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Relevant Questions
Re-thinking Bergman in an Irreverent Age

Criterion’s latest Ingmar Bergman releases—along with MGM’s April release of a box set of five Bergman films (including some of his best work)—put existential issues back on the small screen.

In the past year, the Criterion Collection has done something stunningly retro: it has released five handsomely packaged DVDs of films directed by Ingmar Bergman, including a brilliant trilogy of chamber films Bergman wrote and directed in the early 1960s. And in an even more surprising move, MGM has released a box set of five Bergman films from the mid-1960s and mid-1970s.

It’s not the first time Criterion, at least, has released something that looks to contemporary eyes like an unfamiliar curiosity dug up out of a time capsule. Among their releases in the last year are those twin relics of the late 1960s, I am Curious Yellow and I am Curious Blue, as well as a Stan Brakhage anthology and the incomparable The Leopard (whose uncut version had never been released on home video in the U.S.). Their devotion to forgotten classics that don’t even get shown in obscure film courses these days is admirable, indeed.

Bergman’s a special case, though. In his heyday, he was among the most closely watched directors in the world, and Bergman aficionados would argue he remains one of the century’s most important filmmakers. His austere, brooding style has had an impact on everything from Woody Allen films to Monty Python. (Remember those white-on-black, moose-themed subtitles in the opening credits for Monty Python and the Holy Grail?) In fact, Bergman was so big in the 1960s and 1970s Roger Corman (a Bergman enthusiast, despite his own résumé) actually acquired the distribution rights to Cries & Whispers and booked it in drive-in theaters across America.

So why has Bergman fared so poorly in contemporary popularity, compared to other great directors of his era like Fellini, Hitchcock, Welles and Kurosawa?

It’s a complicated issue, actually.


Let’s start with a straightforward explanation.

Every ten years since 1952, Sight & Sound has asked film critics to list the top 10 films of all time. It’s interesting to see how Bergman has rated through the years. While he directed his first film in 1948, he didn’t produce bona-fide classics until the mid-1950s, with Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries. He doesn’t show up on the poll, though, until 1972, with Persona and Wild Strawberries. And he hasn’t shown up on it again for the thirty years since.

Not a great showing for one of the world’s leading directors, right?

Step back, though, and ask yourself how many big—not great, but big—films Bergman directed. Fanny & Alexander had some heft, but that’s largely because it was so long. Bergman’s films are simply too intimate and his style too restrained to swagger onto the contestants’ stage with the likes of 8 1/2 or Seven Samurai—or 2001: A Space Odyssey, for that matter. Sight & Sound’s poll favors muscular extravaganzas, and Bergman—with the possible exception of Persona—simply can’t compete with that kind of criteria.

It’s interesting to note that Sight & Sound began publishing two Great Directors lists two years ago as well, representing the directors whose films received the most votes from critics and directors. While he managed to place eighth on the directors’ Top 10 list (behind Billy Wilder), Bergman failed to make the critics’ Top 10 list. Apparently, it’s hard to commit yourself to a director’s quietly magnificent oeuvre, rather than glorying in the big-splash standouts of a long career. (Not surprisingly, Hitchcock and Welles shared top honors on the Great Directors lists.)

It’s not just the lack of big-film swagger that has caused Bergman to disappear from the popular film front, though. It’s more complicated, I think, and it has to do with his thematic interests and how he went about conveying them.


In the 1950s, during the heyday of the existentialist movement, it was popular to talk about the anxieties particular to different eras. The classical world was said to be plagued by anxieties of fate (hence the stoics’ credo to control your reaction to suffering you can’t avoid), the medieval world by anxieties of good versus evil, and the modern world by anxiety of meaning. Indeed, the apparent silence of God and the vacuum of meaning it brought were burning issues for Bergman’s generation. (The Seventh Seal, in which the good Knight does battle with the dark figure of Death, seems like a medieval crisis of good versus evil, but the Knight is resoundingly modern in his existentialist worries about God’s silence and his need to assert meaning through his own desperate acts.)

Existentialist philosophy was so powerful that it drew disparate art forms—and artists (Bergman the one-time Nazi enthusiast on one side and Resistance-supporting Sartre and Camus on the other)—together into a common cause. Before he died in a car accident, Camus and Bergman were planning on collaborating on a film.

As powerful as the question of meaning was for Bergman’s generation, though, we today live in the age of postmodern irony, where nothing we say is to be interpreted as sincere, much less anxious.

Postmodernism may be a necessary transition out of the existentialist movement: having failed to answer the big questions, we’ve slid into the bottom half of the Age of Meaning, which the existentialists never mentioned (or saw coming).Today, under the guidance of the postmodern movement, we’ve been taught that meaning is irrelevant. Ironizing a ‘truth’ makes it less important: God? The meaning of life? And other imponderable, profound questions? Ah, those grapes were sour anyway.

The ironic act feigns sincerity for subtle comic effect. To believe in its sincerity is to miss the joke. Nabokov once wrote that the word ‘God’ could only be understood when it was placed inside quotation marks. These days, we know to laugh when we see the quotation marks, and we shrug off the speaker when we discover he is not using them.

With those kinds of ground rules, all sincerity comes into question. Take the concept to today’s postmodern extreme and Bergman’s heartfelt concerns render him a stuffy Victorian among today’s postmodernists.

A few similarly existentialist-tinged directors have aged better. Kurosawa comes most immediately to mind. It’s apparently a matter of delivery: while Bergman’s films are notable for their talky screenplays and static close-ups, Kurosawa’s works remain adventuresome and quick-paced, even in their bleakest moments. Bergman questions the world obsessively; Kurosawa tosses out a few quick, bleak statements and keeps moving the camera a lot (at least until he grew old and irrelevant).

From Bergman, it would seem, you’re only one step removed from truly creaky old farts like Dreyer.

Not that Bergman will soon replace John Ford as the poster boy for Old Guard values. The conservatives don’t want his plaintive, existential cries in the darkness any more than the postmodernists do.

But they should.

Postmodernism will pass, just as modernism did before it, and the Arts and Crafts and Aesthetic movements before it. And when we stop snickering knowingly at Bergman’s big-concept hand-wringing, the need to answer his questions will return in force.

Much of the world now burns with fervent intensity over religious questions, and many find the idea of dying for their beliefs palatable. We should at least get back to the doubting phase, and start probing for answers again.

—Essay by Doug Childers





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