Exploring the meaning of life through film

Ingmar Bergman, the monumental Swedish filmmaker, may have passed away this past July, but his mark on cinema still remains. His influence on film is so great, in fact, that Woody Allen described him as “the greatest film artist of my lifetime.”

Rev. Robert Lauder, St. John’s own professor of philosophy, echoes Allen’s statement. In his book God, Death, Art & Love: The Philosophical Vision of Ingmar Bergman, published in 1989, Rev. Lauder argues that Bergman is to film what William Shakespeare and James Joyce were to theater and literature, respectively. “There are two things that make Bergman great,” said Rev. Lauder. “First, Bergman had a tremendous skill as a technician.”

Bergman mastered technicalities, such as sound and lighting to illuminate his films. “And second,” Rev. Lauder explained, “the content of his films.”

The great filmmaker, through his movies, posed striking and philosophical questions regarding the existence of God and what mankind’s existence truly means.

Personally answering these questions can heavily impact the way we live our lives and that, for Rev. Lauder, is why he is the greatest of all Twentieth Century directors. He, more than any other filmmaker, went so far as to try and answer these ultimate questions.

So how did Rev. Lauder, who is also a diocesan priest, come to admire the works of Bergman, a well-known atheist? When Rev. Lauder attended graduate school, he had a hectic study schedule from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. He took breaks around 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. to visit film houses. That’s where he discovered Bergman and when his deep admiration for the man’s films began.

This appreciation led Rev. Lauder to write his book, which explores Bergman’s philosophical visions as seen through his movies. Rev. Lauder’s book covers Bergman’s work from “The Seventh Seal” (the movie that brought Bergman international fame) to “Fanny and Alexander”, covering twenty-five illustrious years of the director’s career.

Ingmar Bergman’s films are heavily immersed in existentialist philosophy, much like the works of the great Scandinavian men that came before him, such as the artist Edvard Munch and the playwright Henrik Ibsen. Bergman’s earlier films centered on God and love and explored what, to him, were the absence, silence, and nonexistence of God.

Towards the end of his career, Bergman explored, as Rev. Lauder noted, “the human interpersonal love,” or, in other words, the interaction of people in love. If there is any hope to be found in Bergman’s films, it has to be this type of relationship, although it may become difficult and fleeting at the end.

There is no doubt that Bergman influenced many current American filmmakers significantly, especially Woody Allen, who is known to have been extremely impacted by Bergman’s films. Bergman became very popular among American critics in the 1960’s, who recognized him as being an important figure in cinema.

Rev. Lauder’s book is accompanied by an interesting prologue by Liv Ullman, a Norwegian actress who had leading roles in nine of Bergman’s films and also had a daughter with the renowned filmmaker. There is an amusing story behind how Rev. Lauder met Ullman. He saw her on a televised interview, so he wrote her a note explaining that he was a professor of existentialism and would like to interview her.

However, when Rev. Lauder finally got in touch with Ullman’s agent, he was denied an interview. Later, Rev. Lauder contacted the National Council of Churches and finally got an interview with Ullman on a television show where he was one of five interviewers.

Ever since then, Rev. Lauder and Ullman have been close friends.

“Ullman is an exceptionally talented actress and excelled in films,” said Rev. Lauder. Although she had important roles in Bergman’s films, she did not share in his views and personality but was more hopeful. Rev. Lauder also notes that she is a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF.

Rev. Lauder, who is known for his vast and encyclopedic knowledge in cinema, set up the Douglaston Friday Film Festival, which takes place annually both in the Fall and Spring. “I have profited from films and wanted to share with others,” explained Rev. Lauder.

The festival has shown about 180 films, with 6 or 7 of them Bergman’s. This Fall’s theme is “The Presence of Sin,” which includes films by six directors who explore issues concerning morality. The film festival will start this Friday, September 14, at 8 p.m. at the Immaculate Conception Center in Douglaston. The films scheduled for this Fall are both diverse and interesting: Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful” (September 14), Todd Field’s “In the Bedroom” (September 21), Robert Redford’s “Quiz Show” (September 28), Woody Allen’s “Match Point” (October 12), Fritz Lang’s “Scarlet Street” (October 19), and Jean Renoir’s “Grand Illusion” (October 26). The event is open to everyone, but Rev. Lauder especially hopes that seminarians will attend, since, as he noted, the movies will “challenge the conscience.”

For those who are new to cinema, Rev. Lauder recommends Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal,” a movie that features nearly every question Bergman ever tried to tackle through film.
Rev. Lauder is happy with our generation’s easy access to cinema since families, for the first time, can finally get a film education right at their homes. Film education should be taken seriously; examining the right movies can broaden our horizons and even, in some cases, change our view on reality. As Rev. Lauder noted, “One film cannot change everyone’s world, but a constant diet of films will affect us.”