Bleak Beauty

It was with some misgiving that I began Ingmar Bergman, Cinematic Philosopher, the first new book about the Swedish filmmaker to appear in English since he died last year. Having spent countless hours during the past forty-five years watching Bergman’s films and reading books (and writing one) about him, I wondered if Singer’s slim volume could be more than a rehash of familiar material. By the time I finished reading, my skepticism had given way to appreciative admiration. Singer, a professor of philosophy at MIT, has managed to write a book that is not only informative but also insightful and illuminating.

The critic John Simon wrote in 1972 that “Ingmar Bergman is, in my most carefully considered opinion, the greatest filmmaker the world has seen so far.” Many would agree with Simon, but there isn’t as much agreement about how to interpret Bergman’s work, or what is most valuable about it. Early on in this book, Singer explains his own philosophical approach to the films:

Apart from any unfortunate efforts to duplicate what trained philosophers do, films we consider great are philosophical insofar as the meaningfulness they embody, and the techniques that convey their type of meaningfulness, exploit at a significantly deep level the visual, literary, and sonic dimensions of this art form.

Singer quotes things Bergman said or wrote about himself to illuminate the philosophical themes in his work, but he never allows this self-interpretation to take precedence over the primary evidence in the films themselves. Nor does Singer read into the films meanings that are more his own than Bergman’s, though he does perhaps attribute an inordinate importance to certain moments in the last films in an effort to prove that Bergman finally found some kind of solution to the problems he addressed throughout his career.

Singer touches on all of Bergman’s main concerns: the silence of God; the threat of death (physical, emotional, or spiritual); the role of the artist in society; the presence or absence of love relationships—and their success or failure. He brings to this project a vast knowledge of cinema but also an analytic rigor that allows him to cut through the fog of grand but inchoate theory one often finds in criticism about Bergman. Singer helpfully compares Bergman’s work to that of Carl Dreyer, Jean Renoir, Orson Welles, and Preston Sturges, pointing out ways in which Bergman surpassed all of these outstanding directors. Not even Dreyer could elicit as much variety of feeling from the human face as Bergman did. Working with the same performers and technicians in film after film, Bergman succeeded in establishing the kind of creative community that Renoir had sought. Welles and Sturges made some exceptional films, but their creative output never achieved a sustained commercial success. In 1957, with Smiles of a Summer Night and The Seventh Seal, Bergman became an internationally acclaimed filmmaker, and for more than forty years he created films that were successful both artistically and commercially. Noting that Alfred Hitchcock had greater public appeal than Bergman, Singer makes too much of the violence, nudity, and sexuality in Bergman’s work, suggesting that those things are what kept Bergman’s films from reaching a wider audience. A more important disadvantage may have been Bergman’s philosophical depth and the bleakness of his depictions of frustrated human love in a world without God. Bergman’s films are more demanding than Hitchcock’s, and less comforting.

Yet it is some of the very qualities that limited Bergman’s appeal that also explain his continuing importance. After Bergman’s death, Woody Allen offered the following assessment of Bergman’s achievement:

I think his films have eternal relevance, because his films deal with the difficulty of personal relationships and lack of communication between people and religious aspirations and mortality-existential themes that will be relevant a thousand years from now. When many things that are successful and trendy today have been long relegated to misty looking antiques, his stuff will still be great.

Singer’s discussion of how Bergman focuses on the human hand in several films illustrates his grasp of the director’s unified vision. Bergman often showed a hand reaching out in hope or desperation for some saving contact. Singer analyzes the famous scene in The Seventh Seal in which the Knight encounters Death in the confessional without recognizing him and innocently reveals how he plans to win their game of chess. When he finally realizes that he has been tricked by Death, he holds up his hand and says, “This is my hand. I can move it, feel the blood pulsing through it. The sun is still high in the sky, and I, Antonius Block, am playing chess with Death.” Singer comments:

In itself that remark alone reveals the magnificence of his endeavor, mortal as it is.... Moreover the imagery of the hand provides Bergman with a major implement that he will deploy later in the plot. The hand with which the Knight has been moving the pieces on the chessboard finally saves the holy family by knocking those pieces out of place and so distracting Death’s attention.

The hand bears a similar significance in Wild Strawberries, Winter Light, Persona, Cries and Whispers, and The Touch.

Singer argues that there is a new element of hope in Bergman’s later work, and certainly there are hints of hope in such films as Fanny and Alexander, Private Confessions, Best Intentions, and Saraband. But there are signs of hope in the earlier work as well, even if they do not predominate. I am not persuaded by Singer’s claim that the late films resolve the problems raised by the early films. It is fair to say that love never transcends death in any of Bergman’s films. In his personal life, Bergman may have embraced a more hopeful view of the world. Singer reports that after Bergman’s wife Ingrid died, Ingmar claimed that he felt her presence, that he very much wanted to see her, and that he came to believe that he would see her beyond the grave. Is it possible that the avowed atheist came to believe, despite the testimony of his own most powerful films, that love can survive and even conquer death? I hope so.


Related: Robert E. Lauder's interview with Woody Allen:
Whatever Works
and Woody's Cold Comforts

Published in the 2008-09-26 issue: 

Rev. Robert E. Lauder, a priest of the diocese of Brooklyn, is a professor of philosophy at St. John's University, Jamaica, New York, and author of Magnetized by God: Religious Encounters through Film, Theater, Literature, and Paintings (Resurrection Press).

Also by this author
An Interview with Woody Allen

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