When I arrived at Bard College in 1961, some of the greatest film-makers of the 20th century were in their prime. It seemed that every month a new film by a Kurosawa, a Bunuel or a Truffaut would show up at the movie theater in Red Hook, a nearby town. But the most eagerly anticipated films were those of Ingmar Bergman who died today at the age of 89. Films like “Smiles of a Summer Night,” “The Seventh Seal,” “Wild Strawberries” and “The Magician” made such an impact on me that I devoted my freshman year “field period” (an intersession that was meant for independent study or internships, etc.) to a reading of Bergman’s screenplays. I was captivated by the kind of dialogue found in “The Seventh Seal,” a film I watched for the first time in over 40 years on the Turner Classic Movie channel a few months ago. Here is a conversation between the Knight Antonius Block (Max Von Sydow), who has lost faith, and the angel of death:
Antonius Block: I want knowledge! Not faith, not assumptions, but knowledge. I want God to stretch out His hand, uncover His face and speak to me.
Death: But He remains silent.
Antonius Block: I call out to Him in the darkness. But it’s as if no one was there.
Death: Perhaps there isn’t anyone.
Antonius Block: Then life is a preposterous horror. No man can live faced with Death, knowing everything’s nothingness.
Death: Most people think neither of death nor nothingness.
Antonius Block: But one day you stand at the edge of life and face darkness.
Death: That day.
Antonius Block: I understand what you mean.
Although “The Seventh Seal” was made in 1957, it really didn’t hit its stride in the US until the early 1960s. This was when Bergman was at the top of his game. His tales of religious angst and men and women failing to communicate struck a chord with the more literate sectors of American society who had adopted existentialism and psychoanalysis as articles of faith. His films were the natural counterpart to the sort of books that were required reading at Bard College, from Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling” to Camus’s “The Rebel”. Bergman’s films were steeped in gloom and preached salvation through faith, even if it was not the conventional faith of the Sunday morning sermon.
By the time that the Vietnam War and the Black rebellion in the US were in full swing, Bergman’s films were a bit passé. A new generation of mostly American film-makers was much better at capturing the contemporary social upheaval such as Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” or “The Godfather.” A family drama like Bergman’s 1972 “Cries and Whispers” that took place in a gloomy mansion in the late 1800s almost seemed like self-parody to me, although the critics loved it.
One of Bergman’s biggest fans was Woody Allen who aspired to the Swedish master’s moral and psychological profundity without ever really carrying it off. His 1978 “Interiors” even had a title that sounded like something Bergman would come up with, not to speak of the plot which involved a dysfunctional family. Variety newspaper probably spoke for most critics when it said:
“Interiors” also looks like a Bergman film. Characters are photographed against blank walls, Keaton’s discussions with her analyst appear almost to be a confession into the camera. And the final third of Interiors was shot near the ocean in Long Island and looks like the Swedish island on which Bergman has photographed so many of his films.
Although I had trouble taking the message of the “The Seventh Seal” very seriously when I saw it on TCM a couple of months ago, I remained in awe of Bergman’s cinematography. The climax of the film, which shows a number of the major characters in a dance of death across a hilltop, still sends shivers down my spine. If nothing else, Bergman was a true poet.
While Bergman’s films do have a somewhat dated quality, they have achieved the status of classics. Fundamentally, they are about the longing for transcendence in a society that debases all human relationships and turns everything into a commodity including love itself. In the 1950s, when Bergman was finding himself as an artist, there was a deep sense of pessimism about the power of human beings to transform their world for the better. Unlike the 1930s, intellectuals sought escape in mysticism or adopted existential stances in order to cope with alienation.
Bergman shied away from interviews but in 1964 he made an exception for Playboy Magazine. These words might serve as a credo for what he was trying to get across in his films. Obviously, they will remain relevant in whatever type of society one lives in:
What matters most of all in life is being able to make that contact with another human. Otherwise you are dead, like so many people today are dead. But if you can take that first step toward communication, toward understanding, toward love, then no matter how difficult the future may be – and have no illusions, even with all the love in the world, living can be hellishly difficult – then you are saved. This is all that really matters, isn’t it?
Of course, the big question is how we are to be saved. For those of us who were transformed by the stormy 1960s, that mission will be carried out through the collective efforts of humanity and not a capricious deity.