Ingmar Bergman’s films aren’t healthy for pulp entertainment junkies, so don’t consider going to this festival if you can’t withstand “depressing” films. A certain film fanatic who borrowed seven of his films — including The Seventh Seal (1957), Wild Strawberries (1957), Cries and Whispers (1982) and Fanny and Alexander (1982) — and watched it one after the other in a span of 10 days, had to go for very long walks every day for a month before he could get a grip on his depression without a prescription of Prozac or lounging in a shrink’s couch.
Bergman lived well into the Prozac world — he lived to be 89, and died on 30 July 2007, incidentally on the same day that another gifted auteur Michangelo Antonioni breathed his last. Did he ever consider psychiatry—the 21st century wonder, considered a panacea for all ills afflicting the human mind—an antidote to the kind of anguish he portrayed in his films? Perhaps not. His last film, Saraband (2003), a hysterical, melodramatic story of a father so protective about his teenage daughter that their relationship borders on incest, was testimony to Bergman’s irrevocably cynical view of the human condition.
Palador Pictures has just released a set of five Bergman movies on the director’s first death anniversary. The tribute DVD box, titled Remembering Bergman–A Retrospective, includes Music in Darkness (1948), Summer With Monika (1953), Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1962) and The Silence (1963), along with Intermezzo — a freewheeling interview with Bergman — as a special feature. Gunnar Bergdahl, Bergman’s close friend who made a documentary on him, was also in India for the release of the DVD set and to kick-off a festival of Bergman’s films that begins in New Delhi on 9 August and travels to Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Bangalore and Pune. Bergdahl said that when Bergman saw the first documentary, “he hated it”. “He thought it was very, very boring, it didn’t make him look good, it was too long,” Bergdahl said (click on media player below to view an interview with Bergdahl).
If one were to watch all 60 films of Bergman (this writer has watched just eight of them), you’ll be privy to a dark, misanthropic artistic mind at work. In Bergman’s world, men torture women, women torture men and they torture each other; and besides that, Death comes announced and brutally, making life pointless and ludicrous.
But you don’t watch a Bergman film for its story. Most of them are meant to shock and jolt. A Bergman film is unique for its visual tapestry, the director’s gift for creating images that can convey much more than dialogues can.
Take, for example, Wild Strawberries, which, by Bergman standards, was a film that looked at the bright side of life.
Isak Borg, a distinguished medical scientist in his 70s, travels from Stockholm to Lund with his daughter-in-law to receive an honorary doctorate. On the long car journey the old man remembers his past — the girl he loved who married his brother instead, and his own bitter marriage. The film opens with a dream sequence that has been copied and parodied by film-makers ever since. Borg arrives at a house with closed windows, where he sees a clock without its hands and a ruined hearse approaching him. One of the hearse’s wheels gets stuck in a lamp post and a coffin falls out. The outstretched hand of the corpse inside it tries to pull Borg inside. Expressionist, Freudian, whatever you call it, this was ingenuous moving imagery in the 1950s although they may look faux-arty now. The extraordinariness of Bergman’s visual language is that it takes the emotions of the characters who are picturized in a scene to a deeper, heightened level.
Wild Strawberries, a text in all film schools, is as widely revered by the film-makers and artists the world over as his other, more violent and surreal films. Cries and Whispers is famous for a spectacularly disturbing scene: A beautiful woman, perhaps in her 40s, mutilates her sex organs with glass, then smears vaginal blood all over her face to communicate to her husband that their marriage is damaged. In Winter Light (1962) the suicidal protagonist confesses his fear to his pastor that life has no meaning, which elicits an equally dark response from the priest who happens to be suicidal, too. Characters such as these, in their utter incapability for redemption, often turn farcical, making Bergman’s films complex and multi-layered.
Bergman’s influence in the history of 20th century cinema is vast. Film-makers such as Krzysztof Kieslowski, Robert Altman, David Lynch, Woody Allen, Lars Von Trier and Stanley Kubrick have attributed their film-making style to Bergman’s influences. Keislowski once called Bergman “perhaps the only film-maker in the world to have said as much about human nature as Dostoevsky or Camus”.
Exactly a year ago, soon after Swedish auteur Bergman died, director Woody Allen’s long obituary on Bergman appeared in The New York Times. Allen, known to unabashedly fawn over and imitate Bergman all his life, was refreshingly restrained in his assessment of his idol’s life and works. He concluded the piece by saying that genius can’t be passed on and he had not imbibed anything creative from Bergman and his films except a “work ethic” and the “plain discipline” of doing the best at a given moment and “never giving in to the foolish world of hits and flops or succumbing to playing the glitzy role of the film director, but making a movie and moving on to the next one”.
Bergman was known to be the fun-loving sort who lived the last quarter of his life mostly in an island near Russia, where he watched films of all kinds. He grew up in a family of extreme-right political and religious beliefs; once had to flee Sweden because he was convicted for tax evasion charges; had five failed marriages; was always beguiled by his leading ladies (Liv Ullmann and Bibi Anderson who featured in many of his later films, didn’t have great things to say about him); and died in the island on a summer day, leaving some profoundly dark films of all times.
The DVD box set Remembering Bergman – A Retrospective costs Rs2,000, and is available online at www.mypalador.com
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A list of the films on view all of next week:
Venue: Siri Fort Auditorium 2, August Kranti Marg, Khel Gaon
‘Wild Strawberries’, on 8 August, 7.30-9:30pm
‘Summer Interlude’, on 9 August, 10:30am-12:30pm
‘Through A Glass Darkly’, on 10 August, 7:30-9:30pm
‘Winter Light’, on 11 August, 10:30am-12:30pm
‘The Silence’, on 12 August, 7:30-9:30pm
‘Summer With Monika’, on 13 August, 7:30-9:30pm
‘The Devil’s Eye’, on 14 August, 7:30-9:30pm
For more details and other city venues, visit www.mypalador.com