Vernon Young

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3713

It must never be overlooked that Bergman is as persistent a showman as he is a moralist. He is of the theatre, and while I should not want to declare that the one talent is all comic and the other—a preoccupation rather than a talent?—is altogether morose, I would suggest that there is a conflict between the two tendencies, between his desire to entertain and his instinct to preach, and that his masterpieces arise when the tendencies are virtually inseparable, when neither dominates the other, as in The Naked Night, The Magician, and The Virgin Spring. (p. 123)

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One of the most fascinating problems of Bergman's development is his perennial return to the schematic disciplines of a primitive or classical mode, even as he is struggling to comply not only with the more fluid, less categorical, more musical medium of film, but also with the relativistic demands of the modern temper. Sommarlek was alternately pure movie, subjective, scenic, and time-compounding, and rudimentary classical theatre complete with symbolic attendants and exemplary characters such as crabbed age, hopeful youth, faithful companion, and the Manager as Chorus. Waiting Women was a breakaway experiment, not radical but indicative, like Thirst, a playing with contrary moods, a test of cinematic control—space, confined or illimitable; time, protracted or foreshortened. But framing it all was a convention, provided by the intrinsically Swedish experience, of the hippodrome of domestic incompatability and the false white nights of summer.

A Summer with Monika resumes this motif with quite another approach than any Bergman had taken in any of the skerry-setting films he had directed before. This is perhaps the least identifiably personal film Bergman has made and I know I am going against judgments indignantly pronounced when I add that I consider it one of his best. Not one of his most profound, for that's another matter; not one of his most revolutionary, yet there is paradox in that thought. Precisely because here he wasn't attempting new dimensions, symbolic extensions, or journeys into the maelstrom of the mind, this film is unique in Bergman's continuity and is an exercise in critical naturalism, lyrically executed and impenitently resolved, with not a whimper nor an accusation on the way. (pp. 123-24)

No film of Bergman expresses more ruthlessly [than The Naked Night] the consequence of the formulation by D. H. Lawrence, which I'm sure Bergman never had in mind, that all human relationships are based either on love or on power. When power flows the wrong way between the sexes, catastrophe is inevitable…. I do not see, as others have seen, any comfort to be derived from the fact that Albert and Anne are after all still united at the end of the film. This is a fate worse than death, surely, else why would Bergman go to the trouble of creating that macabre prologue and of adroitly plotting each sequel, so that one after the other they move steadily through confirming circumstances toward the self-same direction, with Frost himself as memento and prompter? Albert and Anne become resigned to each other; which must mean that each is resigned to himself. Resignation is not love. (pp. 135-36)

Frost is indubitably the overpowering and most baffling presence in the film. His whole aspect is an equivocation. A mirthless clown—what could be more futile? This is really an ingeniously oblique conception, even if we remember that Picasso had painted lugubrious clowns, for traditionally the clown in literature and drama has been employed intellectually, as a foil to complacency, a critic of absolutes. (p. 137)

[As] obviously unrelated as [The Seventh Seal and Smiles of a Summer Night] may be otherwise, their raison d'être is decor. The Seventh Seal is as artificial, in the best sense, as Smiles. Life as theatre and life as allegory; we are saying the same thing. Both demand a style of the impossible while suggesting, in fun or in dread, the borders of the possible. (p. 142)

To my sense [Smiles of a Summer Night] is a wholly delightful film; under close scrutiny, however, it is exposed as a precarious act of tightrope-walking. The situations therein are so expertly contrived and carried off, the repartee is so calculatedly brittle, the final adjustments so sensible, that it does pass for heedless comedy, which is to say an antiheroic mode intended to provide pleasure rather than second thoughts. Yet the more often one sees it, such has been my experience, the plainer it becomes that in it the comic, which is to say the reasonable, point of view is sustained by a tense effort of will. (p. 143)

[There] is certainly little relief in this film from the spirit of masculine self-degradation which Bergman had been exuding in a sort of crescendo, beginning with Waiting Women and absent only from A Summer with Monika. Egerman, like his predecessors played by Gunnar Bjornstrand, while the most sympathetic male in Smiles, is nonetheless written—one might say written off—as the best representative of an inept species. (p. 145)

By a kind of miracle or a kind of superior charlatanry, which in theatre is just what performs miracle, Bergman made this jeu d'été imply reaches of mood and space and consequence which are not, to the eye, fully contained in the material. (p. 147)

I should like to restore to The Seventh Seal its status of a magical movie, more suggestive than definitive, more lyric than didactic. And the best way I know is to think of it as one might an orchestral suite for a small orchestra, in which certain themes from the motley life of a medieval community, threatened by death in the forest, comprise the various movements, with signature instruments for the principal characters…. If you heard a suite of this order, I think you would feel no compulsion to decide whether its composer was agnostic or devout; you would not think to translate the fugue into an ontological argument; you would more than likely miss the implication that those repeated triads symbolize the Trinity and while you might have a favorite movement you would not leave the concert hall asserting you had heard a piece of music which had infallibly pictured the misery of a world deprived of God's mercy. (pp. 159-60)

I think The Seventh Seal is a beautiful, harmoniously composed film with indelible pictoral effects but I do not feel that its questions disturb the universe. (p. 160)

The Magician is an incredibly suggestive work; that it is also definitive is as much to my point, and this very suggestiveness has beguiled critical opinion into strange interpretations; equally it has tempted certain critics into suspecting Bergman of trifling with them, of indulging a taste for the occult which he then hopes to endow with a spurious morality. I believe that Bergman has been many times confused, in his several films, as to how best to convey a moral or metaphysical ambiguity; I am of the opinion that in his latest films he has lost the power of discerning what is self-evident to an audience and what is absurd. I am convinced that he has ultimately unclear ideas about the nature of moral catastrophe. And it may well be that there are calculatedly hidden meanings in his later films; but I do not believe that he trades in gratuitous mystification and I do not believe that he manufactures effects which have no meaning to him. Frivolity is surely the last vice with which anyone should charge Bergman.

Above all, The Magician is not the film in which to expect irresponsibility, since the conscience of the artist is precisely the burden from which Vogler, the magician, is suffering. (p. 175)

Vogler's fate is left open, as it should be; we have never been quite sure of his identity; it is fitting that we should feel unsure of his future although, for the moment, it looks rosy. There may be undertones, intensities, extremities of feeling in this film which cannot rationally be accounted for, but I sense no fundamental imprecision in the character of the underworld which Bergman was apotheosizing. Obscurity is one thing, mystery another. (p. 176)

The Virgin Spring is the most selfless of his films…. [The film script, written by Ulla Isaksson, is] dense, concrete and sensuous, the spirit of the old ballad which is the source of the film captured and retold with the art, common to novelist and filmmaker, of moving through time and space as an eye. (p. 188)

Much for this reason, I would choose it as his masterwork, had I to name a superlative: the most lyrical, the most compassionate, the most lucidly constructed, metre by metre, and the film that most surely enters the heart and mind of the race…. (pp. 188-89)

The Seventh Seal is by comparison a charade. For all its talk of plague, desolation, and the fumes of burning flesh it does not draw blood…. The Seventh Seal has its own subtle gravity and charm but The Virgin Spring, while utterly beautiful in its pastoral spaces, cannot be called charming. The actuality before the miracle is an immediate sensation of primal existence, of a world in which you can nose the woodsmoke and the sourness of clothes and the nearness of stinking goats as you eat, and feel the roughness of the table under your hand and the high-country chill which only mead and raw meat, when you can slaughter it, can ward off. (pp. 191-92)

[The Silence] is a work I am forced to admire for its infernal compressionism. This is a film that transparently means something other than what you are seeing and this has become a jagged problem for critics who do not care for art as cryptology. I do not myself in numerous instances…. I think The Silence rewards effort; at its core there is a rancid integrity which compels one's recognition, if not one's affection. (pp. 212-13)

The sisters are Mind and Body. Ester, mind, is sick; she is self-generating; the first Timokan words she learns are for face, herself, and hand, with which she performs onanism. Anna is body, trying to shake off the mind's dominion; her insurrection is chiefly pornographic. Ester is shocked but yet sympathetic with the concupiscence of her other self. With this reading of the central, bisected image everything else in the film falls logically into place, logically, that is to say, as in a poem, not as in a mathematical equation. (p. 214)

The body affronts the mind, the mind fights fear of extinction with reason and brandy; the child of the body wanders in an unpeopled world where the few inhabitants are grotesque and cannot speak to him. Since the total atmosphere is one of reduction, it follows that all phenomena will be reduced. (p. 215)

[There] is no doubt that over and above, or below, the appalling accuracy of Bergman's metaphor in terms of the contemporary world, The Silence betrays a grindingly personal animus and incidentally a bias of the national temper. When we imagine hell, we extend the worst we already have. Most of us in the Western world would envisage social chaos. Who but a Swede would have a nightmare of body and mind totally irreconcilable, projected into a milieu dwindled to fewer than a dozen people who can't talk to each other, with the sun setting at two P.M.? (p. 216)

One vital force remains and will remain: hate. Despite the omnipresence of love as at least a forlorn hope in the Chamber films and the wistful belief in the power of love which Bergman has professed in interviews, it is hate that provides any dynamic principle to his films of the last decade. (p. 217)

In Persona, which is almost as compacted a vehicle as The Silence of Bergman's all-and-sundry beliefs, at least three principal themes are mined simultaneously. Any prose attempt to explain these lucidly in A-B-C fashion will inevitably tend to falsify the movie you see, wherein these themes are interlaced, even interlocked, and not separate, linear and exclusively labeled. For one, there is the reality-and-illusion, life-and theatre conflict, enforced and exaggerated in this case by the device of harshly interrupting the action to remind you, as if you needed the reminder, that you are seeing a film. This is an involution by which Bergman was impressed when he made Prison, 1949. Second, we are presented with a split-image gambit, exceedingly tricky, the nature of which can only be interpreted with any hope of accuracy if you take the names of the antagonists as your inescapable clue. On this one point, I am dogmatic; beyond this, I have no complacent belief that I have exhaustively interpreted the film. Finally, there is the biographical stratum—for the sake of convenience, I am making a false distinction by so isolating it—which is to say, the portrait of the artist as alternatively victim and cannibal, as evinced by what happens to Elisabeth Vogler, no less than by what happens to Alma the nurse. (p. 226)

The consequences are enjoined in Persona whereby the consciousness of art as a fiction (what else can it be?) is utilized, to a maddening degree, as a technique in the narration of the work of art. (p. 227)

In Bergman's film, I find that where his shock-method serves the subject of psychological fission—the fractured, fused, and superimposed faces—it exerts a legitimate fascination; where it is used for the purpose of reminding us that all art is vanity in a cruel world it is trite, it is déjà vu, above all it is a barbarous attack, sadistically motivated, on the nervous system….

The most abusive device here is that violent interruption of the continuity, sufficiently oblique as it is, with snatches of filmmaking (or film-wrecking). (p. 228)

While still asking the nineteenth-century question of Does God exist?, he begins to ask in The Silence and Persona the question nearer to us of Does Man exist? After the modern ordeal of discovering by what numerous inner and outer determinisms man is governed and of what ignoble stuff he is made when you remove him not so much from religion, itself, that sine qua non of Bergman for the secure life, but from the sanctions of a social commonwealth, the guarantees of justice, the intricate, self-preserving defense of manners, the scale of values which, however imperfect and arbitrary, gives his life dignity by lending it aspiration, then what kind of figure does he cut? Lamentably often an hysteric, a modish barbarian, a fractional organism. (p. 237)

Any expectation that Persona was more than a skirmish in his inconclusive battle with the duplicity of the artist was certainly frustrated by The Hour of the Wolf. This film is almost pure dementia…. The Hour of the Wolf, chronologically trackable, never rises to the level of any implication you can invent for it, never becomes definition; in it Bergman explores nothing, creates nothing; this is wholly a disintegration product, replying to no serious question; it is theatrically shoddy and built on an ill-bred premise. The tone is that of polemic and self-pity. (p. 238)

The most interesting thing about The Hour of the Wolf is its title, the dark promise never fulfilled. Bergman coined a saying with an antique air. "The hour of the wolf is four o'clock in the morning: the hour when most people die and most babies are born". In the Bergman universe nothing is certain but death and babies, tomb and womb, death and birth. (p. 239)

This film reminds one, if in the grossest form, that Bergman's social antenna has an extremely limited range. There is little point in criticizing what an individual artist cannot do until he tries to do it. Believable social intercourse is the most deficient area of Bergman's film world, inevitably, since he is the citizen of a country with a thin texture of social differentiation…. Where a classless norm is the ideal, interpersonal subtlety becomes a lost art; realism must find other outlets and abandon a world in which conversation and the right wine count. Bergman today is a symbolist or nothing. (p. 242)

The content of [A Passion] is wholly allusive; the images are symbolic deductions from origins invisible, a choir of meanings unheard, an anthology of hints from nearly every motif he has expressed before, a gallery of icons, unidentifiable without a catalogue that names the sources and the conventions which alone give these icons viable significance. (p. 257)

A Passion sums as a total, hopeless ambiguity wherein nothing is finally and endurably explicable: the central vision is one of an eternal reign of inscrutability, deceit, "humiliation," and indifference, with a saving proviso, reduced to code. It is the despondent modern subject. (p. 258)

The moral point of the film, in its peculiar way, is that you cannot read another person without adequate love or knowledge and the point for us, looking at the film, is that you cannot read its story with the slightest claim to certainty if you only look at the succession of shots Bergman has taken. (pp. 258-59)

Bergman's A Passion, although it is dedicated to a far different and even more moritfying aim, is incidentally the most audacious answer to [the] universal indifference to meaning which, to my recognition, has been conceived. (p. 266)

What Bergman has done in this film is to abdicate from the conventional conception of time and duration, even more radically than he did in Persona. This is limbo or, if you like, purgatory. This has all happened before. It will happen again. Time is spiral. Andreas and Anna and the others are reenacting a convuluted, unending torment, out of the time-space continuum we are prepared to accept. (p. 267)

Let us return to the title. Everything is there…. If the filmgoer allows himself to be sidetracked by the secondary meaning of the word passion as a state of strong feeling, associated commonly with anger or with sex, he will get further than ever away from the film. Passion is passio, quite simply, to suffer. (p. 273)

The matter of A Passion is the drama of the Christian text. As in Persona, however, we need not expect to trace every detail consistently with the master theme. There are simply some meanings which emerge unmistakably once you are in the ambience. The moment of the film is the moment of the betrayal and its consequences. The atmosphere is premonitory; signs of cruelty and disaster appear throughout the film. But the pellucid color, the absence of chiarascuro, the offhand, daylight interviews with the actors, the seemingly concrete interplay between Elis and Eva and Andreas and Anna muffle the intimations of doom. (p. 274)

A Passion is an impressive tour de force if you allow that the object of an artist is almost totally to conceal his most authentic meaning and if you are willing to exempt the film from a primary purpose of a work of art, to arouse emotion. (p. 277)

A Passion, insofar as it passes judgment on the human condition, resembles an epistle from one of the Twelve addressed to the elect, carefully coded lest it fall into the hands of a Roman procurator. It is not irrelevant to note that John the Divine received his Revelation on an island. But the tone of A Passion, when you get down to the tone, is closer to that of St. Paul.

Even so, I have been visited by the suspicion, while writing this book, that Ingmar Bergman is not an authentically religious figure, despite the evidential symbols in his films that accumulate to suggest he is. I would describe him as a retentive personality, in whom belief has been replaced by obsession. (p. 280)

He is the victim and the beneficiary of a traumatic displacement, a shock of disbelief from which he has never recovered in his soul; that shock is responsible for his impetus and for the intense condensation of his art. He cannot now move freely save within the confines of the belief he has tried to repudiate, the symbols it provides, the rejections it assists, the polarities and correlatives of which it is composed. He must retain the belief, if only in a glass darkly, for it is the sole source from which his own creation is supplied; within its conventions he can move. And one has to respect the untiring sagacity with which he has incorporated himself; he has been able to enact his own father, his own erring son, his own wife, God, the devil, and the saints. He has become his own Passion. (p. 281)

To speak in any final way of Bergman's film style is simply to elucidate alternatives and individual preferences. Bergman's art has none of the baroque dynamics to be seen in the films of Max Ophuls, of Orson Welles at his best, of Kurasawa, in Sjöberg's Miss Julie, or in Alexandre Astruc's Le Rideau Cramoisi. Bergman was not a born filmmaker, as could be said of Eisenstein, Jean Epstein, Walter Ruttmann, Max Ophuls, and certain others. He worked his will with an inherited, popular medium, after a long and erratic apprenticeship. He has disciplined that medium within the range that has served his purpose, a purpose more austere than not, seldom free from theatrical sources; in many instances, of course, the retention of them was calculated. But in any case, and despite Persona or A Passion, we do not think of Bergman as primarily a virtuoso and innovator but as a poetic moralist. We think of him as a filmmaker of magic with an evangelical point of view—a Druid captured by Lutheranism.

You may be able to name other film artists who surpass Bergman in subtlety, in urbanity, in exuberance, in courtesy of heart, and in scope of social interest; you can choose directors whose styles you favor for their camera inflections, their tempo, their modes of composition, and their rhythms; you will find few who have anything like Bergman's obdurate and sustained integrity; none who has so artfully succeeded in displaying his temperature chart as a map of the world. In his own boreal and phobic way, Bergman has engaged that subterranean crisis of the spirit which we have agreed to call modern. (p. 283)

Vernon Young, in his Cinema Borealis: Ingmar Bergman and the Swedish Ethos (copyright © 1971 by Vernon Young), David Lewis, 1971, 331 p.

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