Robin Wood

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2363

Prison is a turgid, tedious film finally invalidated by the tendency to inflate a personal neurosis into a Vision of Life. Its explicit thesis is that life on earth is already Hell, that the devil rules. But all one could deduce from the evidence it presents is that some people are very nasty and some others very ineffectual. (p. 29)

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The chief contribution [Port of Call] makes is the extension of Bergman's antipathy to parental figures to include the social authorities, presented with consistent hostility.

The limitations of these early films are crippling. It appears to have been impossible for Bergman at this stage to conceive of an acceptable maturity. One can see signs of a tentative awareness of the need to come to some sort of terms with adult life, in the ending of Port of Call…. (p. 30)

Summer Interlude is the earliest in which one feels in the presence of a great artist, not merely a gifted, or precocious, or ambitious one. The film shows an achieved mastery both in the overall line, the inner movement, and in the minutiae of mise-en-scène in which that movement finds local expression….

The importance of Summer Interlude in relation to Bergman's early films is immediately evident: it both continues and develops the characteristic preoccupation with youth and the vulnerability of innocence. But here the transition from innocent youth to experienced adulthood is really explored, and with it the possibility of coming to terms with the world of Experience. (p. 32)

The film's most distinctive characteristic is perhaps its feeling for nature. While nature is obviously of great importance in, for example, The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, I know of no other Bergman film where it is felt as a pervasive influence to the extent it is in Summer Interlude…. (p. 33)

Summer with Monika is the perfect companion-piece and complement for Summer Interlude….

It is a less personal work than Summer Interlude, and relatively minor; it never achieves the generalising significance of the earlier film, being in a more restrictive way a study of character and of a particular relationship. (p. 39)

[The] most important thing in the film is the extremely complex and detailed treatment of Monika. She is the direct opposite of the helpless child-women and pure prostitutes of the early work. She entirely lacks purity, but the loss of innocence is felt to be inseparable from her splendid energy, her animal vitality and sensuality. (p. 41)

Sawdust and Tinsel and its immediate successor A Lesson in Love both have distinctive flavours unique in strength if not in kind in Bergman's work; and they are at almost opposite poles. A Lesson in Love is arguably the warmest and funniest of all Bergman's films, characterized by an overall atmosphere of relaxed good nature. Sawdust and Tinsel has a tone of savage bitterness and rage that nowhere else in Bergman's work erupts with such intensity or establishes itself so unequivocally as the central creative impulse. It is discernible elsewhere though, even, very muted, in the occasional tartness that serves to spice the prevailing good humour of A Lesson in Love….

Sawdust and Tinsel expresses a view of life one can hardly find balanced or objective. Clearly, in a sense, Bergman 'meant' it; but it must not be taken as absolute. Though it is not as narrow as first impressions and the introductory flashback might suggest its peculiar intensity and narrowness limit Sawdust and Tinsel, but they also give it its distinctive character, hence its value as the expression of one aspect of the Bergman world. (p. 49)

[An] intensely physical sensitivity informs Sawdust and Tinsel: there is a shot near the beginning of bent weeds that a cart wheel passes over and presses down, as the first raindrops splash into an adjacent puddle. No other Bergman film, not even The Virgin Spring, which has a more detached presentation, evokes quite such intense and consistent physical empathy in the spectator…. (p. 50)

[Smiles of a Summer Night] is less a beginning than an end: it has something of the nature of a combined culmination and retrospect, its achieved perfection associating with its consolidating rather than exploratory character. (p. 67)

[Balance] is the keynote of the film: the balancing of irony and sympathy, the balancing of different attitudes. The period setting increases the total effect of a formally conceived summation, enabling Bergman to achieve a stylised, patterned quality. It seems clear that part of the inspiration came from Mozart opera. The formalised effect of the film reminds one at times of Mozart's ensembles. (p. 68)

If Smiles of a Summer Night has its source in Mozart opera, Wild Strawberries is founded on Bach fugue. (p. 72)

Though the parallel is quite close, the form is not forced or externally applied, and there is no question of a schematically detailed working out; indeed, the film could almost equally be seen in terms of a sonata-rondo structure. The sense of a 'musical' structure, at once dense, broad and complex, however, is essential to the total effect, and indeed to the meaning of the film. Above all, one mustn't think of its 'musical' form as something abstract that could be discussed in isolation from the content. (p. 73)

Wild Strawberries represents the culmination and fulfilment of the Christian side of Bergman; the presence of a benevolent deity seems to permeate the film, in form as well as in an overall mellowness of tone that easily assimilates the incidental asperities. Isak became aware of 'an extraordinary logic': Bergman seems to reconcile this hint at predestination with the sort of 'natural' religion upheld by The Seventh Seal (which, it should be remembered, preceded Wild Strawberries). The 'extraordinary logic' is also the working out of a natural process. The 'musical' organisation, the sense of a quasi-fugal working-out, satisfyingly expresses Isak's sense of a pattern in existence. It is significant that the Bergman film embodying the Christian virtues of love, forgiveness, humility, should be centrally concerned with forgiveness between parents and children. The fact that the film proved for Bergman something of a dead end doesn't invalidate it. Isak Borg's relationship to Bergman himself is obvious enough; but equally obvious is the fact that, unlike certain of these other figures, Isak exists quite independently as a fully realized character in his own right. (p. 80)

The first thing people tend to notice (quite rightly) about The Virgin Spring is the convincing reality with which medieval life is created. (p. 101)

Bergman's sensitivity to the nature of material that in some respects lies quite outside the scope of interests revealed in his own screenplays, is evident in his response to the 'ballad' aspects of the film. He uses traditional but highly evocative imagery with great assurance and subtlety….

The opposition of light and dark in the imagery suggests a clear-cut duality in nature, a concept which the film gradually undermines, giving the simple opposition ironic over-tones. Nothing is quite as it appears; nothing is unmixedly pure or simply evil. (p. 102)

In the world of The Virgin Spring, good and evil are like subterranean streams, potent, determining matters of life and death, but invisible and mysterious. No one is pure. (p. 103)

The treatment of religion in The Virgin Spring is perfectly consistent with that in Bergman's films from The Seventh Seal to Winter Light. Conscious outward shows (the flagellants' procession in The Seventh Seal; Märeta's self-mortification and Töre's ritual purification) are worthless, stupid and degrading. Karin's virgin candles and virgin mission only serve to add to her sexual allure. In the world of 'mixed' nature, purification can come only by the fulfilment of evil and the passing beyond it. (p. 104)

[Through a Glass Darkly] is an extremely important and extremely unsatisfactory film. To demonstrate its unsatisfactoriness one has only to point to what is beyond question the worst ending in mature Bergman. But it cannot be isolated there…. (p. 107)

Karin's emergence as a new 'personal' character is the chief contribution Through a Glass Darkly makes to Bergman's development, and its importance can scarcely be exaggerated. It coincides significantly with the relegating of the emotionally impotent characters (the father and, to some extent, Martin, Karin's husband) to a comparatively subordinate role…. In Through a Glass Darkly [all] concerns take second place to Karin's 'madness', a madness which is also a peculiar clarity of vision. The ice of Bergman's 'frozen' period is shattered at last, and it is Karin who emerges. (p. 108)

One is tempted to see [the] ending as ironic; but nothing in the presentation supports this view. One can only say, in Bergman's defence, that the consistent undermining of the father throughout the film suggests Bergman's lack of confidence in his last words. They are indeed mere words. (p. 109)

Winter Light is an intensely personal film…. Yet, without ever violating strict narrative unity, without any suggestion that anything is being imposed on the characters and situations that doesn't grow naturally out of the dramatic data, the film epitomises perhaps the most essential inner movement of western civilization in the last hundred years: the movement away from religious orthodoxy, the discovery of God's 'silence' (or non-existence), the progression into a kind of tentative existentialism. We are far here from the grand but spurious gestures of The Seventh Seal; there is nothing picturesque, nothing inorganic, and nothing suspect about Winter Light. (p. 112)

The Silence is one of the most difficult films to feel one's way to the heart of: to do so requires an act of courage that testifies to the extraordinary courage of the man who made it. One watches the film almost emotionlessly, as if paralyzed, and comes out feeling that one has experienced very little. Then hours, or even days, later, one comes to realize how deep and disturbing the experience has been; or one finds ways of insulating oneself—it's a 'sick' film, its piling on of miseries and perversions is ridiculous, one was really laughing at it all the time; or alternatively, it's too obscure to be accessible, it doesn't 'communicate'….

[The] film is about the eternal conflict of spiritual and physical; Anna represents body, Ester soul: only through union and harmony could wholeness be achieved, and the two are locked in permanent combat. This sounds—if we withdraw some distance from the detail of the film—temptingly feasible. The temptation should be firmly resisted: to force The Silence into this kind of allegory is to simplify and schematize. (p. 123)

The theory of the film as a personal allegory, in which the characters represent different aspects of Bergman's own psyche, is much more cogent, and also much less restricting. One can see it as an image of a shattered personality struggling towards wholeness, or casting off old growth, irreparably stunted and damaged, so that healthy new shoots can emerge….

[The boy Johan tries to observe, assimilate, and adjust to] the mysterious outer world, from which the characters are cut off, but which is felt as a potent menace…. The sense of a world out there, at least as terrible in its way as the inner world of desire and its frustration, is the more disturbing for remaining undefined: one has an impression of mysterious and terrible forces quite beyond the individual's control. (pp. 127-28)

The effect of the film's final image is dual: we feel the strength and intensity of the boy's determination to understand, and through this the strength of Ester's need to pass on whatever is left of any value in her stunted, wretched existence; but the crescendo of noise on the sound-track seems to obliterate the words that are not, in fact, spoken, reminding us of all the forces and pressures with which the boy's developing consciousness will have to contend. Clearly, we cannot talk here of distinct 'levels': the symbolic significance grows naturally out of the narrative. (p. 129)

We are very far, with Johan, from the idealisation of youth and the corresponding rejection of full adulthood typical of early Bergman. What is emphasized throughout is the enquiring and growing side of the boy's nature—his progress towards a relatively untrammelled adulthood, in fact—which makes of him a figure very different from the doomed young of the early works. And if Bergman is partly identified with him, this is never at the expense of sympathy with the world of adults. (p. 130)

When writing about The Silence I suggested that a concept of normality can only exist in relation to a defined social framework. In Shame normality is associated with tradition. Love, tenderness, sympathy, the sense of marriage itself, the desire for family, are felt as dependent upon a context of civilised values. (p. 175)

Bergman's maturity is nowhere more evident than in his treatment of Jacobi. In imposing himself upon Eva as a lover, Jacobi uses his position and his knowledge of her situation in a way that is obviously corrupt, knowing that she doesn't love him. Yet his need for Eva cannot possibly be seen as mere lust. She is his link with civilised values, with the possibility of tenderness, integrity and warmth…. There is nothing heroic about [Jacobi], but his failure to adjust to the demands for ruthlessness imposed on him by circumstances testifies to his humanity, thereby appearing a strength rather than a weakness. He dies because he cannot cease to be a civilised human being. (p. 180)

Bergman's total mastery of style is confirmed by the fact that he now feels free to allow himself and his actors a certain degree of controlled improvisation. He has reached an ideal fusion of surface detachment and profound emotional impact. It is always the spectator's deepest responses that are touched, beyond any facile direct onslaught. (p. 181)

[Shame is] Bergman's masterpiece to date and one of the greatest films of the last decade. It is Bergman's distinction to have established himself as a great, and central, artist in an age peculiarly inimical to great art. His greatest quality is his capacity for development, which is also the drive towards the attainment of human fullness. The journey from Frenzy to Shame is an extraordinary feat of courage and intelligence. (p. 183)

Robin Wood, in his Ingmar Bergman (© 1969 by Robin Wood; reprinted by permission of the author), Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers, 1969, 191 p.

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