Edelstein on Bergman: The Master of the Dream Play

Ingmar Bergman onstage during a 1969 rehearsal. Photo: Getty Images

Of all the thoughts that pour into my head on the death of Ingmar Bergman at the age of 89, the sharpest has as much to do with theater as cinema — or, rather, with the feverish interplay between the two media that persisted into the final years of his roiling psyche. The Swedish director and writer was not only our last great link to the late-nineteenth-century drama that helped to reshape modern consciousness; he was also its successor, designing dream plays in a medium that Ibsen and Strindberg died too early to explore.

The evolution of Bergman’s major work mirrors both his interior and exterior life, from the philosophical sex comedies to the stark allegories to the pitiless dissections of lovers’ emotions. After arriving at the bitter realization that God didn’t exist and that human love provided, at best, only temporary balm, he gave up films (he said directing them was too painful) and found refuge in making theater. His late autobiographical saga, Fanny and Alexander (1982), is a somewhat simpleminded (but affecting) way of framing his spiritual journey. It begins with overflowing warmth, in the bosom of its young hero’s parents and their theater company, then turns icy and brutal with the arrival of a Puritan minister stepfather. The boy stumbles into a world of fantasy — of marionettes and Maeterlinck-like symbolism — before the sadistic, sham-pious patriarch is purged and our protagonist joins a production of Strindberg’s A Dream Play.

The major Bergman films bring down the walls of our imaginations. They are lacerating, mind opening, often wearying, and always (alas) solipsistic. His greatest flaw was personal: that he seized on the role of the pampered genius — or, in the case of his arrest in the seventies by Swedish authorities on the charge of tax evasion, the tormented martyr. He rationalized his egotism; he turned narcissistic injuries into metaphysical proofs. His serial affairs with actresses resulted in children he largely — and stubbornly — ignored. It’s not so much that he was a monster; if we judged solely on that basis, we’d have to disqualify the work of 90 percent of our greatest artists. It’s that the life sometimes stunted the work.

But this is no time for recriminations. How many filmmakers have given us so many masterpieces and near-masterpieces in so many different keys? One of my dozen favorite films is Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, the finest example of the tragicomic house-party genre after the peerless The Rules of the Game. The dark-night-of-the-soul Winter Light, a study of a minister (Max von Sydow) who loses his faith (boy, does he lose his faith), has the odd laughable moment, yet it remains his starkest and, in some ways, most indelible work. The framing in The Seventh Seal is both severe and waggish, as befits a film that personifies death and life (and faith, and chivalry) over a chessboard against a backdrop of a commedia troupe. Persona remains the film against which all other psychodramas must be judged — a movie about the mutability of identity that bridges the worlds of Bergson and Pirandello and the worlds of Freud and Jung. Shame is the movie most ripe for rediscovery: an unyielding wartime portrait of humans in extremis.

I watch The Magic Flute every few years despite the occasional vocal lapse (although I love hearing it in Swedish instead of German). Not only the best of all filmed operas, it’s also a dialogue between film and theater. Watch how fluidly Bergman moves from the proscenium frame — the flagrant artificiality — of the opera house into Mozart’s world of questing lovers and buffoons and wizards and the Queen of the Night.

I wish I’d seen more of Bergman onstage. His Peer Gynt (imported by BAM) made me regret he’d never done a film of it. His Ghosts (also at BAM) changed my life. He took a play full of land mines (all the wheezing conventions of then-radical, now-retro drawing-room realism) and rediscovered the driving, classical inevitability that it retains even after the invention of penicillin. (Would Ibsen have been pleased? Er, no. Bergman couldn’t resist incorporating some passages out of Strindberg.)

He died on the Swedish island where he’d shot many of his films, his last works memory plays in which the aged artist confronts the disappointed ghosts of his past. They have their partisans; I found them narcissistic even in their self-criticism. The important thing is that the faithless master never stopped living by the words of Ibsen: “To live is to do battle with trolls in the mind and heart. / To write is to sit in judgment on oneself.” —David Edelstein

Earlier: Ingmar Bergman Dies at 89