Although my thoughts have often been focused on western Europe ever since we returned from our trip to England, France, Belgium and Holland, a coincidental combination of film and literature now has Sweden on the brain. In the last week or so I’ve seen five Ingmar Bergman films: Cries and Whispers, Monika, The Silence, Winter Light, and Shame. I’d seen a few others in the past, most notably Persona, a surreal masterpiece of morphing identity that’s always been one of my favorite films. I’d also seen The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries years ago, but only now do I really feel like I have a real sense of him. Bergman was of course a huge cultural/artistic phenomenon in the 1960s and 70s, but I feel like he’s fallen off the radar just a bit in years past, at least in comparison to someone like Fellini. I think the morose nature of Bergman’s work is such that (like fellow 60s director/icon Michelangelo Antonioni) people are less likely to want to give him a try now that papers and magazines aren’t so full of discussion about his films. They don't enjoy the thought of all that negative energy. But the films I’ve watched have been absolutely stunning.
In particular I was struck by The Silence, which concerns two antagonistic sisters vacationing in an unnamed foreign country (on the verge of war by the way) who become confined to a baroque old hotel when one sister, a cerebral, frigid college professor, is bed-ridden and apparently dying with what seems to be tuberculosis. The other sister is beautiful and sexy, killing time with one-night stands. The two seem like two sides of one personality, which of course must have been the point. The sexy sister also has a young son (about nine or ten I’d guess) who provides a much-needed spark of humor and innocence as he engages the few others in the hotel: a pack of performing midgets (who are actually the sanest people in the movie), and an aging hotel clerk. But the most interesting thing about the movie is how it’s filmed. This is one of Bergman’s “chamber pieces”, as they’re called, and it is shot completely inside a studio, giving it an otherworldly quality that is both eerie and gorgeous. Despite all the negative emotions put out by the sisters, the environment also never feels stifling, because cinematographer Sven Nyquist has a lot of gracefully moving camerawork—a welcome antidote to today’s “monkey cam” style of jagged digital video shots.
At the same time, I’ve discovered Swedish mystery writer Henning Mankell, whose series involving homicide investigator Kurt Wallander I understand is quite popular and acclaimed. I’m reading one called One Step Behind that is deeply resonant emotionally, and yet is such a page-turner. As with the Bergman films, Mankel’s work embraces mankind’s greatest demons: suicide, atheism, sexual dysfunction, secrets and lies. But it is done so lyrically, and conveys such truths, that you couldn’t possibly call the work depressing.
I can’t help but wonder how much Mankel and Bergman’s art really represents the Swedish national character. Or to put it another way, why does a country with such a proud history of art and benevolent social policies—not to mention damn nice furniture and cars—seem so depressed? Or is that just a stereotype, like the way some non-Americans assume we all are cowboys carrying guns? I hate to think that the overriding characteristic of Sweden is one of such negativity, but I also wouldn’t have it any other way if that’s what it took to be a breeding ground for the work of Bergman and Mankell.