Ingmar Bergman: Struggling Against the Kingdom of God

Ingmar Bergman documented his struggle against the Kingdom of God on film. His lifelong struggle began in childhood against his father, a Lutheran minister. He was never able to separate an understanding of God the Father from his first-hand experience of his human father as god.

In Stig Bjorkman, Torsten Manns and Jonas Sima’s Bergman on Bergman: Interviews with Ingmar Bergman (translated by Paul Britten Austin), Simon and Schuster: New York (1973 English translation; original Swedish edition 1970), the great filmmaker touches on his lifetime wrestling match with God. Here are some exerpts:

INGMAR BERGMAN: “For me, in those days, the great question was: Does God exist? Or doesn’t God exist? Can we, by an attitude of faith, attain to a sense of community and a better world? Or, if God doesn’t exist, what do we do then? What does our world look like then?”

INGMAR BERGMAN: “Now let’s get this Devil business straight, once and for all. To begin at the beginning: the notion of God, one might say,has changed aspect over the years, until it has either become so vague that it has faded away altogether or else has turned into something entirely different. For me, hell has always been a most suggestive sort of place; but I’ve never regarded it as being located anywhere else than on earth. Hell is created by human beings–on earth!

What I believed in those days–and believed in for a long time–was the existence of a virulent evil, in no way dependent upon environmental or hereditary factors. Call it original sin or whatever you like–anyway an active evil, of which human beings, as opposed to animals, have a monopoly. Our very nature, qua human beings, is that inside us we always carry around destructive tendencies, conscious or unconscious, aimed both at ourselves and at the outside world.

If I’ve objected strongly to Christianity, it has been because Christianity is deeply branded by a very virulent humiliation motif. One of its main tenets is ‘I, a miserable sinner, born in sin, who have sinned all my days, etc.’ Our way of living and behaving under this punishment is completely atavistic. I could go on talking about this humiliation business for ever. It’s one of the big basic experiences. I react very strongly to every form of humiliation; and a person in my situation, in my position, has been exposed to whole series of real humiliations. Not to mention having humiliated others!”

INGMAR BERGMAN: “For years the Catholics had me on their blacklist. Then along comes some sharp-witted pater and says ‘Let’s take this lad into the business, instead.’ And I’ve been plagued by Catholic interpretations ever since.

 As far as I recall, it’s a question of the total dissolution of all notions of an other-worldly salvation. During those years this was going on in me all the time and being replaced by a sense of the holiness–to put it clumsily–to be found in man himself. The only holiness which really exists. A holiness wholly of this world… The notion of love as the only thinkable form of holiness.

At the same time another line of development in my idea of God begins here, one that has perhaps grown stronger over the years. The idea of the Christian God as something destructive and fantastically dangerous, something filled with risk for the human being and bringing out in him dark destructive forces instead of the opposite.

As the religious aspect of my existence was wiped out, life became much easier to live. Sartre has said how inhibited he used to be as an artist and author, how he suffered because what he was doing wasn’t good enough. By a slow intellectual process he came to realize that his anxieties about not making anything of value were an atavistic relic from the religious notion that something exists which can be called the Supreme Good, or that anything is perfect. When he’d dug up this secret idea, this relic, had seen through it and amputated it, he lost his artistic inhibitions too.

I’ve been through something similar. When my top-heavy religious superstructure collapsed, I also lost my inhibitions as a writer. Above all, my fear of not keeping up with the times.”

Mr Bergman ends his autobiography The Magic Lantern with these words:

“I pray to God with no confidence. One will probably have to manage alone as best one can.”

Mr. Bergman managed alone without God as best he could. And he lost.

The best online retrospective I have found for Ingmar Bergman comes over at Victor Morton’s Rightwing Film Geek. Check it out.

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