Religion in Ingmar Bergman’s Films

by Jack McLean

posted July 31, 2007

My first blog from Ottawa after telling myself that I would never become a blogger because it would distract too much from serious writing and research. Well, a blog is just a conversation with oneself and others. And I believe in conversation. So here is some thinking out loud. Hopefully, it will become interactive and “inter-subjective.”

Ingmar Bergman, the director’s director, has passed on to that great director’s set in the sky. What intrigued me as I read today the story of his life and career in this morning’s Globe and Mail newspaper was the role that religion played in Bergman’s films.

Bergman’s father was a strict, Lutheran pastor who ended up ministering to the Swedish royal family. A practitioner of corporal punishment and child humiliation, Bergman’s father obliged the family to attend church and listen to his sermons. Little Ingmar went of course–every Sunday–along with the rest of the family, but he was incredibly bored (so he said) by his father’s sermons. But no doubt he absorbed a full measure of Christian angst and drama over the years by listening to those same sermons and watching the life-vignettes that were played out in church before his youthful eyes.

It occurred to me as I read the Globe and Mail account in the warm July sun, while sipping my morning coffee around the corner at Elgin and Gladstone, that his father’s church was actually Bergman’s first motion picture set. This point was not made in the journalist’s urbane account, but it was obvious from reading Bergman’s own words.

As a child, Bergman wrote that he would climb up into the “loft” or upper gallery of the church and look down on the congregation, gathered below in the nave. He was continually fascinated by the parade of human events that he witnessed there, with their full range of emotions: the innocent purity, the vision of hope, the sense of gratitude and thanksgiving that come with birth and baptism, the darker moments of death and burial, and the joyous celebration of weddings. These are some of the great comings-and-goings of human life. Bergman was, in a sense, the Shakespeare of the cinema.

The dark side that emerged in Bergman’s films derived in large part, no doubt, not only from the guilt-ridden side of northern, Scandinavian Protestant Christianity, but also from the funerals that Ingmar witnessed from his vantage point in the loft. He recalled one strong, vivid memory in particular of a funeral in which he looked down on the black flag that draped over the coffin of the deceased, with the mourners gathered around, standing in stony silence and grief. These funerals, although they contained the usual affirmation of eternal life, and of being reunited with Christ the Saviour in heaven, were predominantly somber affairs. It was not the joyful promises of heaven that reigned supreme.

The melancholy that pervades some of his films was also no doubt imbibed from his dysfunctional religious upbringing. Some of these films–and the reader will forgive me if I do not supply all the titles here–were overtly metaphysical and darkly spiritual, i.e. Through a Glass Darkly.

Religion in secular society has its legions of detractors. Some, like the Oxford biologist, Richard Dawkins, have an open and declared agenda to discredit religion entirely and wipe the “God Delusion” from our minds. As an aside, I will add that I think that Dawkins is sadly mistaken, and after having listened to a few of his lectures, I have concluded that the great scientist knows very little about religion. He engages only in a presentation of religion’s dark side, which, as we all know, is amply there. Some of his colleagues have advised him to keep quiet because they realize that Dawkins is engaging in stereotypes and annoying a lot of thoughtful, even intellectual Christians. (But I halt here because Dawkins is another story)

In Bergman’s case, the link between his cinematographic art and his religious upbringing is clear. Had it not been for religion, Bergman’s career would never have been launched. In fairness to Bergman, that he suffered from the dark side of religion in general, and at his father’s hands in particular, is also clear. The consequences of that mistreatment were in part –and this is often the case–a revolt from the strictures of Christian chastity, what with three marriages, a multitude of affairs and nine children along the way. But without religion, Ingmar Bergman would have never become “the poet with a camera” that he was. For him, religion was a mixed bag, but it largely determined who he was and what he did in life.

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