Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 30, 2007

Ingmar Bergman 1918-2007

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:34 pm

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.


  1. I am reminded of something
    that I posted on the Marxism-Thaxis list some years ago concerning
    Bergman. There I wrote:

    A good article posted by Charles since it among other things
    points out that Sweden has long harbored many people with pro-Nazi
    outlooks and that during WW II, Sweden although officially
    neutral, in fact sold Germany iron ore and other raw materials
    while also permitting German troops to cross Swedish territory.
    Furthermore I would add that during the 1930s pro-Nazi attitudes
    were widespread among the middle and upper classes of Sweden.
    I remember being shocked a few years back when I read
    Ingmar Bergman’s autobiography *The Magic Lantern*.
    Bergman pointed out that sympathy for Nazi Germany was
    widespread in the millieux in which he grew up. Some of
    his school teachers were openly sympathetic to the
    “new Germany.” One teacher used to spend his summers
    attending officers’ meetings in Bavaria. Bergman’s brother
    (who later on entered the diplomatic corps) was an organizer
    for the Swedish National Socialists. Ingmar himself at the
    age of 16 went to Germany as an exchange student. Since,
    he was a pastor’s son, he was paired with a German boy who
    was also a pastor’s son. This German pastor was an ardent
    Nazi who was as prone to use texts from *Mein Kampf* for
    his Sunday sermons as the Gospels. As an exchange student
    young Ingmar became an enthusiast for Hitler’s regime.
    Bergman reports that his infatuation with Nazism lasted
    until after the end of WW II when finally the evidence of what
    the Nazis did to the Jews and others had become so strong
    as to become undeniable. Meanwhile Ingmar’s family
    became close to the German family that he had boarded
    with. His sister later became engaged to the German
    student that Ingmar had been paired with. He became
    a pilot in the Luftwaffe and was shot down and killed at
    the beginning of WW II.

    Jim F.

    Comment by Jim Farmelant — July 30, 2007 @ 7:40 pm

  2. It was sad to hear of Ingmar Bergman’s death, for I too was avidly digesting the new cinema when Bergman was in his prime. My favorite was The Magician, although I’m not sure why.

    I would like to reflect on Proyect’s quotation from an interview with Bergman (“What matters most in life…”). Bergman felt that the most important thing was to establish a meaningful relation with another person, and in his view it amounts to a kind of salvation, regardless of what the future might hold for us.

    I believe this is compatible with a Marxist outlook in the sense that our contact with another person, and by extension with other people (assuming it to be “authentic”) is an actualization of our social being. Others become incorporated into our nature and we acquire a social dimension to our being. Just as society is the emergent effect of our relations with one another, that emergent quality represents a potency that we all acquire through acting in accord with our social being, and that potency is not innate in individuals.

    I can’t help but note that Ingmar Bergman’s first name derives from the Urfather of all mankind, who was named Ing in North German iron age culture. To stretch a poetic point, Bergman’s position does in fact allude to the emergence of the human being as distinct from all other species, and so it’s appropriate that he is named after Ing.

    Comment by Haines Brown — July 31, 2007 @ 6:52 pm

  3. Lutheranism is the predominant religion of Germany, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. It was the first Protestant form of Christianity, Martin Luther being a former German Roman Catholic priest. There is a strain of racial superiority to it(perhaps early Germans thought they were morally superior to the decadent Roman/Italian Catholics with their mediterranean influences.) The ss officer corps during WWII was highly represented by devout Lutherans, probably being strongly anti-communist as well as racially pure. Having a strong homogeneous social population has some advantages( I believe Germany was the first nation to have a form of socialized medicine in the 1880’s, not certain about exact date & policy) but its not surprising that the other Scandanavian countries would have segments of their population sympathetic to the Nazi idealogogy. The NHS, for example in Great Britain didn’t come into existence until 1948.
    Incidentally, Roman Catholicism is the 2nd largest religion in Germany, not sure about Scandanavia.

    Texas, having a large German ancestery in its early post-Spanish settlement has a sizeable Lutheran population. There is a joke that if a prosecutor in Texas gets at least one Lutheran on his jury, he’ll get a conviction. While, I’m connecting very loose dots, William Rehnquist, Ed Meese, and John Bolton are all Lutheran, & Karl Rove’s stepdad is of Norwegian decent(Rove grew up in Utah, so he’s got Mormanism[having its own history of racial superiority] mixed into his worldview as well. While I’m at it, Roman Catholics have a authoritarian strain as well, Mussolini, Franco, Pinochet, Giuliani, etc…

    Comment by m.c. — July 31, 2007 @ 8:15 pm

  4. No offence meant but the weblog called ‘unrepentant communist’ is pretty interesting also, and I hope y’all wish it luck….The coincidence of the use of the epithet ‘unrepentant’ was coincidental, but perhaps more and more old style leftists looking at Iraq etc are getting so they feel increasingly ‘unrepentant’ I can think of a good few old comrades who recanted in the 1990s but have drifted back to their old viewpoints…any comments….


    Comment by Buffy — July 31, 2007 @ 8:53 pm

  5. I’m one who drifted back.

    I didn’t know about the Nazi past.

    Antonioni next?


    Comment by Renegade Eye — August 2, 2007 @ 6:28 pm

  6. Renegade Eye asks about Antonioni. Well at the beginning of his career, he did write some articles for Cinema, which was the official film journal of the Fascists, but he soon had a falling out with that journal. He and most of the other Italian film makers of his generation, began their careers while Mussolini was in power and this has sometimes led to controversy over what their political stances were when the Fascists were still in power. For example, Roberto Rossellini often found it necessary later on to deny that he had ever been a supporter of the Fascists. Regardless of what their original political stances might have been, all these people had certainly begun to move leftwards by 1943 when it clear that Italy was facing defeat the Second World War.

    Comment by Jim Farmelant — August 5, 2007 @ 3:35 pm

  7. It is not surprising that there should be Swedish Lutheran sympathy for the Nazis, some of Luther’s views had been influential on them.

    On the Jews and Their Lies (Von den Jüden und iren Lügen) written by German Reformation leader Martin Luther in 1543 tells us that the Jews are a “base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth.” Luther wrote that they are “full of the devil’s feces … which they wallow in like swine,” and the synagogue is an “incorrigible whore and an evil slut”. He argues that their synagogues and schools be set on fire, their prayer books destroyed, rabbis forbidden to preach, homes razed, and property and money confiscated. They should be shown no mercy or kindness, afforded no legal protection, and these “poisonous envenomed worms” should be drafted into forced labor or expelled for all time. He also seems to advocate their murder, writing “[w]e are at fault in not slaying them.”


    Comment by Ed — April 15, 2010 @ 9:23 am

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