Peter Harcourt

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3307

More than any other film artist, Bergman's work is rooted in the past. His early films grew out of the culture that surrounded them and they were invariably concerned with traditional themes. [Prison, Thirst, and To Joy], all released in 1949, were each in its own way a kind of allegory, a journey through defeat and despair towards some kind of hopefulness at the end. (p. 135)

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[In] his early work, one was struck especially by Bergman's imagery, by a recurring pattern of images that seemed to have for him a special force. It would be simplistic, however, to attribute to these recurring images a fixed symbolic significance. While it is true that in his early films Bergman was fond of mirrors, of human hands, certainly of wild strawberries, of the sun and the endless stretch of long summer days, and that dolls, bears, and cannons appear in several of his films, these images by no means always acquire the force and stature of symbols. To generalize about their 'meaning', as some of the French critics have done, is to a large extent to destroy the delicacy of implication that they acquire in his most successful films. At their simplest, Bergman's images are employed to enforce or clarify a given mood or feeling, or sometimes to suggest an idea that in the film is left unsaid. (pp. 139-40)

On the surface, especially when compared with his later and frequently more opaque productions, [Summer Interlude] might seem a slight film; yet it achieves an emotional depth and impact largely through the use of a significantly suggestive pattern of imagery. (p. 141)

The fleeting joy of summer is suggested by the call of the cuckoo which opens the film and (as so often in Bergman's early work) by the patch of wild strawberries that the young lovers share together. But when Marie returns to Pike Island for her afternoon reverie, the autumn leaves are blowing about, now crows are calling; and when we see her in her dressing-room at the theatre, we might be further moved to sympathize with her advancing age and vanished happiness if we notice that the pattern on her dressing-gown consists of medlars—an autumn fruit. (pp. 141-42)

At this stage of his career, Bergman was a most traditional, one might even say, a most classical artist. In many ways, his films were playing with conventional themes, themes already thoroughly explored by other Scandinavian artists. His distinction, as I understand it, lies chiefly in the quality of the play.

Bergman is, of course, a master in making us actually participate in the joys and sorrows of his characters. As we watch the film, we too are dazzled by the sun on the water and we feel the bleakness and hostility of Pike Island once the summer has gone. As a film-maker, however, Bergman is far from alone in this ability. One of the problems with the film medium is that we can all too easily become too uncomfortably involved in the action on the screen and so lose the distance necessary to respond to the film as a work of art. In these early Bergman films, I think it is largely the presence of some kind of form or pattern, of some perceptible sequence of imagery, that keeps us from being uncomfortably distressed by what we see.

By having crows answer cuckoos, and medlars follow strawberries, Bergman not only moves us by the strong emotional effect of these sounds and images but he thereby distances the action sufficiently from real life to enable us to be conscious of it as a work of art. To my mind, to complain that such effects are too deliberately done, with the implication that they are too cerebral, as many English-speaking critics did when these films first appeared, to complain in such a way reveals a complete incapacity to feel their force in the film, plus an unwillingness to accept the conventions upon which Bergman's art was based. (pp. 142-43)

Bergman once expressed the wish that his work might have the impersonality of a medieval cathedral. I would argue that, in many ways, his early films do. Somewhat like the pre-Renaissance painters, it is as if Bergman could take his subject matter for granted while he strove to discover new methods of presentation. We are delighted as much with the manner as with the matter of these early films. In these films, we may indeed be at times unbearably moved by the convincingness of the action, but at the same time we experience an exhilaration because, among other things, we can feel the presence of the artist's controlling hand in all the situations that are moving us. By the symmetry, by the beautiful pattern of images, with often the suggestion of a controlling symbol, and by the frequently stylized characterization, we are continually reminded that what we are witnessing is not real life with its irrational muddle and chaos, but the creation of one man's individual mind, reshaping and refining traditional Christian-humanist insights with more than just a touch of Pauline romantic gloom. (pp. 143-44)

Even though these early films are very much cast in the traditional allegorical mode, Bergman takes pains not to present his characters in too schematic a way. They all live in a tangle of responsibilities to one another, as in fact we do in life. The issues may seem simplified, but not (I would argue) falsified. Albert and Anne [of Sawdust and Tinsel] are shown to be fond of one another and capable of moods of tenderness, though each is prepared to desert the other if the occasion offers itself. There is also a kind of affection that we feel for even the most pathetic of Bergman's characters. Albert's march through town to ask the help of a travelling theatre director, with the absurb pride he takes in his own pomp and his gaudily provocative Anne, is one of the many touches that help to soften the harsh edges of this grimly conceived film. It also implies a kind of moral value in the processes of life itself.

For instance, not unlike Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Sawdust and Tinsel deals with two people who have somehow become dependent on each other 'in this hell together' and who keep waiting for something to happen, something that will free them from their present life and from each other. Of course, like Godot, it never comes. Yet far more than Beckett in his much applauded play, Bergman, even in this gloomy film, realizes that man is still not entirely incapable of compassion, and that from compassion there is hope. If Bergman is fully conscious of the horror and possible vacuity of life, at this stage of his life he is also conscious of its warmth and joy. (pp. 146-47)

I have never been a great admirer of The Seventh Seal myself. It is a highly rhetorical film, containing all kinds of extraordinary moments which seem more effective locally than intrinsic parts of the entire film. I have always preferred Sawdust and Tinsel, because I feel that the implied pilgrimage of the circus in the earlier film is more subtle and successful than the overtly symbolic crusade in The Seventh Seal. Also, Sawdust and Tinsel is not weakened by unnecessarily abstract talk. Furthermore, the presentation of Albert and Anne's relationship does still seem representative of the lives of so many people today. But I have come to recognize that The Seventh Seal is striving to be a more complex film and, in spite of its weaknesses, it has too its characteristic strengths. (p. 150)

[Death] appears as he does, simultaneously grim and somewhat comical with his white face and black cloak, because this is the way Bergman (and so the Knight) has imagined him from a painting. 'I've been a long time at your side,' says Death when he first appears; and we realize that he is not merely death in time, the end of our actual life, but he also represents the inner death that the Knight, Antonius Block, has been carrying with him ever since he first left his wife and home in search of the absolute, ever since he gave up singing songs to the beauty of his wife's eyes and began to pursue an abstraction. However much Bergman may make us sympathize with the Knight's pursuit, we see that in the film it has been meaningless. His sturdy squire, Jöns, is disgusted with the whole business: 'The crusade was so stupid', he says, 'it would have taken an idealist to have thought of it'. (p. 151)

That some part of us must die before we can truly live, that we must be 'as little children' before we can find real happiness, that the 'Kingdom of Heaven' is either within us or it is nowhere—all these insights form part of our Christian-humanist inheritance and, at this stage of his career, Bergman seemed to be accepting them uncritically. Those of us who admired these early films went to them, not for fresh insights about the nature of life, but to observe the individual working out of traditional themes and attitudes. Watching his films seemed rather like stepping back into a nineteenth-century world. (pp. 153-54)

In Wild Strawberries, as in The Seventh Seal and with a rather different effect in Smiles of a Summer Night, there is a kind of banquet scene, a scene of the pleasure of eating and relaxing together, one might almost say of communion. (p. 159)

[The] travellers all have lunch together. They eat and drink wine together, while Borg is moved to entertain them with stories about his days as a young doctor. Then, while strumming his guitar, the young theological student begins to recite a poem: 'When nature shows such beauty, how radiant must be its source.' When he stops, old Borg carries on: 'I see his traces everywhere, wherever flowers bloom.' When his memory falters, Marianne helps him out. Like the strawberries and milk in The Seventh Seal, this poem is passed round the table. They all seem to know it and to appreciate it, even if in different ways. To the theologue, it is a poem about God; to the young atheist, simply a love poem. But the two boys are united in a common feeling for this poem, as indeed they are in their appreciation of the high spirits of the girl. They are thus freed from their 'merely intellectual' disputes.

This scene is magnificent, and, considering the nature of the poem, the sharing of the food and wine together, and what could be called the spiritual theme of the film, it seems to have implications of the most far-reaching kind. If at this time of his life Bergman was still preoccupied with the validity of Christianity in the metaphysical sense of that word, he seems in Wild Strawberries to be re-creating in a most sensitive way some of the ritual that has held the church together. This luncheon sequence contrasts sharply in its warmth and affection with the actual communion he was to re-create some five years later for the opening sequence of Winter Light. (pp. 159-60)

Bergman's early work, like so much of Scandinavian art, [seems] to stand apart from time…. The moral sensibility that [Wild Strawberries] contains could have existed any time within the last two hundred years. It is only the cinema that gives it the feeling of being of our era.

Yet this old-fashioned quality is what pleases me most about these early works by Bergman—the sense of a man working in isolation from the rest of Europe, sorting out the validity of his own cultural inheritance. The whole symbolic understructure that we find in Bergman's films seems to come from far away and thus to be much more profound than his merely personal preoccupations. The recurring symbols of the quest, of the forest of darkness, of the life-giving powers of the south and sun might, to the English-speaking world, recall Bunyan, but to the Scandinavians could suggest Ibsen. (pp. 161-62)

The 'new' Bergman really begins with Through a Glass Darkly…. This was the first of his so-called trilogy, a trilogy completed by Winter Light … and The Silence…. His technique through this trilogy and into Persona … has been to bring us closer to fewer and fewer people, perhaps … with the deliberate ambition to 'illuminate the human soul'. One of his methods has been to let his characters speak directly to us, often with no editorial interference or recourse to flashbacks…. But such a technique can lead to problems of response and interpretation of a most delicate kind. (pp. 167-68)

[The] lack of certainty about the truthfulness of what the characters are saying plus our inability to be certain just where Bergman stands in relation to their words are the twin characteristics that give these films, for all their authority and stylistic asperity, a slightly hysterical, self-indulgent air. The dramatic context of the characters' remarks has often not been clearly enough defined for us to be certain whether we are watching the desperation of dramatically distanced characters (which would mean intellectually comprehended characters), or whether we are being subjected to Bergman's own undistanced and therefore uncomprehended despair. (p. 169)

Since The Virgin Spring, up until the re-achieved balance in A Passion, it is rather as if the Knight had taken over the making of Bergman's films. By isolating his characters so extremely, he has reduced his moral universe to the utterings of his most desperate characters. There is little sense of any kind of dialectical relationship with a less hopeless world outside, of any possible alternatives. (p. 170)

Were there space in this chapter, both The Silence and Persona would repay extensive analysis. They are the failed masterpieces of what we should by now be able to call Bergman's Baltic period. They are masterpieces because they courageously, astonishingly, break new ground—certainly for Bergman but also for the cinema itself. But they are failures, in my view, because the thinking behind them is simultaneously schematic yet unclear. It is as if Bergman the thinker has not kept pace with Bergman the artist, as if his new-found artistic authority, which has helped to free him from the allegorical modes of thought that held together his earlier work, has not been accompanied by fresh insights into the nature of human life. Bergman at his best is a most inward director. Essentially, like Fellini's, all his films are about himself. The 'failure' occurs, in my view, when Bergman attempts to persuade us that his films are about more external matters—the validity of art, as in Persona or Hour of the Wolf; the ravages of war, as in Shame. In his earlier work, Bergman tended to pit good against bad, the life-affirming Saras against the life-denying Borgs. Technically this dualism was registered in the dazzling whites of all the exterior sequences in Wild Strawberries that contrasted with the dark interiors, say, of Borg's mother's home.

The dualism assumed a different form in Through a Glass Darkly, where there is an almost schizophrenic split between things seen and things said. In The Silence the dualism between the sisters is so exaggerated that one is tempted to explain them both as different aspects of one woman, as indeed one is forced really to interpret the dualistic structure of Persona as well. Interpreting the films this way means that the characters seem incomplete in some way as characters, that the dualism is too extreme for its implications to be psychologically convincing. (p. 171)

I don't mean to be positing a critical puritanism, adducing terms like balance, distance and success as the only ones relevant for contemporary art. For even if I am right in my feeling that Bergman's films since Through a Glass Darkly have frequently lacked these classic artistic qualities, I in no way mean to dismiss the films or to deny their immense power to disturb. The claim I would like to make for A Passion, however, is that it deals with the same problems that have troubled Bergman throughout his career, the problems of loneliness, humiliation, and of the essential isolation of the human spirit. Furthermore, it deals with these problems with all the authority and originality that have characterized his recent work (added to which is his immensely creative use of colour), but at the same time this film is balanced and distanced and successful in the most classical of ways. This means, for all its power, it also contains an element of restraint. This means as well, for all its hopelessness, there is an element of affirmation implicit within Bergman's ability to find an aesthetic resolution to all the difficulties posed by the film. A Passion is complete in a way that I don't feel his recent films have always been, complete and unpretentious in that the problems raised in the film are answered by the film as well. (p. 176)

The central concern of A Passion seems to be with what I have already called the essential isolation of the human spirit. In this way the film is the summation of all of Bergman's work so far. Every detail in it contributes to this concern, even the magnificently staged dinner sequence at the Vergeruses' that shows the characters attempting to break through this isolation (like the ferry sequence in Shame). Even here, however, except for the closing four-shot and the moments when we hear them all chattering together, Bergman presents the bulk of the scene through single faces in close-up, separate from each other, each telling his own story. Similarly, the opening talk between Andreas and Johan is presented largely in action/reaction shots. At the very moment that we most feel Andreas's concern for the carter, through the editing Bergman emphasizes their essential separateness.

Related to this concern is the recognition of how unstable our sense of self is, our sense of who we really are. This is why the direct comments of the actors on the characters they are portraying work so well in the film. They not only distance us from the action slightly, in a Brechtian/Godardian way, reminding us that we are after all only watching a film, but they also give us the sense that even the actors cannot fully comprehend the characters they are portraying. (p. 179)

When I write about A Passion in this way, so much of what I most admire remains undescribed—the actual texture of the images and the meaningful juxtaposition of scene against scene….

The final sequences form a most masterful conclusion for this most masterly of all Bergman's films. The burning horse that would not die might well stand as emblem for the desperate clinging to life of all the characters in the film, no matter how great their disease or pain. In this way even this image provides a kind of affirmation, the affirmation of blind animal energy within despair. (p. 181)

We believe that when we look more closely at something we see it more clearly, even when we look at another person's identity. The very form of Bergman's film gives the lie to this, certainly the form of the ending. In what is one of the most remarkable shots in the history of the cinema (if I may be allowed this enthusiasm), we move in on Andreas pacing back and forth and then falling to his knees, as the grain swells up and the light increases until the image literally disintegrates before our eyes. Then another stroke on the timpani provides the final punctuation to this most extraordinary film. (p. 182)

Peter Harcourt, "The Troubled Pilgrimage of Ingmar Bergman," in his Six European Directors: Essays on the Meaning of Film Style (copyright © Peter Harcourt, 1974; reprinted by permission of Penguin Books Ltd), Penguin Books, 1974, pp. 135-82.

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