by Mark English
I have certain reservations about Ingmar Bergman as a filmmaker. Some of his films or segments thereof – particularly those influenced by surrealism – I am not keen on.
Here is one small, perhaps trivial, example. The clock with no hands motif in Wild Strawberries (a wonderful movie, I admit) simply annoys me. I want to say: This is not real; this is cheap, Romantic-psychoanalytic nonsense.
These sorts of things are impossible to prove, I know, and it may simply be a matter of taste. In the fields of art, literature, theater and film I have been exposed to but never really connected with surrealism and related movements. Looking back, I feel I was brainwashed into believing that certain works had merit when I would have been much better off resisting artistic and political groupthink and following my own natural preferences.
What I see in some surrealist art and much surrealist-influenced cinema is pseudo-profundity: cleverness and technical virtuosity designed to draw attention to itself; cheap tricks. For me, these elements work best in the hands of directors like Luis Buñuel or Federico Fellini or Alfred Hitchcock, who had a lightness of touch and who did not take themselves too seriously.
Ingmar Bergman sometimes exhibited a certain lightness of touch but much of his work (it must be said) is rather ponderous. I recognize him, however, as one of the few great – and essential – European directors. He proves (in a few of his works at least) that unmitigated seriousness can sometimes be a strength.
Also, he was himself acutely aware of the dangers of technical virtuosity and cleverness in the arts, of the thin line between success and failure, insight and obfuscation. A dialogue in one of his films which I refer to below supports this claim.
One of the things that gives abiding value to Bergman’s work is its rootedness in a particular culture. His films give expression to a particular European tradition of thought and feeling. This does not necessarily exclude people from other cultures from appreciating his work (just as I appreciate – even love – the work of certain Japanese filmmakers, for example). But I can’t speak for others. I can only see his films through my own eyes. And my responses to Bergman’s work are conditioned by a sense of sharing a similar heritage as well as by certain accidents of personal history.
I will explain by discussing my favorite Bergman film – one that I first saw when I was quite young and which means a lot to me. Through a Glass Darkly was released in 1961 and dedicated to his then wife, Käbi Laretei. It is, in my judgment, a great and devastatingly powerful film. Bergman is saying something about what makes life meaningful. (Or perhaps ‘tolerable’ would be a better word.)
Though Bergman’s tendency to use religious language and images makes me a bit uneasy, what he is saying here (and in his other films) transcends any belief system. He is drawing on the European Christian tradition in which he was raised but in a broadly cultural rather than a creedal way. There are also elements of pagan nature mysticism in his work, reminiscent of Germanic folk tales.
Needless to say, the film is beautifully made and photographed, taking full advantage of the stark coastal landscape. It also appeals to me that life on the island is stripped down to the bare essentials. No electricity or running water. But the cottage in which the family is staying is solid and spacious.
I like it that no other characters appear: just Karin (played by Harriet Andersson) and her husband and her father and younger brother, nicknamed Minus. It is about family relations but also universal themes.
The boy – who is having a hard time coming to terms with his sexual maturity – spends time on schoolwork, specifically Latin grammar. This is a nice touch as Latin could be seen to represent the cerebral and conventional adult world in which Minus is destined soon to take his place. It sets in stark relief the dark, unconscious forces of sex and dissolution which are assailing both his and his more vulnerable sister’s mind. But, as I indicated, there are personal factors at play in my response to this film. Let me explain a couple of them.
It is revealed early in the film that the apparently happy Harriet Andersson character who constantly teases her younger brother had recently spent time in a psychiatric clinic where she had undergone electroshock treatment. Not long before his death, my father confided to me that many years before (in fact, about the time that Through a Glass Darkly was made) my mother had spent time in a psychiatric clinic and had undergone a course (or courses?) of electroshock therapy. I needed to be aware of this and to be particularly solicitous about her welfare. She was vulnerable, he was saying, and – as they no longer lived together, and he knew he was approaching death – he was handing over his perceived responsibilities to me.
The sibling relationship in the movie also resonated because I had an older female cousin who was like a sister to me when I was growing up and of whom I was very fond. Tragically, she suffered a devastating mental collapse at a relatively young age.
I like it that there is no psychoanalytic content in the film. Karin’s mental problems are attributed to an inherited progressive brain disease. The image of the helicopter/spider is powerful (and plausible) precisely because it is so contingent and accidental and disconnected from any psychoanalytic theorizing. This is how the brain actually works. (Contrast, for example, Hitchcock’s Spellbound which is an entertaining fantasy – and nothing to do with real life.)
Finally, a few more words about religious elements in the film and how I reconcile myself to them. (You could see this as a cognitive dissonance-prompted turning of the intellectual-historical kaleidoscope.)
Because I have consciously and definitively renounced my former Christian beliefs, I generally respond negatively to God-talk and Christian-inspired love-talk. As I suggested above, however, there is nothing creedal or conventionally Christian in Bergman’s approach to the God concept or to the love concept in this film. His God is decidedly not the God of the Bible and love is not seen in conventionally sacred terms.
His father was a Lutheran minister and Bergman’s work often shows evidence of this strict religious upbringing. If I had to identify the strand of Christian thought to which Bergman is most indebted, I would say that it is the Pauline tradition.
Paul was a sophisticated and well-educated Jew from Tarsus, a city in the Roman province of Cilicia. He was a Roman citizen and a speaker of Koine Greek. He had never met Jesus and was often at odds with James (the brother of Jesus) and others who were related to or who had personally known the Galilean healer, religious teacher and political activist. These friends and followers of Jesus remained observant Jews who expected converts to adopt Jewish dietary laws and customs (like male circumcision). Not only did Paul not require his followers to follow these traditional customs, he broke with many of them himself. And, crucially, he appears not to have been interested in the historical Jesus at all.
The title of Bergman’s film is a direct allusion to a verse in one of Paul’s letters (1 Corinthians 13:12), and the talk of love in the final scene recalls other famous passages from 1 Corinthians and 1 John. (The latter was written by an unknown author who was part of the community which Paul had founded in the Greek city of Ephesus.) My point is that Paul’s teaching represented something quite new at the time. It was radical, but not politically so. Based on a personal, mystical vision which cannot really be identified with any prior (Jewish) or subsequent (Catholic or Protestant) orthodoxy, it attracted a surprisingly strong and diverse following in the Mediterranean world and beyond.
Though Paul’s voices and visions would (rightly) have attracted the attention of psychiatrists had he been alive today, it is very much in its favor that the tradition of thought which he initiated – and which remains a significant part of the Christian heritage – has always resisted the straitjacket of religious rules and conventions, and the hierarchies which promote them.
In the film, Karin’s husband tells his father-in-law, a successful writer, that he is a clever but shallow person and that, as a consequence, his novels lack entirely the ring of truth. Moreover, he has sacrificed his daughter for his art.
Ultimately this is a film about life rather than about art or artists or religion. Bergman puts the emphasis where the emphasis should be. It is a film about the possibility of truth and the possibility of love in a bleak – and at times nightmarish – world.