Prelude

“Saraband” is a mournful, heart-wrenching piece of music. It came about during the very short period of time that Bach was free from any religious responsibility in Köthen. In this relaxing, fruitful period he created six suites for unaccompanied cello, but none is as doleful as the chord-less part of the Suite No. 5 in C minor. On the first anniversary of “9/11”, over the remains of the World Trade Center, where hundreds of innocent people had lost their lives, the music selected, unsurprisingly, was this saraband (1). Years before that, when Ingmar Bergman wanted to reflect the feeling of utter abandonment in Viskningar och rop (Cries and Whispers, 1972), this piece of music also proved to be his best choice. But as the master filmmaker was about to wrap up his outstanding artistic career, and while he was aware of the new emotional atmosphere around it, why did he once again return to this melancholic masterpiece?

One

Saraband (2003) was the last film made by Bergman. The film was built around virtually the same characters as Scener ur ett äktenskap (Scenes From a Marriage, 1973), with the same names and actors – Johan (Erland Josephson) and Marianne (Liv Ullmann) – but without being a literal sequel, even though many critics claim that it is. In Saraband, Marianne, in her 60s, tells us a story about visiting her ex-husband, Johan, now in his 80s, for the first time in more than 30 years. In the opening scene, we see her sitting behind a table covered with copious photos representing her life. The idea of showing these photos comes from Scenes From a Marriage. At the beginning of this earlier film a reporter repeatedly faces the camera, looks at us in the position where her photographer would presumably be, and asks about taking photos in different conditions (like Bergman she wants us to engrave the moment in our mind). These “photos” also appear when Marianne reads from her memoir in Scenes From a Marriage. In Saraband, too, the photos, as we learn at the end of the film, couldn’t be taken by anyone but the “audience” (2).

Johan’s house, located on beautiful foothills beside a lake, is also inhabited by Henrik, Johan’s 61-year-old son – an associate professor who took an early retirement following his wife’s death – and Karin, Henrik’s daughter, who takes cello lessons from his father, the ex-director of the Uppsala Chamber Soloists, in order to get ready for the conservatory’s audition. But most importantly there is Anna, Henrik’s deceased wife, who overshadows everyone else. Like Paola in Scenes From a Marriage, we never see Anna but her presence can be felt throughout the film. Its been said that Bach wrote the “Saraband” for his wife, Maria Barbara, after he came back from a trip and found her unexpectedly – and mysteriously – dead (3). For the image of Anna, Bergman chose a photo of his wife Ingrid von Rosen: she had been his long-term companion of 24 years before dying of stomach cancer in 1995.

Two

Bergman’s well-trained audience will be fascinated by the numerous references to a variety of familiar subjects and the resultant intertextuality of Saraband. The first level of this intertextuality touches on Bergman’s private life. For example, the photo of Johan’s home in the film is an actual image of Bergman’s beloved childhood summer villa that we might also remember from Karins ansikte (Karin’s Face, 1984). And there is also Bergman’s wife’s picture standing in for “Anna”. Such personal revelations, alongside many other autobiographical connotations, are far away from the joyful amusement of Hitchcock’s cameos, and become an inescapable theme for Bergman. Years before, he had already written his autobiography and extensively reviewed his life through his films (4). As he became more self-aware, he realised that digging into his life and soul was the most reliable tool for exploring the complexity of the human condition: “I suddenly realised that my movies had mostly been conceived in the depths of my soul, in my heart, my brain, my nerves, my sex, and not least, in my guts” (5). In keeping with this, Irving Singer adds, “[Bergman] used the making of the film, he says, as a therapeutic device that might help him conquer his horrible sense of doom” (6). He scrutinises himself through his art and regarded what Jung called “individuation” as the highest goal of life: “To Jung, the purpose of life was to realise one’s own potential, to follow one’s own perception of the truth, and to become a whole person in one’s own right. This was the goal of individuation, as he later called it.” (7)

Saraband

Three

The second form of intertextuality addresses Bergman’s other works: the paper lantern in the scene where Marianne and Karin get close to each other comes from Scenes From a Marriage; the dark red background in the scene where Henrik hits Karin is a clear reference to Cries and Whispers; the narration is similar in tone to that in Höstsonaten (Autumn Sonata, 1978) and Vargtimmen (Hour of Wolf, 1968); breaking the story into episodes reminds us the structural foundation of Fanny och Alexander (1982) and the more radical Aus dem Leben der Marionetten (From the Life of the Marionettes, 1980). This closed circuit amongst his works, leads us to the conclusion that for apprehending the peculiar philosophical attitude of Bergman, one has to consider his works as a whole; a claim that reveals his constant and sincere efforts in exploring the “geography of a soul”, as Jesse Kalin, in his remarkable book on Bergman, calls it.

Some films develop this structure as a whole; others dwell on certain moments, presupposing the rest. Sometimes this picture itself, or the efficacy of the art (film and theater, especially) that portrays it, is called into question. But always, one best understands a Bergman film by seeing it in terms of this “geography of the soul” – that moral landscape in and through which each of our lives must be negotiated. Seen this way, the films will more readily reveal their many riches and their own capacity to nourish the spirit. (8)

Each work communicates with the others to complete the image of the soul but at the same time lacks inclusivity. It seems that each time he would rather highlight just one aspect of this everlasting probing. The question arises of which landscape catches his eye when he turns back to look at the explored land of the human soul for one last time in Saraband?

Four

Amongst all these referrals, the last category of intertextual reference is the most extraordinary one. Johan rephrases a verse from Psalms that immediately shows a deeply hidden bond between him and Marianne; a religious but neglected feeling that reappears later in the chapel scene where Marianne soaks herself in the beauty of Bach’s sonata. Karin has been forced to practice Paul Hindemith’s Sonata for Solo Cello Op. 25, which is a kind of contemporary interpretation of Bach. Hendrik talks about Bach’s St John Passion, and Marianne, in her solitude, also listens to Brahms’ String Quartet in C minor Op. 51, another minimalist piece of music like the “Saraband”. And finally, Johan immerses himself in a distressing work by Beethoven when he is going to offer Karin a deal.

Nevertheless, the most notable reference of this kind is the image of the book Either/Or by Søren Kierkegaard. Kalin tries to reason against the existential roots of Bergman’s movies. In the process, he first explains that there is not much meaningful correlation between Bergman and Sartre, Heidegger or Camus. Following this he clearly asserts that there is no evidence to show that Bergman had read any of Kierkegaard’s books (9). Ironically, Bergman in Saraband produced in the same year that Kalin’s book was published, not only directly shows this remarkable book by the Danish philosopher but also develops his story around the main concept of existentialism. He could not be more explicit in dramatising the pivotal role of the choices we make and how difficult they are; Johan in one heartbreaking scene refuses to give any help to his abandoned son and Karin, almost for the entire length of the film, wonders about her choices. But more than this, Saraband is about the three stages/choices of life that Kierkegaard explained in detail in his unforgettable book; the aesthetic, ethical and religious stages, and how they represent/conceal themselves. While the aesthetic sphere of life is specifically referenced in the film’s use of music – just the way Either/Or’s author suggests – and the ethical side of life accounts for the centre of the film, the religious dimension gives it its colour. Kalin considers this aspect as the core of all Bergman’s work:

Bergmans subject is not being as such but the moral world – ourselves as human beings in the twentieth century: what is deepest and most true and essential about us, and what meaning we can find for our lives in the face of this truth. His goal is an essential portrait, an image of human being with its heart exposed and beating, a picture of what we each look like without our protective illusions, evasions, and lies. Such reduction to essentials provides a mirror in which we can see ourselves as we truly are, face to face. (10)

When Henrik leaves the church, Marianne, confused and disappointed, gradually makes her way out. Suddenly, light surges through every window of the hall. She stops, turns back and looks at what the light praises: an unusual sculpture of the Last Supper that depicts Jesus while he generously offers the child-like Apostles his peaceful haven. The “Saraband” is playing and Marianne smiles in comfort.

Saraband

Epilogue

Saraband is a must-see movie, a work saturated with many of Bergman’s most fascinating ideas. It’s another splendid observation of the human face where, as they do generally in Bergman, our struggles and conflicts reveal themselves:

A feature of Bergman’s individual talent that critics have often noted is his expertise in using the camera for zoomed-in fixations upon the human face. In one of his interviews, Bergman says: “I think that the cinematography of the human face has brought to us the most fantastic thing that we can see in art. That is, the human face in movement… we sit there, and we can see the thousands of muscles here around the eyes, around the lips. We can see how blood comes and goes in the face… I am mad about the human face… and I want to study the human face, the background has to be quiet and to shut up.” (11)

He invites us to immerse ourselves in untold stories of furrows on the brow, shimmers of the eyes and the solidity of doubt on lips. This also discloses the iconic Bergmanian motif of the touching of the face as the key to understanding one another and the establishment of sustainable relationships. In Persona (1966), the young boy tries to touch faces in his desire to know them; while in From the Life of the Marionettes the young man explains his strange dream of touching his wife by saying, “There was a little eye on every finger that perceived this glittering whiteness with twinkling delight”. In Saraband it takes a whole life for Marianne to touch the face of her abandoned daughter – a touch that enwraps Bergman’s entire world as well as his last movie.

Saraband is also the summation of the integration of film and music in Bergman’s cinema. The saraband emerges from a duet dance with changing partners, scented with an erotic aroma. Bergman’s final film is equally a “Chamber Movie” (12) composed of ten acts following the story of four characters throughout their paired confrontations. Among them, the subliminal sexual binding of father and daughter is an unforeseen, even new aspect in Bergman’s cinema (13). After so many works for theatre, TV and the cinema, stories and notes, was Bergman about to open a new chapter? Are there still untold stories?

Endnotes

  1. See Wikipedia entry on cellist Yo-Yo Ma: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yo-Yo_Ma.
  2. Irving Singer amazingly compares Orson Welles and Ingmar Bergman in terms of their shared interest in magic as the basis of their filmmaking. See Singer, Ingmar Bergman, Cinematic Philosopher. Reflections on His Creativity, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. and London, 2007, pp. 29-36. But regardless of such a comparison, the magical atmosphere of Bergman’s films, either in their dream scenes or in reality, gives a mysteriously thoughtful aspect to his work. In Saraband, when Marianne uncovers the last photo, which is also the last frame of the previous act, the audience instantly sees the film differently.
  3. Georg Mertens’ tremendous work in deciphering Bach’s notes and words didn’t prove such a claim, but the search is continuing: http://www.georgcello.com/bachcellosuites.htm#five.
  4. Ingmar Bergman, The Magic Lantern: An Autobiography, trans. Joan Tate, University Of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2007; Ingmar Bergman, Images: My Life in Film, trans. Marianne Ruuth, Arcade, New York, 2011.
  5. Bergman, Images, p. 14.
  6. Singer, p. 102.
  7. Anthony Stevens, Jung, Sterling, New York, 1994, p. 25. Jung explains that the best way to satisfy this approach is to confront what the unconscious produces. Is there anything better than art in expressing the unconscious and therefore providing the chance for such self-realisation?
  8. Jesse Kalin, The Films of Ingmar Bergman, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2003, p. 28.
  9. Kalin, p. 194.
  10. Kalin, p. 1.
  11. Singer, p. 75.
  12. Singer, p. 77
  13. For a more detailed analysis of the thematic bond between Saraband, music and film, see the relatively brief but thoughtful note by Maria Garcia in Film Journal International: http://www.filmjournal.com/filmjournal/esearch/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1000976046.

Saraband (2003 Sweden/Italy/Germany/Finland/Denmark/Austria 107 mins)

Prod: Pia Ehrnvall Dir, Scr: Ingmar Bergman Phot: Stefan Eriksson, Jesper Holmström, Per-Olof Lantto, Sofi Stridh, Raymond Wemmenlöv Ed: Sylvia Ingemarsson Prod Des: Göran Wassberg

Cast: Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephson, Börje Ahlstedt, Julia Dufvenius, Gunnel Fred

About The Author

Afshin Forghani is an independent film critic who has published in Iranian magazines. He also has made a number of award-winning short films and was first assistant director on many Iranian TV series and films (including works by Asghar Farhadi and Behnam Behzadi). He currently lives in Newcastle and runs a small film club while undertaking his main job as a General Practitioner.