Ingmar Bergman is dead, dead, dead

sealDuring the Culture Wars era, the U.S. Supreme Court has been forced to wrestle with this question: Can a government-supported advocacy of “secular humanism” (scare quotes were the norm) become a form of religion? I think the more important question is whether government-supported advocacy of Universalism is a form of doctrinal entanglement, but the hot-button phrase “secular humanism” was what grabbed the headlines.

The Supremes always answered this question with a resounding “no.”

However, it is hard to argue that there is no such thing as a religion of secularism — or at the very least, that there are no secular saints and prophets — after reading the mainstream coverage of the death of the gifted filmmaker Ingmar Bergman.

Consider this language in a tribute offered by Desson Thomson in The Washington Post:

And what does it mean when we declare that Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish filmmaker who passed away early yesterday at 89, was the greatest artist in the history of film?

What did the son of a Lutheran minister, with five wives, four divorces, three Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film and at least one out-of-wedlock child, do to deserve this?

… the movie that would establish him as a great film artist — certainly in critical circles — was 1957′s “The Seventh Seal.” A drama about a medieval knight who rages at an indifferent God in the face of plague, it became an allegory for modern man. One scene in particular, in which the knight plays a game of chess with Death himself, a spectral figure in a monklike robe, became one of cinema’s iconic moments.

Or how about this quote in the Los Angeles Times feature essay by Myra Oliver?

Critic Peter Rainer wrote for The Times in 2005 that “Bergman is undeniably one of the great directors, but he has always stood for more than the sum of his films. From the first, he was regarded … as a visionary who grappled with the Big Questions of God and Man. His symbol-thick films were drenched in the night sweats of mortal torment. He was the kind of artist we had been brought up to believe was the real deal: He suffered for our souls.”

However, the newspaper that Woody Allen reads every morning is The New York Times, the holy writ of the high church of art and cinema and, thus, the veneration of Bergman.

It’s hard to know where to begin, when it comes to citing the religious themes, images and language in the “appraisal” offered by Stephen Holden, which ran with this perfect headline: “In Art’s Old Sanctuary, a High Priest of Film.”

There is, of course, the ultimate issue that is everywhere — death.

“Not a day has gone by in my life when I haven’t thought about death,” Mr. Bergman mused in “Bergman Island,” a recent, extraordinarily intimate documentary portrait, filmed on the island of Faro, where he lived in semi-isolation for four decades. The image of a chess game, he said, was inspired by a painting in a church he visited as a boy with his father. Until many decades later, when he underwent anesthesia that left him unconscious for several hours, he harbored “an insane fear” of death. Losing, then regaining, consciousness partially alleviated that fear, which seeps into the core of many of his finest films.

Mr. Bergman’s ruthlessly honest investigation of his demons is what lends such images their crushing weight. However fictional, they are undeniably truthful expressions of one artist’s personal torment, redeemed by fleeting glimpses of eternity and redemption in a long, dark night of the soul.

Intimations of divinity, he says in the documentary, can be found in classical music, in which he finds “human holiness.”

GodDeadEven the director’s technical genus becomes a form of religious practice.

Even Mr. Bergman’s comedies have a powerful undertow of sadness, of time rushing by and of dark shadows gathering. Geography has a lot to do with it. The chilly winter light of his films, most of them exquisitely shot by Sven Nykvist, emanates from a sun low on the horizon. Looking for the sun is tantamount to searching for God.

And on and on it goes, with more material on that stern Lutheran father — the symbol of a remote, judging God — and the “existential dread” that drifted over everything in the era defined by Freud, Sartre, Bergman and, later, Allen.

But here is the passage that really lets you know why Bergman’s passing is such a major event for a generation of movers and shakers in culture, academia and media.

Let us attend!

Attendance at Mr. Bergman’s films was a lot like going to church. Though many of those films are steeped in church imagery, God is usually absent from the sanctuary.

As a college student and avid art-film goer in the early 1960s, I was overwhelmed by Mr. Bergman’s films, with their heavy-duty metaphysical speculation and intellectual seriousness. In those days, you would no more argue with Mr. Bergman’s stature than you would question the greatness of the modern Western literary canon; like Mann, Joyce, Kafka, Faulkner, et al., Mr. Bergman was an intellectual god whose work could reward a lifetime of analytical study.

Over the past day or so, I have read other mainstream tributes to Bergman and I cannot find the answer to a logical question, after all of these references to God, doubt and death. Here is the question: What did Bergman believe, if anything, about the ultimate issues? Did he ever make a clear statement about his religious beliefs?

According to the Celebrity Atheist List site, he did not. That would have been a good thing to mention, just as a point of information.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • don

    I want to agree with you. I really do, because the *effect* of secular humanism is certainly like that of a religion. It is, at least, a philosophical point of view that is like a religion.

    But there is a simpler reason why so many atheists would use religious imagery in talking about Bergman, or why Bergman himself would use it in his films. It’s because there IS no other imagery to use when once the conversation has gone beyond material things. Even secular humanists want to talk about the “meaning of life,” and yet, because they are mostly materialists, they can only borrow the language of those who believe in the existence of spiritual things.

    Materialism and Utilitarianism have no art. There is no meaning or drama in matter or function for its own sake. Bergman tried to find some meaning in life, and especially in death. But abandoning the faith of his father, he had nothing left but the vocabulary.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Don, that’s a killer reply…no pun intended.

  • David Adrian

    I’m reminded of the following graffiti supposedly written in a Cambridge University lavatory:

    “God is dead” – Nietzsche

    “Nietzsche is dead” – God

  • Aula

    Bergman was not a religious man in the sense that he believed in a divinity in the traditional sense. He was for a large part of his life plagued by intense fear of dying (which is heavily reflected in his films, The Seventh Seal in particular), a fear that i believe he came to grip with during the last years of his life. In any case, he never gave up hopes of the possibilities of life after death; MUSIC is according to Bergman an inexplicable gift that has been given to mankind to give us a hunch of other worlds outside of our own. Any random piece written by Bach or Mozart should give us greater hopes of outworldly dimensions and an afterlife than all the Abrahamic Jesus-figure charletans and unstable shamans of the world put together. Music meant everything to Ingmar.

  • mim

    Ooh, that Time cover–I haven’t seen it since the 60′s. The magazine was lying around the living room as Bach’s St. Matthew Passion was playing on the radio, and when I saw the mag I silently answered NO!

    But who cares whether Bergman was one of Them–he was a great artist whose works can be seen with profit. Certainly by someone like me who appreciates Thomas Hardy as an artist of the hidden God.

  • Christopher W. Chase

    tmatt wrote:

    “However, it is hard to argue that there is no such thing as a religion of secularism — or at the very least, that there are no secular saints and prophets — after reading the mainstream coverage of the death of the gifted filmmaker Ingmar Bergman.”

    This goes back to the old division between religion and religiosity Gavin Langmuir was famous for making. It would be difficult to claim that there is any institutional religion of secularism–what would be its rituals and symbolic language? But Bergman was certainly an existentialist detailing the inability of the Enlightenment to adequately confront the horrors of European warfare and genocide, as the Dadaists did after WWI. There is certainly a religiosity expressed in Bergman’s work–one more indebted to the anxieties of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche than Paul Tillich. The “Death of God Theology” movement crossed Jewish and Christian boundaries to pose difficult questions for all of us at this time and place. If anything, perhaps Richard Rubenstein would be the one to seek out for comment on the impact and language of Bergman’s existentialism on the late 20th century. It bears noting that President Bush was recently seen reading Camus’ “The Stranger” and discussing it with his press secretary, who has a philosophy degree. Maybe there is more here than meets the eye.