Summer has officially arrived in St. Louis, which means I’m either going to be grouchy or angry or depressed until September. You see, summer in St. Louis is like living inside of a dog’s mouth. In short, it’s oppressive. It zaps the energy right out of me. And as such, what better time to visit my old pal, Doctor Doom- Ingmar Bergman? After all, Bergman seemed to understand the concept of sunlight and intense heat as oppressive. Two scenes come to mind- the cannibal child on the cliff in Hour of the Wolf and the sexually symbolic/ripe with frustration clown-and-soldier scene in Sawdust and Tinsel. Both of these scenes were made more terrifying by the sun-bleached shots, the intense heat, the additional distortion of a washed out environment.
Several themes recur throughout the Bergman catalogue. Here are five, along with a must-see film from Bergman that puts a specific theme on display.
1. Religious doubt and self-loathing
Winter Light is my personal favorite from Bergman. And while it’s far from the only film of his that fits this profile, it is- in my opinion- the highest quality and the best fit for the category. It’s about a priest who has an atheist girlfriend and his doubt pervades the film, affecting every character in some way. Ultimately, it wound up as the final film in which Bergman seriously tackled religion (along with The Silence). It was his concluding statement about the topic, of sorts. And what a statement it was.
You must understand. I am not a good clergyman. I chose my vocation because my father and my mother were religious people, I wanted to please them. Then I became a clergyman and I believed in God. An absurd, personal and paternal god, who loved all the men but me above all (…) A god who could protect me all the time; from the fear of death, of life. I rented and built with my own hands this suggestion-god. You see, Jonas, my terrible mistake? Can you imagine my prayers? I prayed to an echo-god, who always gave to me benevolent and reassuring answers.
Every time I compared my god to the reality I saw around, it appeared ugly and abominable to me, a spider-god… a monster. That’s why I protected my god from life and light. I pushed it next to me in darkness and solitude. The only person who was allowed to see my god was my wife. She encouraged me, she helped me, she stopped all the gaps.. my indifference to preach the Gospel, my jealous hatred for Christ.
2. Sexual frustration
This is a theme that pops up most notably in the second stage of Bergman’s career, throughout the mid-60’s and 70’s, the stage that followed after he put religion to bed. But there was a tremor earlier on, found in Sawdust and Tinsel. As if to make sure that he drove the point home, Bergman begins the film with the aforementioned clowns-and-soldiers scene. And he uses the clowns as foils for the true protagonists.
3. Artistic value
Mostly, I mean the visual artistic value that you find in films like Cries and Whispers (the red walls) and Persona. And Persona is the film I’d choose to drive this one home. The merged faces of Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson is a cinematic classic, visually jarring, experimental on Bergman’s part, and does a brilliant job of driving home the theme of the movie- the intersection and reversal of personalities of these two women. Toss in the opening scene with the disjointed clips, with the intro set up as some sort of “birth” of film… It takes some patience but it’s just about as artistic as you can get.
4. Mirror image characters
I’m pretty sure that most screenwriters understand the concept of foils and mirror image characters. Bergman takes it to a completely different level. The Virgin Spring is the strongest example of this. Birgitta Petterson’s chaste personality is accentuated fantastically because she’s paired with Gunnel Lindblom’s “wildcat”, a pregnant over-sexed hellion. The film reaches a boil when the rapists and thieves who murder Petterson arrive at the home of the hard-working devout family, helmed by patriarch Max von Sydow. Every character’s strongest trait is paired with a foil. And it really gives the film more power than it might have had.
5. Insanity and demons
Bergman was a man who wasn’t afraid to admit that he fought his own demons. In fact, I always thought this quote from him was absolutely brilliant and it even inspired me to get a tattoo:
The demons are innumerable, appear at the most inconvenient times and create panic and terror. But I have learned that if I can master the negative forces and harness them to my chariot, then they can work to my advantage.
And work to his advantage, they did, most notably in The Hour of the Wolf. Bergman fanatically NAMED his demons. They were with him everywhere he went. And they each plagued a separate part of his splintered psyche. And when he was hospitalized in the 60’s, this very idea came to him- what if each of his demons could be characterized? That’s precisely what’s on display in Hour of the Wolf– separate portions of Bergman’s splintered psyche haunting him, the artist, at every turn.
So that’s that. Five Bergman themes and films. Amazingly, I didn’t even mention The Seventh Seal, which is always my recommended starting point for the uninitiated. If you’ve never seen anything by Bergman, that’s where you should begin. But as you delve into Bergman’s films, keep an eye out for my list. You’ll see those themes everywhere.