By: Christian Lengkeek
Ingmar Bergman is a movie director I know of that comes closest to deserving the title of poet. Living from 1918 – 2007, Bergman witnessed nearly all of cinema history. As a small child, Bergman fell in love with movie making. At age nine, he traded all his toy army for a small image projector. This small projector became the start of the career of Sweden’s greatest director.
Last night, I watched The Seventh Seal, Bergman’s 1957 film about a crusader who returns from the crusades having lost his faith in God. The movie is slow, the scenes are simple, the lighting intense as well as carefully thought out and the music ranges from grand and stylized, to gentle notes plucked on a lute. The plot might be labor-some for some viewers. Bergman takes his time on scenes and even individual shots. The movie does not attempt to impress. Besides the dramatic entrance of Death, the filming is only impressive in its simple beauty.
Bergman’s movies deal with philosophy, and in many, he returns in some way or another to his favorite question: the existence of God. But his movies only begin to “make sense” in retrospect. Scenes are meant to be experienced and felt, and the feelings only afterwards point up to the ideas.
I don’t know many people who are interested in watching artistic works that discuss the existence of God. Philosophy in general is put up as a stale alternative against the alive nature of art. Art is personal; it can be felt. Philosophy is distant; it deals with things that are above and outside us. But in a weird way, Bergman’s philosophical movies feel so personal. It’s as if by revealing his thoughts on God or truth, Bergman has in some way exposed the core of himself.
There are two scenes in the movie I love. One is of a parade of religious zealots whipping themselves in hopes God will forgive them and remove the Black Death. Bergman captures the confusion that often exists in the three-way relationship between God, the individual and God’s church. Bergman carefully cuts between the reactions of the onlookers, the priest’s exhortations and blood trickling down the bodies of those beating themselves.
The second scene I am not sure I can put into words. It is just a few people eating strawberries and drinking milk while the sun sets. One of them is playing a song on a lute. All the things about the scene down to the simple notes of the lute are simple, yet the joy of the characters is as brilliant as sunset falling across their faces. For a movie that spends most of its time trying to capture religious confusion and existential crisis, this is the one reprieve. It acts as a reprieve for us as the audience, as well as for a crusader who says that he wishes he will always be able to go back to it.
As far as I know, Bergman had no faith, at least not a faith he confessed. In his later films, he dropped questions of God’s existence because he found them too depressing. But I am very thankful he approached the question in his earlier films. Not many filmmakers have dared to lay their thoughts and feelings about God so bare for so many eyes to look upon and ridicule. In many ways, I appreciate Bergman for his courage as much as I appreciate him for his art, because without his courage his art would be empty and lifeless.