Ingmar Bergman… 21st Century Superhero? Arguing for a New Crusader

By Liam Lacey

In honour of the current touring exhibition, Bergman 100: The Ingmar Bergman Century, which runs until December 23 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, I would like to propose a way of rebranding the Swedish director that makes him relevant to our own times.

Through A Glass Darkly

Through A Glass Darkly

Here’s the pitch: Meet the latest superhero… Bergman! As Canadian director David Cronenberg noted a couple of years ago, we live in “the Man era of movies: Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Antman. Superhero stories are the movie currency of our time.”

In a sense, the dread that Bergman’s films embody has been exteriorized. Characters fight their own dark impulses and the fear of annihilation, even if they are painted in CGI and exotic locales rather than with Bergman’s limpid close-ups and shadowed interiors. Besides, the traditional cinephile boys’ club habit of ranking film auteurs isn’t all that different from comic book collectors ranking their superheroes. And by any auteur ranking, Bergman stands on top of the pile, in his tights, mask and billowing cape.

What Are Bergman’s Super-Powers? The best known are playing chess with Death (The Seventh Seal) and an ability to melt Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman’s faces together in Persona. But those are just the showy tricks. Also, he’s able to leap centuries in a single bound, in films from medieval times to the present and, through the artist’s imagination, able to bend space and time. To quote from the ending of Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, in which the character Helena Ekdah, an actress, reads aloud to a sleeping child from August Strindberg’s note to A Dream Play: “Everything can happen, everything is possible and probable. Time and place do not exist; on an insignificant basis of reality the imagination spins and weaves new patterns.”

What Is The Source Of His Strength? Ingmar, like superheroes Thor and supervillain Loki, has a name derived from a Norse deity. Bergman’s special powers are essentially technological, like those of Batman and Ironman. As he wrote in an introductory essay to the published screenplay of The Seventh Seal, “I use an apparatus which is constructed to take advantage of a certain weakness, an apparatus with which I can sway my audience in a highly emotional manner — make them laugh, scream with fright, smile, believe in fairy stories, become indignant, feel shocked, charmed, deeply moved.”

Bergman’s trademark is the close-up of a face, often a woman’s face, sometimes staring into a mirror, sometimes as if looking through the viewer. These disorienting close-ups have caused some critics to lose their marbles and believe Bergman was x-raying people’s souls through their faces: “A kind of high-modernist x-ray;” “X-rayed relationships between men and women;” “an emotional x-ray;” or “a form of x-ray vision… able to see into the very recesses of the human soul.” More pragmatically, there are only a few reasons (kiss, kill, cuddle, dermatological exam) to get that close to someone. Further study of the evolving science of micro-expressions (a source for the Disney film, Inside Out) and mirror neurons might clarify our reactions.

Wild Strawberries

Wild Strawberries

What is Bergman’s Origin Story? Punished by his cruel pastor father by being put in a closet, young Ingmar discovered, in that same closet, the power of a toy movie projector or The Magic Lantern (the title of Bergman’s memoir) to transform and control reality.

Who Are His Alter-Egos? The Gloomy Swede, the Shakespeare of the Cinema, the Demon Director. Bergman and the Demon Director have a sort of Bruce Banner/The Hulk relationship: “I am very much aware of my own double self... The well-known one is very under control; everything is planned and very secure. The unknown one can be very unpleasant. I think this side is responsible for all the creative work — he is in touch with the child.”

Who Is His Arch-Nemesis? Death, of course. As Bergman said in an interview about The Seventh Seal: “My fear of death — this infantile fixation of mine — was, at that moment, overwhelming. I felt myself in contact with death day and night, and my fear was tremendous.”

What Are His Vulnerabilities? Anxiety, depression, lust, madness, loss of faith. In 1976, after being arrested for tax evasion (later dismissed), Bergman had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized with depression. He later said the strict regimen of his later years was his defense against anxiety.

Where Was His Fortress of Solitude? Bergman’s Fortress of Solitude or Batcave, Dr. Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum, was a 84-acre property on the remote Baltic Sea island of Faro, where he spent his last years and shot six films and one television series and had a cinema in a barn. The property is now home to the Bergmancentre, with a small museum dedicated to the director. Only in his senior years – after five marriages and many affairs – did Bergman achieve the celibacy (or estrangement) that’s common to many superheroes.

His women characters were, as a recent article in The Guardian noted, “tragi-sexual goddesses,” and he often had affairs with his actresses. As Jane Magnusson, director of the recent documentary, Bergman: A Year in A Life, noted: “He has these amazing female characters in a lot of his films, and we have to thank him for that, because he was quite alone in casting in that way. His personal relationships with women seem at odds with his respect for them on screen.”

Winter Light.

Winter Light.

Why Bergman’s Franchise Needs a Reboot: For better or worse, our language for subjective mental states has changed in the last half-century and Bergman’s importance has changed with it. From the late fifties to the early eighties, the director’s name was virtually synonymous with a certain idea of high-brow art-house profundity: The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Winter Light, Through A Glass Darkly, Persona, Cries and Whispers, Scenes from a Marriage, Fanny and Alexander. Countless filmmakers cited Bergman as a major inspiration. In 1997, at the Cannes festival, he was picked, by all the surviving fellow Palme d’Or-winning directors, as the most important director of the previous half-century.

At the same time, Super-Bergman’s critical reputation has been locked in a deep freeze for some years now. In fact, the grumbling rear-guard from cinema critics about Bergman’s significance began shortly after he rose to international prominence in the last half of the 1950s: The apolitical self-centredness of it all, that awkward habit of invoking God, or young Susan Sontag called his “embarrassing displays of intellectual bad taste.” Possibly, he wasn’t as much of an innovator as Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Luc Goddard or Federico Fellini. The debate boiled up anew on his death in 2007, when the New York Times ran Jonathan Rosenbaum’s article, tendentiously headlined “Scenes from an Over-Rated Career.”

Now, more than a decade later, French director Olivier Assayas poses some excellent questions about Bergman’s legacy in a recent essay in the July-August issue of Film Comment, Where are We With Bergman? Where are we with Bergman, film history, theology, psychoanalysis, with the secrets that we keep? Possibly the spiritual angst that Bergman expressed might have been helped by anti-depressants and mindfulness meditation, but the dark side still demands answers and those journeys into troubled dreams are still startlingly intense. Watch the films and feel heartbeat change and your skin prickle.

You may also be surprised by the unexpected familiarity of Bergman’s strangeness. Those literary and religious legacy echo throughout popular culture. British novelist Hari Kunzuru (Gods without Men) has called the image of the knight playing chess with death in The Seventh Seal “the most heavy-metal image ever committed on film.”

We remember Bergman, in reverse, through The Simpsons, Monty Python, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Wes Craven’s horror film, Last House on the Left or even a Van Halen song, “Seventh Seal:” “broken now I can't help but feel / someone cracked the seventh seal / nothing sacred, nothing left unturned / when nothing's simple / then nothing's learned…” It sounds as though it should be screamed over the credits as the waves pound on the windswept beach of a rocky northern island.

Now where can I find the two-faced Persona action figurines?

For further consideration:

What if Bergman directed The Flash?

Ethan Hawke on why superhero movies are not Bergman

For a complete list of films and events and ticket information for Bergman: 100: The Ingmar Bergman Century, click here.