Ingmar Bergman Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ingmar Bergman 1918–

Swedish director, and screenwriter.

Bergman's symbolic dramas deal with internal conflicts and metaphysical crises of human nature. Using a heavily symbolic style, he seeks to discover the mysteries of the universe, pondering matters as various as communication with God and the psychological makeup of women.

Bergman's strict Lutheran upbringing significantly influenced his works. He became fascinated with the external trappings of religion and the beliefs behind the rituals. This is intrinsic to Bergman's work, as is his belief that God is often silent.

At the University of Stockholm Bergman directed several student theatre productions, including some of his own works which already bore signs of his strong religious feelings. His early work for Svenskfilmindustri included editing and scriptwriting. He began his career as a director with Crisis, for which he also wrote the script. Several films brought Bergman popular acclaim in Sweden before he achieved international fame with Smiles of a Summer Night. Summer Interlude and The Naked Night, in particular, foreshadow his artistic skill. Though they differ greatly in content, one savagely bitter, the other poignantly romantic, his structural concepts remain the same.

Smiles of a Summer Night shows Bergman's ability to create comedy and effectively portray the age-old theme of the many faces of love. His next film, The Seventh Seal, functioned on a theological level. Conveying a contemporary attitude of religious despair, this medieval allegory attempted to resolve some of Bergman's philosophical crises. It is the story of a lonely man's search for God and life's meaning.

Wild Strawberries, often referred to as Bergman's most serene work as well as one of his most successful, explores man's need for love. Isak Borg, the protagonist, is successful commercially, yet a failure emotionally. Like many characters in Bergman films, he is involved in a journey; one that will dramatically change his life. In this film, Bergman claims the route to salvation is through love and communication with others. It is Bergman's most positive view of salvation.

Bergman's trilogy, composed of Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence, deals with the personal experience of God in one's life. Human beings need both God and love, yet are unable to accept either. In all three films, the characters are pitifully incapable of reaching others. The trilogy commences optimistically and ends in the futile statement of The Silence: God is indeed silent. After the trilogy, Bergman turned to more personal and interpersonal studies, weaving through the intricacies of the female psyche. Persona, the best known of these works, studies the obsessive intimacy of two women and the two consciousnesses that merge as their façades fall away. Bergman's interest in the close-up is particularly effective in this film, fusing together two faces to become one. The films to follow are almost exclusively studies of women. Hour of the Wolf and Shame are considered, with Persona, to comprise a second trilogy dealing with artistic frustration and the artist's failure to deal with reality.

While Bergman's talent is undeniable, several critics have objected to his solemn, trauma-laden films, complaining that characters are unable to act normally. They contend that his fascination with myth and ritual isolates the psychology of his characters. However, most critics agree that as depictions of the search for meaning in life, his films are unequaled. Vernon Young perhaps summarizes general reaction to the magnitude of Bergman's work when he says, "While Bergman appears, at present view, to be characterized, intemperately, by excluding themes that give to all his late films a clothing of monotony—God's silence, man's degradation, love's catastrophe—he is, in fact, when the whole body of his work is passed in review, incredibly various within the limits of his gospel." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)