Everyone an Island: Ingmar Bergman’s Second Trilogy
Following his acclaimed “Trilogy of Faith,” the Swedish auteur pushed his dark vision even further in three subtly connected films
Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow in SHAME
With the startlingly stark “Trilogy of Faith” — consisting of Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence — Ingmar Bergman laid the groundwork for what would be his boldest decade of work. These three films reveal an artist who has recognized and homed in on his own unique strengths: from this point on, the majority of his films would be chamber works, deriving their resonance from cloistered settings, fraught interpersonal dynamics, and the fathomless mystery of the human face. The grandiose metaphysical musings of The Seventh Seal are here replaced by seemingly small-scale stories of individuals attempting to navigate a world in which God is receding, His consolations are eroding, and life’s purpose has become elusive; rather than the knight Antonius Blok’s epic journey across a plague-ridden medieval landscape, here Bergman’s protagonists are captured (in intense and protracted close-ups) in moments of confession or deliberation, attempting to grasp their present quandary or trying to recall the path that has brought them there.
Where the Faith Trilogy depicts seekers, people looking for some kind of answer to the forsakenness of the modern world, a second, “unofficial” trilogy from that same decade surveys characters whom we might dub voluntary castaways: people who have deliberately segregated themselves from cities, responsibilities, and most human ties, but who nonetheless find themselves unable to escape the terrors of the world and of their own past. Ironically, while the Faith Trilogy is about enduring the absence of God, the films in this second trilogy — comprising Hour of the Wolf, Shame, and The Passion of Anna — benefited from Bergman’s filmmaking having become akin to a spiritual practice: his process had become more minimal, ritualistic and communal, involving the regular convening of a small group of like-minded collaborators, most notably cinematographer Sven Nykvist and actors Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow. Crucially, each of these films were shot on Fårö, the island off the southeast coast of Sweden that had by then become Bergman’s home, and which provides as good a name as any for this more loosely connected yet still strikingly uniform trilogy of works.
Bergman first discovered Fårö while scouting locations for Through a Glass Darkly, and shortly after arriving he told Nykvist that he wanted to stay there for the rest of his life. He built a house there in 1967, and, his period of exile due to highly dubious charges of tax evasion in the 1970s notwithstanding, he remained there until his death in 2007. “Fårö had been my security,” Bergman wrote in his autobiography The Magic Lantern. “I had lain as if in a womb without a thought that I should ever again in my life have to leave.” “I could not remember having seen a place so barren,” Ullmann, who was Bergman’s romantic partner during those first years on Fårö, wrote in her memoir Changing. “Like a relic from the Stone Age. But in the summer sunlight, moving and rather mysterious.”
The Fårö of Bergman’s films is a desolate, fuliginous isle where forbidding apparitions abound and telephones are often on the fritz; a place of cruelty and betrayals, where people live in isolation not only from the mainland, but also from each other. Indeed, by the time the Fårö Trilogy reaches its close, its most devastating development comes not from the ravages of mental illness (Hour of the Wolf), war (Shame), or sadistic sociopaths (The Passion of Anna), but rather from the realization that it is impossible for any one person to truly know another.
Bergman is rarely thought of as a genre filmmaker, yet Hour of the Wolf — which arrived quickly on the heels of the profoundly eerie Persona, which was also shot largely on Fårö — elegantly channels many of his signature concerns into the horror genre, drawing inspiration from the 19th-century author E.T.A. Hoffman (from whose tales Bergman gleans his framing devices and several character names) while anticipating such now-canonical films as the similarly cabin-fevered The Shining. Building on the metacinematic, fourth wall-breaking techniques of Persona, the film begins as quasi-documentary, opening with expositional title cards that explain how the artist Johan Borg (von Sydow) disappeared without a trace from his island home, leaving behind a diary that offers only cryptic clues as to the nature of his psychic anguish and what it may have driven him to. The only other source of information regarding Johan’s story is Alma (Ullmann), his wife of seven years, who gives her testimony to the camera while awaiting the imminent birth of the couple’s only child (a fact that will reverberate in Shame’s troubled marital dynamic).
Following Alma’s introduction, Hour shifts into the flashbacks that will constitute the bulk of its drama. Beginning with the couple’s arrival on the island, Bergman plunges us directly into his film’s eerily hushed atmosphere, the dearth of dialogue allowing for heightened attention to non-human sounds: the lapping of the sea, the squeak of a wheelbarrow, the low chug of an outboard motor, the panting of a strange pursuer, and, most prominently, the ticking of timepieces (a Bergman trope that reaches its acme in the scene where Johan ponders the unbearable expanse of a single minute during a sleepless night). The Gothic tones of Hour are accentuated by Johan and Alma’s almost childlike dispositions: Alma retains a beaming innocence, while Johan exhibits a debilitating fear of the atavistic fiends who come to him in visions, populate his sketchbooks, keep him awake at night, and actually materialize later in the story — though whether these are spectral manifestations of psychosis or physical figures within the film’s diegetic reality is kept pointedly ambiguous.
Most of Hour’s early scenes are exquisite miniatures, consisting largely of small yet telling gestures. In one scene, Alma is hanging laundry when Johan returns from sketching outdoors; she embraces Johan, who carefully disentangles himself and walks away; the image fades to black on a close-up of Alma’s worried face. Later, Alma speaks cheerfully of the notion that couples begin to resemble each other as their shared years accumulate, and expresses her hope that one day she and Johan will become so fused as to even share the same thoughts — a desire whose unnerving drawbacks are expressed in the film’s final moments, once Johan appears to have been consumed by his demons.
For all the invocations of fantastical monsters, however, the real bogeyman in Hour’s cosmology is Veronica Vogler, the woman with whom Johan was once embroiled in a scandalous love affair. Unlike the creatures in Johan’s sketches, Veronica is, or was, unequivocally real: she’s embodied by Ingrid Thulin, who maximizes her haunting cameo with a doomy sexuality and inscrutable intentions. (In The Magic Lantern, Bergman describes how at age ten he was locked inside a mortuary where, though terrified, he closely examined the naked cadaver of a young girl — an experience recreated to some extent in Johan’s morbid reunion with Veronica.)
Aside from her allure as a sort of femme fatale, the precise nature of Veronica’s sway over Johan is unspecified. Indeed, there are reasons to suspect that the deeper source of Johan’s malaise may have to do with repressed homosexuality or even pedophilia, though neither is confirmed: Bergman demonstrates an understanding that nearly all of the most effective (and affecting) horror stories leave key questions such as these unanswered. Of all the figures populating Hour’s flashbacks, it’s finally only Alma who remains to tell the tale — and the film’s most chilling reveal is that Alma clearly never really knew the man she married.
While the template of the horror movie provided Bergman with an ideal container to revitalize his interests and aesthetics, that of the war film proved a somewhat more awkward fit. Shame grew out of Bergman’s interest in how people respond to panic: as he says in Bergman on Bergman, his driving question was “How would I have behaved during the Nazi period if Sweden had been occupied?” It is the ethical quandaries of war that sparked Bergman’s imagination, rather than its depiction: as with The Silence, which takes place in an unspecified country mobilizing its military for engagement in an unspecified conflict, in Shame Bergman seeks to capture the atmosphere of war, not the chaos of battlefields.
Jan (von Sydow) and Eva (Ullmann) are married violinists who haven’t been able to work since the outbreak of civil war. Living hand to mouth on their tiny island farm, they find their differences being exacerbated by hardship: where Eva is tough, hardworking, and focused on practicalities, Johan is oversensitive and dreamy (there’s some comedy concerning his inability to euthanize poultry), prone to crying jags and eager to seek oblivion in drink. Eva wants a child, but Johan insists they put it off until the war is over. In the film’s sole interlude of tenderness, the couple converse and make love, but the romantic idyll is short-lived: a jet is heard screaming across the sky, followed by a series of explosions. A uniformed man parachutes into the wood near their property, and the war suddenly moves into the foreground. Jan and Eva become pawns in a propaganda campaign and undergo brutal interrogation. As the plot becomes increasingly complex, one of them is given an opportunity to exact petty revenge on someone else in the village, and, by extension, on their spouse.
In Images: My Life in Film, Bergman writes of Shame that “the first half, which is about the events of the war, is bad. The second half, which is about the effects of war, is good … Once the outer violence stops and the inner violence begins, Shame becomes a good film.” While Bergman’s assessment is too dismissive, he’s onto something. Shame’s most potent theme regards a person’s character: Should an individual be judged according to how they comport themselves in their comfort zone, or should one be judged by how one responds to extraordinary events? The way this question plays out in Shame must surely have inspired Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s very Bergmanesque Force Majeure, which similarly thrusts a haute bourgeois couple into an emergency scenario, giving one of its characters a mere instant to respond, and the remainder of his life to live that response down.
Shame continues Bergman’s fascination with faces as landscapes — some of the exceedingly tight two-shots he and Nykvist execute become nearly abstract — and landscapes as sites of trauma, as vast mirrors of internal states. The film’s final scenes of displacement are unforgettable, spectral and harrowingly dreamlike. In fact, in the trilogy’s final installment, these same scenes will be repurposed as a dream.
Considered by Bergman to be his “first true color film” — he judged that he failed to realize the potential of colour with his actual first non-monochrome effort, All These Women — The Passion of Anna opens with a vision of parhelions, or sun dogs, scattered across the Nordic vault. This phenomenon of multiple suns appearing simultaneously is regarded in some cultures as a bad omen, which makes it an ingeniously appropriate image to inaugurate this close-knit drama of cosmic dread.
Andreas (von Sydow) is a middle-aged bachelor living alone on a desolate island. He’s bearded and often wears a boilersuit and galoshes; he smokes a pipe, rides a bike, and drinks too much, though not appreciably much more than his neighbours. He initially comes off as a scruffy, easygoing islander, but his more unnerving side reveals itself when he first encounters Anna (Ullmann), a stranger who shows up asking to use his telephone. He amiably complies, but then only pretends to provide her with privacy while eavesdropping on her conversation, and, what’s more, reading her private correspondence when she forgets her purse in his home. He discovers that Anna is a widow: her husband and son were both killed in a car accident in which she was the driver.
Great swathes of time pass in The Passion of Anna, during which we gain a sense of the particularities of life in this sleepy, sinister locale amongst the taciturn natives and neurotic outsiders who have, like Bergman, settled there but can never hope to fit in. (Bergman explored the unique dynamics of the island in the two documentaries he made about Fårö, one in 1969 and the other picking up the story a decade later.) Andreas befriends two friends of Anna’s, the architect Elis (Erland Josephson) and his wife Eva (Bibi Andersson, who looks a dozen years older than the character she portrayed in Persona just three years previously, and who I find heartbreaking in the way she conveys Eva’s Chekhovian dissatisfaction and desperate flirtatiousness). Coaxed on by the couple, Andreas and Anna slowly stumble into each other’s arms, eventually cohabitating. As their affection meanders, Anna continually reminds Andreas of the purity of the love she shared with her late husband — though Andreas’ snooping has granted him knowledge that brutally contradicts Anna’s claims.
Meanwhile, an unidentified sociopath is stalking the island, exacting their wrath on animals: a dachshund is found dangling from a noose, and a horse is set aflame. These small atrocities don’t connect directly to the central narrative: rather, they contribute to a general air of morbidity and ruination, culminating in a crude attempt at mob justice and a final confrontation between Andreas and Anna that, days after my last viewing of this scene, I still find difficult to shake off. Passion is about alienation eclipsing intimacy: it is an immensely bleak refutation of Alma’s dream of coupledom as spiritual fusion in Hour of the Wolf, striking us with a blow of despair over the unbreachable gulfs that separate individuals from those on whom they depend the most. We can view the film’s thesis as unfettered pessimism or as cautionary tale. The moral? Any love sought out of weakness is destined to bring out only the worst in both parties.
The alienation that permeates Passion extends to its formal interventions. Bergman himself offers sporadic, omniscient voiceover exposition, one of a number of devices adopted from literature and theatre that distance us only to draw us in more closely. At one point, Anna recalls a dream, which Bergman visualizes for us via the aforementioned scenes from Shame: with Ullmann costumed for her role in that film, it is as though Anna is recalling a past life. Spaced out across Passion’s duration are sequences in which a slate appears with one of the four main actors’ names on it, followed by the actor in question appearing out of character, in street clothing, offering analysis of their role. This alienation manifests still further in a dinner scene where Bergman captures a conversation between the four central characters (improvised by the actors, as it happens) in a series of tight one-shots.
Just as Bergman uses this seemingly congenial social gathering to italicize the essential loneliness of his characters, so he drew out threads of anguish and despair from the very isle that had become his idyll. Every prognosis is bleak: children are absent from these films, unborn, unconceived, or killed; his characters dangle over their private abysses, reaching out for contact to no avail. In the Fårö Trilogy, every man and woman is an island — yet even as Bergman’s legendary gloom here reaches its despairing extreme, his mastery of cinema achieves its exhilarating zenith.