Summer with Monika (1953)

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If I didn’t know any better I would say what the desires of the kids at the center of this early Bergman picture, sound like the American Dream. Except maybe it’s the Swedish Dream and maybe the main tenets are all but universal to many of the wide-eyed, angsty teens out there.

The lives of Harry (Lars Ekborg) and Monika (Harriet Andersson) have undoubtedly been witnessed countless times. They’re both in unfulfilling jobs. He’s an introverted laborer at a packing house where he’s not particularly happy and his constantly sub-par work ethnic receives the repeated wrath of his superiors. Meanwhile, the spirited Monika spends her days at a grocery store with a skirt chaser. Hardly the ideal environment.

But between Harry and Monika love blooms. He buys her a small trifle. They go to the movies together and she cries over the reveries on screen. This only serves to magnify how unpleasant real life feels, a far cry from the dreams they hold as working-class youth in Stockholm.

However, on a whim, Harry commandeers his father’s boat and Monika leaves behind her two annoying brother and nagging mother for adventure on the high seas (or rather the archipelago). The sun is bright. The water glimmers with personified delight. And it’s much the same for these two as they frolick and enjoy the novelty of this romanticized getaway. Even though the film famously features brief nudity, rather than being utterly sexualized, in more ways it evokes the imagery of Genesis 2 (Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame). The shame comes later.

Right now, they’re yet another iteration of the love-on-the-run narrative that proves you only need a mode of transport and passion does the rest — carrying lovers away on its gleeful wake.

Because at that age we’re all grasping at something intangible that floats above us tantalizing us every day of our lives. There’s not enough experience in life yet to know any better and so we go out and crave these pie and the sky ideals. Until it turns out were really grasping at straws. There’s nothing there for us. Only a harsh reality check.

As they often have a habit of doing, dreams so quickly turn themselves into nightmares and all the hopes that we clung to are dragged through the brush and the briar. So by the end, they’re muddied with dirt. That doesn’t have to be the end, however. Nor do you have to give in to your dreams being trampled.

As in the case of Harry and Monika, you can try and make a go of it the normal way. Grinding out an existence, poor and trying to eke by paycheck to paycheck. There’s a child now and he’s going to school to earn a better life, nagging like a conscientious adult about saving money and making their rent payments on time. There’s the constant bickering when he comes home tired from work and she’s discontent with this very mundane, sedentary lifestyle. There’s no allowance to go to the movies or buy some new clothes.

Soon she’s going to the arms of another man. Divorce is all but inevitable. How could all this happen in rapid succession you ask? Perhaps Summer With Monika is an exercise in heightened drama but Bergman, in essence, seems to be plotting the cycles of life and what hard-edged reality does to you.

It runs you up against the rocks, often destroys all your well-meaning aspirations, and leaves you disgruntled. Especially when we’re young we run that risk but any type of love, even those relationships founded in shallow soil, are rapturous when times are good. It’s a true test of stability when the bad times hit or further still the banality of the everyday. If you are still in love with a person even in those moments, perhaps that’s when you know you have a marriage with staying power.

It didn’t occur to me until well into the picture because I can be slow-witted with a thick skull but early on in the film, we have one of the old-timers observing that it’s springtime. The film is Summer with Monika and that embodies the happy times in the sun. But of course what must follow is Fall where everything begins to fall apart and then there are the bleakest depths of winter which are trying for any relationship to attempt to weather. All Harry can do is look back and yearn for those summer months. Although by wintertime it’s already far too late.

Bergman’s ultimately portentous parable is gorgeously rendered as usual. In fact, I’m not sure if I have ever seen a film by the Swedish maestro that wasn’t so. There’s a crispness to the black and white that while unadorned and unglamorous is nevertheless pure and blatantly arresting. In the moments of free, uninhibited youth it so exquisitely captures that mood while just as quickly shifting into the frigid moments as youthful innocence is forced to die.

4/5 Stars

The Silence (1963)

thesilence4Mention of God and spirituality, faith and healing, feel completely unrelated to a film that’s seemingly devoid of all of those things. And yet if we place this Ingmar Bergman film alongside his two previous efforts Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light, The Silence has just as much to say about such topics. The irony of this film is that it says a lot by saying the inverse–nothing. As the title implies, the two sisters who are the focal point of this film speak nothing of God or any kind of faith. God too is silent. No miraculous sign takes place to salvage this storyline. It is what it is, and yet Bergman again works so powerfully once more– even if it’s not quite his intention.

Ester (Ingrid Thulin) is the practical, rational sister, who is also very sick. In fact, it is her health that interrupts their vacation so that they wind up in a hotel in a foreign land. Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) is her sister, the sensuous one who is not afraid to flaunt her body. There’s also a boy, the 10-year-old Johan, who is along for this adventure as well. At first, I assumed that Ester was his mother, but it turns out he’s Anna’s son. It makes for another interesting dynamic because although she can be very touchy-feely with her boy to the point it almost feels uncomfortable, she does not show him a lot of affection. More often she’s aloof or tells him to go off and play somewhere alone.

thesilence1Things are even worse with Ester because for some reason we don’t really know, they have a strained relationship. You get the sense that they both disapprove of each other for different reasons. Ester’s too restrained. Anna’s too provocative. Their vices come in different forms as well. As Johan entertains himself throughout the hotel, shooting his pop gun, meeting some little people and a friendly old porter, his mother and aunt try and medicate themselves.

Ester combats her illness and bedridden state with cigarettes and alcohol, which probably only help in numbing her senses and blackening her lungs. Anna puts on her most tantalizing outfit and goes out on the town, ready for some quick and easy sex to gratify herself. Again, both sisters dwell on completely different ends of the spectrum, but they really seem to end up in the same place. There is no space or need for a God or spirituality in their lives because they’ve filled the void with other things.

thesilence2Meanwhile, Johan seems like a normal little boy, who is looking for affection and yet he doesn’t seem to get it, at least not typically. His mother and aunt might truly desire to connect with him at least sometimes, but more often than not it feels like he’s just left to fall through the cracks. He’s easily forgotten.

The sisters part ways after a confrontation where Ester comes in on Anna with her lover. They lay it all out with brutal honesty and the next morning Anna takes Johan with her on the train. Ester cannot bear to be left this way, and as spasms begin to overtake her, she acknowledges a great many of her fears. She’s not ready for death. Anna rides off with little interest in her sister and no doubt, little interest in thoughts of death.

When The Silence came out, it was, no doubt, risque for its frank depiction of sexuality and yet the way Bergman looks at such a  topic, suggests that it is not a superficial perspective. What any type of behavior does, really, is to provide a fuller, broader picture of the human who acts it out. Anna and Ester undoubtedly have their insecurities, fears, and desires. We see them acting out on those desires often, and we see their insecurities come out when they fight with each other. It’s yet another fascinating dissection of life, although it looks vastly different than its two predecessors. Bergman’s Persona a few years down the line also seemingly builds on the study of this film, even utilizing a similar dynamic. That’s not to say that The Silence is not worth a look in its own right. It takes on the subject of “faith,” ironically enough, by showing a complete absence of it.

4/5 Stars

Winter Light (1963)

winterlight1In the second leg of Ingmar Bergman’s Faith Trilogy, he gets right to the core of all matters of faith. He takes an up close and personal look at a man of the cloth named Tomas (Gunnar Bjorstrand), who shepherds a small congregation in a rural Swedish town. Such is the life of a clergyman, as with any life, where there are rough patches and emotional highs that rejuvenate you, but mostly rough patches. In fact, he is going through such a spell when the film begins. We survey his humble little chapel, and there are only a few scattered members of the community present. Half seem disinterested and Tomas himself speaks words of spiritual truth and yet it seems like he is only going through the motions. Does he actually believe these benedictions and words that he is proclaiming? I’m not sure he even knows for sure.

He’s been withstanding a winter period of his life personified by the icy weather engulfing his humble city on a hill. It reflects his own heart and mind which are going through a season of extraordinary indifference. On top of that, he’s fighting a bad case of the flu, and he is discontent in God’s silence. Where is God? Why is He not more present in his life?  Why does he not more clearly reveal himself? Is there any power left in prayer? They are honest questions from a man struggling with faith, and it’s the epitome of an existential crisis. Bergman seems to be churning up all the thoughts creeping up in his own mind, and it’s very human — extremely honest.

Tomas has little in the realm of advice or comfort to offer his parishioners. For instance, when the depressed fishermen Jonas (Max Von Sydow) comes to the pastor after contemplating suicide, given the state of the world in the nuclear age, Tomas has little to say, because in order to encourage others you have to be encouraged. There’s nothing that can be done if the well you’re running on goes dry. You cannot sustain yourself that way. About all he is able to offer are a few downward glances because there’s no conviction left in him.

winterlight2On a personal note, Tomas lost his beloved wife and now he deflects the affections of local teacher Marta, who herself does not believe in God, but still, she loves Tomas dearly. In a deeply heartfelt letter, she confesses her true feelings for him, and he responds with very little acknowledgment. He cannot bear the townsfolk talking about them, and he still misses his wife dearly. It doesn’t help when he gets tragic news about Jonas.

Winter Light never reaches a clear conclusion, because life is hardly ever like that. In fact, there is an underlying irony that becomes apparent in this story. After Tomas lashes out against Marta and tells her to let him be, it becomes all too clear that Marta, though she does not believe in God, is in a sense, living a better life. They are both lost in the throes of winter still, but she at least has the capacity for love and vulnerability. Tomas’s apathy seems to be a far greater plight since he feels trapped in a labyrinth of idiotic trivialities, as he puts it.

winterlight4The sexton Algot brings up an interesting point about the suffering of Christ. His physical suffering must have been immense, but how much greater must he have suffered when everyone deserted him. The disciples didn’t understand a thing he said, Peter denied him, everyone else deserted him, and he was even forsaken by God. It suggests the importance of our interactions with one another. In the days of our lives, it becomes so easy to continue constantly in the endless cycle of life. Never getting outside of it and relating to our fellow man. Falling into apathy and indifference, which is especially easy when tough times hit.

Bergman does it again, delivering a film full of philosophical depth and questions that force the viewer to ruminate over their own condition, whatever their background or beliefs might be. Sven Nykvist’s photography is beautifully austere once more, and it adds a certain visual depth to the director’s trilogy. It’s stark, pure, and piercing with gorgeous shades of black and white.

4.5/5 Stars

Through a Glass Darkly (1961)

througha2There is so much that could be talked about with Through a Glass Darkly, but I feel the need to point out the more obvious, to begin with. Ingmar Bergman, in retrospect, envisioned this film as the first installment in his 1960s trilogy. As such, the film is a chamber piece that takes place entirely on a single island with only four main players. It lets go of some of the symbolism of many of Bergman’s films, but it still surges with religious content that reflects Bergman’s own background and spiritual conflict.

Through a Glass Darkly is one translation of 1 Corinthians 13, essentially suggesting that at the present time we only get a poor reflection of what is to come. In other words, we cannot fully understand the ways of the world and the ways of God. But how does this theme relate to the film you ask? That’s what I wanted to know as well.

At a basic level, this is yet another story about family and interpersonal relationships. Karin is staying on an island with her husband Martin (Max von Sydow), her father David (Gunnar Bjornstad) who is an author, and her baby brother Minus. She recently was released from a hospital for schizophrenic-like symptoms while her father has recently returned from Switzerland trying to combat a fierce case of writer’s block.

In a day’s time, these four individuals try to parse through all that is going on. Though they initially attempt to shroud it with morning swims and silly stage productions, they cannot completely disregard their reality.

througha3Minus feels he is lacking love and affection. He feels like his sister makes fun of him while his father is aloof and withdrawn from his life. Meanwhile, David is grief-stricken in private, realizing that his daughter’s condition is incurable and yet he also regrets his morbid fascination with it. David tries to cope with his wife’s condition, but although she seemed jovial and fine at first, Karin’s situation begins to decline.

She hallucinates, speaks of going through the walls, and faints. Matters are made worse when the voices in her head tell her to go through her father’s diary. There she reads about his thoughts on her and her “incurable” state. When they take a boating outing Martin asks his father-in-law about what he wrote on the request of Karin, and they get into a discussion. As Martin surmises he seems to be a man with all the right words, but no clue about life itself, and David does not try and object.

Back on the island Minus is with his sister, who confides in him about the voices, and when a storm hits she hides dejectedly in the hull of a boat. Minus follows soon after along with his father. They send for an ambulance to fetch Karin and in a penultimate moment, she speaks candidly with her father one last time before she is to be taken to the hospital. In these final moments she goes up to the attic and while being observed by her husband and father, Karin, breaks into hysterical fits. The visions she has seen are obviously too horrible to bear

througha5This is a film about brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, fathers, and daughters. All revolving around four characters wrapped up and intertwined in this complex spider web of relationships. The spiritual content is great and there is also a lot of minutiae in Through a Glass Darkly. It shares some of the same mind-bending moments as Persona (1966) and yet this film felt even more personal if that is possible. As the title suggests and David even tells his son, we cannot fully understand what is happening, but we can be certain that someday we will know if only we grasp hold of love and the love that God has for his people.

Ingmar Bergman’s type of film-making seems foreign to us now and I don’t mean simply since it’s Swedish, but due to the fact that it is so connected to issues of spirituality and deep questions of faith and love. He cannot and will not allow his work to be cut and dry, because he cares about delving into the human condition. And that condition by default is chock full of ambiguity and complexity. Through a Glass Darkly. The title fits aptly indeed.

4.5/5 Stars

The Virgin Spring (1960)

19cfc-jungfrukc3a4llanDirected by Ingmar Bergman and adapted from a Swedish ballad, this film revolves around a Christian Medieval family. Their only child is a beautiful, care free girl who they cherish. They sned her off to church with a maid servant. Along the way the two of them must pass through the forest. The girl leaves her servant behind to rest and then she goes on, meeting some herdsman on her way. She shows them hospitality by sharing her food, but the two men brutally rape and kill her. Ironically, that night they seek shelter with the girl’s family unknowingly. By accident the parents discover what became of their daughter and they must then decide what action to take. Bergman’s films certainly bring up questions about morals, religious faith, and evil. None of the characters were perfect but instead human, because they all make mistakes and must ask for God’s forgiveness

4/5 Stars

Wild Strawberries (1957)

Directed by Ingmar Bergman and starring Victor Sjostrom, the film follows an elderly doctor who travels by car to receive an honorary degree. Over the course of the day the old man has strange dreams and he also reminisces about his summers as a child with his family. He travels with his daughter in law and along the way they pick up energetic young people, deal with an unhappy married pair, stop at a gas station, and visit the old man’s lonely mother. The days events force him to face his past and realize his various faults. He also recognizes soon enough he will die. However, he finally comes to terms with it all and as a result he treats his daughter in law, son, and housekeeper differently. As with many Bergman films, this one is thought provoking. Some of the dream sequences were a bit odd but many of the characters and scenes were enjoyable.

5/5 Stars

The Seventh Seal (1957)

Starring Max Von Sydow and directed by Ingmar Bergman, this Swedish film revolves around a knight who returns from the Crusades with his squire. He begins a chess match with Death which parallels his travels across a land infested with the Black Death. Along the way he is joined by a pair of married actors and a blacksmith. However, he is tired and disillusioned with his life. To make matters worse he witnesses some terrible things and finally loses his game against Death. He returns to his wife with some of his friends and they face their fate when the time comes. This film was an interesting blending of a Medieval setting and modern disillusionment. Besides being very metaphorical, the cinematography is stark, while the title alludes to the events in the biblical book of Revelation.

5/5 Stars