EW's movie critic reflects on the work of the late auteur and why, despite what some critics are saying, it is eternally important

By Owen Gleiberman
August 14, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
Everett Collection

Owen Gleiberman on Bergman’s legacy

Reading over the obituaries for Ingmar Bergman, I couldn’t recall another legendary movie director whose passing, almost everyone seemed to agree, was quite so…symbolic. More than anyone else — including his compatriot Michelangelo Antonioni, who died the same day — Bergman was the popular incarnation of the mythical/cultural spirit of Art Film. If you had to capture, in a single iconic image, what made ”foreign films” so exotic and meaningful to audiences, then surely that image would be Max von Sydow’s quizzical platinum-haired Knight playing chess with Death in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Everything that viewers of the ’50s and ’60s were first entranced by when they began to discover art houses was present in that image — the luscious solemnity and metaphorical splendor, the grandly severe black-and-white beauty, the fearless declaration of cinema as a literature for the eye. The forbidding metaphysical romance of it all.

Of course, what the image also possessed was Bergman’s dark genius for presentation, for drama. The myth of Ingmar Bergman is that, with his stoic tales of anguish, cruelty, identity, and the silence of God, he was the film world’s most celebrated anti-entertainer. His movies invited you to experience them as a kind of high-modernist X-ray; their very catharsis was in how they offset the joy and color and escapism of Hollywood. The reason that all of this actually made him popular, though, inventing a new appetite for a new kind of movie, is that Bergman staged his brooding visions with eroticism (just think of Harriet Andersson, the tawdry goddess of Monika), violence (the horrific rape and revenge in The Virgin Spring), and pageantry (those spectacular Seventh Seal medieval landscapes). With morbid theatrical flair, he made his anti-entertainments…entertainingly.

When it came to watching Bergman’s films, I passed through various phases, and I have a feeling that I wasn’t alone. Here, in fact, is what I think of as the Four Stages of Watching Bergman:

1. Youthful Befuddlement I first encountered his films as a teenager, catching a handful of them late at night on our local PBS station. Television was actually a good medium for them, as it still is; it fit their hushed, stinging intimacy. Watching Sawdust and Tinsel or Through a Glass Darkly in a darkened rec room, I was intrigued by their mood, the beauty of the sun-dappled Swedish landscapes punctuated by those angry, sodden cloudbursts of confessional dialogue. Yet I had almost no idea what any of it meant. It all seemed so adult, so beyond me — a world I was vaguely curious to enter but could only stare at, thinking that it must be important. I knew that if I could ever understand Ingmar Bergman’s films, I would somehow be a more enlightened human being.

2. Collegiate Awe A few years later, as an undergraduate, I was now a full-fledged movie buff, and I discovered, to my exhilaration, that I now ”got” Ingmar Bergman. College, in many ways, is the perfect time for Bergman, because suddenly you’re immersed in divining the hidden meaning of things, if only for the purpose of finishing term papers. Bergman’s movies, with their distant fathers and buried family secrets and anguished sexual combat, their dreamlike use of religious totems, are all about people clawing and scratching to get to the spiritual truth beneath the fake surfaces of their lives. The Seventh Seal, with its lamentations of lost faith; the great macabre dream sequence in Wild Strawberries — these were cinematic poems begging to be unlocked. And Scenes From a Marriage, with its raging recriminations, its vision of how scathingly people who lived together could lie to one another, was even better: It was a window onto the tormented world of bourgeouis commitment that made me feel glad I wasn’t there yet. Now, thanks to Bergman, I could know what I was in for.

NEXT PAGE: ”The Academy of the Overrated”? Far from it!

3. The Mary Wilkie Phase You remember Mary Wilkie, don’t you? She’s the haughty, neurotic brainiac played by Diane Keaton in Woody Allen’s Manhattan — the one who, with visible pride, has relegated Ingmar Bergman to ”the Academy of the Overrated.” In her view, Bergman is a hopelessly precious and declassé artist, far too showy in his gloom and doom — the sort of filmmaker she loved ”when I was at Radcliffe.” After that, she says, ”you absolutely outgrow it.” The thing is, I was starting to know what she meant. All that damn symbolism — it could be so wearying! I was now out of college and pretending, at least, to live like an adult, and with my term-paper days behind me, I discovered that I no longer had much use for Bergman’s characters. They’d begun to seem gnarled and insular in their self-absorption. Before, watching them had made me feel grown-up. Now, I saw through to what I thought was the nagging Freudian conventionality at the core of Bergman’s clinical mysteries. His dour intellectualism was no longer, in itself, alluring. If anything, it had become distinctly unhip.

4. Really Seeing Bergman Finally, there came a moment of recognition. It might have been when I was watching Passion of Anna, with its quartet of lost souls, or Winter Light, with its anguished pastor grasping for belief as though it were a kite string slipping out of his fingers. Suddenly, confronted with a soliloquy of torment, or gazing into the face of one of those extraordinary actresses, like Bibi Andersson or Liv Ullmann, it hit me: This isn’t art because it’s heavy and high-flown and symbolic and ”adult.” It’s art because it shows you real people doing real damage to each other and longing to be healed. It’s art because it’s been ripped, bleeding, from Bergman’s psyche. The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve seen past the metaphorical fanciness that is, admittedly, a huge element in the appeal of Bergman’s films, and the more I’ve responded, simply, to the rawness of their humanity: to the wounds that adults feel yet don’t necessarily talk about. Bergman draws those wounds out and makes them sharp, tangible, memorable.

He was, more or less, the first film artist to do so, and the door he kicked open was immense. In her review of Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a movie released in 1971, Pauline Kael wrote: ”The question is always asked, ‘Why aren’t there America Bergmans and Fellinis?”’ She then declared, ”Here is an American artist who has made a beautiful film.” Kael, in daring to compare Altman to Bergman, was staking out bold new aesthetic-ideological turf. She was stating that the torch of high art in cinema was now passing to American filmmakers — or, certainly, that it now included them. What she was onto was nothing less than a cultural realignment. For although Ingmar Bergman continued to make interesting films, his decline as a force in cinema roughly paralleled the rise of the New Hollywood directors. Altman, Coppola, Scorsese — by the mid-’70s, they had, in effect, supplanted the mojo of Bergman, Fellini, and Antonioni, whose major work was virtually all behind them. (Bergman did, of course, have his 1982 greatest-hits swan song: the luscious Fanny & Alexander.)

But something else, too, conspired to make Bergman passé, and that was the rise of a new mystique in art film — a cult of austerity that persists to this day. In a staggeringly wrong-headed but quite revealing harangue that ran in The New York Times five days after Bergman’s death, the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, ”The hard fact is, Mr. Bergman isn’t being taught in film courses or debated by film buffs with the same intensity as Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, or Jean-Luc Godard. His works are seen less often in retrospectives and on DVD than those of Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson — two master filmmakers widely scorned as boring and pretentious during Mr. Bergman’s heyday…. The same qualities that made Mr. Bergman’s films go down more easily than theirs — his fluid storytelling and deftness in handling actresses, comparable to the skills of a Hollywood professional like George Cukor — also make them feel less important today, because they have fewer secrets to impart.”

I’m not sure where Rosenbaum is getting his statistics. From everything I’ve Googled and read, Bergman’s films are more popular now, on DVD and in college classes, than those of Bresson, Dreyer, or Godard. (Hitchcock is another story, but then — he’s Hitchcock.) I also don’t know how anyone could think that a movie like Persona, with its naked acting and mind-warp structure, or Scenes From a Marriage, which so captures the music of relationships that I could it watch forever, is lacking in eternal secrets. What’s truly notable about Rosenbaum’s dismissal, however, is the battle line he’s really drawing: between Bergman the middlebrow, an art filmmaker who actually deigned to tell his stories fluidly (how vulgar!), and Rosenbaum’s heroes, such as the arid, oblique Bresson, with his dessicated zombie acting and general lack of forward motion.

Specious as it is, this argument represents what has become a vanguard attitude in the way that foreign films are now routinely celebrated — not for their expression, but for their benumbed lack of expression. You see it in the canonization of directors like Hou Hsiao-hsien and Abbas Kiarostami, the spiritual heirs to Bresson: filmmakers who fetishize their refusal to dramatize, who create art that is meandering and oblique, at times to the point of madness. For a while there in the ’50s, ’60s, and early ’70s, Ingmar Bergman’s films held sway as a ”classy” cultural phenomenon, but through all the symbols, the feverish close-ups, the otherworldly chess games, the torment and the tenderness, what you always felt was his deep desire to connect. That’s what made his art, and art film itself, matter.