The Flight from God

Two years after his death, director Ingmar Bergman’s legacy remains in dispute. But it is hard to deny that he asked the big questions in an artistically convincing way.

Among the great filmmakers of the 20th century, Ingmar Bergman stands out as the director with the greatest interest in raising the big questions about God, death, guilt, love, and forgiveness. Two years after his death in the summer of 2007, Bergman’s legacy remains a matt er of dispute, with some celebrating his profound artistry and others denigrating his morose preoccupation with human misery and his abstruse, at times tedious, refl ections on meaninglessness.

There is some truth to the criticism. Bergman’s work can be self-indulgently slow. His dialogue, often spoken by narcissistic male characters, can be tiresome, and his obsession with human suffering can be relentlessly bleak. Moreover, his preoccupation with characters preoccupied with sexuality means that his films often contain morally objectionable scenes.

Yet, his films, which have infl uenced filmmakers as diverse as Woody Allen and Krzysztof Kieslowski, are of more than artistic importance. In an era in which popular religion is often indistinguishable from material prosperity, in which the teaching of Scripture is reduced to the clichés of a self-help manual, and confession is a public act most commonly practiced to placate a prurient and envious populace, Bergman’s gravity is a salutary counter.

His persistent turning to the big questions and his unwillingness to sett le for easy answers or superfi cially happy endings underscore his enduring importance for theology. As T.S. Eliot once put it, the religious mind “works by negation” or the exclusion of alternatives. Now Eliot, who was commenting on Pascal’s great apology for the Christian faith, was not here referring to the lives of saints or of the great classical theologians but of the most eff ective theological approaches to the unbelieving intellect of modern man. For that project, Bergman’s work can be of service to the theologian. Bergman does not so much show us either what is to be affi rmed or the path toward redemption as he demonstrates the devastating effects of the absence of forgiveness and communicates acutely the sense of the loss of God.

Such themes are present in Bergman’s work from start to finish, as is clear from a newly released retrospective interview, Bergman’s Island, conducted by Marie Nyerod not long before his death. The interview is included in a new Criterion Collection edition of Bergman’s most famous movie, The Seventh Seal (1957), his second film and the one for which he earned his reputation as a philosophical filmmaker. Bergman’s interest in the big questions began with Seal—in which a medieval knight (Max von Sydow), returning from the Crusades, questions his faith and, in a scene as often mocked as imitated, plays chess with death. It peaks with his famous faith trilogy in the early 1960s, after which he claimed to have lost interest in such questions.

Yet, the questions persist in the two films with which he was involved in his last decade, in the script he wrote for the remarkable Faithless (2000), a film directed by Liv Ullmann, and in his farewell performance as a director, with Saraband (2003), a film starring two of his favorite actors, Ullmann and Erland Josephson, who reprised their roles from one of Bergman’s most accessible productions, Scenes from a Marriage (1974).

In the interview, Bergman’s Island, we learn that The Seventh Seal was almost not made. Bergman’s script was not well received by the studio until he earned a surprise victory at Cannes for his romantic comedy Smiles of a Summer Night (1955).

Over the next decade or so, Bergman was a remarkably productive director. After releasing both Seal and Wild Strawberries in 1957, he delved deeply into the modern crisis of faith and the apparent absence of God in his famous trilogy: Through a Glass Darkly (1961), which won the Academy Award for best foreign film, Winter Light (1962), and The Silence (1963). The trio of fi lms examines in agonizing detail the psychological vertigo that results from the loss of any framework of purpose for human life. The diagnosis of the dissolution of the modern self continues in Persona (1966) and Cries and Whispers (1972).

His greatest international success came in 1983, with Fanny and Alexander, a film that tapped into the joys, humiliations, and mysteries of his own childhood. Despite Bergman’s focus on the tribulations of adults ensnared by wayward passions and paralyzed by guilt, he always had a gift, increasingly rare among filmmakers, for capturing the lives of children—their innocence, wonder, fears, and hopes. He was also an expert at depicting the devastating effects on the lives of children of the betrayals of adults and the adult habit of controlling children through embarrassment and humiliation. His own youthful experience of humiliation, especially exercised in the name of religious authority, informs many of his films.

The impact of adult vice on children has never been more evident than in the script he crafted for Liv Ullmann’s Faithless, whose opening stipulates: “Divorce is no common failure…with one cut it slices more deeply than life itself.” Faithless is an artistically rich and emotionally excruciating investigation of the human costs, especially for children, of adultery and divorce. Monstrous behavior toward children lurks not only in the designs of the lonely predator but also and more commonly in the hearts of seemingly wellintentioned parents. As befits a world in which adult fantasies and petty jealousies always supersede the needs of children, the young girl in the film barely appears, but the few scenes in which she is featured are remarkably powerful.

Known for self-conscious artistry, Bergman here deploys his craft to explore the connection between art and life, and to excavate the past in search of self knowledge, in the hope of seeing one’s life more truthfully and of facing more directly those whom one has harmed. The very shape of the film raises questions about the possibility and purpose of confession. Many of the details of the story have roots in Bergman’s own life and the film does not do much to conceal the connections. In the opening, a character named Bergman (Erland Josephson) sits in the study of his home on the coast of Faro (where Bergman lived for many years and where the footage for Bergman’s Island was shot). As he sits at his desk he conjures up an actress, who takes the name Marianne (Lena Endre), to help him work through his latest script. Prompted by Bergman, Marianne relates the story of her affair with David (Krister Henriksson), a divorced director and close friend of her husband, Markus (Thomas Hanzon), who is an internationally renowned orchestra conductor with whom she has a nine-year-old daughter, Isabelle (Michelle Gylemo). In various ways and at various points in the film, it is made clear that the actress, Marianne, is identical to the Marianne of the script and that Bergman himself is an older version of David.

The questions raised in the film are not as explicitly religious as the questions posed by the doubting knight in The Seventh Seal. There the knight wonders about the silence of God and describes his own faith as an activity of loving someone who never answers. The knight is caught between, on the one hand, a world that is either indifferent to God or that uses God as a tool of domination, and, on the other hand, a God who seems indiff erent to man.

Here the questions are more about the inhumanity and indifference of husbands and wives to one another and to their children. But the title Faithless is striking. Why does infidelity matter? Why should we be plagued with guilt over past misdeeds, over harms caused to others? Why be burdened with a need to confess? Why the insatiable desire for forgiveness? And what are we to make of the ambiguous status of art, its ability to help us face the past and its inability to effect reconciliation or salutary repentance? Despite his claim that, after the faith trilogy, he simply dropped the religious issue, religious questions perdure in Bergman’s final period. Here Bergman brings us to the cusp of the religious without ever entering it. We feel its absence.

At the outset, Bergman/David evokes Marianne’s character and she appears. On the basis of various promptings from him, she retells the story of her affair. One of the peculiar features of this film is that it is a woman whose infidelity propels the action of the plot, even if it becomes clear that the men are even more self-absorbed than she. Most of the film is her own narrative, her confession. She certainly feels guilt but, as time passes, the more prominent experience is that of helpless grief: the aching sense that “every day is wrong” and that she has “lost the ability to make rational decisions.” The film is a compelling portrait of the way sin is its own punishment. She calls her affair with David “a friendship in damnation.” It is also brutally honest about the self destructive character of jealousy, about envy as a middle term between lust and rage. Under the sway of vice, freedom becomes an illusion, and pleasure vanishes.

Her most humiliating experience is the result of a failed attempt to comply with the wishes of both Markus and David. Trying to persuade Markus to give her custody of Isabelle, she succumbs to his sexual advances. Then, when she returns home to David, late and distraught, she accedes to his jealous demand that she confess every excruciating detail of her evening with Markus. Her confession is forced, unwelcome, and at the service of the prurient and cruel desires of David, who spends the entire night interrogating her.

The most heart-wrenching sequence in the film is also its most artistically understated. The plot pivots on the scene in which Markus confronts David and Marianne, a scene Marianne retrospectively describes as the beginning of the “tragedy.” In the next scene, when Marianne tells Isabelle that she is leaving her and her father to live with David, Marianne’s internal sundering over the harm she knows she is doing to her daughter is intimated in an exquisitely subtle way. The audience sees Marianne doubled, both Marianne and her reflection in a mirror; then Isabelle appears, reflected in the mirror and seen from the audience’s perspective between the two images of Marianne.

Consumed with their lusts and rivalries, the adults are but dimly and fleetingly aware of the impact on Isabelle. There is a terrifying scene in which Isabelle alone in her room relates to one of her dolls the following nightmare. Although the season is summer, it is snowing and very cold. She encounters a lady who wears her mother’s fur coat and who, she soon discovers, is eating children. Images of the violation of the natural order run through the dream, which Isabelle narrates with chilling dispassion.

Clearly Bergman’s attention to children has little in common with the modern, romantic celebration of the innocence of childhood. Indeed, Hollywood films increasingly present divorce as a norm and suggest that overcoming its effects is simply a matter of liberating the creative and sensitive impulses of children. Bergman’s insistence on multi-generational conflict and on the way the sins of the parents are visited upon the next generation is more akin to the Old Testament and the novels of Dostoevsky.

If there is a weakness to Bergman’s portrayal of family dissolution, it has to do with his reversal of Tolstoy’s dictum from the opening of Anna Karenina. For Bergman, unlike Tolstoy, all unhappy families are unhappy in the same way: through infidelity, jealousy, and vengeful rage. If this renders Bergman’s treatment of the family rather repetitive, it also allows him to offer a diagnosis of the peculiar afflictions and fears of the modern psyche. A theme prominent in Bergman and again reminiscent of Dostoevsky is that of laceration, the irrational habit of self-imposed suffering. A perverse form of asceticism, laceration mimics self-sacrifice and repentance, even as it turns violence inward. Instead of freeing one for others, laceration keeps one trapped in oneself. This is the selfdestructive grief in which Marianne finds herself ensnared. In Bergman’s films, adult characters, who often describe themselves as undergoing a kind of damnation, vacillate between the active pursuit of selfish pleasure and the retreat to paralyzing regret.

At various points in Faithless Marianne weeps, as does Bergman/David, alone with his remorse, at the end of the film. The best art can do is to attempt to give shape to the chaos, to articulate the quest for meaning and, since redemption is not at hand, to gain some consolation from the activity of articulating pain, loss, and regret.

In Faithless and many other Bergman films, there is a sense of foreboding and a pervasive fear. In one of Nyerod’s interviews, Bergman says that The Seventh Seal was inspired by an “insane fear of death.” Asked what he now thinks about death, his response seems philosophically incoherent. He begins by saying that his terror subsided once he realized that death meant only non-existence, that it contained no threat, nothing worthy of fear. Indeed, most film critics, including Peter Cowie in his commentary track for the new release of Seal, take this as Bergman’s last final word on the matter. In his conversation with Nyerod, however, he does not leave it at that. He describes enduring the wrenching loss of a loved one, the agony of facing the fact that he would never see her again. The abstract, Stoic analysis of death here gives way to the inconsolable experience of loss, the painful taunt of mortality. Yet, in the interview at the end of his life, just as in the final scenes of The Seventh Seal, Bergman allows for the possibility of immortality, of a reunion beyond the grave, intimated here and now in the experience of the enduring presence of those who have departed.

Unlike many modern filmmakers who see it as their duty to foreclose religious possibilities or for whom the big questions no longer resonate, Bergman leaves the possibilities in play and recurs to the mysteries of mortality, sin, guilt, grief, and the longing for forgiveness and reconciliation.

His artistic gifts are nowhere more evident than in the script for Faithless. The notes of the child’s music box, with which Faithless begins and ends, remind us why divorce so often “cuts more deeply than life itself.” But that hearkens back to a conception of marriage as a sacred trust, a sacramental bond. How can we sustain the sort of seriousness about marriage that Faithless both presupposes and fosters in a world without God? To this question, the modern, secular world has as yet no answer. Nor perhaps does Faithless, but the film at least has the merit of asking the question in an intelligent, passionate, and artistically convincing way.


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About Thomas S. Hibbs 21 Articles
Thomas S. Hibbs, Ph.D., is President of the University of Dallas, as well as Professor of Philosophy. He has written, edited or provided introductions for 12 books, including three on the thought of Thomas Aquinas; his most recent book is Wagering on an Ironic God: Pascal on Faith and Philosophy. He has also written more than 200 movie reviews and dozens of essays and book reviews for publications such as National Review, Catholic World Report, First Things, The Weekly Standard, and others.