Ingmar Berman’s (Intermedial) Universe

In the article “Platforms and Beds: The sexualization of space in Ingmar Bergman’s theatre and film”9, M. J. Blackwell points out how Bergman is constantly transgressing boundaries in –one of his last works– In the presence of a Clown (Larmar och gör sig till, 1997) and how he was actually playing with it in most of his latest productions (I would add since approximately The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet, 1957). I found this approach singularly appropriate to get immersed into Bergman’s work –or universe– specially because firstly, it is applicable not only in this film, but also in his entire artistic production and secondly, it allows me to describe not only his prominent themes, but also his narrative structures.

The boundaries that Blackwell identifies are “gender”, “medium”, “spectator and spectacle”, “theatre and life”, “sanity and madness”,“individual works of art”, “time” and “reality and illusion”(my order). They will be discussed one by one.


Blackwell points out the term “gender” to refer to some characters that are ambiguously gendered, like Rigmor the Clown or Ishmael in In the presence of a Clown (her examples). In addition, I could also indicate some personages in other Bergman’s movies with such a definition (like, for instance, the child in Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen, 1968), the young teen in the marionette’s house of Fanny and Alexander (Fanny och Alexander, 1982/1983), or the sexual appeal between women, like the relation between the two sisters in The Silence (Tystnaden,1963), Anna and Agnes in Cries and Whispers (Viskingar och rop, 1973), or many others. But, beyond these examples, what it’s important to note here is how this insistence of questioning gender is connected with the questioning of the identity itself, which is something that I would relate with Bergman’s fixation in constructing psychologically complex persona –or personages.


The importance of paying attention to the intermedial connections within Bergman’s work has been already pointed out in this article, but: what connotations does it have in his narrative style? To what degree is he conditioned by his own intermedial position (in terms of creation) and how? Ulla-Britta Lagerroth claims in “Musicalisation on the Stage: Ingmar Bergman Performing Shakespire”10that Bergman was using codes of theatre when making movies and the other way around. One could say, thus, that Bergman had a of a sort of in between –intermedial– style that was inspired from both arts, which for instance was sometimes criticized by the more conservative analysts of media. Even so, I have the exact opposite point of view. The influence of theatre made in Bergman’s films is specially his deep interest –and ability– in actor’s direction and his capacity to make the interpretation the key point for the transmission of meaning. I want to point out here the prominent use of the close-up of the face (almost as a recognizable mark of Bergman’s eye) and its power of expressing emotion, along with his ability to take advantage of it. This is, whatever they say against his films, a pure cinematic device. In addition, this choice required great talent from actors during camera close-ups –like Liv Ullman had– and great acting direction. Bergman was accomplishing that with no hesitation and, moreover, it was exactly this skill what Stefan Johansson recognised as “his most easily appreciable and least controversial part of his life’s work” in “Bergman at the Royal Opera”11.

Returning to Bergman’s intermedial mode, Lagerroth also identified a type of inspiration in painting at the time to conceive his productions (35). I’d like to provide an example for this suggestion –that I actually find pertinent– with the prominent presence of red in Cries and Whispers. Almost the whole movie was shot inside the house where Agnes laid and most of the walls, curtains, clothes and other objects were either white or red. Such a decision is of course not accidental and I can appreciate in it a strong inspiration from painting. Furthermore, most of the close-ups in this film find the face of the actresses isolated in a single-color background, which directly reminds me of nothing else but a (painted) portrait.

For instance, as Maaret Koskinen points out in Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence, one can find signs of Bergman’s wide range of inspiration throughout media in the way he writes the scripts, making remarkable descriptions of what involves not only sight but also hearing, touch and smell (100). Such a matter is even more notorious in the script for The Silence, where dialogues have almost evaporated leaving place for such meticulous descriptions12.

Spectator and spectacle, theatre and life

The influence of different media and the importance of its interconnections in Bergman’s work, is not only notable in his “intermedial” codes of narration –as pointed out above– but also in literal apparition of other media art performances in his films. Several theatrical and musical representations play an important role on some of his cinema productions and, as Blackwell suggests, the boundaries between the film itself and the meta-represented reality are somehow unclear for both characters and audiences. I decided to fuse both titles “spectator and spectacle” and “theatre and life” because what is actually a recurrent resource in Bergman are the influences between fiction and reality (which as a film, is actually fiction but presented as reality). The concepts of “spectator and spectacle” are also, under this optic, interconnected –like, for instance, is the process of creation for Bergman itself. I find a possible connection with such a routine and Bergman’s persistence on deconstructing the social “mask”, suggesting thus that life itself is also about acting. Is not a causality, then, that the main character of Persona (Persona, 1966) played by Liv Ullman is an actress that decided not to talk anymore. I guess here there are a lot of valid interpretations, but my point is that she (the character named Elisabeth Vogler) had taken such a decision as way to stop “acting” (not only in the stage but in her own life), with the aim of looking for the pureness of human, or the true existence. It is almost impossible not to mention here the role that “words” as a medium of communication played in such a situation, and it’s hard not to relate it with Bergman’s crisis with the dialogue during the creation of the Faith Trilogy13. Unfortunately I will not enter on this discussion here –not for a lack of interest but of space– but you can find a deep explanation of it in Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence’, especially in the chapter “In the beginning was (the fear of) the word: Notebooks” (67-83).

To what concerns the role of music as another extensive influence in the character’s reality, I can’t refer to another film but Bergman’s last production Saraband; in which music (for instance, Bach) plays a significant role not only in the title but in the entire construction of the film. But what is more of my interest here is a concrete scene where Karin and Henrik find no better farewell than playing Bach. In this case, is not only that music is inspiring the narrative structure but also the way of communicating, as a dialogue itself that replace words. In relation to that, one can also find in Cries and Whispers such an effect, where a conversation between sisters Karin and Maria is overshadowed by a symphony.

Sanity and madness

Again, the concept of appearances in human communication comes out when describing the somewhat thin border between “Sanity and madness”. For instance, the whole movie Hour of the wolf works along the psychological ambiguity of the main male (mentally insane) character. Once more, personages and spectators are lost between what is reality and mental images of both Johan and (later) Alma. I want to understand this movie as one step beyond Ingmar Bergman’s reflections about such complex subjects as consciousness and self-identity.

Reality and ilusion

Closely related to the connection between “sanity and madness” is consequently, the confusion between reality and illusion –the latter being a way to immerse into mental insanity. Apart from several scenes in Hour of the Wolf, one can find a good example of it in Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället, 1957), where the memories and subconscious images are depicted in such a way that both Isak and spectators experience them as a part of reality (of the film’s fiction).

(Through) Individual works of art and Time

Let me question here to which degree all those common reflections that appeared repeatedly in most of Bergman’s oeuvre (and the fact –or need– of challenging boundaries) mirrors his internal deliberations not only as an author but also as a human being. As suggested from all concrete connections within Bergman’s personal life and his artistic career throughout his notes in his diaries cited by Maaret Koskinen in Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence and theoretically analyzed by Janet Staiger embedding the concept of authorship14; it seems that such a suggestion may be appropriate. Leaving aside whether Bergman’s public image is actually real or consciously constructed, I find important to consider here, that at least, most of his stories come from an intimate interior discourse, and that’s exactly why the characters that he constructed are presented in such a deep emotional way. I will not start a discussion whether they are actually inspired by other personas of his real life or not, but I want to point out how “personified” are they are, and how often they tend to reappear –even when developed in different media. This could suggest –from my point of view at least– a certain intention to give to the characters a dimension of reality not so common in representative arts –such as film, theatre or television– and maybe partly to take advantage of the deep mental/emotional development and to be able to talk about the (real) passage of time. I can’t avoid referring here to the connections between Johan and Mariane from both Scenes from a marriage (Scener ur ett äktenskap, 1973) and Saraband. This case is not only worthy to be noted for its exemplification of character’s transcendence but also for understanding, since the degree to which Bergman needs to be analyzed by an intermedial approach (specially considering that Bergman wrote Saraband’s story without thinking in any concrete media, and was both developed as a film for television and a theatre play)15. Apart from that, what really captivates my interest is how Bergman has been able to use the passage of the time in between Scenes from a marriage and Saraband (no less than thirty years) to continue developing its characters’ emotional deepness and that being a clue point for the comprehension of the latter. So one can easily conclude, even if it was never entirely confirmed by Bergman himself, that both films are somewhat connected –even if it’s only indirectly– and that’s again proof for the importance of approaching Ingmar Bergman’s oeuvre by an intermedial point of view. Once more, we will never know for sure how much he was projecting himself into the plots, but even so, I find it interesting to think of his films as part of the life experience (no only of Bergman, but human beings) and as good exercise of self-reflection on the different stages of (human) life.


Once I made an approximation to Bergman’s main themes of representation, I can conclude that most of them are somewhat connected with the matter of “self-identity”. Along his whole artistic production, Bergman has been analyzing human behavior both within a social context (such as marriage and family) and deep inside oneself (dealing with subconscious and identity); not only in a life time but also beyond the boundary of death. In order to have a deep analysis on his creations, I made clear the importance of making an “intermedial” approach throughout his productions in different media and his sources of inspiration. I have also suggested a connection with the latter and his personal autobiography –or his “character” as an author– and how his oeuvres can be actually part of the reflections of his own life, self and relationships –which is actually unavoidable for any artist, even if unconsciously. Leaving that aside, one could say –at least– that the way that Bergman transgressed the boundaries of classical narration, suggest a connection with the interior discourse of the author.

In other words, Bergman distinctiveness remain in his “intermedial”, personal and controversial use of (verbal, cinematic, theatrical and musical) language; what makes him an unquestionable artistic eminence.

Marc Castañé

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BERGMAN, Ingmar. A film Triology: Through a Glass Darkly, The Communicants (Winter Light), The Silence. Translated by Paul Britten Austin. New York and London: Marion Boyars, 1989.

CLÜVER, Claus, “Intermediality and Interart Studies”. In Changing Borders. Contemporary Positions in Intermediality, edited by Jens Arvidson, Mikael Askander, Jörgen Bruhn, and Heidrun Führer. Lund: Intermedia Studies Press, 2007. (p.19-34).

KOSKINEN, Maaret, Ingmar Bergman´s THE SILENCE. Pictures in the Typewriter, Writingsn on the Screen (Nordic Cinema Series). Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010.

KOSKINEN, Maaret, ed Ingmar Bergman Revisited. Performance, Cinema and the Arts. London and New york: Wallflower Press, 2008.

MITCHELL, W.J.T., “There are No Visual Media”. In MediaArtHistories, Editet by Oliver Grau. MIT Press, 2007. (p.395-406).


Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället, 1957)

The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet, 1957)

The Silence (Tystnaden, 1963)

Through a Glass Darkly (Såsom i en spegel, 1960)

The Communicants/Winter Light(Nattvardsgästerna, 1963)

Persona (Persona, 1966)

Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen, 1968)

Cries and Wishpers (Viskingar och rop, 1973)

Fanny and Alexander (Fanny och Alexander, 1982/1983)

In the presence of a Clown (Larmar och gör sig till, 1997)

Saraband (Saraband, 2003)


1MITCHEL, W.J.T., “There are No Visual Media”. In MediaArtHistories, Editet by Oliver Grau. MIT Press, 2007. (p.395-406).

2CLÜVER, Claus, “Intermediality and Interart Studies”. In Changing Borders. Contemporary Positions in Intermediality, edited by Jens Arvidson, Mikael Askander, Jörgen Bruhn, and Heidrun Führer. Lund: Intermedia Studies Press, 2007. (p.19-34), p.31.

3 “(medium is defined as) that which mediates for and between humans a (meaningful) sign (or a combination of signs) with the aid of suitable transmitters across temporal and/or spatial distances” . Bohn, Rainer; Müller, Eggo; Ruppert, Rainer: “Die Wirklichkeit im Zeitalter ihrer technischen Fingierbarkeit” introduction to Bohn, Müller and Ruppert (eds.) in Ansichten einer künftigen Medianwissenschaft, Berlin, 1988, (8p.7-27), p. 10 (Claus Clüver’s translation, cited in “Intermediality and Interart Srudies”, p.31).

4KOSKINEN, Maaret, Ingmar Bergman´s THE SILENCE. Pictures in the Typewriter, Writingsn on the Screen (Nordic Cinema Series). Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010, p.140-41.

5KOSKINEN, Maaret, ed Ingmar Bergman Revisited. Performance, Cinema and the Arts. London and New york: Wallflower Press, 2008; Chapter 1: Koskinen, Maaret, “Out of the Past: Saraband and the Ingmar Bergman Archive”. (p.19-34), p.21-22.

6I´m using the word “intermedial” to a accept a wider deifiniton of the word “medium”, but it’s for instance the same concept that Maaret Koskinen refers in the introduction of Infmar Bergman’s THE SILENCE as “mixed-media”.

7STAIGER, Janet,“Analysing self-fashoning in authoring and reception” in Ingmar Bergman Revisited. (p.89-106), p.85.

8Ibid., p.92.

9BLACKWELL, Marilyn Johns, “Platforms and Beds: The Sexualization of Space in Ingmar Bergman’s Theatre and Film” in Ingmar Bergman Revisited. (p. 64-85), p. 82.

10LAGERROTH, Ulla-Britta, “Misicalization of the Stage: Ingmar Bergman Performing Shakespeare” in Ingmar Bergman Revisited. (p. 35-50), p.35.

11 JOHANSON, Stefan, “Ingmar Bergman at the Royal Opera” in Ingmar Bergman Revisited. (p. 51-63), p.62.

12 BEGMAN, Ingmar. A film Triology: Through a Glass Darkly, The Communicants (Winter Light), The Silence. Translated by Paul Britten Austin. New York and London: Marion Boyars, 1989.

13 Faith trilogy: Through a Glass Darkly (Såsom i en spegel, 1960), The Communicants/Winter Light(Nattvardsgästerna, 1963), The Silence (Tystnaden, 1963).

14 Through a Glass Darkly, The Communicants (Winter Light), The Silence, p.82.

15 KOSKINEN, Maaret, “Out of the Past: Saraband and the Ingmar Bergman Archive” in ed Ingmar Bergman Revisited.


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