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Defending Ingmar Bergman

Ingmar Bergman directing "Saraband."

I have long known and admired the Chicago Reader’s film critic, Jonathan Rosenbaum, but his New York Times op-ed attack on Ingmar Bergman (“Scenes from an Overrated Career,” 8/4/07) is a bizarre departure from his usual sanity. It says more about Rosenbaum’s love of stylistic extremes than it does about Bergman and audiences. Who else but Rosenbaum could actually base an attack on the complaint that Bergman had what his favorites Carl Theodor Dreyer and Robert Bresson lacked, “the power to entertain — which often meant a reluctance to challenge conventional film-going habits?" In what parallel universe is the power to entertain defined in that way?

I love Bresson and respect Dreyer but what does Rosenbaum mean by their challenges to conventional film-going? He continues: “…as Dreyer did when constructing his peculiar form of movie space and Bresson did when constructing his peculiar form of movie acting.” And what were those peculiar forms? Dreyer built an elaborate set for “The Passion of Joan of Arc” and never revealed it, using closeups of faces with expressionistic angles and shadows. Bresson would shoot the same take over and over, as many as 50 times, to drain his actors of all emotion; he referred to them, indeed, as “models.” I am impressed by the idea and conception of these peculiar forms, but I doubt if they are more or less “entertaining” than Bergman’s also stylized but less constricted use of sets and actors.

Rosenbaum writes, “Riddled with wounds inflicted by Mr. Bergman’s strict Lutheran upbringing and diverse spiritual doubts, these films are at times too self-absorbed to say much about the larger world, limiting the relevance that his champions often claim for them.” This statement is perfectly accurate about Dreyer if you substitute his name for Bergman’s, and perfectly accurate about Bresson, if you substitute the names and change “Lutheran” to “Catholic.” Indeed, Bresson has been called the most Catholic of filmmakers.

Rosenbaum says Bergman is less taught in schools today than Godard and Hitchcock. He carefully avoids saying Bergman is less taught than Dreyer or Bresson. I grant him Hitchcock. He uses Google counts in his argument, so out of curiosity I googled “film class on Ingmar Bergman” (1,400,000) and “film class on Jean-Luc Godard (310,000). He says Bergman is “less discussed,” so I googled web discussion groups and found that Bergman scored 59,000 and Godard 14,400. Of course these entries cover a multitude of kinds of content, but there you have them.

Curiously, Rosenbaum thinks it is a sign of Bergman’s decline that he is hard to find on DVD these days, because he had to purchase his copy of “The Magician” in Paris (“Like many of his films, 'The Magician' hasn’t been widely available here for ages.”). Not true. I had to order Welles’ “Chimes at Midnight” from Brazil, and his “Magnificent Ambersons” is unavailable in this country, but I find 66 DVDs of Bergman’s 50-some titles, including "The Magician," for sale on Amazon, although some of them are for zones other than ours (an all-zone DVD player now costs less than $70, something I learned from Rosenbaum before ordering mine). You can find DVDs of all Dreyer’s films from “Joan” onward (five), and 10 of the 13 Bressons.

The most recent of the four Bergmans that Rosenbaum even mentions is “Persona” (1966), except for “Saraband” (2005), his final film. The sin of that film was “his seeming contempt for the medium [digital video] apart from its usefulness as a simple recording device.” In other words, at 86, Bergman did not choose to experiment with digital but simply used it. Surely it is also of interest that the film reunited the same two actors, Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, who had already played a divorced couple in “Scenes from a Marriage” (1973), and now meet again many years later. As for Bergman’s openness to a newer medium, what about his embrace of the lower costs and greater flexibility of Super 16 more than 35 years ago? What about him proving with Sven Nykvist in “The Passion of Anna” that a conversation could be shot on 16mm by the light of a single candle?

I think Rosenbaum gives away the game when he says, Bergman’s “movies aren’t so much filmic expressions as expressions on film.” He means form itself is more important (and entertaining, I guess) than narrative, emotional content and performance. Not everyone would agree.

Rosenbaum complains of “the antiseptic, upscale look of Mr. Bergman’s interiors.” Would that include the interiors in “The Virgin Spring,” “The Seventh Seal,” “The Passion of Anna,” “The Silence,” “Wild Strawberries,” “Hour of the Wolf,” “Scenes from a Marriage” and indeed “The Magician” and “Persona?” (I would mention “Fanny and Alexander” and its horror-house Lutheran parsonage but Rosenbaum says he hasn’t seen the film voted #3 in the Sight & Sound poll of world directors and critics to determine the best films from 1975-2000.)

Finally, Rosenbaum laments how Bergman’s “mainly blond, blue-eyed cast members became a brand to be adopted and emulated.” Hello? Bergman worked in Sweden! Does he forgive Ousmane Sembene’s African exteriors and mainly black-haired, brown-eyed cast members? Or the way Ozu used all those Japanese?

Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc” and Bresson’s “Pickpocket” and “Au Hasard Balthazar” are reviewed in the Great Movies section, along with Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal,” “Persona,” “Cries and Whispers” and “Fanny and Alexander.”

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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