The Moviegoer

The Moment I 'Got' Ingmar Bergman

EW's movie critic reflects on the work of the late auteur and why, despite what some critics are saying, it is eternally important

INGMAR BERGMAN On the set of Fanny and Alexander (left, with actors Ewa Froling and Gunnar Bjornstrand), 1982
Image credit: Everett Collection
INGMAR BERGMAN On the set of Fanny and Alexander (left, with actors Ewa Froling and Gunnar Bjornstrand), 1982

Owen Gleiberman on Bergman's legacy

Reading over the obituaries for Ingmar Bergman, I couldn't recall another legendary movie director whose passing, almost everyone seemed to agree, was quite so...symbolic. More than anyone else — including his compatriot Michelangelo Antonioni, who died the same day — Bergman was the popular incarnation of the mythical/cultural spirit of Art Film. If you had to capture, in a single iconic image, what made ''foreign films'' so exotic and meaningful to audiences, then surely that image would be Max von Sydow's quizzical platinum-haired Knight playing chess with Death in Bergman's The Seventh Seal. Everything that viewers of the '50s and '60s were first entranced by when they began to discover art houses was present in that image — the luscious solemnity and metaphorical splendor, the grandly severe black-and-white beauty, the fearless declaration of cinema as a literature for the eye. The forbidding metaphysical romance of it all.

Of course, what the image also possessed was Bergman's dark genius for presentation, for drama. The myth of Ingmar Bergman is that, with his stoic tales of anguish, cruelty, identity, and the silence of God, he was the film world's most celebrated anti-entertainer. His movies invited you to experience them as a kind of high-modernist X-ray; their very catharsis was in how they offset the joy and color and escapism of Hollywood. The reason that all of this actually made him popular, though, inventing a new appetite for a new kind of movie, is that Bergman staged his brooding visions with eroticism (just think of Harriet Andersson, the tawdry goddess of Monika), violence (the horrific rape and revenge in The Virgin Spring), and pageantry (those spectacular Seventh Seal medieval landscapes). With morbid theatrical flair, he made his anti-entertainments...entertainingly.

When it came to watching Bergman's films, I passed through various phases, and I have a feeling that I wasn't alone. Here, in fact, is what I think of as the Four Stages of Watching Bergman:

1. Youthful Befuddlement I first encountered his films as a teenager, catching a handful of them late at night on our local PBS station. Television was actually a good medium for them, as it still is; it fit their hushed, stinging intimacy. Watching Sawdust and Tinsel or Through a Glass Darkly in a darkened rec room, I was intrigued by their mood, the beauty of the sun-dappled Swedish landscapes punctuated by those angry, sodden cloudbursts of confessional dialogue. Yet I had almost no idea what any of it meant. It all seemed so adult, so beyond me — a world I was vaguely curious to enter but could only stare at, thinking that it must be important. I knew that if I could ever understand Ingmar Bergman's films, I would somehow be a more enlightened human being.

2. Collegiate Awe A few years later, as an undergraduate, I was now a full-fledged movie buff, and I discovered, to my exhilaration, that I now ''got'' Ingmar Bergman. College, in many ways, is the perfect time for Bergman, because suddenly you're immersed in divining the hidden meaning of things, if only for the purpose of finishing term papers. Bergman's movies, with their distant fathers and buried family secrets and anguished sexual combat, their dreamlike use of religious totems, are all about people clawing and scratching to get to the spiritual truth beneath the fake surfaces of their lives. The Seventh Seal, with its lamentations of lost faith; the great macabre dream sequence in Wild Strawberries — these were cinematic poems begging to be unlocked. And Scenes From a Marriage, with its raging recriminations, its vision of how scathingly people who lived together could lie to one another, was even better: It was a window onto the tormented world of bourgeouis commitment that made me feel glad I wasn't there yet. Now, thanks to Bergman, I could know what I was in for.

NEXT PAGE: ''The Academy of the Overrated''? Far from it!

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