The Continuing Death of Ingmar Bergman

Sometimes, when I need to cheer myself up, I watch the films of Ingmar Bergman. This might seem counter-intuitive, as Bergman’s works are not usually mentioned in the same breath as lighter fare. But whenever I slide a Bergman disc into my DVD player or laptop, I am reminded of how much fun movies can be when a filmmaker takes his audience’s intelligence as a given and assumes that his viewers want to be challenged as well as entertained.

I am also reminded of how hopeful Bergman was. He questioned everything and appears to have worried about much, but in the end he almost always found solace in the redemptive power of love. The doubting priest in Winter Light, the elderly professor in Wild Strawberries, the knight in The Seventh Seal, the dying sister in Cries and Whispers—all of them confronted life’s bleakest questions but found inspiration and comfort in happy memories, the quest for better things, the touch of a loved one’s hand.

That all sounds pretty nice, no? So why do so few people care about Bergman’s films these days? Beyond coastal cities and college campuses, Bergman was never all that big in the U.S., even in his heyday of the 1950s and early 1960s. But you hear next to nothing about Bergman today even among those you’d think would care about his achievements. Why? Part of the reason may be that he wrote about life’s bleakest questions. Or maybe his style is out of date: His breeziest films—especially the bad breezy ones, like the painfully unfunny farce All These Women—are leisurely paced. Or maybe today’s audiences just prefer their Scandinavian entertainment with dragon tattoos and a definition of feminism that makes a male fantasia like Persona seem progressive.

The excuse I hear most often for the diminished interest in Bergman is that his cinematic vision was too conventional. He didn’t create groundbreaking action sequences like Kurosawa did (although The Shame proves that Bergman could stage effective battle scenes if he wanted to). He wasn’t a master of suspense like Hitchcock. He didn’t have the bitter sweetness of Truffaut or the narrative daring of Renoir or the showmanship of Fellini or Orson Welles. Bergman filmed people who sat in rooms and talked. Compared to the other legends, Bergman was dull.

Maybe. But that argument presumes that cinema of the mind is boring. Often it is, but not when Bergman was at his best. Scenes from a Marriage is a six-hour gabfest, but every second of it crackles with tension. The same is true for Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light and, to a lesser extent, The Passion of Anna. Bergman’s films may have been insular, but they were deeper and, in their quiet way, more riveting than most of the more cinematically complex works of the same period.

I don’t really know why so few people pay attention to Bergman’s films. Perhaps there will be a revival of interest in 2018, the centenary of his birth; people seem to like discovering or rediscovering artists when the number of years since their birth can be divided by a hundred. Until then, those of us who love Bergman are left to wonder at the strange disregard of one of the greatest artists of the 20th Century. In his autobiography The Magic Lantern, Bergman writes of the brutal inevitability of death: “From a somebody I will become a nobody.” One hopes that the accomplishments of Ingmar Bergman won’t suffer that fate.

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