To mourn Ingmar Bergman, who died Monday at the age of 89 on his beloved island of Faro, is to mourn a certain kind of hope for what cinema could do. For a time around the height of his fame—the late ‘50s to the early ‘70s, when each new Bergman film was an internationally discussed event—this new medium, still less than 100 years old, emerged as the most ambitious of the muses. Films like The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries (or, from other directors, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Ikiru) were suddenly taking on a metaphysical cargo traditionally associated with literature, theater, or opera, daring to ask, like the suicidal protagonist of Bergman’s Winter Light, “Why must we live?”
It’s easy to laugh now at the portentousness of that line, not because we’ve figured out why, indeed, we must live, but because the movie theater stopped being the place to ask that question. In the past couple of decades, cinema has scaled back its ambitions, and Bergman’s own artistic ambition—his films can be cerebral, austere, unashamedly indebted to psychoanalysis and philosophy—has come to seem dated: noble, to be sure, but faintly quaint.
This falling out of favor has been subtle: The few films Bergman directed after the glorious Fanny and Alexander (which he claimed, upon its 1982 release, would be his final theatrical film) were, for the most part, acclaimed by critics. His last, Saraband (2003), a kind of 30-years-after sequel to Scenes From a Marriage, was praised to the skies, and deservedly so. But it nonetheless seemed, in the past two decades, as if Bergman’s work had dropped out of the conversation, relegated to the shelf of Janus classics, more respected than watched. (Though the recent release of a restored 50th-anniversary print of The Seventh Seal did spark a revival of that gloomy repertory favorite.)
By way of mourning the man, then, I propose a trip to your local video store (or to Netflix) to remind yourself just how juicy a director Bergman could be. Walking out of The Best Intentions (1991), a superb three-hour exploration of Bergman’s parents’ marriage—written by Bergman and directed by Bille August—the wife of a friend marveled, “Can you imagine what it would be like to live with that level of insight into your parents’ relationship?” Bergman’s best films had an almost fearsome astuteness, yet they were far from devoid of beauty or joy. One of my best Bergman memories is of watching his delightful comic adaptation of The Magic Flute with my 80-something-year-old grandmother on New Year’s Eve, the libretto open on the bed between us.
Of the great filmmakers of the high-art period—Kubrick, Fellini, Kurosawa—it was Bergman who worked on the smallest and most intimate scale. “I’m passionately interested in human beings, the human face, the human soul,” he told Dick Cavett in an interview. When screening a mental clip reel of my most memorable Bergman moments, I find that nearly all of them involve faces: There’s that shot late in Persona in which the simplest of effects, a vertically split screen, creates a terrifying image of madness, as the perfect features of Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann merge into one asymmetrical and shockingly ugly face. There’s the rapt face of the child in the audience in The Magic Flute (played by Bergman’s daughter), and the solemn face of Alexander (Bertil Guve) peering into his toy theater at the beginning of Fanny and Alexander.
That theater-mad boy, of course, was Bergman himself, who wrote in his autobiography how desperately he coveted his younger brother’s “magic lantern,” a kind of proto-film projector that threw animated shadows on the wall. He swapped 100 tin soldiers for the toy, and proceeded, in one form or another, to play with it for the rest of his life. I think, on this day, we can safely say he made a good trade.