An aspiring film-maker talks about the impact Ingmar Bergman’s films had on him and explores his influence in many young Europeans today.
In a room with red walls and faint light, Maria tries to comfort David. He refuses her touch and positions himself in front of the mirror, asking her to join him. “You are beautiful, but you have changed” David tells her with strange sweetness and confidence. Her face stands still, full of innocence, playful and unaware. “These days you cast rapid, calculating, sidelong glances. Your gaze used to be direct, open, and without any disguise. Your mouth is an expression of discontent and hunger. It used only to be soft.” Maria’s expression gently shifts into a concerned look, trapped as she is against the cruel words of her partner. “Your complexion has become pallid, you use make-up… this fine contour from the ear to the chin… it’s no longer quite so evident. That’s where complacency and indolence reside… Look here, at the bridge of the nose, why do you sneer so often, Maria?… Beneath your eyes, those sharp, barely visible wrinkles of boredom and impatience.” She tries to fight back, telling him that’s just a reflection of himself. But it’s too late. She looks at us, knowing she has been discovered. This scene belongs to Cries and Whispers, one of many masterpieces from Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman. I consider it to be my awakening as a film-maker.
I came across his work while taking Film Studies in Spain. The Seventh Seal was the first film of his I saw and, as is the case for many film-making students, it had had a great impact on me. I have been obsessed with his work ever since. His images, mostly treated with a certain visual austerity yet filled with tremendous beauty, were hard for me to resist. The great depth of his words, with strong influences from Swedish playwright August Strindberg and French philosopher Albert Camus, stuck with me in a way no other European directors had managed to match. But most of all, it was the characters he created who really made his films: an unforgettable cast including Monika in A Summer with Monika (Harriet Andersson), Sara in Wild Strawberries (Bibi Andersson), Ester in The Silence (Ingrid Thulin), Antonius in The Seventh Seal (Max Von Sydow) and – my personal favourite – Elisabet Vogler in Persona (Liv Ullmann).
I had grown up watching mostly Hollywood films of questionable quality and being exposed to the cinema produced in Spain that was often shown on television. While I was highly entertained by the former, sometimes even starstruck, I was incredibly annoyed by the latter. Spanish cinema seemed to me full of clichés, coercible dialogues, unnecessary sex and nudity and machismo. This obviously didn’t apply to all cinema, but it was easy to come to this conclusion when surrounded by Torrente references in popular culture everywhere. Not even the better known directors like Almodóvar had aroused interest in me, with the exception of Luis Buñuel and Víctor Erice, whose works acted as the exception rather than the norm.
Looking up to Northen European cinema turned me into some sort of outcast amongst the other students, who preferred more “out there” directors like Stanley Kubrick or Martin Scorsese. I was often told Bergman’s films were tedious and pretentious. I could understand the concern, but I couldn’t possibly disagree more. His films are sometimes hard to watch and it’s difficult to be in the mood for watching a Bergman movie. Yet therein lies the strength of his work. His analysis of the human psyche portrays us as turbulent, powerful and hopeless. His characters often deal with guilt, cruelty, loneliness and despair and we can’t help but find some of those qualities in ourselves. The existential nature of his work makes his films timeless and elevates the art of film-making into a philosophical testament of our time. It was Bergman’s work that made me want to make films, but his brilliance also made me scared that I would never come up with such profound reflections in my own writing.
In 2007, not long after I had discovered his work, he passed away, leaving a big void in European cinema, with no one even attempting to come close to his master status. Although this meant I would never be able to meet him to ask him about his films, luckily for me something extraordinary happened. In September of that year, barely two months after his passing, Liv Ullmann, one of Bergman’s muses, was to receive the Donostia Award (an award given to film-makers and actors celebrating their contribution to cinema) at the San Sebastian International Film Festival. Being a student in the city allowed me to work in the festival with an access-all-areas pass, and I was determined to meet her. To go on the hunt for one of the most important actresses of modern European cinema in a film festival environment was hardly subtle. But I had to try. Unfortunately I was only capable of saying “Hello” to her on the back corridors on her way to the auditorium. I still managed to attend her press conference, the award ceremony rehearsal (and the televised one). The happiness and brightness of her personality was something that struck me, given that my only knowledge of her was her characters in Bergman films.
Bergman’s work seems to have been getting a boost since 2012, when artists and film-makers from around the world started creating projects to assert his relevance in cinema today. Two of the more remarkable works are the documentary films Liv & Ingmar, which narrates the long history of work and tumultuous romantic relationship between Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann, and Trespassing Bergman, a documentary where people like Lars Von Trier, Ang Lee and Michael Haneke talk about the impact Bergman had in their lives. At one point in the documentary Bergman’s admirers visit his house in the island of Faro, and Alejandro González de Iñarritu remarks: “If cinema was a religion, this would be Mecca, the Vatican. This is the center of it all.” I couldn’t agree more and I hope that sometime soon I will be able to visit that Vatican myself.
Ingmar Bergman’s cinema might not be for everyone, but it’s impossible to separate his name from our understanding of what European cinema is. These days no one seems to be doing films like he did, leaving his relevance intact and few film-makers able to parallel his genius. Yet his words and images are difficult to erase from our minds and will surely keep inspiring film-makers all over the world. Some might be most struck by the man playing chess with Death from The Seventh Seal, while others will prefer the faces of the two women merging on the screen in Persona. I will personally stay with Maria breaking the fourth wall in Cries and Whispers, reminding me how a single image can be, sometimes, a life-changing experience.
Cover photo: Bergman, Fischer, Nilsson, 1952; Public Domain (Wikipedia)