ingmarbergmanr_468x490.jpgIngmar Bergman died. For years he had made films about people trying to burst out of their skins, I guess Bergman himself finally burst out of his skin. Sweden like the rest of the Scandinavian countries is a cold country with harsh people.

Many years back on a cold night in Sweden was born a precocious little child. This child bought up in what I as an Indian see as a country that spawned the ferocious Viking hordes. Cold countries have this quality of cold nature and repressed emotions, and given the conditions of the young boy the situation was acerbated. He grew up shy and withdrawn choosing to lurk in the shadows of the house in the cold winters that lasted over most of the year. In film after film that he made he made a universe of profound and disturbing women and the occasional old man who fought nightmarish complexes. Through long winters again and again he saw people struggling against their personalities and the inferiorities it spawned. This is the universe that we see in the films that this boy made when he grew up. In his films we see the opening up of the inner life to an intimate engagement in which a range of uncomfortable feelings are explored. The audience of these films comes out feeling a dread and anxiety, that haunts for much later. In the words of psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek the only true emotion is anxiety. Taking Zizek seriously would mean that Igmar Bergman was very brazen in his show of emotion, since all his films were about various anxieties that plague men and women and did not shy from creating anxiety in his audience.

Some critics blamed him of over indulgence and criticized him for being myopic and getting stuck within the confines of three broad subjects, all of them bleak: the ones where men torment women, the ones where women torment men, and the ones where men and women torment each other. Not surprisingly, Bergman’s first movie (as an actor/writer) is entitled Torment. Starting his career as an assistant director for an Opera theatre. He went on to write about 12 plays and an opera. As a promising young writer who showed great promise he caught the eye of people in the Swedish film industry. Pretty soon he had a regular job fixing screenplays and writing dialogues for films. Though his first film Crisis (1945) bombed, he got another chance in 1946 called It rains on our love, the failure of this film too was overlooked. But when after four films, the last of them being Music in Darkness, he was fired by the studio. But by making the films Prison (1949) which was a success Bergman found favor with the studio again. This though, did not last long and with the government increasing taxes on the film Industry in Sweden Bergman was fired again.

But this was rather fortuitous since after his expulsion from his job in Sweden he moved to Stockholm where he joined the Stadteatre in Stockholm where he started a successful collaboration with actors who will work in his future movies; Gunnel Lindblom, Max von Sydow, Ingrid Thulin, Harriet and Bibi Andersson. At Stadteatre he made most of his great films in 1954, A lesson in love, n 1955 Journey into Autumn (aka Dreams), The Seventh Seal (1956), in 1957 he writes and directs Wild Strawberries, which won both the Golden Bear in Berlin and critic award in Venice, The Face (1958, aka The Magician) wins the special prize for direction in Venice, The Virgin Spring (1959) gives Bergman the first Oscar for foreign movie, followed closely by The Devil’s eye. This was probably Bergman’s most creative period, though he remained prolific till the mid 70s, making one film a year. This glorious run of his ended in 1976 when he was reprimanded by the Swedish government for failure to pay taxes. So affected was he by this situation that he first recovered in a psychiatric hospital and subsequently runs away from Sweden. But he returns in a year’s time and writes Autumn Sonata in collaboration with Ingrid Bergman. By the 1980s he is directing for television and once gain his output as an auteur picks up. He writes for the German TV From the Life of the Marionettes (1980), followed one year later by the monumental Fanny and Alexander, an autobiographic TV movie of almost 5 hours; the cinema version is cut down to 3 hours, and gave Bergman four Oscar awards.

He continued to work mostly in theatre, till the 2003 Saraband which was his self proclaimed last film which he made in his mid eighties. Intelligently framed, well-lit, crisply edited, and entirely adequate for its purposes, Saraband started as a TV film shot on digital video. Bergman dissatisfied with the look of the tape-to-film transfer had kept from allowing it to be shown theatrically. But in 2004 he relented finally and the film was released theatrically to almost all round approval. His last film is one of his best according to many who have seen it. Once again in this film the lead character, Johan exclaims, “My life has been shit, a totally meaningless, idiotic life.” Enough to prove that the Bergman at the age of 86 still had the cynical and youthfully acerbic nihilism going strong in him, as strong as when he was a young man writing and making films for the Swedish Film Industry.

In his oeuvre we a see a single minded dedication to get at the root cause of insecurity in a men and women, story after story he delved deeply into this subject prompting his detractors to brand him apolitical and self-obsessed. But the fact remains at the end of the day Bergman’s work forces us to ask ourselves what we are and why we behave the way we behave in society –questions that are profoundly ethical, political and social. For me the most poignant question raised by a Bergman film is why are we so happy? In one phrase if we try to sum up Bergman’s thesis in his oeuvre I would use the phrase, “life stretches in a cruel but voluptuous arc from birth to death, a meaningless journey”. I haven’t understood yet why his critics consider this a bad thing, everything sad is not bad, and it is often good to be sad. It’s another matter that there is hardly an audience anymore who would pay money to be sad. This is also a sad fact. Another sad fact is that I haven’t seen enough Bergman movies to write so much about him, because whenever I saw Bergman movie sadness used to well up in me and I did not like that so I would just walk out of the theatre and feel sad for the people in the film and in the theatre. But I never fail to respectfully nod my head about the indispensability and aptness of Bergman films in the film history. I know some people who will beat me up if they read this piece, I hope they are not reading.

“Bergman’s guilt-ridden desire to crack open the narcissistic shell and face reality strikes a distinct chord in our newly troubled times. Perhaps he is only just beginning to speak to us”, says Peter Matthews about Bergman in a review of Saraband in the Sight Sound of January 2002. Alas, it’s sad that we lose the man just when his work could start to speak to us, but then maybe no one would have heard his voice even if he had spoken. Ah well, its so sad.