The triviality of the Bergman font and the pseudo-irony of the Instagram post got me wondering what actually remains of Bergman’s artistic legacy. On his one-hundredth birthday, can we still understand his movies? Long before this year, many of the director’s films had already reached the status of a classic as defined by Mark Twain: work that is revered but not often read—or viewed, in this case. While the majority of Bergman’s movies are available for streaming (largely thanks to Criterion) and cinephiles will always be viewing and discussing them, most audiences today know about his work only through parodies of The Seventh Seal (1957). That film’s famous opening scene, in which a medieval knight plays chess with hooded Death, has been spoofed endlessly in pop culture, from the 1990s farce Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey to the pre-Trump era Colbert Report. The image of the chess match is powerful by itself, without the context of Bergman’s story, and that is why it is still so often revisited. Bergman himself lifted the image from a fresco in a medieval church in Sweden. One wonders whether any entire Bergman film will have as much staying power as that fresco.
A common argument against Bergman is that he is fated for oblivion because his movies did not advance the art of film; they were closer to theater than to the pure cinematic art of other art-house directors of that generation, such as Godard, Resnais, and Antonioni. Bergman’s religious themes, it is said, are pretentious and outdated; people don’t brood over God and death anymore the way his characters do. We brood over social conditions and economic injustice, or else we are too happy at the End of History, too secular and self-satisfied to brood at all. Bergman will only be remembered, the argument goes, by scholars, who will credit him for bringing Scandinavian exoticism and a certain “seriousness” to the cinema, as well as for the great actors who graced his movies: Max von Sydow, Harriet Andersson, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, Liv Ullmann, et al. But neither his stories nor his ideas will move people the way they once did.
Even if all these criticisms were true—and I’d dispute at least some of them—there is still something else that is of lasting value in Bergman: the unique aesthetic attitude that his movies invite the viewer to assume. This attitude is a holdover from the intimacy of theater; I feel it in Bergman and not Bergman’s flashier and more experimental contemporaries, like Godard. The invitation is there both in his great religious-themed movies (Seventh Seal; The Magician; Through a Glass Darkly; Winter Light; The Silence) and in his psychological depictions of trauma and suffering (Persona; The Passion of Anna; Cries and Whispers). The mood is tense in these films. Bergman wants you to sit, dwell, and think. He does not dazzle you with spectacle. You are placed before human affliction and forced to come to terms with it.
See for example the disturbing yet beautiful scene in Winter Light (1963), written and directed by Bergman in his prime. The movie tells the story of a week in the life of Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Björnstrand), a Lutheran pastor who is going through a crisis of faith. In one scene, Ericsson’s former lover, Märta (Ingrid Thulin), recites a letter straight into the camera, confessing and explaining her unreciprocated love for Ericsson. The scene lasts for several minutes. All you can do is look at her face and listen to her heartbreaking words, or turn away—there are no other options. Bergman invites you to look at a human face with uncommon intensity. You can see Märta’s soul in her eyes, and hear it in her words. (One recent sign of Bergman’s enduring legacy is Paul Schrader’s film First Reformed, which is, among other things, quite openly an homage to Winter Light and a reimagining of several of its plot points.)