Ingmar Bergman

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Birgitta Steene

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1825

[There are writers] whose works seem to lend themselves to a thematic interpretation; writers who appear as "hedgehogs" in the literary world, i.e., relate everything to a single central vision, fitting into it, consciously or unconsciously, all experiences and objects…. In contemporary Swedish literature we could include in this category Pär Lagerkvist, and, in terms of his major films, Ingmar Bergman, both of whom display in their work a monistic concern with modern man as a metaphysical seeker and whose fictional characters emerge as skeptical pilgrims journeying through a world in which remnants of religiosity fail to appease their questioning minds. Like Pär Lagerkvist, Ingmar Bergman might be said to have assumed the rôle of a modern Bunyan whose unitary inner vision of existential man could run the risk of being called merely epigonic, were it not for the fact that we realize how deeply personal that vision is. (p. 59)

In the four major films that form the nucleus of this essay [The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Through A Glass Darkly, and Winter Light] Bergman depicts as his protagonist a man dwelling in a self-contained world, cut off from life around him. Such detachment is not completely self-willed; yet, it becomes a curse for the man and condemns him as a human being. To be cut off from mankind is to be cut off from love, i.e., from God, is in fact to become like Satan. To dramatize what amounts to the emergence of the devil-image into the mind of the central character, Bergman resorts to actions that might be called variations on the myth of the Fall and of the Faust legend. (p. 60)

[The Seventh Seal] is an attempt to project on the screen the mythic reality of the medieval church paintings he had observed as a child….

The crusader's mind is not what we associate with the conventional medieval man; he is closer to a modern skeptic whose burning need of faith cannot be fulfilled because he refuses to accept a god who does not give intellectual proof of his existence. (p. 61)

The Seventh Seal sets up a dichotomy, which is to remain a basic one in Bergman's production, between a god who is a silent monster and torturer of man, and a god who is a lover of life. Neither image of God is objectified but exists as fundamental attitudes in Bergman's characters. Hence a man's experiencing of God will, in its wider psychological ramifications, be a reflection on his relationship with other human beings. (p. 62)

Bergman illustrates [the] gradual alienation of man from God by depicting in the crusader a human being at first engaged in a holy enterprise but at last willing to sell his soul to the Devil—could he only find him! For the Devil, he argues with insane logic, must know of God since he only exists in his opposition to God. (p. 64)

Through his quest the crusader has come to deny his wife, and by implication life itself. In a way that seems unknowing, yet deliberate, the crusader has become his own devil, responsible not only for his own but for his bride's loss of joy in living. But his actions are dictated by compulsion rather than temptation. Nowhere do we sense the modern temper of The Seventh Seal more strongly than in the realization that moral will has given way to psychological needs—which exclude a possibility of choice. (p. 65)

Only in Mia and Jof does Bergman depict people who know how to live with a god who is deus caritatis

(This entire section contains 1825 words.)

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deus caritatis. It is their voice, but without any direct reference to God, which is heard in Bergman's next film, Wild Strawberries…. (pp. 65-6)

Although Wild Strawberries does not treat any problem of faith, it is conceived as a symbolic pilgrimage, as a form of penance for the central character, Isak Borg. The film is an exploration in the possibility of love and fellowship between human beings….

Isak Borg is Bergman's most clear-cut version of a cinematic Faust. But Bergman lets us know that although Isak's withdrawal from the world is a Faustian search for control over life, it is not caused by a desire for omnipotence but is, in effect, an escape from pain. Isak's isolation is the self-created, secure world of a man who is unable to accept adulthood as a loss of the autonomous world of the child and, in erotic terms, as a loss of separateness. (p. 66)

As in The Seventh Seal the psychological implications of the story do not exclude a moral evaluation of the protagonist, but in Wild Strawberries they compel Bergman to utilize a structural device that savors of the therapeutic consulting room: the mythic images which torture the dreams of spiritually distraught patients…. But of greater importance is the fact that Isak's destiny is not only that of an individual man but to a greater or lesser degree the destiny of all mankind. On one hand the dreams are applicable to Isak's personal problem. But on the other hand, their total impact is that of a moral archetype. (pp. 66-7)

[The nightmare at the beginning of the film] is an expression of Isak's fear of death and also an evaluation of himself: he is beginning to realize that he is a man without identity, without a face.

As he continues his inward search, his fear of death subsides and his dreams become self-explorations, classical examination dreams that could be taken right out of Freud's Traumdeutung…. (pp. 67-8)

In Bergman's works, travelling is often a release for the conflicts of the soul, and in Wild Strawberries Isak's search takes the outer form of a journey through Sweden. (p. 68)

His journey—unlike the crusader's—becomes not so much a journey towards the land of death as an initiation into life, a form of rebirth. Woman plays a key rôle in this transformation, for she is, as the heartbeat in one of Isak's dreams, the living measure of existence. Both Marianne, the daughter-in-law who travels with Isak, and Sara, the hitchhiker, work as catalysts. (pp. 68-9)

Isak Borg not only learns to be a human being but, more specifically, he learns to be a parent confronted by children. He learns to care about his son and daughter-in-law, and he learns to love young Sara who is a child to him. In accepting parenthood, Isak can at last look back on his childhood and youth without bitterness. (p. 69)

The inability to accept adulthood, i.e., parenthood, as a "lesson in love," and the self-absorbed father's lack of communication with his children form the major theme in Through a Glass Darkly…. (p. 70)

David's search for artistic perfection turns out to be as futile as the crusader's search for God. Both in a sense try to become like God, the one all-creative, the other omniscient. Both are doomed to fail. But David's guilt is more obvious than Antonius Block's, for he not only neglects others, he uses them and in so doing he destroys the life of his child: Bergman hints that David's behavior is the fundamental reason for Karin's defeat in life. (pp. 70-1)

[David, like Isak Borg] is a spectator in life, a curious but uninvolved observer. But David is also conceived as a far more complex and ambiguous character than Isak Borg, for he emerges also as a deputy for Bergman's two gods from The Seventh Seal. In a crucial scene up in the attic when Karin has one of her visions, she sees God as an enormous spider at a moment when her father enters the room. Considerably shaken by Karin's experience, David is at last able to reach Minus. He breaks his long silence with his son to tell him that in spite of all the horror, God exists as a power of love: "God is love and love is God." Minus, who has the closing lines of the film, reacts to this message—a starry-eyed look on his face—with the words "Dad spoke to me," which could read "God spoke to me." From the children's point of view the father has become connected, if not identified, with their image of God. David has refused to be a parent to Karin, has refused to give her love and security. In her mind she conceives an image of God that corresponds to that of her father: God becomes a spider feeding upon those that fall in his net, much the same as David in his diary fed upon Karin's illness. For Minus, on the other hand, God is not a silent monster but a sign of forgiveness (Minus is haunted by a feeling of guilt after an incestuous relationship with Karin), just as David is not a threat to him or a severe judge but a parent communicating a message of love.

Yet, God as love remains a message only in Through A Glass Darkly, a mere supposition. Perhaps this is all He can be, Bergman seems to say, for those who are to remain in the world. (p. 71)

In Winter Light [the] internal world is an absolute spiritual vacuum. Yet, as in Bergman's earlier works this film is not only a study in individual despair but also a study of its repercussions on the surroundings. Man may be an island to himself, but he is still responsible to life on the mainland. (p. 73)

The reason for Märta Lundblad's failure to save Tomas Ericsson seems to lie in her insistence on being a companion in love, a sexual mate. What Tomas is seeking—like all Bergman characters—is parental love, not erotic. Tomas has known his parents only as an authority which has pushed him into his present situation. For this reason, Bergman implies, it is impossible for Tomas to experience God as love; he is unable to disseminate such an image of God because he himself has never experienced love. We see again how the family microcosm in Bergman's world reflects on and encompasses man's whole existence, including his experience of a transcendental or mythic reality. Winter Light is constructed as a psychological chain reaction in the failure of parenthood: Tomas' parents fail him→God (as perceived by Tomas) fails him→Tomas fails his congregation (fisherman Persson)→fisherman Persson fails his wife and unborn child.

Tomas Ericsson is torn between a desire to revolt against a hateful God-parent and a need to seek security and proof of love. But the proof must come from the parent…. [He] is like Pascal's doubter: he keeps praising God in the hope of convincing himself that God is not all silence. But in doing so, he only perpetuates his own isolation. For Tomas Ericsson, God can only be a personal need, a withdrawal into self, and hence a curse that shuts him off from all life. (pp. 76-7)

Birgitta Steene, "Archetypal Patterns in Four Ingmar Bergman Plays," in Scandinavian Studies, Vol. 37, No. 1, February, 1965, pp. 58-76.


JöRn Donner


Tom Milne