Our review of The Silence, published September 13th, 2005, is also available.
Ingmar Bergman: the very mention of the name sends shivers up the spines of foreign-film-phobics everywhere. Commonly heard criticisms include that his films are "too depressing," "too unintelligible," or "too boring." I admit that I was once intimidated by the very reputation of Bergman's films, before I'd even seen one. As I have become familiar and more comfortable with his cinematic language, Bergman has become one of my favorite directors. My change in attitude has come in no small part due to the work of the Criterion Collection, which has nearly cornered the market on DVD releases of these films in Region 1. With the release of their box set, A Film Trilogy by Ingmar Bergman, Criterion has collected three of the master's most challenging and greatest films (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, The Silence), supplemented with a two-and-a-half hour documentary from 1963, Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie.
Beginning with his sixteenth film, Summer with Monika (1953), Bergman's films began receiving increasing worldwide acclaim and anticipation, which crested in 1957 with the release of two acknowledged masterpieces, The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries. Many of Bergman's films in the 1950s were period pieces with moderately large casts; many dealt, either directly or indirectly, with his well-documented fear of Death.
As the '60s dawned, there were changes both personally and artistically. In 1960, Ingmar Bergman married his fourth wife, an Estonian concert pianist named Käbi Laretei. He began to study music, and considered taking a year off from the studio and stage to study the works of J.S. Bach. Artistically, his films became more focused "chamber dramas," often set in the present. Stylistically, he ended his professional relationship with long-time cinematographer Gunnar Fischer in favor of the younger Sven Nyqvist (whose visual style came to define the films of this period). Thematically, he made his peace with Death, and began to more fully probe the fragile human psyche.
Bergman has said that the three films collected here were designed as a trilogy about the meaning of religious faith. In Through a Glass Darkly, he confronts the idea of "God is love." Winter Light explores the concept of "God is security." And The Silence deals not only with the lack of communication between two sisters, but also with "God's silence," real or imagined. Ultimately, this groundbreaking and startling trilogy reinvented Bergman as a more dramatically concentrated artist.
Facts of the Case
Through a Glass Darkly (1961) contains only four characters: David (Gunnar Björnstrand; the squire from The Seventh Seal), a widowed, middle-aged writer; his daughter, Kårin (the beautiful Harriet Andersson); his son-in-law, Martin (Max von Sydow; the knight from The Seventh Seal); and his 17-year-old son, Minus (Lars Passgård). The four are sharing a summer house on a sparsely populated, rocky island (the island is Fårö, in the Baltic Sea, where Bergman has made his home for the last 30 years). David has just returned from Switzerland, where he was finishing his latest novel. We learn that Kårin has recently been released from a mental hospital, where she's undergone electroshock therapy for an incurable mental illness (the illness isn't named but, based on the symptoms, is probably schizophrenia). Her husband Martin, a doctor, both loves and protects her in spite of her problems. Brother Minus is struggling with adolescence, and resents his father's frequent absences.
Over the course of a single day, we observe the relationships of the four. Like a chamber music composer, Bergman arranges his characters into different solos, duos, trios, and a quartet: sometimes the interactions are melodious and superficial; at other times they are dissonant and dark. The emotionally cold David feels both guilt and shame about his daughter's illness (though he himself is a hypochondriac plagued by anxiety), yet he chooses to exploit her by chronicling her deterioration in his writing. Minus longs for his distant father's approval, and harbors sexual feelings he can't come to grips with. Kårin's behavior becomes more erratic as the day progresses, and we learn that she is both hearing voices and having ecstatic religious hallucinations, in which she is convinced that God will appear to her.
Winter Light (1962) opens with a close-up of the stone-faced Tomas, a Lutheran pastor, conducting Sunday services. He seems to be in a trance as he intones the liturgy in a passionless, distracted monotone. The camera pulls back to reveal a small, spare church, with only eight parishioners in attendance. Outside the church, the landscape is as cold and stern as the pastor's face. After the service, several members of the congregation visit the pastor. He is ill with a fever and cough, and does nothing to mask his irritation at having to listen to other people's problems. A married couple—a fisherman named Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow) and his wife, Karin (Gunnel Lindblom)—requests to speak with him. Karin explains that her husband has become depressed and hopeless about the possibility of nuclear war. Jonas makes little eye contact as the pastor pathetically attempts to comfort him, but agrees to come back later in the day so they may talk one-on-one.
A homely woman, Märta Lundberg (Ingrid Thulin), enters. We find out that she is an unmarried schoolteacher who has been Tomas' mistress for over two years. She desperately wants Tomas to marry her (as she has expressed in a long letter written to him, but as yet unread), but he still mourns the passing of his wife years before. When Jonas returns, instead of hearing him out, the pastor talks only about himself, and his own lack of faith. He says, "If there is no God, would it really make any difference? Life would become understandable. What a relief." The remainder of the film deals with Tomas' continuing crisis of faith, his strained relationship with Märta, and the actions of the dejected fisherman.
The Silence (1963), despite its titillating US trailer, is not a lesbian love fest. The film opens with the sound of a ticking watch, and we see two women and a small (perhaps eight-year-old) boy, all perspiring in the compartment of a barely moving train. Initially there is no sound. Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) asks her son, Johan (Jörgen Lindström) to play in the passageway when it becomes apparent that her sister, Ester (Ingrid Thulin), is ill. We see soldiers on the train, and Johan watches out the window as silhouettes of military tanks whisk by on a train headed in an opposite direction.
The three reach their curious destination and check into the Hotel Europa, in a nameless country with an unrecognizable language. Immediately, we sense the differences and the tension between the sisters. Anna is earthy, tactile, sensuous, and concerned with her appearance. Ester, a book translator, is sickly, histrionic, alcoholic, cool, and judgmental. They communicate through steely glances rather than words. While Anna seeks out male company, the mischievous Johan, caught between the feuding sisters, contents himself with wandering the corridors of the strange hotel. Ester is attended to by a sympathetic, elderly room service waiter (Håkan Jahnberg), with whom she communicates by pantomime.
Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie (1963) is a documentary filmed for Swedish television by Vilgot Sjöman (famous—or infamous—for his 1967 film, I Am Curious (Yellow)). The film documents Bergman's creative process before, during, and after the filming of Winter Light, and is divided into five episodes:
The Script (40 minutes): Includes an interview with Bergman about
writing the screenplay; discusses casting, choice of locations, lighting,
costumes, etc. Interviews with cinematographer Sven Nyqvist, costume designer
Max Goldstein, prop master K.A. Bergman, and actor Gunnar Björnstrand.
Through a Glass Darkly is a moving and effective drama, which doesn't reveal all of its secrets even with multiple viewings. For a film about faith, there is very little actual discussion of religion (the male characters don't appear to have any strong convictions on the subject). Rather, it explores the subjects of perception, love, communication, loyalty, and devotion to one's art. In tone and subject, it may remind you of a play by Tennessee Williams, as set in Scandinavia.
Bergman appears to be using mental illness as a metaphor for the process of religious faith, though this is not as sacrilegious as it might first appear. Faith requires a person to believe that which can't easily be seen, touched, heard, or explained. In the same way, Kårin cannot separate the real from the imagined. There is some evidence that she prefers the expectant world of her hallucinations to the despair of reality. The title of the film comes from the Biblical passage quoted above. Perhaps Bergman is saying that reality distracts us—darkens the glass, as it were—from the sacred. It should be noted that ultimately, Kårin's communion with God is not what she expected.
The four actors are all splendid. Harriet Andersson gives an emotionally raw and uninhibited performance as Kårin. Portraying mental illness is tricky business, and more than one actor has succumbed to over-the-top theatrics, but Bergman coaxes a controlled and believable performance from her.
Many believe that Winter Light is the most powerful of the trilogy. Certainly, it is the most straightforward in conception. The pastor's name and actions inevitably draw comparisons to the Apostle popularly known as "Doubting Thomas." This Thomas (Tomas) recognizes his duplicity and self-loathing, yet seems powerless to change. When he looks into the fisherman's eyes, there is a moment of recognition, as if he's found a (hopeless) kindred spirit. The crux of the film is how this doubting pastor can convince a suicidal man that God is there, and will protect him.
As for poor, devoted Märta, she is treated with total contempt by the pastor. Bergman has Thulin's character recite her letter to Tomas into the camera instead of as a voiceover, and he shoots a static, six-minute close-up of her face as she bares her wounded soul. Gunnar Björnstrand, Ingrid Thulin, and Max von Sydow all give powerful performances full of exquisite nuances (with fine supporting work from Gunnel Lindblom as Jonas' wife, Allan Edwall as a devout church sexton crippled by a degenerative disease, and Olof Thunberg as a callous organist). Again, Bergman provides no easy answers.
With The Silence, Ingmar Bergman entered the surreal territory usually occupied by such filmmakers as Luis Buñuel and Federico Fellini, or by the playwright Samuel Beckett. The ticking watch reminds us of the dream sequences of Wild Strawberries, and most of the film certainly has the perversity of a dream. There is irony in the fact that a woman (Ester) who excels in translating one language into another cannot find a common language with her sister. Given the pessimistic story and the surreal setting, you'll be pleasantly surprised that there are laughs to be had in this film (mostly from the denizens of the hotel).
The compositions create a palpable sense of displacement, claustrophobia, tension, and dread. There is also a raw sexuality to this film that caused a sensation at the time of its release, and can still raise eyebrows today. The photography—as in all three films, by Sven Nykvist—demonstrates a masterful control of light and shadow, and is full of arresting images. Of the three films, this is the one which most stays with me. Ingrid Thulin is a knockout, particularly in her rambling soliloquy near the end of the film, and Gunnel Lindblom conveys the narcissism of Anna quite effectively. I consider this film to be a flat-out masterpiece. In theme and execution, it laid the groundwork for Bergman's later masterwork, Persona (1966).
Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie is the best documentary I've ever seen on the filmmaking process. The first big surprise is how candid, relaxed, and animated Bergman is throughout his interviews with Sjöman (an old friend whom he had mentored). When asked about his biggest weakness as a director, Bergman responds: "I have this immense need to control and regulate other people. A certain need for power." Given the three films' rather agnostic trappings, it is interesting to learn during the interview that Bergman inscribed his manuscript for Winter Light with the letters "SDG," which he explains stands for the Latin phrase Soli Deo Gloria, meaning "To God Alone Be the Glory" (this was apparently the same inscription used by Bach for his musical compositions). Though some might fault his arrogance in comparing himself to Bach, he seems genuinely humble when telling this story. My preconception of Bergman was that of a dour man with great intensity on-set, so I was relieved to witness the relaxed (albeit staged) rehearsal full of smiles and laughter.
While Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie pertains specifically to Winter Light, it deals in general with the filmmaking process overall, and is full of wonderful insights. Its greatest strength is that it humanizes a great director who is too often deified. For those used to the slick, studio-made, making-of documentaries found on many DVD releases, this is something really special.
Note that the television documentary, Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie, was transferred from the original 16mm edited master, but has not been restored. There are numerous instances of vertical lines running through the picture, scratches, dust, dirt, and other debris. Personally, I am happy Criterion invested their resources into making the feature films look so good at the expense of the documentary, since the latter will have less replay value for most people.
For those who break out in hives at the sight of a subtitle, an optional, dubbed English soundtrack (also Dolby Digital mono) is included for the three features (but not for the documentary). I dutifully listened to portions of all three. I can't recommend them aesthetically, but if it's the only way you can enjoy these great films, then by all means use them. (You should know that the [British] English dubs were created for the original international theatrical releases, and it appears that some of the more controversial dialogue was glossed over in the translations. For example, Chapter 19 in The Silence is rendered far less powerfully.)
Criterion used newly translated subtitles for this release, and they are wonderful. I don't speak Swedish, but they read well (I didn't spot any typos or awkward phrasings) and are paced appropriately. Each disc has an easily-navigated menu screen, animated with a scene from the film.
Each feature comes with a beautifully designed 12-page foldout insert featuring the chapter stops (generous, at 16 to 21 per film); cast, crew, and other credits; stills from the film; and a written essay. The essays were composed by film scholar Peter Matthews (Through a Glass Darkly); Peter Cowie (Winter Light); and scholar and author Leo Braudy (The Silence). All are exemplary, but I would single out Braudy's as being particularly well-written, and providing welcome insight to a film that can be difficult to fathom.
The US trailers are included, and are well worth checking out. It's clear from watching these that the films were marketed to emphasize their melodramatic and sexual qualities (making them sound almost like "B" movies of the period). A foreign poster gallery for all three films appears on the disc for The Silence.
Each disc is housed in a separate Amaray-type keep case, all housed in a handsome, medium-weight cardboard box decorated with a close-up, black and white photo (drawing?) of a large spider (the meaning of this symbol becomes clear in the first two films). There are five "spine numbers" associated with this release: the box set itself bears #208, the three films (in chronological order) are #209-11, and the documentary is #212.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
When this release was originally announced, I remember feeling miffed that there would be no full, scholarly, scene-specific audio commentaries (the kind that Criterion excels at). Having spent a lot of time with this set, I no longer feel that way. Just as each person will experience faith in an individual way, each viewer of these films will respond to the stories and images in a unique manner. There are no pat answers here, no discrete mystery to be solved. As such, they invite and reward multiple viewings. I feel Criterion has provided just enough analysis to whet the appetite, without destroying the beautiful mysteries.
At a suggested retail price of $79.95, there is no way to get around it: this set is expensive. Although it can be found online with discounts of 30% or more, it will not be in everyone's budget. Personally, I think this set is worth every penny, but that will be an individual decision. For those new to Bergman, a purchase or rental of Criterion's The Seventh Seal or Wild Strawberries (both with excellent commentaries by Peter Cowie) may be a better starting point than this box set.
This court has carefully weighed the copious merits and the few shortcomings of the set at hand. I may be new to the bench, but I know trumped-up charges when I see them. Criterion is hereby exonerated in full, and I'll have a word with the District Attorney in chambers. Court is recessed.
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What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice, Through A Glass Darkly
Perp Profile, Through A Glass Darkly
Distinguishing Marks, Through A Glass Darkly
• Exploring the Film: Video Discussion with Ingmar Bergman Biographer Peter Cowie (11:05)
Scales of Justice, Winter Light
Perp Profile, Winter Light
Distinguishing Marks, Winter Light
• Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie, a 1963 Documentary Directed by Vilgot Sj öman (2:26)
Scales of Justice, Ingmar Bergman Makes A Movie
Perp Profile, Ingmar Bergman Makes A Movie
Distinguishing Marks, Ingmar Bergman Makes A Movie
• Four-Page Insert with 2003 Essay by Filmmaker Vilgot Sjöman
Scales of Justice, The Silence
Perp Profile, The Silence
Distinguishing Marks, The Silence
• Exploring the Film: Video Discussion with Ingmar Bergman Biographer Peter Cowie (11:05)
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