Existentialism was a philosophical as well as a literary movement in Europe that came to prominence in Europe after World War II, but the movement’s roots stretch back to the nineteenth-century with philosophers and authors like Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Herman Melville, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. To quote from the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, “existentialism focused on the uniqueness of the human individual as distinguished from abstract universal human qualities.” Generally atheistic (except for Kierkegaard who chooses to believe in God as an act of free will), existentialism does not believe in concepts such as the soul or human nature. Jean Paul Sartre argued that existence has no inherent meaning and that humans are hurled into without in any inherent purpose; therefore, we exist in a state of absurdity and are condemned to a life of free will. If our life is to have meaning, then we must create it for ourselves. From this arises the existentialist distinction between existence and essence—we have being but it is a being without any point or purpose. If we are to have meaning in our lives, then we must use our free will to inscribe an essence (a meaning or purpose) upon our bare existence. Based on Sartre’s works, Simone de Beauvior wrote her famous feminist manifesto The Second Sex in which she states that “one is not born a woman but becomes one.” Hence, existentialism proved influential in the definition of gender as a socially constructed identity category that does not inherently derive from one’s biological sex. Absurdism remains closely related to existentialism but was more of a literary genre than a philosophical school of thought. Franz Kafka’s fiction, Samuel Beckett’s plays and novels, Albert Camus’s novels and essays, etc. all represent different examples of absurdism because they place their characters in often bizarre situations that demonstrate the meaningless nature of society and existence. Bergman’s films features elements of existentialism and absurdism (if the two can genuinely be separated).
Ingmar Bergman remains one of the most significant Scandinavian filmmakers, mainly due to the staggering body of work that he produced from the late 1950s through the early 1980s. With a few exceptions, most of his films from these decades remain iconic in their own individual ways. Bergman wrote and directed numerous films before finally becoming an international sensation in the mid-50s. At this point, he had fully developed his method of filmmaking which involved his writing the films first as novels, converting them into screenplays, and then transforming into films. Bergman first attained fame with Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), a farcical version of French director Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, and The Seventh Seal (1956), which remains one of his most well-known films. Set during the middle ages, The Seventh Seal concerns a knight who forestalls his demise by engaging in a prolonged game of chess with Death. Bergman followed up The Seventh Seal with a film that many still consider to one of his greatest masterpieces, Wild Strawberries (1957), which tells the story of an elderly professor who relives his memories as he is being driven to a ceremony in his honor. Bergman’s film was revolutionary for its stream of consciousness structure which used single shots to bridge the present with the past, hence making the two seem almost indistinguishable. Powerful, beautiful, and heartbreaking (as are most of Bergman’s films), Wild Strawberries is a profound meditation upon how our choices shape our identities. Bergman rounded out the 50s with a horrific tale of violence that would influence directors as diverse as Ang Lee and Wes Craven—see below for more on the Bergman-Craven connection. Based on a medieval ballad, The Virgin Spring (1959) concerns a young woman who is raped and killed by a trio of goatherds, one of whom is barely more than a child. After the girl’s disappearance, the trio take shelter from a storm in the house of the girl’s father, who subsequently discovers their crime and exacts vengeance upon them.
To cover Bergman’s entire body of work is too substantial a task for a space as short as this, but his two major trilogies from the 1960s bear mentioning. His first trilogy concerns humankind’s attempt to live in a universe unredeemed by God, a universe in which our most torturous pleas for help only meet with God’s silence. The trilogy began with Through A Glass Darkly (1961), a film that concerns a schizophrenic woman whose husband exploitatively documents her breakdown for the purpose of writing a novel. After she learns of his intentions, her mental condition deteriorates further and she commits incest with her teenage brother. Glass Darkly was followed by Winter Light (1961), a film that tells the tale of a pastor who has lost faith in God after the death of his beloved wife, the devoted woman who loves the priest but who he despises, and a man who commits suicide because of the nuclear arms race. Winter Light is filmed mostly in close-ups in order to explore the emotional and spiritual turmoil of the characters. Bergman’s cinema increasingly becomes a cinema of faces, and he demonstrates the manner in which the face can convey meaning and emotion without recourse to words, a style that hearkens back to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), which is still considered to be one of the greatest silent films (if not films in general) of all time. Winter Light is bleak and plotless in a way that makes other Bergman films seem sunny by comparison—David Cook goes so far as to call it “unbearable.” But I actually find it to be a supremely powerful entry in Bergman’s canon that emotionally eviscerates its characters over the course of the film. It is a powerful commentary on how we use love to define ourselves and how life can become meaningless in the absence of that love. And the film brilliantly parallels the love between humans with God’s love in a way that places us in the position of the unrequited lover, the one who loves selflessly only to receive silence or even scorn in return. Bergman rounds out the Trilogy with The Silence (1963) in which two sisters and the son of one of them arrive in an unnamed town where the inhabitants all speak an unknown language. As the sisters descend into squabbling and sexual perversity with the locals, the film becomes a powerful absurdist tale about humanity’s inability to ascribe meaning to or understand the chaotic nature of the universe. Bergman’s trilogy testifies to his status as a religious filmmaker, that is a filmmaker who plumbs the depths of religious belief and faith. Like Bunuel, his depictions of religion are seldom sympathetic, but his films raise profound philosophical questions and demonstrate the manner in which the visual and filmic image can be harnessed as a force of philosophical introspection.
Bergman followed his early 1960s trilogy with another, perhaps less bleak and alienating trilogy in the late 60s that featured Persona (1966), Hour of the Wolf (1968), and Shame (1968). Persona featured meta-cinematic elements similar to those found in Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963) and Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 (also 1963). The film begins and ends with scenes that seem to depict the projection of the film and the process of its being filmed. These scenes demonstrate the illusory nature of the cinematic medium, but they also point to the fictional nature of identity itself, a theme that the film proceeds to explore in its plot which concerns a female nurse and her female patient who begin to transfer and merge their identities over the course of the film. As David Cook states, Persona “suggests that the cinema is no more illusory than the reality that it pretends to record.” Bergman pursued similar themes in his follow-up Hour of the Wolf, which we screened in class. Similarly, Hour of the Wolf depicts the influence of one identity upon another. Bergman rounded out this later trilogy with Shame, which tells the story of a husband and wife who try to live a peaceful life away from the unidentified war raging in the unnamed country. The film concerns how war erodes ethical values and humanity and functions as a powerful, late 60s anti-war statement from one of cinema’s great masters. Bergman continued to make important films up through 1982’s Fanny and Alexander, but the late 50s and the 1960s contain the bulk of his masterpieces. His images of the human face remain some of t he most iconic in cinema history, and his films still represent some of the most emotionally draining cinema ever photographed.
Existentialism and absurdism continued to play a vital role in cinema of the 1950s and 60s, particularly in the films of Italian filmmaker Michaelangelo Antonioni, who oddly enough died on the same day as Bergman in 2007. Antonioni created his own trilogy about existential angst and alienation during the 1960s. L’Avventura (1960) concerns a woman who inexplicably goes missing during a trip to an island. Two of her friends fruitlessly search for her, and the search comes to embody the search for meaning in the modern world. Antonioni’s beautiful shots of modern buildings simultaneously evoke the unnaturalness of the world we have created for ourselves. Each individual scene—not the film as a whole--unfolds in real time, and hence the characters quest for meaning becomes our own quest. But we, like the characters, are left with no answers. Antonioni rounded out his alienation trilogy with La Notte (“The Night”; 1960) and L’Eclisse (“The Eclipse”; 1962), both of which depict the impossibility of love in the modern world because we have become so estranged from our environment, each other, and our own selves.
One other 1950s masterpiece of existential cinema bears mentioning: Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950). Rashmon concerns the case of a rape and murder that comes before a court. Over the course of the film, the viewer functions in the position of the judges attempting to decide who is guilty of the crime. But four completely different eye witness accounts appear as the film progresses, and the truth only gets further and further away. A powerful testament about truth being personal and relative, Rashomon was so influential that it actually gave birth to a legal term: “The Rashomon Effect,” which is the well-documented phenomenon of when eye-witnesses differ in their stories but still all believe themselves to be telling the truth.
Interestingly, as a side note, Bergman’s The Virgin Spring served as the inspiration for one of the viler horror films ever made: Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972). Last House inaugurated the brutal, often misogynistic, and perhaps morally irredeemable rape-revenge genre of exploitation films from the 1970s. Last House concerns two teenage girls who go to a concert in the big city and end up being kidnapped, raped, and murdered by a trio of criminals. Like Virgin Spring, the criminals seek refuge at the lead girl’s parents’ house. The parents subsequently discover the trio’s crime against their family and brutally murder them. The basic story of Virgin Spring and Last House has been retold in subsequent films such as Aldo Lado’s The Night Train Murders (1975), David De Falco’s thoroughly despicable and nihilistic Chaos (2005), and most recently with the 2009 remake of The Last House on the Left. The rape-revenge genre of films remains one of the more disturbing horror/exploitation sub-genres because it often features subject matter that could be deemed misogynistic or pornographic, particularly with such trashy fare as Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave (1978), which also received a recent remake in 2010. As trashy as such films are, the better ones like Craven’s Last House and Lado’s Night Train Murders still maintain the sense of existential dread and horror present in Bergman’s Virgin Spring. They concern meaningless acts of violence and cruelty and force characters to adopt seemingly amoral behavior. In essence, they pose a fundamental existential problem concerning ethics that is perhaps best formulated in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: “If God doesn’t exist, then everything is permitted.” But to truly see the existential power of the rape-revenge genre, you must fastforward to Gasper Noe’s brutal arthouse thriller Irreversible (2002), a film that progresses backwards in time similar to Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000). Irreversible is not recommended to anyone except the most hardened watcher of exploitation and transgressive cinema (none of the films is this last paragraph are recommended) because it features genuinely brutal murder and rape scenes as well as expressing one of the most hopelessly existential themes of all time. It is a film about the irreversibility of our actions—the narrative of our lives cannot be reversed like the story of the film—and the meaninglessness of everything we do. Brilliantly and even beautifully filmed at times, it is one of the most gut-churning, depressing, and brutalizing filmic experiences I have ever encountered and a profound testament to the timelessness of existential questions.