You can make a horror movie more spooky by watching it in the dark, and you can make an Ingmar Bergman movie more scary by watching it with your partner.
At the end of a regular horror movie, you feel reassured that none of this was real, that not all ghosts and monsters can actually hurt you. But Bergman’s films do not have such an outlet. Their horror could happen to you, your relationship, you and the person you love, sitting next to you in the same lingering discomfort.
So what does it say about our company that the most influential material of 2021 is Bergman’s 1973 miniseries, Scenes from a wedding, who allegedly increased the Swedish divorce rate after its release?
After all, Bergman – the late director not only of Scenes but dozens of other masterpieces like Character, The seventh seal, and Fanny and Alexandre – is definitely having a moment. There’s the terribly played remake of HBO Scenes from a wedding, but also Master of None‘s strange story of the same story, and the Bergmanesque Malcolm & Marie and State of the Union, and the wonderful tip of the hat from Mia Hansen-Løve to the director in the upcoming Bergman Island.
Maybe this sudden increase is all about access. Release of the Criterion collection a box set of Bergman’s work for its 100th anniversary in 2018, and three years are enough for this influence to manifest itself in the new productions of moviegoers. But Bergman’s dominance this year also reflects a concern and unease in our culture. The director’s brooding work has a timely resonance in this pandemic year.
Bergman Island, in particular, serves as a keystone for understanding the Bergmanaissance of 2021. Released at the new york film festival next weekend with a theatrical release date of October 15, the film marks the highly anticipated return of Phantom wire actress Vicky Krieps as Chris, a filmmaker who travels with her husband Tony (Tim Roth) to work on their scripts for Fårö. The small, windswept Baltic Sea island was Bergman’s adopted home until his death in 2007. Hansen-Løve (who, like Chris, partners with a beloved director over 20 years her senior) explores many of the same themes that plagued Bergman, although she breaks with the director by choosing a framework of optimism.
It’s Chris who best sums up why we’re still drawn to Bergman’s work. After seeing his 1972 film Screams and whispers – which struggles with questions of mortality and God – she describes it as “like a horror film without catharsis”. The romantic and spiritual isolation that Bergman portrays cannot be escaped in modern life. This is why the legend of Scenes from a wedding causing so many divorces has lasted: it’s believable. Unlike tales of ghosts and monsters, Bergman’s work has a funny way of bleeding in real life.
This is especially true now. Why invent fictional horrors when we essentially live in our own horror film, between the COVID-19 pandemic and our political boredom in the face of the environmental catastrophe? Much more compelling to us are the stories that sting some sort of calmer torment, the kind that takes place entirely within a single household. Although he never lived to see these strange times, Bergman remains the master of this peculiar tonal atmosphere. While the pandemic isn’t prominent in any of this year’s Bergman-inspired projects, the claustrophobic premises seem immediately familiar.
There’s also a simple and practical element to Bergman’s resurgence: It’s easier and safer to produce small-scale drama during a pandemic. HBO Scenes from a wedding literally plays in this sighting, showing the masked cast and crew getting ready before the cast enter the sets. This fusion of our pandemic-era reality with the fictional exploration of the stifling expectations of a partnership highlights the parallels already evident when we live on top of each other. Fårö, 40s: Both turn out to be perfect isolation rooms for examining people under extreme domestic and spiritual pressure.
At the same time, Bergman’s works are far enough from current events not to traumatize us. They allow self-analysis with a welcome detachment. We can look at ourselves through the lens of the problems of another time. Indeed, while the director may always stoke a sense of dread, there is a sense in watching things like HBO. Scenes that we survived the terrible things that bothered Bergman. It is not trivial that Bergman Island ends in a way that is not at all Bergmanesque, that there is a peace that the legendary filmmaker never really found.
At one point Bergman Island, Chris and Tony learn that above all else, Bergman believed in ghosts. It is therefore appropriate to see the director making a comeback now, to find his ectoplasmic imprints on our culture. For while Bergman’s work deals with the physical, spiritual, and romantic isolation over the course of his life, those many years later his projects are reminiscent of all who have encountered these monsters before us – and endured them.