Tag Archives: Ingmar Bergman

INGMAR BERGMAN’S FANNY AND ALEXANDER (1982)

Fanny and Alexander (1982) was ‘s final cinematic work, although he did make a handful of TV movies afterwards, ending with the poignant Saraband (2003). After decades of desolation within an agnostic cosmos, Bergman keeps Fanny and Alexander in check. Although his obsessions are present, it is sort of an autobiographical release, which results in an immensely  enjoyable, epic[1] coda to one of the most consummate cinema oeuvres, and could even be recommended as a starting point to the Bergman novice.

As with most of Bergman’s films, Fanny and Alexander was received with a degree of controversy. Some criticized Bergman’s previous work as overly pessimistic. He also was frequently accused of pretentiousness, and as is often the case, that is a lazy standby label that reveals far more about the critic than the filmmaker. With Fanny and Alexander, Bergman was criticized for catering to populism (John Simon in National Review) and for oversimplification (Dave Kehr and Pauline Kael ). Yet, even the most critical reviews conceded Fanny and Alexander was Bergman at his most accomplished.

There is a pronounced fantasy element to this period family drama, so much so it is one of the few Bergman film covered by Richard Scheib at his genre site, Moria film reviews.

Fanny and Alexander (1982)Fanny and Alexander is set at the turn of the 20th century, and immediately establishes its theme of childhood imagination. I would be hard-pressed to name another Bergman film in which children are the primary protagonists. When Bergman takes the plunge, he does so without abandon. The ghostliness of childhood saturates the narrative, the assured pacing, and the artistic design. It opens with ten-year-old Alexander Ekdahl (Bertil Guve) preoccupied with miniature theatrical figurines and a caged rat. The scene is fittingly choreographed, in part, to Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet in F Major (Schumann is possibly the apex of 19th century romantic innocence) and sets the leisurely pacing. Alexander calls out to his eight-year-old sister Fanny (Pernilla Alwin), who doesn’t answer—but like most children, Alexander is soon distracted.

Shortly before a dazzling, magically detailed Christmas feast with the Ekdhal clan, Alexander is caught up in a dreamlike state as he imagines an erotic statue suddenly motioning to him, followed by death dragging his scythe.

A Christmas play evokes Mozartian flutes, followed by the entry of uncles Gustav (an amorous Jarl Kulle with a flaming punchbowl) and Carl (Borje Ahlstedt, drunkenly farting on the stairs), and possibly the most beautiful pillow fight ever filmed.

Fanny and Alexander’s theatrical grandmother Helena (Gunn Walgren) is the matriarch of the Ekdhal clan, which is filled with irascible actors, rogues, illusionists, and a multitude of servants.   The theater life creates a community much like one would find in religion. Both Fanny and Alexander are introverted, but dazzled by the enchanted world gifted them by their theater manager father Oscar (Allan Edwall) and actress mother Emilie (Ewa Froling); but the second half of the film takes a darker turn when Oscar dies unexpectedly.  At his father’s funeral procession, led by the ultra-patristic and austere Calvinist Bishop Edvard Vergerus (Jan Malmsjo), a bitter and frightened Alexander, out of character, spews obscenities, foretelling the struggles ahead.

Emilie marries Edvard, and soon Fanny and Alexander are subjected to dogmatic abuses[2]. Emilie belatedly realizes that she has married a clerical beast. Oscar’s ghost rises (apparently conjured forth by Alexander) to intervene. With the aid of the Jewish eccentric Isak (Erland Josephson) and his warlock nephew Ismael (Stina Ekblad), Fanny and Alexander are smuggled out of their home. Their escape is like a fairy tale, with the children finding a new sanctuary within Isak’s surreal theatrical abode. Alexander’s ghostly visions serve as a segue into a chimerical coming of age parable, and the demonic bishop’s fiery comeuppance may be Bergman’s finest moment on celluloid.

While Fanny and Alexander is indisputably imperfect,  it is a sensuous epilogue that stands not only as essential Bergman, but essential cinema. A few weeks ago, I declared that once done with my latest round of dipping back into Bergman, I would be forced to shelve any further revisits. After my third summer with Fanny and Alexander, I can most assuredly say that I lied.

  1. The theatrical cut runs three hours. A 5-hour television version was simultaneously released, as Bergman was understandably reluctant to edit it down. The longer version, with stronger supernatural atmosphere, is preferable. []
  2. Bergman’s father was a severe Calvinist []

INGMAR BERGMAN’S AUTUMN SONATA (1978)

is a damned important filmmaker. As an artist and Catholic, I’ve experienced his body of work and without reserve, I rank him with the likes of , , and . Yet, I’m now in my fifties, and I’ve come to the point where I can relate to the conductor Leopold Stokowski, who—late in life—said he was done with the pessimism of composer Gustav Mahler. Likewise, I hope I’m never asked to watch a Bergman film again for the remainder of my life. Not that this site asked me to; I did it to myself.

Still, Bergman was by no means a one-note filmmaker. Like Mahler, whose 4th symphony is as sunny as Mahler can get and still be Mahler, Bergman had a more pleasing side on occasion (i.e. The Magic Flute). So, I’m glad to be ending this Bergman series with Autumn Sonata (1978) followed by Fanny and Alexander (1981) next week. As pleasurable as these examples of late Bergman are, I’ll still look forward to something a tad lighter, perhaps a camp fest or a dumb summer blockbuster.

For Autumn Sonata, Bergman cast Casablanca actress Ingrid Bergman (no relation). It proved to be her last film before succumbing to cancer. She plays the famous pianist Charlotte Andergast who has abandoned her family to pursue her career. Charlotte accepts daughter Eva’s () invitation for a visit, despite not having seen her for years. Having recently lost her longtime lover, Charlotte wants to stay at her daughter’s Norway parsonage for emotional support. Married to the reserved clergyman Viktor (Halvar Björk), Eva’s world is a far cry from the celebrity and glamour of her mother’s life. The complexities of their relationship are incandescent, and this may well be the most well-acted film of Bergman’s oeuvre.

Ingrid’s casting was poignant on numerous levels. She had longed to make a film with her namesake. Both she and Ingmar had been in exile from Sweden (the director for tax evasion—he was later found innocent). Ingrid had been harshly criticized for abandoning her family to purse an affair with the married Roberto Rossellini and, after her films were widely picketed and banned, she fled Sweden. Ingrid was initially skeptical because the parallels between actress and role were so disconcerting. She overcame her trepidation, however, to deliver a tour-de-force swan song. Ullman is, in every way, Ingrid’s equal, and although this is ultimately an ethical and psychologically healthy chamber film, it is inherently Bergmanesque.

At first, the reunion seems to be a joyful one. Charlotte has barely settled in, however, when old tensions between mother and daughter arise. Eva, a writer, is also a pianist, but she is angst-ridden with an inferiority complex that she blames on her mother. Eva’s fear of playing Chopin to her hypercritical mother is validated. Even the musically illiterate can detect the difference between Eva’s subpar performance and Charlotte’s sublime interpretation. The brilliance of Bergman lies in divided sympathies. We can identify with Eva feeling patronized and shamed, but we also acknowledge Charlotte’s valid aesthetic criticisms.

A more painful source of contention is the surprise of Eva opening her home to her sister Helena (Lena Nyman). Suffering from a degenerative disease, Helena is a provocative reminder of Charlotte’s neglect and narcissism.

Srill from Autumn Sonata (1978)The scene in which Eva confronts Charlotte throughout the night is lengthy, riveting, and drenched in emotion. Charlotte’s propensity for bragging and her lack of humility, her inability to listen and perhaps even to fully love, is punctuated by Eva’s demand of silence, and, ultimately by her mediocrity. Yet, we also see Eva’s strength as a giving savior/saint to both her husband and sister—a role that Charlotte is utterly incapable of. Lesser filmmakers would have taken sides and painted the scene solely in hues of pathos, but Bergman is not so monochromatic: he uses humor, awe, and sensuality. Bergman and cinematographer Sven Nyqvist opt for intense extreme closeups, filmed in gorgeous oranges and browns. It’s called Autumn Sonata for a reason, and the engrossing music (Chopin, Bach, Beethoven) is of equal importance to the theatrical-like visuals.

Björk is, as usual, superb, but ultimately it’s not his film. We go through the wringer with Eva and Charlotte, and there is no sophomoric resolution, because reconciliation sure as hell isn’t microwaved. It’s sacramentally built; and Bergman leaves us with the hope, and the feeling, that it will be built. In that, I find Autumn Sonata to be as close to Catholicism as Bergman comes.

INGMAR BERGMAN’S SHAME (1968)

I only vaguely recall 1968. What I do vividly remember was both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy being assassinated within the space of a few months. Even the majority of the bigots at mother’s church (not all, by any means) were horrified, and during those moments, at least, practiced an extremely rare shut-mouth spirituality. It was surreal as hell. Things only became more nightmarish in the years immediately following, with the escalation of Vietnam and Watergate.

A continent or so away, produced what most of us felt: Shame. Bergman was normally not an outright political filmmaker. The extremists certainly sniffed out the moderate artist within him. Not that they would watch his films anyway, being put off by subtitles (I don’t know how many times I’ve had to bite my lower lip after hearing camo-clad bumpkins proudly proclaim that they didn’t want to read a movie).

The focus of Bergman’s anger is war, but reeling from the criticisms he had received from utilizing the infamous footage of a Vietnamese monk’s immolation in 1966’s Persona, Bergman is more ambiguous here. He doesn’t state that his subject is Vietnam per se, which is why Shame is not as well-known as that previous film. Bergman’s ambiguity in a way neuters his own work, preventing it from becoming an equivalent to Picasso’s “Guernica,” which still provokes war-minded leaders (George W. Bush’s lackeys had a replica of  that famous painting covered up with a black curtain at the United Nations). We could see Shame one way: like , Bergman is a consummate artist lacking the courage of his ethical and social convictions (which were hinted at in Persona, although that film did not overtly subscribe to any specific ideology). In the case of both artists, their aesthetics are undermined by fear of being labeled political. In the case of Keaton, it took an artist of more elementary aesthetics (Charles Chaplin) to call out racism, sexism, and eventually Fascism. Likewise, Bergman’s Shame is rendered less impactful compared to his earlier opus and to the wave of anti-Vietnam films to come. Bergman plays it safe, indirectly shifting blame to a God in the sky instead of any persons or factions. Of course, we could also look at Shame as a desolate parable that transcends a specific time and place. It’s not an either/or assessment as much as it’s both/and.

In his later 1990 biography, “My Life in Films,” Bergman writes that he had previously been very proud of Shame, feeling that it exposed the personal violence of war, but added that he had come to be disappointed in it after realizing the his intentions were self-defeating.

Regardless of one’s view, Shame is aptly not a comfortable experience. The story centers around a musical couple, Jan () and Eva () Rosenberg. Although loving, they are tormented by Eva’s barrenness, poverty, and the civil war surrounding their dilapidated home on an unnamed island.

Despite its enigmatic qualities, Shame is still superlative Bergman and startling. Having fled larger society, the Rosenbergs have become recluses, but their imperfect and monotonous  tranquility is consumed by warfare.

The killing of a parachuter, arriving militias, arrests, incarceration, and torture are not typical Bergman themes, yet all are prevalent here. Smartly, Bergman’s focus is indeed a personal one.  When Jan witnesses his wife flirting with another man, he is aroused; probably for the first time in a long time. Later, after she has sex with an interrogator, Jan becomes jealous and exacts revenge. In the beginning of the film, it is he who is weak. However, after being engulfed in despair from the barbarism that has engulfed them, he mantles fierceness. In contrast, Eva, once the romantic, is utterly crushed.

There are no battlefield scenes typically associated with war films, and that’s refreshing. The path of Shame is highly idiosyncratic; paradoxically pragmatic in its psychology and yet, pensive.

By the time we become desultory refugees with the Roenbergs, we are as drained as they are. Although Shame avoids direct political commentary of the era, it oddly become more poignant today because the one pointed portrayal of Bergman’s that is relevant today lies in that of the shameless authoritarian and his knee-bound sycophants, along with the effect of that demagoguery on ordinary lives.

INGMAR BERGMAN’S CRIES AND WHISPERS (1972)

The iris of ‘s Cries and Whispers (1972) is a red deathbed of intense and frightening passion unequaled in the whole of cinema. As the filmmaker himself indicated, Cries and Whispers is a film predominantly told by color. I first encountered Cries and Whispers in the early 1980s and it lingered: an unforgettable, altering experience. The only thing I can compare it to is the first time I stood before one of Pablo Picasso’s rose period paintings of a maternal subject. It stirs you in a way that makes you feel simultaneously alive and small, and glad to be small before an authentic artist whose mastery is so expressively humane as to be hypnotic and humbling. As filtered through the abdominal lensing of Sven Nykvist, Cries and Whispers imparts a vision of infinite beauty.

This is a female world, taking place over a period of two days in the life of four women. Yes, it is also about the dying process and death, but accompanied by resurrection and endowment.

At her English manor, the 40-ish, matronly Agnes () is dying, and this is not a stylish, incandescent death. She is in unspeakable agony amidst her kitsch surroundings. Watching this film again recently, it gripped me personally, having spent two days with my father dying of the cancer that brutally and unmercifully took away his life; quickly, but not quickly enough. And that’s why Cries and Whispers is intimately affecting.

Surrounding Agnes are her sisters, Karin () and Maria (), along with her loyal peasant servant, Anna (Kari Sylvan), who maternally responds to Agnes’ needs. She cradles Agnes and attempts to comfort her. Yet, this is also a film about pain; like a late Edvard Munch painting of feverish icy dreams. As a motherly figure, Anna cannot ease Agnes’ suffering. Like Anna’s biological daughter, Agnes will die.

Still from Cries and Whispers (1972)The sexual symbology is as vivid as those various shades of (red). Agnes, never knowing intimacy (white) is dying of ovarian cancer. Maria’s adulteries drove her husband to suicide. Karin performed a bloody self-mutilation in revenge against her husband. All this segues into the pain of distance, of touching and withdrawing from touch; neither Maria nor Karin can look upon Agnes as she gasps for life. Familial emotional distance parallels the impotence of religious comfort (black). The cleric, there to give extreme unction, utters a prayer that betrays his faithlessness and cluelessness, because before him is the Pieta to which he is blind. Agnes attempts repeatedly to vomit in a basin, but it is to no avail. She parallels the Corpus Christi, cradled by Anna’s Madonna: the sole beacon of faith and the sole embrace who draws her lifeless charge to dry breasts. Yet, Anna gifts a renewal from cancer of the womb.

Although faithless herself, Agnes receives absolution, and we hear her alive again in the startling finale. Her voice rises from her journal, and we see the sisters together again in a paradisaical setting: “I wanted to hold the moment fast, and thought, Come what may, this is happiness. I cannot wish for anything better. Now, for a few minutes, I can experience perfection.”

INGMAR BERGMAN’S SILENCE OF GOD TRILOGY: THE SILENCE (1963)

Throughout ‘s “Silence of God” trilogy, the divine voice becomes increasingly faint, until the vaguely concluding The Silence (1963), which is the world of a dead God. Whether or not The Silence is related to Through a Glass Darkly or Winter Light is debatable. Bergman himself never referred to the films as being concretely connected. It was later film enthusiasts (and home video marketing) who alternately lumped them together (not altogether incorrectly).

Silence‘s anti-theology theology is prominent in the first lines, when ten-year old Johan (Jorgen Lindstorm) points to a sign in a train compartment and asks his aunt Ester (): “What does this mean?” Her answer is elusive—“I don’t know”—despite the fact that she is a translator. Johan is the son of Anna (), who sweats sensuality in the stifling heat of the train ride. This is in sharp contrast to the ill Ester. There is tension between the sisters, but we don’t know what birthed it or why it exists, even in the midst of Ester’s dying. Questions are asked for which no answers are given. “Tell me,” Anna asks Ester, “When father died, you said you didn’t want to go on living. So why are you still around?” The closest explanation Anna gives for her contempt for Ester is “Everything has to have desperate meaning for you,” which is telling, as no desperate meaning is given—not even the reason for the opening and closing train trips.

Additionally, there is an ambiguous incestuous relationship between the sisters. Anna taunts Ester with a lie about a sexual encounter, told as if flaunting infidelity. Yet, then she offers: “It just so happens that I was lying.” However, later, an actual sexual encounter is presented, and again Ester is taunted. She asks: ‘What have I done to deserve this?” “Nothing,” Anna answers.

Still from The Silence (1963)Torn between his reserved aunt and emotionally charged mother is Johan. He is much present. He bathes Anna and hovers over Ester’s death bed. Yet, what is his purpose in the narrative? He wanders the hotel having encounters, from a waiter to a group of dwarves (?); all of which are presented, then abandoned. He serves as a voyeur to Ester’s boozing, cigarette smoking, and reading, and then to Anna’s sexuality. He’s like a series of loosely connected, masturbatory vignettes; a kind of divine figure, and we’re never certain that he exists, even though the film is channeled through him.

Aesthetically, this psychodrama is the most surreal of the trilogy, but there’s precision in its clarity and absurdity. Only a self-assured director could pull it off. Bergman does.

INGMAR BERGMAN’S SILENCE OF GOD TRILOGY: WINTER LIGHT (1963)

Winter Light was said to be ‘s favorite of his own works, and one is tempted to concur. Having read about it for years, I was hesitant to see it after reading it described as Bergman’s bleakest film. This surprised me, because what I saw was akin to a clerical farce. Perhaps one has to have degree of experience with and appreciation for the clerical model to appreciate the humor.

It’s icily humorous, similar to the way that monk/philosopher Thomas Merton is never funnier than when he shrieks at the bad taste of his Trappist fellows in his journals, replaces their kitschy holy cards with prints of better art, or maneuvers a bush to hide a hideous statue of a long dead saint until he can convince his superior to cart off the offending cheap plaster. I can relate, but—enveloped in a parish that looks like a precursor to those ghastly Bible bookstores that every rural mall is cursed with—Winter Light‘s Rev. Ericsson wouldn’t. However, the actor () playing Ericsson would. Per the norm, this Bergman regular completely embodies his character with a wit and physicality that hearkens back to the silent film acting style.

Bishop Fulton Sheen talked about joy in repetition, and used conducting Mass as an example; he thoroughly convinced us of his joy, giving enthusiastic, occasionally brilliant and just as occasionally ultra-conservative homilies. On the other hand, I recall a parish priest who whipped out the creed and “Our Father” at breakneck speed, almost like an auctioneer, and he could get through a mass in 40 minutes, tops. Later, we discovered it was because he liked to go fishing, and he liked his beer. Still, there was a rushed enthusiasm in his delivery, even if he had more important things to do. In contrast, sickly Rev. Ericsson barely gets through his Lutheran Masses to an ever-dwindling congregation: by the film’s end, he’s left with a single parishioner. His sermons are unconvincing and uninspiring because, now a widower, he’s lost faith in God.

Among Ericsson’s congregants are suicidal fisherman Jonas () and his schoolmarm mistress Marta (), who initially looks like she stepped out of an El Greco painting of a 1960s Euro suburbanite. She’s quite the contrast to Ericsson’s detachment (it’s called Winter Light for a reason). Later, Marta graduates to an emotive Picassoesque monster intent on bagging herself the reluctant preacher man for husband, despite her own atheism and his pining for his dead wife.

Ericsson proves useless to others as he is himself when he fails to prevent Jonas, obsessed with the ills of the world, from offing himself. Nor does the parson have any effective words of comfort for fisherman’s pregnant widow, Karin ().

Still from Winter Light (1963)Again, we have a disciple who, like Christ in the garden of Olives, suffers at the hands of a faceless deity. The silence is catching, only broken when Ericsson displays disgust for the devastated Marta. And everyone—from the organist to parishioners and pastor—wants to get out of this absurd liturgical scenario, made all the more humorous in the way its starkly filmed.

Like , Bergman’s long-claimed atheism is suspect, because although he doesn’t subscribe to belief per se (both filmmakers are intuitive and honest enough to know that belief is ultimately an abstraction), a pulse of seeking permeates his oeuvre. Like , Bergman finds an inherent absurdity in that seeking, but never at the expense of essaying the better part of our all-too human spirit.

INGMAR BERGMAN’S SILENCE OF GOD TRILOGY: THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY (1961)

The first of ‘s scorching “Silence of God” chamber trilogy, Through A Glass Darkly (1961) takes its title from one of St. Paul’s most famous passages: “For now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; but then I shall know even as I am known.” The key to Bergman’s film, and indeed to the trilogy, lies in this passage that is as much about alienation as faith. In some quarters, Bergman’s triptych has been inadequately referred to as a “Trilogy of Faith,” but faith is not tangible. One cannot see, touch, or smell belief, and the Pauline passage resonates with such widespread interior force for honest reasons. We may liken it to the Gospel’s passion drama: the eventual arrest and crucifixion of Christ is almost anti-climatic after the visceral anguish of the Gethsemane garden—the figure engulfed in oppressive silence after communication withdrawn. Paul identifies with the language of a vast chasm.

Through a Glass Darkly felicitously opens with Bach’s second violoncello suite, as Sven Nyqvist’s camera glides over a pearl-like body of water. Soon, a trio of figures emerge from the beach of the desolate Faro island. These are the witnesses: the glacially successful patriarch David (), the empathetic doctor and chaste husband Martin (), and the libidinous brother Minus (Lars Password). We then meet Karin (Harriet Andersson), and although the film becomes about her hour and her face, these men are no mere ciphers. Over the next 24 hours of family vacation, they express dread, lamentation, and pathos as they venerate Karin’s descent.

Karin has been recently released from a mental hospital. She finds a report diagnosing her as schizophrenic among David’s papers, and her dissipation intensifies upon finding herself utilized as a model for daddy’s new novel. The perennial voices in head further impede her mental health. Bergman takes a cue from in consistently choreographing her closeups to those of her witnesses; looking, but not at each other. She’s too caught up. Her obsessions locate God behind the wallpaper and then, tragically, in the attic, where the divine one is revealed to be a big black spider. Meltdown complete, but it’s not that simplistic. Bergman’s portraits are refreshingly mosaic, reminding us that even when he falters, as he occasionally does throughout his oeuvre, he presses on, gifting us well past the point where other filmmakers throw in the proverbial towel.

David’s narcissism is like Martin’s introspection gone fishing, while Minus absorbs Karin’s secrets and veers close to incest. When God is addressed and obsessed over, moral conflicts inevitably rear up.  The search for God is rendered akin to a shipwreck of futility. Casting herself upon an intimate sacrificial altar, Karin (the name was chosen after Bergman’s mother) will prefer the sanctuary of a cell as opposed to facing the silence of God.

Still from Through a Glass Darkly (1961)Through a Glass Darkly belongs as much to Nyqvist and its cast as it does Bergman (who is hyper-controlled here). Nyqvist composes an encompassing world (magnificently realized by art director P.A. Lindgren) that should be a Promised Land. But familial reconciliation is ultimately defeated by Martin’s understated shoulder sag; Minus’ creativity is hindered by awkward impetuousness; David’s echoing of that Father who knows best but turns his face away; and, above all, Karin’s provocative and frightening rapture. Andersson delivers a performance for the ages, and although she might equal it for Bergman in Cries and Whispers, she would not surpass it.

232. HOUR OF THE WOLF [VARGTIMMEN] (1968)

“Directors always say—and I think they mean it—that they’re telling a story. They tell a story and they don’t want to have an interpretation of what it ‘means,’ symbols… I think, for example, Hour of the Wolf, it can look like it was a lot of symbols. I don’t think it is. It’s a scary story, narrated very simply, even if the persons are very surreal.”–actor Erland Josephson (Baron von Merkins)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: ,

PLOT: The prologue explains that the artist Johan Borg disappeared from his home on the Frisian islands, and that this film is a recreation of events from his diary and the recollections of his wife. Borg has disturbing dreams, and the characters from the dream, along with an old flame, appear before him in real life. As the days wear on, the hallucinations become so intense that his wife seems to share in them, and the ghostly party invites the couple to visit them at the local castle.

Still from Hour of the Wolf (1968)

BACKGROUND:

  • According to the film, “the hour of the wolf” is the time between midnight and dawn when most people die and most babies are born.
  • The film began life as a screenplay entitled “The Cannibals.” After Bergman was hospitalized with pneumonia, he stopped working on the script and instead produced Persona.
  • Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann had an affair during the making of Persona, and Ullmann became pregnant with Bergman’s child. The actress did not want to relocate to Fårö to live with Bergman (who was still married to concert pianist Käbi Laretei at the time), and stayed in Oslo until Bergman sent her the script for Vargtimmen and convinced her to come to Fårö to make the film. She gave birth to the child before the movie was completed.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: When describing the figures that appear to him in his nightmares, Johan Borg mentions “the old lady, the one always threatening to take off her hat. Do you know what happens if she does? Her face comes off along with it, you see.” That’s not just a tease; although we never see Borg’s sketch of the character,  Bergman later comes through with the literal vision of the old woman removing her face along with her hat.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Boy at the beach; walking on the ceiling; face-off hag

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Themes of creative frustration, infidelity, humiliation, forbidden sexual impulses, and existential angst manifest as a court of demonic aristocrats who lure the artist and his love into a web of madness and self-destruction in Hour of the Wolf. Gothic imagery fits Ingmar Bergman like a comfortable shadow, and his only outright horror movie is every bit as philosophical, eerie and inscrutable as you could hope.


Clip from Hour of the Wolf

COMMENTS: According to Liv Ullmann, when, pregnant, she fled Ingmar Bergman’s arms after completing Persona, he convinced her to Continue reading 232. HOUR OF THE WOLF [VARGTIMMEN] (1968)

INGMAR BERGMAN’S MAGIC FLUTE (1975)

The conductor Bruno Walter once suggested that “The Magic Flute,” rather than the unfinished “Requiem,” was Mozart’s true valedictory work. While there have been many great recordings of “The Magic Flute,” Wilhelm Furtwangler’s famous performance stands out for its pronounced mysticism, which justifies Walter’s claim.

In Milos Forman’s superb but highly fictionalized Amadeus (1984), Mozart (Tom Hulce) dismisses “The Magic Flute” as vaudeville. The jealous but perceptive Salieri corrects Mozart: “It is sublime.” Although “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni” represent Mozart’s greatest achievements in opera, “The Magic Flute” is nearly an equal masterpiece that transcends its “vaudeville” genre. As with audio-only recorded performances, there have been numerous excellent filmed performances. Both David McVicar’s imaginative, yet traditional “Flute” for the Covent Garden and ‘s abridged English language version for the Met predictably dazzle.

The opera’s fanciful dressings of Masonic symbolism, mythological dragons, sorcerers, bird catchers and a silly plot can, under less perceptive direction, distract from Mozart’s philosophical “higher meaning.” In worst-case scenarios,”The Magic Flute” can be rendered like a Humperdinck “Hansel und Gretel” for the powdered wig audience. The opposite extreme can also be taken. In 2006, Kenneth Branagh produced a predominantly well-received, full-fledged film version (in English), which transported librettist Emanuel Shikaneder’s scenario to the First World War. In 2007, Martin Kusej, always a controversial director, used provocative conducting from Nikolaus Harnoncourt to transform the opera into an amorous, Expressionist nightmare.

While none of the aforementioned productions entirely short shift the composer’s context, ‘s 1975 The Magic Flute remains the proverbial yardstick by which all other film versions are measured. This is due to the director’s spiritually sagacious cinematic and musical aesthetics (he was an accomplished organist and musicologist, which super-conductor Herbert von Karajan sensed when he enviously wrote Bergman on seeing the film: “You direct as if you were a musician. You have a feeling for the rhythm, the musicality and pitch.”)

Bergman had unsuccessfully tried for years to mount a production of “The Magic Flute,” finally getting his chance in 1975 with a  television offer. He later said that making this film was the best experience of his career. His enthusiasm is contagious. Bergman worked with conductor Eric Ericson and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, and the film fully gives the appearance of an actual live performance. It isn’t, and although the singers lip sync to their own prerecorded voices, few have complained about it in forty years. It is sung in Swedish instead of the usual German, but only the most constipated opera buffs (who may be among the bitchiest inhabitants of Earth) have objected.

“Real” movies of operas (the aforementioned Branagh production) employ actors to lip synch for the singers, which rarely works, because in opera, the drama is in the arias. From the outset, Bergman wanted young singers, as opposed to established opera stars or actors, feeling that this would convey a sensuous warmth and energy. His instincts proved astute. Heading the cast is Hakan Hagegard as the charming bird catcher Papageno. Josef Kostlinger is an ideal, square-jawed Tamino, and the aptly named Ulrik Cold exudes the right amount of perfected menace as the sorcerer Sarastro. Irma Uriila as Tamino’s object of affection, Pamina, alongside Britt-Marie Aruhn, Kirsten Vaupel, and Birgitta Smiding as the Queen’s three ladies all capture the winsome quality of the composer’s characters. Elisabeth Erikson is the consummate Papagena (be prepared to utilize the repeat button for her duet with Papageno) and Birgit Nordin is a beautifully manipulative Queen of the Night.

Bergman and director of photography Sven Nykvist open on the “audience,” fluidly gliding over a sea of captivated faces, including Bergman’s young, cherubic daughter. Throughout the opera, Bergman repeatedly cuts away to her reaction (a few times too many). Still, rather than being a visual cue, prompting us to react likewise; we sense instead that she is participating in the dream with us.

Still from The Magic Flute (1978)With production design by Henny Normak (who also assisted Karen Erskine in costume design) and sets by Anna Lee-Hansen and Emilio Moliner, Bergman solves most of the problems with filmed opera. He emphasizes “The Magic Flute”‘s artificiality, wittily elevating us past the banality of hyperrealism. By utilizing the malleability of film as a medium, Bergman avoids the traps of limited action in the opera’s “real time,” employing inviting close-ups which, for once, are not gimmicky.

Admittedly, Shikaneder’s libretto is occasionally wayward. Bergman actually tightens the plot and quickens the pacing with his script, which parallels those Bergmanesque themes of human love as the authentic antidote to spiritual loneliness.

The result was overwhelming critical praise, which the late Pauline Kael summed up: “It is a blissful present, a model of how opera can be filmed.”

CAPSULE: WILD STRAWBERRIES (1957)

Smultronstället

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , ,

PLOT: An aging professor has dreams of death and flashbacks to his youth as he drives to a university to accept an honorary degree.

Still from Wild Strawberries (1957)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not weird enough. Only the presence of a couple of dream sequences, and the fact that the story emerges from the mind of semi-surrealist auteur Ingmar Bergman, make this character study worthy of a footnote in weird movie history.

COMMENTS: Incredibly, Ingmar Bergman released Wild Strawberries in the same year as The Seventh Seal, and although the overriding theme of both films is death, the approach taken in this quiet character study could hardly be different than the bombast of Seal‘s epic medieval fantasy. Wild Strawberries is an intimate, internalized movie about an ordinary man coping with regret at the end of his life, and, without a couple of dream sequences that Freud-obsessed Bergman couldn’t resist adding, it would belong to a tradition of quotidian dramatic cinema that stands directly opposed to the world of weird film. Many people deeply identify with Professor Isak’s pre-mortem ruminations, but I confess I’m not one of them. This is the kind of realism-based movie that conjures no magic for me, although I can appreciate the craftsmanship and understand why others with different predispositions rate it so highly. The dreams depicted here err towards psychological realism rather than mystery. The initial nightmare comes in quickly, taking pride of place directly after the credits. Featuring a withered man with a squashed face and a hearse accident, it’s obviously Isak’s death-anxiety dream, an easy slam dunk interpretation for any amateur psychotherapist. The second trip into Isak’s psyche takes place after we’ve been exposed to some flashbacks to his youth, and digs a bit deeper, although the symbolism is still fairly simple to grasp. It’s actually a series of dreams, beginning with another flashback to his youthful love. That turns into a common examination dream; Isak has shown up for a test, but he’s not prepared. He looks into a microscope and can’t see anything, he sees only nonsense words scrawled on the chalkboard. (At least he remembered to wear pants). After failing the exam, the experience morphs into a guilt dream; the test is revealed as a trial. The sequence ends on another memory, this time of his wife, and a tryst that may or may not have occurred as depicted but which nevertheless reveals his ambivalence about the woman who fathered his son. There is a conundrum in Wild Strawberries; Isak seeks forgiveness, but he seems rather a good egg than a terrible sinner. We are repeatedly told Isak is cold and unfeeling, but the warmth that emanates from behind Sjöström’s sad and crinkly eyes contradicts that narrative. When his daughter-in-law tells him he’s a selfish old man who only thinks of himself, we are immediately on his side; we know that he’s been misunderstood. Bergman surely could direct cold and unfeeling—see the performances of Jullan Kindahl as the buttoned-up housekeeper and Naima Wifstrand as Isak’s harridan mother—so perhaps the idea behind our instant fondness for Victor Sjöström’s grandfatherly professor is that we, the audience, see the doctor as he sees himself, not as others see him. The movie seeks to redeem a character with whom we begin in sympathy; a strange emotional arc, but one that works for many people. Ultimately, although Wild Strawberries is doubtlessly an excellent movie, I do find it a tiny bit overrated—but perhaps that’s only because it’s being compared to the author’s other masterpieces, like The Seventh Seal and Persona. This is a different species of film, a ruminative and elegiac movie that is focused narrowly on a perfectly realized individual rather than grand existential allegories. One of Bergman’s gifts is that he was comfortable working either on an epic stage or in a small chamber. He could bring a sense of warmth to the one and an echo of universality to the other. Wild Strawberries is clearly on the realistic chamber drama end of his range, and the “recommended” rating here is for general cinema enthusiasts, not lovers of the weird.

The Criterion Collection’s Wild Strawberries DVD includes a commentary by film scholar Peter Cowie and a ninety-minute Bergman documentary/interview, Ingmar Bergman on Life and Work. The 2013 Blu-ray upgrade (buy) adds a short introduction from the director and new behind-the-scenes footage.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…so thoroughly mystifying that we wonder whether Mr. Bergman himself knew what he was trying to say. As nearly as we can make out… the purpose of Mr. Bergman in this virtually surrealist exercise is to get at a comprehension of the feelings and the psychology of an aging man.”–Bosley Crowther, The New York Times (contemporaneous)