Resquiescat in Pacem: Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007)

Ingmar Bergman, the greatest living filmmaker—and my personal pick for the greatest filmmaker of all time—passed away in his sleep at his home in Fårö, Sweden at the age of 89. He is the director of such influential and highly acclaimed works as The Seventh Seal (1957), Wild Strawberries (1957), Fanny and Alexander (1982), and Scenes from a Marriage (1973). His last film was 2005’s Saraband, a follow-up to Scenes from a Marriage.

Bergman was a consummate artist. He is known as the “poet with a camera” for the way his films penetrated the depths of human existence through carefully crafted gems of artistic beauty. His films were stark in their exploration of human death, sexual tension, the existence of God, human evil, and family disorder. Some of his images are iconic, such as the scene of Jöns playing chess with Death.

Many of his films are existential in nature—i.e., they probe the depths of human existence. Like Andrei Tarkovsky, Bergman is less interested in conventional storytelling and more concerned instead with crafting visual poems that delve into the human psyche. More so than almost any other director, Bergman used film as a vehicle for exploring the abyss and the peaks of human experience. The most poignant example of Bergman’s existentialist aesthetic is his 1966 masterpiece, Persona. In this film, a nurse is put in charge of a psychologically unstable actress, but in the course of their interaction, the two personae become harder and harder to distinguish. This film is one of Bergman’s most experimental and avant garde, and it is considered a hallmark of cinematic surrealism.

Bergman’s existentialism makes him one of the most important filmmakers for theologians. Bergman himself grew up in a strict Lutheran household, but he later claimed to have lost his faith at the age of eight. Not surprisingly, nearly all of his films grapple with important issues of belief and unbelief. The Seventh Seal openly discusses the existence (or non-existence) of God in relation to the problem of evil raised by the reality of the bubonic plague. Fanny and Alexander, the most autobiographical of Bergman’s films, presents an unforgiving look at the clergy through the character of Bishop Edvard Vergerus, and young Alexander has a Wizard of Oz moment in which a teasing adult pretending to be God suddenly reveals that he was playing the whole time. (This scene is probably Bergman’s interpretation of his own loss of faith at the age of eight.)

For what it’s worth, Fanny and Alexander is my personal favorite of Bergman’s films. The film is a profound exploration of the power of the art, a beautiful portrait of a family, and a simple testament to the depth of Bergman’s own artistic vision. At the start of the movie, Oscar Ekdahl gives a speech to the theater troupe with which he has worked all his life. He says:
My dear friends, for 22 years, in the capacity of theater manager, I've stood here and made a speech without really having any talent for that sort of thing. Especially if you think of my father who was brilliant at speeches. My only talent, if you can call it that in my case, is that I love this little world inside the thick walls of this playhouse, and I'm fond of the people who work in this little world. Outside is the big world, and sometimes the little world succeeds in reflecting the big one so that we understand it better. Or perhaps, we give the people who come here a chance to forget for a while, for a few short moments, the harsh world outside. Our theater is a little room of orderliness, routine, care and love.
The theme of the “little world” of art and the “big world” outside is recapitulated at the close of the film in an even more profound speech by Gustav Adolf Ekdahl. Without discussing the significance of this theme itself, I wish to suggest that this speech illuminates precisely what I think Bergman’s legacy should be: that in his “little world” of cinema, Bergman succeeded “in reflecting the big one so that we understand it better.”