Bergman and the Cathedral

There is an old story of how the cathedral of Chartres was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Then thousands of people came from all points of the compass, like a giant procession of ants, and together they began to rebuild the cathedral on its old site. They worked until the building was completed – master builders, artists, laborers, clowns, noblemen, priests, burghers. But they all remained anonymous, and no one knows to this day who built the cathedral of Chartres. […] Thus if I am asked what I would like the general purpose of my films to be, I would reply that I want to be one of the artists in the cathedral on the great plain. I want to make a dragon’s head, an angel, a devil – or perhaps a saint – out of stone. It does not matter which; it is the sense of satisfaction that counts. Regardless of whether I believe or not; whether I am a Christian or not, I would play my part in the collective building of a cathedral.

– Ingmar Bergman

Ten years after his death, Bergman’s films still haunt us as the dreams we have in the Hour of the Wolf or the ones we remember Through a Glass Darkly.

Blurring the boundaries between reality and illusion, the beautiful and the horrible, between life’s own confirmation and the fear of death, Bergman builds his own magical world of people, demons, and ghosts. His varied productions, mainly films and plays, lead us through his vivid imagination, opening a door to the scenes from his marriages and family life.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by REX/Shutterstock (281305e)

He is considered by most to be a grim director interested only in the dark chambers of the human psyche, mystics and death. Everyone who is familiar with his works knows that life assumes a dignified place in his inspirations alongside love and the magic of children and games. More than anything Bergman is infatuated with filming his own life: starting with his childhood and all the important people that shape him (his distantly cold and strict father, his aloof mother), following his youth and his relationships with women, up to the more mature days of his old age, which he spends in contemplation and sometimes regret.

It is precisely this ability to recreate and render everything taking place in his heart through a highly subjective personal filter into enigmatically abstract frames that makes Bergman one-of-a-kind.

He is an inimitable auteur also because of his ability to convey the important themes of life in the most humane way possible. He achieves such “humanness” by using his characters as examples for an entire spectrum of perceptions referring to God, love, loneliness and existence. With his films Bergman does not only forge the head of a dragon or an angel, nor does he merely paint the image of a demon or a saint. He goes all the way to exemplify a fully-coloured palette of feelings and sensations. While some of them are jovial and others gravitate towards the melancholic, all of them share an exquisite magical element. Bergman’s cinematic universe comprises a large part of the cathedral of 20th-century auteur cinema. Characters to always remember are the knight, who played chess with Death and the nightmares of Isak Borg, as well as the summer easiness of Monika and Harry and the love games in Smiles from a Summer Night. Bergman becomes a demiurge between the human and the abstract in his little world, in which he carries away everyone, to perpetuate them in his cathedral, where they are eternalized in their roles.

Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)

For sixty years Bergman made seventeen films about questioning God and doubt in your fellows, reality and dreams, childhood and adulthood. To understand him as an author or a man is hard, maybe impossible. As in film, so in his life he kept creating those fantasy worlds, he used to live in when he was a little boy.

The theme of the layers of reality and the roles we play in them, where nothing is what it seems is part of his own life. He used to hide himself behind so many masks, that he said he had at least three different personalities at once. For Bergman Shakespeare’s motto “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” was his personal credo and so he was performing himself in life and through his actors on the screen.