Whose Film Is It Anyway?
Note: The purpose of Whose Film Is It Anyway? is to examine the validity of the auteur theory through the lens of individual film-makers, taking a look at their bodies of work and highlighting the technical elements, personal style, and thematic consistency of their films. Ultimately, the goal of this column will be to generate a discussion of the merits of auteur theory through examinations of directors widely considered auteurs, analyses of directors whose status as auteurs is more tenuous, and occasional looks at non-directors who may drive the quality and content of their films with more assuredness than the directors they work with.
"We must make an idol of our fear, and call it God." -Antonious Block (Max Von Sydow), The Seventh Seal
Setting out to write about one of the titans of cinema is always a difficult challenge. Ingmar Bergman directed over 60 films and television movies, and well over a hundred plays during his nearly six decades in the industry. Faced with that much material, and the incredibly condensed time period I have to review it (exactly two weeks between columns, with all of my actual life continuously getting in the way), there is almost no way I can hope to do the man justice. Instead of attempting to condense a prodigious lifetime of work into 2,000 words, this week's column will instead focus on a narrow period in Bergman's career, and a point at which he made some of his greatest films. Between 1957 and 1963, he focused almost solely on religious questions in his films, tackling the inevitable mortality of human life, the absurdity of religious extremism, the dangers of certainty, and God's silence.
While Bergman was raised by a devoutly religious father, Lutheran minister Erik Bergman, who punished his every infraction by locking him in a dark closet, he later admitted that by the age of nine he had lost all semblance of religious faith. What remained in its place was an endless curiosity to explore death, fears of dying, and the way that people deal with these fears in daily life. Bergman dealt with these themes throughout much of his work, but for the sake of expediency, I will examine four of his films, all made during the time he considered examinations of mortality and religion central to his work. The focus of this installment will be Bergman's "faith cycle," as the period has come to be called, including his "Trilogy of Faith", Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence. Before tackling the trilogy, however, it is important to look closely at perhaps Bergman's most important film, and the first in the cycle"”1957's The Seventh Seal.
Set during the Black Death, The Seventh Seal is centered on a medieval knight Antonious Block (Max Von Sydow) returning from the Crusades and traveling towards home through his disease torn country. Along the way, the knight engages in a chess game with Death (Bengt Ekerot), under the condition that he lives as long as the game continues. As he plays, he escorts a family of entertainers through a dangerous forest along with his disillusioned squire Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand), all the while endeavoring to make it home to the wife he left behind before he succumbs to death. The film takes its title from a verse in the Book of Revelation, "And when the lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in Heaven about the space of half an hour." Fittingly, then, the silence of God is a major theme in the film. As the night asks during a monologue set in a confessional, "Is it so cruelly inconceivable to grasp God with the senses? Why should he hide himself in a mist of half-spoken promises and unseen miracles? ["¦] What is going to happen to those of us who want to believe but are unable?" These are the questions that plagued Bergman through much of his early life, and The Seventh Seal, like much of his work throughout his career, and especially throughout his "cycle of faith" is deeply, painfully autobiographical.
Late in his life, Bergman commented "When I was young, I was extremely scared of dying. But now I think it a very, very wise arrangement. It's like a light that is extinguished. Not very much to make a fuss about." Much like Bergman himself in his early life, Antonious Block is tormented by his own mortality, and by his fears that death is in fact the end of existence. In one of the film's most powerful moments, Block begs Death to tell him of what comes after, and Death coldly replies, "I have nothing to tell." While earlier in the film, the confused and still hopeful Block might have taken this as a sign that Death himself is as ignorant to the afterlife as anyone, but at this point Block realizes the much darker truth that he has fought against throughout the film"”Death may have nothing to tell for the simple reason that after death, there is only nothingness.
In 1961 Bergman released Through a Glass Darkly (which would go on to win the Best Foreign Film Oscar the next year), a "chamber film" taking place over the course of 24 hours, and featuring four characters who act as thematic mirrors for one another. At the center of the film is Karin (Harriet Andersson), recently released from a mental institution and vacationing on a remote and isolated island with her family. Karin's husband Martin (Max Von Sydow) is desperately in love with her, though he admits early on in the film that her schizophrenia is almost incurable. Karin's brother Minus (Lars Passgard) feels that he can never truly communicate with his father, and feels deprived of his love. And Karin's father David (Gunnar Bjornstrand), a second rate novelist who feels he has lost the ability to love at all, now discovers a morbid curiosity in documenting the mental unraveling of his daughter. The title is again a biblical reference, this time to 1 Corinthians 13:12, "For now we see through a glass darkly"¦" a reference to the inability of mortals to understand or truly view God during their lives. In fact, the only character in the film who claims to commune with God is Karin, who is seen throughout the film as insane, and her vision of God is not as one might expect. Without spoiling the climax of the film, the first in Bergman's "Trilogy of Faith" examines the possibility that religious faith, or certainty of any kind, may be insanity more readily than it is reasonable. Each of the sane characters throughout the film is certain of almost nothing, contemplating their place in the world, wondering about the importance of love, pondering the meaning of life, and even, in one instance, considering suicide.
If Through A Glass Darkly examines the possibility that certainty is insanity, Winter Light, the second film in Bergman's trilogy deals with the aftermath of overcoming that insanity, and examines the loss of faith. Winter Light follows a day in the life of Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Bjornstrand), a pastor in a rural Swedish town, as he grapples with the realization that he has lost his faith, and tries to guide his parishioners all the same. Throughout the day he is confronted by his former mistress Marta (Ingrid Thulin), an atheist who tries to get Tomas to accept that there is no God, and asked to counsel Jonas Persson (Max Von Sydow) who has lost his faith in God and his belief that life has a purpose. In the film's most powerful scene, a six minute long take in which Bergman stares unmoving into Marta's eyes as she recounts the contents of a letter she sent to Tomas, Bergman confronts the audience with the possibility that religion is egotism, a fact that Tomas must admit by the film's end. Tomas realizes that his faith has always been egotistical"”he believed that God loved humanity, but Tomas most of all"”and now counsel's Jonas that the world makes more sense if the existence of God is denied, because then man's cruelty toward man needs no further explanation.
The final film in the trilogy, The Silence, deals with, as the title suggests, God's silence. The film follows Esther (Ingrid Thulin), her sister Anna (Gunnel Lindblom), and Anna's son Johan (Jorgen Lindstrom) as they travel through a foreign country where only Esther speaks the language. When Esther falls seriously, terminally ill, the three stop at a hotel, where Anna and Johan wander empty halls unable to speak to anyone, and Esther furiously works to create translations for Anna and Johan so that they can communicate once she dies. Throughout Esther's life, words have meant everything to her, and her faith has been as strong as her grasp of languages, but as she lies dying, desperately trying to communicate with her sister and nephew, she finally hears the silence that has plagued Anna throughout her life. The futility of communication is an important theme throughout the film, as the characters continuously have trouble communicating with one another, yet Bergman depicts these faltering attempts at understanding as vastly superior to the deafening silence one is confronted with when looking for the Voice of God.
Ingmar Bergman lost his faith at a young age, but he never lost his intellectual curiosity, and his examinations of religion are windows into his own struggles over eternal questions about the purpose of life and the absence of God. Often in this column I focus on the thematic consistencies of directors, and occasionally I focus on their technical tendencies, yet another important aspect of auterism is the idea that filmmakers use their own lives and their own perspectives to create a unique voice that is present throughout their work. Ingmar Bergman, more than many other directors, drew on his own life and his own internal struggles when making his film (this is also apparent in an examination of three strictly autobiographical films he made over the course of his career). While his films are in many ways thematically consistent, and are tied together by a distinctive style (including close-ups and distinctive use of shadows), it is his own personal life that permeates each of his films and leaves them all, unquestionably, completely, works of his own.
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Coming up on Who's Film Is It Anyway?:
10/10: Halloween Horror Auteur Month: George Romero
10/24: Halloween Horror Auteur Month: John Carpenter
11/7: James Cameron
11/21: Kathryn Bigelow