Ingmar Bergman: The Island of His Mind

Thanks to a writing and directing career that spanned six decades—and produced more than 60 films in international theaters and on Swedish television—the name Ingmar Bergman has become a byword for probingly cinematic introspection. In the 50’s, I belonged to a critical cabal in New York labeled derisively by movie publicists as the Bergmaniacs. It was in this period that Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), The Seventh Seal (1957) and Wild Strawberries (1957) so electrified film festivals and international art-house audiences that the then-prevailing social criteria for films made fashionable by postwar Italian neo-realism were turned inward to explore the angsts of individual psyches. Not everyone, and particularly not those on the left, agreed with this shift in critical orientation. Also, Bergman’s frequent invocations of God in his dramatic discourses were ridiculed by the many sophisticated secularists among us.

What no one could deny or challenge in Bergman’s oeuvre was his extraordinary repertory of beautiful and sensual actresses, including Mai Zetterling, Harriet Andersson, Eva Dahlbeck, Ulla Jacobsson, Liv Ullmann, Ingrid Thulin, Bibi Andersson, Margit Carlqvist, Gunnel Lindblom, Birgitta Valberg, Birgitta Pettersson, Anita Björk, Maj-Britt Nilsson, Pernilla Allwin and others. Bergman himself was married five times, and so his interest in women was more than academic. Among the male alter egos he employed on the screen were Gunnar Björnstrand, Max von Sydow, Jarl Kulle, Erland Josephson.

As might be expected from such a vast and varied output, critical opinions vary on his different films and different periods. David Thomson, in his authoritative The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, postulates his preference for Persona (1966) and the comparatively abstract Bergman films that followed it. Though I book Persona every year for my history class at Columbia, and my film students react very favorably to its Pirandellian conceits, I got off the Bergman bandwagon a long time before that film—indeed, about the time of Through a Glass Darkly (1961). Still, it’s possible that sheer nostalgia may account for my more favorable feelings toward the works of Bergman’s earlier romantic period, beginning with To Joy (1950), and continuing with Summer Interlude (1951), Waiting Women (1952), Summer with Monika and Sawdust and Tinsel (1953), Lesson in Love (1954), and Journey into Autumn all the way to the Bergman golden age with Smiles of a Summer Night (1955).

My first brush with Bergman came in the late 40’s in Times Square grind houses, which leeringly exhibited Alf Sjöberg’s Torment, from a screenplay by Ingmar Bergman, as well as Sawdust and Tinsel (marketed as The Naked Night), complete with a large, bosomy picture of Harriet Andersson at the front entrance. At that time I had no idea who Ingmar Bergman was. When I finally did meet him at a 70’s Cannes Film Festival, I was so awed that all I could remember asking him was whether he considered himself more influenced by Ibsen or Strindberg, both of whose plays I knew he had directed in the Stockholm Theatre. It was a kind of smart-alecky question, to which he answered slowly and musingly and simply, “I wonder.”

This was the festival my then–newspaper-berth, The Village Voice, commemorated with a picture of Ingrid Bergman shaking hands with Ingmar Bergman, as if to illustrate the old joke about the difference between lowbrows and highbrows: When one says “Bergman,” the lowbrow thinks “Ingrid” and the highbrow thinks “Ingmar.” Shortly thereafter, Ingrid Bergman appeared in an Ingmar Bergman movie, Autumn Sonata (1978), with Liv Ullmann and Gunnar Björnstrand, with whom Ingrid had studied once upon a time in the Swedish Royal Dramatic Theater.

My one other personal insight into the art of Ingmar Bergman occurred during my two-year editorship of Cahiers du Cinéma in English, when I was searching for illustrations for two pieces: one an admiring article on Bergman by Jean-Luc Godard, and the other an admiring discussion of Jean Renoir by I do not remember whom. In looking over the collection of Bergman stills, the only problem I had was which of many wonderfully expressive ones I should choose. Every Bergman image seemed to “say” something. The Renoir stills were comparatively flat, fleeting, blurry in the midst of life’s motions. This is not an argument for one director over the other, but, rather, a suggestion of a paradox. Renoir fils seems closer to music than to painting, and Bergman, with a known love for music and musicians, as well as his beautiful film adaptation of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, seems much closer to painting in his filmmaking.

Let me not forget to include Brink of Life (1958) among the films of his romantic period, which I admire more than most of his works that followed. This is not to say that anything that Mr. Bergman has achieved in close to 60 years is unworthy of serious contemplation. Of course, there will always be souls among us who will cling to the notion that a little Bergman goes a very long way to making life’s burdens—not to mention death’s burdens—a little harder to endure. An anti-Bergmaniac of my acquaintance once insisted that hell is an unending Bergman film festival interrupted intermittently with Woody Allen’s humorless homages.


I WOULD ARGUE IN MEASURED rebuttal that there is at least some humor in the Bergman universe, and more important, an enormous amount of both joyous and desperate sensuality from some of the most beautiful women ever to adorn the screen. Plato’s Protagoras argued, albeit fallaciously in Plato’s view, that man is the measure of all things, but Mr. Bergman would make the opposite case, undreamt of in Plato’s time. Yet there is a trap for contemporary women in Mr. Bergman’s insistence that they become frustrated and neurotic when they choose not to fulfill their biological destiny. By placing women on the pedestal of “Nature,” he subtly and artfully removed competition in the most exciting games of life, those supposedly pathetic male consolations for the inability to keep the species going by having babies.

Yet as a revisionist film historian, a crypto-Christian and a non-Marxist, I was always predisposed to embrace the new cinematic emphasis effected by Bergman on the individual and the spiritual over the collective and the material. But there remained something in the back of my mind about Bergman’s limiting and depleting himself by confining himself to the island of his mind, and venturing less and less to the world outside. Sweden was a small country in a big cosmos, but even Sweden itself remained a remote entity in Bergman’s later films. Time seemed to stand still for him, and even recede.

Yet when we are privileged to pleasurably recall the totality of his now-ended efforts, we are reminded of what even the more skeptical among us have always loved and admired about Bergman’s movies: humanity, humility, insight, intelligence and a heroic seriousness of purpose. In light of his prodigious productivity, the only thing that keeps him from the very top of my personal pantheon is that most of his movies end in a realistic spirit of resignation rather than in a romantic spirit of redemption. But who can fail to be moved by his excruciatingly painful and lifelong quest for self-understanding. Now let the Bergman retrospectives begin! Ingmar Bergman: The Island of His Mind