see the Bergman troupe starting to materialise —the credits read like a list of friends names. Photography by Gunnar Fischer, music by Erik Nordgren with Anita Bjork, Eva Dahlbeck, Maj-Britt Nilsson, Gunnar Bjornstrand and Jarl Kulle. From now on, Bergman works with much the same nucleus of actors and actresses, adding a new face now and again but always including some of the old team.

An Early Masterpiece

In Sommaren Med Monika (Summer With Monika), 1952, the most outstanding thing in this fine film was Harriet Andersson's playing of the sensual heroine Monica, a girl who marries the boy with whom she spent her summer holiday when she learns she is pregnant. Her temperament makes it impossible for her to face the routine and humdrum existence of married life and she is unfaithful to her husband. They finally part, she leaving the child with Harry, along with his memories of the past and her betrayal.

Though some of Bergman's lately released earlier-made films have been severely mauled by the English critics, Peter John Dyer of Films and Filming (a critic who can be more irrational, savage and nasty than Time if he wants to) said of this film "Every moment the lovers are on the screen, one is gripped by the analysis and shock power of Bergman's observation ... with Bergman's strong sense of atmosphere to lend a discreet lyricism and grace to the performances, the film achieves a genuine individuality."

Harriet Andersson also starred in Bergman's production of Gycklamas Afton (Sawdust and Tinsel) the following year. Gunnar Bjornstrand also appeared in it, and Ake Gronberg, who played a small part in the previous film, now had a major role.

At the Circus

Sawdust and Tinsel is a study in humiliation and sadism. Albert Johansson, a middle-aged circus owner has forsaken his family for Anna, a proud, passionate equestrienne, who eventually allows herself to be seduced by a neurotic young actor. Albert takes to drink and mercilessly taunts Anna and an elderly clown who has previously been involved in a scandal over his wife. After Albert has been beaten in a fight with the actor, he attempts suicide. He fails, and he and Anna continue their hellish life together in charge of the circus.

In this film, Bergman lakes a long sustained look at the darkest side of the human personality. The plot development includes scenes of hysteria, sadism, eroticism, nudity and is often reminiscent of the masochistic German school of the 1920s. There is some truth and pity in the characterisation of the circus director and his mistress, aided by a powerful Jannings-esque performance by Ake Gronberg and a sulky, sensual one by Harriet Andersson.

The success of the lift sequence in Waiting Women led to its full development as a basis for Bergman's next comedy En Lektion I Karlek (A Lesson in Love) 1954, his first. Bjornstrand plays the part of a successful doctor, married with a 16-year-old daughter. He has an affair with a patient while his wife returns to a former lover. They are brought to their senses by their daughter.

Bergman's comic flair, even, or especially, in this reworking, did not shine. The usual Bergman motifs appeared, especially the use of Bjornstrand as the pompous, middle-aged foolish Casanova. Slapstick crept in, along with farce, and the comic dialogue wasn't particularly funny. The final lapse of taste, involving reconciliation in front of a fake Cupid, has been particularly well hammered by the critics, though they praised Eva Dahlbeck's and Harriet Andersson's performances for transcending their material.

The story' of Kvinnodrom (Journey Into Autumn) a 1954 film, was similar to that in Thirst in its theme of sexual humiliation and treatment. Again, the performances by Bjornstrand, Dahlbeck, Andersson and Ulf Palme were better than the material deserved. One obvious feature of the film was Bergman's deliberately sadistic treatment of an elderly man's infatuation. The plot was poor, and the over-use of "significant" signs and details made some of it overly pretentious.

The Turning Point

By now, in 1955, Bergman was 37, with a very mixed bag of films behind him and no clear masterpiece. In this year he wrote his own script (as he did for practically all his earlier films) and directed Sommamcttens Leende (Smiles of A Summer Night). This is his first real masterpiece. Here, fantasy and irony mingle perfectly in a curious but satisfying style. In all his earlier works it were as though Bergman had been indiscriminately mixing as many styles as possible into each film.

With Smiles of A Summer Night, for the first time style, content and playing form a unity. Turning from the contemporary scene to a period comedy of manners, Bergman evoked the spirits of Schnitzler, Wilde and Strindberg in this decidedly Nordic morality play. The characters are not particularly realistic, yet through them he is able to deliver a sharply personal homily on the vagaries of love.

After some preliminary skirmishings, the main part of the story is set in a beautiful country mansion, during a traditional "symbolic" Swedish summer night. In this setting, a motley collection of husbands, wives, mistresses and lovers work out their destinies— some of the actions cause pain, others result in unexpected happiness. Everything is suffused in an atmosphere of mid-summer magic —when love seems to be the only important thing in the world.

A Great Allegory

The next year, 1956, all hell broke loose in critical circles when Det Sjunde Inseglet (The Seveneth Seal) were released. Here, without a doubt, was Bergman's most controversial and ambitious work to date. Obviously influenced by his own upbringing, with its memories of his father's sermons and the "medieval paintings and carvings on the walls and ceiling," Bergman has endeavoured to symbolise our current dilemma by re-creating an equally harsh past age. The result is complex, occasionally obscure and always intellectually stimulating. Stylistically, the film is beautifully "realised"; and the playing has the strong haunting quality of a legend.

Set in the plague-stricken Middle Ages, this allegory is centred on a duel between an idealistic knight and Death himself. Although their chess game is weighted in the latter's favour, it gives the knight precious time to ruminate on his own attitude to God and the condition of the people he meets. Fear, superstition and cruelty are present all around him, but there is also innocence. And Death's victory. when it comes, is somehow less complete and sweeping than it might have been.

A Study in Guilt

In itself, this picture would have been enough to set the film world by its ears, but when Bergman made his next film, a study of guilt and heartsearching in old age, the result, Smultronstrallet (Wild Strawberries) created a further furore.

In the light of his other films, it is easy to pick Bergman trademarks appearing throughout this one. First, there are the familiar names—Bjornstrand, Folke Sundquist, Naima Wifstrand, Ake Fridell, Max Von Sydow. The photography is by Gunnar Fischer—as meticulous and beautiful as ever, the music is by Erik Nordgren— listen for the poignant use of the solo cello theme at the moments when the professor remembers his childhood. Then there is Bergman's use of sound, and, more especially, silence. This is most noticeable in the dream sequences where natural sounds are given an extra dimension—almost of physical sensation —they are so skilfully used with the accompanying image. All the way through the Him there is conflict and interaction; once more the bickering couple appears but this time it is not just mere bickering but a self consuming union in which the husband and wife are held together by the bond of their mutual hate and worthlessness.

There are one or two technical faults to mar the overall perfection, a lapse of continuity in the first nightmare, bad matching of studio material to location work (where Sara soothes the baby when the owls are circling and screeching) and one lapse in the dubbing when Professor Borg and Marianne visit his mother.

Ingrid Tulin (as the Professor's daughter-in-law) gives strong competition to Victor Sjostrom and to me she is the really enigmatic character in the film. She is not only strikingly beautiful, but I feel that by not making everything about her as explicit as he has for Borg, Bergman has given us a subsidiary character who is more interesting than the professor himself.

The theme, that of gradual self realisation in old age, depends on making us see the professor as a hard, cold, iceberg in whom the finer feelings have atrophied. Unfortunately, Sjostrom does not give this surface appearance of coldness which is then to be shown being broken down with increasing self knowledge. It is a small thing and of not much consequence compared with the total conception of man's interdependence (and dependence) on the love of others. Despite some exaggerations, its human committment is strong and clear.

Still from film, Wild Strawberries

(Registered for transmission by post as a newspaper at the Post Office. Wellington.)