Swedish director widely recognised as one of the most prolific European auteurs
Son of a strict Lutheran pastor, often disciplined as a child, left home at 19
Started as script writer with the Svensk Filmindustri, the prominent Swedish film conglomerate of his time
Extensive experience both in film and theatre (he served as the director of the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm) – as Elsaesser points out, Bergman’s involvement with both media has been used by some critics to dismiss his films as ‘mere filmed theatre, pompous and uncinematic’ (p.136)
In the book he wrote on Bergman, Jesse Kalin argues that the filmmaker’s primary concern is to explore the human condition from a moral and psychological point of view: ‘Bergman’s subject is not being as such but the moral world - ourselves as human beings in the twentieth century: what is deepest and most true and essential about us, and what meaning we can find for our lives in the face of this truth’ (Kalin 2003, p.1). For Kalin, through a set of consistent themes, Bergman examines the depths and recesses of what he calls the ‘geography of the soul’, in order to probe ‘this question of whether life offers either mercy or meaning’ (Kalin 2003, p.xvii).
Kalin identifies several landmarks in Bergman’s ‘geography of the soul’:
Judgment – an experience whereby individuals scrutinise their life for its worth and significance
Abandonment – experience of being left alone and abandoned that makes the individual feel vulnerable, insecure, inadequate
Passion – an experience of intense suffering, of pain
Turning – experience of turning towards other people for support and comfort, or turning away from the other
Shame – moral feeling of repugnance coupled with the recognition of failure
Vision – seeing how we could be – often magical moments, dreams etc.
According to Kovács, modern narratives ‘tell stories about an estranged person who has lost all her essential contacts to others, to the world, to the past, and to the future or lost even the foundations of her personality. The more radical this person’s estrangement, the more radical the modernist character of the narrative’ (p.66). Both Tomas Ericsson, the pastor in Winter Light and Elisabet Vogler in Persona are characters who exemplify this sense of alienation, of radical disconnect from their environment, the people surrounding them and their own lives. In Winter Light, the death of Tomas’s wife triggers a crisis in faith, which renders Tomas unable to relate to members of his congregation, the schoolteacher who loves him and his own former self.
Bergman’s films have also been linked to existentialism, especially the work of the French existentialists, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, and the early existentialist, the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. One of the key concepts in French existentialism is the absurd, the awareness of the meaninglessness of life and the angst (anxiety) and despair that accompanies this realisation. Tomas in Winter Light experiences a similar sense of anxiety, associated with his loss of faith.