Apart from being the beloved country of this recently deceased director whose heyday coincided with Europe’s postwar rebirth, Sweden is undoubtedly one of the least plausible locations you might imagine involved in a cataclysm of the type only possible the last sixty-odd years. Bergman’s untouchability has been questioned the last two decades or so, but such impertinence is common to every wave of clammy-handed critics who seek to deify their contemporaries and cast out the old masters. When you consider that the ghosts of Milton, Bach, and Melville all labored at one point or another in obscurity in favor of talentless hacks whose names are long forgotten, Bergman’s waning authority is not surprising. Soon enough, however, he will be restored to power because he is a genius of this newest art of ours, the moving picture. And this film, shot with some of Bergman’s habitual actors and crew and on the Swedish island he so adored, is a monumental tribute to Bergman by the greatest cinematic artist the world has ever seen.
We begin the film in Gotland, land of God or good, an island away from the Swedish mainland, a small sanctuary amidst the torrents of chaos, war, and materialism. There Alexander (Erland Josephson), a family patriarch and man of no faith, lives with his family, including his English wife Adelaide and their mute six-year-old son. Alexander’s days are quiet ones, very distant from the storm of his younger years in which he was an actor, psychologist, and something of a philosopher. The postman comes with a telegram that allows Alexander to digress into the usual existential poppycock about the fate of man (no one is supposed to be impressed with the casual mention of profound topics except perhaps Alexander himself). Civilization, he muses, has no real meaning, and it is fruitless even to discuss that some higher power has given us the privilege of life. It is in this context, at a family dinner to which the postman is invited, that the unthinkable occurs: a short, earthquake-like scene is followed by an emergency announcement from the television. This is the worst kind of announcement; the announcement no one ever, ever hopes to hear or consider; the announcement that for a while during the height of the Cold War seemed less of a fantasy than at any other time; the announcement that makes Alexander do something he has never done or wanted to do. And at the end of this strange session which he seals with a promise, Alexander wakes up, cold and wretched. But the world he sees does not reflect his misery in the way he thought it might.
There are myriad interpretations as to why Alexander makes such a choice, why his house erupts in flames (in one of the greatest scenes in all of cinema), and why his son, in the end, finally speaks. Perhaps the most satisfying approach would be to ask oneself what Bergman and Tarkovsky have in common. Both are Northern Europeans, aesthetes of the finest caliber, untraditional if devout in their spirituality, and committed to demolishing the falsehoods of trend, movement, and theory that throughout the course of human history have tried and failed to reduce us to amœbæ. Man is first and foremost a spiritual being, a soul caged in a brittle box. What else he makes of himself is often dictated by vanity, hedonism, or cruel circumstance. The aging Alexander, who has always been vain and hedonistic, cannot fathom for the longest time why anyone should care about what we can’t see, or those billions of people we cannot meet, or the ecumenical and moral responsibility we have to preserve ourselves in the face of extinction and lesser plagues. Hopeless man does not even deserve my pity, he assures himself. Then he grasps at a thread – a large, branched thread that he plants on his birthday – tries to follow its path against the almighty sun, and comes across something else. His beginning is his end, so to speak. Or something greater than both.