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Death, Defiance, and Disguise
Dissent: Volume 6 of the Helter Skelter Anthology of New Writing

Death, Defiance, and Disguise

Prominent French filmmaker Olivier Assayas once remarked that “Any filmmaker trying to get into the texture of human relations ends up in Bergman territory. What I learned from Bergman is that you can explore human relationships with a certain level of brutality and crudity as long as you love your characters.”

It is a known fact that Ingmar Bergman was easily one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived, even though his films had a reputation for being as chilly as the cold country of Sweden, where many of them were set. After all, for more than half a century, Bergman’s movies defined world cinema. Here was a man who, 50 years ago, showed the world that he was unafraid to tackle the biggest philosophical questions of life and equally unafraid to explore the darkest corners of relationships. A man who lived all his life inside himself; it is through digging into that mind’s complexity and depth that he gave us profound psychological insights into ourselves.

Helter Skelter: Ingmar Bergman
The Seventh Seal.
Helter Skelter: Ingmar Bergman
Wild Strawberries.
Helter Skelter: Ingmar Bergman

The son of a stern Lutheran pastor who eventually became chaplain to Sweden’s royal family, Ingmar Bergman was raised under strict discipline, on occasion spending hours in a dark closet for infractions of his father’s rigid ethical code. In other words, he grew up surrounded by the imagery of the church and with almost obsessive religious moralities.

It’s not hard to believe, then, that the thematic cornerstone of some of Bergman’s films would be ‘the search for god’. The Seventh Seal would be a case in point. Set in 14th-century Europe, the film tells the tale of a disillusioned knight who returns home from the Crusades to find his native land ravaged by the plague. I can never forget the image of the knight delaying his own demise by playing chess with Death. But I think what makes this movie audacious is Bergman’s theme: Man’s search for meaning in life in the context of death’s inevitability.

However, his films have not only been about man’s search for ‘Him’ and the inability to do so, in this ‘frail mortal world’. It was a lot more to do with dissecting the individual’s psyche, and Bergman was a master at that. Validating the argument is his landmark film, Wild Strawberries. The film deals powerfully and profoundly with the subject of man’s isolation; an ageing man’s introspective journey to find the meaning of his life and death. I think anyone who has seen Wild Strawberries would agree that it is a beautifully crafted and masterful character study. A retired medical professor makes a long trip to receive an academic honour. Between incidents that occur on the journey, the old man slips into memories and reveries that reveal much about his life.

It is true, then, that no other film director has probed the human psyche with such severity and honesty, and with such a blistering insight into what makes us tick. Anyone who takes the time to become acquainted with Bergman’s work will realise that he was far more than a filmmaker. He was an artiste, a profound one, who had also mastered the understanding of the female sensibility.

Take, for instance, Persona, his most experimental film and one which many consider to be his greatest work. It reflects Bergman’s continuing preoccupation with psychology and dreams. The central story involves a nurse and her actress patient, and I believe one of the main ideas is to explore the conflict between the persona, the image we present to others, and the inner self. Aesthetically speaking, even his shot constructions exemplify the same idea. The minimal composition and extremely tight close-ups, the single camera shots, all were clearly used for psychological deconstruction. Such composition forces us to study the characters’s faces. Persona, after all, is not about who the person actually is, but the different identities that the person projects.

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Personally, for me, one of the most haunting visuals was the monologue that is shown twice: One showing a close-up of Alma (the nurse, whose name incidentally is Spanish for ‘soul’), and the other of Elisabeth (the actress). It is a scene about regret, frustration, and denial. The effect illustrates how cruel and destructive the human will can be. It was post-Persona that Bergman entered a new phase, in which his films would focus more on human issues—the psychology of women, the flawed nature of marriage, and the inability of men and women to communicate.

If you have always been intrigued by dreams, myth, and psychology, then you will probably realise why Ingmar Bergman’s films remain iconic, and how one can find answers to questions pertaining to the subtext of human behaviour. Bergman expressed the character, the nuances, and the history of his culture so well, that for many, the Swedish people were symbolised by the personalities that he created.

As Bergman likes to put it himself, “People ask what are my intentions with my films—my aims. It is a difficult and dangerous question, and I usually give an evasive answer: I try to tell the truth about the human condition, the truth as I see it.”

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