Smiles of a Summer Night
The Passion of Anna
Of all the film directors who have been influential to my love of the cinema, Ingmar Bergman has meant the most to me. The New York Times recently reported that noted film critic Philip Lopate, at least in his youth, mostly disdained the work of the Swedish director, and other critics have described Bergman as a filmmaker for the middle class. Perhaps these individuals know a community of different “middle-class” viewers than those with whom I grew up; certainly the citizens of the small Iowa city and suburban community in which I lived—all quite middle class—had they even viewed one of Bergman’s films, would have found little of interest, the work being far too serious for their taste, his characters unbelievably tormented, and his cinematic structures too experimental and complex. But then these people probably don’t see the films of Woody Allen—a director highly influenced by Bergman—either. Robert Rosenbaum, writing also in the New York Times, recently claimed that Bergman was highly overrated and that “his star has faded.” But, in the end, these arguments seem pointless: younger film viewers appear to have lost interest in and knowledge of both Bergman and (Lopate’s favorite of that period) Michelangelo Antonioni, men who died this year on the same day, July 30. The CNN reporter, describing the famous chess game of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, clearly had never heard of the man nor seen the movie.
While I have enjoyed nearly all of Bergman’s films—I have seen all but a handful of his earlier films—I am particularly fond of his 1955 comedy Smiles of a Summer Night, Wild Strawberries of 1957, Persona of 1966, and The Passion of Anna of 1969, three of which I have chosen to write about here.
Ingmar Bergman (writer and director) Sommarnattens leende (Smiles of a Summer
Night) / 1955
Along with Jean Renoir’s incomparable Rules of the Game (which I discussed in the 2006 volume of My Year), Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night is my favorite cinematic comedy, a work attune to the writings Marivaux, Molière, and Mozart, while sharing much in common with Shakespeare’s great comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Bergman’s masterpiece—as film critic Pauline Kael described it—is an “exquisite carnal comedy,” “a nearly perfect work.”
Los Angeles, September 17, 2007
ON THE ROAD
Ingmar Bergman (writer and director) Smultronstället (Wild Strawberries) / 1957
Despite my seeming knowledge of Bergman’s films I quickly discovered in reviewing these works that, although I have always thought of myself as having a phenomenal memory, one I sometimes evince in these volumes, it is quite faulty. I quickly realized that what I most recalled of Wild Strawberries, for example, was the early dream sequence, which I thought occurred much later in the film. I had evidently forgotten most of the film’s plot.
During the early morning hours, however, Borg has frightening dreams—or at least highly symbolic ones. He finds himself on a street where most of the houses are in bad repair and are closed up. Attempting to check the time, he discovers that the hands of all the clocks, including his own pocket watch, have disappeared. Soon after he comes upon a man who, when he touches him, turns into dust. Just as suddenly an unattended hearse, led by horses, rushes into the street, its wheels becoming caught in the streetlight. When one wheel finally is dislodged, the coffin falls from the leaning hearse, and as the doctor goes forward to put the dead man’s hand back into the box, the hand grabs him, clearly attempting to pull Borg into the coffin with it—the dead man appearing to be Borg himself.
I find this scene—the one I recalled from my childhood—the weakest of the film. Although Bergman’s images are quite powerful (the use of bright white light and shade in these scenes is truly memorable), the dream is an almost hackneyed vision of the man’s fear of impending death, paralleling, of course, his loneliness in which he has entrapped himself. The director, fortunately, does not make a great deal of this sequence—it is what it is, a dream of death—and when the doctor later attempts to relate the events of his dream to his daughter-in-law, he is told that she is disinterested. Thus we are saved any further analysis. For, despite Bergman’s use of dream imagery elsewhere in this film and in others of his works, the Swedish master has little connection with the surreal images of Buñuel, Fellini, or even Hitchcock. Rather, Bergman is at heart a psychological realist, and his images function simply as outward manifestations of human fears and doubts.
Clearly something is amiss in the old man’s state of mind. Upon awakening, accordingly, Borg determines to change his plans; instead of flying to Lund, he will drive, allowing himself the sixteen hours before the event to revisit his childhood summer house and the region where he lived as a young country doctor. Agda, his housekeeper, who has been looking forward to the flight and ceremony, is furious, but his daughter-in-law Marianne, who has temporarily left her husband and has been living in Borg’s house, is determined to join her father on his voyage, returning to her husband and her previous life.
Thus we quickly recognize that the film will not be simply another one of Bergman’s intense dramas of doubt, but a sunnier “road” movie (the film premiered the same year as the noted American novel On the Road), this a journey through the Swedish countryside. The moment Borg begins his voyage he is reprimanded, in no uncertain terms, for being an insensitive and uncaring man, a man, as Marianne describes him, who is “as hard as nails.” She blames him, in part, for his son Evald’s implacability and, ultimately, for the failure of her marriage. The doctor has evidently loaned his son money to begin his career, and refuses, despite his wealth, to forgive the debt.
It is Sjöström’s great acting that saves Borg from becoming a kind of pained scapegoat; while clearly his Borg is hurt by Marianne’s pronouncements, the character retains a wise sense of irony, which plays nicely against the slings and arrows his figure must face throughout the day.
Coming upon the house where he grew up, Borg again dreams, but this time the images he conjures up are those of the past, as he is forced to watch his beloved Sara flirting with and accepting the love of another man. The conversation he overhears reveals his own sense of perfection, his high ideals regarding himself and others that make loving him quite unbearable. Later scenes at the dinner table and elsewhere further develop both the sense of a loving family and a mother, like her son, somewhat cold of heart.
When Borg awakens from his daydream/memory, a young woman—also named Sara (played like Borg’s Sara by the beautiful Bibi Andersson)—asks if she might join them in their travels, and as quickly as she is accepted she, in turn, is joined by her two male companions, Viktor and Anders, who spend much of the remaining journey arguing about the existence of God and other philosophical issues of the young. In short, Borg is forced on this journey into the past to encounter also the difficulties of middle age and youth as well.
Suddenly, a car swerves in front of them, sending both vehicles off the road. In what is one of the most perverse events of the journey, the fighting couple now also accompanies them. The couple engage in a horrifying battle of language, reminding one of the later literary figures Martha and George of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. As Sten Altman says of himself and his wife: “Me and my wife are dependent on each other. It is out of selfish reasons we haven't beaten each other to death a long time ago.” Their ongoing quarrel becomes so rancorous that Marianne, now driving the large automobile, finally stops and orders them out, “for the children’s sake.”
A stop along the way for gas elicits the joy of a couple who knew the kindly doctor as children, and reveals that Borg is still loved throughout the area. So does Marianne and the viewer discover that Borg was once, perhaps, a loving, caring being. Compared with his 95-year-old mother, whom they next visit, he is nearly a model of humane behavior. Mistaking Marianne for Borg’s long-dead wife, she orders her out of the house. Once she is told who Marianne is, the mother sullenly outlines the failures of her children, serving up an old box of their toys for comment, offering Borg a watch without any hands—like the clocks of his early morning nightmare.
As Marianne later reports, the mother “is as cold as ice,” fearing that the behavior has been inherited, passed on from mother to son to Evald as well. She reveals to her father-in-law that the separation between her and Evald has come about because she discovered she was pregnant, Evald refusing to have the child she is determined to bear.
Borg now is forced to understand the effects of cutting off others from himself and reimagines his own wife’s love affairs, as the woman describes to her lover how she will be coldly forgiven for her sexual indiscretions, but allowed no mercy, no further love. Another dream in which the doctor’s medical knowledge is examined and found failing ends his memorable journey.
Borg’s ceremony is a solemn one, and all are impressed. Finally, having come to understand that he has entrapped himself in his own emptiness, the doctor apologizes to his housekeeper—who despite her morning threats has turned up at Evald’s house. Agda is so startled by his statement that she wonders about his health. When he goes even further to suggest that they call one another by their first name, she refuses; yet, Bergman, as always, allows his characters complete humanity, as she suggests that her bedroom door will be left ajar, in case he needs her in the night.
In short, order and love is restored. Borg’s young travelers award him a fond farewell, Sara calling up to his bedroom window, “Good-bye, father Isak. Can't you see you're the one I love? Today, tomorrow, and forever.” Evald reports that Marianne will remain—and get her way. But when the father attempts to tell his son to forget about his debt, Evald interrupts, assuring him it will be paid. The trip that Borg has made has evidently redeemed his life, but it is a journey which ultimately he can share with no one else; wisdom, redeemed faith—whatever one calls it—cannot be shared, but merely reminds each of us that, although we must reach out to one another in order to survive, we remain alone.
Los Angeles, September 2, 2007
SPIRALING INTO HATE
Ingmar Bergman (writer and director) Skammen (Shame) / 1968
Bergman’s 1968 movie, Shame, came as a surprise to his Swedish audiences. After years of being criticized for concentrating on the personal psychological makeup of his characters, most often at the expense of larger political and social events, the great director chose in this work to focus very much on events of the day, the war in Viet Nam, political tensions in Czechoslovakia and the student protests in Paris. Working with the original title of “The War,” Bergman set out to create and succeeded in producing a terrifyingly political work, a work in which the major characters, Jan (Max van Sydow) and Eva (Liv Ullmann) Rosenberg—former musicians in the now disbanded symphony orchestra—attempt, like the Swedes throughout World War II, to remain neutral, but are gradually sucked into the waves of violence going on in the periphery and later at the center of their lives.
Just as suddenly, the advancing rebel forces break in upon them, demanding they come into the yard where the leaders, with camera, microphones, and spotlights, attempt to interview Eva about her political views. She has none she declares; she is neutral. When they turn to interview Jan, he falls to the ground, apparently suffering from a heart condition.
That scene, as others before it, is emblematic of Jan and Eva’s relationship: she is the forceful, practical woman who must prod and hold up her weaker husband. Jan will, in fact, continue to suffer with heart problems throughout the film—not only those connected with a defect of the heart, but with a lack of heart, an inability to comprehend the suffering of others.
The couple is spared for the night, as the nationalist troops regain control of the island. But a short time after, they are arrested by their own countrymen and denounced as traitors. The film, which supposedly reveals their treachery, evidently has been doctored, and Eva is shown as supporting the rebels.
In some of the most powerful scenes of the film, Jan and Eva are threatened with torture, as others about them appear to have died and had their limbs torn off, arms broken. In fact, the head of this new military outpost (formerly the local folk high school) turns out to be the Rosenbergs' friend, the former mayor of their local town, now Colonel Jacobi (Gunnar Björnstrand). He is well aware that the film is a fraud, sending them home without damage to their bodies. But the event, has clearly shaken them, has damaged their souls, and soon after, as they attempt to restore their lives to some sense of normalcy, we recognize that—no longer able to pretend neutrality—they have come to depend on the patronage of the now militarized mayor. Their neighbor warns them of the dangers, but despite their own anger with one another for their weaknesses, they seem unable to escape events; like many individuals living in a nation at war, unable to change the course of events they have become prisoners of their own country.
When Jacobi offers Eva his life savings, she agrees to a sexual encounter. Jan awakens from a drunken stupor to discover the money, recognizing what has occurred while remaining too weak to prevent it. The rebels, consisting of locals on the island, break in upon them, interrogating Jacobi. Discovering that he has given them money, the intruders claim they are willing to spare his life if Jan and Eva turn over the cash. For the first time in his life, however, Jan stands up to the warriors—even though we recognize his motives to be connected to jealously and anger—claiming he has seen no money. Like Peter denying Christ, Jan denies his wife three times: “I’ve seen no money.” The rebels retaliate by destroying the contents of the house before torching it. Jan, they demand, must shoot Jacobi. Barely able even to hold the gun, Jan shoots Jacobi in the back, merely wounding him. Again and again he shoots his former “friend” as he attempts to crawl across the yard to safety. Rosenberg, who justifies his act by arguing that “they would have shot him anyway,” suddenly has become one of the murderers, and the couple, now ousted from their former Eden, has no choice but to salvage anything remaining and wander the island in search of escape.
The discovery of a young soldier, a boy who has deserted his unit, brings out Eva’s tenderness as she attempts to salve his wounds; the boy, who has not slept in days, falls to sleep upon her lap and, for a brief moment, represents the son she has sought throughout Bergman’s grim tale. Jan, now a maniacal bully, demands the young man stand, taking him from her side with the boy’s gun in hand, demanding to know why the soldier was seeking out a nearby beach. As Eva runs toward them in an attempt to save the child, we hear gunfire in the distance, and we recognize that Jan has shot him, becoming one of the monsters they so feared early on. So Bergman reveals how a whole nation can be transformed into a mob as horrifying as the Germans under Nazi rule, or the Serbs in Kosovo, or….the Americans in Viet Nam and Iraq, how a basically good people can become beings who, if they awaken from their horrific trance, will face only shame.
At a rocky beach they await, with others, a fishing boat to take them away. But that trip is only a further voyage into Hell, as the boat’s captain—presumably in disgust—slips off into the ocean as the vessel becomes ensnared in a flotilla of hundreds of dead bodies. The film ends with Eva’s dream of a better world, but even in that faint memory of love and peace, the roses are burning, creating what she perceives as a beauty in their very destruction. Jan and Eva, we realize, have entered a world where redemption is impossible, a place from where there is no escape.
Los Angeles, November 10, 2007
CRUELTY TO ANIMALS
Ingmar Bergman (writer and director) En Passion (The Passion of Anna) / 1969, USA:
An isolated 48-year-old man, Andreas Winkelman (Max von Sydow), lives on an island to where he has escaped after being arrested for forgery and hitting a policeman. He is visited one day by a beautiful woman named Anna Fromm (Liv Ullmann), who asks to use his telephone; her call—which he intentionally overhears—is a frantic one to a lawyer or friend about her dead husband, in which she asks for money supposedly left her, but which evidently does not exist. She is understandably distraught, and leaves Andreas’s house without her purse. When Andreas discovers it, he explores its contents, reading a letter from her husband in which he pleas for their separation, insisting that if they continue their relationship “We’ll run into new problems which will result in a nervous breakdown and psychological and physical violence”—a phrase repeated in words and letters throughout the film almost like a mantra. Indeed, in this second scene of the movie, Bergman reveals several of the major themes of this film, not only the “psychological and physical violence” suggested by the letter, but the intrusion of privacy and deceit typified by Andreas’s acts.
As Anna drives off, Andreas walks forward in the direction of his home, stops and turns back, moves forward again, turns back, moves forward and falls to the ground as if immobilized, trapped in indeterminacy as the camera seemingly pans in closer and closer, nearly washing away his existence in the grainy texture of the clip.* The narrator informs us, “This time they called him Andreas Winkelman,” forcing us to realize the strange wrinkle of time at work in The Passion, that everything has been repeated, the first Andreas replaced by a second, the only difference being his last name.
*Reportedly, Bergman actually gradually blew up the image of this scene, thus achieving the grainy effect I describe.
Los Angeles, October 20, 2007