Supposedly Bergman’s only horror film, but what, the rape/revenge film that inspired Last House on the Left and the most toxic family relations I’ve ever seen and tormented people leading meaningless lives and dead men coming to life and plagues, burning at the stake and death incarnate don’t count as horror anymore?

This one does have phantoms, shaky reality and dangerous insanity, and opens the way horror films do today, claiming to be based on some evidence (in this case a diary) left behind after a disappearance. Liv Ullmann (Autumn Sonata) speaks into camera, setting up the rest of the film as a flashback, her summer on an island with painter husband Max von Sydow.

Liv’s actually the first one to see a phantom, a sweet old woman (216 years old, played by Naima Wifstrand, Granny in The Magician) who says Liv should read Max’s diary while he’s away. So when others start appearing to Max, I’m not sure if they’re real or not. There’s Baron Erland Josephson (a skeptic in The Magician, a madman in Nostalghia) with an invitation to his castle, Max’s naked ex-girlfriend Veronica Vogler (Ingrid Thulin, also a Vogler in The Magician), and a psychiatrist who Max knocks down in anger. Later Max and Liv attend a dinner party with the Baron and the psychiatrist and others (including Gudrun Brost, the clown’s exhibitionist wife in Sawdust & Tinsel, and Gertrud Fridh, Sjöström’s wife in Wild Strawberries), and they seem real enough, but Max’s state of mind is in question – he sweats as the camera whip-pans from one babbling nut to another.

The opening title appears a second time, like an intermission in a 90-minute film. The second party at the castle is less sane. Max is repeatedly promised that he’ll get to see Veronica, while the other guests show off: the Baron walks on the walls, a woman removes her face, Max is given lipstick and eyeliner and taken to meet the still-naked, possibly-dead Veronica, whereupon he states: “The mirror has been shattered. But what do the pieces reflect?” Later Liv tells us he came home and shot at her, then disappeared into the woods.

I actually think Bergman’s movies are more frightening when he’s not trying to be so Halloweeny:

Bergman’s follow-up to Persona, and they seem to have a lot in common, with dialogue about people who live together becoming alike. The DVD extras are awfully repetitive, but Marc Gervais has a few useful things to say, that Bergman’s films of this time were about personality disintegration, also his darkest and most self-conscious period (sounds of film production run under the opening titles).

“A pity people must live. I feel sorry for them.” What is it with the mid-1950’s and depressing circus movies? This obviously aimed to completely bum out anyone who finds joy or delight at a circus, then if cinemagoers weren’t yet convinced, along came La Strada the following year to make sure we’d forever equate the circus with death and disappointment.

A shitty circus sputters into the town where ringmaster Albert (Åke Grönberg of A Lesson in Love) left behind his wife and kids. He’s now with Anna (Harriet Andersson, star of Monika and Through a Glass Darkly), who doesn’t like him visiting the family, so she sneaks off with the pointy-sideburned actor Frans (Hasse Ekman, a writer/director also in Bergman’s Thirst and Prison), whose theater (run by Winter Light star Gunnar Bjornstrand) has lent the circus costumes while they’re in town. Albert and Anna would both desperately like to leave their horrible circus, and Albert even attempts suicide (similar ending to Smiles of a Summer Night) but in the end, they sadly roll back out of town together.

Anna and the actor:

Anna and the ringmaster:

Near the beginning is one of Bergman’s most intense dream/flashback sequences, in which humiliated clown Frost (Anders Ek, a priest in Cries & Whispers) “rescues” his wife (Gudrun Brost, Hour of the Wolf) who is bathing nude at the beach, putting on a show for an army regiment.

Wonderful quote from Catherine Breillat, which could apply to any great film:

All of the images I am describing, more than forty years later, I can see again with the absolute precision of black and white, the light and the specific, almost incandescent definition. But perhaps I am inventing them, perhaps I was able to understand the film only as it related to me, in a selfish and fragmentary manner. Who cares! … What does it matter if I make up stories — the importance of works is not only in their objectivity but even more so in their elemental power.

John Simon:

Fine as the Swedish filmmaker’s earlier outings were, here, in his thirteenth film, Bergman gazed deeper than ever into the human soul, depicting it with greater artistry. The sparring spouses in his 1949 film Thirst have their Strindbergian fascination, but the empathy in Sawdust and Tinsel is more profound, the suffering more shattering, the Pyrrhic victories (such as the film’s ending) more moving. Stylistically, one of the ways Bergman achieved this was by using a greater number of close-ups of the human face, which would continue to fascinate the filmmaker above all else throughout his career.

“I’m actually scared of everything.”

This is the source of the short introductions and DVD extras that begin with video of Bergman’s car arriving at his house. Filmed interview segment is just okay, but Bergman tells good stories and the editing of stock footage and his own films into the interviews is done well.

This was originally three one-hour episodes with more focus on the theater, later recut into a single, cinema-focused feature. The director: “I was the first and only journalist who was ever allowed to step into the world of Bergman on its lonely cape on Fårö.”

Asked about his conscience after abandoning so many families: “I had a bad conscience until I discovered that having a bad conscience about something so gravely serious as leaving your children is mere affectation. It’s a way of achieving a little suffering that can’t for a moment be equated to the suffering you’ve caused.”

Great to watch this again in high-def. I remembered it being interesting, but not looking this spectacular. Morose knight (Max Von Sydow) and his charismatic squire Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand of Winter Light, hard to adjust to him not being the morose one) are heading home through the plague-ridden country, accumulating other characters along the way. It’s both very serious about life and death and also full of jokes and lighter moments, so maybe the first Swedish horror comedy? Along the way, Jons has folksy/philosophical conversations with townsfolk, and the knight has religious/philosophical conversations with Death.

First, Jons rescues an intense, silent girl (Gunnel Lindblom: Sydow’s servant in Virgin Spring, his wife in Winter Light) from a dangerous thief. “I’m a married man, but with any luck my wife is dead by now, so I’ll be needing a housekeeper.” Then they come across actor/jester Jof (Nils Poppe of The Devil’s Eye) with his wife Bibi Andersson, sexy maid in The Magician), who’ve just been ditched by their more serious companion Jonas and need protection. Jonas has stolen the blacksmith’s wife (Inga Gill of Miss Julie), but the smith (Ake Fridell, Monika‘s dad) gets her back and Jonas wanders off to meet Death.

It’s been established that jester Jof can see spirits, so he’s the only one who realizes that the knight’s solo chess games are actually with Death, and that the knight is losing, so he escapes with his wife. The rest of the gang continues to the knight’s castle where his wife Karin (Inga Landgre, recently in Girl With The Dragon Tattoo Remake) is waiting. The six of them are just having dinner when Death catches up, and out in a field with their young son, Jof sees Death leading them all away.

Peter Cowie calls the actors “medieval ancestors of those troubadours, those traveling musicians who are still so popular in Scandinavia today.” I’ve meant to ask Trevor how often he runs across troubadours. Cowie also calls this “the high point of Bergman’s symbolic period.” I’m pretty sure the sudden parade of self-flagellating religious nuts was a Monty Python influence.

Woody Allen:

His big contribution was that he developed a vocabulary to work on the interiors of people. He would choose these great and gifted actors and he would guide them so they could project these inner states of extreme emotional intensity. He would use close-ups and keep those close-ups going longer and longer, and he never let up. Gradually the psychological feelings of the character the actor was portraying just sort of show up on the screen. He was so unsparing with the camera. Finally you start to see the wars that are raging inside the characters, these psychological wars and emotional wars, and it’s no less visual in the end than the movements of armies.

Final theatrical film of the two Bergmans (since Fanny & Alexander was shot for television), and each Bergman got an oscar nomination (as did two unrelated songwriters named Bergman that year), but were no match for Hal Ashby’s Coming Home. Began shooting three days after I was born. First Bergman film I’ve seen shot in color, except for Saraband which I barely remember.

Opens with Liv Ullmann’s pastor husband narrating to us about her. Later Ingrid will speak aloud as in a play. There are flashbacks (either remembered or imagined) and a nightmare scene, all more theatrical and artificial than the other Bergmans I’ve been watching. It makes sense to watch this right after The Silence, which is also about two family members revealing their hatred for each other over the course of a night and day. However, I’d heard The Silence was one of Bergman’s top masterpieces, and I liked this one better – thought the conflict had a better and more explicable build-up.

So Ingrid plays the famed concert pianist mother of Liv, who has a more modest life in the country with her husband. Unbeknown to Ingrid, Liv is also housing her disabled younger sister Helena (Lena Nyman of I Am Curious), whose presence shakes Ingrid, reminding her of her failures as a mother, which Liv reminds her more and more about until Ingrid is driven from the house for what seems like the final time, riding home on a train alongside Winter Light‘s Gunnar Bjornstrand. It’s all very intense and poisonous and makes you wonder about Ingmar’s obsession with family members’ simmering hatred for each other. Looks absolutely splendid, though.

Watched some of the extras – played through the commentary but didn’t have the stamina for the full 3.5-hour making-of, right after watching the similar full-length doc about Winter Light.

Not what I was expecting after the increasing despair of Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light – I mean there’s plenty of despair here, and more relationships falling apart irreconcilably and suicidal behavior and children being forever warped, but for the culmination of a “Silence of God trilogy” and a film that was originally entitled God’s Silence, there’s a curious lack of discussion of God.

After a train trip through a country at war, Anna (Gunnel Lindblom, suicidal Sydow’s wife in Winter Light) and sickly Ester (Gunnel Lindblom, Winter Light pastor’s no-longer love-interest) land at a hotel, sit in their room deteriorating while Anna’s son Johan makes the hotel his playground, spying on the porter (I loved him, a friendly old man who only speaks his fictional home country’s made-up language) and cavorting with a roomful of dwarves. The sisters hate each other – Anna tells some uncomprehending hookup that she wishes Ester were dead, finally takes Johan and abandons her sister to the hotel.

Quiet and mysterious movie full of ambiguity – hard to tell much about the relationships or history, why they are here, where is here (a place that Ester, a professional translator, knows none of the language), what Ester and the boy are thinking.

L. Braudy:

Anna and Ester form two sides of a whole person, a theme Bergman would go on to further explore in Persona. Anna is defined almost entirely through her physicality — washing, anointing herself with perfume and lotions, getting dressed and undressed, having sex, watching others have sex. Ester, the translator, with her typewriter, paper, and pens, is instead a creature of language — suffering from the lung disease that suffocates her, masturbating, smoking, drinking, and thinking of sex as a mechanical matter of “erections and secretions” that disgust her. Her body in ruin, only words seem to keep her alive.

Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie (1963, Vilgot Sjöman)

Extremely good, five-part doc on the making of Winter Light, which I’m obviously watching one movie too late, but I didn’t realize it existed back in February. Sjöman, who hadn’t yet made it big with the I Am Curious films, interviews Bergman at every step of the filmmaking process. Amazing to me how open Bergman is about his script after just having completed it, his intentions for filming before beginning.

Bergman:

“This is what we suffer from so terribly in watching American films, where everyone walks around acting so desperately natural, talking in this damned monotonous way. It makes it so dead and dull. It’s important to keep the dramatic contour. It’s not about just keeping up a naturalistic level of chatter, but actually playing a part, conveying a certain impression. And as you get towards the end of a movie – and the director must keep a careful eye on this – it’s important to raise the energy level in the actors. After having watched the film for an hour and a half, the audience is so tired that they need more energy. They need to understand the big picture.

Sven Nykvist:

Segments of process (except for scriptwriting) are interspersed with interviews discussing why things are done the way they are. For one Winter Light scene fragment, we see all the angles shot, then the first edit, then the final. Bergman gives this doc strict attention, not playing it off as PR fluff but maybe a chance to seem less forbidding to audiences as his films were turning more serious. And of course, he’s more conscious of his public image and the reception of the doc than he appears.

Vilgot for Criterion:

Bergman avoided some things, though. He was afraid of letting me read the first sketches he put on paper. These were later published in Bergman’s book Images: My Life in Film. So here we find the embryo for the film: the minister alone in the church, trying to force God out of his silence. Bergman was also afraid of letting the TV crew into the studio while he was working with the actors, so what I got for the TV series is an arranged rehearsal, made on a separate day after the real shooting was finished. … When time was ripe for the last interview, he didn’t approve of the result. “No good,” he said. He was blaming himself for being too superficial. “We have to do it once more, Vilgot.” So we did.

Bergman’s Dreams (2013, Michael Koresky and Casey Moore)

A Criterion-produced DVD extra without a DVD, stuck onto their blog and youtube, about dreams and dreamlike atmosphere in Bergman’s cinema – curiously without directly mentioning his film called Dreams or his TV adaptation of Stringberg’s A Dream Play (a major influence, Bergman closes Fanny & Alexander with a reading from it).

Set in one day, almost a real-time portrait of the failings of local pastor Gunnar Bjornstrand (bad father from Through a Glass Darkly). He gives his sermon to a sparse, unattentive congregation then has a series of disspiriting meetings in his office. Gunnel Lindblom (servant girl in The Virgin Spring) wants him to speak with her husband, a depressed Max Von Sydow, never looking more sad and powerless. Local atheist teacher, friend and off-again love interest Ingrid Thulin (Sydow’s secret wife in The Magician) writes the pastor a an attack/analysis letter, delivered as a speech to-camera.

Gunnar and Ingrid:

Then Von Sydow is back (mentioned: “a spider God, a monster”, direct callback to Through a Glass Darkly). He is feeling suicidal and the pastor so completely fails to help (“I’m no good as a clergyman,” he even admits) that Sydow promptly wanders outside and shoots himself in the head. Ingrid goes with Gunnar to inform the widow, and along the way he discusses their lack of a relationship. “I don’t want you. Once and for all I have to escape this junkyard of idiotic trivialities. And I don’t love you, because I love my wife. When she died, so did I.”

Widow Gunnel:

Off to the next church service in another town, joined by the hunchbacked sexton, a thoughtful man and the best character in the movie. Each tormented by their lives’ lack of meaning, Gunnar begins the service, which is attended only by Ingrid.

Sexton Allan Edwall, later in Fanny & Alexander and The Sacrifice:

A strong contender for Most Depressing Film of All Time. Made the same year as Frantisek Vlácil’s The Devil’s Trap (“an allegory regarding science, religion and secular power”) and The World’s Greatest Sinner, in which Timothy Carey renames himself God and defies the other God to show himself. Max von Sydow would follow this up by playing Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told.

The ending, in Bergman’s words: “Irrespective of everything, you will hold your Communion. It is important to the churchgoer, but even more important to you.”

P. Cowie from the DVD extras:

When it came out, I remember certainly being very shocked that this did not look like a Bergman film. It didn’t have that spectacular technical expertise which we associated during the 50’s with Bergman. But looking back I think it was very deliberate on his part. It wasn’t a budget problem or anything like that. He just wanted something very, very wintry and very, very severe.

P. Cowie:

Film buffs who know Bergman’s earlier film Through a Glass Darkly will note the organist’s scornful dismissal of that work’s conclusion: “God is love; love is God.” Indeed, Winter Light stands as a bridge between Through a Glass Darkly and The Silence, as well as Bergman’s farewell to his own religious upbringing. Some might call it an exorcism.

Ebert:

The sexton, the little twisted man, alone has a face that is alive with wonder at the mystery of faith. He has been reading the Gospels, he says, and thinks the emphasis on Christ’s suffering on the cross is all wrong. Christ only suffered a few hours, he says, while he, Algot, has suffered more and longer, and it is not so bad. No, the real suffering of Christ came when his disciples betrayed him at Gethsemane, and when he cried out to a father who seemed to have forsaken him. He suffered because he feared no one had heard or understood his message. Christ suffered because he, too, was dismayed by the silence of God.

This might be the beginning of Late-Period Bergman – I’ve seen none before except Persona. He was the son of a major pastor, and the DVD extras say he was “coming to terms with religious baggage of his past” in this thematic trilogy. He “renounced a lot of the expressionism of the 50’s that he’d been known for,” but the compositions, in less stark black-and-white than before, are still striking.

Karin (Harriet Andersson: Monika, Petra in Smiles of a Summer Night) is on Bergman’s beloved island of Faro with younger brother Minus (Lars Passgard, who would not be a Bergman regular), husband Max von Sydow, and father Gunnar Bjornstrand (self-important Egerman in Smiles, Sydow’s challenger in The Magician). Things start out on shaky ground – she’s just back from psychiatric hospital where she got shock treatment, and when dad gets a moment alone he sobs in his office – and only get worse. An hour in, I was wondering which one of them would commit suicide – each seemed pretty likely – then a moment later Gunnar started speaking of his suicide attempt.

Karin finds her novelist dad’s diary about her illness. Minus gets caught looking at dirty pictures, always seems on the edge of panic, has incestual complications. Max is getting no love from his crazy wife, starts a bitter fight with Gunnar over his creative bankruptcy and exploitation of his daughter’s illness. But Karin is worse off than they realize, starts standing in an empty room staring at a crack in the wallpaper and insisting that God is going to come through.

“Your faith and your doubt are very unconvincing. All that’s apparent is your ingenuity.” Harsh words spoken by a character within a film series about faith and doubt. “Don’t you think I know that,” Gunnar responds, a bit of Bergman self-criticism, doubt about his own doubtfulness.

“The door opened, but the God that came out was a spider,” Karin says, resigned to a horrible fate just before the ambulance takes her away again. “Papa spoke to me” are the movie’s final words, a glimmer of hope from poor Minus.

P. Matthews on the Euro-arthouse films of the early 1960’s:

The denuded purity of its sacred texts was an implicit rebuke to Hollywood budgetary decadence, just as their oracular obscurity challenged a feel-good escapism whose meanings were only too pat.

A reprieve is nonetheless granted through earthly love – a coda shows the aloof father chastened and struggling to bond with his neglected son. That the director himself found this optimism facile can be judged from the diminishing spiritual returns in the trilogy, culminating in the almost total cosmic nullity of The Silence.

On a Bergman kick lately, so I meant to watch this and Hour of the Wolf for SHOCKtober, but only made it to one. The beginning of Bergman’s extensive work with cinematographer Sven Nykist, brilliant looking but with less of the extreme blacks of Smiles of a Summer Night and The Magician. Supposedly this was stylistically influenced by Akira Kurosawa, after which Sven and Ingmar created their own style.

Pure and flowery Karin with dark, suspicious Ingeri:

Karin (Birgitta Pettersson, a housemaid in The Magician) is the beautiful daughter of Tore (Max Von Sydow, The Magician himself) and Mareta (Birgitta Valberg of Port of Call), sent to church to deliver candles one Sunday wearing her nicest dress. Pregnant dark-haired servant girl Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom of Winter Light) comes along. The parents are devout Christians (especially mom, who whips herself in atonement) but the girls aren’t – Ingeri prays to Odin and Karin seems to only care about being spoiled by her parents and looking pretty for boys. Along the way Karin flirts with a boy whom Ingeri knows, and the two flee from an icky bridge keeper.

Commentary says the raven represents Odin

The raven appears right after the old man at the bridge, an Odin supporter:

While Karin is alone she comes across a grotesque gang of acrobat goat-herdsmen brothers, and shares her lunch with them, but the two older ones chase then rape and kill her, while the youngest watches, afraid.

The herdsmen:

Karin, first realizing she’s in danger:

The brothers continue on their travels, ask refuge at Tore and Mareta’s house, and in private offer to sell Mareta a beautiful dress – the one Karin was wearing when she left that morning. So the parents already know Karin is in trouble, possibly dead, when Ingeri comes along and confirms it to Tore. “Kill me first. My guilt is greater than theirs. I willed it to happen. Ever since I became with child I’ve hated her. The very day I prayed for it, he did it. It was him and me, not the herdsmen.”

Sad parents:

Tore puts himself through a purification ritual, wrestles a tree to the ground, then waits for the brothers to awaken and kills them all (knife, fire, and throwing the young boy into the wall). Ingeri walks them to their daughter’s resting place. Mareta: “I loved her too much, Tore, more than God himself. When I saw how she favored you, I began to hate you. It is me God meant to punish by this. I bear the guilt.” When Karin’s head is moved, a spring bubbles up from the ground beneath it. Tore senses God is speaking to him, knows he went too far killing the boy, and swears to devote the rest of his life to building a church on that spot.

Von Sydow, out for blood:

Earlier when Ingeri is preparing sandwiches for Karin’s lunch, she puts a live toad between slices of bread, which falls out just before the murder. The DVD commentary: “in ancient scandinavian folklore, toads were thought to be the devil in disguise.”

The movie won an oscar (against Clouzot’s La Verite), but the American and French critics who’d been Bergman’s biggest champions trashed it. Bergman later said it should be regarded as an aberration in his work, and never made another film in an historical setting.

Tree wrestling:

A decade later Wes Craven took the same story and made reprehensible trash out of it with Last House on the Left.