By JOHN SEMLEY
Special to The Globe and Mail
Thursday, October 18, 2018
A centenary, the very act of turning 100 years old, is a marker of longevity. At 100, spanning generations and surviving whole turns of history's wheel, one becomes not only old, but ancient - embossed in time. Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman may have died in 2007, but he is nonetheless being treated to a fullblown, year-long centenary marking the occasion of his birth on July 14, 1918, in the ecclesiastical city of Uppsala, Sweden. The global film community has prepared plenty of party favours: an extensive Blu-Ray box set of his films (courtesy the Criterion Collection), a touring retrospective that hits Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox this month and even a #Bergman100 hashtag (you know, for kids).
Few artists have left a mark on their medium as indelible as Bergman's on cinema. In the booklet accompanying the new Criterion set, Bergman biographer Peter Cowie calls him "perhaps the most enduring icon of classic arthouse cinema." His films are so famous that they've inspired parodies: courtesy Monty Python, the Muppets, Bill and Ted, SCTV, even the 1990s animated kids show Animaniacs. He's been hailed in rhapsodic hyperbole by Andrei Tarkovsky, Stanley Kubrick, Roger Ebert, Olivier Assayas and whole generations of other critics and filmmakers. In fact, praising Bergman has become almost reflexive; an automated cinephilic gesture of reverence, like a Catholic making the sign of the cross while passing the threshold of a cathedral. Steven Spielberg once confessed that Bergman's films were so good that they made him feel guilty.
The uninitiated or Bergmanambivalent may feel similar pangs. Because while decades of appreciation no doubt stir up interest in Bergman and his films, such dense commendations can also make those same films seem alienating - the work of an Old Master, a canonized ancient whose lofty reputation is already deeply stamped on the history of cinema that it benefits from no further consideration. Encountering Bergman with new eyes, from a perspective untainted by such arch regard and ballyhoo, becomes difficult.
It helps, perhaps, to understand what filmgoers saw when they first encountered Bergman.
German filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta was a teenager living in Paris when she first saw one of his films. "In Germany, we never went to cinema as an art form," von Trotta explains over the phone from her home country. "We went to opera, to concerts and art exhibitions and theatre. That was art for us. Cinema was just entertainment."
Then von Trotta met a group of French students who took her to see The Seventh Seal, Bergman's Black Death-era historical fantasy. "We became friends and they said, 'You have to see the Bergman films!' " she remembers. "We had nothing like a genius like Bergman in Germany. When I first saw him, I was so culturally shocked. It was like an initiation. A big surprise. It made such an impression.
It was like when young people have an immediate example of what they want to do in life. That was this film."
In her new documentary, Searching for Ingmar Bergman, von Trotta explores her own relationship with the Swedish master, and prods his complex legacy. In one interview, director Ruben Ostlund (Force Majeure, The Square) laments that, to subsequent generations of Swedish filmmakers, Bergman was considered papa's kino (or "daddy's cinema," a play on French critic/filmmaker François Truffaut's pejorative designation cinéma de papa).
It's a claim that acknowledges the manner in which historical legacies are produced. What seems wild and revelatory in the 1950s and '60s, when Bergman produced a remarkable slew of classics (Summer With Monika, Wild Strawberries, The Seventh Seal, The Magician, Winter Light, The Virgin Spring, The Silence, Persona, etc., etc.), becomes stultified and stuffy. Bergman's dramatic and thematic preoccupations - with existentialism, with psychoanalysis, with the place of God in a godless world - likewise seem, if not old hat, then certainly products of a particular, mid-20th century Euro-arthouse mindset.
Even von Trotta herself, a lifelong admirer, is aware that getting into Bergman may be trickier for contemporary audiences. "When we started to discover him," she explains, "It was the time of existentialism. Today, perhaps, he is not as attractive because he looks too much into himself, and the inner side of problems."
Yet, this historical particularity does not diminish Bergman, any more than the merits of Moby Dick might shrink in a world where fewer people are likely to find gainful temp-work on a whaling vessel. If Bergman's obsessions with his characters' inner psychologies, and his indulgence of the "woe is me!" vein of existentialist thought, seem a bit outmoded, it's only because such preoccupations have become too deeply embedded in our culture, and in our own psyches. It's not that these insights don't matter in a contemporary context, but that we tend to take the fact of their mattering for granted. The same can be said of even the most ostensibly out-of-fashion theme recurring in Bergman's cinema: the clash between paganism and Christianity, often reworked as a clash between magical thinking and sober-minded rationalism (itself depicted as a different kind of magical thinking). Ours is a world, after all, torn not just between competing configurations of religious dogmatism, but between fundamentally incommensurate worldviews (religious, political, intellectual) forced to exist alongside one another.
In my favourite of Bergman's films, 1958's The Magician, a government minister becomes possessed by a desire to prove the travelling "mesmerist" Vogler (played by long-time Bergman collaborator Max Von Sydow) a phony. (Bergman himself, it should be noted, fretted throughout his life that he was something between a conjurer and a fraud.)
But truth - as the film's wisest figure, a dying actor found wandering the woods - puts it, "is made to order." Liars create truths and lure others to believe in them. But the notion of some pure, undiluted truth, as the actor puts it, "is pure illusion."
Beyond being a useful rubric for understanding the world - i.e.
it is more productive to locate the practical overlaps in different versions of truth then struggle toward some grandiose Truth, which is always ephemeral, or at best the result of broad consensus - it's also a nifty way into Bergman's cinema. There is no one, single, imposing, all-encompassing notion of Bergman, cast in stone and impressed into the history of cinema. There are countless moods and modes, from the histories (Seventh Seal, The Magician, Cries and Whispers), to tense psycho-dramas (The Rite, Through a Glass Darkly, Hour of the Wolf, Persona) and family epics abounding with finely observed detail (Fanny and Alexander, Scenes from a Marriage, Saraband).
Bergman had said that his desire to make films proceeded from a "wanting to connect with others, and preferably with as many people as possible." He did so not by offering broad, universalizing messages, but by producing many different kinds of cinema, satisfying many different needs, desires and unfulfilled wishes.
But there's a great anecdote in von Trotta's Searching for Ingmar Bergman that cuts through the cobwebs of Old Master repute and the exaggerated "Greatest. Director. Ever." In the doc, a friend recalls how Bergman, late in life, would invite friends to his private screening room to watch Michael Bay's historical blockbuster Pearl Harbor. Bored by the cheesy romances and tedious advancement of plot, Bergman would wave his hand in the air, signalling for the projectionist to fast-forward to the next explosive action sequence.
Beyond being unbelievably charming, it's the sort of story that offers a rare image of Bergman as a sucker for pure entertainment and a purveyor of the same.
Among much else, he's a consummate showman. And one who, like von Sydow's cunning magician Vogler, still has plenty of tricks up his sleeve.
Bergman 100: The Ingmar Bergman Centenary runs Oct. 24 through Dec. 23 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto (tiff.net).
Few artists have left a mark on their medium as indelible as Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman did on cinema with works such as 1968's Shame, above, starring Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow.