“Most of Bergman’s films were about the plague of the modern soul — the demons and doubts, secrets and lies that men and woman evaded but were forced to confront. This agonized Swede was a surgeon who operated on himself. He cut into his own fears, analyzed his failings, perhaps sought forgiveness through art. When he died at 89 [July 2007], he left behind him a worldwide colony of devotees, and a collection of spare, severe dramas unique in their intensity and impact. He must have been surprised at the acclaim for works so personal, they seemed like primal screams, picking at the scabs of his psyche. His films spoke not just to the self-absorption of the therapy generation, but to the human quest to discover the worst and the strongest about ourselves, to make that journey into the darkness with no guide but our need to know.” (Richard Corliss, Time, 7/30/07)
That Ingmar Bergman would be featured in this monthly blogathon was a given. Even by arthouse standards he went places undreamed. Bleakness, sickness, eroticism, nihilism, madness, and death were his forte, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that when he got old he couldn’t watch his own films anymore because they were too damn depressing. But Bergman had a sense of humor too, and he knew tenderness at the right moments. No filmmaker, in my view, has more forcefully examined the human condition and interrogated the soul. He’s made around 40 films, and here’s how I rank the 15 great ones in descending order.
Update: See also Carson Lund’s rankings of Bergman.
1. The Seventh Seal. 1957. 5 stars. Bergman’s most famous film is laced with gratifying, cutting-edge humor. It sounds a bit boring when described (a knight plays chess with Death), but it’s the knight’s journey around the game’s intervals, through a land struck by plague and fanaticism, and his attempts to penetrate God’s mysteries, that drive the story. His close-to-atheist squire is played hilariously by Gunnar Björnstrand, and he gets in great lines, a perfect counterpart to Max Von Sydow’s glacial reserve and tormented anguish. There’s so much grand entertainment here — bar brawls, apocalyptic tirades, insult contests, self-mutilation, and a witch-burning to top it off — that the theological side helpings make it one of the most balanced arthouse films I know. The Seventh Seal is an ambitious work that somehow, almost effortlessly it seems, tackles death, existential horror, and spiritual uncertainty all at once. And if it’s a nihilistic dance of death that awaits us all, then at least Bergman allows us to enjoy some comforts, and through a great cast of characters, before we get there.
2. Cries and Whispers. 1973. 5 stars. This is a harrowing meditation on the theme of pain, possibly Bergman’s bleakest work (which says a lot), and a perfect exit point for Harriet Andersson who plays the dying Agnes. The hurt on display is relentless; facial contortions, gasps, and screams are so hideous I cringe. Red permeates everything, and it’s so effective it’s staggering. Cries and Whispers is the world of women, where men are gluttonous oafs and blind to their wives’ contempt. But it’s not simple male-bashing; the women have complexly repulsive relationships with each other, bruising each other with enough emotional pain to match the physical assault of Agnes’ cancer. The late Roger Ebert made a fascinating analogy: “The year 1973 began and ended with cries of pain. It began with Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, and it closed with Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Both films are about the weather of the human soul, and no two films could be more different. Yet each in its own way forces us to look inside, to experience horror, to confront the reality of suffering.” How true: each left me terrified to exist as a human being.
3. Fanny and Alexander. 1982. 5 stars. This masterpiece is diminished by accolades; it has to be experienced to feel the magic, and despite the three-hour length (or even five-hour, if you see the extended version), you won’t want it to end. It’s a Dickens-like wonder, populated by ghosts and magical surrealism, the stuff of rare epic, weaved around a boy’s imagination that helps him deal with the death of his father and an abusive new one. There is the wild Christmas party of the first part, the tyranny and bloody lashings of the second, the dazzling dream-flight of the third. What stands out most is the optimistic ending, unique for Bergman. It was intended to be his last film, and I imagine him wanting to leave something more uplifting in his legacy. Fanny and Alexander is pure enchantment, pure storytelling, and its triumphant conclusion is richly earned.
4. The Silence. 1963. 5 stars. Here Bergman suggests that there’s no solution to the riddle of God’s existence, and yet the search for a solution remains important. The film is unnerving in the extreme. The setting is a foreign country that gets few visitors, and where tanks roll down the streets ready to fire; the hotel is a fantastic set piece and like something out of a paranoid dream state (even anticipating The Shining), with the hyper-friendly old porter and the room of circus dwarves, all of whom speak gibberish. The theme of non-communication pervades on every level, carrying “silence” to its symbolic extreme. The visiting sisters resent each other and retreat into their own silences or dysfunctions: sexual promiscuity (Anna) and alcoholism (Ester); by contrast, the boy Johann almost represents unfallen humanity before being corrupted by the world — he can interact with all of the hotel’s grotesqueries with delightful naivete, even despite the language barriers. This is the third part of the “Silence of God” trilogy — the most intelligent, subtle, and terrifying of the three.
5. Hour of the Wolf. 1968. 5 stars. Known for being Bergman’s only horror film, and like Shame (which followed it the same year) it involves the actors Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullman as a married couple (Johan and Alma) on an island, with Johan’s psyche crumbling under extreme pressure. The pressures are interior (giving it an edge over Shame, which is about the exterior pressure of war): inner demons, personal alienation, homosexual guilt, necrophilia, and the intensified blurring of reality and fantasy. We’re never quite sure if we’re seeing Johan’s demons, or those shared by Johan and Alma together, or some combination with reality. The theme of contagious insanity is strangely compelling — only William Friedkin’s Bug has come close to tapping this theme with results just as raw — and Alma’s “If I’d loved him less, would I have been able to protect him more?”, shows the devastating liabilities of love in this context.
6. Shame. 1968. 5 stars. Shame shows the personal cost of war, and without any political ax to grind, by focusing on a simple married couple. We share their intimacies, then their hopelessness when they’re uprooted from home, falsely accused of bad allegiances, then freed on the condition that Eva performs sexual favors for a government official (played by the flawless Gunnar Björnstrand). Things escalate to the point of such humiliation that Jan, clearly a pacifist by nature, snaps and becomes a moral monster. The exodus into a sea of corpses haunts me to this day. It’s a miserable ending, but the only one that fits. Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory showed us the politics of war, and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line looked at war from a cosmic perspective; but Bergman’s Shame is all the close-up intimacy.
7. Sawdust and Tinsel. 1953. 5 stars. This clash of the sexes shows Bergman funneling his personal guilt, romantic betrayals, and artistic dissatisfaction into a cruel-cutting misanthropic parable. It’s such a nasty piece of work, and so refreshingly honest, that it has to be the product of an artist going through his own hell. Albert and Anne are among my favorite cinematic couples, playing off each other with unpleasantries and suffering degradations, unable to escape their miserable relationship in a harsh career. Gunnar Björnstrand is also priceless as the theater director, dishing out insults wrapped in ironic wisdom: he publicly lambastes Albert while cheerfully admitting that his own world (tinsel, the theater) is as degrading as Albert’s (sawdust, the circus). Sawdust and Tinsel is one of Bergman’s most underrated films, and an unflinching look at artistic humiliation. It’s prefaced by a great homage to Christ’s Golgotha, as a man struggles to carry his naked wife through crowds of harassing soldiers.
8. Persona. 1966. 5 stars. Many consider this the ultimate masterpiece, and it’s certainly been analyzed to death more than any other Bergman film. I think its real significance lies in what it represents at a critical turning point in Bergman’s career. Persona was forged in the fires of his mental breakdown, and from here on out his strategies changed. He began treating bisexuality seriously. The pre-1966 films typically resigned heterosexual couples to bleak endings; now he felt free to engineer the utter destruction of these relationships (as in Hour of the Wolf and Shame) and veer off into homoeroticism. In the case of Persona, the two women go beyond intimacy so that they merge metaphysically, signaled in the famous disturbing shot where the halves of their faces are combined. Alma craves Elizabeth’s identity as much as her affection, and I think that’s what makes Persona the legendary experiment it is.
9. Through a Glass Darkly. 1961. 4 ½ stars. This was my first Bergman film and will always be very special for me. The isolated island setting and small cast of four makes for an intense character study, and it doesn’t hurt that my favorite Harriet Andersson takes the lead, as a schizophrenic affecting her family in complex ways. The theme of spiritual doubt is the subtle undercurrent, always subordinate to the personal relationships, the most fascinating of which is the incestuous one between Karin and her brother Minus. Though the denouement has the father holding out hope for a loving God, that possibility seems disingenuous in the extreme, and raised precisely to call forth the audience’s denial given Karin’s grim fate. The concept of God as a spider is one of the most sinister and arresting metaphors for the deity I’ve come across. This is the first part of the “Silence of God” trilogy and the most intimate.
10. The Virgin Spring. 1960. 4 ½ stars. The same year Hitchcock served up the first slasher with Psycho, Bergman gave us rape revenge. But unlike the modern formula that often glorifies retribution, The Virgin Spring puts the screws to it. The father’s revenge is portrayed as ugly and self-righteous, and this is what keeps this classic above American copycats like The Last House on the Left. It refuses to allow us moral holidays. The father is almost an anti-Charles Bronson in this light, atoning for his revenge by dedicating a holy shrine on the spot his daughter was killed. Bergman uses the medieval setting to great effect, teasing out conflicts between paganism and Christianity, as in the way the foster-sister worships Odin and even wishes the harm on Karin right before she’s attacked. The film’s enduring power matches Psycho’s, and of course both Hitchcock and Bergman have been abused in imitations, spin-offs, and remakes of their artistry.
11. The Magician. 1958. 4 ½ stars. A film based on the wisdom that “deception is so generally common that he who tells the truth as a rule is classed as the greatest liar” is a sure winner. All things considered, I don’t think The Magician intends the often-supposed clash between science and the supernatural, rather honesty and deception, and in this arena neither reason nor superstition wins. Vogler may be proven a charlatan, but he frankly doesn’t come off bad for it, and he’s even given royal approval at the end. The morbid climax had my skin crawling, and wondering if he had actually died and come back to life, but when the black show is done, Vogler admits to chicanery without any shame at all, telling Vergérus (whom he succeeded in terrifying out of his wits) that he should be pleased to have received the experience of a lifetime. The Magician vindicates the evolutionary-psychological wisdom that humanity needs its self-deceptions to stay healthy. Besides that, it’s a great showcasing of colorful characters, and like Sawdust and Tinsel examines the demeaning lives of traveling artists.
12. Winter Light. 1962. 4 ½ stars. Before The Silence interrogated God’s existence, Winter Light tested his benevolence. It does this through the spiritual struggle of a priest, and his relationship with a woman who loves him, but whom he can barely tolerate under his contempt. It’s devastating to watch her poleaxed expression when he finally tells her how much he despises her — fed up with her “loving care, clumsy hands, rashes, and frostbitten cheeks”, among other things that don’t bear mentioning. Winter Light is essentially about a pastor so furious at God’s silence, that he breaks his own “silence” towards the kindest woman with an avalanche of brutality that makes the Almighty’s treatment of Job seem almost benign. It’s the second part of the “Silence of God” trilogy, which most Bergman fans consider the best part; to me both Through a Glass Darkly and (especially) The Silence are superior.
13. Summer with Monika. 1953. 4 stars. This one is famous for two shots. First is Harriet Andersson’s soft-porn sunbathing scene, which got heavily reedited in America, under the sensational retitle of Monika, the Story of a Bad Girl! The second is her phallic drag on a cigarette as she stares out at the camera — through the camera, it seems, right at the audience — holding us in contempt for daring to judge her selfishness and infidelities. Summer with Monika is that tale of youthful escapism everyone has fantasized about at some point: two lovers abandon their jobs and families, and run away in a motorboat to spend weeks on an isolated beach in the Stockholm archipelago. They dream the dreams of children, of a blissful married life ahead of them… and then return to the cold reality of poverty, dissatisfied adultery, and unwanted babies. Not especially profound as Bergman films go, but compelling for its modest ambitions.
14. The Passion of Anna. 1969. 4 stars. I have a complicated relationship with The Passion of Anna. On first viewing I didn’t care for it. After watching the other Faro-Island pieces — Persona, Shame, Hour of the Wolf, all excellent — this one felt derivative and uninspired. Even worse, it shows Bergman’s deconstructionism of the ’60s getting well out of hand, with actual interviews with the actors interrupting the film at various points. Character narrations and voice-overs (as in Hour of the Wolf) are acceptable cinematic techniques, but here we have the equivalent of modern DVD extras and featurettes mixed throughout the film. However, Anna has gotten much better on subsequent viewings. If you can make yourself forget about the other Faro-Island films, it stands as a remarkably innovative, unflinching look at the pain and meaninglessness of life, around a weird plot of an animal serial killer and the arrest and trauma of an innocent man.
15. Wild Strawberries. 1957. 4 stars. This was Stanley Kubrick’s favorite Bergman film, and most fans would consider it a blasphemy to rank below the top five. But I’m underwhelmed by Wild Strawberries, probably because I’m so hopeless that I watch Bergman to get depressed, and this film has cushions of enough optimism to qualify it as “comfort Bergman”. Grandpas reminiscing about teen sweethearts in strawberry patches, and where they went wrong in life, only speak so much (to me, anyway) about the human condition. The film, however, has a gorgeous aesthetic, especially in the shots of Isak’s premonitions, daydreams, and nightmares. The empty streets with faceless clocks, and the faceless person who “dies” in front of him, is my favorite scene, and I also love his nightmare of failing graduate exams under the austere gaze of a younger professor. The birthday party from his childhood can’t go unmentioned either: the whites here are incredible — colorful, almost, if there was ever a time that white could be.
Next month: Stanley Kubrick.