“…what makes a work of fiction safe from larvae and rust is not its social importance but its art, only its art”. – Vladimir Nabokov, 1964
When you hear the name Ingmar Bergman, what comes to your mind? Boring? Pretentious? Dark and weird? And no, he’s not Ingrid Bergman from Casablanca. But never mind because chances are you’ve never heard of him.
Wait, let me try again: a black-and-white image of a knight playing chess with Death. Anyone? No? Ok, never mind.
Ingmar Bergman was a Swedish film director. And instead of boring you with a biography of his life, I’m just going to focus on his films. I don’t want to mention how his most famous works were from the 50s and 60s, since old movies repel teenagers. I also hesitate to say that he made art films, since seriousness in film isn’t something that draws teens to theaters, either. I also don’t like the term “art film” since many people associate it with weirdness, pretentiousness and incomprehensibility. Bergman’s films have anything but those qualities. And oh, perhaps I shouldn’t mention that his movies are in Swedish since subtitles… never mind! Let’s get to it.
The Seventh Seal (1957)
This is Bergman’s most iconic film. Set in medieval Sweden during the Black Death, a knight and his cynical companion make their way home after fighting in the war. The omnipresent Death seeks to take their lives too. The knight, determined to escape from Death, challenges him to an ongoing match of chess for his soul.
Throughout the land, the plague looms. People are whipping themselves in processions and witches are being burned at stakes. Everywhere, the knight sees God’s silence. Where was God amongst all this misery and despair? He finds hope when he encounters a family of traveling entertainers with their infant. They seem to be the only optimism and peace in the world. A beautiful scene shows the knight sitting in sun and breeze with the family, sipping milk and eating wild strawberries to the innocent melody of a lute. All is bright, warm and peaceful.
Peace is short-lived. Death enters again, bringing with him a raging storm in the black night. The knight managed to save the family, but he and his companions are ultimately caught by Death. The first of many Bergman films about the passivity and unanswering nature of God, The Seventh Seal is especially bold and direct in expressing this theme.
Wild Strawberries (1957)
One of Bergman’s most bright and happy films, Wild Strawberries, does away with questions about God and focuses on personal redemption. An old, grouchy, pedantic doctor has a disturbing dream one morning that reminds him of his own mortality. He then meets several people who make him realize his life’s failures and bitterness. At first dispirited, the old doctor eventually comes to terms and peace with his guilt and past. This film stands apart from Bergman’s mostly austere works. It’s a pleasant gem filled with fulfillment and peace.
The Virgin Spring (1960)
Devoid of long monologues and dream sequences, this is one of Bergman’s most conventional films. Set in medieval Sweden, a girl travels through the forest to get to church. She is raped and killed. The rapists then unknowingly wander into the home of the girl’s parents.
A plot actually exists, and it’s very straightforward. The suspense from the rapists being in the same house as the parents of their victim is seat-gripping. But the true brilliance of the film is the genius with which Bergman conveys the utter defilement and destruction of the innocent, pure girl. It’s heartbreaking and hard to watch. The father’s emotional reaction and treatment of the rapists feels justified but are more violent and tragic than the rape scene. I physically shook towards the climax, and no Hitchcock thriller ever made my heart pound harder. In the last scene, a fresh spring springs from the body of the dead girl. The film is about redemption after all, but it does not clear up its ambiguity of the nature of good and evil.
Part 2 will come in the next few weeks.