Dark Nights of the Soul: Themes in Irving Singer’s book Ingmar Bergman, Cinematic Philosopher

Acts of Love Can Redeem Loneliness

by Daniel Garrett Volume 14, Issue 12 / December 2010 14 minutes (3285 words)

Ingmar Bergman, Cinematic Philosopher: Reflections on His Creativity
By Irving Singer
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2007
ISBN 978-0-262-51323-4
240 pages

for Thomas R. Buckman, a Swedish friend

In the current cultural age in America and the larger world, it may be hard to recall a time when the public identification and artistic presentation of a troubled human psyche, a conflicted family, sexual pleasure and sexual frustration, a failed marriage, religious doubt, alienated labor, deep regret for how one has lived a life, and loveless death, may have been controversial matters. Ingmar Bergman, with intellect and imagination, made these matters the focus of his work with such consistency and thoroughness that he transformed the craft and look, and the expectations and satisfactions, to be found in film; and his best known motion pictures include the comedy A Lesson in Love (1953), and Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), Wild Strawberries (1957), Through a Glass Darkly (1961), The Devil’s Eye (1962), The Silence (1964), Persona (1966), The Hour of the Wolf (1968), Shame (1968), and Cries and Whispers (1972). He was loyal to black-and-white film for a long time, and then used color to great effect. Bergman’s vision of cinema and the kind of questions and topics his work offers to philosophy—the contemplation of human existence and thought; the study of knowledge, logic, truth, and wisdom—are the subject of Irving Singer’s book Ingmar Bergman, Cinematic Philosopher: Reflections on His Creativity, a small book that allows Singer meditation on magic, myth, and childhood; religion and love; and ambiguity and complexity.

Irving Singer’s books include Three Philosophical Filmmakers: Hitchcock, Welles, and Renoir and Reality Transformed: Film as Meaning and Technique, and Singer’s Ingmar Bergman, Cinematic Philosopher is a book that reminds us that the Swedish film writer and director Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007), born in Uppsala and reared in the Protestant evangelical faith of Martin Luther and educated at Stockholm University, remains one of the most significant, and really profound, artists in the history of film, though we may be forced to think about Bergman’s stories now in an atmosphere in which comedy and tragedy are fed by brutality and vulgarity, and everything that can be thought can be said, and much that can be said—no matter how cruel or perverse—can be done, tolerated, understood. Complexity and strangeness have consequence in Ingmar Bergman’s films; whereas, for many of us they are merely distraction or entertainment, to be witnessed and forgotten. It is a frivolous time, a troubling time: and a man can be compelled to wonder if meaning exists at all. It is possible that because of the pervasive superficiality of the contemporary world, Ingmar Bergman—melancholic, speculative—can be, again, of interest and use. Ingmar Bergman said that his work came out of the pressures of the spirit, and that his ideas were stirred by small things he observed, felt, or was told, with images rising in his mind, fascinating him; and in the preface to the affecting and respectable consideration of Bergman’s work by Irving Singer, Singer states that his own work “is written as an investigation by a philosopher into both the meaningfulness and the technical expertise that pervade Bergman’s film production” (ix-x).

Ingmar Bergman was part of a tradition of Nordic film—after Victor Sjostrom and Mauritz Stiller, men he admired—and, Bergman was first only one more studio worker, a screen editor-writer and director, and then he became someone whose success allowed him the freedom to be an artist following his own personal vision. For scholar Irving Singer, Bergman’s films, made with collaborators who were Bergman’s friends and informed by Bergman’s own life, contain “a mode of intellectual probing and penetration that seems to me clearly philosophical, though not the same as specialized investigations that belong to philosophy proper” (page 3). Bergman’s intelligent but flawed (neglectful, weak) men and gifted but suffering women breathe, look, gesture, and walk in stories that give a unique interpretation to what it means to be human. Throughout the book Ingmar Bergman, Cinematic Philosopher, Irving Singer compares Bergman to various artists, Picasso and Monet—but also Walt Whitman and August Strindberg, and Bach and Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock; and Singer notes that there are recurring motifs in Bergman’s work, such as names, dinner scenes, and wild strawberries (page 15). Bergman used theater devices as well as inventive camera approaches in his exploration of provocative personal and social subjects; and the staging of his work was akin to chamber plays, and the intimacy of his close-ups of faces and hands, and the expressive use of color in his production designs, had great power (pages 19-21).

Ingmar Bergman delved into reality—and created art with a mythic intensity. Light and color and sound and gesture and dream and memory were part of the textures of his films. Bergman, who spoke of himself as a craftsman, disavowed symbolism; he was not interested in anything standing apart from the story he was telling (32). In the black-and-white film Wild Strawberries, about life and death, an old man, at once alienated and respected, comfortable and tormented, has a dream in which he sees himself in a coffin reaching out—in two places at once, he, standing and walking toward the coffin, is moving toward death and is repelled by it; and also, from the coffin, is reaching out toward life (35). It is an example of there being two (at least two) tendencies or valences in Bergman’s work. The dream is not embellishment; it reflects the old man’s life: Isak Borg, the old man, a doctor and teacher, acted by Victor Sjostrom, is facing a certain stage in his career when he is being publically celebrated and must, for himself, ascertain whether he has lived a good life. Borg takes a trip with his daughter-in-law Marianne and she suggests his coldness has influenced that of his son (42); and she, pregnant, is thinking of not having the baby; but she sees how Borg responds to young people and Borg’s former patients praise him, and the two travelers Borg and Marianne—who meet others during their trip, including a quarrelling couple to whom they give a lift then put out of the car—become closer; and at the celebration for him, the old man feels acceptance, approval (48). Those factors all sound terribly grave, but watching the film one is delighted by the believable relationships and lively responses in the film. What may be most strange about Bergman is that he not only recognized the nature of human relationships, but that he gave us more.

There is an element of magic in Bergman’s work, and in one of his later films Fanny and Alexander, focused on children, a hermaphrodite figure (male presence, female voice) reads the child Alexander’s mind, leading to (hateful) wish fulfillment—the death of Alexander’s difficult stepfather, and the return of his cherished biological father (49-50). There are different forms of magic in other films: in the spiritual parable The Virgin Spring, violence (rape then retribution) precedes a new fountain and also renewed faith and redemption; and in Saraband there is a premonition—which the film viewer sees—of a successful future for a granddaughter-cellist should she abandon her clinging father (50-54). “In themselves,” Irving Singer asserts, “artistic media have no limits that are discernible in advance” (70).

The themes in Irving Singer’s book are stated, dropped, substituted, and picked up again. The relationship of men and women is prominent here; and then the use of silence and sound is discussed there. The development of the book might be described as circular, rather than linear; and there are times when it would seem to be simpler to present a strict chronology of films with commentary. I would be interested as well to know more about what Swedes thought of Bergman’s films as they were made (what were the things that pleased and displeased them, and what seemed obvious and what new?). Yet, the ideas in the book have clarity and import—and, thus, one does not feel bewilderment, even as one suspects that this book—serious rather than sad, and more affirmative than scolding—is a form of elegy. The book makes Ingmar Bergman and his work seem like necessary companions, as it glances at something one values and shows how Bergman respected, used, and enriched its associations: one instance is Bergman’s love of music. Bergman loved classical European music, especially Bach, and Bergman described his film Winter Light in musical terms, and music inspired the structure of Saraband. Regarding his Autumn Sonata, a film about a concert pianist and her daughter starring Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann, Ingmar Bergman depicts the dedication music requires and the pleasure it gives but suggests “the possible immorality of music itself. Is it worth all the sacrifices that it requires of people who give their lives to its ideal perfection?” (73) To love something—and to ask its cost, its ultimate worth—indicates great rigor. Irving Singer argues that for Ingmar Bergman “…imagination itself is best understood as a capacity to entertain possibilities…” (85); and that Bergman, as an examiner of myths, goes to the root of imagination (90).

The films of Ingmar Bergman are rich with spiritual concerns, involving and apart from religion and its mythology. Martin Luther (1483-1546), a German priest and university lecturer who believed in a god of love and the redeeming example and sacrifice of Jesus Christ, rebelled against a Catholic pope who promised indulgences—the forgiveness of sins—to those who contributed to the building of a basilica in Rome; and Luther wrote a critical response and nailed it to the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church, an act seen as the beginning of church debate and reformation. The work of Ingmar Bergman, who grew up in the Lutheran faith and died a self-declared atheist, was informed by particular spiritual ambivalences and wants, family turmoil, personal insecurity, and sexual guilt (101). He used his stories and films and plays to help himself master those issues.

One of Bergman’s most famous works, the black-and-white allegorical film The Seventh Seal, which includes a chess match between Death and a Knight, begins with a large bird identified as a predator; and, others see the bird as a hawk or an eagle, but Irving Singer prefers to see it as a peaceful dove, as it does not attack (104-105)—but I wonder why it cannot be a predator bird that heralds death? The white-faced Death, possibly comic, and not a devil figure, says he has no secrets to tell in a film that places piety against rationalism (107, and 110-111): Singer sees the Knight (Max von Sydow) as pious, having a sense of the holiness of humanity, and his squire as rational (112). (An act of the Knight’s allows a family to live, escaping Death.) Does self-consciousness or philosophical interpretation ruin the spontaneity of an experience? Is the film an expression of modern existentialism? Is the divine a supreme being, or a figment of imagination, or a transcendent presence in the world? The film The Seventh Seal allows us both distance and intimacy, amusement and contemplation—as we consider choice, skill, fate, luck, compassion, pleasure, and death. Its maker Ingmar Bergman—who first asserted then repudiated the idea that god is love—declared that atheism was healthy for him, that he was able to accept himself more humbly, rather than feel conflicted and guilty because he was not perfect and feared condemnation (116-117).

The film Winter Light, inspired by and about the guilt of a clergyman at the death of a parishioner he could not help, suggests that there might be something to be gained from the shared form of religious practice, if not the content of religion (127). Bergman exorcised his religious concerns through the film; and in another film centered on two sisters, one of whom has a curious son, The Silence, which Irving Singer calls a masterpiece, there is the absence of any god, and the boy’s perspective is the inquisitive and compassionate view (129-130). Yet, Singer declares that the Bergman films that followed in the 1960s and 70s are “all horror stories about human isolation and the excruciating perils that even humane and talented people face in struggling to overcome it” (138). In films in which anguish battled with hope, Bergman’s characters have trouble telling the truth, finding love, and being true to the love they find. Yet, though people do not easily, or usually, say “I love you” in Bergman’s films, there are glimpses of what seems genuine love between Johan and Marianne in 1973’s Scenes from a Marriage, and in Summer with Monika (A Summer with Monica), Smiles of a Summer Night, and Summer Interlude. The film Smiles of a Summer Night, a film full of music and in which a son runs off with his father’s much younger wife, was the critical and popular success that brought Bergman creative freedom; and in Summer Interlude, a ballerina remembers young love, lost love, sadness, and then finds rejuvenation. Bergman’s later films would take up that sense of possibility.

How well can human beings know each other; and how deeply can they connect? Persona speculates on the possibility of merging. Of course, it is Persona, a film about identity and pain and the possibility of merging, and focused on a nurse and her actress-patient, that is central to Bergman’s work. The philosopher-author Irving Singer thinks that merging is a desire but not a real possibility (171). In Persona, confusions and perceptions (and fears and doubts) are expressed in dreams that the film audience views. The actress Elisabet in the film has withdrawn from her usual life, a rejection of connection and also of personal and social lying; and a psychiatrist thinks her refusal to move and inclination to be silent represent the rejection of lying—but also one more part that the actress is playing, a part she will play to the hilt (172). Nurse and patient spend a lot of time together; and the attentive nurse, Alma, at one point, seems to be confused for the actress Elisabet. (Is the nurse Alma losing her own identity? Is the sickness of the actress infectious?) It is not unusual for women to compare faces and hands, to share life stories, and to wonder what it is like to be the other. That fact gives the scenario some of its plausibility. The fact that the patient is an actress is a reminder that roles can be taken and rejected. Bergman’s allowing film cameras to be seen at the beginning and end of the film increases the consciousness of artifice. The deeper questions of the film are, Who are we, what can we know, what is truth, what is the ultimate value of art, and what are the limits of compassion or love? Those are all great questions. Are they too great—and do they tantalize but defy the resources of cinema? The film Persona suggests that compassion or love can subvert one’s sense of self (and in film impression and suggestion are formidable forces); but Ingmar Bergman said making the film saved his life, and that in Persona and Cries and Whispers he found “wordless secrets” only cinema can discover (178).

In the 1982 German-language From the Life of Marionettes, Ingmar Bergman presents the chilly, confused life of a business executive, Peter, and his fashion designer wife, Katarina, and her homosexual associate, Tim, with industry and money not contributing to happiness and psychiatry offering little illumination (pages 179 and 187). The later (1984) Fanny and Alexander is a happier film, without being shallow—Bergman said he wanted to express the joy he feels and has felt but rarely shared (205). Bergman’s scholar, Irving Singer, concludes that though not religious, Bergman thought human beings contained something precious—holy. In his late 1990s film Private Confessions, it is advised that you do not have to promise love or say “I love you” but you can perform acts of love (212-213). With a seriousness that did not exile passion or wit, a comic lightness without triviality, Ingmar Bergman produced complex works of emotion and thought, of art and craft; and these are works of love.

I read Irving Singer’s Ingmar Bergman, Cinematic Philosopher during a period of time when I was thinking about the writing of fiction, listening to music (jazz, independent rock, European classical, and commercial pap), hearing news reports about the contentions among American congressmen, and the attempted assassination of a public figure, the flooding of Australia, a revolution in Tunisia. I was attempting to be practical and forgiving regarding a personal disappointment, and trying, as I do almost always, to think about the future. I also was reading again, for the first time in several years, James Baldwin’s Another Country, a novel focused on the life and death of a jazz musician in New York and the anger and grief of his friends (the jazz drummer’s sister is a singer and his best friend is a writer and another friend is an actor); and it is a book I have thought of often as being about friendship and love and pain and art but which is often described by many, and sometimes by me, as being about race and sexuality. The Baldwin novel Another Country was published in the early 1960s (Baldwin wrote the last page in December, 1961); and Baldwin, like Bergman, was part of a cultural movement in the western world, in different countries and fields, to speak of the facts of modern life—haunted by religion but informed by Darwin, Marx, and Freud, in a world in which people were both more separate, more consciously individual, and lacking the power to fulfill individual desires. Baldwin admired Bergman’s work, and he visited Bergman in Sweden and wrote about him; and I recall Baldwin’s simple but useful comment that looking out the window of Bergman’s office, he could see that the environment in many of Bergman’s films—what people elsewhere might receive as strange—was what Bergman saw every day. Reading the Singer book on Bergman reminded me of the primacy of emotion, and I could see at the same time how much Baldwin’s book Another Country was about loneliness and the desire for and fear of love, and how society throws up habits and values that distract and disturb, making love more difficult to find. In the novel Baldwin describes the jazz drummer Rufus’s life with a rough energy, whereas his description of husband Richard and wife Cass’s life is more ordered, and Eric’s time in Paris is a paradise with lovely seconds sounded between Eric and his lover Yves: tones fit the subject, but Baldwin introduces a comprehension—both sympathy and harsh judgement—that is all his own, as he wants his characters, an echo of the American people, to abandon their fears and lies and accept truth and love. The book’s details—how people walk in the city, desperately looking and turning away from others, beginning conversations and failing to hear the answers to questions asked, and how money is used to express or deny the need to express affection, and the racial and sexual prejudice that are used to excite or repress connections; and more—came to the fore. The things that are important are sometimes neither seen nor heard; and a great writer or filmmaker can help us to see and hear again: and then we know we can choose the kind of life we want to live and we can begin to walk in that direction.

Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue. Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.

Volume 14, Issue 12 / December 2010 Book Reviews   ingmar bergman