Bergman versus Hitchcock

The following section is indebted to Irving Singer’s book, Ingmar Bergman: Cinematic Philosopher,
(MIT Press, 2007) Why bother with such a comparison? First of all, both directors have played their part in the history of film. They are auteurs. Secondly, both directors have made films which frequently feature scenesof a violent and sexual nature.

On the one hand, Bergman used his  considerable skills to make artistic films, which have the power to make the audience think about their own lives, as well as what kind of world they are living in; on the other Hitchcock uses his to provide entertainment. What is being posed here is not the narrow question of the morality of depicting sex and violence on screen. Rather it raises a broader ethical question: whether such scenes are intended to make us think in a critical way about what we are seeing or are they merely intended to excite our animal instincts sans critical thought. As Plato says in The Republic, 'In all of us, even in good men, there is a latent wild beast nature, which peers out in sleep'.

Whilst there are many who would argue along the lines of, 'you are a kill-joy, what's wrong with a bit of sex and violence for its own sake; it's what entertainment is all about. If so, then this reflects badly on the kind of society in which we are living. Should we not provide the masses with better entertainment than this?

ingmar bergman alfred hitchcockSinger starts his comparison with some comments about Hitchcock.
The latter, of course, started his career much earlier and went on
to Hollywood fame, to which Singer pays tribute. He refers in particular
to Hitchcock’s trademark use of suspense in his movies, as a dramatic
device. He also points out how the Hollywood master combines romance,
horror, action, as well as the hypnotic effect of a search for something,
by means of clever shots which startle the audience at key moments.
Yet,‘Even in Bergman’s melodramas, some of which are also thrillers,
none of this is prominent’, says Singer.

On the other hand, apart from the larger breadth of his thinking, Bergman compensates for any lack of Hitchcockian appeal through his increased employment of violence, nudity, and sexuality’. Consider, for example, Bergman’s portrayal of a bourgeois
marriage about to implode in From The Life of Marionettes’(1980). This includes scenes  far more shocking for their depiction of total nudity and violence, which exceeds anything that Hitchcock did,  including the famous shower scene in “Psycho’ (1960): ‘While Bergman’s use of sexual effects [and violence] is scarcely pornographic, the films he made, especially from the 1960s on,
sometimes contained language and imagery that Hitchcock could not have used. [But the latter] would nevertheless have
approved of their realism and their shock value at that point in the story.....’

Singer continues, ‘Of prime the level of artistic value and the fact that the action or event is perceived
as fictional, though possibly true to life.’ He compares the artistic standard achieved by Bergman with that of Shakespeare,
since the latter also deals with themes of a sexual and violent nature, eg. ‘Othello’ (which, in addition, has a racial aspect).

The violence or sexual crudity in both Shakespeare and Bergman’s work ‘may be unpleasant to watch, but as operative
components in a work of art they have a viability that gives them aesthetic and justifiable sanction. Esther’s sickly masturbation
in... The Silence and the self-inflicted, bloody mutilation of Karin’s genitals in Cries and Whispers are not erotically arousing,
or even enjoyable to hardly anyone,...but they need not be experienced as morally horrifying...since they have a valid function
within those films and do no harm to potential viewers.’  [Irving Singer, ‘Ingmar Bergman, Cinematic Philosopher’,
MIT Press Cambridge Mass, 2007, pp 21- 23.]

But what exactly is the nature of Bergman’s realism?  How can this be squared with his own particular aesthetic. Fundamentally,  he prefers semblance or the effect of illusionary appearances as a means to approach the truth about human experience within modern capitalist society. In this regard, right from the outset, Bergman is the converse of the more populist and Hollywood mainstream, epitomised by Hitchcock, who relies on the mimetic effect or the attempt to imitate reality as we find it. The problem with this approach is that, although the latter might encourage the audience to think about individual morality - or the lack of it - because  his films are based on the mimetic effect, they do not  encourage the audience to question the inhumanity of bourgeois society itself, as Bergman often succeeds in doing. 

Like Strindberg and other playwrights of that period, Bergman offers the audience different aspects of the author’s own experience through a dramatic vehicle that reaches well beyond any limits of factuality. This is a reflection of his theatrical background. In particular, Bergman’s later films take the form of a dialogue between two or three characters captured in a single frame, like an actor on the stage. In this regard, Bergman was moving towards a  new cinematic art form, which is both cinematic and theatrical. His films are the work of a craftsman, who contrives versions of reality, based on individual experience, including the internalised world of his characters. One can also perceive Bergman as a 'visual composer', who is inspired by the aesthetics of music. He is able to use the cinematic form as a means to create a visual sensation of rhythm and harmony, comparable to the musical abstractions of Bach and Mozart. This contrasts markedly with Hollywood’s preference for conventional realism, to which Hitchcock adheres. But the latter is at once an unreal view of the world, because it only deals with surface appearances, not the underlying reality, i.e. the 'real' economic and social relations that structure capitalist society, which constitute the root of man's alienation, including self-alienation, with all of its negative consequences. 

At the same time, Bergman’s art is wholly representational. But he differs from Hitchcock, who tells a story, mainly in order to instil basic emotional responses, such as fear, which is accentuated by means of suspense; albeit his over-riding aim is merely to entertain. Therefore anyone who  criticises the way in which Bergman depicts sexuality and violence, fails to appreciate the distancing effect that is required to appreciate true works of art. He does not go in for graphic detail. In this regard, his work resembles the make-believe of , say, the gouging of Gloucester’s eyes in King Lear.  Such violence is not fetishised, as it would be in a contemporary Hollywood movie.

Unlike Hitchcock, Bergman’s stories have a philosophical element, namely existentialism, which was very much to the fore in the early postwar decades, coinciding with the onset of the Cold War and the threat of mutual nuclear annihilation at the hands of the two super powers, the USA and the Soviet Union.. (N.B. Here we see that Bergman is not afraid to tackle the question of the ultimate in violence, albeit obliquely, i.e. that which might lead to the extinction of the human race, leaving behind just a handful of survivors, who are so damaged and forced to live in world that has been turned into a desert, that they may very well wish themselves to be dead. Rarely, if ever, has  Hollywood tackled such a theme. )

This introduces another (related) theme common to Bergman’s films of this period:  Through his characters, he shows us that in the postwar world, man is increasingly compelled to question God’s very existence;  since he finds himself alone in a world, which he finds increasingly frightening and absurd. Therefore, compared to Hitchcock’s lighthearted, albeit frequently misogynistic, artfulness, Bergman’s work may appear to many as heavy-handed, even boring, depressing and too difficult for a medium, whose main attribute is its ability to entertain a mass audience.

Yet, according to Singer,  Bergman succeeds, because of the quality of his cinematic language, which is more daring, more insightful and which never fails to astound his audience. Consider the way in which he evokes magic in his films, as a means to create a non-literal order of truthfulness. In his 1968 essay, Snakeskin,  Bergman argues that the artist has an enormous advantage when he shares his condition with every other living being. One might add that this is particularly true of the auteur film maker, given the illusory nature of the medium itself, i.e. the whole array of techniques that are made available by film technology, which really takes off with Eisenstein’s early films. (Cf. the way in which the latter uses the montage effect during the famous massacre on the Odessa Steps in Battleship Potemkin: Here we see the shooting of the mother and then the baby in the pram, prior to its dangerous descent, intercut with the shots of the advancing cossacks, at a racy angle, firing as they march relentlessly forward.) Bergman continues, ‘We doubtless constitute a fairly large brotherhood, which exists within a selfish community on our warm and dirty earth, beneath a cold and empty sky’. But later he would stress ‘how vastly the need for contact both pervades and bolsters his work.’ He made films, because of an enormous need to touch other people, both physically and mentally...; movies are a fantastic medium with which [to do this], to either annoy them or to make them happy, to make them think.’ (Interview with Ingmar Bergman, MGM, 2004)

Another aspect of Bergman’s cinematic aesthetic concerns his narrative technique: In this regard, he is a master of what may be called ‘interior realism’; wherein  the narrative is driven with the help of dreams. Like the character themselves, the spectator is invited into their dreamworld. Wild Strawberries’(1958) is a good example of this. It is also one of Bergman’s greatest films, (albeit neither nudity or violence feature in it.)  We journey with old Borg, the distinguished doctor, as he passes from  a dream world to waking life. This experience enables both Borg and the audience to find out some truths about himself, which hitherto were obscured by his routinely ‘pedantic existence, as he calls it.’ This quest is, at the same time, evidence of  Bergman’s need for art to distance itself from the everyday, by means of a clearly discernable form, as the means to articulate the author’s own particular view of the world in general, and his experience of it.

Once again, Bergman's narrative technique points to the difference between semblance and mimesis from the standpoint of the theory of aesthetics: ‘Fleeing the corpse in is dream, Borg is trying to evade unknowable forces that not only want to bring about his death, as in a Hitchcock film, but also consider him worthy of punishment. In addition to his escape from submission to his own mortality, Borg’s trip to [the city of] Lund is also reaching out for anything that can reunite him to the profundities of his life [his dead wife, for example], and of human existence in general. (N.B. whereas Hitchcock would never ‘venture into inquiries of this type’.)  [Singer, pp 40-1]

Bergman made over 20 films, which might be considered classics. But all of his films, almost from the first to the last, are reflections of reality, not a faithful documentation of it. In hs very last film, Saraband (2004), the young cellist, Karin is being pressured by her grandfather to leave her father and go to the city to continue her studies. But this would mean leaving her depressive father, which might very well bring about his death. In a memorable scene, we see Karin’s deliberations over her grandfather’s offer. Once again, this is dealt with very skilfully by Bergman, by means of cinematic magic: It starts with a shot of Karin seated alone in an empty space, playing her cello, but we don’t hear it; then she gradually recedes into the distance, becoming a tiny dot, before vanishing altogether. ’The image of her playing soundlessly is more than just the externalisation of her thoughts. It's also a prediction of what will follow....

Bergman is able to make a statement about Karin’s choice without any discourse...mere verisimilitude has been transcended by the brilliantly cinematic mode of presentation.’ Conversely, in The Seventh Seal (1957), Bergman introduces a scene which looks remarkably like the ‘Holy Family’, as depicted in countless Renaissance paintings. We see what looks like a vision of  the virgin Mary helping the infant Jesus take his first steps. But we soon realise that this is a family of acrobats en route to their next performance.This is really an image of an earthly family going about their daily lives. The backdrop to this drama is an outbreak of the plague, probably spread by knights returning from the Crusades in the Holy Land. Therefore Bergman makes the comparison with the ‘Holy Family’ in order to ennoble this earthly family, whose lives are in peril at a time of universal suffering.

A film set at the time of the medieval plague, when universal death was a distinct possibility in Europe, serves as a metaphor for Bergman’s own time. The Seventh Seal was made at the height of the Cold War. Substitute the threat of nuclear annihilation for the Plague and we begin to understand that Bergman is expressing his own personal angst about the possibility of universal death, this time from a man-made cause.

Hands that produce the magic, on the part of both film maker and his characters, are another important image in Bergman’s films. In The Seventh Seal, the figure of  Death wants to reap the ‘Holy Family’ as his next victims. He plays a game of chess with the knight, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow). The latter has just shared a meal with the ‘Holy Family’. But now he wants to cheat Death by his own hand, ‘which points to the magnificence of his endeavour, mortal as it is’. The knight finally saves the ‘Holy Family’, when he knocks the chess piece out of place, which distracts Death from his task. Once again, we are reminded of the fact that Bergman is a master craftsman, who is able to use the magic of film in order to give reality a humanist inflexion. This is also his way of showing how it is possible to utilise all the technical possibilities of the film that were available at the time, in order to elevate the medium to the level of an art form.

A sister art to which Bergman, the master film maker, aligns himself, is music, above all, the music of J.S. Bach. In Saraband, Bach’s saraband becomes a living force and virtual character. In The Silence (1963), once again, we are presented with the existential theme of man’s predicament, which is his existence in a perverse and empty universe. But unlike other great contemporary film makers, e.g. De Sica, Fellini and Antonioni, and the great Italian neo-realist tradition of the 1950s and 1960s, the sound of Bach in The Silence provides a sliver of optimism, which is to be found in the aesthetic beauty of the music itself, Bergman also uses musical imagery to describe his films: In a discussion about the pacing of the shots in Winter Light,  one of his bleakest films (also made in 1963), he says, ‘It is hard to describe the tone of the film. ‘Maybe its a solo partita by Bach - that’s the only thing you can compare to it. It requires that kind of precision and presence the whole time.’ For Bergman, film is also a quasi-musical phenomenon.

Arguably Persona (1966) js Bergman’s greatest film, because it is the most complex and experimental. The fact that he plays about with conventional narrative, at times abandoning the chronology of events, as one does in a dream, is only part of it. Liv Ullman plays an actress called  Elisabet, who is undergoing an identity crisis. (At one stage, Bergman uses imagery to show co-actress, Bibi Anderson, who plays Alma, Elisabet’s nurse, trying to merge with her patient, so that the two identities become one. Perhaps these characters represent the positive and negative aspects of Bergman’s own character? In many ways, Persona is an autobiographical film, as is the case with many of his films..) Although such duplicity is central to Elisabet’s profession, she is also resembles  most other people in real life; i.e.  we are all forced to play roles or adopt a persona, in order to keep a marriage intact or to stay in a job, etc. Elisabet’s psychiatrist recommends that she become mute, because:

‘What you are with others and who you really are....Every tone of voice a lie. Every gesture false. Every smile a grimace. Commit suicide? That’s unthinkable....But you can refuse to move and be silent. Then at least you’re not lying. You can shut yourself in, shut out the world.. Then you don’t have to play any roles. Reality is diabolical.’

Elisabet’s self-imposed silence is also an expression of her horror about the silence of the universe -  or God’s absence - in the face of ‘political evil’. In one scene Elsabet is watching news footage on TV of a Vietnamese guerrilla leader being summarily shot in public; then a monk setting himself on fire. But, unlike Hollywood, when Bergman depicts violence, in particular real violence, such as this, which is violence at its most extreme, it is always dealt with in a responsible way. There is nothing gratuitous about it. The Character of Elisabet wants to say No! to present society, which is governed by violence, but  she feels impotent. Apart from her own personal experience, here is another reason why she is disgusted with herself. In order to carry on her life and her career, she is forced to adopt a persona of normality, as if there is a God in his heaven and all is right with the world. This is how Bergman feels too. At one stage his horror about it all is so great, the film literally burns a hole in itself at. As the psychiatrist says, ‘Reality is diabolical.’

I cannot leave Bergman without saying something more about From the Life of Marionettes (1980). In terms of its subject matter, it includes a climactic scene which involves extreme nudity and sexual violence. It therefore  resembles many mainstream feature films, at a superficial level, at least. But there the resemblance ends. Unlike Hitchcock’s late film Frenzy,  for example, From the Life... reflects Bergman’s primary concern to analyse and explain why Peter, the main protagonist, is motivated to kill another human being. Semblance in this case is achieved by an unravelling of the contradictions within Peter’s psyche, which are derived from his bourgeois life style; not just from Bergman’s ability to convey visual symbols. The film is an exploration of how Peter’s character and experience arouses only negative fears within him, as he searches for love and harmony, whether the object is himself, his sexual partners, society or the cosmos at large. Whilst he focuses on Peter’s marriage, Bergman also alludes to the fact that he is a representative of  successful German bourgeois people. But their ‘remarkable business success turns them into... emotional illiterates. In their pursuit of wealth and material well being, they have dehumanised themselves’. Peter murders and sodomises a prostitute, which alludes the fact that he has prostituted himself to big business. he profits from the basic fact that capital is able to extract surplus value from the labour of others.

The meaning of  Bergman’s title becomes clear in another scene, where  we see Peter standing on his high-rise balcony, watching the crawling traffic below. The world appears like a gigantic hive, made up of myriads of crawling insects who seem to act only according to their instincts. Then Peter  dictates a letter to his secretary. ‘It...shows him in his role as a robot or marionette being manipulated by unknown forces - corporate power in present-day society.’ Later Peter tells his wife, Katerina, that there is ‘no exit’ to his problems, above all, his feelings of angst.

In one of the film’s final scenes, the trigger for his violent onslaught is provided by the unsuspecting prostitute herself. She of all people, seems to be enjoying the simple pleasures of life associated with the sexual act; but this is quite  beyond Peter, who is also deeply repressed. When she begins to soothingly touch and caress him, he becomes enraged. This  scene enables Bergman to further demonstrate the emptiness of modernity, also the despair which is present in ‘The Silence’, but not fully examined, in a word the malaise of modern bourgeois life. Being an ‘emotional illiterate and therefore alienated from one’s own hell on earth.’

But later Bergman began to make more positive films again, e.g. Fanny and Alexander (1982)  Films are a part of life for him. He therefore sees his own films as a voyage. ‘...the greatest search is his own as he turns from one film to the next...that vary, modify, extend and augment motifs that are pertinent to what has meant most to him in the real world.’  [Singer, pp 179-195.]