Tag Archives: Ingmar Bergman

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: , , Ingrid Thulin

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)

139. PERSONA (1966)

“[The persona is] a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and on the other to conceal the true nature of the individual… one result of the dissolution of the persona is the release of fantasy—disorientation.”–Carl Jung, Two Essays on Analytical Psychology

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: ,

PLOT: Without explanation, Elisabeth, an actress, suddenly decides to stop talking and checks into a mental hospital. Alma, a young nurse, is assigned to take care of her, and even travels with her to vacation at the psychiatrist’s summer home as part of her therapy. Once there, Alma grows attached to the mute actress and begins confessing secrets to her; but as the two women spend time together, their personalities seem to merge, and Alma finds herself being mistaken for Elisabeth…

Still from Persona (1966)

BACKGROUND:

  • Ingmar Bergman wrote the script while in the hospital recuperating from a viral infection. He was partly inspired by seeing a photograph of actresses Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann together and noticing how similar they looked.
  • Bergman said that “Persona saved my life… if I had not found the strength to make that film, I would probably have been all washed up.” He also said that “…in Persona—and later in Cries and Whispers—I had gone as far as I could go… I touched wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover.”
  • Although they were both married to other people at the time, Bergman and Liv Ullmann fell in love on set and had a child together after the film was completed. Bergman had previously had an affair with Andersson, as well.
  • An almost subliminal shot of an erect penis (it lasts for about one-eighth of a second) was cut from most prints during the film’s original run. The film also occasionally ran into censorship problems due to Bibi Andersson’s long erotic monologue.
  • Persona was ranked the 18th greatest movie of all time on Sight and Sound’s 2012 critics poll, and came in 13th on the director’s poll.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Beautifully lensed by Bergman cinematographer Sven Nykvist, Persona is justly celebrated for its many doubling shots where the faces of the lead actresses overlap; at one point, their images are overlaid in a mirror, and at another we actually see a composite woman made up of half Liv Ullmann, half Bibi Andersson. The most meaningful of these effects comes near the very beginning of the movie, then recurs again near the very end. A mysterious, gangly young boy looks at a glowing screen with a face on it; the image blurs, then resolves into Andersson, then defocuses and morphs into Ullmann. The boy caresses the screen as if he’s trying to feel the face.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The first five minutes bring us an erect penis, a tarantula, a sheep being eviscerated at a slaughterhouse, nails hammered into palms, and corpses in a morgue. It’s an assault of images from a boiling id, but mixed with formalist reminders that we are watching a film: the first shot is of a projector’s arc lamp lighting in an incendiary burst, followed by film spooling, cartoons projected upside down, and so on. All of this before the title appears. Are you convinced the director has weird intentions yet?

Original U.S. trailer for Persona

COMMENTS: If you are a fan of the identity-morphing brainteasers Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001), or Performance (1970), or Continue reading 139. PERSONA (1966)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957)

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Nils Poppe, Bengt Ekerot,

PLOT:  A disillusioned knight and his cynical squire return to a 14th century Sweden ravaged

Still from The Seventh Seal (1957)

by the Black Plague; Death comes for the knight, but he entices the Reaper to play a game of chess for his soul.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LISTThe Seventh Seal is undoubtedly a great movie, but its weirdness is in doubt.  In fact, trying to decide if this film is strange enough to make it on the List almost makes me feel like Antonius Block wondering if there’s a God out there.  As an existential allegory, the film has a significant amount of unreality in its corner; although much of the movie is a starkly realistic portrait of medieval life, Bergman often ignores logic in minor ways when necessary to make his larger metaphorical points.  He also incorporates the fantastic in one major way, by making Death a literal character in the film, a “living, breathing” character who not only plays chess but also poses as a priest and chops down a tree with his scythe.  That’s not much weirdness to go on, though, and the best external support I can find for considering the movie “weird” is the fact that it’s been (inaccurately) tagged with “surrealism” on IMDB.   I’m torn; the weird movie community will need to chime in on this one.

COMMENTS: The Seventh Seal has a big, imposing reputation as a masterpiece of world cinema, but if you haven’t seen it yet, you may be surprised to find that most of what you think you know about it is wrong.  In the first place, it’s not nearly as gloomy as you may have heard.  True, every frame of the film is suffused with the foreknowledge of death—Bergman is very in-your-face with his message that you are going to die, and it’s going to be horrible—but the grim scenes alternate with lighthearted, comic ones.  The entire dynamic between the drunken smith Plog, and his unfaithful wife Maria, and her unlucky paramour Scat, for example, has a tone of bawdy Shakespearean comedy.  The idyllic scenes where the knight enjoys a meal of milk and wild strawberries with the juggler Jof and his family have a warmth that temporarily drives away the chill—even though there is a skull peering over the Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957)

CAPSULE: HOUR OF THE WOLF [VARGTIMMEN] (1968)

DIRECTED BY: Ingmar Bergman

FEATURING: Max von Sydow,

PLOT: An artist is haunted by memories of his past. While isolated on an island with his pregnant wife, his demons catch up to him. Madness and delusion creep deeper into his mind as a gang of mysterious island dwellers intervene in the couple’s life. A secret, scandalous affair surfaces, and when supernatural forces intervene, the couple’s relationship and sanity is strained.

Still from Hour of the Wolf [Vargtimmen] (1968)
WHY IT SHOULD’T MAKE THE LIST: This is a tough film to decipher. The ending is certainly weird, but the lead-up to that point is too ponderous and ambiguous. Bergman is a master and his lone foray into the horror genre is an excellent piece of film-making; his artistry in delving into the lower depths of the human psyche is better established in his other well-known masterpieces, however.

COMMENTS: The older I get, the more I appreciate Ingmar Bergman films. There is something about Swedish movies that encapsulates human existence like no other country. Scenes are left dangling on a thread waiting to snap. The slow, or still, images can verge on monotony, but are usually necessary to convey the pathos of the souls here. Sometimes watching scenes slowly transpire is the best way to fully grasp how life can unravel around us. A scene in this film actually plays out for an entire minute with the main character staring at his watch to express how even sixty seconds can feel like an eternity. Time can sometimes lay heavy on a burdened mind. What I’m trying to suggest here is that Bergman is amazing at capturing exactly what it means to be human. We sin and regret, yet we still long for penance and understanding. Even when our existence feels loathsome, it sure is nice to have someone else around to share in our misery. Modern Swedish director Roy Andersson (You, The Living) knows this as well and, like Bergman, his films are wrought with longing stares of sadness.  Both Swedes capture these depressing moments and bring them alive with precise balance and well thought out execution.  Even dialogue is matter-of-fact.  Nothing said in their films seems to be unimportant or drivel; it’s Continue reading CAPSULE: HOUR OF THE WOLF [VARGTIMMEN] (1968)

OCTOBER 31ST FRINGE VIEWING LIST

Here’s an alternative seasonal viewing list for the weird, that goes beyond the usual vampire/zombie/demon/slasher fare (although some favorite characters make appearances).

1. Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle 3 (2002) . Only the third of Barney’s epic Cremaster Cycle, made over an eight year period, has made it’s way to any type of video release, which is criminally unfortunate. The Guggenheim Museum, who financed it, exhibits the Cycle and describes it as a  “a self-enclosed aesthetic system consisting of five feature-length films that explore the processes of creation.”  Trailers are available on the Cremaster website; www.cremaster.net. The third movie is available via Amazon and other outlets, albeit at expensive prices [Ed. Note: the version of Cremaster 3 that’s commercially available is not actually the full movie, but a 30 minute excerpt that’s still highly collectible as the only Cremaster footage released].  The Cremaster Cycle is complex, challenging, provocative and not for the attention span-challenged.

Still from Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary (2002)2. Guy Maddin‘s Dracula-Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002). Guy’s Dracula ballet, choreographed to Mahler.  Just when you though nothing more could be done with this old, old story.  Of course, we are talking Mr. Maddin here.

3. Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf (1968). Bergman’s ode to German Expressionism has been labeled his sole horror film. Hour is a further continuation of frequent Bergman themes—the defeated artist, loss of God, nihilism—and stars Bergman regular Max Von Sydow.  Some find this dull and slow, others find it mesmerizing and nightmarish.

4. Roman Polanski‘s The Tenant (1976) returned this consummate craftsman back to the territory of Repulsion and remains one of his best films.  Polanski is now facing extradition charges for having sexual relations with a willing, underage girl thirty years Continue reading OCTOBER 31ST FRINGE VIEWING LIST