I’ve been watching a lot of Bergman films lately and finding out that even his early apprentice works are full of interesting moments and fine writing and acting. Whilst I was a big fan before, I’ve now become convinced that he’s the greatest director who ever lived. Not just that: he’s the greatest director who ever lived by some distance. He simply has no peers. I feel the same way about John Coltrane in the world of music, and it’s because there’s something spiritual in their work that lifts them to a higher plane than all other similar artists. Whether it’s Coltrane or Bergman, I always feel that in their work there’s an intelligent soul fighting off its torments, metaphorically screaming with great eloquence in the face of everything the world throws at them, and it’s humbling to witness. Hitchcock made at least 20 great films as well, but much as I love him there’s nothing in his work that makes me feel like that.
Very early films like Music in Darkness (1948) and To Joy (1950) are, as I said, quite interesting, but I wouldn't claim them as essential viewing. And the three-part movie Secrets of Women in 1952 has a fascinating middle section but the other two stories are just OK. However, Summer Interlude (1951) really is excellent, the first sign of the great things to come. And after 1953 Bergman maintained an amazingly high standard for five decades. Of the films I've seen from that period Sawdust and Tinsel, The Seventh Seal, The Magician, The Devil's Eye, Through a Glass Darkly, The Touch, Cries and Whispers and The Magic Flute fall short in my opinion. The Seventh Seal is highly acclaimed but apart from the few scenes where Max Von Sydow plays chess with Death, there's really not much to it in terms of story or character. Cries and Whispers also has a good reputation but to me it seemed very similar to Woody Allen's 'Bergman film' Interiors, i.e. sterile and unsatisfying. And Bergman's 1964 film, All These Women, is really quite annoying; it's the only truly awful thing he made.
But what's left ranges from very good to absolutely brilliant: A Lesson in Love, Summer with Monika, Smiles of a Summer Night, Wild Strawberries, The Virgin Spring and Winter Light (both of these start off slow but have excellent second halves), The Silence, Persona, Hour of the Wolf, Shame, Scenes from a Marriage, Face to Face, The Serpent's Egg, Autumn Sonata (these last three are probably his most harrowing films so you need to be in the right mood to appreciate them and they're not the best entry-point for a Bergman neophyte), From the Life of the Marionettes, Fanny and Alexander, After the Rehearsal and Saraband. Along with Summer Interlude that makes 19 films that are well worth watching and repay repeated viewing. A few other directors like Kubrick may have matched this kind of form but then in his entire career Kubrick only made half the number of great films Bergman did. Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, John Ford, Howard Hawks and a few others perhaps also made 19 films worth watching, but rarely did their work have the depth and the stark power that was routine for Bergman.
Bergman talks often of heavy subject-matter - of the soul, and despair, and suicidal feelings, and couples who desperately need each other yet gnaw at each other like they were animals chewing through the ropes tying them down - and many viewers may be put off by that. But there’s heartfelt truth in virtually every scene he put his name to in 50+ years of film-making. His brooding Nordic character can easily be seen as too much if you’re not in the right mood, and can easily be satirized, but I don’t think it should be. I think the work of many other acclaimed arthouse directors should be mocked because they at the end of the day offer up nothing but pretension and pretty pictures; they’re like moody teenagers who hope that by saying nothing, you’ll think they’re really deep. Bergman, however, really is on a very deep and meaningful journey, and his films really do say important things. They’re written with care, and they’re grounded in reality, and though the mood might seem oppressive, there is always true and meaningful content, and it’s content that no other director has every come close to matching.
Bergman’s very best films, as far as I’m concerned, are Scenes from a Marriage and Fanny and Alexander and then, on a slightly lower level, Wild Strawberries, Persona, Shame and perhaps a few more, but let’s focus on Summer with Monika, Smiles of A Summer Night, The Silence, Hour of the Wolf and From the Life of the Marionettes as five films which were ‘moderate achievements’ by his standards. Even if he’d only made these five I think he’d be a far more interesting director than Antonioni, Resnais, Tarkovsky, Dreyer, Rivette, Vigo, Von Trier and many other big names, and I’d happily trade in all their work for this quintet. But it goes beyond that. To emphasise how highly I rank him I need to do more than juxtapose him with film-makers I think are massively over-rated anyway. I actually think he achieved more in these five films than Fritz Lang or Douglas Sirk or Max Ophuls or Nicholas Ray or Sam Peckinpah ever did in their whole careers, and these are directors I generally like. And let me say this as well: Bergman is of course the writer of nearly all his films and as a writer he means more to me - much more - than Shakespeare.
From the Life of the Marionettes vs. Fassbinder
I first saw this film as an adolescent - in the good old days when British television showed such interesting, mind-expanding works late at night as a matter of course. I really liked it and I remember noting that it had a completely different look and feel to other Bergman films. Most of it is set indoors, in its own special world, and at the time I had no background knowledge of the film and I guess I didn’t know enough of the differences between the languages to even register that it was made in German, not Swedish. I watched it for a second time just recently and right at the start, during the colour sequences involving a murder of a prostitute, I was thinking: this is Bergman’s most Fassbinder-like film. There was something about the look and the nature of the scenes that reminded me of the German director who by this point - 1980 - had become a big name. It was only ten minutes later, in a long scene set in a psychiatrist’s office, that I actually clicked that the characters weren’t speaking Swedish. Then I checked on Wikipedia and confirmed that the film was shot in German, in Fassbinder’s home territory,
Having made that link, I then started making comparisons and was soon asking myself why From the Life of the Marionettes is so much better than any Fassbinder film. Recently I’ve watched quite a lot of these as well: Beware of a Holy Whore and Lola, both of which are quite good, plus In a Year with 13 Moons (a barely-watchable movie that came with a loving introduction from Richard Linklater, of all people), Veronika Voss (slow, not terribly engaging) and the horrible The Third Generation. There are some interesting things going on in some of these - for example the filtered lighting and the colour scheme in Lola, which is beautiful and wholly original - and his best film, Ali-Fear Eats the Soul, which I saw a long time ago, is definitely worth watching. But my over-riding impression of Fassbinder so far (having seen maybe a quarter of his work) is of an angry, miserable figure throwing his own often inarticulate feelings onto the screen without much concern for structure or for creating characters or moods the audience can respond to. I especially have a problem with the aural qualities of his films. It’s a commonplace to say that German can be a harsh-sounding language to foreign ears. It’s not always true - The Tin Drum and Run Lola Run don’t strike me as harsh-sounding films - but it does apply to the kind of character Fassbinder focuses on, and things are not helped when the background music also lacks all warmth and is seemingly applied in a haphazard, careless way.
Marionettes is better than any Fassbinder film first of all because Bergman is a far more sophisticated writer. He knows how to structure and pace a drama, how to make one scene build on another to create an overall effect, how to edit in a way that draws us in rather than tires us. And whilst his characters may be moody and difficult and self-obsessed, they’re never annoying or pathetic. There are still some decent or noble elements to their personalities, which make them easier to identify with, whereas with Fassbinder it too often seems that he, the director, feels contempt for his own creations, and if even he doesn’t identify with them, then why should we? (Look at the wretched transvestite in In a Year with 13 Moons for example, treated mercilessly by all around him, or the grotesques in Beware of a Holy Whore always shrieking at each other, mercilessly determined to punish each other). Bergman’s films are also better because the music in them is effective in creating a mood and not alienating us (there’s not much music in this one, but it’s used well).
Bergman has a clear advantage because he understands tragedy and Fassbinder doesn’t. He knows that you can throw a bunch of miserable characters at the audience as long as you keep their trajectories moving in some way. Even the most despairing soul should be looking for a way out and at least occasionally trying to rekindle their motivation in life, as we humans do. So many other lesser arthouse films (and also some mainstream American films like Sidney Lumet’s Long Day’s Journey into Night) just plonk us down among a similar ‘bunch of miserable characters’ and ask us to care about them and identify with them when it’s obvious the director and writer haven’t gone that far, haven’t thought through their own feelings about the story. When this happens, the characters on the screen don’t seem like humans, they seem like empty ciphers, and it quickly gets boring. That’s the fantastic thing about Bergman, the thing that puts him head and shoulders above everyone else: his generosity and bravery, the fact that he does engage, and has actually thought what it would be like to be these people, and doesn’t play the childish or cowardly distancing games other directors do - the ones who want to shove a ‘soul in torment’ down our throat whilst they hold back and ‘keep their cool’ and photograph a street-light with a nice reflection or some such nonsense.