It is fourteen years since Film Forum hosted a hefty season of Ingmar Bergman films. I wrote about them at the time, for this magazine, and suggested that the best—indeed the only—way to reach the metaphysical, as we confront such work, is via the physical. In other words, let’s not deny the solemn burdens that Bergman chose to shoulder: hope and despair, shame and silence, and what Samuel Beckett once called “that desert of loneliness and recrimination that men call love.” The intervening years have only strengthened my conviction,however, that Bergman’s movies cannot and must not be mistaken for abstract ruminations, let alone cautiously balanced debates. They are violently, ecstatically open to the evidence of the senses; you can feel every particle of experience drumming on the characters like rain. The parents who cradle their dead child in a forest, at the finale of “The Virgin Spring,” are joined and bowed in grief, but because we regard them from overhead, in a tableau of lamentation, and because the light that floods the glade is beatific, the tone is calmly and peculiarly blessed—as is proved, shortly afterward, when they raise her body and water flows from the earth on which she lay. The title, we now realize, refers to a miracle.
From his earliest days, Bergman learned to set a scene with the minimum amount of dialogue. In the opening minutes of “Thirst” (1949), say, the camera prowls a cramped hotel room, keeping pace with a young woman as she sighs, smokes, brushes her teeth, tries to read a newspaper, and fails to wake her sleeping partner. We know almost nothing about her, so far, and yet, thanks to the prowling, we know all we need to know. The room could be a cage at the zoo. As the movies proceed, you start to wait, with a prickle of anticipation, for the instant at which the camera will suddenly, with a kind of suave intensity, glide at speed toward a character’s face, as he or she approaches a point of crisis, be it of clarity or mystification; Bergman reminds us that, when we are struck by a thought, or a memory, we are truly struck, as if by the slap of a hand. In the case of “Wild Strawberries,” not only do we home in on the old man who is the focus of the film as he sits, aghast, in the seat of a car, but everything around him goes dark, as if he were trapped on stage and pinned down by a single spotlight.
You don’t have to watch “Face to Face” (1976) to understand the primacy, for Bergman, of the human face. It emerges from his movies as the most special of effects: a living landscape, swept by squalls of emotion, and forever demanding to be mapped and remapped. Why else should we attend, with equal fervor, both to Alma (Bibi Andersson), the nurse who chatters incessantly throughout “Persona” (1966), and to Elisabet (Liv Ullmann), her patient, who utters not a word, but whose gentle features register everything from mirth to horror as she listens and looks? (A poignant addendum: the two stars are still alive, but Andersson, unfortunately, has had a stroke. She is now the mute one, and it is Ullmann who goes to visit her and talks. Nature and time have reversed the roles of art.) Both actresses return in “The Passion of Anna” (1969), a lesser-known yet formidable work, which finds Bergman shifting from black and white to color and, in snatches, to a freer handheld style. But the closeups are no less concentrated than they were in “Persona,” and, as usual, it is the female face at which we unflinchingly stare.
That dominance, in body and soul, could scarcely be more timely. The list of women nominated for Best Actress at this year’s Oscars, in leading and supporting roles, is tremendously strong, and all of the films in which they appear are worth watching. On the other hand, should you seek a demonstration of female centrality—not the empowerment of women so much as the instinctive power with which, whether in suffering or in flourishes of joy, they can assume dramatic command of a movie—then the Bergman season, I would argue, will be the better and more inspiring option. If there is a more shattering breakage of the fourth wall in the history of cinema than the sight of Harriet Andersson, in “Summer with Monika” (1953), turning to the camera, with a cigarette, and coolly meeting—and defeating—our gaze, I have yet to discover it.
That movie, notoriously, was sliced up and marketed in the U.S. as a skin flick: “Monika—the Story of a Bad Girl!” the posters yelled. “Naughty and nineteen! The devil controls her by radar!” And all because, in one sequence, she takes off her clothes and goes for a swim in the ocean, on a heavenly day. That’s it. You have to laugh, I guess, and yet there is something pitiful as well as preposterous in the American response. The blend of puritanism and slavering prurience is nothing new, but you have to feel sorry, too, for viewers who weren’t allowed to grasp the impulse of liberation—only partly sexual—that propels the entire film. Monika is not a bad girl; she is a woman, striving to untangle herself from the bonds of social expectation. To reduce that struggle to a mere erotic display is, in effect, to tighten the bonds by yet another notch.
What’s remarkable is not that the film survived the travesty but that its portrait of restlessness and rebellion endures to this day, and we are thereby led toward one of the many mysteries of Bergman. Why does he not seem parochial? By rights, he should be both outdated and remote: a man from a small Nordic nation with a burgeoning welfare state, who, in the wake of the Second World War, began to create intimate studies of private lives. All of his characters are white; many of them hail from the loftier ranks of society, and some from theatrical circles. Most of them converse in Swedish. So why should we care? How come their exploits and tribulations continue to resound? (One could say the same of the great screwball comedies. Invariably grounded in the antics of the rich and the footloose, they still find an echo, nonetheless, in anyone who has ever indulged in the sport of desire.) One answer would be: think of Bach. Think of the cello suites, played with such impassioned and relentlessly practiced skill that they echo down the ages. If we want to get the measure of Bergman, maybe the person to ask would be Pablo Casals. Another answer would be that given by the kindly theatre manager in “Fanny and Alexander” (1982):
My only talent, if you can call it that in my case, is that I love this little world inside the thick walls of this playhouse, and I’m fond of the people who work in this little world. Outside is the big world, and sometimes the little world succeeds in reflecting the big one so that we understand it better.
Bergman was the master of such reflection, so much so that—be warned—he will leave you itchy with impatience at most of the movies that currently come our way, especially those that pride themselves on their strident relevance to our times. For one thing, a lot of Bergman is short, all the more potent for its brevity, and nobody has made a more compelling case for the virtues of the ninety-minute flick. The terrifying “Hour of the Wolf” (1968) is bang on the mark, at an hour and a half. “Through a Glass Darkly” (1961) is one minute under; “Cries and Whispers,” one minute over. “Persona,” unbelievably, lasts for eighty-three minutes, though you may need half a lifetime to get over it, and, with a splintered narrative (the image actually cracks at one moment, under the strain), its modernist strategies make most of the stuff you go to see on a Friday night—either at a thunderous multiplex or at your local arthouse, if you have one—seem lazy, stretched-out, old-fashioned, and dangerously safe. I have been lucky enough, in recent weeks, to catch plenty of Bergman’s work on the big screen, where it indubitably belongs, and the pattern of regular viewings has been not an ordeal but an adventure, wholly consuming, and spiced by the strange feeling that I was watching movies I thought I knew pretty well as if for the first time. Conversely, the few I had never seen before had the consoling allure of old favorites. Bergman died in 2007, aged eighty-nine, and the enigma of his achievement has only grown and ripened with the years.
So here’s the plan. I would advise that you pitch a tent outside Film Forum for a few weeks, stock up with rations, and prepare yourself for the movie of the day. Certainly base yourself no farther away than Washington Square. Not to see as many of these films as possible, to be honest, would be more than a wasted opportunity. It would be a dereliction. Imagine the exhausted jubilation with which, on March 15th, you will crawl like a pilgrim toward your destination, with one last showing of “Smiles of a Summer Night” (1955), Ingmar Bergman’s most Shakespearean endeavor. There, at the season’s end, you will find a rustic fellow, sprawling in a haystack with a lady’s maid. (Falstaff would approve.) The summer night, he explains to her, has arrived at its third smile. The first came between midnight and dawn, “when young lovers open their hearts and loins.” The second smile was bestowed upon “the fools and the incorrigible.” And now we have the third, “for the sad and dejected, for the sleepless and lost souls, for the frightened and the lonely.” The world of Ingmar Bergman is hereby declared open. It contains multitudes. Everyone is welcome.