Bergman's essential theme, as expressed in his films, is man's search for knowledge in a hostile universe. The ultimate answer is that there is no answer, but the quest itself provides its own justification. Man must pursue the search alone, since he is as incapable of understanding other men as he is of understanding himself. Society can only handicap man in life's quest for knowledge. Hell is on earth, and life is the process of experiencing it. Maturity comes only from acceptance of these conditions, and from grasping the few comforts that life has to offer. These comforts are in sex, an act of temporary communication which results in procreation as a final justification for existence; in art, which distills the products of man's intellect and emotion into another intangible form of communication and self-expression; and in the imagination, not in any conventional religious form, but as a kind of fatalistic mysticism which offers at least the possibility of an ultimate meaning to the search. None of these comforts provides more than a temporary assuagement of the inevitable solitude of existence, but they are all that life can offer, and as such, they will suffice.
This great theme is evident in all of Bergman's works, from the youthful dramas of adolescent revolt, through a series of brilliant sophisticated comedies, to the mature philosophical films of his most recent period. (p. 3)
Torment [directed by Alf Sjöberg with the screenplay by Bergman], one of the great Swedish films, achieves an intensity which Bergman's own films, less absolute in their conceptions, have never attained, but its theme contains the essence of Bergman's subsequent philosophy…. Although the conclusion of Torment is enigmatic, suggesting both hope and futility, the youthful protagonist has actually experienced the worst that will ever happen to him, since he will never again be able to respond as intensely as at the age of 17. Torment is one of the rare films to achieve catharsis, an effect which Bergman never attempted again….
[Bergman's early films] continue the examination of youthful revolt against society which Bergman began in Torment, with the pessimistic conclusion that man can only hope for salvation in retreat, as a social outcast. The realistic seaport drama, Hamnstad (Seaport),… suggests for the first time that the young lovers, whose need for each other survives their inability to communicate, may find the strength to combat life on its own terms. Bergman's youthful pessimism is climaxed by Fangelse (Prison), which depicts modern life as a total hell from which there can be no salvation because man has lost the ability to believe in God. This powerful expressionistic work, influenced by Pirandello and strongly foreshadowing The Seventh Seal, is set in a motion-picture studio, and presents life's odyssey as a passage through an artificial corridor populated by inanimate mannequins, in an expression of one of Bergman's favorite conceptions, the relative reality of artistic illusion. (p. 6)
Sommarlick (Summerplay, 1950) is one of Bergman's most personal films, and, for connoisseurs of the director's work, it remains the most satisfying of his early achievements. Summerplay introduces a new maturity into Bergman's philosophy and technique. The long flashback to an idyllic summer romance is overshadowed with mystical symbols foreboding disaster, for, in Bergman's philosophy, in the absence of interior knowledge and with only death as a certainty, superstitious omens are fully as valid as scientific facts….
Bergman's early films, strange, exceedingly personal, and deeply provacative, sometimes deriving from the Protestant environment of his own childhood,...
(The entire section is 1557 words.)