Ingmar Bergman

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JöRn Donner

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As an artist in film [Bergman] interprets and transfers his private dreams and imaginings to the celluloid. As an artist he is firmly anchored in a Swedish and European tradition in which Strindberg, Kafka, and Proust were pioneers. And still he has succeeded in convincing, not only a cultured, intellectual world, but also masses of people who perhaps know nothing of the spiritual background of his work. (p. 5)

It is my conviction that B has succeeded in transforming his private perception into a general one, understandable to other people. This is his strength as an artist. It does not … become a question of seeking the truth about his private personality, but rather, as much as possible, of hiding it and not talking about it…. This is why Ingmar Bergman in this book is designated by the letter B. The person behind the work is a fictitious figure who undoubtedly resembles the private person B. Such resemblances do not interest me. (p. 6)

I find that we are today on our way toward something new, which breaks radically with most in the film's past. We are on the way toward a film art where the personality of the individual artist puts its stamp on the work. The film has learned to write. It is now learning to create form and to compose poetically. In this renewal, B is in the foremost ranks. (p. 7)

B and the other directors who may be regarded as the vanguard of film art give expression to qualities which the pioneering men could not, perhaps did not even wish to, evoke. The intensely personal film art created by a group of artists in different countries undoubtedly has more qualities which separate than which unite. What unites is, to be sure, important enough. It is the chance to realize a deeply personal vision. It can be done in B's way, as a series of questions put to eternity and to mankind. It can be done in the manner of Buñuel, Antonioni, Kurosawa, Renoir, Ford, Rossellini, or Mizoguchi. I have chosen to write about B, not because I consider him a more important artist than those mentioned above, but because certain conditions have made it possible for me to follow his development year by year. Between 1944 and 1962 B wrote and directed thirty pictures. He has therefore almost always been able to realize his personal intentions. One can follow his development from an eclectic yet individual beginning to the maturity he now possesses. He has not let himself be obstructed by commercial considerations—a fate which, for instance, John Ford has often been forced to accept in silence. (p. 9)

B's films have become conversation pieces, something that "everybody" feels he can discuss with authority. The question of whether to accept or reject B becomes for these people first and foremost a question of whether to accept or reject the personal opinions that they believe they find behind his work. Applied to literature, such a point of view would be devastating. Only those who fully shared Strindberg's opinions would be able to read him.

Ever since I saw the first of B's films, I have put up a determined but somewhat fluctuating struggle against the thought of accepting them. B's world actually seemed to me to be limited, in a dangerous sense. At times one got the impression that he was a director, at other times that he was an author. It seemed as if some of his characters expressed a dangerous criticism of rationalism. They tended to deny the whole world of social...

(This entire section contains 1703 words.)

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resolution and social action on which the Swedish society of welfare and affluence was, after all, built. His opposition to forces that he regarded as obstructive appeared to be misdirected. The anti-bourgeois line seemed like a Bohemian flirtation with an impossible freedom. To praise such an artist was perhaps the same as to abandon without resistance the thought that art can exert an influence on society through the individuals who are the recipients of art. In a word, B's world seemed to me one of conformity.

The fact that B nevertheless managed to engage me personally arose from the rich possibilities of choice, the deep analysis of action and thought, that were to be found in his pictures. The perspective in his works varied continually. This richness of fancy could only in part be directly attributed to biographical circumstances. He himself and his critics often stress the fact that he is the son of a man of the church and that his upbringing bore the stamp of the Protestant religion. Those who are not Christians find it difficult to estimate this information correctly—as well as all the other facts that have been told of B's life. It is much more interesting that the Last Judgment which the artist B holds over his head and those of his characters has a general application. Of general application are Knight Antonius Block's questions in The Seventh Seal and Professor Isak Borg's dread in Wild Strawberries. All this is understandable even for the irreligious. The questions in B's films often deal with man's relationship to eternity, but broaden their scope to include all the painful experience that plagues the man of our time. The dread in B's films relates not only to the petty concerns of a materially thriving society, but dread about the future of man and of life on our threatened planet.

It has been said that the characters in his films seem to live in faulty contact with "the times" as a social and political field of action. (pp. 9-11)

[The] sense of crisis, approaching and full of threat, present and overwhelming, is never distant from B's pictures, even the most idyllic ones. This feeling corresponds to the spiritual unrest that has troubled Swedish society during the last thirty years…. A "decline and dissolution of what holds the social unit together" has influenced B's work. He has not been able to solve or to ignore the historic social crisis in which he finds himself. In common with Swedish culture in general, he has taken over only the Christian middle-class aspect of the decline of Hegelianism. The bridges have been destroyed by objective and materialistic dialectics. This concerns primarily art and the intellectuals. (p. 11)

Yet it must be borne in mind that the values B's films aim at are always of a moral nature. The importance of economic and social barriers is underestimated. Still, the social conventions are questioned and examined by the very concentration on moral values. In this respect B becomes a writer of his time just as much as any other. Nevertheless, we can call it a paradox that this poet of the film—exclusive in his selection of dramatic material, marked in an overwhelmingly one-sided way by the intellectual milieu in Sweden, by the spiritual situations of Protestantism—is able to convince great numbers of people. There are greater creators of characters in Swedish literature. Since Strindberg, there has not come forth a poet who intuitively is so attuned to his own time as B. Note, for instance, how in Winter Light he lets the dread of the threatening unknown, nuclear warfare, become the film's main dramatic material.

His writing, that of the film, describes and interprets a situation of chaos and insecurity in the Western cultural world, but it also manages to push outside it. The great penetrating thinkers, who stick at nothing in their criticism of the human condition, have found it much more difficult than he to win an audience. They are too nonconformist. We find in B a strange blend of conformity and nonconformity. The battle between these two poles is documented in Smiles of a Summer Night and The Naked Night…. B's analysis of the human condition, of man's attitude toward the great abstract questions, is almost as merciless. But beyond this he is seeking a solution, which may appear romantic and false because it often originates in a defective, purely individual analysis of man's being. But the important thing is that he, thanks to his tremendous ability to narrate on the screen, can make his world clearly visible. He is thereby able to satisfy demands of many different kinds—and arouse dissatisfaction of many different kinds. One might wish for another world for B to depict than the one he shows us. But his skill in showing us his world is not lessened thereby. (pp. 14-15)

With some obvious exceptions, film art for B has seldom been a play with images. It was therefore possible for him to reach the seriousness of prayer, the power of confession. He has permitted his imagination to associate freely. On the basis of personal material and subjective questions, he has staged a series of films which in their compact effect are without parallel in modern motion pictures. This does not mean that they cannot be surpassed, or that other paths are closed.

The play with images is executed by artists who do not feel any responsibility extending beyond the borders of art. But even if the work of art is an answer in itself, action in itself, a rebuttal is needed, a spectator, a protest or an agreement. B feels this responsibility. His development has meant a continuous release from the narrow problems to which his society and his own milieu have given rise.

Like Tolstoy, he has inquired about the meaning of art, whether it has any purpose except to gratify man for a moment. In this endeavor, B has come to ask more questions than he can ever answer. He has posed great, metaphysical questions, about the existence of God and of a judging or delivering authority. Perhaps he has at last found that all this is meaningless so long as man cannot solve the simple problems of living with others, so long as he cannot enjoy the moment which is his life. (pp. 234-35)

Jörn Donner, "Fame and Significance" and "Chamber Plays," in his The Personal Vision of Ingmar Bergman, translated by Jörn Donner (copyright © 1964 by Indiana University Press; originally published as Djävulens ansikte: Ingmar Bergmans filmer, Bokförlaget Aldus-Bonniers, 1962), Indiana University Press, 1964, pp. 3-29, 206-38.


John Russell Taylor


Birgitta Steene