07 July 2009

The Passion of Ingmar

"Listen to the cry of a woman in labor -- look at the dying man's last struggle, and then tell me whether something that begins and ends thus could be intended for enjoyment."
Søren Kierkegaard

It would seem that master Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman ingrained this above censure into every reel of film he ever cut. Bergman's worldview is one of despair, loneliness, betrayal, suffering, and insanity. Surely his films had their odd moments of levity. Smiles of Summer Night (1955), first showcasing his immense talents beyond the borders of his Scandinavian homeland, was a full-fledged comedy in the tradition of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. But even this lighthearted gem drew its humour from duplicitous lovers, unloving family members, and all-around disloyalty.

Matching the arctic climate of his difficult youth, Bergman's films deal with the cold reality we are faced with in the absence of God. Bergman's characters find life dreadful, unfair, and cruel: Antonious Block (Max Von Sydow) grappling with this ecunemical vacuum while grappling for his life with Death personified, Tomas Ericsson (
Gunnar Björnstrand) unfairly projecting his own godless desolation onto his increasingly vulnerable children.

Watch as Antonious explains why he plays chess with Death:

It is clear that Bergman's strict Lutheran upbringing ignited a viciously deep hatred for organized religion's dependence on blind faith. The idea of an omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent higher power plays like a cruel joke, like something an older sibling will force the younger to engage in for his own sick amusement. There is no reprieve, no justice, no fairness.

But it is absurd to maintain anger and resentment at something that doesn't exist. You call to God, and there is no answer. At first you think he is ignoring you. Pretty soon you get angry, and finally you resign yourself to the fact the absense of any answer is due to the complete void of presence. The anger will remain, but must directed somewhere else: humanity.

By the late 60s, Bergman's films had strayed from the existential crises of individuals to the emotional breakdowns of entire relationships, and it is here that I feel the real tragedy of the human condition unfurls itself. As he notes regarding The Passion of Anna, Bergman realized that the evil lies not in God, or lack thereof, but inside all of us:

My philosophy (even today) is that there exists an evil that cannot be explained -- a virulent, terrifying evil -- and humans are the only animals to possess it. An evil that is irrational and not bound by law. Cosmic. Causeless. Nothing frightens people more than incomprehensible, unexplainable evil.
Ingmar Bergman, Images: My Life in Film, 1994.

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