Ingmar Bergman's The Silence
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Ingmar Bergman's The Silence

Pictures in the Typewriter, Writings on the Screen

Maaret Koskinen

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eBook - ePub

Ingmar Bergman's The Silence

Pictures in the Typewriter, Writings on the Screen

Maaret Koskinen

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About This Book

Ingmar Bergman's 1963 film The Silence was made at a point in his career when his stature as one of the great art-film directors allowed him to push beyond the boundaries of what was acceptable to censorship boards in Sweden and the United States. The film's depiction of sexuality was, as Judith Crist wrote at the time in the New York Herald-Tribune, "not for the prudish." Yet Bergman's notebooks and screenplays reveal his tendency for self-censorship, both to dampen the literary quality of his screenwriting and to alter portions of the script that Bergman ultimately deemed too provocative.

Maaret Koskinen, a professor of cinema studies and film critic for Sweden's largest national daily newspaper, was the first scholar given access to Bergman's private papers during the last years of his life. Bergman's notebooks reveal the difficulties he experienced in writing for the medium of moving images and his meditations on the relationship (or its lack) between moving images and the spoken or written word. Koskinen's attention to this intermedial framework is anchored in a close reading of the film, focusing on the many-faceted relationships between images and dialogue, music, sound, and silence.

The Silence offers filmgoers an entryway into the cinematic, cultural, and sociopolitical issues of its time, but remains a classic - rich enough for scrutiny from a variety of perspectives and methodologies. Koskinen draws a picture of Bergman that challenges the traditional view of him as an auteur, revealing his attempts to overcome his own image as a creator of serious art films by making his work relevant to a new generation of filmgoers. Her exploration of the film touches on issues of censorship and the cinema of small nations, while shedding new light on the shifting views of Bergman and auteurist film, high art, and popular culture.

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PART ONE
Backdrops and Contexts
1
National Cinema Art Film and the Auteur
The foundation of a national film institute, the Swedish Film Institute (SFI), in 1963 resulted in a transition in the history of Swedish film that, as Tytti Soila has put it, “was greater than the transition to sound thirty years before.”1 Its establishment was preceded by negotiations between the Swedish state and governmental authorities and various representatives of the film industry, resulting in an agreement (that would last twenty years) which prescribed that ten percent of the gross receipts from cinema screenings were to go to the SFI, which would then administer this state subsidy to further domestic film production. Without a doubt, this injection of funds resulted in an until-then unseen production of films and an insurgence of directors who made their debut films.2
However, instead of supporting the general subsidy preferred by the film industry, the state ordained a selective one, based on so-called quality criteria, that is, what was considered “culturally valuable” rather than commercially successful. At this time, these so-called quality films were most often associated with costly adaptations of notable literary works or with the literary field in a larger, Bourdieuian sense of the word.3 Thus, in terms of cultural fields, the literary field very much influenced what was done (or not done) in film culture and film production in Sweden at the time. For instance, it is not by chance that directors such as Vilgot Sjöman and Bo Widerberg were already published authors by the time they made their directorial debuts. This state of affairs has endured up until the present day, for since the auspices of the SFI, the term “quality” has been seen as virtually synonymous with a literal interpretation of the term “auteur”: it is the person who is not only in charge of the cinematic medium but who has written his/her own material as well. Also, one should note that this is a much narrower interpretation than that which is usually proposed in France and the United States, or than that put forward in the burgeoning field of contemporary academic auteur theory in the 1960s, according to which Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock were great precisely because they were able to cinematically mold and upgrade even mediocre material written by others.
In his capacity as a writer of original screenplays for films directed by himself (and, up to making The Silence, a prolific one, with twenty-five feature films to his credit), Ingmar Bergman certainly had built up cultural capital in this regard. And even though he had insisted all along, in fact as early as 1959, that film had nothing to do with literature, Bergman did start publishing his screenplays in the early 1960s.4 More than this (as we will see later), these screenplays were highly literary in style; for instance, full of sensory descriptions of metaphors, as well as smells, light, touch, and sounds.
At the same time the Swedish “quality” or art film should be regarded as part of a similar movement in Europe that grew after the Second World War, thus constituting a national project of sorts, and part and parcel of a more general cultural or national capital. Here, too, Bergman proved an ideal model for a European art film auteur. For a long time to come, his films (including the weaker ones) were considered worthy of attention in the name of Bergman’s auteur status, in turn creating a canon belonging to, and even by itself regarded as constituting a large part of, Swedish film history. That is, such individual quality art films were considered to form the basis of a heritage of national Swedish cinema, strong enough to withstand constantly invoked threats to indigenous Swedish culture, notably American films.
In fact, The Silence did more than recruit national capital in defense against foreign culture: it even managed to turn the tables around, by invading the American continent on its own turf—through sex. But more on this later.
The Auteur Contextualized
As mentioned, in Bergman scholarship The Silence has been contextualized mainly as an auteur film.5 As such, it is usually referred to as the final part of the so-called trilogy, all according to Bergman’s own intentions at the time. As he put it on the cover sheet of the published screenplays: “The theme of these three films is a ‘reduction’—in the metaphysical sense of that word. Through a Glass Darkly—certainty achieved. The Communicants—certainty unmasked. The Silence— God’s silence—the negative impression.”6 Several years later, in an interview in 1992, Bergman denounced such religious connotations and even claimed that the idea was a mere “construction” and an afterthought, “something for the news media” (which, of course, in itself is an afterthought, and therefore not any more trustworthy).7
In any case, if we for the time being accept the director’s explicit intentions at the time, as well as the auteurist readings that followed, the main theme of this story about two sisters and a young boy on a journey in an unknown country is said to be about communication, or rather, the lack of communication: the silence and emptiness that have fallen upon a godless, meaningless world, if one wishes to adopt the metaphysical perspective in which the film was conceived. Besides relating this theme to similar themes in Bergman’s other films, what auteur-approached readings have likewise delved into is the more austere cinematic style embarked upon here. As Birgitta Steene, for example, has pointed out, parallel to and as part of the new, ethical stance, there is an aesthetic metamorphosis, a shift toward a more visual style, as opposed to the verbally rich films of particularly the first half of Bergman’s career.8 One aspect of this is Bergman’s (self-proclaimed) endeavors to fashion the course of events, indeed the diegetic world as a whole, as nonrealistically dreamlike, in contrast, for instance, to Wild Strawberries (1957), which—for all its classic status of juxtaposing an exterior reality with interior dream worlds— still kept these separate from each other. As Sven Nykvist, the film’s cinematographer, remembers Bergman’s words as he handed Nykvist the script, “There must not be any of the old hackneyed dream effects such as visions in soft focus or dissolves. The film itself must have the character of a dream.”9
Traditional auteur readings have no doubt generated valuable insights into this particular film. At the same time, there are limitations to this approach, at least when applied too narrowly. As Janet Staiger has noted, over the forty years that auteurs and the overriding notion of authorship—in the sense of original source—have been researched in cinema studies, scholars have often had reason to recognize that authoring practices change over the course of individual lives and therefore are contradictory. Despite this, she notes, one of the most common features of authorship studies is seeking repetition by authors, since it is mainly this that provides the illusion of coherence and the (apparent) guarantee of causality, pointing back to the individual author as sole or dominant source of meaning.10 This is certainly true of the major readings of Bergman’s work, where repetition of themes, most notably religious and existential ones, as well as those pertaining to man-woman relationships, and the constellation artist versus society, have been emphasized over the course of more than fifty years of filmmaking. Similarly, when differences in style have been registered, these are more often than not explained by reference to biographical or other internal contexts.
This said, it should be emphasized that the intention here is hardly to claim that Ingmar Bergman is not an auteur. Clearly he can be regarded as belonging to that camp of directors that during a large part of their careers exercised “sufficient control” over relevant artistic contributions to the making of a film to be counted as a given film’s “author.”11 The intention is rather to demonstrate that by emphasizing the auteurist approach, scholars have tended to lose sight of other relevant contexts, in particular certain historical and societal aspects that make The Silence such an interesting study. To which extent did such aspects, in particular the very real restrictions of the censorship institutions in Sweden and abroad, exercise control over the final look of the film? For instance, given the controversial nature of the story, was Bergman at any stage, in writing the film and in the subsequent shooting and editing stages, at any time tempted to exercise some form of self-censorship?
The intention here, in short, is to show the degree to which the dominant auteurist approach in Bergman scholarship, and in the case of The Silence in particular, needs to be problematized and nuanced.
Antonioni: “That Perpetual Foil to Bergman”
Let us as a starting point take a look at the European art film of the 1960s, the perhaps most natural of reference points in this context. To be sure, much has been written about various European art films and directors, sometimes even in the same breath, from 1960 onwards with (telling) titles such as Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Alain Resnais.12 Yet the individual directors thus lumped together by their (implied) genius have at times remained curiously separate, seemingly freed from worldly constraints such as conditions of production or other cultural discourses, running the risk of emerging as sovereign, creative fountainheads, as if able to gestate all by themselves.
In this context it is interesting to compare Bergman with Michelangelo Antonioni (who, by a curious chance, died on the very same day as Bergman), particularly Antonioni’s films of the late 1950s and early ’60s, in order to note some striking parallels between them and Bergman’s films of the time, including The Silence. Such a comparison, albeit brief, will suffice to hint at the extent to which certain traits and similarities may be grounded in not only a general cultural context of European art film, and in industry practices which allowed for certain stylistic features, but also the extent to which individual directors most likely seemed to maintain competitive control over each other’s turfs and doings precisely as art directors—that is, quite the opposite of the most extreme idea of the true auteur, to whom all meaning should be traced, creating in splendid isolation.
Interestingly, in two recent articles, John Orr and David Bordwell have outlined some parallels between the two directors. In “Camus and Carné Transformed: Bergman’s The Silence versus Antonioni’s The Passenger,” Orr explores the two filmmakers’ existentialist and modernist connections, noting for instance parallels between the “estranged language” in Bergman’s film and its connections to the “estranged desire” between the men and women in both directors’ work; which in turn is linked to the “making strange” of seemingly ordinary architecture in Antonioni’s films.13
On the occasion of the deaths of the two directors, David Bordwell published an article called “Bergman, Antonioni, and the Stubborn Stylists” on his Web site (posted 11 August 2007), which, in turn, bases its comparative approach on a stylistic analysis. He starts by noting that the “rise of European art house auteurs in film culture of the 1950s and 1960s puts the question of personal style on the agenda,” but that scholars back then did not have many tools for analyzing stylistic differences. However, he continues, in hindsight it is possible to discern how the development of lenses and colors were important for questions of style. Thus, for instance, Bergman and Antonioni (“that perpetual foil to Bergman”) both, broadly speaking, passed through the same arc of deep-focus compositions in the 1950s and early ’60s to telephoto flatness in later color films.14
One could make more such concrete comparisons, moving away from general intertextual similarities to postulating a number of direct influences. First of all, one could note that both directors embarked upon a trilogy, and that Antonioni in this case preceded Bergman: his L’ Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961), and L’Eclisse (1962) were just ahead of Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly (1960), The Communicants/Winter Light (1963), and The Silence (1963). Also, one cannot help but notice that both directors display the use of prolonged takes and silence or, using Angela Dalle Vache’s phrase about Antonioni’s style, a tendency to “undo narrative development into temps morts, waiting and duration.”15 There is also in both the use of city landscapes. First, naturally, are those proverbial and much-studied landscapes in Antonioni’s films, for instance in La Notte, and the foreign city in The Silence. Granted, Bergman’s films up until then had displayed many cityscapes, but most of the time realistically, for instance Stockholm location shots in the films of the 1940s and ’50s (the notable exception being the empty streets in Wild Strawberries, significantly in a Kafkaesque nightmare sequence). In comparison, the city in The Silence is anything but realistic. One could also add that the stylized city in this film obviously must have been very important to Bergman, since it was built on the production company Svensk Filmindustri’s (SF) grounds at Råsunda (the Swedish “Cinecittá” of the time), at an inordinate cost. This is corroborated by both the film’s location list and the contemporary reports in the newspapers, for instance in the Swedish daily Stockholmstidningen on 29 May 1962: “The whole city is being built at SF’s grounds in Råsunda. There will be a real street with a cinema theater, a bar, a cathedral, a hotel, cars, and people. Close to 800 people [extras] will be needed. The Silence will be Bergman’s most expensive film to date, it will cost more than one million [Swedish crowns].” The story ends with a quote by Bergman, “I’m ...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Ingmar Bergman's The Silence
APA 6 Citation
Koskinen, M. (2011). Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence ([edition unavailable]). University of Washington Press. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/723618/ingmar-bergmans-the-silence-pictures-in-the-typewriter-writings-on-the-screen-pdf (Original work published 2011)
Chicago Citation
Koskinen, Maaret. (2011) 2011. Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence. [Edition unavailable]. University of Washington Press. https://www.perlego.com/book/723618/ingmar-bergmans-the-silence-pictures-in-the-typewriter-writings-on-the-screen-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Koskinen, M. (2011) Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence. [edition unavailable]. University of Washington Press. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/723618/ingmar-bergmans-the-silence-pictures-in-the-typewriter-writings-on-the-screen-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Koskinen, Maaret. Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence. [edition unavailable]. University of Washington Press, 2011. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.