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