By James Meek (THE GUARDIAN, 04/08/07):
“So now that he’s dead, you’re going to watch his films?” said Dan in the video shop.
“Is that wrong?” I said.
“I suppose not,” he said. He pushed a stack of Ingmar Bergman DVDs across the countertop. They had a whole shelf of them. The boss of the shop is Swedish, although in fairness to him, they have a whole shelf of Fellini and Kurosawa, too.
I’d only seen one Bergman film before: Fanny and Alexander, which came out while I was at university. When he died this week it struck me that otherwise I’d picked up an impression of his art entirely from gossip, echoes and parodies. I had an idea of his films as gloomy, bleak, cold, without having seen them. I grew up in a small Scottish city before the DVD era; my first job, as a 16-year-old, was in the local cinema, but just before I donned the blue polyester jacket the Regal became a bingo hall, and instead of striking up a Cinema Paradiso-style relationship with a crusty old projectionist, I ended up handing out columns of 10p pieces to chain-smoking pensioners staking their blouses on the fall of a ping-pong ball.
There was always late night on BBC2, but the films that made Bergman’s name beyond Sweden came out before or just after I was born. I remember getting Ingrid Bergman and Ingmar Bergman mixed up, and marvelling at the versatility of the beautiful star in Casablanca who had been able to build such a reputation on the other side of the camera.
There was an ambivalence about the tributes to the male Bergman in the English-language media last week. He was great, the mood music went, but – maybe a little too depressing, given how much more cheerful a place the world has become? A generally warm piece by Stephen Holden in the New York Times captured the mixed message. “Attendance at Mr Bergman’s films,” he wrote, “was a lot like going to church … Today the religion of high art that dominated the 1950s and 60s seems increasingly quaint and provincial.”
If only artists could still collect and spend royalties after their deaths; there is nothing that sends people scurrying to the video shop more effectively. So it was that on Wednesday afternoon I prepared to spend about nine of the next 36 hours in Bergmanland.
First up was Smiles of a Summer Night (1955). A biographical note from Bergman that came with the DVD boded well for a cheerless afternoon. When he made it, he wrote, he was deeply depressed, convinced he had stomach cancer and not long returned from the brink of suicide.
The film was a disappointment. It wasn’t depressing: it was a celebration, if you can believe it, of life and love. Worse, I kept laughing at the jokes, and the characters. There’s even a musical number. The ending is ridiculously happy, with only a slight cynical edge. “I shall remain faithful until the big yawn do us part,” coos the count to his wife; “You’re a terribly boring, normal person and I’m a great artist,” murmurs the actor to her restored lover – and the film thrums with a warm eroticism alien to the modern cinema. All in all, a washout, gloom-wise.
I went out into the sunshine struggling to suppress the feeling of joy and wellbeing the film had left me with and hurried to the cinema to see a film about death, plague and witch-burning – The Seventh Seal (1957). I’m sure I would have been depressed by the characters’ obsessive brooding over the existence or non-existence of God as they faced up to the slow, agonising sickness that would bring their doom, if Bergman had only avoided making such a great film. If only Death hadn’t been so fey, if only the penitents hadn’t sung and whipped themselves so hard, if only the knight hadn’t looked so brave and frightened when he saved Jof and Mia, if only a hundred words and details and images and gestures had been less memorable, I would have been depressed.
Home, and there was time to put the kettle on and crank up Wild Strawberries (1957). Bergman could still redeem himself. The hero of Wild Strawberries is a grumpy old intellectual, on his way to collect a honorary degree, and there seems a good chance he has the ability to make everyone who loves him hate him. Depressing. But it isn’t, damn it, because instead of leaving Professor Borg as a grumpy old intellectual, Bergman has to go and make him a human being, with rich, surreal nightmares, poignant memories of summers by the sea, and a beautiful cousin whose love he lost because he was too serious. To show how depressing it could have been, here’s a snatch of dialogue between the professor’s son and daughter-in-law, who wants to have a baby when he doesn’t:
Evald: There’s neither right nor wrong. We act according to our needs.
Marianne: And what are they?
Evald: Yours is a hellish desire to live and to create life.
Marianne: And yours?
Evald: Mine is to be dead. Stone dead.
So promising – but Bergman has to throw it away by reconciling the couple and consoling the professor with a reincarnation of his cousin. By the film’s close, we are wallowing in whatever the opposite of depression is. Hope, I suppose.
By this time I was completely high on Bergman, beginning to suffer from the delusion that I could speak Swedish and disoriented by the reappearance of the same actor from film to film; one moment Max von Sydow is a medieval knight, a few hours later he is a garage attendant. I forced myself to go to bed. Next day, I started straight in on Winter Light (1962).
Bergman tries. He could not try harder. How could a film, on the face of it, be more depressing? This one really is a lot like going to church; much of it is set in one, a real church, with congregations in single figures. In a Swedish winter. A dowdy woman sets her heart on the widowed pastor, who strings her along. When a parishioner who’s considering suicide comes to the pastor, the pastor carelessly suggests that there is no God. The parishioner promptly goes away and kills himself. Instead of showing remorse, the pastor takes out his guilt on the woman, telling her in a long, cruel speech exactly how and why he despises her. He then asks her along to hear him preach in another church. She follows obediently, and is the only member of the congregation when he begins the service. The end.
Bleak, yes. Gloomy, yes. Cold, yes. But not depressing. Why? Partly because of the severe beauty of the images; partly because the actors approach their roles with such sincerity that their belief in the importance of what they are saying becomes a substitute for the reverence towards religion they are failing to show; partly because we are helpless to resist a story, and Winter Light is a story. A true story – not an authentic or a real story, a true story – about people trying to live in a difficult world. Not about the man who commits suicide, but those who, like the pastor or Bergman himself, are tempted, and don’t. As the philosopher Emil Cioran said, compared to the suicide, the aetheist is almost as fervent a believer as the most devout God-worshipper.
I made a coffee and a sandwich and put on The Silence (1963). Ingrid Bergman directed more than 60 films. I could soon be happy beyond compare.