Bergman: A cinematic persona

Oak Street Cinema screens five of the late Swedish director’s films to tribute his lasting print on film.

Michael Garberich

As a young man, Ingmar Bergman possessed the kind of nondescript, level proportions of face that bear no markings of an uneven mien behind them. His cheeks and jowls were full, yet never exaggerated. His eyes were dark and darkened more by brow bones thickly packed. From them hung a nose of such subtle hook, no one perspective could betray its mild design. His hair matched his brows in shade but thinned early on, and, at least at first, he took to covering it with a beret, which he wore high on his forehead, as if defying even this minor acknowledgement of outside influence on his style.

Bergman Tribute

WHEN: Through Sept. 19
WHERE: Oak Street Cinema, 309 Oak St. S.E., Minneapolis

“Through a Glass Darkly”

Starring: Harriet Andersson, Gunnar Björnstrand, Max von Sydow
WHEN: Tonight, 7 and 9

“The Seventh Seal”

Starring: Gunnar Björnstrand, Max von Sydow, Bibi Andersson
WHEN: Friday 7:15 p.m. with introduction and Q&A by Colin Covert, Saturday and Sunday 5:15 p.m.

“Cries and Whispers”

Starring: Harriet Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, Liv Ullmann
WHEN: Sept. 18 and 19, 7 p.m., 9 p.m. both days

In later years, his elder years, that front fell altogether and perhaps, seeing no solace in such vain self delusions, he tossed aside the beret and wore his crown bare and without conceit. Then again, maybe fashion simply changed and with it so did he. His face remained fleshy, but age had sharpened its edges, which highlighted its overall composition in a way not easily summed except by saying yes, he has aged, he has become an old man. Most notably, the nostrils had thinned and tightened and so strung between them was a sharply angled hook of a nose. His eyes had retreated beneath the brows that guarded them, and the hook that once hung in silence became the point of first defense, should reason to put up defenses arise.

But Bergman, who died this July 30, is not the man whose face would call and command the attention of a crowd. To bump his shoulder crossing the street would be a minor inconvenience like any other, a faceless shoulder crossing the street that bumps you and that you bump back. For Bergman directed films, more than 50 and many of them great. He directed films, so his face stayed behind the camera, fastidiously capturing the faces he placed before it.

Certain coteries here and there will know the name, and some among them will have seen one or even a few of his films. Still fewer will claim to know his films, their shots and their themes and the actors or, more often, actresses whose faces seem so intrinsic to Bergman’s every frame.

This week, the Oak Street Cinema continues its two-week tribute to the late Swedish filmmaker whose seemingly impervious personal style deserves, as much as any other director to have received this mention, the title and high honor of “auteur.”

Last Friday, the tribute began with “Wild Strawberries” (1957), and earlier this week it continued with “A Lesson in Love” (1954). Still to screen is “Through a Glass Darkly” (1961), “The Seventh Seal” (1957) and “Cries and Whispers” (1973).

The five films are a strong introduction to Bergman’s career, though by no means are they comprehensive. His 50-plus films span 40-plus years and a formal retirement from film in 1982, as well as the evolutions (and revolutions) of style and subject matter expected from the able hands of someone as persistent and prolific as Bergman was.

Among the three that remain is “Cries and Whispers,” one of two films about which Bergman has said he felt he “had gone as far as (he) could go.” (The other is “Persona” (1967), his most formally sophisticated and a top contender as his most eviscerating.) What he meant by that is enigmatic at its most precisely parsed, a message more completely comprehended, felt, really, in the viewing.

It is shot in color, primarily the red and white of blood and bone, and surrounds the imminent and ultimate death of a young woman whose two sisters and nurse cannot console her through her pain and grief and who find no consolation after her death in return. It is one of his so-called “chamber dramas,” shot almost exclusively within the high walls of a noble mansion, though the tight framing with close-ups of faces in reaction feel as if the walls and ceilings extend no further than the frame’s rigid perpendiculars.

Death is the recurring trope throughout Bergman’s work, a trope that comes alive when it engages, or more appropriately, when Bergman engages it with characters confronting its inevitable campaign, one they scorn.

In “The Seventh Seal,” a knight’s game of chess with the reaper is a pitiful attempt to keep the angel of death at bay in a medieval countryside struck by the plague. Death’s unyielding face is pale and stripped of every human feature but the most basic components of two eyes, a nose and a pair of straight and fastened lips that contorts into a smirk but refuses to part. It is a silent face, though Death itself speaks, silent in that it refuses to communicate meaning. Instead it excites, or perhaps only reflects, the anxiety of whoever might try to find significance in it, the knight and the viewer both.

The other film yet to screen, “Through a Glass Darkly,” is not pursued by death directly. But in Bergman’s films, death is only a convenient figure against which his characters – and through them we – encounter something meaningful, a meaningful existence or maybe just a meaningful art (or hewn from that, a meaningful film). It is one of necessary trauma, if only necessary because somewhere at the other end of a long corridor – staring in the face of that trauma – is stasis, boredom, nothing.

In “Through a Glass Darkly,” that nothing is a remote island, a land-crashed ship and family of four too preoccupied with their individual problems to face the traumas around them, and so they are engulfed by their traumas.

Bergman, along with cinematographer and longtime collaborator Sven Nykvist (“Cries and Whispers,” “Persona”), frame shots of extraordinary beauty and isolation in “Through a Glass Darkly” – a silhouetted figure in a doorframe eclipsing the outside light splashed behind it, a brother and sister entombed and nearly lost within an enormous, dilapidated ship crashed ashore and tipped on its side.

And then the face. A young woman presses her cheek against a wall, her face framed alone against a bare floral print. She hears voices. Her expression is blank, and she is silent. Or are those full lips, slightly parted now, communicating something? Something of the voices? Something of the voices behind the wall? And those eyes, how they flit once to the side. What is said with that flit? That nose. That twitch. It rose just there, following the cheek that tugged at its flank. The cheek and nose are in concert, there. But what do they play? Bergman. Bergman? What did you say? What are you saying? Bergman? These faces of yours; these films of yours. What is this hook of yours, Bergman?