Bergman for Breakfast (Part 1 of 3)

Loren RossonDo you enjoy being depressed?

Do you prefer tragedy over levity?

Do you like artistic films that deal with the dark and embarrassing aspects of human nature that many of us would rather avoid?

If you answer yes to any of these, then chances are you’ll like the films of Ingmar Bergman. If you answer yes to all three, you’ll positively adore them.

Bergman hit an age where he couldn’t even watch his own films anymore because he found them so depressing. Sickness, eroticism, madness, and death were his forte, and he was bleak by even some of today’s standards. But he analyzed human failings better than anyone, and spoke to the need to better ourselves through those failings. He had a sense of humor too, and used it at the right moments.

Here are my personal Bergman favorites, fifteen of them, all of which are in the library’s DVD collection. Over the course of three posts this week I’ll count them down in groups of five, saving the best for last.

If you get your day started with a Bergman film, everything is downhill from there. Bergman for breakfast!

15. Wild Strawberries. 1957. This is a popular Bergman film though not one of my top choices. It’s probably because I’m so hopeless that I watch Bergman to get thoroughly depressed, and Wild Strawberries has cushions of enough optimism to qualify as “comfort Bergman.” It’s about an elderly professor who reflects on his past and how he’s grown cold to those around him. The film has a gorgeous aesthetic, especially in the shots of Isak’s premonitions, daydreams, and nightmares–the empty streets with faceless clocks is a famous scene. So is the birthday-party flashback, involving whites so strong they’re staggering (if there was ever a time white could be colorful, the birthday party scene is it). If you’re not into super-depressing cinema but want to see at least one Bergman film, this is probably the one for you.

14. The Passion of Anna. 1969. I have a complicated relationship with The Passion of Anna. On first viewing I didn’t much care for it. It felt overly artistic and experimental, and it even has interviews with the actors interrupting the film at various points. Character narrations and voice-overs are acceptable techniques, but not the equivalent of modern DVD extras mixed throughout the actual story. But I admit that Anna has grown on me. If you can make yourself forget about other Bergman films, the themes of which this one seems to copy, it stands as an innovative, unflinching look at the pain and meaninglessness of life, around a weird plot of an animal serial killer and the arrest and trauma of an innocent man.

13. Summer with Monika. 1953. This one is famous for two shots. First is Harriet Andersson’s soft-porn sunbathing scene, which got heavily reedited in America, under the sensational retitle of Monika, the Story of a Bad Girl! The second is her phallic drag on a cigarette as she stares out at the camera–through the camera, it seems, right at us–daring us to judge her selfishness and infidelities. It’s that tale of youthful escapism everyone has fantasized about at some point: two lovers abandon their jobs and families, and run away in a motorboat to spend weeks on an isolated beach. They dream the dreams of children, of a blissful married life ahead of them . . . and then return to the cold reality of poverty, adultery, and unwanted babies. It may not be especially profound as Bergman films go, but it remains a favorite among Bergman fans for good reason.

12. Through a Glass Darkly. 1961. This was my first Bergman film and will always be special for that reason alone. The isolated island setting and small cast of four makes for an intense character study, and it doesn’t hurt that the excellent Harriet Andersson takes the lead as a schizophrenic affecting her family in complex ways. The theme of spiritual doubt is the undercurrent, always subordinate to the personal relationships, the most fascinating of which is the incestuous one between Karin and her brother Minus. The ending has the father holding out desperate hope for a loving God, in contrast to the film’s concept of God as a spider–one of the most sinister metaphors for God I’ve ever come across. This is the first part of the faith trilogy (see also #11 below, and #6 in my next post), and the most intimate.

11. Winter Light. 1962. The second part of the faith trilogy holds God under even more scrutiny. It does this through the spiritual struggle of a priest, and his relationship with a woman who loves him, but whom he can barely tolerate under his contempt. It hurts to watch her expressions when he explains how much he despises her–fed up with her “loving care, clumsy hands, rashes, and frostbitten cheeks”, among other things that don’t bear mentioning in polite company. The story is essentially about a pastor so furious at God’s silence, that he breaks his own silence toward the kindest woman with an avalanche of brutality that makes the Almighty’s treatment of Job in the Bible seem benign. It addresses the theological dilemma that has been around for centuries: is there an all-loving God, and if so, where is he?

Next up: Numbers 10-6.

About Loren Rosson

Loren Rosson heads up the circulation department at the Nashua Public Library. He's worked at the library since graduating from Lewis and Clark College, with the exception of the two years he spent in Lesotho with the Peace Corps, teaching high school.

4 comments to Bergman for Breakfast (Part 1 of 3)