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, seem to be groping for a style flexible enough to express his gradually formulating...
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metaphysical conceptions. When he createdSummerplay, it was clear that Bergman had attained complete maturity as a director, and was capable of expressing anything he chose. His films since 1950 are, without exception, masterful in their evocations of mood and movement, the principal ingredients of cinematic style. (p. 7)
In Sommaren Med Monika (Summer with Monika), Bergman returns to the theme of adolescent revolt in the story of a bourgeois boy and a lower-class girl who become lovers through a kind of natural selection and leave the city for a summer idyll in the Swedish north woods…. Monika is Bergman's most erotic film, a passionate testimonial to the theme that, for intellectual modern man in search of meaning, sex is not enough.
Nor is art enough, as Bergman demonstrates in Gycklarnas Afton (Sunset of a Clown, called in England Sawdust and Tinsel, in America The Naked Night). The artist can exist only by performing before his audience in a mask—the mask of a role to play, a script to follow, of make-up and costume and illusory spotlights to conceal the artist's true identity from the observer. Within this mask, he can achieve the illusion of communication, assuming a kind of universal identity which may bring him greater fulfillment than any other form of action. But by placing his dependence on the mask, the artist confronts a new danger which the layman can more easily avoid, the danger of exposure to his audience without the mask. This, to the artist, is the ultimate horror of existence, to be seen without artifice, in unalterable nakedness, with no retreat from the spotlight. (p. 8)
Smiles of a Summer Night is constructed as an elaborate game of love, with happiness and frustration as the stakes…. The quest, as in The Seventh Seal, remains a search for meaning, but the object of the search lies with the natural order rather than the spiritual; in the comedy of life, man's primary concern is not religious but sexual. If imaginative salvation offers greater solace to the intellect, physical gratification offers a more tangible reward. (p. 10)
The game entangles and re-matches the sextet, with interference and observation from the upstairs maid and a poetic coachman. The result is a victory for natural order over the social pattern: youth must mate with youth, age with age, like with like. Convention may dominate human emotion and even human will, but in a conflict with nature, nature must triumph. (pp. 10-11)
This victory of nature is as inevitable as the victory of death. Existence may be the tortuous process of searching for a meaning, but life, in the end, imposes its own meaning. Life perpetuates itself, and man, in his quest for knowledge, is powerless in the struggle….
The game, then, must be played at every stage of life, and mature man, trying to savor the three comforts as reward for the completion of his quest, is finally left with none….
Smiles of a Summer Night may be enjoyed as a delightful comedy of manners in the tradition of French boudoir farce, but the film, a typical Bergman creation, is subject to a dual interpretation, and an underlying serious meaning is readily apparent…. (p. 11)
Nära Livet (Brink of Life) complements Bergman's symbolic analysis of the theme of death by probing into the mystery of birth, in a powerful realistic drama set in a maternity ward…. Bergman handles this material with extreme realism, but his theme is a direct extension of the meanings inherent in The Seventh Seal. Birth and death are the ultimate particles of existence, and both are in the realm of a hostile nature which is beyond the grasp of human intellect, yet man, nature's embodiment and justification, continues the search for knowledge which is itself the act of life…. (p. 12)
The area of greatest interest in Bergman's films is thematic rather than technical, although Bergman's technique alone would place him among the world's best directors. Bergman consciously subordinates form to content, being more interested in what he is saying than in his method of saying it. The desired result is for an observer to emerge from the film preoccupied with its ideas rather than dazzled with its visual imagery. (p. 13)
Bergman's first film is visually striking, and his fifth, Seaport, shows him in command of the medium. By the time of Summerplay, his technique is masterful in every respect, and each subsequent film has operated on the highest level of visual imagination. Bergman has continued to experiment with new styles throughout his career….
Such a diversity of stylistic elements might suggest eclecticism, or at best a superficial cinematic erudition, in a director with a less consistently personal viewpoint. There is little danger, however, of a Bergman film ever being mistaken for the work of anyone else. In Bergman's case, the range clearly indicates his interest in all the facets of theatrical expression and his constant desire for expansion and variation in his work. (p. 14)
Bergman seldom lingers over a strong effect, preferring instead to dissolve quickly to a new and contrasting scene. He is abrupt only in order to avoid overstatement, and the effect for the observer is of a series of deeply suggestive words and images, with other images left unseen and words unsaid, to be supplied by the observer's own intellectual reflection. Life goes on, and Bergman's people continue to exist after the camera has ceased to dwell upon them.
This is, finally, the highest form of technique, a method which places its emphasis entirely on content. (p. 15)
Eugene Archer, "The Rack of Life: An Analysis of the Films of the Swedish Writer-Director Ingmar Bergman," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1959 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XII, No. 4, Summer, 1959, pp. 3-16.