Impermanence and urgency: Bergman for beginners

Highlights from UW Cinematheque’s extensive Ingmar Bergman retrospective.

Persona concludes UW Cinematheque's Bergman retrospective on May 1.

Persona concludes UW Cinematheque's Bergman retrospective on May 1.

Ingmar Bergman’s films tend to offer powerful expressions of the more troubling sides of life, interlaced with its beauty and impermanence. Typically, a sense of imminent loss hovers over Bergman’s films, but this creates as much urgency as it does sadness. UW Cinematheque’s Spring Season Sunday series, held at the Chazen Museum of Art, kicked off a deep-reaching celebration of the legendary Swedish director this past Sunday with 1960’s The Virgin Spring—a selection that offers a healthy dose of Bergman’s religious fervor and a great entree into the complexity of his work.

Born in Uppsala, Sweden in 1918, Bergman flourished early on in art and drama, writing dramatic scripts and plays, and then being afforded the chance to direct his own. By his life’s end, he had married five times with children from each union, forged a decades-long partnership with the extraordinary cinematographer Sven Nykvist, and was, according to his interviews on his life’s work in Bergman’s Island, “afraid of pretty much everything.” Indeed, fear, isolation, and death are palpable in nearly every film Bergman ever made. His films were frequently laden with death-stricken characters, including death himself in The Seventh Seal. Bergman had a gift for articulating the tensions of human existence and the existential crises that face a thoughtful being, and he did so with uncommon tact. Bergman may be one of the only filmmakers thus far who could have his characters quite overtly ponder the meaning of life and actually pull it off.

This Sunday series is deep and exciting, spanning a dozen films so I will briefly cover several selections in it that make for good starting points when diving into Bergman. Each screening takes place at 2 p.m. at the Chazen and is free and open to the public.

The Seventh Seal (February 7)

Frequently seen as one of Bergman’s greatest accomplishments, 1957’s The Seventh Seal is structured around Death quite literally paying a visit, bringing with him the Bubonic plague and all the worldly fears that surround one’s personal demise. The narrative surrounds a multitude of characters including a knight, a traveling squire, an actor and his new family, and a swindling theologian. The central story revolves around the cunning knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) who at the onset of the film is approached by Death (Bengt Ekerot). In hopes of thwarting his fate, Antonius challenges Death to a game of chess. On the periphery, a plethora of different characters face their deaths, or the concept of it, amidst exposing life’s unsettling follies, beauty, and tragedy. As in many Bergman works, a strong presence of religious questioning weighs upon the narrative the narrative. The Seventh Seal brings clarity and wit to its meditations on fear, humiliation, and loss, making it a must for any cinephile.

Port Of Call (February 21)

This 1948 neorealist-style film tracks suicidal and delinquent working-class girl Berit (Nine Christine Johnson) through a port town where she meets a sailor named Gösta (Bengt Eklnd) at a dance hall. The progression of this romantic relationship serves as the unraveling of Berit’s troubled past with her harsh mother and alcoholic father as well as her pained experience as a boarding school girl. These revelations threaten her burgeoning relationship with Gösta and reveal Berit’s deep-seated insecurities about romantic and familial relationships—a fear that all will abandon her. The film’s narrative is highly relatable for anyone who has experienced depression or anxiety in relationships or troubled upbringings that force a desire to be free of one’s past circumstances. Johnson delivers a harrowing performance, evoking suffering and fear with grace and tact alongside Berit’s often erratic reactions to conflict.

Wild Strawberries (March 20)

One of my favorite meditations on time and dreams, 1957’s Wild Strawberries is both a reverie and a nightmare that asks us to confront the relentless pace of our lives and decisions. The narrative surrounds an old, curmudgeonly professor, Borg (Victor David Sjöström) who is forced to revisit his past when confronted with his own death and need for reconciliation with past loves, lost opportunities and fantasy that eluded and charmed him in his prime. A sentimental and shaking piece, the film creates a dreamlike landscape mirroring one’s childhood, past joys, and arrogances. The film should be especially compelling for new filmmakers interested in unconventional narrative techniques.

Persona (May 1)

Persona, closing out Cinematheque’s Bergman series is a shocking, even wild film from 1966. Diverging from traditional storytelling techniques through experimental cutting and fading, playing with the veracity of one character’s experience as opposed to another’s, and twisting logic in plot lines, this film is characteristic of the best of art house cinema. It was striking for its time and to this day still puzzles and shocks me. The split narrative follows the psychological journey of two women—one who has committed herself to an insane asylum and the other a young nurse who is tasked with taking the committed women out for relaxation by the sea. It flirts with ideas of division and identify—where one person starts and another begins—and largely executes this through nontraditional cutting. Bergman also splices in stock documentary footage, in creating a sense that the film is not quite in control of its own narrative.