AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO INGMAR BERGMAN
by Harlan Kennedy
The Silence is the great watershed movie of Ingmar Bergman's career, perhaps of Sixties art cinema: the work of a filmmaker no longer able to contain the creatures and archetypes surging in the playroom of his imagination.
The path to salvation has
changed utterly. Wasn't there a time circa 1960 when the serious, curious
moviegoer went to the cinema as a form of pilgrimage? With bleeding feet and
straining brain, lashing himself on with intellectual Stakhanovism, he
watched monochrome images scarified with symbolism and suffering. He allowed
the popcorn to turn to ashes in his mouth while sipping on the Communion
Coke. For he was watching the great verities of existence and eternity. L'Avventura, Last Year at
While it was okay to watch a
picture that was not about God, schizophrenia, or the meaning of life, such films
were entertainment, not art. Or at best, social-cultural fieldwork. A sense
of citizenly duty (along with the hedonism) might send you to Dr. No,
Today Bergman is a forgotten
sin. Aging moviemanes fill out Guilty Pleasures
quizzes by citing such sanctified trash as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms,
the trilogy again recently: Through a Glass Darkly (61), Winter Light
(62), The Silence (63). And while I shan't tub-thump
(making loud noises can be counterproductive), the experience was so powerful
that I feel moved to urge, as we stock-take a century of cinema, that we
reincorporate this man into the living flux of film culture. That
middle-period Bergman be returned to the repertoire of regularly seen movies
rather than left in the
Bergman's later movies may have been richer certainly richer-looking than this triad about despair in a world engulfed by loss of faith. Few cry "Yesterday's stuff!" about Persona, Hour of the Wolf, The Shame, Cries and Whispers, and Fanny and Alexander. But the rock on which he built these monuments was also the rock on which he dashed, heroically, his own religious belief. The three-act drama that began with a group of characters emerging from the sea like our prehuman ancestors the opening scene of Through a Glass Darkly ended with the flesh deposing the spirit, with life walking out on death and belief in an afterlife, at the close of The Silence.
The trilogy wasn't epochal only for Bergman. It marked, even helped to make, the moment when modernism went "post." The later Bergmanworks, anticipating the whole post-God drift of Western culture, went for referentialism and intertextuality. Persona took the blank-seeming sheet of The Silence and restyled it as an origami meditation on identity: a follow-on film featuring a similar pair of tormented women and the same spindly boy reaching for the light of knowledge (played by the same actor), but with a plot all the weirder and more multilayered for constantly gazing into its own reflection.
In the same way, movies like Hour of the Wolf and The Shame were at once Bergman and mock-Bergman (the mysterious war of The Shame expands the mystery tanks processing in silhouette in The Silence), while also using promiscuous and explicit invocations ranging from Mozart and Bram Stoker (Hour of the Wolf) to Bach and Strindberg (A Passion).
Nothing so ornate or polychoric characterizes the three films or at least the first two of them made between 1961 and 1963. Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light have dropped into the critical oubliette. They are so plain and pained that those who love the fancy-dress mysticism of The Seventh Seal, the surrealism of The Magician, or even the Kurosawa dynamism of The Virgin Spring (loathed by Bergman), pass over them and move straight on to The Silence, which at least adds kinkiness to its austerity.
Yet there is weirdness, too, of a spellbinding kind, in these spartan tales of madness, despair, and religious convulsion. In Through a Glass Darkly a schizophrenic young woman (Harriet Andersson) hears, sees, and "meets" God behind the macabre, flickering wallpaper of an island cottage. In Winter Light the ailing faith of a country priest (Gunnar Bjornstrand) is tested and found wanting indeed destroyed by a man's death and a woman's love.
Bergman complained, later, that Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light were too playlike. But what amazes today is the charge of the images. Nothing by such lichtmeisters as Lang or Murnau surpasses what Bergman and cameraman Sven Nykvist achieve here, in movies often damned for their monastic visuals. The first film is so richly textured or richly texted in its visuals that the speeches and even the sometimes labored algebra of sin and redemption are deposed almost to subplots.
Keyed to dawn and evening light, the movie is about the births and deaths that happen every day. A son's bitter intimation of a father's lovelessness; a loving husband's despair at the powerlessness of his love; a brother's carnal moment-of-no-return with a sister. And the lyrical consolation of madness that it is an eternal state of flux without responsibility is annotated in the visual refrain of curdled, vortexlike patterns, from the first shot of the sea's surface (shimmering, psychedelic layers) to the eerie light-flicker, like the writhing of half-seen souls, that animates heroine Karen's wallpaper.
Bergman's picture-narrative has a wonderful independent life, sometimes distinct from but parallel to the words, sometimes sinisterly contradictory. Early on, the molten, curdling clouds seen behind the head of the writer-father during a rowboat conversation with his son-in-law (Max Von Sydow), added to the godlike low angle from which Bjornstrand is shot, link him to the passionate volatility and privileged insights of his supersensory/extrasensory daughter. But the character is unmasked unmasks himself as a poseur, a spiritual fraud, in a later duologue with Von Sydow on a fishing boat. Here Bergman, in a masterly conceit, gives Bjornstrand "wooden wings," or so the boat's rail-edge suggests as it spans out from his shoulders, likening him to a cumbrous, carpentered angel.
The film's playful, pre-Gothic hints of Hour of the Wolf seem today like early cracks in the shell of Bergman's penitential realism. A late shot of Von Sydow, Bjornstrand, and Andersson milling through the cottage's hallway before final departure is done with giant shadows thrown Eisensteinianly on the walls. They seem like human versions of the heroine's "spider God," players in a vaunting, grotesque Insect Passion that works to destroy God by deriding Him first.
Yet the repudiation of God, suggests the trilogy, comes at heavy price. If He doesn't exist, what or whom are we to care about except ourselves? And is human love, in such an enfeebled cosmos, anything but a form of collective or transferred narcissism?
Winter Light is a film about futility, and on first viewing can be as depressing as that sounds. No longer convinced that he can love God since no longer convinced that He exists the widowed village priest (Bjornstrand) rejects human love at the same time. It is as if the larger model of love crushes the smaller as it collapses. His anguished mistress (Ingrid Thulin) pleads and berates in vain. The only person who leaves any bruise on the priest's emotions is the parishioner (Von Sydow) who kills himself in despair one day after Bjornstrand has failed, during a priestly tκte-ΰ-tκte, to stoke the man's failing faith.
We know the case against Winter Light. For a film about "God's silence" it is formidably talky and static. And the one lengthy sequence without words, in which a distant camera watches Bjornstrand's impotent shufflings and ministrations around the river-dredged body of Von Sydow, is about as "cinematic" as those home movies you show once before consigning them to the attic. The nonvocal soundtrack in this scene is just as ineluctable, though its effectiveness grows with further viewings. The nonstop whoosh of water in the background comes to seem like nature's version of white noise, or Bergman's evocation of an unyielding spiritual tinnitus.
Like Through a Glass Darkly, though, Winter Light is fascinating for the sense of a shell being probingly, painfully cracked from within. The form is tight, logical, symmetrical: it observes, it is enslaved to, the Aristotelian unities. Yet inside the church Nykvist's camerawork is scarcely less expressive and expressionist than in the first film. Human faces and gestures are echoed in the rich, bizarre figurations of religious heraldry, notably a tortured-looking Christ on a crucifix (whose drooped head is precisely duplicated in the cricked-neck gait of the verger). And Nykvist and Bergman make the chapel's large southern window and its sickly, glaring, leering light seem like a suture in the whole comfort-system of Christianity.
More even than in Through a Glass Darkly, the performances seem part of the visual strategy. Bergman, as we know, used the same faces and voices over and over: they become so familiar that they function as elements or humors. In Winter Light his actor-characters have the grim authenticity of icons. Bjornstrand's thin, circumflex mouth clamped by portcullis upper lip, the incarnation of Christian abnegation; Thulin's ascetic beauty sensualized by a thick mouth that twists upward at one end, skewed with wryness: two people designed to torture each other from opposite corners of the carnal/spiritual world. And like a ghost between them, Von Sydow's sepulchral, lantern-jawed face almost whited out by windowlight in some shots comes from a third dimension altogether. As the catalyst of doubt, he seems a haunter for all ages, heraldic, medieval. If the sacrificial Thulin is a distaff Christ, as many critics proposed, then these three characters make up a secular trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Bergman sorts and fans his deck of faces as if already rehearsing for Persona. When Bjornstrand opens Thulin's letter of recrimination to him, we cut to a closeup of the actress, who simply recites the letter straight to camera. The words matter less than that visible lexicon of despair, love, and bitterness. Earlier and later, faces are overlapped or profiles "hinged" in the Persona style, the one adopted with such adoring servility by Woody Allen in Interiors.
The play of masks here is not mannerism; it is meat and meaning. Winter Light is all about warring icons: specifically the replacement of one icon, God, with another just as powerful and implacable, Man (and Woman). Though the doubting hero-priest is called Thomas, the film isn't about doubt at all. It is about Bergman and his hero's growing certainty that God does not exist, and that we made Him or We made him in our own image: demanding, wheedling, ineluctable, eternally unfulfillable.
In the act of breaking a system of thought and belief, the trilogy breaks traditional ways of using cinema. Nowhere more than in The Silence. This is barely a story at all: more a bizarre chamber-pageant drawing from Bergman's own store of themes and images. In an unnamed city, the ultimate terminal hotel, out of Boris Vian by Alfred Jarry (complete with a comically forlorn old waiter), plays host to the ultimate human castaways: Mother, Son, and Human Ghost. The messiah is a pale boy caught in a tug-of-care between his actual, earthly, earthy parent (Gunnel Lindblom) and her dying sister (Thulin), whose sexuality has refined itself to almost nothing on the altar of self-denial.
The Silence is the great watershed movie of Bergman's career, perhaps of Sixties art cinema: the work of a filmmaker no longer able to contain the creatures and archetypes surging in the playroom of his imagination. These include a troop of dwarfs (out of Tod Browning by Velazquez), an eldritch rag-and-bone man and his horse, several tortured sex scenes, a boy urinating in the hotel corridor, and the choric grind and roar of war machinery tanks, planes outside the hotel's windows.
Late Bergman meets early Bunuel blended with mid-period Fellini. But The Silence isn't L'Age d'or with angst or 8½ with religious guilt. Bergman's discovery of free association because it comes from a mind so austere and hermetic is more nightmarish and far more powerful in its cosmic disgust. The outrage that greeted The Silence howls of bishops, scissorings of censors, even feces-smeared toilet paper sent to the director denoted public horror at a morally serious moviemaker surrendering (it seemed) to a libertine, Dadaist nihilism.
But The Silence is a massively serious movie. Its deconstruction of the unconscious in a world drifting toward secularity opened the way to modern directors like Kieslowski and Lars von Trier, for whom cinema is a glorious trapdoor art. Linear storytelling is at worst impossible, at best a matter of negotiating ground that can open up beneath you without notice. The hotel in The Silence is the hospital in The Kingdom or the train in Zentropa; it is the judiciary world of A Short Film About Killing or the emotionally atomized, post-bereavement world of Three Colors: Blue.
Bergman's discovery was simple. If you discard the ultimate omniscient narrator, God, why keep a weakened human version, the artist as commentator and coordinator? In The Silence characters drift through fragmented stories that seem to relate neither to each other nor, in a sense, to themselves. None of the episodes in the boy's aimless saga of wanderlust through the hotel corridors links causally or consequentially with any other: the dwarfs, the chandelier-cleaner, the old waiter's family photos. That each has a metaphorical charge the boy aiming a joke gunshot at the man atop the stepladder polishing the majestic light fixture is lese-deitie in symbol language doesn't detract from the alarming, provoking sense of a story that has cut loose from its storyteller.
The Silence yields another secret, or asks another question. Those faces by which Bergman laid such store in his movies (the word even crops up three times in his titles: The Face, aka The Magician, and Face to Face): even they are not a dependable harbor or harbinger of truth. The humanist consolation that, even in a cinema without God, human values and ideas and feelings can be a rock of truth doesn't survive the film. If the faces in Winter Light had come to resemble icons of such exaggerated fixity that we almost waited for the first sound of crumbling, in The Silence they are more mantric still, more Absurdist, more doomed, like the impenetrable foreign language of the city the main characters have arrived in.
Bergman reduces the dying Ingrid Thulin's face to bone perfunctorily covered with flesh, like the horse of the rag-and-bone man. Lindblom's face is a mask of sensuality she carries through the world, detachable and deceiving. In one scene a character spends time talking to what we think is her face, until Bergman reveals it as a mirror reflection. Meanwhile the dwarfs cavort through the corridors dandling animal masks: mannequin-mannikins experimenting with the poses of human passion and appetite. "We try out attitudes and find them all worthless," sums up Lindblom.
Even as The Silence reduces human worth and human communicability to zero, though, it does so with the fascinated intrepidity of an explorer on safari. Bergman saw the boy's curiosity as the film's one positive, redemptive value. And the whole movie is exhilarating for its determination to map out a new infrastructure of human feeling and communication based not on a God-given hegemony of traditional cause and effect, let alone a moral contextualizing of human action. In many ways The Silence is cinema's answer to Camus's L'etranger. Since there are no common rules and scarcely even any common language in human behavior and morality, it's not surprising that Bergman's own summation of The Silence takes the form of a nutshell definition of Existentialism: "At the film's bottommost layer lay the collapse of an ideology and a way of life. I remember writing down something I was tremendously pleased with, though of course it's nothing remarkable in itself: I wrote that life only has as much meaning and importance as one attributes to it oneself."
A new generation of directors would inherit the rich and difficult freedom this thought embraces. For Bergman's trilogy wasn't just a masterpiece of self-destruct art of and for itself. (Its aim and achievement, one could sum up, were to wipe out by the end of the third film all the assumptions with which audiences began watching the first.) It was a shudder in the culture that would go on to engender a whole cinema of visionary anti-narrative, from Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice (lensed in Sweden by Nykvist as if to italicize the Bergman debt) to Mike Leigh's Naked, from Eustache's The Mother and the Whore to the bleakest tragicomic yarns of Kieslowski and von Trier.
Bergman took us all into the cold of a Godless universe and told us to warm our hands on the truth. It is time to bring him in from the cold: to treat his movies, even those that critical popularity has forgotten, not as the shadow-play of a forgotten ancestor but as fresh, thrilling, and eternally revelatory cinema.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE JULY-AUG 1998 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.