Very few filmmakers have dared to exercise - and exorcise - personal demons more so than Ingmar Bergman. His conflicting desires for mass acceptance and unflinching, rugged individualism have resulted in what can largely be described as a cinema of self flagellation, imbued with doubt, intense intimacy, and an absolutely brutal auto-critique. His criticism of self has continued after his "retirement" from the stage and screen: the general tone found in his autobiographical revisiting of his films, Images: My Life in Film, is one of constant reappraisal, recrimination and occasional pride. This is not a man who takes his artistic endeavors lightly, and he therefore demands the same of his audience.
This seriousness of purpose has historically afforded Bergman as many detractors as admirers. A cursory view of some of his more celebrated and accessible earlier works such as The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries clearly demonstrates the fodder used for both positions. His films of the sixties - harsh and bleak, beginning with this "trilogy" - would further polarize audiences and critics. The particular brand of rigor and dour pessimism found within these films is unmistakably divisive, as prone to parody as it is to admiration.
Bergman's willingness to explore the Big Questions - and the fortitude displayed in placing himself front and center in that questioning - can also be interpreted as both admirable and foolhardy. I have always found it laudable. Moreover, my introduction to the possibility of movies being something other than escapism came via Bergman, and for that reason alone he will always occupy a special place in my pantheon. Some of his films grow richer with repeated viewings, some stranger, and others fail to engage me in the manner they once did. Most still resonate strongly, and his "trilogy of faith" continues to do so upon each viewing.
The timelessness and universality of Bergman's inquiries, and the shrewdness in his choice of settings, will ultimately render him - I suspect, and hope - forever a vital and relevant figure in film. (By exploring current concerns in medieval trappings (The Seventh Seal), contemplating the personal cost of strife through unnamed wars (Shame), or by creating a complex, stand-alone text (Persona), Bergman often attains a vantage point that transcends strictly du jour treatment.) He is, for good or ill, his own frame of reference, especially within this complex and uncompromising period.
Accordingly, critics have accused him of being too severe, too gloomy, too self-important, too didactic. They have criticized his films for being arid and too removed, nothing more than intellectual exercises and ponderous navel gazing. I understand and appreciate these positions. I also happen to disagree with them. As historian and Bergman biographer Peter Cowie suggests, his earnestness and relentlessly confessional quality allow us to "forgive Bergman so much."
Prior to his "Trilogy of Faith" or "Silence of God" trilogy (as the films came to be known), the strength of the above noted films - along with Smiles of a Summer Night, The Magician, and The Virgin Spring - afforded Bergman unique freedom within the Swedish film industry, as did the formidable international stature he "enjoyed" as a result. He certainly capitalized on it. His filmic output in the 1960's is remarkable in its thematic ambition and formal execution: after his "faith" trilogy, he created Persona, Shame, and Hour of the Wolf, and concluded the period with The Rite and A Passion.
In my estimation, this is not only one of the most impressive accomplishments of the decade, it is one of the most impressive runs in the history of the medium (Now About These Women notwithstanding).
Primarily concerned with individuals in various modes of physical, psychological and spiritual isolation, these films adopted (most prominently in Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light and Persona) an appropriate formal austerity quite different from the expressionism of his earlier works (Hour reverts to more expressionist / Gothic leanings). Another key motif to be found throughout this decade is lack of communication between humanity and God (most explicitly in the trilogy), people amongst one other, whether in relationships or vis-à-vis society as a whole (Anna, Persona, Shame), and the artist to him/herself and a mass audience (Hour, The Ritual, Persona).
This statement is, of course, ridiculously simplistic and reductive, as these concerns overlap, expand, and contract greatly throughout this period. However, the films all share Bergman's intense, brave, and admittedly joyless variations of the above themes. They are rugged, harrowing works that I often describe as horror films filtered through - and geared to disturb - the intellect. Bergman's dark night of the soul plagued his works for well over a decade, and similarly challenging treatments would again appear in the seventies (Cries and Whispers, Scenes From a Marriage, the Serpent's Egg) and eighties (From the Life of the Marionettes) as his film output diminished. This renders his accomplishment in Fanny and Alexander – warm, affectionate, wise and wistful – all the more remarkable.
Bergman's father Erik was a prominent Lutheran pastor (who also counseled Swedish royalty), and the religious trappings of his strict upbringing were, according to Bergman, exorcised in his faith trilogy. Grappling with the role of the church in Sweden and the notion of God's existence – and God's "silence" in an increasingly troubling world, which included the constant threat of nuclear annihilation – Bergman undertook his stark exploration of the universal through the individual. According to Peter Cowie in his liner notes and excellent Ingmar Bergman: a Critical Biography, the formal structure of his trilogy was influenced his then wife Käbi Laretei (to whom Through a Glass Darkly is dedicated), who helped enrich Bergman's approach through her love of classical music. As a result, the films were presented as chamber pieces, austere and tightly focused.
As such, they are demanding works of an increasingly demanding period, but also highly rewarding ones; if nothing else, they are crucial to understanding Bergman and his shifting analysis from larger explorations of religiosity to individualistic psychology when taken in greater context.
If God cannot be known, or is unwilling to be known, Bergman appears to be suggesting that "God" – or, more accurately, the promise of God, salvation, grace, etc. – must be found in humanity through love, communication, family and perhaps even ritual. However, the seemingly inherent pettiness, insecurity, selfishness and violence of human nature – as Bergman portrays it - depicts the potential of achieving these traits as a Herculean, unlikely task at best. Though it may be argued that Bergman ends two of the trilogy's works with tempered optimism, a more bleak assessment may be in order.
The "trilogy" is also noteworthy as the period in which Bergman consolidated his long collaboration with master cinematographer Sven Nykvist (begun in 1960 with The Virgin Spring, replacing Gunnar Fischer), whose lighting and composition would assist Bergman in realizing his aims to an immeasurable extent. It also boasts stellar performances from mostly familiar Bergman faces.
Through a Glass Darkly / Såsom i en spegel (1961)
Set on a remote island (Fårö, where the Swedish military once maneuvered and where Bergman found a home), Through a Glass Darkly immediately thrusts the viewer into isolation and a strange, rocky landscape. Four figures slowly emerge from the surf and make their way to shore. They are a small family, consisting of Kårin (Harriet Andersson), a schizophrenic suffering from increasing bouts of anxiety; her younger brother Minus (Lars Passgård), struggling with sexual awakening and his physicality with his sister; Martin (Max von Sydow), Kårin's supportive yet ineffective husband; and David (Gunnar Björnstrand), an academic father who is constantly away, working on a novel or attending to cultural affairs.
Disappointment and reprisal within the small group colors their interactions from the outset. David, a largely absent presence both physically and spiritually, bestows meaningless gifts from abroad to his disappointed children. Minus writes and performs in a play (think the Mousetrap) in which David's aloofness (and his art) is directly challenged. All are suffering, internally and at the hands of each other, yet all are unable to communicate in any meaningful manner. The unspoken communication and subtext, however, is palpable.
Realizing that Kårin's condition may be incurable, David begins to chart its course clinically for his own artistic ends. Kårin discovers this in a journal entry and begins spiraling rapidly. She makes repeated visits to an empty attic room in which she believes "God" is summoning her. Minus, though willing to help her and trying desperately to understand her struggle, gives in to his own selfish desire in the hull of a ravaged, stranded ship. Outside help is eventually summoned, as Karin retreats from the world in the face of her discovery of "God" - a spider in the wall that attempts another form of physical communion with her. David and Minus attempt to reconcile and find comfort in the notion of "God is love."
Through a Glass Darkly overcomes its at times heavy handedness through Nykvist's beautiful, stark cinematography and Andersson's searing portrayal as the troubled young woman. Bergman has been less than kind to this work in subsequent writings, but it remains a powerful, visceral exploration of selfishness and myopia, and the need for compassion and understanding in a world in which humanity is left to its own devices.
Winter Light (a/k/a the Communicants) / Nattvardsgästerna (1962)
Winter Light is one of Bergman's most austere and compelling films. Set in a provincial parish, its particular dark night of the soul lasts from about noon to three o'clock on a wintry, desolate afternoon. Pastor Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Björnstrand) is seen administering Communion to a small group of parishioners as Bergman's camera contemplates the church and its contents. Everyone appears to be going through the motions, as there is no passion or true sense of involvement on display.
Tomas, literally suffering from sickness and fever, is approached by Karin and Jonas Persson (Gunnel Lindblom and Max von Sydow) for consultation. Jonas, a fisherman with a growing family, is despondent about news of the Chinese and their pending nuclear capabilities. Again, words fail in Bergman's universe as Tomas bestows half-hearted sentiments about God. The couple leaves, only after Karin makes Jonas promise to return for private counsel (something that Jonas appears to have no interest in doing).
Tomas is then beset by Märta Lundberg (Ingrid Thulin), a nonbeliever and mistress who asks if Tomas has yet read a letter she has written to him. He has not, and is casually dismissive to her as she offers assistance. Upon reading the contents of the highly charged letter, he becomes nearly panicked, clearly ill at ease in his own church. As Jonas reappears, Tomas's doubts have become crystallized and overwhelming. He is unable to help this member of his flock as his own self-involvement precludes true communication. Ineffectual, self-loathing and downtrodden, Tomas finds little to no hope in God or in his service to Him.
Winter Light is an agonizing, deceptively simple work that ranks among Bergman's finest efforts. It is thoroughly and completely uncompromising in its vision of absolute spiritual despair and hunger. The ending of the film is understood and interpreted differently by many: it can be viewed as catharsis or resignation, as unremittingly bleak or hopeful. It is the sort of film that will reward viewers commensurately to what one brings to it, and it remains the film with which Bergman is most satisfied.
The Silence / Tystnaden (1963)
As the final film of the "trilogy," The Silence is remarkable in that it appears to have little to do with the previous two films at first glance. The explicit references to God are nowhere to be found (though the specter of God's absence is everywhere); the spiritual malaise, it would appear, has already wreaked its havoc. The resulting anomie - and bitter struggle - is found between two sisters representing the body and the intellect, with a young boy as a pawn attempting to negotiate the middle ground. Set in a nearly abandoned hotel in an unnamed city preparing for war, The Silence is arguably the bleakest of the three films.
Bergman ventures headlong into a troubling atmosphere from his opening shot. Sisters Ester (Ingrid Thulin) and Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) are viewed traveling on an uncomfortably warm train with Anna's young son Johan (Jörgen Lindström). Anna lies with her head back, opened collared with her mouth slightly open and her hair down. Ester, dressed more conservatively with her hair up, suffers the heat with a physical resolve. Johan, curious, decides to set about investigating the train, and gazes from a window as a procession of tanks roll by in the distance. This ominous, otherworldly tone continues in the hotel.
Unable to speak the language and uncertain as to the length of their stay since Ester is in ill health, the sisters find no comfort amongst themselves. With a heavy air of recrimination and unhealthy dynamics (including allusions to incest), the sisters' wills are tested. Ester seeks solace in cigarettes, alcohol and masturbation; Anna seeks solace through physical contact with her son and the sexual attention of strangers from a nearby café. Johan continues exploring in the hotel, encountering a troupe of dwarves and a kindly porter (Häkan Jahnberg). The sounds of sirens, tanks in the streets and the vision of a nearly starved horse pulling a cart add to the thickness throughout.
If the previous two films ended on the promise of very guarded optimism – or at least the hint of it – The Silence ends with a total defeat for one of the sisters and a victory for the other that can only be described as Pyrrhic. Hope can perhaps be found in Johan, though it is impossible to know what he has gleaned from his experience. Through a gently moving camera and the sustained veneer of a fever dream, The Silence simultaneously lulls and shocks.
Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie / Ingmar Bergman gör en film (1963)
This may very well be the Criterion Bergman supplement to end all supplements. I had no idea that this document even existed, and about ten minutes into it any thoughts of ambivalence regarding a lack of Cowie commentaries, etc., were immediately vanquished. Filmmaker and colleague Vilgot Sjöman (I am Curious..., also released by Criterion) was granted unprecedented access to Bergman while he was making Winter Light. The result, a five-part documentary originally aired on Swedish television, provides remarkable footage and insight into both Bergman as an artist and the production itself.
Shot in 16mm and lasting a generous 146 minutes, Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie covers most of the processes of making the film, from script completion (Bergman would not allow Sjöman to view early drafts of the script) to the film's premiere in Stockholm. The documentary features rehearsal footage between Björnstrand and Thulin, costume tests, prop selections, Bergman in the editing room, and interviews with many participants, including Nykvist and Björnstrand.
Bergman is pleasant and expressive throughout, and he speaks with frankness regarding his personality and his films. (He comments at one point that he still has "great misgivings" about himself, and has stopped worrying excessively about his films' receptions since "I'll find no mercy among those who dislike what I'm doing anyway.") He and Sjöman also engage in a discussion about film and its critics (Sjöman is a former critic, and Bergman begins questioning him in this segment) that is remarkable in its emotional and psychological candor. Bergman also predicts "strange and mixed reviews" for Winter Light and is essentially correct. Lastly, he also expresses disdain for "indifference," which is especially apt.
Video: Each film has undergone a new high-definition digital transfer, and the "trilogy" is very well rendered in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Detail and contrast remain impressively sharp and clear throughout. Black levels, whites, and all shades of gray are all richly textured and beautifully presented. The films are smooth and instances of damage are virtually nonexistent. This is commendable work by Criterion: in short, the films as presented are in uniformly very good to flat-out excellent shape. The only complaint I can ever consider lodging concerns a few brief moments of excessive grain that appears in Winter Light. Otherwise, the transfers are given a typically thorough and loving treatment by Criterion.
As noted above, Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie was shot in 16mm, and the transfer has not fared quite as well. Comprised largely of interviews, this is not especially problematic but it must be mentioned. Instances of damage to the original elements are quite visible on occasion, and audio levels fluctuate from time to time. However, as I noted above, the film itself is so valuable for Bergman aficionados that I refuse to nit-pick it too much – it's a minor miracle that this was made available in the first place, and I am grateful to Criterion for including it.
Audio: Each release is presented in a DD 1.0 mono track, and the sound is also well rendered. The tracks are free of hissing and crackling, and the bass tones are quite good. Bergman's use of music / aural effects is spare in each film, but they register as intended, and dialogue remains easy to hear throughout. For mono tracks, these are remarkably clean and rich, and no instances of hollowness or thinness are to be found.
Each film is presented in Swedish with optional English subtitles. For those so inclined, A Film Trilogy by Ingmar Bergman also includes English dubbed tracks for each film (not available for Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie).
Extras: Each film of the trilogy contains a segment entitled Exploring the Film, which features Bergman biographer Peter Cowie discussing the work and providing additional context (11:08 for Through a Glass Darkly; 10:11 for Winter Light; 10:44 for The Silence). These are informative (though brief) pieces, and I only wish they ran a bit longer. This is actually more of a compliment than a complaint, as Cowie represents (to me) the best of film commentary: he is thorough, informative, coolly enthusiastic, and respectful to the source material.
Also included are original U.S. trailers and poster galleries for each, courtesy of Posteritati of New York City (located on The Silence disc).
Lastly, the set includes typically thorough essays for each film: a brief introduction by Sjöman for Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie; Peter Matthews on Through a Glass Darkly; Peter Cowie on Winter Light; Leo Braudy on The Silence.
Final Thoughts: Criterion has done another commendable job with this valuable trilogy, and the inclusion of Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie renders the collection an absolute must-have for Bergman aficionados.
Powerful, stark, and characteristically challenging, these works demonstrate one of the world's greatest directors wrestling with highly personal, highly charged subject matter. They also boast the beginnings of one of the most illustrious pairings of director and cinematographer in the medium's history. As such, A Film Trilogy by Ingmar Bergman is highly recommended viewing.
For those not familiar with Bergman, I recommend this set as rental only for the reasons stated at the beginning of this piece. Otherwise, bring on the glorious pain.