Once upon a time (May 5, 1995), a critic for our most distinguished newspaper wrote an article that has stuck in my craw for nearly two decades. Writing of Ingmar Bergman (1918–2007), this critic definitively declared, “His position in the great triumvirate of directors dominating the second half of this century (with Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa) is unquestioned.” I consider this utter nonsense.
To begin with, the author completely ignores the fact that many of the greatest directors in film history were still turning out post-1950 masterpieces, a number of which equaled or surpassed anything the “triumvirate” ever managed. This included Buñuel, Chaplin, Cukor, Dreyer, Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, Lang, Mizoguchi, Ophuls, Ozu, Renoir, Rossellini, Tati, Visconti, and Welles. Then there were an even greater number of more recent filmmakers whose rivalry made the dominance of the “triumvirate” way less than “unquestioned.” A partial list would include Allen, Altman, Antonioni, Bertolucci, Bresson, Chabrol, Forman, Godard, Kazan, Kubrick, Losey, Malle, Polanski, Resnais, S. Ray, Scorsese, Truffaut, Varda, and Wajda. Finally, the critic refuses to recognize other important figures who came along late in the century.
I don’t blame Bergman himself for this over-inflation of his reputation, although such critical adulation led inevitably to a level of pretentiousness in his work. Yet he was willing to recognize the greatness of a popular artist like John Ford (as Ford never hesitated to remind interviewers), and, indeed, I believe Bergman’s most successful and lasting works are his more accessible, less cerebral films: lyrical films (Wild Strawberries, Smiles of a Summer Night, The Virgin Spring, The Magic Flute, Fanny and Alexander), and more naturalistic movies (Scenes from a Marriage). For those tortured works where we are invited to agonize along with Ingmar (Winter Light, Shame, Hour of the Wolf, The Ritual), Bergman’s excessive introspection winds up alienating almost anyone who doesn’t equate going to the movies with slumming.
My inclination is to agree with critic Jonathan Rosenbaum’s obituary for Bergman, “Scenes from an Overrated Career,” which posits that the director was often too self-absorbed to remain relevant. In Bergman Island, a documentary made on Faro Island (his isolated home for many years prior to his death), the director examines his own “cruelty and vanity” toward his many wives and other women. He was, of course, constantly tormented by his own peculiar concerns about the existence of God. Ultimately, Bergman’s obsessions undermined his ability to communicate with his audience, and it became almost like having a tumor on his work—auteurism metastasizing and gone wild. In a sense, Bergman (like Ford with Young Mr. Lincoln, How Green Was My Valley, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) was at his best when he celebrated the cinema’s capacity for evoking poignant memories and feelings and making the past come to life. Wild Strawberries is an excellent example of this.
Victor Sjöström (1879–1960), the star of the film, returned to Sweden from a childhood in Brooklyn and had been Europe’s leading director for much of the silent period before returning to America once again to go to M-G-M, where (as Victor Seastrom) he directed Lillian Gish in The Scarlet Letter and The Wind (her two best films after leaving D. W. Griffith) and Greta Garbo in the now mostly lost The Divine Woman. Sjöström had acted in many of his own films (Terje Vigen, The Outlaw and His Wife, The Phantom Chariot), and he resumed his acting career when he returned to Sweden in the 1930s. This included a performance in Bergman’s 1950 film To Joy, which Sjöström also wrote. In Bergman Island, Bergman relates how the older man took over Svensk Filmindustri and disciplined him on how to make films without alienating his coworkers. In Wild Strawberries, Bergman manages to extract a superb performance from a reluctant and tired Sjöström, and from Bibi Andersson and Ingrid Thulin. If there was a triumvirate of great directors of actresses, I would certainly include George Cukor and Elia Kazan along with Bergman, (exempting Griffith, the progenitor for film acting).
Ingmar Bergman was a very complex man. One might write him off as a cold fish, were it not for films like Wild Strawberries bringing out what Roger Manvell called the director’s “compassionate understanding and the need for warmth and humanity.” Every year on his birthday (Bastille Day), Bergman screened Chaplin’s melancholy masterpiece The Circus for family and friends. The guy wasn’t all existential angst. Sometimes, he could enjoy an inept tightrope walker with his pants falling down being attacked by a barrel of monkeys. Was this funny, or a metaphor for life?