John Russell Taylor

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2405

Fängelse [Prison] … is a highly significant work in many ways…. [It] has all the marks of a key work in his career, wildly bundling together any number of themes which are to recur later and, it seems, just had to find expression at this time in some form. Moreover, it is the first of Bergman's films which demonstrates any real desire (or possibly, since we know little of the circumstances in which the early films were made, any real freedom) to experiment with the medium, to use it positively as a means of expression in itself, rather than merely recording with competence but no special aptitude. In Fängelse already Bergman is reaching out towards the highly personal style of his later work, integrating the rather faded studio romanticism (derived, apparently, from an enthusiastic study of the works of Carné) which marked his earliest films and the rather hesitant touches of neo-realism in Hamnstad [Port of Call] into a newer, more complex and, in the first instance, more theatrical style of direction. In Fängelse, indeed, the theatrical origin of much in the later films which one would not instantly think of as theatrical, especially where the direction of actors is concerned, is still clearly visible. And in general the main interest of the film now is a by-product of its crudities and awkwardness: it is situated at the vital juncture in Bergman's career when he has found his feet and struck out on his own, but not yet had a chance to cover his tracks: most of what he says, crudely and directly, in the screenplay recurs in an infinitude of transformations and transmutations in later works, elusively difficult to pin down exactly; much of what he does with actors and camera shows in a raw and unformed state the procedures which will underlie his mature practice. (pp. 142-43)

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The 'message' of the film, if one seeks a message, is blackly pessismistic: 'L'Enfer, c'est les autres'; 'And this is Hell, nor am I out of it'. There is no God, only the Devil, and the Devil rules: the only possibilities are death and vaguely stoical endurance of an almost insupportable life. It is, in fact, all very neatly epitomized in the only relatively lighthearted, even comic episode: that in which Thomas and Brigitte-Caroline, in the attic of their hideaway, come across some old silent films and a projector, and run a short farce in which the characters, in the midst of frenziedly persecuting each other, are suddenly threatened by a skeleton and vanish. The fact that the message can be so simply and completely epitomized suggests one of the film's weaknesses: it is very much a film à thèse, and in its determination to put over its creator's ideas it tends to adopt an almost didactic tone, with things happening, one sometimes cannot help feeling, more to demonstrate a point than from any appreciable dramatic necessity. (p. 144)

The style of direction, too, gives hints of the future, as yet not at all integrated: the scenes involving Brigitte-Caroline and Peter are made in a harsh, realistic style a little reminiscent of Hamnstad; the scenes between her and Thomas are given a hazy romantic quality which looks forward to, ultimately, Sommarlek [Summer Interlude or Illicit Interlude]; and Brigitte-Caroline's dream, with its forest of human trees, its mysterious woman in black offering a stone which she says is 'the most valuable thing in the world', and its heavily symbolic play with a doll (representing Brigitte's dead baby) which turns into a fish and is killed by Peter, is conceived in terms of an all-out theatrical expressionism which later will apparently disappear, but actually be completely integrated into Bergman's mature work. (pp. 144-45)

Technically Sommarlek is relatively unadventurous, except for a brief and not very successful interlude when some doodles by Marie take on a life of their own and start to move and gesticulate like something from one of Emile Cohl's early animated films; a sort of equivalent to the play with the silent projector in Fängelse. It is content to use the normal repertoire of film technique simply and directly, with a strong feeling for sympathetic natural backgrounds and a lavish, perhaps on occasion rather facile, use of visual symbolism derived from nature, both of which characteristics hark back more clearly than anything in Bergman's previous work to the early Swedish cinema of a temperamentally very different director, Victor Sjöstrom. After the uncertainty and sometimes rather wild experiment of Bergman's previous films, it looks very much like an expression of confidence; confidence that his material could, if he wished, stand up on its own without extraneous tricks. Unsuccessful some of his later films might be, but never in quite the way that Fängelse or Törst failed; at least the later films, when they are wrong, are confidently wrong, not just awkward and fumbling. (pp. 149-50)

[The first work of his maturity is] Gycklarnas Afton (Sawdust and Tinsel). The progress in this case is not so much in the material as in the treatment; the view of life put forward in the film is as gloomy and anguished as anything that has gone before, but the style in which it is treated is complex and magisterially confident; for the first time Bergman manages to unite in one film the disparate influences which have appeared in his work—from early Swedish cinema (Sjöström's feeling for landscape, Stiller's flair for bitter erotic comedy), from the French cinema of the 1930s (especially Carné's elegantly artificial studio-bound studies of fate and its workings) and German silent cinema, with its obsession with mirrors and staircases, with hysteria and humiliation. All these combine in a film which is not, perhaps, without its absurd side—it is a little too much like a concoction of absolutely everything the foreign filmgoer might regard as 'typically Swedish' in the cinema—but which still holds together its diverse elements remarkably well and achieves a rich, elaborate, and unmistakably personal style of expression.

Moving for the first time into period settings (the time is somewhere in the early 1900s) Bergman suddenly finds the visual style which, variously modified to suit the subject-matter, is to serve him well throughout his mature career. Whereas before the purely visual side of his films had often lacked any special distinction, and those distinctions it did have had usually been a matter of good isolated ideas rather than any overall quality, in Gycklarnas Afton the style all at once becomes rich and strange. Compositions are intricate and bizarre, with much play of reflections, harsh, crisp contrasts of light and shade, and an almost continuous use of deep focus to give the whole thing a powerfully sculptural quality, emphasizing textures and effects of perspective. And this style is used consistently throughout the film, except for a flashback near the beginning, which is set apart from the rest of the film in that it is filmed silent, with a musical accompaniment, as the narrator tells the story, and is photographed in a wan, flat, overexposed fashion to give it the remoteness and insubstantiality of a dream. (pp. 152-53)

With Smiles of a Summer Night (Sommarnattens Leende) in 1955 we finally see for the first time, and virtually for the last, all Bergman's diverse talents together in a single film. It is an intricately constructed high comedy for nine characters, whose positions are modified and rearranged with the utmost elegance and precision during the course of a single week-end. (p. 156)

It is difficult if not impossible to explain how exactly this curious mélange of comedy and drama, dry wit and poetic fantasy, manages to hold together in the cinema. Essentially, one suspects, it is a matter of conviction: conviction on the creator's part that naturally anything that he thinks of is related to anything else he thinks by the simple fact that it is he who is doing the thinking. The overriding unifying factor here is the sheer force of Bergman's personality; the film is the product throughout of a single idiosyncratic imagination working at full pressure and never for one moment playing safe (anyone else, for instance, faced with Charlotte's outburst to Anna about the ignominy of love, would surely have guyed it a little to fit in with the rest of the comedy, but Bergman shoots it straight and dramatically in harsh close-up, and somehow, inexplicably, it works). (p. 157)

Even though his next film, The Seventh Seal (Det Sjunde Inseglet), was responsible more than any other single work for Bergman's international vogue, and was at its first appearance in 1956 generally hailed as a masterpiece, it is difficult now to feel anything like the same degree of enthusiasm for it. In The Seventh Seal Bergman turns from marriage and the relations of man and woman and takes up instead the relations of man with God and with death—a theme which has continued ever since at the centre of his work, though sometimes more evidently so than at others. Unfortunately in doing so he does not escape pretentiousness, perhaps because in his eagerness to make a statement of universal validity he has separated himself too far from the clear observation of believable human beings which had always given strength to even his most melodramatic earlier pieces. (p. 158)

Technically the film is impeccable. The black-and-white photography of Gunnar Fischer is constantly striking (it is the sort of film which yields excellent stills, which may or may not be a good thing), with its crisp, clear deep-focus work, its very black blacks and very white whites. The story is told with admirable economy, no detail being wasted or missing its effect. The acting, when acting is called for …, does perfectly everything required of it. And yet the film, despite all this and some genuinely enthralling moments, seems somehow too pale and remote, too patently composed as an illustration of its thesis. Its final effect, when all has been said in its favour, is rather lifeless, and lacking as it does the power of a completely realized work of art to sweep aside objections, The Seventh Seal strikes one as making implicit claims for itself out of all proportion to its actual achievements. If a film-maker sets out to make a cosmic drama of Life and Death, with a lot of Christian symbolism thrown in, he must expect to be judged by the most rigorous standards, and by such standards The Seventh Seal fails. It never finally convinces us, as it obviously intends to, that all its horrors, the rapes, tortures, flagellations, burnings, are valid expressions of a pessimistic world picture only lightly touched with hope; they remain, if not exactly sensational, at least rather pointless, overstating a case that should not need such determined emphasis. (p. 159)

From all points of view Wild Strawberries must rank as one of Bergman's best works, showing his complete mastery of the medium, his sheer genius as a director of actors, and some of his most mature and subtle observations of character: it is, as Ravel once said of his musical ideal, 'complexe mais pas compliqué'. (p. 163)

Evidently there must be films among the twenty-six that [Bergman] felt less personally involved with than others, but since Sommarlek in 1950 there is not one, major or minor, scripted alone or in collaboration, which does not have the air of being in some way a personal statement. After that, if a film misfires, as for me The Face and the first two of the trilogy [Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light] do, at least it is a failure on the highest level, judged by the highest standards, while from his greatest successes—Smiles of a Summer Night, Wild Strawberries—one can hardly withhold the word masterpiece. Why, then, should any doubts remain about Bergman's right to the vague, ambiguous title of auteur? I think because the feeling remains that though at his best he has all the gifts of the outstanding screen-writer and the outstanding screen-director, they are not for the most part inseparably fused, but merely subsist in an uneasy alliance. In Smiles of a Summer Night and Wild Strawberries, and sometimes elsewhere, sheer force of inspiration fuses them into one complex, indivisible gift, but often in his work one remains conscious of a gap between conception and realization; an attitude, one might say, rather similar to that usual in the theatre, where an author may sometimes direct his own play but no necessary connexion between the two activities is assumed. Too often in Bergman's films one senses the writer doing a good imaginative job on the script, working with complete mastery within the chosen medium, and then the director taking over and setting out to 'do something with' what has been written, to make the most of it, to choose the most telling way of realizing it for the screen.

The fact that writer and director are the same man has little to do with it if there is no essential connexion between their functions; as Bresson has said, 'on an auteur worthy of the name a choice is imposed … for him, and for him alone, once he has worked out his decoupage, each shot he takes can have only one definite angle, one certain length of time'. With Bergman it seldom seems that the choice is imposed; one could conceive of a dozen ways, more or less good, of shooting the same material, and the very ease and naturalness with which one finds oneself thinking in these terms indicates the gap which exists between script and finished film. Admittedly Bergman has made some very remarkable films, and will no doubt make more. When they come one will enjoy them and recognize their merits. But a coolness persists in my, and I suspect other filmgoers', relations with Bergman and his work; perhaps because he has, in the last analysis, failed to give himself completely to the film while working in it, we still, however great our admiration for isolated achievements of his, draw back ultimately from giving ourselves completely to him. (pp. 168-69)

John Russell Taylor, "Ingmar Bergman," in his Cinema Eye, Cinema Ear: Some Key Film-Makers of the Sixties (reprinted by permission of Hill & Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; in Canada, by AD Peters & Co., Ltd; copyright © 1964 by John Russell Taylor), Hill & Wang, 1964, pp. 138-69.

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