Ingmar Bergman dies at 89, leaving behind him a body of work that changed the way audiences saw films and the way filmmakers made them.
With Bergman’s passing, it is a grim reminder that most of the good ones are gone. We don’t live in a culture that grows his kind anymore. Directors are conditioned here to go for the big one, the big box office blowout, and to maybe make it to the Oscars at some point. A body of work like Bergman’s, which started several decades ago, is not usual for any director. He approaches filmmaking the way great novelists approach writing or great artists approach paintings. The genius was in the doing.
Bergman won three Oscars for Foreign Language film – The Virgin Spring, Through a Glass Darkly, and Fanny and Alexander – but he was famous for many others, including The Seventh Seal, Persona, Cries and Whispers, Wild Strawberries, Scenes from a Marriage, The Silence. It’s staggering to contemplate anyone making that many great films.
Bergman was famous for bringing us an unforgettable realization of Death from the Seventh Seal that so far no one has outdone. He was particularly good at peeling back the layers of human social behavior to reveal the raw and vulnerable underneath. His beautiful women he was so captivated by often appeared freakish, as if their glass-cut cheekbones and wide eyes and full lips and exposed legs could intimidate the most confident of men. He knew what it was to be afraid. He knew what it was to be suffocated by ego.
Bergman was fished out of the sea of intellectuals and rescued by Woody Allen, who sang his praises, copied his work and hailed Bergman as one of the few great artists in film. Many only knew of Bergman because of Allen, but it didn’t matter how they found Bergman. Once you found him you couldn’t let go of him. Woody once wrote in the New York Times about his devotion to Bergman:
“Only in the late 50s, when I took my then wife to see a much talked about movie with the unpromising title Wild Strawberries, did I lock into what was to become a lifelong addiction to the films of Ingmar Bergman. I still recall my mouth dry and my heart pounding away from the first uncanny dream sequence to the last serene close-up. Who can forget such images? The clock with no hands. The horse-drawn hearse suddenly becoming stuck – the blinding sunlight and the face of the old man as he is being pulled into the coffin by his own dead body. Clearly here was a master with an inspired personal style; an artist of deep concern and intellect, whose films would prove equal to great European literature.”
My first real taste of Bergman came in my early twenties when I somehow was given a copy of a book containing three of his screenplays. The first one I read was Through a Glass Darkly. It was so moving and somehow disturbing that not a year has gone by in the past 20 that it did not pop into my head for one reason or another. Seeing the film was powerful in a different way, and I realized that Bergman was one of the few film and theater directors who could write as well as they could direct.
Through a Glass Darkly is about a daughter who has a fatal illness. She goes on holiday with her father, a famous writer, in order to connect with him. Instead of bonding, he studies her as if she were an insect under glass because it’s good for his writing; it’s the truth, after all, isn’t it? He is, at that moment, no longer a father. He has made his choice, and art won out. But once the daughter discovers this ugly truth about him, he can no longer live with what he’s done and he burns his writing.
That film says so brilliantly that, in a way, artists are cold bastards and cowards. It says that sometimes you have to sacrifice those you love in order to tell the truth. It says that the relationship you have with your children is, ultimately, more important than any piece of writing. In the end, the characters grasp all too well the futility of it all.
Bergman has died. But he died peacefully in his sleep. He left behind him five marriages and nine children. He leaves generations of filmmakers he inspired in his wake. There is no one living or working today who can follow in those giant, gorgeous footsteps.
The same day of Bergman’s death, another film giant passed away. Michelangelo Antonioni, director of Blow-Up, L’Avventura and The Passenger, was 94. He also leaves behind generations of filmmakers who were inspired by him. If Bergman was Woody Allen’s muse, Antonioni was Martin Scorsese’s. The director once called him a “poet of our changing world, a painter of our emotional labyrinth, an architect of our elusive reality. His works address the soul of the individual as well as the common soul of western civilization.”
Both directors are treasured in our collective memory.