Ingmar Bergman is an inevitable figure on any serious list of the greatest film directors of all time. During the 1950s Bergman established himself as perhaps the quintessential foreign filmmaker with a series of movies that challenged the conventions of Hollywood’s narrative ideology. Bergman was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director three times and three of his movies won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Bergman became the model of the auteur for the French New Wave due to the fact that he wrote the scripts for most of his films and put a personal imprint on them.
It becomes quite obvious from viewing just a handful of Bergman’s movies that he differed substantially from the Hollywood style of moviemaking by virtue of this strain of personal vision. Rather than relying on straightforward plots or even character development to drive his stories, Bergman’s films of the ‘50s were built around metaphysical and existential angst. Interestingly, however, the angst found in Bergman’s films is devoid of the preoccupation with the specter of nuclear annihilation and the collapse of the moral tradition in the post-war era.
At the same time, one could argue that Bergman was making his own version of film noir; rather than populating his examination of a suddenly more ambiguous world with saps, low-lifes and femmes fatale, however, the Bergman version of film noir exists on a more metaphysical plane. Bergman’s conscious decision to set many of his most important films at this point in his career back in time resonates with the thematic conceit that the personal issues driving him to make movies were formed in his own past.
Placing the films out the context of contemporary settings and subjects also has the advantage of giving Bergman’s films of the 1950s a timeless quality that saves them from being as dated as many other films made during that era. It is the content and thematic richness, however, that genuinely makes these films as fresh today as when they were released. The culture that impacts Bergman’s films of the 1950s also belongs to the past.
Interestingly, during a period when Hollywood looked to the Bible for epic stories that could exploit new technologies like Cinerama, but at the same time engage the subject matter merely for the purpose of moralizing and titillation—often within the same scene—Ingmar Bergman was appropriating the connection between religion and exploitation for his own purposes. For Bergman, both cinema and the church are ultimately charged with creating illusions designed to trick the populace.
Charlatanism plays a major role in both The Seventh Seal and The Magician and it is a testament to the fact that Bergman is using film to work out his metaphysical angst that neither the church nor the illusionist are treated as better than the other. Film noir rose from the ashes left behind at Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a means to examine a more sophisticated and complex world filled with ambiguous morality. Hollywood chose to distance this new moral ambiguity by placing it in the world of criminals and law enforcement officers and shading the differences between them.
Bergman’s version of film noir is much more audacious; he locates the source of the modern ambiguity in the central moral authority of the western world: the church and Christianity. In doing so, Bergman actually manages to pull the rug out from under the foundation of film noir by revealing that moral ambiguity has not only always existed, but that the central architect of the foundation of that morality is itself dubious. Science and art has been charged with exposing this corruption, but at the same time, the artist himself is also corrupted because he, too, is capable only of presenting illusions.
In The Seventh Seal the church’s moral authority comes under attack. The knight is returning from the Crusades, one of the most morally questionable episodes in the history of Christianity. What the knight returns to is a country devastated by death and religious superstition. The scene of the flagellants whipping themselves into a frenzy underscores the idea that many of the hallmarks of Christianity are, indeed, superstition. Further bringing into relief the moral ambiguity of Christian faith is the arrest and subsequent burning of a scapegoat.
What Bergman is proposing throughout The Seventh Seal is that the moral authority of the church should have been questioned long before it had the chance to establish that authority; all moral authority should be questioned. The church is established as a facade behind which corruption exists, but more than it is also portrayed as the creator of illusions. The most important is that the Christian church promises an escape from death to those who believe in Christ and who follow church doctrine and dogma without questioning.
If the church has decreed that Tyan is responsible for the plague because she’s cavorted with the devil, then it must be true; to question Tyan’s guilt is to question God, not the humans running the church. Bergman is not arguing that believing in Jesus will result in eternal life, but he is suggesting that should be enough. That so much else is expected from believers is the illusion. In The Magician, science and art has already begun to displace the power of the church, as has secular government.
This a film inundated with illusions and even lies; from Vogler’s fake beard to the gender switch of his assistant to his magical tricks, nothing can be trusted. And that is exactly the point that Bergman is trying to make. Not only that nothing can be trusted, but nothing should be trusted. Vogler is an artist, but he is also the personification of the church, made concrete by his resemblance to Jesus Christ when he is disguise.
The climax of the film, in which Vogler uses a variety of stage tricks to instill fear into Vergerus, connects directly to the methods by which the church instills fear into the villagers in The Seventh Seal. Vogler may have succeeded in making Vergerus fearful of death, but the point is that there is no reason for him to be fearful. Like the church, Vogler holds no secrets and offers no quantified truth. First and foremost Ingmar Bergman was an innovator in the world of cinema by making films that rejected the conventions of narrative inspiration.
While The Seventh Seal and The Magician and other films of this era are not stylistically challenging and do not engage in avant garde visual effects, Bergman reinvigorated the complacency of 1950s film by constructing stories around themes rather than plots. His films of this era still retain the aspect of conventional storytelling, but they work as a transition from his far more straightforward melodramas of the 1940s and early 1950s to his experimental work in the 1960s.
The lasting influence of Ingmar Bergman is perhaps lost amidst the flashy editing and high concept films of today, but it is worth remembering that Bergman was at his most popular just as some of the biggest names in American cinema over the past forty years were being influenced by foreign films. Bergman’s cinema of ideas and personal vision informs much of the American New Wave revolution of the 1970s as well as the continuing spirit of independent film today.