Ingmar Bergman: the sense of the world

Roger Scruton
4 August 2007

You can read a great novel - Nostromo, for example - and immediately, on finishing, want to read it again. You can listen to a great symphony - Bruckner's 7th, for example - and have the same experience. Ditto for great works of painting, sculpture and architecture. But very few films have this effect on their intended audience, and even if you occasionally want to see a film twice or thrice, it is rare that a film proves inexhaustible, in the way that Conrad and Bruckner are inexhaustible.

In cinema, too much is built upon effects, which do not bear repetititon once they have lost the element of surprise; too much in the image is accidental, intrusive or irrelevant to the story; too much is dependent on the arbitrary appearance of the actors, rather than the depths of the characters they portray - in short, too much is focused on that first and startling impression, and little or nothing on the meaning that can only reveal itself in time. The cinema is an art in which redundancies proliferate, flooding and diluting the dramatic image. And it has all got worse since the introduction of colour, and the subsequent loss of control over light, shade and contrast.

Roger Scruton is a philosopher, writer, political activist and businessman. His most recent books are Gentle Regrets: Thoughts From a Life (Continuum, 2005), News from Somewhere: On Settling (Continuum, 2006), and Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a world Besieged (Encounter Books, 2007). His website is here

Also by Roger Scruton

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"The hunting debate: a question of democracy" (17 September 2004)

"Maurice Cowling's achievement" (26 August 2005)

"Jane Jacobs (1916-2006): cities for life" (2 May 2006)

"Power inquiry, public debate" (6 March 2006)

"The great hole of history" (11 September 2006)

"England: an identity in question" (1 May 2007)

"Richard Rorty's legacy" (12 June 2007) in openDemocracy: (

There are exceptions, of course: Renoir, Godard, Truffaut, Kurosawa, Welles, and many more. But few if any have equalled Ingmar Bergman in the ability to subdue the redundancies of the moving image, and to make it into a unique vehicle of dramatic expression. Even now, after ten viewings, I want to see Wild Strawberries again, not for the story only, but for specific snatches of dialogue, specific images and the specific atmosphere which makes this film enter the soul with the evocative force of a play by Ibsen or Strindberg.

The comparison with those dramatists is, I think, important. For Bergman was a man of the theatre, who understood that, if the cinema is to justify its claims as an independent art-form, it must show how its techniques contribute something of their own to the drama. Bergman's approach to the screen was like Henry James's approach to the novel: a constant obedience to the supreme command - "Dramatise!" Not only is the dialogue in his films masterly, flowing smoothly between the characters in exactly the manner of a well-made play; the camera filters out all that distracts from the action, with images carefully composed so as to frame the word, the gesture, the facial expression which tells us all. In Persona, in which the central character does not speak, the camera speaks for her, dramatising her silence as intensely as her garrulous nurse is dramatised by her flood of trivial narrative.

The fabric of the tale

Perhaps there has never been a director as conscious as Bergman was, of the temptation posed by the camera, and the need to resist it. The theatrical stage, like the frame of a painting, shuts out the real world. The camera, however, lets the world in - spreading the same bland endorsement over the actor pretending to die on the pavement and the accidental balloon drifting across the street in the background. And the temptation is to turn this defect into an enticement, by encouraging a kind of "reality addiction" in the viewer. The temptation is to focus on aspects of real life that grip us or excite us, regardless of their dramatic meaning.

Hence the realistic sex and violence, which wrench the cinematic image from the frame of art into the formless current of our real lusts and terrors. The temptation to which Tarantino yields, because he has nothing important to say (just look, if you can bear it, at Kill Bill), is one that Bergman elaborately resists, and makes an art out of resisting. You could frame a still from a Bergman film - the dream sequence in Wild Strawberries, the dance of death in The Seventh Seal, the dinner party in The Hour of the Wolf - and it would sit on your wall like an engraving, resonant, engaging and composed. Just try doing the same with Tarantino.

Bergman's actors behaved, under the disciplined eye of his camera, with an unusual empathy for their rôles. They were not film-stars, pouting out their good looks, nor were their features adjusted to some predetermined repertoire. In Bergman's hands they were entirely reimagined, immersed in the story and guided by its inner meaning. And Bergman was not merely a master of the camera: he was a great storyteller, who knew how to cut the fabric of a tale, so that not a line or an image was superfluous.

Like Shakespeare or Wagner (and the comparison with the latter is irresistible), he entered into each of his characters, finding their words and gestures out of a true dramatist's abundance of sympathy. Evil enters the world of his films only metaphysically, as it were, as part of the human condition. He has no stage villains, or Hitchcock-like destroyers. For the most part he finds in his characters, whatever the degree of their loneliness and anxiety (and they are all suspended at some point on the scale of metaphysical solitude) the aspect which can be loved. He has given us some of the most tender images in all cinema - the reminiscences in Wild Strawberries, the death-scene in Cries and Whispers, the Shakespearian flowering of young love in Smiles of a Summer's Night - and, by bringing words and images together with the kind of exactness that unites the words and music in Wagner, he has shown what the cinema can do, by way of ennobling human sympathy.

The two dimensions

Music was important to Bergman, and his lifelong fascination with The Magic Flute culminated, first in the strange puppet show version in The Hour of the Wolf, and then in his own realisation of the opera. This fascination was continuous with his love of symbols, Mozart's masterpiece achieving its effects only because we see its protagonists as symbols, without knowing what they symbolise or why. Each of Bergman's films follows that pattern, being organised on two dimensions, as drama, and as myth. For we live our lives, in Bergman's view of things, both as individuals and as archetypes. Much that happens to us enacts the universal myths that describe our pilgrimage through this world.

Hence, even at his most humorous, Bergman takes a religious view of human beings, as creatures who are not merely in the world, as animals are, but also aspiring to make sense of it. Wild Strawberries shows that we achieve that aspiration when we look upon all that has happened to us, and accept it in a condition of forgiveness. That very Christian theme constantly recurs in Bergman's most important films. It may be one reason why he has fallen out of fashion; but it is also a reason why he will very soon be in fashion again, and appreciated for what he was: the man who brought cinema into the fold of western art.

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