Woody Allen once lauded Ingmar Bergman as “probably the greatest film artist, all things considered, since the invention of the motion picture camera” – yet he is also the most misunderstood. Ten years after Bergman’s death, the received wisdom about his work continues to obscure his legacy, and discourages new audiences from discovering his achievements.
Bergman’s primary theme is not death but the redemptive possibility of love
The obituaries a decade ago were predictably clichéd: Bergman’s films are ‘morbid’ and ‘pitiless’, ‘a long, dark night of the soul. Yet the primary theme of Bergman’s work – the thread that links all his films together, across genres – is not death but the redemptive possibility of love. His bleakest visions relate not to mortality but to isolation and rejection; in particular, to unrequited love.
At times, the caricatures have been wholly misleading. Bergman’s relentless inquisitiveness is characterised as ‘cerebral’, suggesting an abstract loftiness, when in fact his work is intensely visceral. Bergman is categorised as ‘austere’, despite his playfulness, exemplified by Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), and the sensuality of many of his key works, including Persona (1966) and Cries & Whispers (1972).
Similarly, Bergman’s eloquence has been mistaken for sophistry, when in reality he mistrusts language and his work perpetually cautions against what he termed “the restrictive control of the intellect”. Those who regard Bergman as ‘elite’ ignore that his films are wary of authority (clerical or political) and his characters find wisdom beyond knowledge, in the comforts of human communion.
What makes Bergman radical is his unfashionable sincerity
In over 60 films in a career spanning six decades, Bergman charted the harrowing cost of what he called “emotional poverty”. His work in all its variety is arrayed against the cynical, clinical, calculating, careless, and…