“The Personal Ingmar Bergman: an Odyssey” or “It’s Okay to Question”

bergman at work

There’s been so much written about Bergman over the past month, it’s unfortunate that I was unable to finish this sooner, but all commentary on films and filmmakers is worthwhile in my eyes, no matter how timely the piece may or may not be.

Part 1

There’s a lot to this, to understand the impact of Ingmar Bergman in my life you first have to understand my life a little bit. My Father was and still is to this day a minister, and my Mother a minister’s wife. And similar to most biblical stories a lot of turmoil followed them and likewise my sister and I as we lugged around the United States looking for a Church that was without inner conflict; hypocrisy and backstabbing. I remember the stories of the apostles as they traveled across the land trying to bring people together with wisdom and love, trying to upend them out of their ways that were there more for convenience of memory than an actual desire to worship. My parents tried to do this by removing the hymnals and using bands, doing staged productions for the Church (both the poor man’s versions of much larger churches). My Father was trying to reach out to a younger generation of kids. He even went so far as to bring in movie clips. But like the congregation and the apostles, my Father was hardly perfect. Perhaps the man who takes upon them the mantle of not only a religious follower, but leader, succumbs to their own worst impulses when they realize they can’t live up to their own expectations. I don’t know. Thankfully his worst impulses pale in comparison to the leadership in the Old Testament, and he’s since outgrown many of them.

Even though I doubted the people of the Church and saw the flaws in my parents’ (my religious instructors) behavior, I never questioned the belief system itself. There seemed to be something real to me. But the doubt was growing, building.

Perhaps because of the religious background I found it difficult to relate with the opposite sex, it could have also been that I found myself to be an awkward child; going through puberty much earlier than others certainly didn’t help. I had always found it difficult to date in High School, and kept to my theatre friends. It gave me a lot of time to think about myself, which most people in high school don’t do. This was around the time that film and the theatre really started to mean something to me. I had been acting for years and knew that was what I wanted to do. My Father had been an avid guzzler of pop culture films and television, but when I saw “Bladerunner” for the first time, everything seemed to make sense on another level. I began writing screenplays between the final bell of school and theatre rehearsal later that night at the local Community College. The next obvious step was film school.

Still 17, I moved to Minneapolis. After not having gone to church for 3 years I ended up living in a dorm setting that was integrated with a Christian Living program. At the same time I ended up falling deeply in love with a woman 8 years older than me, a single mother. I was 21. A woman who took advantage of my selfless and naive nature, though at times I still believe she didn’t realize she was. We never dated, but it was a complicated hurricane of emotions and complexities for me that I had never encountered before. At the same time one of my closest friends in the dorm was teaching me a sense of logic and reason I had never come across before. The depths of my soul and heart were being stretched to the brink! “Cognitive Dissonance”, Psychology 101 later taught me. And as I began to wonder if the doubts that had been brewing over the years, that had now begun to boil over were worth anything, and if my heart could ever mend, or if there was anyone else out there who had given up on the high school mentality of dating and saw people as the complicated and destructive (even with their best intentions intact) forces of nature that they can be, I discovered Ingmar Bergman.
Part 2

Just having turned 18 when I entered film school, I was surrounded by 30 year olds. Thankfully, in those few years with the emotional wounds having cut so deep that every time I looked at a girl I bled, and my faith in religion shaking, I caught up quickly. It’s amazing how much a woman can shake your world, to the point of seeing everything a bit more skeptically. The only thing I had was my filmmaking, my creativity, the words and images in my mind. It was the first time since acting I took a real interest in anything. My writing began to veer from the fantastical comic book, anime induced worlds I loved, to a darker, more complicated and realistic style. One in which the character’s emotions were trickier, and more abstract, but I was unfocused. It took me 30 treatments of a screenplay before I actually could start writing it.

There was this little video store in Uptown, just outside of Downtown Minneapolis. Uptown was the hip place to be. Two independent movie theatres, independent music stores, 3 story houses turned into coffee shops that stayed open almost 24 hours…it was the place I hung out. This particular video store was Netflix before there was Netflix. Almost every video every created, from cult cinema to the big hits for a monthly fee. It was the perfect place for me to hide from the devastation that my life had become.

I remembered the name Ingmar Bergman. They had shown The Seventh Seal in one of the film courses, but my mind had been too untrained for me to appreciate it at the time. Persona sounded interesting. I piled it up with a couple Woody Allen films, a Kurosawa or two. It was the third slap in the face I would receive in such a short time. The first had been Tarkovsky’s Solaris, which mingled my love for science fiction and my new found appreciation for deep thought to an even greater depth than Bladerunner, then it was Rashomon which I ran around the city showing everyone I could immediately after I saw it for the first time (I think I watched it 5 times that day!) and then Persona. My world and my life stopped for that short period of time. This wasn’t something I could share with others, as I could with Rashomon. How could anyone else understand the depths of my appreciation, that I wasn’t just witnessing a film, I was witnessing the breaking down of film. The walls of safety, of a beginning-middle-and-end structure disintegrated before my eyes and all that was left was the raw, unhindered emotional warring between these two amazing actresses as their personalities melded. As the trust that the victimized was so eager to serve on a platter to the other was broken and everything she held personally mocked, I felt my own life swirl around inside me, I felt my own disappointment in people realized. When she finally lashes out, I somehow felt justice, a release.

Most people recall the joining of the two faces as the most symbolic moment of the film, for me though the most effective moment was just before that. When each character speaks, the camera is pointed directly into their faces, as if they were facing us. We can’t look away; there isn’t a cut to something else to save us from their almost empty, knife-like stares. Then he cuts to the other side and shows you the whole sequence again, only we see the reaction we weren’t allowed to see the first time. It was devastating and yet enlivening. Here was someone who had done what I was attempting to do with my own work. Here was someone who understood the darkest areas of human emotion in a way that I was starting to see it. That film could reflect life outside of a 3-act structure and be just as understandable, even if not everything was answerable. Emotions and interaction overtook the need to tell a clear story.

Then with Winter Light, Through a Glass Darkly and The Silence (the next three consecutive films I saw) I found a cohort in my questioning of faith and religion. Only he was smart enough not to sneeringly stick out his tongue (as I’ve found Bunuel to do) at the topic but to treat it seriously. It was the sort of perspective I had been searching for. It made me feel safer in my doubts. It allowed me to approach those doubts in a creative way, in a way that painted people as humans and not just as religious messages to get across a moral. These people were falling apart because what they believed in didn’t seem to shield them from the oppressive forces of emotional burdens. Unable because of his own misgivings to save the life of a farmer, the Minister in Winter Light struggles to find his place in God’s regime. In Through a Glass Darkly amidst a family that is crumbling a schizophrenic young woman believes she hears the voice of God only to find out his true form is a spider. In The Silence, a movie with almost no dialogue, the characters deal with just that, silence of God. Many have claimed that these are atheistic movies, but I whole-heartedly disagree. To doubt is not to disbelieve. To question is not to forget.

Part 3

In Bergman’s films the one consistent theme is that each character has chosen to live without something, and we see how they struggle without it. In Cries and Whispers we see the characters live without love and trust, and we are treated to one of the most stomach churning scenes I’ve ever witnessed. In Winter Light we see how a person lives without faith, in Shame without peace, Wild Strawberries without, perhaps, a future, Hour of the Wolf without sanity, and finally in The Passion of Anna without passion towards anything or anyone. In the final moment of Passion the camera slowly zooms in on our hero, who is crumbling to the ground in the distance as his last chance for feeling something drives away. Something interesting happens, the image, unable to properly zoom in on its subject because it’s so far away begins to deteriorate before out eyes, just as the person crumbling before us is dying from the inside out. Never had I seen such technique before.

That’s what Bergman does. He forces us to see beyond the walls of the film and to feel the turmoil of each of its characters; to feel their emotions, raw. It has been likened to watching the theatre, and many times his detractors have claimed that as a director he brought nothing to film and should have stayed with the stage. With the stage we’re usually treated to these raw emotions, but it lacks visual focus; our eyes are drawn to sounds or movements unrelated to what’s happening. In this case film was the perfect medium for Bergman, he uses the camera to show us what he wants us to see, to allow us to see the broken faces of his characters, to look into their eyes and feel the hell they live in. He uses the camera to do what he couldn’t have done on stage and that was to personalize everything; Bergman’s films are the theatre of the intimate. He forces those emotions upon us so we understand, and hopefully learn that living in such ways will leave us empty and many times alone.

But Bergman wasn’t all disdain and depression. The final moments of Winter Light shows us the minister as he begins service, and even though there is only one person seated for the sermon, it is still worth it for the character to preach his belief knowing that reaching one person is just as important as reaching hundreds.

Part 4

It’s unfortunate that so close to Bergman’s passing another great director, Michaelangelo Antonioni died. Unfortunate because many people have fell back on drawing comparisons or saying which one they liked better, and for whatever reason, even if it makes sense, each of these director’s work has been riddled with great films and lesser films (in Bergman’s case the rotten egg is The Serpent’s Egg.) Each of these director’s styles is so distinct and unique that the only person they should be compared to is themselves, and one can do well enough in this sense to write scores of papers and books on each.

In the end it’s hard for me to even think they are dead, since as people they were never alive to me outside of their work, and those works will live on with me until I die and I’m certain will come and go in popularity. I am currently making my way through Scenes from a Marriage for the first time, and then it will be Saraband and Autumn Sonata; as far as I’m concerned, Bergman is alive as he ever was.

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3 Responses to ““The Personal Ingmar Bergman: an Odyssey” or “It’s Okay to Question””

  1. Sam Erickson Says:

    Hi Phillip

    Great write up,I’m a young Bergman fan myself and some of the foreign films he has made are among my favorites (those would include “Winter Light” and “The Passion of Anna”).There are many other foreign filmakers where I admired their work but never had a personal connection. However,what makes his films favorites for me are the artistry and the emotional power I experience and I’ve come to know that films that I respond to with strong emotions always give me that personal connection to be a favorite.After I watched “The Seventh Seal”,I knew I had to see more of his films.

    Although much has been said that he has gone down in reputation among the pantheon of directors but he will always be high up there for me.There still plenty of films of his I need such as “Persona”, “Shame” and “Fanny and Alexander” but I will have them netflixed.

    • Phillip Says:

      Hey Sam,

      I think that is awesome that you’re discovering Ingmar Bergman. I still am! I have yet to watch “Scenes from a Marriage” and “The Magic Flute” and many others.

      Something about him, his honesty keeps his movies timeless. You can go back and feel the same thing because the feelings he deals with are stripped away human emotions. He’s a genius. And one of my main influences.

      Thanks for writing. I’ll steer you on to Andrei Tarkovsky next!

  2. Sam Erickson Says:


    Thanks for writing back.Since your recomending Andrei Tarkovsky to me,I think you might want to give Jean-Luc Godard’s films a try because he is also one of my favorite filmakers.I still need to see more of his films and the works of of other French New Wave Filmakers such as Truffaut, Melville and Malle but from so far I really love his work.

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