Death Has a Face

Including How Ingmar Bergman Almost Helped Me Scoop Roger Ebert

by Peter Sandstrom

Bergman died last July 31, a New York Times writer declared that Bergman’s iconic figure of death incarnate in his 1958 film, The Seventh Seal, had become an enduringly effective symbol of both death and Bergman’s early signature film-making style. That black-robed persona with the wide, white grease-painted face and bald head protruding from his cowl outlasted relentless efforts to satirize, lampoon, and mock it for nearly 50 years. Considering how overwhelmingly cynical and derisive our culture’s comedy and commentary have become, it is really something when an icon from the world of art or cinema survives and continues with its original force intact. My teenage introduction to Ingmar Bergman and appreciation of him is a case in point.

Ingmar Bergman

I was again watching way too much television late one evening in 1970. A 16-year-old Chicago high school student, I found myself viewing the strangest black and white apparitions on our normally colored TV. I missed the introduction and didn’t know what was going on. It looked like a drama set in a turn-of-the-century wooded meadow with beautiful young women in long skirts laughing and playing badminton while other equally antique characters were picnicking and chatting in the foreground. I was thrown off even more because they sounded like my grandparents—they were speaking Swedish though I could have sworn there were some English words thrown in. With the English subtitles, it was the strangest combination of English, Swedish, and Swenglish I had seen.

The ongoing entrances and exits of a grim reaper-type character who seemed to be having the oddest conversations with the badminton players and the picnickers got my attention. These conversations purported to be about the meaning of life and death; I had never seen or heard the like—I was enthralled! I also began to sense that someone was trying to pull my leg; I didn’t know what to take seriously and what to laugh at. Then two of the female badminton players announced in Swedish with Swenglish subtitles that it was time to take all of their clothes off and go for a swim. They proceeded to do so which got my attention, albeit in the somewhat fuzzy focus of the background. Just when I thought I had seen it all, the grim reaper’s eyes followed the upward flight of a dove. He looked dramatically skyward, asking a question in a manner that seemed to invite God to get in on this conversation. When the reaper’s great white forehead suddenly became the target of the dove’s gooey droppings, I was on the floor, reeling with laughter.

Bergman aficionados may already know what I had been witnessing in glorious black and white was not The Seventh Seal, it was not even a Bergman movie. It was one of the great spoofs of Bergman’s early movies, the 1968 short film classic, Dove, (in Swedish “doo’ veh,” will do) by Anthony Lovers. The spoof did not lead me to dismiss Bergman, a testimony to the film-making power of Bergman and his brilliant cameraman, Sven Nykvist; it made me desire to see more of what this was all about.

I had not seen peoples faces framed as the were while talking in natural settings. Even though this technique was filtered through a romping satire, I was taken by the power of the figure of death actually talking to people. Well, living, as I did, in the age prior to videos and DVDs, it was difficult for me to pursue my new interest in this Swedish filmmaker. But, I was patient and eventually saw Bergman’s The Seventh Seal a couple of years later.

I had already come to relish the focus of foreign film directors on the quality of story instead of action and special effects as in Hollywood, but I was unprepared to see what Bergman and Nykvist did with story, or the way they followed conversations, and how characters’ faces were framed while speaking. Dialogue in a Bergman film meant actors actually having a dialogue—their conversations often went for minutes! Close-up meant really close-up, the actor’s face filled the entire screen and stayed there for the whole long monologue or dialogue portion, and remained so for an extended time while the actor was silent. The camera of Bergman and Nykvist was relentless!

Set in medieval Sweden during a time of plague, The Seventh Seal follows the travels of a knight (played by the wonderful Max Von Sydow, longtime member of Bergman’s repertoire company) and his squire (Gunnar Bjornstrand, another great Bergman company member). The knight tries to fend off his untimely demise by playing an ongoing game of chess with Death; the prize, of course, the knight’s very life. As he travels from village to village, the knight seeks to outwit and outmaneuver Death Incarnate in the form of the famous white faced, black shrouded figure described earlier (played by Bengt Ekeret). I was captivated then as now by the stunning quality of Sven Nykvist’s cinematography. It is like taking the work of a highly skilled black and white still camera photographer with the qualities of form, composition, and lighting and transposing them seamlessly through the lens of a movie camera onto long reels of motion picture film. And, I was captivated by the penetrating effect Bergman created with his figure of Death—which was not merely the traditional black robe and voiceless skeletal skull for a head. His Death has a classic European mime’s eyes, nose, and mouth with a repertoire of expressions; Bergman gave Death a face.

Going further, Bergman gave Death a speaking part as a passionate, scheming, and, at times, seemingly vulnerable partner in the high stakes verbal jousting with the increasingly desperate knight. In giving Death both a face and a voice, Bergman made death an undeniably human experience. Death is someone we recognize and, in turn, must acknowledge just as we are forced to acknowledge the characters in those interminable close-ups simply because Bergman won’t let us look away from them—his remorselessly still camera will not allow us that choice. By placing this life and death drama in the midst of a journey, replete with extended time for observation, reflection, questioning, deal-making, anguish, and prayer, Bergman suggests that death is not only a human experience, it is a deeply spiritual one. It so both for those who experience death as well as for the loved ones and companions who attend them on this final journey. So, it seems quite fitting that Bergman’s final scene depicts the silhouettes of Death and all his victims, traveling along the top of a ridge, not in a dirge, but a dance.

When I was a junior at North Park College, I organized a small foreign film festival on the campus. One of the films was Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960). Based on a Swedish folk tale, the film tells the story of a medieval rural family with two daughters. This grim saga of family, jealousy, rape, murder, vengeance, and redemption, is set in the primeval forests of central Sweden. To an greater extent than The Seventh Seal, it allowed Nykvist to exhibit the full range of his perceptive skills with the camera. It also presented Bergman’s strong dramatic sense honed by his expertise in directing on the theater stage. Considering recent cinema’s penchant for explicit sexual display and graphic violence, especially where sexual assault is involved, Bergman’s remarkable portrayal of the rape and murder sequence of this story was clothed and had little blood. Yet, it was utterly horrific and devastating to watch—and it lingered. I can still remember classmates, especially women, who walked away shaking that night, and many others who had to stay behind so they could talk about what they had witnessed on that screen.

During my last two years at North Park I was a staff writer for our college newspaper. One of the benefits of being a part the media scene in Chicago, even the college press, was access to advance movie previews for movie reviewers. This was so that reviews could be written well-ahead (in theory) and published in the week or two prior to the movie’s release in the local theaters. Our editor, Owen Youngman, who was already beginning his long and successful career with The Chicago Tribune, sometimes passed preview tickets onto me. It happened that I landed a pair of tickets to the preview of Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage (1974). Though released in the United States as a movie, it was originally a four-week-long serial presentation for Swedish television. Gunnar Hallingberg, the former rector of Sodra Veternsbygen Folkhogskola, the Covenant folk school in Jonkoping, told me later that when originally aired, the streets of most Swedish cities were largely deserted during the broadcast of Scenes From a Marriage.

The movie preview was poorly attended; there were about eight of us, including the dates or friends of the reviewers. As I craned my neck and looked back in the semi-darkness, I saw Roger Ebert, movie reviewer for the Chicago Sun Times. He was wearing what became his trademark sweater and holding a large bag of popcorn and his note pad. His companion for the afternoon looked as if she had just walked out of a Swedish movie. Then the lights went out.

In Scenes From a Marriage Bergman disturbingly portrays the demise of the relationship between Marianne (passionately played by the multi-talented Liv Ullmann, the only Norwegian in the repertory company) and her husband Johan (Erland Josephson, a fine Bergman regular). It portrayed the poisonous fallout of their divorce and their tumultuous middle age during the following decade.

In this film Bergman explored one of themes for which he best known (another is his questioning of the silence and/or existence of God and scathing portrayals of traditional Christianity). In Scenes from a Marriage Bergman examined and displayed his perspective on the relationships between men and women and, especially, on the nature of women themselves. In his cinematic studies he usually presented men as insensitive—clueless at best and boorish and cruel at worst. If these men had any sense of self or accomplishment or any success in their relationships, it was likely because of the insightful and long-suffering characters of the women with whom they were connected—the willingness of these women to lovingly give of themselves to their husbands or companions even during long stretches when they didn’t deserve it. This theme goes back to his earlier films including Winter Light (1962) (with Gunnar Bjornstrand and Gunnel Lindbloom) and Persona (1966) (which featured break-through performances for both Liv Ullmann and Bibi Anderson). It continues through his final film, his masterpiece, Fanny and Alexander (1983), and Sarabond (2003), his television series that revisits Johan and Marianne later in their life.

I came away from Scenes From a Marriage stunned. I had never seen relationships, especially marriages, painted in such painful and depressing detail. Twenty at the time, I thought the trauma Bergman was filming was just an aberration and hoped that such declines might never happen to me. I promised myself that I would not become anything like Johan and, if I ever saw that coming, I would simply switch behavior for the better. Ah, well. Within a couple of years I proved myself just as capable of insensitivity and boorishness in my relationships and my own middle age has certainly resonated with some of Bergman’s hapless cinematic male leads.

On a lighter note, I wrote my review well ahead of Roger Ebert, and fully intended to scoop him, but my review was not published in The College News until weeks after Ebert’s review came out in The Sun Times. Ebert and I concurred on several points concerning Scenes From a Marriage and the films of Bergman in general, though he used phrases like “terrible recriminations” and “psychic bloodshed.” Not that Mr. Ebert had anything to worry about from me had I scooped him. The following year, the Pulitzer committee awarded Roger the “Prize for Criticism” for his collected reviews of 1974; Ebert is the only film reviewer to have received this prestigious accolade. The Pulitzer committee somehow neglected to consider my own voluminous work of criticism in The College News that year, which included several pithy and, I’m sure, insightful commentaries on life at North Park and Covenant Church politics as well as movie reviews. Maybe Owen forgot to send them to the committee.

Bergman’s last and finest film, Fanny and Alexander (1983), found me watching it during a year in which some strands of my life were beginning to unravel. I went into the theater hoping to comfort myself by hearing the lilts of spoken Swedish for an hour or two. Of course Bergman insisted on giving me much more than I had bargained for by purchasing my ticket and spending my evening at his movie.

This film is set in early twentieth century Sweden, the time of Bergman’s childhood. Though the film and its central family are not biographical, various aspects of Bergman’s boyhood are explored. Elements of young Ingmar’s life are reflected in the adventures and torments of Alexander, the film’s child protagonist, who acquired a magic lantern. It was a flame-illuminated glass slide projector, a marvelous contraption that looked like something out of a Jules Verne novel. On Christmas Eve while the adults are celebrating in the main parlors below, the young Alexander gives magic lantern shows for his sister, Fanny, and his cousins up in his bedroom in the upper floors of the Ekdahl family mansion. Bergman often credited his early fascination with his boyhood magic lantern and giving shows with it as the gateway to his love of theater and then film.

The drama ensues for Alexander when his father, Oscar, dies and his mother, Emelie (played gracefully by Ewa Froling), is courted by and marries the local bishop who presided at his father’s funeral. The legacy of Bergman’s men as either mean or bewildered continues in this film. These fellows can’t even get dying right; sometimes they end up as ghosts. Actor Allan Edwall gives a compelling portrayal of a ghost playing Alexander’s father, Oscar Ekdahl. As a ghost, father Ekdahl is sad, confused, and full of regrets and yet still deeply wants to set things right for his beloved family. He muddles about and wanders through his old home. The ghost of Hamlet’s father, upon whom Edwall’s character is based, would have difficulty rivaling the haunts of Oscar Ekdahl. With such helpless, warped men who seem to surround her in the extended families she married into, is it any wonder that Emelie Ekdahl finally and desperately needs to be rescued? She has to do it almost entirely by her own means in the true Bergman and Scandinavian saga and folk tale tradition. Her resourcefulness and determination continue to grow as the drama unfolds.

I want to conclude by considering Fanny and Alexander in relation to Bergman as a screen writer for a film he did not direct, The Best Intentions (1992). This script and film is based on his book by the same name in which he chronicles the life of his parents. His father was a very conservative Lutheran minister whom Bergman remembered as a cold person and severe disciplinarian. Bergman often based the ministers in his films on one or more aspects of his father. These various clergy characters reach their apex in the person of the sinister and bone chilling Bishop Edvard Vergerus in Fanny and Alexander. This vile clergyman (played with both ice and barely contained rage by Jan Malmjso) is up there with the most frightening and loathsome cinematic villains. Imagine the most self-righteous, arrogant, and manipulative pastor you’ve ever known, cross him with the neighborhood bully who haunted your walks home from school, throw in some Darth Vader and a white clerical collar and vestments, and you have Bishop Vergerus. We want to stand up and cheer when this awful excuse for a human being is finally vanquished (or is he?). He serves as a reminder of Bergman’s tortured past with his father and as the culmination of Bergman’s lifelong critique of the Church. Is it any wonder that one of the saviors in this film is not one of the many Christians on the screen? Rather, it is a Jewish merchant and mystic. That Jewish hero (again played by Eland Josephson, who is Jewish) is granted the place of honor at the head table at the film’s climatic Christmas Eve feast.

With all this in mind (and on film!) it is truly astonishing that when Bergman turns from fiction to near-historical narrative in describing the life and marriage of his father and mother as he does in The Best Intentions. He approaches his Lutheran minister father with a remarkably evenhanded, at times sympathetic interpretation. In this enchanting and lushly photographed film, Max von Sydow appropriately makes his final return to a Bergman script. He plays Ingmar’s maternal grandfather who is none too impressed with the stuffy, overbearing young clergyman who is to become his son-in-law. Those who have grown up in a parsonage, especially a Lutheran, Covenant, or evangelical one, might find The Best Intentions both a tonic and a revelation.

For some people of faith who have found their journey helped rather than hindered by stories well-told, good questions insightfully asked, and aspects of beauty artistically portrayed, the films of Ingmar Bergman have often been a bountiful feast nourishing us at significant and sometimes painful junctures in our lives. While Bergman is not one to whom I go to celebrate my Christian affirmations—thankfully, I have writers like Annie Dillard, Kathleen Norris, Anne Lamont, and oh, yes, The Covenant Hymnal, for that at the ready on my book shelf, his amazing, beautiful films are often places for me to stand still, be silent, and take stock of my pilgrimage of faith thus far and to hold up to myself that unflinching mirror as Soren Kierkegaard is always reminding me to do. Tusen tack, Ingmar!

Peter Sandstrom teaches education and is an editor of Pietisten.

See all articles by Peter Sandstrom