THE NONDRAMATIC MUSIC OF INGMAR BERGMAN’S FILMS

“Yeah, I’m a pretty good director and writer, aren’t I?” Uh….yeah….duh….THE BEST!!!!

Anyone who knows me knows I love drama. And anyone who knows me knows I love Ingmar Bergman. And no one does drama and love, outside of me, quite like Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman. But where the master filmmaker Bergman differs from so many other directors is his choice NOT to include dramatic music in his film’s most intense scenes.

I was watching Ingmar Bergman’s THE SILENCE today, and there was a scene where the two sisters confronted one another, one sister in a bed no doubt, and all that took place during this scene was human anger and screams of frustration of not being able to truly connect, but NO dramatic music played at all! Any other novice (or established) director would have wanted to produce a dramatic soundtrack to a scene like that, but not Bergman. Bergman instead chose to direct this scene, as well as so many other scenes like this, barren of foreboding music, because he wants to let the actors and their craft convey all the drama that is necessary. That’s the mark of the genius of this man!

Other Bergman films that testify to this observance of mine are:

  • THE VIRGIN SPRING: In the pivotal rape scene of the virgin Karin by goatherds, Bergman uses no music; all we can hear is Karin’s fated whimpering that sounds like “NO!” and the goatherds pushing away twigs and branches to encroach Karin. Any other director would have included tense and scorching chords to build climax, but Bergman instead lets the human and nature sounds (there are some goats bleating in the background) do the trick. As a viewer, we are left in more horror by Bergman’s choice to NOT have music here; Bergman instead lets us experience the terror as if we are, like the goats, eavesdropping.
  • WINTER LIGHT: When Priest Tomas finds the dead body of one of his parishioners, it would be expected that the discovery would have included a soundtrack of bombarding cacophony to suggest the dread of the priest’s finding, but not with Bergman. Rather, Bergman allows the priest to find the suicidal outcome with only the rushing water in the background without any music, so that these sounds communicate that the parishioner’s life has ended but his spirit is still gushing.
  • SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE: When Marianne and Johan, the couple in the film, show up to sign the divorce papers, they get into a fistfight. Bergman could have easily scored that in high dramatic style via background music, but there is nothing we hear in that scene but the grunts and the moans of the couple. When the fight is finished, the couple are obviously “worn out,” and then they each disheveled take a pen to sign the papers. With no music to build all this up, we, like Marianne and Johan, are exhausted, something dramatic music would have taken away from the viewer’s experience.

I could go on and on and on with more scenes like the above. And let me say that Ingmar Bergman doesn’t always leave out music in his frank films but when he uses it, it is usually not a dramatic film soundtrack but rather a solid piece of brooding Bach or confessing Chopin. It has been well-reported that Bergman was often inspired by music from one of these composers before he even got his brilliant film-making ideas. Here are a list of films where Bergman does use music, and it proves most effective:

  • PERSONA: This #3 film on my list of all-time favorite films has that most infamous scene of Alma and Elisabeth staring at a mirror and sensually and seemingly blurring into one another (heads are tilted toward one another and hair is intertwined). I am not sure who did that atmospherically haunting music for that scene, but it tingles with eroticism and unbridled passion. We find it so alluring and enticing, and it is truly the perfection of Bergman to keep it so basic!
  • CRIES AND WHISPERS: This film, also on my list of all-time favorite films (#5), contains a highly dramatic scene where Karin and Maria finally speak to one another with hurried words of endearment and devotion. We don’t hear these words, but the Bach music in the background shapes their connection. It’s so eloquently and precisely done. Karin later confronts Maria about this encounter, but Maria denies it ever took place. We know it did for the Bach music is still playing in our heads and, more importantly, in our hearts.
  • AUTUMN SONATA: Who can forget that scene when Eva plays a Chopin piece on the piano and her mother looks on her technique disapprovingly, appearing to say with her expression, “Why is my daughter not talented like I am?” When Eva invites her mother, Charlotte, to play the same Chopin piece, we get that film image of her mother playing in profile while Eva looks at her (us), appearing to say with her expression, “Why does my mother have to be so talented and yet so cold?” The perfectly-played piano notes stab Eva and they stab us.

When it comes to talking about Ingmar Bergman and his films, music or not, I could go on and on and on….and rightfully do and should. Many books have been written about this incredibly sensitive and yet so intense man, director, and writer, but I wouldn’t mind adding my own book about him to the many others. Ingmar Bergman is an Enneagram 4 with a 5 wing, like me, and maybe that’s a subject matter for a book in and of itself. Ingmar Bergman, with his many human and professional layers, is most definitely that interesting, that intriguing, and that incomparable.

-Timothy J. Verret

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