As I emerge from the pedestrian tunnel into Sydney’s Domain I note clouds have interrupted the sparkling morning. Rain mists the air as I approach the Art Gallery of New South Wales. God may be silent, but S/He knows how to wrangle the weather. To reach the Gallery’s cinema I walk a gauntlet of bones arranged on the walls to spell words. The auguries for the first of the ten screenings of Essential Bergman, part of the 2015 Sydney Film Festival, are moodily appropriate. Spiderman, Superman and Batman are currently pay dirt at the box office, but my cinematic superhero is Bergman. The acclaimed Swedish auteur is the acme of angst; the go-to guy for existential torment. I begin to wonder if such a concentrated burst of uncompromising human frailty will be good for me. I had hoped a friend would be joining me for the ordeal but he has chosen life affirmation with his family instead. I’m disappointed, yet feel his presence and save a seat for him.
Ingmar Bergman is notorious for anguished art movies, yet the opening film is a comedy, Smiles of a Summer Night. I bask in the indulgence of a crisp 35mm print splayed across the big screen. It has a Nordic Wildean aesthetic: the predatory lusts of lawyers and counts are manipulated by their wily prey during a weekend at a country estate. Passions are inflamed by magic booze (or is it a placebo?) that each guest willingly quaffs to manifest the truth of their desires. The knotted machinations of the toffs are leavened by the rampant randiness of the servants who ditch rumination for rutting. This attitude may have seemed less condescending in 1955. Similarly, the sledgehammer symbolism of caged birds, associated with the repressed Anne, versus the liberated tweeting that accompanies the frolics of the lower orders, may have once appeared less clichéd.
The laughter of the capacity audience proves how bitterly comic Bergman can be. I recall Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy and the musical A Little Night Music were inspired by this film. Even the Russian roulette scene doesn’t dampen the delight, and the suicide has a hilarious denouement. Honestly. Beside me, my imaginary friend cacks himself.
During the break between screenings I note the bone-letters spell out a speech by Gandhi, made prior to the Salt March of 1930. The piece is called Public Notice 2 (2007), by Indian artist Jitish Kallat.
PULL QUOTE: I suddenly discover I believe in God (I revert to atheism during The Silence the next day).
The chiaroscuro cinematography of Gunnar Fischer heightens the melodrama of The Seventh Seal (1956). During the scene in which the flagellants disrupt the plague-terrified town I suddenly discover I believe in God (I revert to atheism during The Silence the next day). A knight suspects his ten years of hell defending divinity at the crusades might have been meaningless: Max Von Sydow’s wracked performance is gobsmacking. (Godsmacking?). Gunnar Bjornstrand as the knight’s earthy squire echoes the simple honesty of the lower orders from the previous film. The actors are a stunning double act. The squire urges the knight to read the eyes of a witch as she burns and I attempt to grip the hand of my imaginary friend. Can the witch see anything that lies beyond death?
Death makes a personal appearance in the striking form of Bengt Ekerot. As guest curator David Stratton mentions in his lucid introduction, this image of Death has been sacrilegiously satirised over the years from sources as disparate as French and Saunders and Mad Magazine (and, of course, Woody Allen). The film is soaked in mortality, yet Death’s dealings are followed by beauty. When an axed tree takes out a bumptious actor, a cute squirrel jumps onto the stump, tail twitching. A plague victim dies screaming, but when his thrashing stills, dappled sunlight fills the grove. Even the empty questing of the knight is partially vindicated when he distracts Death long enough for a family of strolling players to escape with their baby boy. The mother and father have names synonymous with Mary and Joseph. God knows what the child is called.
Wild Strawberries (1957) concerns Borg, a renowned, aging academic driving cross-country to receive an honorary award from Lund University. Along the way, the rather smug scholar is forced to reassess his life and his values. There’s a surprise car stunt which results in an uncomfortable scene involving three tiers of characters crammed into Borg’s black sedan. They represent the three stages of a relationship – innocence and exuberance, bitter recrimination, then widowhood and regret. Again, death and judgement haunt the narrative, with its images of simulacrums grasping from spilled coffins, clocks with no hands and hoardings depicting monstrous staring eyes. In a dream sequence, Borg endures a Kafkaesque exam. Is this personal or Heavenly judgement? I imagine Woody Allen scribbled extensive notes during this film too. Borg as an old man interacting with figures from his childhood reflects the adult Woody confronting his classmates in Annie Hall. Borg’s reassessment at the end of life is incorporated in his dialogue: “It’s getting late. Now we must move on.” You can almost hear Samuel Beckett replying from The Unnameable: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
Three films down and I’m finding sunlight no longer warms me. My imaginary friend is having an identity crisis. “Was I really created by some kind of superior being?” he whines. I assure him he was.
Ambiguous religiosity suffuses The Virgin Spring (1960). When a father (Von Sydow again) attacks the perpetrators who raped and killed his (frankly, quite snobby) daughter, one dies burning in an attitude of crucifixion in a fire while another has his arms splayed across a beam. Any audience catharsis at this enacted vengeance is staunched when the father brutally kills a young boy who witnessed the atrocity. At the film’s conclusion, as water spurts from the earth where his virgin daughter was slaughtered, Von Sydow wonders how God could watch such crimes and not intervene. Bergman, the son of a pastor, never stopped questioning why God was so standoffish. When these films were made in the middle of the twentieth century, it must have seemed Christianity was in decline, before its inexorable resurrection as the third millennium loomed. The father vows to build a church on the site of his daughter’s desecration with his “murderer’s hands”. What is that? An act of atonement for his sins, or flipping the bird to Heaven?
PULL QUOTE: The film ends with screeching trains obliterating all dialogue.
My imaginary friend insists there’s been nights between screenings during which I have led some kind of independent existence but I experience only jump-cuts. I’m back in the cinema, crying out for an Adam Sandler flick; I get The Silence (1963) instead. Set in a battle-weary country (much like Bergman’s astonishing war film, Shame), the story sees two sisters—Anna and Ester—holed up in an ornate hotel. Ester, a translator, is slowly expiring from an unknown disease. Meanwhile Johan, the son of Anna, explores the corridors, meeting dwarves displaced from a Fellini film and a gangly, well-meaning porter (the loveably eccentric Hakan Jahnberg). The sensualist Anna gets down and dirty in town while the intellectual Ester suffers. Sound familiar? Alienated in a foreign land, basic contact occurs via music (Bergman’s beloved Bach), food and sex, but nobody communicates in any depth. Everybody fails to “translate” themselves to others. The film ends with screeching trains obliterating all dialogue. It’s devastating. I’m glad the cinema remains dark for a few seconds while I gather myself.
By this time I’m noticing babies burst into tears as I pass. As I stroll the Domain between movies, my shadow skims flower beds and they wilt. Is that scudding cloud following me?
In Persona (1966), Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann swap identities, or perhaps merge into a single personality. It’s interesting to note the lad who touches the barrier between himself and the audience performs a similar gesture in The Silence, touching a train window.
Touch is a potent, yet occluded, form of intimacy in Bergman, constantly encountering obstruction. The word itself suggests only fleeting contact. Bergman’s film The Touch delineates the dangers, as well as the personal growth, engendered by an affair. Despite the power of cinema, the boy in Persona cannot reach the audience. Boyhood had a profound effect on Bergman: he owned a cherished puppet theatre that formulated a direct link to his later artistic commitment to theatre and film. Similar toy dioramas and puppets recur in Hour of the Wolf (not part of this retrospective), The Silence and Fanny and Alexander (1972). The latter film is heavily autobiographical and suggests that the psychological damage inflicted by Bergman’s dictatorial father goads him into producing art. It also presents God as a puppet manipulated by a dimwit. If God had practiced the modern smiting of litigation, Bergman would have been destitute. Fanny and Alexander was arguably Bergman’s last great film but before that came Cries and Whispers (1972), a harrowing, austere but haunting chamber piece.
PULL QUOTE: Two sisters wait for a third, bedridden sibling to die.
In a manor decorated in shockingly contrasting red, white and black, two sisters wait for a third, bedridden sibling to die. Is this The Silence re-imagined? The two sisters struggle to communicate. When they finally connect, the soundtrack fails, stealing away their dialogue, but we see their flailing, feverishly touching hands. Later, black-veiled at their sister’s funeral, the barriers between them are restored. The dead sister is attended by a doubting priest and the most caring character is the pious servant, Anna, who recalls the holy family from The Seventh Seal and the raunchy retainers from Smiles of a Summer Night. All the themes of Essential Bergman are summed up in Cries and Whispers. Like Wild Strawberries it concludes with a scene of ephemeral happiness: a flashback to the three sisters enjoying a stolen moment in the sunlit garden.
Ghandi’s Salt March took 24 days. My own ordeal lasts only two weekends. Time folds and crimps. Perhaps I left the Art Gallery. Perhaps I went to work, pashed my partner, drunk beer and laughed. But I doubt it. I check my diary and find only pleas for forgiveness spelt out in bones. Bergman considered time a tyrant, a taunting adversary dancing him towards mortality. Films begin with aural time-beats: the ting of a triangle or strike of a gong. The Silence opens with ticking and the clocks in Wild Strawberries have no hands. Hour of the Wolf and Saraband (2003) contain excruciating scenes where characters consciously wait out a minute in real time and it seems to take forever. Yet Bergman’s timeless films have outlived him.
PULL QUOTE: What superpower would Berg-man have?
What superpower would Berg-man have? An angst-inducing aura that weakens criminals? A guilt ray that makes them beg for punishment? Super-insight? Perhaps he’d form a super-team: the X(-istential) Men, with Captain Cocteau and The Ineffable Lynch ?
More than stodgy misery-fests, Bergman’s films are replete with flawed and spiritually wrought protagonists grappling with self-justification, jealousy, status, desire and doubt. They fear loneliness and loss of love. Death is as inevitable as a comeback by John Farnham. These niggles are universal. It’s not such a leap from the scapegoating of the burning witches in The Seventh Seal to the topical resentment of asylum seekers. And who hasn’t felt the chill of numinous angst that flavours every Bergman production: an unaccountable, creeping unease that chills the backbone?
My imaginary friend gives a shiver.
Colin Varney has recently completed an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Tasmania, for which he wrote the tragicomic novel Earworm. His fiction has been published in Southerly, Island, Wet Ink and Etchings. His essay “Thwarted Dreams and All That Jazz” appears in The Lifted Brow #28. His day job plunges him into an existential funk.