Ingmar Bergman and European Cinema

by Smart

Ingmar Bergman is not only one of Sweden’s most famous and critically acclaimed directors, he is also a distinguished and immortalised film auteur. His films are a reflection of himself; they are highly personal, emotional and affecting. They deal with existential questions of faith, morality and loneliness. Bergman’s films are all undoubtedly European in nature. As David Bordwell writes, “whereas the stylistics devices and thematic motifs may differ from director to director, the overall functions of style and theme remain remarkably constant in the art cinema as a whole” (2002). Art films function at a cerebral level. Bergman’s films are known to challenge the viewer, to make them think and feel like they never have before. He is adept at studying the human condition with a camera and creating compelling images that never fade from memory. Throughout his career he was worked together with many talented individuals and each have left a personal touch on his films.

European art cinema is a category that cannot be defined by its own qualities. It must be looked at in opposition to the other dominant forms of cinema in the world. One of the most powerful comparisons is seen when European art films are juxtaposed against the films produced in the Hollywood studio system. On an economic level art films do not seek big returns at the box office; they do not aim to appeal to a mass audience. Instead art films are more inclined to push the boundaries of established cinema while breaking taboos and acting as social commentary. They wish to get inside the minds of the audience and show them something special, something intimate, to get them to question their own beliefs and opinions. In America art films are generally confined to art house theatres; they rarely make it into the mainstream. Hollywood monopolises the film going population of America and caters to them with big budget special effects and recycled, clichéd storylines. In order to reap the benefits of watching an art film the viewer must give themselves up to the screen. They must surrender their personal confines and look within to find answers. This process is one that the typical Hollywood patron is not interested in and certainly not willing to indulge in. It is because of this discrepancy in audience motivations and rituals that a rift exists between art films and Hollywood films. To say a film is distinctly European is in some sense to say it is an expression of the director. Art films are more than just escapism and entertainment; they are vessels in which one can explore the deepest and darkest regions of the human psyche.

One of the most important aspects of an art film is the role of the auteur. An auteur is more than just the director. An auteur is the person who has full creative control over the. Ingmar Bergman fits this role classically as every one of his films is linked not just by their style but also by similar subject matter, theme, scope and approach. His films are a product of himself, “Bergman wrote the majority of his screenplays alone, and at the height of his career experienced an unparalleled creative freedom” (Ford, 2002). Each of his films carry with them a distinguishable style, tone and sentiment that immediately indicates to an educated viewer that they were written and directed by Ingmar Bergman. All of his films have a message, though that message is often shrouded in symbolism and metaphor. This creates an intellectual challenge for the viewer and asks them to think long and hard about what they are watching. Coercing the audience into actively thinking is one of the richest and most valued qualities about European art films. Perhaps the greatest example of this from Bergman’s filmography is the 1966 film Persona. Persona is surreal, ambiguous and endlessly compelling. It tells the story of a nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson), who is assigned to care for an actress, Elisabeth (Liv Ullmann), who has stopped talking. The film quietly turns itself around as Alma seemingly becomes the patient. This is suggested as she is revealing her most private details to Elisabeth, who is now seen to be playing the role of a psychiatrist. Things become increasingly more dramatic and tense when Alma finds a letter written by Elisabeth that suggests she thinks Alma is amusingly pathetic. The film features several dream sequences which can garner any number of different interpretations depending on the viewer. The last act of Persona is dominated by a long monologue by Alma which has her analysing and critiquing Elisabeth’s life and morals. As the monologue is finishing, after being repeated, close-ups of Alma and Elisabeth are placed next to one another with each character’s face taking up half of the screen and merging together to form a single face. This famous and unforgettable image sends the viewer into a frenzy of questioning and is designed to leave them pondering the very nature of personal identity and existence. Though it can also have the opposite effect, as Lloyd Michaels writes, “Persona is bound to trouble, perplex, and frustrate most filmgoers” (2000). It is for this exact reason that Persona is distinctly European. It ignores Hollywood conventions and practises and instead seeks not to please a mass audience but to explore an aspect of the human condition as director Ingmar Bergman himself sees it. Audiences that are not trained to watch art films will struggle with Bergman’s work as the aesthetic, the codes and the conventions are all different to what they are used to.

Bergman’s first fifteen feature films, which he directed between 1945 and 1954, were met with varied reactions. They were viewed as being overly pessimistic and nervous. Strangely his career took a turn for the best with the 1955 comedy, Smiles of a Summer Night. This film earned him International success but would serve as little indication of the kind of films he would make over the next twenty years. As a child Bergman was surrounded by religion and this is analysed in depth in a number of his films. Through a Glass Darkly (1961) is titled after a passage from the bible and is the first film in a loose trilogy dealing with issues of spirituality. The films in this trilogy are very much about Bergman coming to terms with his own lack of belief in religion. The Seventh Seal (1957), his best known film, also deals directly with faith, although in a different way. It is iconic for the premise of a knight playing chess with Death himself. The film is rich with symbolism and represents varying views of religion. The notion of a man playing chess with Death is enough on its own to provoke one into questioning their own religion. Bergman’s ability to tackle a heavy topic such as life and death while still remaining clinically detached and observant is a testament to his skill as both a writer and director.

Bergman had a tough childhood and was frequently locked in dark closets for punishment. This period of his life would later serve as inspiration for his five hour masterpiece, Fanny and Alexander (1982). “Set in 1910, Fanny and Alexander has some autobiographical base in the filmmaker’s own childhood, with its twelve-year-old protagonist, Alexander, in certain ways representing Bergman” (Vermilye, 2002). Bergman’s ability to write of his own accord and draw from his own experiences gives his films a feeling of brutal honesty which helps them to pierce into the soul of the viewer. Jesse Kalin describes Bergman very astutely:

“Bergman’s subject is not being as such but the moral world – ourselves as human beings in the twentieth century: what is deepest and most true and essential about us, and what meaning we can find for our lives in the face of this truth. His goal is an essential portrait, an image of human being with its heart exposed and beating, a picture of what we each look like without our protective illusions, evasions, and lies. Such reduction to essentials provides a mirror in which we can see ourselves as we truly are, face to face” (2003).

This mirror is of course the silver screen. The face plays an important role in all of Bergman’s films and frequently occupies the entire frame in close-up. It is encouraging the audience to look not just inside the character but inside themselves as individuals.

Throughout his career Bergman worked with many of Sweden’s greatest film stars, though his most notable recurring collaboration is with cinematographer Sven Nykvist. Together they crafted one of Bergman’s most notable traits, the use of the close-up, which is put to enormous use in many of his films, especially Persona. Much of Bergman’s distinctive style is owed to the work of Nykvist, who is well known for his ability to frame a shot very quickly and effectively, therefore putting less strain on Bergman as director. This suited Bergman well as his films were always relatively low budget affairs and Nykvist was able to work with anything. Both Nykvist and Bergman shared a similar approach to filmmaking which was to keep it simple while still remaining innovative. As far as actors go there are several that Bergman employed multiple times across a range of different films. Max von Sydow plays a leading role in a number of Bergman’s films and is almost like a voice which Bergman himself can use to speak his ideas. However it is Liv Ullmann that is most representative of Bergman’s career. Her talent as an actress is a key factor in the success of many of his films as the roles often call for extreme intensity, commitment and vulnerability, which she is able to deliver like no other. As Bergman’s career went on, he began to grow such a strong connection to many of his actors that he would frequently let them improvise their own lines. Some of his later films were made entirely without written dialogue in the script as Bergman would let the actors come up with it on their own. This kind of freeform approach to intellectual film making is a distinct trait of European art cinema. It is daring and honest and adds a whole new level to the psychology of his films. It also shows a glaring disparity between art cinema and Hollywood, as Hollywood is almost always highly scripted and unwilling to experiment in this fashion.

Ingmar Bergman is almost uncontested as Sweden’s greatest auteur. The extent and quality of his career is hard to match and even harder to surpass. His films tackle important existential issues that continue to challenge audiences to this day. He has influenced cinema in profound ways and will remain a landmark director for all time. Not concerned with mass appeal or box office success, Bergman’s films are personal and intimate. They are a far stretch from Hollywood not just in their style and subject matter but also in their conception and willingness to experiment. He is a director who is distinctive both visually because of his simple yet innovative style, and also in a narrative sense, as his films all share similar topics and modes of approach. He is one of cinema’s most gifted filmmakers and his films will remain forever as challenging and engulfing as the day they were released.