Bergman for Breakfast (Part 3 of 3)

Loren RossonIn the previous two posts I rolled out a countdown of my favorite Ingmar Bergman films, and now it’s time for the crown jewels.

But before that, a quote from Stanley Kubrick. As a young filmmaker he wrote to Bergman:

“Your vision of life has moved me deeply, much more deeply than I have ever been moved by any films. I believe you are the greatest film-maker at work today. Beyond that, allow me to say you are unsurpassed by anyone in the creation of mood and atmosphere, the subtlety of performance, the avoidance of the obvious, the truthfulness and completeness of characterization. To this one must also add everything else that goes into the making of a film.”

This, from the man who would become another film-making legend.

5. Shame. 1968. You will emerge from Shame a different person. It shows the personal cost of war, and without any political axe to grind, by focusing on a simple married couple at every step. We share their intimacies, then their hopelessness when they’re uprooted from home, falsely accused of bad allegiances, then freed on the condition that Eva performs favors for a government official. Things escalate to the point of such humiliation that Jan, clearly a pacifist by nature, snaps and becomes a moral monster. The exodus into a sea of corpses haunts me to this day. Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory showed us the politics of war, and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line looked at war from a cosmic perspective; but Bergman’s Shame is all the close-up intimacy.

4. Hour of the Wolf. 1968. Known for being Bergman’s only horror film. Like Shame (which was released the same year), it involves the actors Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullman as a married couple (Johan and Alma) on an island, with Johan’s psyche crumbling under extreme pressure, only this time the pressure is interior rather than exterior. It’s a film about inner demons, personal alienation, homosexual guilt, necrophilia, and the intensified blurring of reality and fantasy. We’re never sure if we’re seeing Johan’s demons, or those shared by Johan and Alma together, or some combination with reality. The theme of contagious insanity is like something out of David Lynch, who not surprisingly has said that Hour of the Wolf is his favorite Bergman film. So if you’re a Lynch fan you’ll love this one. In other words: not for those with delicate sensibilities.

3. Fanny and Alexander. 1982. This masterpiece is diminished by accolades. It has to be experienced to feel the magic, and despite the three-hour length (or even five-hour, if you see the extended version), you won’t want it to end. It’s a Dickens-like wonder, populated by ghosts and magical surrealism, the stuff of rare epic, weaved around a boy’s imagination that helps him deal with the death of his father and an abusive new one. There is the wild Christmas party of the first part, the tyranny and bloody lashings of the second, the dazzling dream-flight of the third. What stands out most is the optimistic ending, unique for Bergman. It was intended to be his last film, and I imagine him wanting to leave something more uplifting in his legacy. Fanny and Alexander is pure enchantment, pure storytelling, and its triumphant conclusion is richly earned.

2. The Seventh Seal. 1957. Bergman’s most famous film is rewarding on every level. It sounds a bit boring when described (a knight plays chess with Death), but it’s the knight’s journey around the game’s intervals, through a land struck by plague and religious fanaticism, and his attempts to penetrate God’s mysteries, that drive the story. There’s so much entertainment here–bar brawls, apocalyptic tirades, insult contests, self-mutilation, and a witch-burning to top it off–that the theological side helpings make it one of the most balanced art-house films I know. It’s an ambitious work that somehow, almost effortlessly it seems, tackles death, existential horror, and spiritual uncertainty all at once. And if there’s no rosy afterlife awaiting us, then at least Bergman allows us to enjoy some comforts, and through a great cast of characters, before we pass on.

1. Cries and Whispers. 1973. It says plenty about me, I suppose, that this is my #1 choice. It’s a horrifying look at pain, bleak by even Bergman’s standards, about a woman dying of cancer attended to by her dysfunctional sisters. The hurt on display is relentless, with facial contortions, gasps, and screams punctuating every other frame. The drama is the world of women, where men are gluttonous oafs and blind to their wives’ contempt, though it’s not simple male-bashing. These women have complex relationships with each other, and bruise each other with emotional pain that matches the physical assault of Agnes’ cancer. The late Roger Ebert compared this film to The Exorcist, which may seem a strange analogy, but each, in a similar way, left me terrified to exist as a human being. For that reason alone, it’s my favorite Bergman film.

Further reading: Carson Lund’s rankings of Bergman. Carson used to work in our Music/Art/Media department and is now a professional filmmaker.

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.

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