The Soul of the Megapixel
Kevin B. Lee on Ingmar Bergman’s Saraband and Scenes from a Marriage
At a New York Film Festival screening of Saraband in 2004, I laid to rest a decade of personal misgivings and outright scorn I had harbored against Ingmar Bergman. In the course of watching over a dozen Bergman films in my twenties, I had developed a distaste for a director whose dour, plaintive views on the world I could not dissociate from the narcissistic wailings of, say, the emo rock bands who prevailed at the time. His dour worldview notwithstanding, I also remained dubious of his legendary talent for sculpting space and time. While fully granting Sven Nykvist his due brilliance as a camera virtuoso, I found his visuals under Bergman’s guidance ponderously over-symbolic (The Seventh Seal, Shame), pornographically explicit (Persona, Cries and Whispers), or ploddingly overcast (Winter Light). At the bottom of the Bergman barrel: Scenes from a Marriage. Just one hour of grainy 16mm broom closet close-ups of Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson histrionically modeling marital dysfunction was enough for me to shut it off.
So what changed Bergman for me at the Saraband screening? In a word, digital. Startling as it was to see Josephson and Ullmann together after three decades—like encountering one’s high school enemies after years of separation—their appearance on HD doubled this perverse nostalgia effect. The sight of them awash in a strange new palette of colors and textures—drawn in hard contours but brushed in soft metallic pastels—suggested classic Bergman being beamed from a digital afterworld. Perhaps it was the director’s declaration of the film as his last that implanted in me these thoughts of it as a valediction delivered halfway from the beyond, and the ripe autumnal hues shimmering from these pixilated images only reinforced this impression.
At the same time, the high-resolution digital images of Bergman’s actors have a certain facticity that makes them seem more vivid than they had ever been; in effect, more real than their characters. The sight of 84-year-old Josephson’s hand twitching from Parkinson’s disease adds the pathos of real life that may just as easily upstage his embodiment of his aging character Johan as enhance it. If film tells the truth at 24 frames per second, then lies don’t stand a fraction of a chance with HD. While Josephson’s performance is a remarkably muted display of hardnosed curmudgeonliness, Ullmann’s attempt to reinvest herself in her old character Marianne is much less persuasive (especially if you compare it to the fully invested emotional upheaval of her work in Scenes from a Marriage), but there’s something else going on in her acting, a certain indelible relish of being back in a Bergman movie. This is evident from the first take, when she sits in front of a table piled symbolically with photos from throughout her life, and she narrates directly to the camera as if to say “we’re putting on a movie!” It suggests less a Bergman film than an HD documentary of a performance of a Bergman film—but all the same it makes clear just how singular his world is.
Through the alienation effect of a digital lens, I actually realized how well I knew Bergman, that despite my protestations I’ve somehow managed to watch 17 of his movies, and seeing one that was new, I enjoyed recognizing how distinctive and inimitable his dour, self-absorbed voice really is to my ears. Contempt had bred familiarity.
Critics who have more fondness than I for Bergman’s celluloid exploits did not respond as kindly to Saraband. Reverse Shot's own Nicolas Rapold wondered, "For a director for whom light itself amounts to a kind of spiritual reflexivity and is repeatedly charged with ontological significance—well, what gives with the megapixels? Instead of the crisp Northern light and shadows of his past work, we get a uniform, diffuse glow and baby-pink flesh tones.” Still, Rapold considers the merits of digital Bergman: “Yet these weaker, tender images seem to fit the raw wounds that the characters by turns struggle to heal and aggravate.”
Indeed, the digital projection at the New York Film Festival’s Alice Tully Hall gave the picture a low-contrast glow that endowed each scene—even the most bitterly unresolved conflicts between Josephson’s Johan, his estranged son, Henrik, and granddaughter Karin with a feeling of ethereal twilight and an underlying grace. Bergman had threatened to prohibit Saraband from being released as a film print, having detested the look of the video-to-35mm transfer. The New York Film Festival had to install a digital projector in order to accommodate Bergman's demands (thus paving the way for digital projections at future festivals, such as that of David Lynch's Inland Empire). But still this was not enough, as I learned after watching the impeccably transferred Sony Pictures Classics DVD, the hauntingly pixelated visuals that I had enjoyed at the festival did not match the visions Bergman had intended. On DVD Saraband loses much of its otherworldly overexposure and more closely resembles a film look, while retaining the sharp outlines and digital textures that HD has gradually accustomed 21st-century viewers to experiencing.
According to the website Ingmar Bergman Face to Face, Saraband was filmed using what was then the latest in HD technology, the Thomson 6000. At the time only five of these cameras existed, four of which were rented for Saraband. Bergman intended to deploy the cameras under a typical three-camera TV scheme with the fourth camera in reserve, thus making Saraband the world’s first TV production using three-camera HD. Unfortunately, the cooling fans in the massive HD drives generated enough noise to annoy the intimacy-obsessed Bergman to no end. "There are always two people in the shot who are confronted with each other,” he explained, “and that makes it important that their voices can be heard properly, with all the nuances of the human voice."
At the Q&A for the New York Film Festival screening of Saraband, Liv Ullmann recalled that when shooting on film, Bergman would usually sit right next to the camera so that when the actors performed directly to the camera they were also performing directly to him, to generate his signature intimacy effects. But the HD equipment used for Saraband consigned Bergman to watching takes from a digital monitor, sometimes in a room separate from the set. Nonetheless, Ullmann claimed that when she heard “action” she suddenly was able to sense Bergman’s presence in front of her, as if she were receiving signals from him telepathically.
Eventually Bergman insisted on being close to his actors. He scrapped the three-camera approach and revised his shot lists to adopt a one-camera setup. Judging by the focused long takes which heighten the drama existing in the spaces between characters, one wonders to what end Bergman considered a conventional TV camera setup in the first place.
One can never underestimate the influence of inopportune circumstance in shaping the outcome of a film; and in the face of such situations, an artist’s brilliance can derive from pragmatism. This was no more the case for Saraband than for Scenes from a Marriage, Bergman’s first major production shot on 16mm. Scenes was envisioned as a quick-and-dirty TV gig that Bergman could shoot between major film productions, with 16mm the stock of choice due to its lower cost and ease of use within Scenes’ relatively cramped sets.
More than in any other Bergman film, the nondescript, stage-like production design invites the catcalls that it’s just filmed theater all too often directed at Bergman. One particularly artificial scene set in Josephson’s laboratory uses black walls so abstract that one wonders if the film itself is a lab for studying human behavior. Indeed, this hypothesis is reinforced throughout, not least in the climactic fight between Marianne and Johan in his office, where the spartan mise-en-scène brings the raw emotions of the leads into stark relief.
The life of Scenes resides in the space between actors and camera, an approach to cinematography that upon first viewing I found ham-handed, exemplified by Sven Nykvist’s seeming compulsion to zoom in on Liv Ullmann's face every time she's about to burst into tears, as when Marianne first learns of Johan’s wish to separate.
I object to these overbearing elements in Scenes from a Marriage, especially when compared to the composure of Saraband. However, Saraband compelled me to recognize the cinematic variety of a director I had long miscast as employing the same brooding lushness to all his films. Revisiting Scenes from a Marriage after Saraband, I could appreciate how equally distinct the former film stands within Bergman’s oeuvre. Its stripped down visual quality represents Bergman at his most elemental, highlighting the exploitive aspects of his technique as a manifestation of the brutality required of his search for emotional truth underneath domestic civility. Scenes’ use of 16mm is a break from his postcard-worthy exploits in 35mm composition and texture, but as such feels purer, less gussied up in attractive surfaces. Look at Bibi Andersson, her complexion cast under an unflattering hard light, looking little like the Nordic angel of Persona and other black-and-white Bergmans.
Saraband also has a visually unforgiving quality towards its characters, due to the fulsome resolution of HD. But Bergman takes the opposite aesthetic approach he adopted for 16mm and Scenes; in Saraband he clutters the frame, adding more details to take advantage of the hyper-clarity of HD to encompass his actors in a more realistic setting. He manages some expressive moments that benefit greatly from the detail of HD, such as the shot of Johan practically entombed in his study.
It’s worth underscoring that these two films, nominally joined together as opposing sides of a diptych, also stand as cinematographic milestones in Bergman’s career. Both films signify radical breaks from the 35mm cinematography that ruled his filmmaking and upon which his reputation as one of cinema’s most memorable visual artists is founded. Whether Bergman’s temporary embrace of 16mm and HD were due to aesthetic choice or pragmatic necessity, the aesthetic exceptionalism of these films is what endears them to me above most of Bergman’s oeuvre. Their un-Bergman-like qualities have allowed me to enter Bergman’s world, to embrace its offers of intimacy while coming to terms with its constructs. Renouncing the seductively impeccable surfaces of 35mm, these films seem to question not only the nature of reality as so many Bergman films do, but the nature of cinematic reality by regarding it with new lenses.
In fact, the gift of seeing anew is the coda Bergman leaves us with in the last scene of Saraband, and the last scene he ever filmed. Ullmann’s beleaguered Marianne nakedly addresses the camera while recounting her recent reunion with her catatonic daughter in a psych ward. “The first time in my life… in our life together… I realized… that I was touching my child.” Part of me wants to groan at Bergman’s sentimental overstatement, the same way, in Manny Farber’s Negative Space, Patricia Patterson carps at Ullmann’s penultimate admission in Scenes from a Marriage of having never loved anyone in her life. “I think it’s crap,” Patterson interjects. “I wonder—not even for one minute you never loved anybody?”
All the same, Marianne’s revelation of truly seeing her daughter can’t help but resonate with my experience of Bergman and Saraband: being confronted with the fact of Liv Ullmann’s face, in all its exquisitely aged detail, carrying years of film history in every line, just staring at the camera and talking, conveying an authenticity that I somehow never got in any one of Bergman’s films up to that point. Sometimes cinema can be that simple and that satisfying—when under the piercing gaze of a digital eye, it becomes a document, no more, no less. I’m not watching a character in a film, I’m watching a documentary of Ullmann enacting a character, a moment that, as part of a continuum set by Bergman and his company, is accompanied by its own subtextual drama: the climax to a Quixotic, decades-long expedition to envision their lifelong play as its own reality.