Bergman and Tarkovsky: Dialogue Through Film

Suddenly, I found myself standing at the door of a room the keys of which had, until then, never been given to me. It was a room I had always wanted to enter and where he was moving freely and fully at ease. I felt encouraged and stimulated: someone was expressing what I had always wanted to say without knowing how. Tarkovsky is for me the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream”[1]

Bergman and Tarkovsky. These two great directors were from different countries, they were raised in different cultural and religious traditions, yet these names quite often are mentioned together. They were discussing, arguing, admiring each other not directly; their thoughts may only be extracted from various interviews. They were portraying through the films their vision of questions about eternal values, existence and God.

Russian critic Sergey Dobrotvorsky saw the principal difference between Bergman and Tarkovsky in the spiritual tradition they were existing – Protestant with Bergman, Orthodox with Tarkovsky. “Both of them were forced to engage their lives to art, which mostly lies outside the canons of a religious behavior, and therefore, of course, their figures are highly controversial”[2].

Russians first were introduced to Bergman at the turn of 50-60’s, during the “Ottepel”[3] (Thaw) phenomenon, which finally brought to the viewer the treasures of world cinematography. Japanese cinema, Bresson, French New Wave…and Bergman. In 1959 Tarkovsky watched “Wild Strawberries” (Smultronstället) and was fascinated with this truly author’s film-confession. Later on Tarkovsky will include it along with two other Bergman’s features “Winter Light” (Nattvardsgästerna) and “Persona” to his Top-10 List of favorite films. As Russian Film Expert Neya Zorkaya said, of course not only Bergman  inspired Tarkovsky’s unique style (there were Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Russian culture tradition itself), but the very cinematic form, a possibility to talk to the viewer through screen, the search for the truth (if it exists), the tension in moral decisions, soul screams which are performed in a low-voice form… all this has been evolving in Bergman’s films and impressed a young talented director.

Why didn’t Tarkovsky include one of the best known Bergman’s films, “The Seventh Seal” (Det sjunde inseglet) into his list? For some reason, Tarkovsky didn’t see in Bergman’s films a certain religiosity. In the interview to Charles-Henri de Brantes for French magazine “La France catholique” Tarkovsky said that when Bergman is speaking about God, he is only saying that His voice cannot be heard, that God is silent. But we can see that Bergman is the one who is constantly searching for God, trying to speak to him and nothing can stop him. In “Seventh Seal” the knight Antonius Block is playing chess with Death trying to find answers for life and through death to see God. Bergman, it may seem, doesn’t have a doubt in God’s existence, but he has a despair of a life without God, a man has temptations, doubts, he is constantly searching for answers to his questions, but God does not take part in it. That is why Bergman does not question the existence of God, he brings to the fore the complex human, who is standing at the crossroads. He shows him suffering, full of depravity. It displays the inability to break through the violence and pride to God, to speak to him, without a sincere penance. Bergman is looking at this human, as if under a magnifying glass. That is why we can see so many dramatic close-ups in Bergman’s films, he is studying the face of a human, trying to understand what is going on in his soul.

Tarkovsky’s religiosity is not a confession of a separate religion; he has a mystical sense of a supernatural power of almighty God, that can be seen in his films. Even “Andrei Rublev” wasn’t a film about faith, firstly it was a film about an artist, who can break through the sorrow and become all-powerful. This, of course, cannot be described as a religious idea. It can be seen, that God for Tarkovsky is more of a philosophical matter, than of a religious one.

But if we can see an undeniable difference between Tarkovsky and Bergman in their religious views, we can find a notable similarity on director’s view on childhood. The indeed theme of it as for lost happiness, of truth and justification can be seen in both Bergman and Tarkovsky films. In “Wild Strawberries” we can see a theme of a relationships between father and son, as one of the main subjects of the film. Tarkovsky will be always speaking about these relationships in his films, in “Solaris”, “The Mirror” (Zerkalo), “The Sacrifice” (Offret). Bergman will devote to childhood Fanny and Alexander (Fanny och Alexander), a four-part TV movie.

Somehow, it doesn’t even surprise that last Tarkovsky’s film “The Sacrifice” has been shot in Sweden, starring Erland Josephson who worked with Bergman before, and with camera work by Sven Nykvist, who is known especially by his work with Bergman. For the first time Tarkovsky is speaking about intimate relationships between man and woman (which Bergman was concentrated on in numerous amount of films), about duty of a man, about guilt and responsibility…about life itself again. It could be Bergman’s film, but it is a very Tarkovsky’s cinema. Tarkovsky is similar with Bergman only when it comes to subjects he agrees with, Tarkovsky’s style is unique and truly fascinating, it is more a dream, than a film, which Bergman admired. So are they really that similar? It is still hard to say, they were great enough for leaving some questions that still cannot be answered.

[1]Ingmar Bergman. From the booklet for the film “Offret”  (1986) directed by Andrei Tarkovsky

[2]Sergey Dobrotvorsky about Bergman. “Seans” film magazine №13

[3]“The metaphoric use of the Russian word ottepel (thaw) first came into being thanks to the writer Ilya Ehrenburg. In 1951 he published a novel with the same name. As a historic term “ottepel” means the period after the death of Joseph Stalin until the middle of 1960’s, when the many restrictions imposed by the Stalinist regime were either abolished or significantly mitigated, with a new openness to the outside world.  It was a time of economic reform, growth in international trade, development of educational programs and festivals, publishing of books by internationally acclaimed writers, introduction to new trends in fashion, and the chance to take part in world sports tournaments. Many historians connect this phenomenon with the Soviet leader of that era, Nikita Khrushchev” Of Russian origin: Ottepel. Written by Oleg Dmitriev, RT.

CategoriesFeatures Issue 3