Ingmar Bergman Vol 3 (BFI Blu Ray box set)
And so, we’ve now reached the third BFI volume of Bergman films. Here we find four masterpieces, one near-masterpiece, one very good under-appreciated work, an interesting failure and (for me) a film that’s Bergman’s worst. I will first tackle the minor films not to comfortably get them out of the way but because my deep reverence for Bergman’s achievements must be qualified.
Bergman aimed high and consistently succeeded in probing and illuminating the big metaphysical questions about existence. Yet when he opted for some light relief or excess examination he could (deliberately?) misfire – mistakenly choosing wrong subjects and adopting an uncertain tone of voice. The excuse for some of his early forties and fifties films was apprenticeship immaturity – Ingmar wasn’t yet coherently Ingmar Bergman. Port of Call and It Rains on my Love come to mind.
However, this box set covers the transitional period from 1960 to 1969 when Bergman was famous and deepening his reputation as a great filmmaker. However, amidst the numerous great sixties films are failures like The Devil’s Eye (1960), All These Women (1966) and The Rite (1969) containing a spectrum of interest ranging from the captivating to the downright awful.
The Devil’s Eye is the best of these three. In fact, I’d go so far to say that it’s unfairly neglected. Bergman adapted a Danish radio play by Olaf Bang. I think the script reminded Bergman of his love of staging Moliere and fascination with Mozart’s Don Giovanni for the film’s hell episodes are played in 18th century dress and contain a damnation scene with a statue pulling Don Juan into the flames.
The Devil has a sty in his eye. According to legend the sty will only disappear once a woman’s virginity is taken. Don Juan and his servant Pablo are sent to earth to carry out this mission. Unfortunately, Don Juan falls in love with the woman and Pablo seduces the young girl’s mother. A furious Devil punishes Don Juan by making him have nightly dreams about his now intense emotional loss.
I loved Don Juan’s reversal of fortune. Yet it’s The Devil’s Eye’s subplot that really engages. Pablo, the vicar father and his wife elicit so much tender sympathy for unrequited desire and a disappointing marriage. Their scenes and some finely written dialogue back in hell make for a delightful comedy. And Jarl Kulle is superb: an actor born to play Don Juan.
All These Women is another comedy but lacks the confidence of The Devil’s Eye. It’s a slight and intermittently funny film. Music critic Cornelius (Jarl Kulle again supplying a brilliantly absurd performance) is writing a biography of Felix, a famous cellist, but is thwarted in his attempts to interview the great man by his wife and mistresses. What makes All These Women memorable is that it was Ingmar Bergman’s first colour production shot on beautiful Eastman colour film stock.
The chaotic firework scene is a dazzling and effectively farcical episode realised against a stunning set design and costumes. All These Women is always a ravishing display for the eye. Yet the script is very hit and miss for the ear. “There was too much technology and too little feeling. A master too, can get it wrong sometimes.” was the verdict of photographer Gunner Fischer. Much of the pleasure of All These Women is that watching Bergman getting it wrong can still prove entertaining. And this mad, silly romp by a great artist manages to tactfully avoid being irritating.
This cannot be said of The Rite (Though in 1969 it received a good press). I think The Rite is the worst and most pretentious film that Bergman ever made. The plot is basically simple: three well-known actors undergo a mysterious interrogation undertaken by a sinister judge from an unnamed government. The ‘pretence’ of being an actor is ruthlessly exposed. I felt no sympathy for the accused nor their accuser. And when the actors don hideous masks and costumes, with classical Greek theatre-style phalluses, to attack their judge this TV film managed to be crude, ludicrous and self-consciously repellent. I have no problem with Bergman and his inner creative demons. But for such analysis I would turn to the masterly Hour of the Wolf (1968) or even the ‘probing’ comedy outings in this set. The Rite is an ill-conceived, bad dream of a film.
Through a Glass Darkly has so many wonderful things in it that I may seem unfair to say it’s not a great film. A schizophrenic young woman is descending into madness. Her doctor, father and brother observe her condition and fail to act or respond correctly. Harriet Anderson is superb as Karin who sees the “loathsome, evil face” of God. “The door opened. But the god who came out was a spider. He had six legs and moved very fast across the floor.” I’ve never forgotten that verbal image, nor the sound of a Bach cello suite on the soundtrack or a young woman, seated in the Everyman cinema, once home to triple Bergman programmes in the 1980’s, sobbing intensely.
The limitations of Through a Glass Darkly’s emotional range and expression of theological ideas hold it back from greatness. Or maybe I eventually arrived at that conclusion, given the increased power of Bergman’s cinema, just after this film. Healing and catharsis had to be followed by a force that could overcome extreme illness. Something, almost like self-transcendence, needed to be part of the Bergman film equation.
So many words of praise have been written about the masterpieces featured here. Is there anything left that hasn’t been expressed (especially given the remarkable writings of critic Robin Wood) for me to add some more? Well, I will. The Virgin Spring, Winter Light, The Silence, and Persona keep on illuminating and surprising me. They are essential to the Bergman cannon and need to be seen more than once.
The Seventh Seal is often considered the iconic picture of the medieval ages on film. Yet The Virgin Spring is an equally fine recreation of the period and arguably more involving for its imagery is restrained and grounded. Both films are powerful allegories. Yet The Virgin Spring moves me greater. This stark tale of the rape and murder of a young peasant woman and the enormity of revenge is an overwhelming experience.
Winter Light remains the greatest depiction of religious doubt, from a Christian perspective, that the cinema has given us. Max Von Sydow, Gunnel Lindblom, Ingrid Thulin and especially Gunnar Bjornstand, as the anguished priest, are at their magnificent best. For me, a non-believer, it’s the only film that seriously matters about whether God exists or not.
The Silence has survived that fashionable sixties tag of the failure of communication. Yes, it is that, but a lot more besides. Two sisters and a young boy travel to a foreign city whose language they do not understand. The opening twenty minutes of their train journey contains less than fifty words of dialogue, yet Bergman has, through the assured intimacy of his direction and the high intelligence of his actors, masterfully introduced his characters and concerns. This is no extended exposition but an acute introduction to his themes of dying, sexual behaviour and the reaching out to understand.
Film director Jorn Donner once said that The Silence expressed “disgust for mankind.” I find that statement to be nonsense and plain wrong. The Silence does convey despair at the modern world of 1963. And you can certainly feel despair at the world of 2022. Yet its Berman’s genius to generously reach out not to alleviate despair but frankly acknowledge that despair is an essential, if not overriding, part of being human. The sincerity and honesty of his position hasn’t dated.
Finally, Persona. The late Philip French said it was one of the greatest films ever made. I agree. Persona was a cinematic landmark: an artistic game-changer that Beethoven’s Eroica symphony was for music or Joyce’s Ulysses was for literature.
I never tire of watching this inexhaustibly rich film. The actress bereft of speech. Her nurse who constantly talks: the gradual merging of the women’s personalities with its blurring of identity. It’s the only film I’ve felt that was like undergoing psychotherapy. Persona always makes me question my sense of self: an experience beyond feeling positive or negative but vital and necessary.
Of course, Persona employs the artifice of cinema to create its own world. Bergman throws in cinematic ‘tricks’ like the projector breaking down: a rupturing of image as hauntingly powerful as Hitchcock having his heroine Janet Leigh murdered so early on in Psycho. In Psycho the killer is eventually revealed and imprisoned. In Persona the ‘killers’ or vulnerable disrupters are a controlling Ingmar, his captive actors and our own personalities in flux at what we’ve been put through, though still free to choose the persona that suits us.
This collection of Bergman triumphs and failures is indispensable.
Alan Price © 2022.