Last July marked the hundredth birthday of the renowned Swedish filmmaker and theater director Ingmar Bergman (1918–2007). The precocious son of the Lutheran chaplain to the king of Sweden, Bergman is remembered mostly for the theater-influenced, black-and-white movies he made in the 1950s and ’60s—stories set in romantic places starring brooding heroes asking existential questions. I learned about the centenary on Facebook, where I follow the Swedish Foundation that preserves Bergman’s legacy and estate. “Write like Bergman,” a Facebook post said. “To commemorate the centenary of his birth, Eric Jagberg at SVT created a font based on [Bergman’s] handwriting. Add a touch of drama to your everyday life by having Bergman write your grocery list…”

Promoting a commemorative Bergman box set, the Criterion Collection posted on its Instagram account a series of screenshots from a pivotal moment in Bergman’s Summer Interlude (1951). In the scene, the protagonist of the film, a ballerina whose first love has just died in a tragic accident, announces the end of her faith in God. The dialogue (appearing as English subtitles) is so quintessentially Bergman that it could be mistaken for parody. “Is there no meaning anywhere?” she asks. “No, my child. Nothing means anything in the long run,” her lecherous uncle responds. “I don’t believe God exists. And if he does, I hate him,” she decides. The caption from the Criterion Instagram account reads: “Good morning!”

Still from ‘The Seventh Seal’ (Courtesy of Criterion Collection)

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.)

Still from ‘Summer Interlude’ (Courtesy of Criterion Collection)

Or go back to that scene from Summer Interlude. An early Bergman gem, the film stars Marie (Maj-Britt Nilsson), a ballerina nearing the end of her career. She has grown cynical and reluctant to enter into a relationship with anyone. The film forces us to witness the events that made her unable to hope or believe. At the beginning of her career, a decade or so earlier, she falls in love for the first time. We see tragedy strike and the slow destruction of her sense of hope, a destruction simultaneous with her loss of faith. The scene that the Instagram post reproduces is a gutting portrayal of innocence lost in the most extreme way possible. Bergman wants us to witness this. Then, right before the credits, he shows us the rebirth of hope.

The position of the viewer, or the “spectator”—of the passive consumer of theater or media—has been a theme of ethical reflection since Plato’s time if not earlier. Plato places the spectator in the deepest reaches of his Cave, staring at the shadows projected on its walls. The position of the spectator is that of one who does not—and cannot—achieve a correct perspective with regard to the images she sees. That is, she cannot take a truly critical attitude toward what she is receiving. In his essay, “The Emancipated Spectator,” French philosopher Jacques Rancière describes the ethical situation of the spectator as one in which “viewing is the opposite of knowing: the spectator is held before an appearance in a state of ignorance about the process of production of this appearance and about the reality it conceals.” Being a spectator, he says, “is the opposite of acting: the spectator remains immobile in her seat, passive.” Thus, “to be a spectator is to be separated from both the capacity to know and the power to act.”

The central question of Bergman’s legacy is this: Are today’s audiences capable of assuming the irony-free, sincere attitude that Bergman’s movies demand? Can they believe?

Bergman creates an atmosphere that works to resolve this ethical situation, inviting the viewer to witness spiritual and psychological truth rather than just the “appearances” of a spectacle. He challenges the viewer not to look away, but to sit and ponder, to be a witness to human experience in all its agonizing complexity. His movies are often called boring, but that’s only a confused way of saying that they are difficult to endure.

In an excellent essay included in the Criterion Collection’s DVD edition of Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Peter Matthews describes the kind of atmosphere that defines this film and Bergman’s work as a whole—and the demands that such an atmosphere make on the viewer:             

There won’t be much pleasing scenery on display, because this Lutheran minister’s son aims to peel off the carnal husk and plumb the unfathomable dark night of the soul. As with Bergman’s other stripped-down liturgies, the movie requires a sustained act of faith from the audience. A single wisecrack, a flickering doubt, and the high-flown edifice of metaphysical gloom instantly crumbles to dust. Yet, only believe, and you have the whole human civilized condition in a tightly impacted nutshell.

The central question of Bergman’s legacy is this: Are today’s audiences capable of assuming the irony-free, sincere attitude that Bergman’s movies demand? Can we believe?

Which brings me back to the Instagram post. It’s just a joke, and the type of thing you have to do in order to promote any filmmaker’s work in a social media–dominated market. But the post is also a wisecrack, albeit one by a fan. “Good morning” has the effect of deflating the tension of the scene, of making it tolerable. It is a defense mechanism. It expresses the attitude of someone who wants to see a Bergman film but also fears making the psychological commitment to suffer—virtually, perhaps cathartically—that his films require.

That said, I sympathize with whoever made the wisecrack. It isn’t always easy or pleasant to sit through a Bergman movie, to ponder faith, God, life, death, for hours at a time, as intensely as Bergman asks us to. But the skill to do so has to be cultivated if we want to understand his films. And anyway, such a skill is good in itself, something worth cultivating regardless of our interest in Bergman’s movies. Bergman’s invitation to practice this skill, this virtue, is the most important part of his legacy.

Santiago Ramos is the John Garvey Writing Fellow at Commonweal.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the September 21, 2018 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.