Volume 20 Issue 12 | August. 3 - 9, 2007

Film master Ingmar Bergman, celebrated in life and death

From the island of Faro, a strange, unforgettable language

By Jerry Tallmer

James Agee, a film critic writing in disregard of p.c., at a time when p.c. had yet to sprout among us, said that watching the films of D.W. Griffith was like watching the invention of the alphabet, or the wheel.

For this subsequent moviegoer, the first moment of aware exposure to the work of Ingmar Bergman — “The Seventh Seal” at the 8th Street Playhouse, 1958 — was like sitting in on the creation of a whole new language, and I don’t mean Swedish. I don’t even mean words, though what words there were pierced home like arrows. No, the new stunner was a visual-emotional triple-layered iconography volleying Albrecht Dürer’s “Knight, Death, and the Devil” smack up from the 16th to the 20th century — and, now, at the death of Bergman, the 21st.

Here were these two armored horsemen riding down a strange, lonesome, deserted beach, the shore of some (to them) new planet — a tall, gaunt, incredibly handsome Knight (some actor named Max von Sydow, we would learn) and his stoic, no-nonsense faithful Squire, Sancho Panza without laughs (Gunnar Björnstrand, matchless Bergman actor for all seasons).

What are they looking for, these two medieval horsemen? What do they find? A plague-stricken land on all sides, and a street procession of mad, self-flagellating monks, and a beautiful life-affirming young mother (Bibi Andersson) in a back-to-nature countryside setting, and Death (Bengt Ekerot) waiting flour-faced, stone-faced to engage the Knight in a game of chess — and, finally, high off on the horizon, one other breathtaking shot, a daisy chain of midnight-sun revelers being led, dancing, in profile, along a hilltop, by the man with the scythe.  

It was so clean, so sure, so incisive, so rich in overtones, intimations, cross-currents. A new language, a new cinematic voice — new this side of the water, anyway.

It wasn’t until two or three other Bergmans down the line that I realized, or somebody reminded me, that even before “The Seventh Seal” — two years before — I had, at a Village movie house one night, happened onto a nice, human-touch circus drama, “The Naked Night” (known abroad as “Sawdust and Tinsel”), that came and went without any hoorahs about its director, a certain Ingmar Bergman then age 38 and already 10 years into doing films and plays at home in Sweden.

No two motion pictures could be more unalike in topic and tone than “The Seventh Seal” and the next Bergman to come this way, “Smiles of a Summer Night.” In the midst of death we are in life, plunging ahead for love, and sexuality, and sensuality, and making fools of ourselves, especially if we are men, but women don’t get away scot-free either. 

That’s the burden of “Smiles of a Summer Night,” and a richly ironic burden it is — a goosefeather quilt of wit and guile that, tossed up into the air by writer-director Bergman, floats down gently onto any one of several beds in the turn-of-century provincial town where self-satisfied lawyer Fredrik Egerman (Gunnar Björnstrand, who else?) tries to seesaw between renewing connections with a former mistress (svelte, sophisticated Eva Dahlbeck) and waiting out his still virgin gorgeous 19-year-old wife (Ulla Jacobsson).

This young lady and Egerman’s son, a nice young fellow headed for the priesthood, don’t know, or don’t want to know, how hot to trot they are for one another; it is a problem solved by the miracle of an accidentally triggered rotating wall in one hilarious moment of high irony indeed.

Topic and tone. We go from “Smiles” to the next masterful Bergman picture to come down the pike in the 1950s, “Wild Strawberries,” which I think of now as a canvas by Munch (on aging and aloneness) as painted by Renoir (love, family, fathers and daughters, memory).

This semi-autobiographical movie, with director Victor Sjöström, one of Bergman’s cinematic mentors, as Professor Isak Borg, the elderly father journeying toward his own birthday, also introduced us to the famishingly beautiful Ingrid Thulin as the daughter who tries coldly to love him or be loved. Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer’s closing shot — old Borg’s dreaming memory of his parents on picnic with fishing poles on a distant riverbank, is to me as powerfully evocative as any canvas by, well, Renoir himself.

Ingrid Thulin would reappear (as would Max von Sydow) in “The Magician,” Bergman’s tribute to the magic lantern that started the whole thing off for him — drama, cinema, magic — as the sternly treated 9-year-old son of an itinerant small-town Swedish preacher who used to drag the kid from church to church throughout the countryside, possibly to get him away from that magic lantern. Didn’t work. Didn’t keep him away from women, either.

There used to be in this city before it was Disneyfied a considerable number of small ratty shops, “novelty shops” I guess you’d call them, their windows purveying drinking glasses with hidden holes in them and pillows that made bad noises if you sat on them and — this is the point — the drawing of a man’s face and head composed entirely of naked women clustered in every possible position to form an obsessed and swirling brainpan.

When I think of Ingmar Bergman’s women — well, when I now think of Bergman’s women, the characters in his movies and the real-life actresses who played them — I see again that drawing. It is really a caricature that could be applied to the inner life of a great many of us, were we not ashamed to admit it; but very few of us could match Ingmar Bergman’s real-life CV in such matters. My God! Ingrid Thulin, Harriet Andersson, Bibi Andersson, Eva Dahlbeck, Gunnel Lindblom, Ulla Jacobsson, Margit Carlqvist, Liv Ullmann, and on and on … 

I once, years ago, spent a summer night walking around Greenwich Village as a sort of guide to Ingrid Thulin. At the Eighth Street Book Store she bought a copy of Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro.” Why that, I asked. “Because women are the Negro problem of the whole world, no?” she said. But when I asked her about Ingmar Bergman, she only sort of giggled, or exhaled, or talked of him holed up on his island, writing, as did one or two other of his actresses I would interview over the years.

When Ingmar Bergman died July 30, 2007, on the island of Faro, off the coast of the Sweden where he’d been born July 14, 1918, he left behind a body of work that explored man’s and woman’s souls — fears — hungers — doubts — as cinema never had before. The women always came out better than the men. I don’t think slavery was involved.

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