Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, whose birth centenary falls today, directed over 60 films in a career that spanned five decades. These films engaged with fundamental and existential questions like sin and redemption that have bothered humanity for ages. In bleak and brooding Scandinavian landscapes, he sought to make sense of life, attachment to God and Faith, imponderables in human relations. Films including The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Cries and Whispers, Silence, Winterlight, Through a Glass Darkly, Persona weren’t, of course, blockbusters. But Bergman’s films continue to attract and disturb filmlovers decades after they were made.
The maestro made films because he needed to engage with the big questions that haunted him. Like his favourite playwright, August Strindberg, these questions disturbed him and cinema was a medium to struggle with them. With a loyal band of artists — cinematographer Sven Nykvist and actors, Liv Ulmann, Harriet and Bibi Andersson, Max von Sydow — he returned to them, film after film. Like Fyodor Dostoevsky, Bergman saw art as a practice of philosophy; like the Russian writer, he loved to tell simple stories that became profound meditations on the human condition.
Bergman made some of his important films in the years immediately after World War 2. His films did not directly allude to Europe’s tryst with Fascism, but the guilt, and crisis of faith that followed the war years found an echo, as in The Seventh Seal. This film charts the journey of a knight returning home after the Crusades through a landscape wrecked by plague, conflicted in his faith in God and drawn to playing a game of chess with Death. It is a parable of post-war Europe, a moral wasteland. The loneliness of his characters, their failure to love or nurture relationships, the inability to relate to the world around them can be traced to the collapse of the moral universe Bergman grew up in. These have since acquired a universal resonance.