News has arrived that Ingmar Bergman, “probably the greatest film artist” ever according to Woody Allen, has died at 89. Below is my piece on my favorite Bergman film, The Silence.
Ingmar Bergman has made many interesting and intriguing films, but most of us admire them more than we like them. Excepting The Seventh Seal (1956), which helped people of my generation (the post-World War II generation) fall in love with cinema, few of us think of Bergman’s films as things to enjoy. There’s the bleakness of his vision, to be sure; but we do love the films of Bergman’s fellow Scandinavian Carl Theodor Dreyer, and some of those (The Passion of Joan of Arc; Day of Wrath) are scarcely less bleak. The problem with Bergman, it seems to me, is his nasty tone—the surliness of his disposition. His films, which are deeply personal, allow this personality of his to come through unmistakably, to dispiriting effect. In these films Bergman reliably insists on his humanism, but the way he sets up one character to heap invective on another may strike us as inhuman. We are repelled at the psychodrama of it all and would rather not, with whatever mental scalpel we can muster, locate where Bergman’s sadism leaves off and his masochism begins. In a Bergman film, when they are clear (in his “masterpiece,” Persona, for me at least, they are not), ideas can be a godsend; they divert us from Bergman’s nature to the nature of us all and of the universe, and this allows us to embrace the wisdom of the man without sinking into, and becoming lost in, his sourness.
One of the recognized great achievements of 1960s filmmaking, which Bergman both wrote and directed, is his trilogy on the nature of humanity’s contemporary relationship with God. Bergman, the son of a Lutheran priest, approached this material from a unique perspective: that of an atheist—although, logically, one may wonder how Bergman can so hate what he believes doesn’t exist. For a humanist such as Bergman, however, the reconciliation isn’t long in coming: Bergman hates God because others believe in God—others who discover in their hour of need that God isn’t forthcoming with help or hope. Bergman hates the idea of God for its capacity to attract souls and betray them. Bergman despised his father for many reasons, including the memory of childhood whippings and the man’s hatred of Jews; but most of all, I suspect, he did so because, as a hypocritical purveyor of Christian nonsense, his father seduced trusting parishioners and raped their minds and spirits. Bergman believed his father was one of God’s pimps.
Separated from it by just one film, The Virgin Spring (1959) enters the medieval past in order to pave the way for the modern trilogy to come. This is a fine film, in which several different characters, for different reasons, interpret the natural occurrence of a spring’s first gush as a religious event—a sign of God’s existence and concern for humanity. Thus Bergman explored Christianity’s mythmaking tendencies, showing a variety of points where faith intersects with individual human needs. The film, analytical, is very clear—crystal-clear. Bergman later repudiated The Virgin Spring, ostensibly on the grounds of its inferiority to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), on which he claimed to have modeled it. (It is not inferior.) One wonders whether Bergman, consciously or unconsciously, though, was rattled by its bizarre U.S. reception: adulation; noncomprehension. (The New York Daily News reviewer, for instance, assuming it was a religious film, named it 1960’s best film.) One wonders also whether Bergman embarked on his trilogy to make plain his attitude even to self-deluded misinterpreters.
In the first of the three chamber dramas, Through a Glass Darkly (Såsom i en spegel, 1961—I have no idea how accurate any of the English translations of titles are), Karin, the schizophrenic woman who “sees” God, sees him in two questionable forms on the island where she, her husband (Max von Sydow), her father (Gunnar Björnstrand) and her 17-year-old brother vacation: as a spider; as the helicopter that will transport her to the insane asylum on the mainland. In a grotesque parody of the relation among romantic, familial and spiritual love, Karin’s reception to God is predicated on her adulterous sex with Minus, her brother. After she has been taken away, Minus and the brother-in-law he has cuckolded speak of God’s love; for the boy, the proof of this is pathetic: his aloof father has condescended to speak to him. Crumbs. Through a Glass Darkly, although good, is a somewhat dank film highlighted by Harriet Andersson’s extraordinarily sensitive acting as Karin and Bergman’s moody use of Bach’s Fugue No. 2 in F Minor.
The second film, Winter Light (Nattvardsgästerna, 1963), again unfolds in a remote, isolated setting. It inherits Karin’s concept of a “spider-God.” It’s surprising who holds this idea, however: the village pastor, Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Björnstrand, exacting and powerful, in one of the greatest film performances ever). Since his wife’s death, Tomas has lost his faith, and yet he continues in his ministerial duties as his congregation dwindles; it’s his wife, not he, whom his parishioners loved. The village schoolteacher, Märta Lundberg (Ingrid Thulin, with luminous, spiritual eyes and a carnal mouth) is in love with Tomas, but Tomas holds her in contempt, nevertheless stringing her along because, he explains, he was raised to be polite. As pastor, similarly, he is a hypocrite clinging to the formality of his ministerial duties while failing to commit his heart to the emotional or spiritual welfare of his parishioners. (It’s worth noting, perhaps, that Tomas’s family name is Ericsson and Bergman’s father’s given name was Erik.) One devout member of the church, Karin Persson (Gunnel Lindblom), is the mother of two children and is again pregnant; she persuades her husband, Jonas (Max von Sydow), who is despondent over the state of the world, to seek counsel from Tomas. At their Sunday meeting, instead of trying to unburden Jonas, Tomas increases that burden by unburdening himself, gratuitously imposing on his fragile parishioner his own conviction that God doesn’t exist, rendering the universe loveless. Jonas commits suicide that day. Tomas’s self-involvement precludes his expressing even a trace of responsibility for Jonas’s end, to which, trusting, Jonas’s widow tells Tomas she is sure that he did everything he could to help her troubled spouse. After rebuking Marta, Tomas proceeds to church for evensong, taking her with him. She is present in church because of her feelings for Tomas; she has no religious motive. Nor do the organist, with ice water in his veins, and the sexton (Allan Edwall, excellent), a miserable little man with a hunched body crippled from a degenerative disease. Not one parishioner shows up for vespers. The church empty, as a matter of form Tomas nevertheless proceeds with the service. And why not? Everything about him reeks of form outlasting content or substance. His isn’t an existential act willing some sort of individual heroic purpose in the midst of a meaningless universe; Tomas’s own act is meaningless as well. It’s an instance of religious decadence. Moreover, the style of the film, cold, precise and exceedingly dry, conveys the same intent on Bergman’s part; it’s as if Bergman had turned his human specimens upside down and emptied them of their life blood. Tomas has talked about the silence of God—the silence that overwhelms him (and others) with God’s absence. The film, too, is very quiet, often silent; the images of snow outdoors, especially in long-shot, seem correlative to this. God seems to have abandoned these people; the only reasonable explanation for this is that God hasn’t abandoned anyone because he doesn’t exist. There’s a fleeting second, as Tomas stands indoors near a window, when the winter light illuminates him; for this ripple of light breezing by is like the sudden spring in The Virgin Spring where the head of the raped and murdered girl is lifted off the ground: a natural occurrence inviting a false religious interpretation to be imposed on it. The winter light is just winter light; it’s as bereft of meaning as the evensong that Tomas conducts and with which the film ends. Insofar as it bases existence in religious faith, the film argues, humanity lives lives of anticipation, not in-the-moment reality. Instead of looking around in order to tend to one another’s needs, people are looking ahead for their own salvation. The problem isn’t that God doesn’t exist; the problem is that people believe, or pretend to believe, that he does. Enrobed in silence, like Robert Browning’s Porphyria’s lover they keep waiting and waiting for God to speak.
Winter Light is one of Bergman’s most perfect, most brilliant films. (Until she replaced it with Bergman’s 1972 Cries and Whispers, Judith Crist considered it one of the ten best films ever made.) Even Tomas’s verbal assault on Marta is subordinated to the rigor of Bergman’s thematic development. God does nothing because God doesn’t exist; nonexistent, he can help neither the world nor anyone in it. The man of God’s incapacity to return Marta’s love is his following suit; God is love, and, since God doesn’t exist, Tomas feels justified in mistreating Marta, whom he is certainly entitled not to love, but to whom he ought to be reaching out in sympathy to assuage the terrible loneliness and sense of being unloved that they both feel. As another son of a minister, agnostic English poet Alfred Tennyson, once put it, translated into a social rather than an intimate context: “For merit lives from man to man, / And not from man, O Lord, to thee.”
The trilogy’s conclusion, The Silence (Tystnaden), I believe, is Bergman’s masterpiece. Much of the film unfolds as though it were a silent film with sound effects—and therefore, as we shall see (or hear), every sound unusually counts. God’s silence no longer allows the possibility that God is being reticent or has somehow been rendered mute; God is silent, the previous film established, because there is no God in reality. How fitting, then, that God isn’t mentioned in The Silence. The Silence is silent about God as a means of impressing upon the material both God’s silence and the cause of that silence: God’s nonexistence. When Bergman, like any artist, is at his best, form doesn’t just convey content but helps determine it.
Its opening movement attests to the fact that The Silence is Bergman at his strangest, most concentrated, most mysterious. Over the opening credits a ticking timepiece can be lowly heard. In the film proper, the silence is sheer except for the fainter sound of a moving train, which has replaced the ticking. We are in a train compartment—a world of black, grays and white. (The black-and-white cinematographer of all three films, and of The Virgin Spring also, is Sven Nykvist—here, doing his finest and most evocative work.) The first figure in the frame is that of a seated boy perhaps eight or nine years old; his dropped head is rising and waking up. The camera also rises to find a woman sitting to the left of him, presumably his mother, and another woman, who is as blond as the child, seated to the left of her. (Both women are dressed in white.) The woman we take to be the child’s mother is attempting to wave away oppressive heat; her face and neck are covered by a film of sweat. How eerie that we can scarcely hear the train, as though it weren’t traversing ground but moving through some other, alien dimension. The boy stands up and rubs his eyes. He faces us. Does he see us? This is Johan, and he’s played by the same actor, Jörgen Lindström, who will play the Artist as a Young Boy in the experimental preface to Persona (1966). The woman we take to be his mother is Anna (Gunnel Lindblom); the other woman—who is she? Anna’s sister? Anna’s lesbian lover? both?—is Ester (Ingrid Thulin, in the performance of a lifetime). The boy breaks the silence to ask Ester, who is a professional translator, what is written on a posted card. Ester doesn’t know this foreign language. Ester seems entirely free of the heat that’s plaguing Anna; she seems cool and collected—just tired. Are these Swedes headed home from vacation, or are they off on vacation? Or is there some other reason for their trip together? The boy now sits between Anna and Ester, compounding the ambiguity of which is his mother and which is his aunt, or “aunt.” Anna shifts her location to the bench on the opposite side of the compartment, and Johan lays his head in her lap. Without doubt Anna is his mommy; but we still don’t know—we will never know—which of the two women, if either, is his biological mother. Anna darts a look at Ester, creating a sense of tension between them. Is Johan the bone of this contention? The reconstituted silence is broken again, this time by Ester, who coughs. She isn’t as composed as we thought; she coughs blood into a handkerchief. Ester is sick, perhaps tubercular. Anna tends to her, gently shutting Johan outside the compartment. Ester lies down, in enormous pain, on the bench that Anna and Johan just occupied. Standing outside, Johan looks at Ester through the glass. When Ester raises her head, it overlaps with Johan’s in the frame. Eventually Johan departs, sitting on the floor and yawning and trying again to sleep as a wave of light washes over him. He is disturbed by a foreign language: a train official opening each compartment to announce the destination that the train is pulling into. The boy stands up as alternating short waves of light and darkness roll over him. We are reminded of the flickers of a Magic Lantern or a silent film. Perhaps we also see the flickers as the visual translation of a heartbeat—a labored heartbeat. The sound of the train is now fully audible. Johan’s eyes fall upon military men in their compartment; he leaps away not to be caught, standing at frightened attention. The men, now in the corridor, are oblivious to him. Johan’s eyes now look out a window; darkness. After the tunnel the first images—like the images of a motion picture—appear. Darkened military tanks, one after another after another, in a seemingly endless line. Wherever the train is stopping either is in the process of being militarily occupied or is already occupied. What’s happening? Johan is mesmerized by the phantasmagoric images on display, his eyes staying with one tank before repositioning to catch the next, his head moving back and forth. Johan is calm; but Anna has positioned herself behind him, and we see them both from the outside of the train through the window, and we see that Anna, the adult who knows about war, is deeply troubled. This is the place where the three of them are getting off. We do not yet know that one of them will never return home.
This is as good as Bergman gets. This is as good as anyone gets. In addition to suggesting and linking the two forms of human suffering that contest the existence of a loving God, mortality and violence, this opening movement locates in ambiguity the main principle of the Godless modern world. The death of God has deprived us of the clear, ordered meanings that our belief in God once imposed. In a foreign country where even the expert among them is unfamiliar with the language, the trio of main characters have been plunged into ambiguity; and so are we, on other grounds, since we don’t know, and will never know, the exact relationship between the two women, or the exact connection of each with Johan, or the nature of the military occupation that holds the unspecified country in its grip. The absence of God insists on a loss of clarity. The sum of The Silence’s enigmas is one of cinema’s richest evocations of universal mystery—the mystery with which (according to Bergman) the invention of God had been a reductive attempt to deal. With the loss of this outmoded invention, this crutch, humanity is left to make do with the mystery that is reality.
From the train, the film is plunged into the honking horns and other sounds of traffic in the city below. The juxtaposition stuns: following the quiet, sheltered opening movement, this blast of exposed, noisy mundane reality. It lasts a second or two. The trio of main characters have exchanged one confinement for another, hotel room for train compartment. Anna will later have access to the city outdoors, where she will pick up a man; Ester, terribly ill, will pretty much remain confined to her hotel room bed. Johan will explore on his own the hotel corridors, chancing across a troupe of dwarfs staying at the hotel—circus performers. Somehow, these little people will come to seem a chiding chorus on the increasingly hostile and embittered outbursts between the two women in Johan’s life. It has long been assumed that the two women are lesbian lovers, or have been lesbian lovers, no matter what else they are or aren’t. (The mentioning between them of “Father” suggests that they might be sisters.) Those who make this assumption, though, seem to be engaging in the same sort of attribution of reductive certainties that once led to humanity’s invention of God. We just don’t know. For instance, Ester’s anger when Anna has sex with a man in the hotel may have nothing to do with sexual jealousy; Ester may be enraged that Anna would thus abandon her, when Ester is deathly ill, for casual pleasure. The impermanent nature of Anna’s sexual escapade may be rubbing salt into the wound of Ester’s painfully sharpening awareness of her own impermanent existence. The women are certainly enrobed in a psychological mystery, for the two seem to be at once too close and yet out of touch. For some bizarre reason, however, the promotion of the film in the U.S. leaned on the titillating possibility that Anna and Ester are lesbian lovers. There is a coarse assertion behind this American “explanation”: Oh, that’s what they are. Oh, that’s what the film’s about.
The film’s ambiguous nature, of course, argues against the narrative neatness and reductive certainties that viewers equipped with a low supply of Keatsian negative capability may wish to impose on Bergman’s material. Without doubt, Bergman intends for us to follow Johan’s exploratory example by becoming open and exploratory in our reception of The Silence. One can’t appreciate the film’s greatness if one is constantly attempting to reduce it to the dimensions of something more familiar, a more familiar kind of film. Bergman wants us to let his film be so that we apprehend the human mysteries that are a part of the universal mystery that draws him, moves him and holds him in awe. Shorn of the explanation of “God,” the mystery tantalizes. It staggers the soul.
The sounds in this film are wondrously suggestive. For instance, there is the constant humming of the small fan that Ester has placed in her room. The complexity of this! Ester’s aim, of course, is the modicum of comfort that the fan’s cooling brings her, but at the same time, like the ticking of the timepiece with which the film opens, the sound of the fan’s operation also suggests her mortal predicament—her intense suffering and imminent death. Too, I am reminded of the buzzing fly in the room of a bedridden woman who is dying—actually, the woman narrates the poem past the point of death—in a poem by Emily Dickinson. (In Cries and Whispers, some of Agnes’s action unfolds past the point of her death.) Another sound in the film is the click of Johan’s toy pistol. Nothing could be more mundane than this child’s play were it not for the context: the military tanks outdoors. The tiny sound thus releases a flood of associations, including past European wars and current world turmoil such as the U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia, to which Persona will directly refer and to which Shame (1968) will indirectly refer. A child with a holstered pistol in itself suggests the impingement of American popular culture on Europe. Finally, the gun’s click is another tick of Ester’s and everyone else’s mortal clock. Indeed, the sharp taps of Ester’s typewriter keys seem to belong to the same cluster of mortal sounds.
Love is mysterious in this film, for it no longer can claim any derivation from or connection to God and God’s love. Clearly, Anna and Johan love one another as mother and son; there’s an image of the two napping together in the hotel that testifies to the closeness and contentment of their relationship. However, in that same image Ester is standing over the bed, almost aggressive in her attitude toward the two of them, a cigarette dangling from her mouth. What is she thinking? What about this portrait of mother and son asleep elicits her ambiguous response? In truth, Ester and Johan seem to have the closer bond—one more likely to retain consequence into the boy’s future. Ester promises Johan to figure out some of the words of the language in whatever country they are in and to write these down for him. On her deathbed, she summons the effort to create this note—a selfless act in contradistinction to Anna’s love for Johan, which is inseparable from the reciprocal nature of their affections. Ester gives Johan the note before he is taken away by Anna, who abandons Ester in this foreign country, where, presumably, Ester will die alone in a hotel bed. (The one person who may ease her passage as best he can is the Old World hotel attendant, a kindly elderly man—Håkan Jahnberg in a beautiful performance.) On the train back to Sweden, Anna interrupts Johan’s private reading of Ester’s short list of translated words and then sneers upon discovering its contents. But the boy is engrossed. Ester has left him everything she had, and he will cherish the gift and be inspired by it. Anna’s meanness is part of the world with which Johan must learn to contend; but Ester’s generosity—her keeping her word to a child by translating the foreign words for him—will lighten the load of his journey through life. Even if he forgets Ester (such things do happen), even if he loses the slip of paper with words as magical as the images of a great film, Ester’s love for Johan will continue to educate his heart.
The joy of watching and listening to The Silence is in part the joy of heightened apprehension and reception. I only wish that more of Bergman gave me such pleasure. Perhaps the two other films of his that mine the same vein of ambiguity are The Seventh Seal and the one called in the States The Passion of Anna (En passion, 1969).
The Silence deserves the three top prizes it won from the Swedish Film Institute: Best Film, Best Director, Best Actress (Ingrid Thulin).
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