Ernst Ingmar Bergman (14 July 1918 – 30 July 2007) would have been 100 today. Film-making for much of the 20th century was dominated by Bergman along with the other greats including Akira Kurosawa, Antonioni, Federico Fellini and Satyajit Ray.
In this interview, first published on Senses of Cinema, Zafar Anjum pays tribute to the auteur whose corpus of work includes such films as Smiles of a Summer Night, Wild Strawberries, Scenes from a Marriage, The Silence, and the experimental film Persona, among many others.
Can you describe your condition when you learned that Ingmar Bergman passed away?
One morning I was generally trawling the internet and chanced upon the news of Bergman’s death. It came as a shock to me. I was sad for a while as unquestionably one of the towering figures of international cinema had passed away. In Bergman’s death, we saw the end of a great era of filmmaking. Perhaps he was the last of the greatest filmmakers the humanity has ever known. I loved the way Peter Mathews described his experience on Bergman’s passing away: “Cinephiles are a superstitious lot, so the recent deaths of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni within hours of each other seemed laden with portentous meaning. It was as though blind chance had certified what many of us knew in our bones: that the great, visionary enterprise of cinema is over. Henceforth there are to be no more masterpieces–uniquely luminous works describing the finest vibrations of the creator’s soul. Instead we will get (have been getting for nigh on 20 years) an industrial cinema, streamlined, impersonal, marketable and crudely derivative” (A Cinephile’s lament, Sight & Sound, October 2007).
On the other hand, I was also a little angry as the local media had largely ignored the news. Soon after, when I saw his well-written obituary in my copy of The Economist , I felt a sense of relief. At least one of the world’s most respected newspapers had chosen to pay homage to this great philosopher-filmmaker who for decades had devoted his life to the examination of the human condition, plumbing the depths of human emotion and exploring the metaphysical questions of life and death.
Clearly from your blog, you admire Bergman. Can you talk about the things you admire about his work?
As a matter of fact, I got introduced to Bergman’s work quite late in life. I was born in a nearly isolated small town in northern India where there were two or three cinema halls that showed only B-grade Bollywood fare. When I started watching films in those cinema halls (video parlours soon emerged in the 1980s), I had no idea if a different, more artistic and satisfying cinema existed beyond the Bollywood kitsch.
In my 20s, when I arrived at a university near Delhi for higher education, and joined the university’s film club, I got introduced to Hollywood and Iranian films. My perspective on cinema began to change. I also began to read about the Indian parallel cinema movement, which was in its waning phase in the 1990s and began to go to film festivals that I got introduced to the greatest filmmakers of the world. That included Bergman, among other directors.
As a lover of cinema, I generally like all kinds of films, from the epic to the noir to surreal cinema, but what I like the most, the kind of cinema that is closest to my heart is the one that talks about human relationships and explores various shades of those relationships in a microscopic way. I think Bergman did that and much more. I like his brooding, philosophical cinema, done in an aesthetic way that is simply mind-blowing.
I think Bergman wanted to become a writer before he became a filmmaker. That shows in his films. He wrote amazing scripts and told his stories through powerful narratives.
I admire him as a filmmaker because his commitment to cinema was soul-deep. Making films for him was akin to weaving magic and he understood its impact on the viewers. ‘No form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does, straight to our emotions, deep into the twilight room of the soul,’ he said. This Bergmanesque sentence captures the truth behind the ever fascinating charm of cinema for people.
Yet, he was humble enough to realize that making films was not something that he was doing for posterity. His approach was to be artistic without being ‘arty’. His cinema was for ‘right now’. It must engage the people of the time he was making that film for, he said in an interview. His aesthetic vision for cinema with utilitarian objectives is what impresses me about his work. And yet his work will outlive him.
Apart from that, I love the themes and the narrative structures of his films. Wild Strawberries deals with the subject of man’s isolation; The Seventh Seal explores the individual’s relationship with God and the idea of Death. Men’s and women’s inability to communicate with each other are some of the recurrent themes of his films. For example, Autumn Sonata heartbreakingly portrays the pain and regret of two lives, of things left unsaid and undone, until it is too late.
Bergman also dealt with ‘metaphysical questions of guilt and the existence of God, and the emotional cruelty of human beings.’ These are eternal, powerful themes to explore for a filmmaker or a writer. It shows the spiritual depths of the filmmaker. If it could be said in plain words, many of Bergman’s films studied the painful duality of an individual’s ‘outward success and inward failure’, as film critic David Thompson put it in the Guardian. That juxtaposition interests me immensely.
Have Bergman’s films influenced your own approach to film? What about your work as a writer?
Bergman wrote in his autobiography, The Magic Lantern that ‘a film is not a document, it is a dream’. That is a great way of looking at cinema. That’s what I learnt after watching the films of Bergman. Yet, Bergman’s characters were grounded in reality.
Understanding this, from Bergman’s films, has influenced my approach to cinema. Bergman’s films emphasize the significance of human connection in a world of emotional isolation, in a world of changing social mores and in a world without God. That emphasis speaks to me quite loudly.
As a writer and filmmaker, if I can say so without sounding immodest or mawkish, the themes that Bergman explored are also close to my heart. Through my creations, I too want to explore the meaning of life and the inevitability of death and loneliness and alienation in an urban milieu (especially between parents and children). Like his films and of some other directors who share a similar vision, my created universe also tends to be spare, stark, and metaphoric. If that is an influence, as influences come from a variety of sources for a creative worker, I have no hesitation in acknowledging it.
I like the idea of an artist that Bergman has espoused. I quote him here from a presentation he gave at Lund University in 1954, and it says a lot about his self-perception as a filmmaker:
‘My films involve good craftsmanship. I am conscientious, industrious and extremely careful. I do my work for everyday purposes and not for eternity; and my pride is the pride of a good craftsman.
‘Yet I know that what I tell myself is self-deception and an incessant anxiety calls out to me: What have you done that will endure? Is there a single metre in any one of your films that will mean something for the future, one single line, one single situation that is completely and absolutely real?
‘And with the sincere person’s deep-rooted inclination to lie I must answer; I do not know, but I think so.
What do you think has been the impact of Bergman’s work on film in general?
Historically speaking, Bergman’s case is tragic in terms of auteur-based film criticism. Once occulted by academic fashions and a darling of cinephiles, Bergman became a victim of his own art cinema success. Despite his international success, his critical profile declined from the 1960s ‘auteur-cinema supremacy to present-day neglect’, according to British film critic Chris Darke. ‘The popular memory of Bergman today is a kind of pale parodic photocopy, exemplified by Woody Allen’s homage, where the Swedish director is stylistically invoked as a reference for European art cinema gravitas and to generate a kind of profundity-by-proxy,’ writes Darke. In the late 1950s and 60s, Bergman was the central figure of European art cinema. He was an inspirational figure for the French New Wave directors. After watching his 1953 film Summer with Monika, Jean Luc Godard eulogized in “Bergmanorama,” claiming that Bergman was the most original filmmaker of the European cinema and a stylistic inspiration.
By the 1970s, Bergman was attacked by critics of alternative critical tendencies. He was attacked for allegedly creating characters based on Swedish national conventions. Feminist critics slammed his work (especially his “chamber dramas”) for ‘conforming to a conventional artistic male perspective on female subjectivity that identifies femininity with hysteria,’ according to Birgitta Steene in her essay Bergman’s Portrait of Women: Sexism or Subjective. However, some of Bergman’s films will always be considered as watershed films in the history of cinema.
On Bergman’s influence on international cinema, film critic Hamish Ford has brilliantly noted his contributions and I quote him here:
‘Like Rome, Open City (Rossellini, 1945) and Rashomon (Kurosawa, 1950) before it, The Seventh Seal was a watershed “foreign film” in its critical and audience impact around the world. It became perhaps the central work in a halcyon period for “art cinema”, opening the way in the US and Britain for the early-’60s successes of Fellini, Antonioni and the nouvelle vague. Stamping its images into the cultural memory of world cinema, The Seventh Seal‘s aesthetic and thematic richness also hugely influenced the development of film societies and then academic cinema studies in North America.’
In India too, his influence on certain directors can be seen even to the present day. Indian filmmakers such as Shyam Benegal and Khalid Mohammad admire Bergman’s work. Khalid’s Tehzeeb (2003) was largely inspired by Bergman’s Autumn Sonata. Interestingly, before turning into a filmmaker, film journalist Khalid Mohammad wrote scripts for some of Shyam Benegal’s well-known later films like Mammo, Zubeidaa and Sardari Begum.
There are some stories that are best told through the medium of film. What did Bergman bring to film that couldn’t be done in other media?
Bergman’s use of light and darkness and his emphasis on, as Ford puts it, ‘an intimate engagement in a range of uncomfortable feelings’ through body language is, I think, inimitable in any other medium. He uses ‘minimal composition and extremely tight close-ups to illustrate the theme of psychological deconstruction’. His lack of camera movement, for example in Persona, manipulates the viewer to study the characters’ faces. David Thompson writes in his appreciation of Bergman in Sight & Sound (October 2007), ‘For Bergman, the human face was the greatest landscape available to a filmmaker.’
Bergman masterfully uses thematic colours to externalize emotions. In Cries and Whispers, thematic colours suffuse the film. In Autumn Sonata, the color palette reflects the fall season that goes well with the characters and the storyline. In Wild Strawberries, we see ‘the achronological affectivity of time and memory as seen in old age’ (Ford).
Is this kind of creative storytelling possible in any other medium?
Do you believe that Bergman’s work influenced other media by his innovations?
Bergman has worked in both TV and cinema but it is difficult to pinpoint if his work has influenced other media. His influence on cinema and filmmakers worldwide is obvious but on other media, I am not sure. On this subject what I may humbly say is that his underlining of the importance of art being relevant to the contemporary people is insightful. Today, we are living in the world of instant communication through internet and mobile telephony. Yet, the same void of communication exists among human beings. In that sense, Bergman’s work is as relevant as in the past, and it should and would inspire current and future filmmakers and writers the world over.
On Bergman’s death, The Economist noted in its Aug 2, 2007 issue, ‘Critics wondered whether there was a general message in his films. Mr. Bergman sometimes denied he had one. Yet he usually found a saving moment in the misery: a selfless communication, in word or gesture, between two human beings. At the end of “Wild Strawberries”, the hero, an aged professor, is belatedly reconciled with his family and his past. As the scene was filmed, Mr. Bergman noted, the old actor’s face ‘shone with secretive light as if reflected from another reality’. That secretive light, or hidden love, was just what the director had been searching for.”
As long as the world’s creative workers will keep on striving, in any medium, to search for ‘that secretive light, or hidden love,’ Bergman’s influence would be at work.