The Virgin Spring (1960)

Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring stands as something of an anomaly in his career—one of the few films he directed but did not write. Yet despite this outlier status, the film feels much of a piece with Bergman’s other work, particularly that series of features beginning with The Seventh Seal and ending with The Silence. These works each deal explicitly with either existential or theological questions, The Virgin Spring focusing especially on the latter.

A beautifully realized tragedy, the film follows a 13th century farmer, Töre (Max von Sydow), and his household in the lead up to and their actions in response to the brutal death of Töre’s teenaged daughter, Karin (Birgitta Pettersson). The family themselves are devout Christians, with Töre’s wife Märeta (Birgitta Valberg) practicing a punishing form of asceticism. The woman’s harshness extends to others as well, most notably her housemaid Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom). Such ill treatment drives the servant to call upon the Norse god Odin to punish the beautiful and flirtatious Karin. However, Karin’s rape and murder come as an unexpected shock—rather than answered prayer—to Ingeri, who eventually leads the stricken parents to the body after they have exacted vicious revenge on the killers. The film culminates with a heart wrenching prayer, followed by a glorious miracle.

The black and white photography from Nykvist sparkles, while Von Sydow appropriately looks cut from an ancient religious icon. The film is built on a visually-oriented language that highlights shadow and closed spaces. Oppressive walls loom in the background. Tightly bunched people pray before a hovering crucifix. Dirty faces invade personal space. A fallen tree limits movement. A tall fence bars entry to undesirables. A barred door prevents escape.

Only in the final moments, when Töre awkwardly collapses in front of the stream, do we get any real sense of freedom of movement. The stream bubbles across and away from Töre into a grove of trees. Töre’s body crumples to the ground as the weight of his daughter’s death presses him downward. Bergman even adds a sound element—the chirping of birds—to bring an openness to the final sequence.

The penultimate visual testimony to freedom comes as the spring breaks free from the gravelly ground and rushes down the slight incline, in and among the members of Töre’s household. As the camera frames this small group of witnesses from above, each of them in a posture of reverence, they again look confined against the landscape. But they are also being viewed from above, and seem to see beyond their immediate context, visual hints at an even greater openness and freedom beyond physical sight.

Winter Light (1962)

Bergman’s Winter Light contains a wonderful sequence of shots that reveal much about Pastor Tomas and his struggle to (dis)believe. As Pastor Tomas battles with his health and his faith, he meets with Jonas Persson, who finds himself in a deep depression and fear over the possibility of a nuclear attack. Bergman’s framing of the scene, his cutting, the lighting, and the dialogue that occurs between the two all unite to create one of the more stunning scenes of the film.

This first frame is a wide shot. As you can see, Jonas and Tomas sit at the table, both men framed under an arch with Christ. The Pastor attempts to make eye contact but the shame Jonas feels causes him to drop his eyes in a distinctly similar way to Christ on the crucifix in the background. Note also that von Sydow’s sharp features mirror those of the suffering man behind. Yet while von Sydow’s downturned gaze causes him to look away from Tomas, the same gaze from Christ looks directly at him. This leaves an impression not of shame, but of a silent questioning.

Bergman then briefly cuts away to von Sydow, still with his eyes burning a hole in the ground. Then he comes back to Tomas. Here Bergman underlines the angles from the opening wide shot. Von Sydow still shares the turned down head with Christ, while Tomas becomes even larger in comparison to the crucified man behind him. This comes as Tomas draws ever nearer to his proclamation of atheism.

When Bergman cuts back to Tomas, Jonas is outside the frame. Now the focus is solely on the pastor, who looks defiant in the sight of Christ. The attitude hardens, and the dialogue becomes more and more focused on his own struggles with doubt, rather than those of his parishioner. Note also that the sign above Christ’s head proclaiming his kingship has now been removed from the frame.

As Bergman frames Tomas’s head more tightly, the pastor grows in the frame while Christ fades into the background, both getting smaller and sliding slightly out of focus.

Bergman cuts back to Tomas, so much tighter that the face of Christ is obscured from view. Tomas is now fully given over to himself and his own suffering. Rather than counsel Jonas off the suicidal ledge, Tomas gives Jonas every reason to die. However, because Tomas believes in his move to atheism, he sees this as a move to freedom, thus the desire to keep Jonas in the office and convince him of this new faith. Here it becomes clear that Tomas is actually advocating for a kind of anti-faith.

In this final image of the scene, after Jonas has left having received none of the counsel and comfort he came for, note how Tomas has moved away from the gaze of the suffering Christ. He now stands where Jonas stood, against a blank wall, criss-crossed with what look like shadows of bars. The light has just brightened the room, signaling some kind of illumination. And Tomas, now separated from his God, utters a line that, ironically, identifies him profoundly with Christ: “My God, why have you forsaken me?”

In this scene, Bergman’s camera and lighting move in unison with the burgeoning atheism of the film’s central character to produce a sequence that crystallizes the tension of faith present throughout the film.

Saraband (2003)

Ingmar Bergman’s latest (and final?) film, Saraband, revisits the main characters from his earlier Scenes From a Marriage (1973). Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and Johan (Erland Josephson) are back, now with the addition of Johan’s son Henrik (Börje Ahlstedt), and his 19 year old daughter Karin (Julia Dufvenius). Marianne has gone to Johan’s wilderness hideaway to stay with him for a while. They haven’t been together in decades, but something spurs her to go anyway.The film is divided into ten dialogues, each involving two of the characters. And in typical Bergman fashion, we delve deep into their psyches, which in turn reveals the pain and anguish latent after many years of mistreating one another. Yet there’s another source of angst for Johan, Henrik, Karin, and eventually even Marianne – the recent death of Henrik’s wife (Karin’s mother) Anna. For those characters who knew her, she remains close to their hearts and thoughts. She constantly enters into the conversation, with everyone saying how much they miss her, what a great loss it was when she died, and how they each feel connected to her. Marianne never knew her, but as each of the characters introduces her to Anna, she comes to have her own sort of connection with her, illuminated for us in the film’s conclusion.

All of this leads to the features of Saraband that I most appreciate. First, the dialogue is a sharp and piercing as ever. Bergman has always been a keen observer of the human condition, and is especially proficient at writing dialogue that is both clear and thematically conscious. A couple of things come to mind here, beginning with a dialogue between Johan and Henrik, in which the father delivers words of such venom that they cut right through the heart of his son. He may be describing certain tendencies in his son accurately, but the years of selfishness have stripped their interaction of anything remotely approaching gentleness. In terms of theme, Bergman is able to weave in reflections about Anna that strike one as completely natural in the moment, yet use those comments as a whole to bring about a beautiful, puzzling, and strangely hopeful conclusion.

This presence of Anna adds an element of mystery and transcendence to the film, as it threatens to be sucked into the mire of selfish and bitter people. She is dead, yet she becomes a living, breathing human being through the memories of these tortured souls. Her life matters. It continues to make an impact on these people years later. For those who knew her, the change is slight. But for Marianne, the recipient of a miracle, the change is dramatic. This miraculous event happens so quietly and subtly that it may go unnoticed. All through the film, Marianne has emulated Anna, unconsciously, of course. Yet she’s patient, she listens, she aids, and she does what she can for each of them. The culmination of this is a return to her daughter, long since ill and far gone. That moment with Martha hints at Marianne’s transformation into saintly Anna. No doubt the similarity of their names is another indicator of this.

Saraband becomes, then, a film about selfish, wounded, and depraved people that has within it a strong and unmistakable glimmer of hope. Each of these characters has fond memories of Anna. They have some desire to see Anna again, presumably in another life beyond this one. Thus, there’s an implicit hope for them that there’s more to this life than, well, this. This isn’t all there is. People who write about Bergman tend to pick up on the bleak aspects of his work, and rightly so – it’s present here, and at times oppressive. Yet that isn’t all there is.

This is a touching film from a man who is leaving behind him body of work that will be revisited time and again. Saraband is a worthy entry into that canon, and as the final image of Anna’s picture faded from the screen, I couldn’t help but think what a hopeful image it was. Anna remains, even in death. If this is to be his final film, it marks a fitting conclusion to the career of one of the most important filmmakers ever to grace the screens with his work.

Winter Light (1962)

The second of Bergman’s “Faith Trilogy,” Winter Light has always been my favorite. Seeing it again last week (though for the first time with an audience), rekindled and deepened my appreciation and love for the film.As I’ve said about Bergman before, what I most appreciate about him is how he frames the big questions of life. I’m not always excited about where he ends up, but the questions take on such a great significance in his films, and they are asked so precisely, with such a keen attention to detail, that I can’t help but appreciate what he’s doing.

This is especially so in Winter Light, during which Pastor Tomas (Gunnar Björnstrand) doubts his faith, and about halfway through the film, “frees” himself from it, adopting an atheism that he asserts “makes sense” of everything. You see, Tomas is overwhelmed with the randomness of existence, not understanding why his wife has been taken from him (she died several years earlier). So he adopts an atheism which embraces the randomness and meaninglessness of life. Nothing really matters, he doesn’t have to care for anyone, and now he can go about his business without the weight of having to make sense of everything because there’s some orderly God in heaven running this world.

Yet on this viewing, I note three specific things that happen after Tomas declares his freedom – three things that call his decision into question. First, he makes his atheistic declaration during one of the more beautiful shots of the film, in front of a large window with the sun shining through it. As Tomas has just made his decision to leave his faith behind, he steps in front of the light, briefly blocking it from our view. Yet almost as soon as he does this, he is forced to the ground by a coughing fit. The light shines back through.

Second, later in the schoolroom with Märta (Ingrid Thulin), Tomas again asserts that he cares about nothing. Märta, a professing atheist, seems strangely troubled by all this. This is one of those places where Bergman’s questions are so rigorously framed. In light of Tomas’ embrace of the meaningless, Märta sees right through him, and asks a stinging question (though the question pains Tomas, she delivers it with a gentle grace). “The question, paraphrased here: “Did you love your wife?” Tomas, repelled by the suggestion he didn’t love her, fires back quickly and forcefully that he did. Clearly there is to be no discussion on this point. Yet Märta has seen the inconsistency in his embrace of the meaningless: His newfound atheism asserts a meaningless existence, yet there is still evidence of meaning in his heart even then. He cannot escape the light that pursues him.

Finally, we go backwards just a bit to the scene when Tomas waits with the body of Jonas (Max von Sydow). This scene stands out from the rest in a very peculiar way – its volume. This is the film’s loudest moment, so much so that we cannot even hear the characters speak to one another. The noise, of course, comes from the rushing river in the background. Tomas has already declared his newfound atheism, yet at this crucial moment, we (and presumably he) cannot think of anything but the raging river in the background.

In the final scene of the movie, Tomas begins the service with the quotation of Isaiah 6:3: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” This particular passage speaks directly to that earlier scene near the river. Just after Tomas has made his atheistic declaration, the first time he leaves the church, he ends up at the side of a raging river, which according to this verse in Isaiah, declares the glory of God. He cannot escape the light that pursues him. This is evident in the final scene at the church at Frostnäs, which is filled with light of all kinds – electricity, the sun, lit candles. Bergman seems to emphasize the light in this scene, offering a close-up of the candles, having the sun shine through the window as Märta prays, lighting Märta’s face after she prays, and then by having Algot make such a big deal about the electric lights. While Tomas’ final words may be uttered in ambiguous fashion, there is doubt that the light continues to surround him.

Scenes From a Marriage (1973)

Scenes From a Marriage chronicles the marriage of Johan (Erland Josephson) and Marianne (Liv Ullman), a couple happily married for ten years that sees their marriage disintegrate over the next decade. Over the course of the nearly six-hour miniseries, Bergman peels away the layers of this couple until we see them for who they are – profoundly imperfect human beings whose deepest desire is to love and be loved by another. They lie, manipulate each other, and put on masks to cover their true feelings. Yet as they move closer to divorce, that is all pushed aside in a raw and troubling climax.This is my eighth Bergman film, and while I am by no means done with his work, I finally feel like I’m getting a footing with him. Technically, the films are often simple, but expertly done, whether it be the placement of the camera, the abrupt change of scene, or the use of sound. Bergman uses all the elements to his advantage in evoking the kind of mood and feeling for which he is aiming. In terms of writing, he can tell simple stories that bring the viewers into dialogue with many of the great questions of human existence: What do we have to look forward to beyond the grave? What does it mean to be human? What is love, and can it be attained? How does overcome or live in the knowledge of their guilt? What does it mean to believe, and how can it be done? What is it that all people seek? Questions like these and others run all through his work. It is these elements that draw me to his work: a fascination with those kinds of questions and a desire to see artistic excellence on display.

And while Bergman’s answers are not always wholly satisfying, I still appreciate much of the tension he raises with his answers. We are confronted with this at the conclusion of Scenes from a Marriage. Both Johan and Marianne have suffered, come through the suffering, and have some heightened sense of themselves and who they are as individuals. They are then able to accept one another for who they are, as imperfect people who love imperfectly. There’s something about this that rings so true – it gets at the heart of what it means to love and be loved by another. We love in spite of our imperfections, and in spite of the imperfections of those who mean to love us. I am not confident I or anyone else in this world will ever attain the level of loving another truly in this life. We love in our imperfect ways, and those we love put up with our imperfections.

All this leads us back to a comment Marianne makes in the interview that begins the film. When asked to define love, Marianne hesitates, but then offers 1 Corinthians 13 as the pinnacle. Yet even then she recognizes that she cannot attain such a love, deciding that kindness, affection, tolerance, and a sense of humor can be combined to take the place of love. It’s no wonder that she and Johan couldn’t remain married. Neither of them were even pursuing the ideal, but had instead given up on it for something lesser. Yet even still, with maybe a supreme act of grace, they end up declaring their imperfect love for each other. This is a film about the terrifying death of a marriage, and its rebirth as something new and different.

Fanny and Alexander (1982)

As I watched the long version again (the second time in 2 1/2 months), I was struck by the utter ambiguity in the relationship between imagination, magic, and even divine intervention. The scene that got me thinking along these lines was one I had forgotten, from the final act. During the rescue of the children, after Isak has put them into the chest, Edvard makes his way to the nursery, in what we expect will be a scene where he discovers that the children are missing.Instead, what he finds are the children laying together on the floor with their mother looking over them – yet we know they have been placed in the chest. How can they be two places at once? It seems to me there are several ways of looking at this scene, which I think Bergman purposefully leaves ambiguous, as he does many other scenes like it in the film.

The options: First, it could be that somehow either Isak or Emilie snuck puppets into the house, and during the intervening moments, snuck those puppets into the room. Of course, the puppets would have originated with Aron, and either come in with Isak, or through him to Emilie in secret. Second, it could be some kind of magic or other illusion, as we see Aron talk with Alexander about the breathing mummy. Third, it could be in Isak’s imagination. As he falls to the ground, the camera focuses in on him, as if these are his thoughts at this moment. And when Edvard goes upstairs, Isak calls in the boys for outside to carry the chest. Finally, it seems this could even be an instance of divine intervention of some sort. Isak falls to his knees and looks up, as if he could be praying. And in this moment of all moments, God intervenes.

The thing about all these options, is I think there’s no way to know for sure which is which. And this is part of the greatness of this film. You see, this is where we all are with reference to what we know about God in the world. We see all kinds of strange and unexplainable things, some of these miraculous, some not so much. Some of these yield good things in the immediate, some do not. Yet much as we might like to attribute this or that to the hand of God or some other force or even our own imagination, it seems that in the end, none of us can make such a call for sure. We might like to believe it’s this way or that way, but believing is all we can do. And as finite human beings, living with this belief or faith is the tension we have to live with, it seems to me.

Bergman captures this ambiguity beautifully all through the film, with all the scenes of ghosts, imagined or otherwise, and other strange occurrences. His protagonist finds himself right in the middle of that ambiguity, and is ultimately unsure of what to do with it. Bergman as writer and director doesn’t seem to want to account for it with imagination, or God, or magic. He just leaves these things in tension, without any steps of faith in any of these directions.

Fanny and Alexander (1982)

Director Ingmar Bergman makes quite a splash with his self-proclaimed final theatrical film in Fanny and Alexander. Of course, having said that, I saw the longer, 5-hour version, and not the theatrical film that won four Oscars, including Best Foreign Film. I cannot for the life of me figure out what could have been cut from this fascinating and sprawling production.

The story centers around the Ekdahl family, overseen by grandmother Helena Ekdahl (Gunn Wållgren). She looks on knowingly, and at times helplessly, as her three sons and their respective wives and children go through the ebb and flow of life. She is the picture of the devoted mother and grandmother. Her mind regularly turns to her family, even, and maybe especially in her quiet moments.

However, much of the story is seen through the eyes of two of her grandchildren, Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) and Alexander (Bertil Guve), especially the latter. Alexander has a vivid imagination, but he is also fraught by fear. He is afraid of that which is unseen, those things he senses but is never sure are there. These qualities are revealed in the opening scene of the film, as he hides under a table in broad daylight staring in fear and wonder at a statue moving in the corner. Alexander is in a sense rescued in this moment by his grandmother, who sees him and offers him a game of cards. There is a remarkable similarity with this scene at the opening of the film and one of the final scenes, as Alexander is again gripped by fear – this time of the ghost of his dead stepfather. Having been knocked to the ground by this apparition, Alexander eventually finds the courage to leave his place and seek out the comforting embrace of his grandmother. Alexander finds solace with this woman, solace from the fear that continues to plague him beyond the scope of the film.

In between these two opening scenes is a film that moves into and out of a number of relationships and emotions. With Alexander as a central character to all of this, he becomes in many ways, the most sympathetic character for us. As he makes the move from the home of his childhood to the home of his new stepfather, we ache with him at the stark difference between that old world and the coming new one. There is something terrifying and foreboding about this move that is communicated so well through the use of color alone – lush and vibrant colors in the Ekdahl home, with dull grays and browns in the new residence. The look of that home is eerily similar to the inside of the church in Winter Light, a place where Pastor Tomas is finding it difficult to find or hear from God. In the same way, we feel that too, as does Alexander, who begins to talk more about his views on God during and after his time in this home. This, of course, while in the home of a pastor, which should conceivably be the foremost place one would go and see God at work there.

All the while, Alexander never loses his love of theater, as evidenced by the stories he makes up, and for which he is often punished. His stepfather never sees this as an active imagination or as a way to see into the mind of Alexander, but only as a threat to his own reputation. And as Alexander never loses this love of theater, neither does he lose the terrible fear that grips him. That vivid imagination of his kicks into high gear at the worst of times, it seems. Thus it seems Bergman is telling us something about the imaginative mind, something quite important. The imagination can be is both a beautiful and a terrible creation. It carries with it some baggage, namely that one is keenly aware of things going on that may be unseen to others. Alexander is attuned to this world of the unseen through his imagination. This causes him obvious bouts of fear at several points, but it also provides him insight – insight into who people are and what is driving them. Alexander’s stories, while often untrue, serve the purpose of communicating those hidden feelings and drives that exist in the people around him. In telling the lie about his mother selling him to the circus, we see in Alexander both a desire to be a performer, but also the perception that his mother is abandoning him for someone else. His story, in that sense, is true. So the imagination is a double-edged sword, as we see with Alexander. At times it brings terrible fear, at times it brings profound insight. And that thought seems to me an appropriate way to talk about the films of Bergman – walking this fine line between profound fear of the unknown and great insight into things unseen with human eyes.