Oh, where to begin when discussing the incomparable Bergman? My introduction to foreign cinema with The Seventh Seal, after seeking out more of his work, particularly Persona and The Hour of the Wolf, I fell in love with his work, and a great deal of it has naturally played a role in shaping me as a writer, so I’m going yo try my best to articulate just what it is about Bergman that makes him so strong and so influential. After all, as a friend of mine said to me, he “had it”. This is the part where I try to articulate exactly what “it” is.
I could happily show a host of wonderful stills from Bergman films and hope that articulated my thoughts on it, and while there will be some stills, I’m going to try and explain it with words.
First of all, Sven Nykvist is my favourite cinematographer of all time, and with Bergman, created some of the most wonderful images that have embedded their way into my film related consciousness.
The Hour of the Wolf
To start, something painfully vague. There’s just something… About black and white shots, not just in Bergman films, but in cinema, from The Hour of the Wolf to Eraserhead and even Sunset Boulevard. They have a powerful, almost primal quality, that can evoke something real. Concentrated colours can do that, from black and white to the stark and powerful reds of Cries & Whispers.
Cries & Whispers
Simply put, the imagery of Bergman films made me realise just how important imagery could be in cinema. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but it’s true. From the colours (or the lack of colours), to exactly how actors are positioned in a shot, like the one above from Cries & Whispers. In Bergman films, particularly Persona and Cries & Whispers the camera almost becomes a character unto itself, tracking and focusing on these people, revealing the truth about these people, or can shroud them in mystery.
And then there are his closeups. Bergman uses closeups wonderfully, from the agonizing opening of Cries & Whispers to the enigmatic blurring faces of Persona, these closeups are wonderful throughout all of his work. They examine the characters wonderfully, all of their pain and emotions.
For me, Bergman is one of the two directors I hold in high esteem when it comes to writing female characters (the other being Woody Allen). Across his films, there are wonderful female roles masterfully acted, from the Strindberg style Persona, to the women in Cries & Whispers and, perhaps my favourite performance in a Bergman film, Liv Ullman’s emotional, powerful and utterly stunning turn in Scenes from a Marriage.
Ullman and Josephson in Scenes From a Marriage
It is difficult to explain exactly why the women in Bergman’s films are so good. It is everything from the way he explores their psyches to how he has them stand their own against, or in some cases overpower so many of the male characters, another thing best shown in the shattering ‘Illiterates’ section of Scenes From a Marriage.
Bergman’s writing of women had a simple influence on me – to consider all ways to explore characters of different genders and psyches, not just write mostly men because I am male.
Anyone who’s seen it will remember the iconic chess with Death scene in The Seventh Seal, something that has stuck with me since I first saw it. And this was, along with the wonderful shots in Bergman’s films, showed the power and wonder of imagery in film.
The Seventh Seal’s iconic ‘Chess with Death’ scene
Bergman, who has stated in some interviews that he was not religious, despite his upbringing, uses religious imagery wonderfully to communicate his themes, from the almost empty church that opens Winter Light to his use of a religious confession in The Seventh Seal.
Perhaps the best thing about the imagery of Bergman films is their lasting power. So many images from his work have embedded their way into the back of my mind, from the iconic moments of The Seventh Seal and Persona to the strange scene in Hour of the Wolf where Von Sydow is covered in makeup and mercilessly mocked. In simple terms, the sheer power of imagery was shown in Bergman films, and that is something has stayed with me.
The thing with Bergman is that, the emotional cores of his work often makes it difficult for me articulate exactly what it is about them that had such an influence on me, from the enigmatic Persona to the raw power of Cries & Whispers. Perhaps it’s exactly those things that had such an influence, the mystery, and the unrestrained power he uses. After all, Bergman, for want of better phrasing, “had it”.