Ingmar Bergman’s Saraband

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees –
Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

-W. B. Yeats ‘Sailing to Byzantium’

Saraband, n. A slow and stately dance set to triple time (OED)

Let me just say it. Ingmar Bergman is, quite simply, the greatest director in the history of film. Bar none. His movies, along with the writings of Franz Kafka, the novels of Virginia Woolf, the poetry of Sylvia Plath and the paintings of Picasso’s Blue Period, rank among the greatest works of art that the last century has produced. No other director delivers harsh, unflinching beauty with so much consistency; no other director has the ability to make you experience, first-hand, so authentic a sense of pain.

Yet even immortals grow old, and Bergman turned 87 this July, which is why I went to see the new Bergman film, Saraband, with some slight trepidation. Bergman’s last movie, his swan song, was supposed to be the 1982 Fanny och Alexander and though Bergman has continued, since then, to make movies and series for television (great – the Swedes get Bergman on TV, we get Donald bloody Trump), I’ve never seen any of them. Which means that twenty years have passed between the Bergman whose work I worshipped and the Bergman who made this film.

I needn’t have worried. Some talents, like fine wine, grow sweeter with age. Not that this is the same Bergman we knew twenty years ago – the tone is mellower here, more gentle; the scenes are more loosely constructed and Bergman sacrifices some of the burning energy of his earlier films to a more meditative quietness. It says a lot about Bergman’s usual style that I’m tempted to call this movie optimistic, even though it’s filled with images of death, loss and despair.

But perhaps that’s because at the heart of the movie is Johann Sebastian Bach. Bergman has long been fascinated by Bach – Bach’s music fills his work, both setting the mood in the background and being explicitly referred to (there’s a scene in The Silence where Ester is listening to music on the radio and someone asks her what it is and she replies: “Bach. Johann Sebastian” with the weariness of one summing up her entire life). But here Bergman outdoes himself. It’s not just that Bach’s music plays all through the film, it’s not just that two of the central characters are both classical musicians and that Bach becomes the battleground for their final denouement, it’s not just that Bach’s music is constantly referred to and becomes, in these dialogues, a metaphor for death and peace, almost for God. It’s also the very structure of the film itself. The format of twelve scenes, the first two scored for solo voice, the other ten consisting of dialogues between the four main characters of the movie, the quietness, the precision of the beauty that Bergman shows us – all this is true to the spirit of Bach. It’s characteristic of Bergman’s attention to detail that the scenes evolve in an elaborate counterpoint: m, mj, mk, kh, mh, jk, km, hk, mj, jm, m. Eliot writes: “Who is the third who walks always beside you?/When I count, there are only you and I together/ But when I look ahead up the white road /There is always another one walking beside you /Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded /I do not know whether a man or a woman /—But who is that on the other side of you?”. In Saraband, that presence is Bach – a ghost only Bergman could invoke, a spirit only Bergman could conjure with.

What makes Saraband a must-watch for Bergman fans is that it is a magical reminder of everything that Bergman stood for, stands for. It’s not just that the plot itself is a follow on from the wonderful Scenes from a marriage (much better seen in the original TV series version btw), it’s also that the movie is a return to the quiet intensity that is the trademark of Bergman’s work. It’s all here – the amazing natural banter, the psychological acuity that makes the characters come alive as real people whom we can admire and pity, hate and love at the same time; the view of the characters so deep, so multi-dimensional that you feel that you understand them better than you do your own friends, and yet at the same time know for certain that you will never completely capture them. One of Bergman’s greatest gifts is his ability to get closer to his characters than any other director on earth – his intense close-ups seem less like intrusions and more like gateways into a sudden intimacy where the characters stand emotionally naked, vulnerable, stripped off all disguises, almost of words, their simple sentences magnified by Bergman’s searching gaze into the highest poetry. Under the light of Bergman’s cross-examination his characters become witnesses to the human condition in all its merciless splendour, so that every line spoken has the ring of eternal truth. It’s this ability to get under his character’s skin, to show every emotion the character feels reflected in his / her face, that is chiefly on display in Saraband. (There’s a scene early on when Karin and Marianne are talking about Johann – Karin’s grandfather, Marianne’s former husband – and Karin asks Marianne “Did you love him?”. The camera instantly closes into Marianne’s face and then there is a long, pregnant silence as we watch, from less than a foot away, Marianne thinking about the question. No other director could have held that pause so long, or made it say so much. )

But over and above the technical brilliance of the film, it’s wonderfully crafted details, is (as with any other Bergman film) Bergman’s incredible vision of humanity. Bergman is the living illustration of Schopenhauer; perhaps the only director who understands that we cannot run away from pain because it is the central fact of the human condition. On the contrary, it is precisely by embracing our suffering, by accepting the terrible despair of being human, by not wincing, not looking away, not trying to escape, that we may break through to the monstrous beauty that lies beyond. There is no forgiveness in Bergman, no mercy; there is simply the knowledge, won through years of exploring the darkest regions of the human heart, that it is only ourselves that we have to forgive and even that forgiveness doesn’t matter because what is lived cannot be undone. The demons that torment us are only souls like ourselves, crying out for help – perhaps they are our own soul, products of our own imagination. You cannot undo your life, you can only discover the sad, sweet beauty that lies buried at its heart. We cannot be other than ourselves; we cannot even be with anyone other than ourselves; but it is enough to have touched the face of another, to have truly touched the face of God, if only in a dream, because that is all that is possible. In Bergman, as in Bach, there is a great sense of unforgiven peace hidden under the restlessness and the passion of the movement itself.

Of course, Bergman has always relied on the talent of others to help make this vision come alive, and Saraband is no exception. Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson reprise their roles from Scenes from a marriage and are both exceptional – watching the interplay between them you can see effortlessly past their sad, withered bodies to the couple we once loved. So transparent is their acting that you can see right through to their souls, so that the line between actor and character blurs and they become pure spirit, beings of light dancing their stately, gentle dance together. Ullman is as radiant as ever, the same hypnotic eyes, the same sense of trembling empathy. If the years have changed her at all, it is only that they have replaced her more obvious beauty with a sense of meditative grace – and Bergman exploits that grace to its full power*. And Josephson remains, at 80, the powerhouse he was in his prime – his portrait of a cantankerous, cynical, calculating and yet ultimately childish and vulnerable old man is picture and word perfect. If this really turns out to be Bergman’s last film, then it is only fitting that the two main leads in it should be the two people whose acting has done the most to make Bergman’s movies come alive. This is certainly true of Ullman, and at least partly true of Josephson, though on the whole the actor I most associate with Bergman is probably still Gunnar Bjornstrand (one of my biggest regrets about Fanny och Alexander was that it showcased so little of Bergman’s ‘regulars’ – though both Bjornstrand and Josephson had some role to play).

The two other cast members are impressive too – Borje Ahlstedt (who also featured in Fanny och Alexander) is quietly compelling as the tortured Henrik – the sheer suffering in his face would move a stone to compassion. And Julia Dufvenius deserves credit for holding her own against so stellar a cast. This may not seem like praise – it is. For someone who was not even born when Scenes from a Marriage was released, and who is acting in only her third film, Dufvenius does a brilliant job. Listening to her incredible monologue in the second scene one truly appreciates how powerful and gifted a director Bergman is – how a simple re-telling of a morning’s incident can become, in his hands, a sonata that Beethoven would have been proud of. It says a lot for the skill with which the dialogues are played out here, that you actually find yourself waiting for Bach’s music to end so that they can get on with it!

The one person missing here, of course, is Sven Nykvist. Nykvist, the magician who shot Winter Light and The Silence and made Cries and Whispers come alive with an almost Rembrandt like beauty, was not able to participate in the making of Saraband. His presence is sorely missed. Instead, Bergman uses no less than five different cinematographers, none of whom are quite able to bring out the clarity of his images. Many of the shots in Saraband seem a little faded, a little out of focus – the overall feel is of watching the episode of a 70’s TV series (I mean a normal TV series, of course – not a Bergman series). This is not, of course, a serious detraction – there is too much talent here for that – but it does keep the film from being as perfect as it could be.

I’m told that Saraband may be Bergman’s last film. The idea that there may be no more work forthcoming from this great man is a sad one, but if this has to be Bergman’s last film, then I would not wish for anything better. For all the suffering in Saraband, there is also a new sense of peace, of a life finally come to terms with. I can only hope that this is a feeling that Bergman shares, an emotion that he, after all his searching, has finally found. I can think of no one who deserves it more.

Bottomline: It’s always difficult to call a Bergman film a masterpiece, simply because he sets such a high standard for himself. For anyone but Bergman, then, Saraband is an authentic masterpiece, a genuine work of art. For Bergman, it’s another in a long list of cinematic triumphs, a reminder that even in these last times (in this hour of the Wolf, as Bergman would say) the great Maestro remains untouchable. When this movie ended, I walked out of the theatre with tears in my eyes and a great sense of calm in my heart. And it doesn’t get any better than that.


* The movie I was most reminded of watching Saraband (other than Scenes from a Marriage obviously) was Autumn Sonata. It’s ironic that Ullman, who plays a middle-aged woman still struggling to come to terms with her relationship with her mother in that film, should now have succeeded into the role that Ingrid Bergman played there.