The Magic Lantern Goes Dark: Ingmar Bergman Dead at 89

A couple of weeks ago, I sat up late one night watching a documentary on one of the BBC channels. It was a profile of an aged but still active Ingmar Bergman, centered on long interviews with him in 2006 at his house on the solitary island of Faro, off the coast of Sweden. A day and a half ago, in a house on the Spanish-Portugese border, I sat up far into the night with my brother-in-law, drinking wine and talking of many things -- including Ingmar Bergman. My brother-in-law was surprised that Bergman was still alive. And it's true that the director seemed to be part of a vanished world, with his fierce artistic integrity, his lacerating honesty, his early obsessions with death and God -- and his later humanism, which was intricately nuanced, clear-eyed, unsentimental but filled with a surprising degree of hope and warmth. This latter Bergman was the one on display in the BBC film, an inspiring figure who had achieved a level of serenity after a lifetime of storms. He was indeed still alive, I assured my brother-in-law; he was still working, still writing every day, still delving into the strange, conflicted state of our human reality.

A few hours later, I got up at dawn to get ready for the drive to Faro -- in Portugal -- where I would fly back to the UK later that morning. In the other Faro, Bergman was dying; the synaptic fire that lit his magic lantern was guttering out. He apparently passed away in his sleep at some point in the next 24 hours.

I wouldn't call myself a huge Bergman fan. I've probably not seen more than 10 of his movies, although I've watched a few of them many times, especially those great peaks of his heyday in the 1
950s, "Smiles of a Summer Night" and "Wild Stawberries" (right). Strangely enough, these two prime examples of his early work are themselves shot through with "a suprising degree of warmth and hope," animated by the same clear-eyed, nuanced humanism that characterized his later style. It just happened that they were sandwiched around his most famous film, "The Seventh Seal," which fixed Bergman in the public mind as the gloomy purveyor of "extistential gloom, a man whose films offered a pitiless vision of a Godless universe," as the Guardian put it in its story today. (Even though "The Seventh Seal" actually had a "happy ending," at least for the only unreservedly good characters in the film, a young couple and their child.) I didn't like all of the Bergman films I saw; although I could recognize the technical mastery and artistic seriousness, some of them didn't move me in any particular way. But the ones that did move me hit home in a deep and lasting way -- the elegiac "Wild Strawberries" most of all.

The New York Times has a good obituary, well worth reading. You can find it here.