Why Does Ingmar Bergman Still Matter?

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“Film as dream, film as music. No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls.”
― Ingmar Bergman

When I talk about Bergman films to my friends, it is usually followed by statements ranging from his films are too depressing, Scandinavian, theatrical, talky with no humor, or no sign of the joy of life.  Quite the contrary, Bergman’s films are filled with that life substance that affects us all.  Plus, he has quite the sense of humor, perhaps a bit on the risque side.  Sex and death has obsessed Bergman throughout most of his career.  His writing has a raw, sometimes sensual poetry to it and his camera eye details all the information a viewer needs, if one only looks a little deeper.

Bergman became my number one choice recently, alongside the American cinema master Stanley Kubrick, in the last ten years due to my current station in life.  I learned to appreciate the subtle teachings about family, love, relationships, existential crisis, and, of course, the ever present specter of death.  Throughout these proceedings that Bergman unleashed on the screen, are sprinkles of humor to levy that heavy experience known as life.

Perhaps his most famous film, “The Seventh Seal”, captures all the elements I mentioned above, but is also his most humorous.  We have all seen a still from the famous scene of the Knight, exhausted morally and spiritually from the Crusades, playing chess with Death himself.  It has since been much copied and parodied since the film won a special jury prize at Cannes in 1957.  This, plus his merry whimsical comedy “Smiles Of A Summer Night”catapulted him to the forefront of cinema stardom.

“The Seventh Seal” is a film I return to many times for reasons I am not sure I can put into simple words.  Bergman creates a world, the Middle Ages to be exact, that is realistic and fantastical.  Where else are you going to see Death smiling at his latest catch because it amuses him to play a lively game of chess.  We all know you simply cannot cheat death, but we witness a very good try.  The plague is sweeping across the lands, always looming over the shoulders of his characters, giving chase and momentum to the proceedings.  A favorite character of mine is the silver tongued squire of the Knight.  It is through him we sense the futility of the Crusades, the lust, the common sense, and the ribald humor of what he sees around him.  Bergman gives him a voice for all of us.

Does Bergman still matter to us anymore?  His films are not well known by the average movie-goer and his stature has lowered with the advent of so many talented film directors around the world.  However, if you read interviews with most of these directors working today, Bergman’s name comes up again and again.  His quiet influence is still felt and his films are looked upon as some sort of Mount Everest to attain to.  I envy anyone that can experience one of his films for the very first time.  The feeling of an artist totally in their element and a confidence in images/sound that sweeps aside most other important films.  Life is not easy.  Life can test one’s very soul at times.  Bergman was able to transcend mere cinema gimmicks and invent a style that has still not tarnished.  I talk about him when someone asks me what my favorite films are.  Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” is up there because of two things; the subjects it talks about still resonate today and the rich characters have become almost like old friends of mine that I love visiting from time to time.

In this world we live in today, we need our artists more than ever.  Ingmar Bergman speaks for the individual and for all of mankind.  A lofty statement indeed, but once you actually sit down and view one of his films, it is easy to understand why Ingmar Bergman still matters.

(image above Ingmar Bergman on set of “The Seventh Seal” 1956)

suggested viewing:

“The Seventh Seal”

“Fanny & Alexander”

“Winter Light”

“Persona”

“Wild Strawberries”

“The Magician”

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