Ingmar Bergman

Start Free Trial

Birgitta Steene

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1221

To a great extent Bergman's films from the fifties—The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Magician, Smiles of a Summer Night, The Virgin Spring—… start from the written text, from a dialogue meant to convey both thematic meaning and emotional tension. When Professor Borg in Wild Strawberries looks into the microscope in one of the dream sequences and sees nothing but his own eye, we are told this. (p. 24)

In the fifties, then, Bergman seems to be building up his sequences around a series of verbal episodes or encounters. But at the same time, he appears to be quite aware of his own shortcomings as a writer, and he tries to compensate for this by juxtaposing or reinforcing verbalized sequences with scenes of visual exaggeration. The results are often carefully planned contrasts of shots, executed in spooky darkness or suffused with romantic light; surroundings and weather are used as Stimmungsmalerei, as visualizations of a mood…. Such externalizations of feelings of peacefulness or terror, where the landscape serves as the artist's tool, might be called a form of film Gothicism. It is often coupled with a certain remoteness in Bergman to his characters, and has thus laid the foundation of the most common charge leveled against him: his lack of human warmth….

Most of Bergman's films fall back on a prototypal literary form: that of a journey or quest…. If we compare the journeys in the Gothic films to the travels or suggestion of travels in the later, so-called chamber films of the sixties we find that traveling becomes much more claustrophobic and frustrating and is, in fact, almost completely internalized. It is as though the later films emanate from the state of mind of Professor Borg during his nightmarish dreams in Wild Strawberries.

From a literary-formal point of view Bergman moves from an epic pattern and the tangible reality of the Bildungsroman to the world of the stream-of-consciousness novel. From a thematic point of view this implies a much more direct confrontation by Bergman with his personal vision; and from the point of view of cinematic style it leads to a shift from Gothicism to ever greater visual asceticism. (p. 25)

But perhaps the most crucial change that occurs in Bergman's film making in the early sixties is not his discarding of the historical milieu, the flashbacks, the physical travels, the broad perspectives, but his approach to the human figures—with a special emphasis on the close-up. (pp. 25-6)

Whereas his favorite approach to the characters in the Gothic films was to let the camera sneak up on them, so that the person closest to the camera was seen from behind with the director assuming the position of a peeping Tom, Bergman allows the faces of his people in the chamber films to dominate the screen. A shot of the young boy Johan in The Silence shows him in a typical Bergman composition, with the human figure up front and a second figure in the background. But Johan's face is turned towards the camera and towards us….

[Such] handlings of the close-up by Bergman are more than technical experiments with camera and audience reaction; first and foremost they are meant to tell us something about his characters. As always in Bergman's case it is futile to approach his close-up style from the viewpoint of cinematic intention; rather, any changes in style must be related, I believe, to central themes, character motivation and other quite "literary" subjects. (p. 27)

In the trilogy (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, The Silence), emotions are expressed in facial look, in gesture…. The reduced dialogue of the chamber films is not primarily a film maker's attempt to liberate himself from verbal influence, but a questioning, through the cinematic medium, of the trustworthiness of the spoken word….

[We] find a persistent ethical examination of language in these films, which I think should be related to Bergman's religious questioning and his portrayal of the father-child relationship. (p. 28)

[What Silence] explores is Johan, the boy, facing a world that has lost touch with the divine—the original title of the film was God's Silence—and one in which a traditional, masculine mode of life is being rejected or destroyed. Johan is the only one who encounters all the male figures in the film, from the officers in the opening train sequence (who frighten him) to the old waiter in the hotel, to whom he reacts as though he were a Dickensian bogeyman. Through Johan we see how all the male characters in the hotel are emasculated, deformed (the dwarfs), or killed symbolically…. (pp. 30-1)

Although the visual perspective of The Silence is Johan's, much of its philosophical focus is on Ester. An alienated believer in verbal communication (she is a translator by profession) she re-enacts the Knight's role in The Seventh Seal, for like him she challenges, without much success, an unknown reality through words. (p. 31)

Ester's lesbianism is not as revealing as is her emotional dependence upon Anna. During her initial attack on the train Ester recovers as soon as Anna sends Johan away and devotes herself to her sister. Little by little Ester's search for parental love and support emerges….

Yet, Anna fears Ester whom she looks upon as a moralistic extension of her father. She resents Ester's intellectual achievement and she is indifferent to the written message Ester gives Johan at the end. To Anna silence is comforting, for she can only see and use language as a destructive weapon and connects it with parental authority. (p. 32)

When Anna leaves Ester behind to die, she finally rejects the world of language and fatherly supervision—all "empty principles" as she has told Ester earlier. But Ester does not possess Anna's strength or indifference. She transfers the protective father image to the old waiter…. This mumbling and (in the moment of crisis) quite helpless father figure is indeed nothing but a dried-up goblin of a man…. The protective father figure, the god-against-fear, is relegated to the realm of death and myth.

With the trilogy, then, it would seem that Bergman brings to a close that gradual shift in man's approach to and experiencing of God, which had obsessed him since The Seventh Seal; it is a shift in attitude from an intellectual search for the transcendental to an examination of God as a therapeutic or authoritarian parental figure. (pp. 32-3)

It seems important to recognize that the relevance of language as a basis for film making is no longer a point argued by Bergman on a technical level, but rather is connected with his evolving vision of life. When God dies away, when the father fails or withdraws from his child and leaves it alone, language loses its communicative and healing power. Bergman's exploration of the god-parent-child syndrome takes then, in part, the form of a philosophical testing of language. His conclusion is that conventional language cannot be used by people to convey love. Nor can it be trusted, since it tends to destroy relationships or else lull people into a false sense of security. The perceptive and sensitive individual may at first cling to this verbal reassurance, but he will ultimately be driven to challenge it. (p. 33)

Birgitta Steene, "Images and Words in Ingmar Bergman's Films," in Cinema Journal (© 1970, Society for Cinema Studies), Vol. X, No. 1, Fall, 1970, pp. 23-33.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Richard Schickel


Peter Cowie