Ingmar Bergman

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Although Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007) figures on everyone’s list of philosophical filmmakers, attempts to specify the philosophical implications of his films have yielded highly divergent results. One reason why this is the case is that interpreters disagree over how the philosophical content of a cinematic oeuvre is to be identified. Some interpreters clearly believe it best to work with their own philosophical views when interpreting a film’s story and themes, while others contend that the content of a work is at least partly constituted by the filmmaker’s own ideas and background, which the interpreter should try to reconstruct on the basis of the available evidence. This entry focuses on claims made by interpreters who share the latter premise. Such interpreters often disagree about the content of a given film because they do not have the same evidence about its context, or because they reason about the evidence differently. I survey such disagreements among Bergman’s interpreters and then shed new light on his actual philosophical sources and ideas. Various critics (e.g., Aristarco 1966; Blake 1978; Cohn 1970; Ketcham 1989) have attempted to situate Bergman’s work within an existentialist philosophical tradition, which would appear especially appropriate insofar as many of Bergman’s characters grapple with and articulately talk about death, illness, solitude, anxiety, and the meaning and value of life. Yet the case for reading Bergman as an existentialist, and his fictions as expressions of existentialism, rests on surprisingly flimsy grounds. For example, Bergman chose to stage Albert Camus’ Caligula as his debut at the Göteborg City Theater in 1946 (Steene 2005: 530-2). Although this seems indicative of an interest in existentialism, Bergman appears to have prompted, or at least allowed, the flamboyant actor Anders Ek to characterize the emperor as a histrionic and suicidal madman, downplaying the more contemplative moments in Camus’ text, such as Caligula’s contemplative refrain that “Man dies and he is not happy.” What is more, the long list of straightforwardly existentialist plays that Bergman never directed includes all of those written by Jean Genet and Jean-Paul Sartre. An existentialist director would presumably have been interested in staging at least some of these plays, such as Huis clos and Le balcon. Another oft-cited piece of evidence thought to support an existentialist reading of Bergman is the scene in Persona (1966) where the doctor tells Elisabeth Volger that she is sympathetic to her “hopeless dream of being.” Yet even though Bergman has explicitly endorsed some of what the doctor says in this scene, it is far from clear that any of this amounts to the expression of a genuinely existentialist philosophy. It is important to remember that the doctor is trying to impress the famous actress and fails to mention any of the less abstract and lofty reasons for her breakdown, which are far more central to the film’s story and themes. Another strategy adopted in support of existentialist interpretations of Bergman amounts to saying that Bergman’s source was that “grandfather” of existentialism, Søren Kierkegaard. After all, both Bergman and Kierkegaard were Scandinavian, and both had a problematic relation to Lutheran orthodoxy and what Kierkegaard called “Christendom.” It is true that on the occasion of his reception of the Sonning Prize, an eighty-one-year-old Bergman told a Danish audience that when he was sixteen he had been fascinated by the “dark streak and humour” in Kierkegaard’s Sickness unto Death (cited by Steene 2005: 117). It is hard to believe, however, that the sixteen-year-old Bergman fathomed much of Anti-Climacus’ intricate dialectical theology, nor is there any evidence to that effect in the movies. The first thing beginners in Kierkegaard need to learn about is his complex relation to Danish Hegelianism, and there is no reason whatsoever to believe that Bergman ever paid any attention to this topic. Why should we think that any specific existentialist concepts, such as Sartre’s notion of la mauvaise foi, are advanced in any of Bergman’s cinematic fictions? In some studies describing Bergman’s putative existentialism, reference is made to his connection with the fyrtiotalist movement in Swedish letters, which had vaguely existentialist tendencies. Yet Bergman’s affiliation with the forties writers was both tenuous and temporary. The problem with the existentialist approach to Bergman is that there is no evidence that Bergman ever really engaged seriously with the theories of any of the existentialist philosophers, which suggests that if his works belong to such a tradition, this is a result of a mysterious osmotic process or Zeitgeist causation. In sum, the choice of existentialist premises in the interpretation of Bergman’s films is undermotivated. Another place to look for Bergman’s intellectual sources is the Lutheranism preached in Bergman’s milieu - beginning with the sermons delivered by his father. In a program note to The Seventh Seal (1956), Bergman recalls traveling with his father and sitting in church during his sermons, but he reports that the content of what was said was beyond his grasp; he was, however, fascinated by the interiors of small Swedish churches with their chalk paintings of angels and demons, and Death playing chess with a crusader. Only later did “faith and doubt” become his “constant companions” (Bergman 1972: 70). As Robert Lauder (1989) emphasizes, Bergman temporarily espoused a Pauline God-is-love doctrine, which surfaces explicitly at the end of Through a Glass Darkly (1961). Bergman also expressed this credo in an interview published in Playboy (1964: 68). Yet doubt seems to have won the upper hand, at least during Bergman’s most productive decades. In the script of Persona, the actress Elisabeth Volger laughs derisively when she hears the God-is-love line delivered melodramatically in a radio play. And in the afterword Bergman wrote to his script for a TV film on the Crucifixion, he proclaimed that he was “not a believer” and added that he rejected “every form of otherwordly salvation” (Bergman 1975). Although Bergman no doubt remained under the influence of his Lutheran upbringing, to interpret his films as expressions of any species of Christian orthodoxy would be erroneous. One conclusion that could be reached is that Bergman’s sources and artistic intentions were literary and musical, not theoretical. By his own admission, he got nowhere when he tried to read Wittgenstein or Lacan (Bergman 1994: 10). Yet if Bergman’s own word can be trusted, such a conclusion would be false because there is one specific philosophical book that was literally foundational for his work. One of Bergman’s remarkable and seldom-heeded assertions to this effect was made at the end of his preface to the publication of an English translation of the screenplay of Smultronstället (Wild Strawberries) in 1957. Bergman wrote: Philosophically, there is a book which was a tremendous experience for me: Eino Kaila’s Psychology of the Personality. His thesis that man lives strictly according to his needs - negative and positive - was shattering to me, but terribly true. And I built on this ground. (Bergman 1957: 12) Although this striking remark has been briefly mentioned in passing by a few Bergman scholars (Cohen 1993: 439; Gado 1986: 225; Kalin 2003: 193), none of them appears to have read the philosophical source that Bergman identifies as the very ground on which he built. There may be various reasons why no one has followed up on Bergman’s statement in trying to understand the philosophical implications of his films. One reason has to do with critics’ understanding of “the intentional fallacy,” which they take as entailing that an artist’s attitudes and aims - whether they are stated or not - have nothing to do with what the artist’s works actually mean. This is not a good reason (Livingston 2005). If an artist is skillful and successfully realizes his or her intentions (as was often the case with Bergman), intentions and the work’s implications cohere, and the artist’s statements about sources and intentions may then be indicative of what is actually expressed in the works. And even if the filmmaker failed to express his or her intended meanings, it is appropriate to understand the audio-visual display as the consequence of this failed attempt. Another reason why few people have explored the Kaila connection when attempting to elucidate Bergman’s themes and characterizations is that the treatise in question (Kaila 1934) was initially written and published in Finnish and has only been translated into Swedish and Danish. Those Scandinavian readers who were in a position to read Kaila’s book, or who already knew about its influence on such prominent Scandinavian writers as Willy Kyrklund, may simply never have noticed what Bergman wrote in the preface to an English translation of the script of one of his films. Another reason why critics overlooked or discounted Bergman’s statement could be that they were too committed to the project of applying other theoretical assumptions, such as Freudian ones, in the interpretation of Bergman’s works (e.g., Gado 1986). Although it would be a serious error to present a static picture of Bergman’s lengthy career, an interpretative hypothesis worth exploring is that from the mid-1950s onward, Bergman often worked with some key philosophical ideas he had found - or found restated - in Kaila’s book. To explore such a hypothesis, we need first of all to identify the ideas and arguments that Bergman could have taken over from the philosopher and/or his sources. In his brief evocation of Kaila’s influence, Bergman mentions the thesis that people live strictly according to their needs. The word “needs” here is quite misleading, as this is a translation of words in Finnish and Swedish (tarve and behov, respectively) that are ambiguous between what in English is called a “need,” a “desire,” or a “want.” Kaila’s point is that human behavior is determined by, and should be understood in terms of, the motivational states or “forces” that both prompt and orient activity. Kaila’s insistence on the explanatory primacy of motivational forces is not linked to an attempt to reduce all behavior to a single kind of motive, such as elementary biological urges or needs. Nor does Kaila postulate erotic drives or the will to power as the unique or predominant motive. Kaila instead lays great stress on the plurality of motivational states and on conflicts between different kinds of needs or desires. In particular, he discusses ways in which a person’s “high spiritual” and intellectual motives can come into conflict with that person’s “lower” biological urges. This is the stuff of Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), where the young Henrik struggles with his lust, alternately lunging for the attractive servant girl and reading to her from Luther’s shorter catechism.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Routledge companion to philosophy and film
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages9
ISBN (Electronic)9781135982751
ISBN (Print)9780415771665
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2008

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2009 Paisley Livingston and Carl Plantinga for selection and editorial matter; individual contributors for their contributions.


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