In this year of our lord 2018, when the entire world seems to be tottering on the precipice of geopolitical calamity and Mother Nature is doing her damnedest to drown and burn up as many of us as she can, it seems only fitting that it’s also Ingmar Bergman’s 100th birthday. The Swedish filmmaker elevated doom and gloom into high art, crafting deeply compelling stories about people struggling to find meaning in a cruel and uncaring universe. While he rarely trafficked in literal apocalypses in his films, they often felt like they were about the end of the world in one way or another.
For the uninitiated, getting into Bergman’s work can seem like a daunting prospect. Bergman made over forty films while he was alive and also directed numerous theatrical productions. He was a very prolific writer and director, producing at least one to two projects a year throughout most of his working life. While he’s best known for 1957’s masterwork The Seventh Seal (aka the one where a knight challenges Death to a chess game), Bergman made a host of other stunning films: sex farces, existential nightmares, TV mini-series, documentaries, even an adaptation of Mozart’s The Magic Flute.
In honor of his centennial, we picked out seven of his films to serve as an introduction into the different moods and styles of Ingmar Bergman’s cinema. If you want to see more of his work on the small and big screens, you’re in luck: the Criterion Collection is releasing a 30-disc box set of Bergman’s work on November 20, and most of Bergman's films are available to stream on FilmStruck until the service goes dark on November 28. Locally, both FilmBar and the Phoenix Art Museum have Bergman screenings lined up: Fanny & Alexander at FilmBar on November 18 and Faro Document & Through A Glass Darkly on February 27 and March 27 at the museum. Tickets are available via thefilmbarphx.com and phxart.org, respectively.
Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)
Ask any cinephile to sum up Bergman’s body of work with a handful of descriptors and you’ll probably hear words like “dour,” “existential,” “miserabilist,” or “melancholy.” These aren’t wholly inaccurate: So many of Bergman's films deal with characters wrestling with despair and anxiety over their disintegrating relationships or their place in a cold universe where God is either dead or indifferent to their suffering. But there’s plenty of joy and comedy in his work, too.
The lighter side of Bergman can be seen throughout his 1955 romantic farce Smiles of a Summer Night. The story of a group of couples who swap partners and solve their romantic problems over the course of Midsummer Night (the shortest night of the year), Smiles of a Summer Night is Bergman taking a playful approach to romance and infidelity. Extramarital affairs, romantic angst, and the futility of monogamy (at least for Bergman’s characters) are recurring topics throughout his work, but they’re treated lightly here. Bergman doesn’t try to pretend that the characters in Smiles aren’t doomed to break up, cheat on each other, and be miserable after the credits roll, but he lets them frolic and have fun in the moment. Even a climatic game of Russian roulette is essentially played for laughs.
Smiles is brought to vivid life with Gunnar Fischer’s cinematography and by the work of his cast (with a powerhouse performance by Eva Dahlbeck, whom Bergman dubbed “the Woman Battleship,” as the actress who orchestrates the retreat into the countryside that causes the couples to play musical chairs in their bedrooms). The most expensive film made in Sweden at the time, Smiles of a Summer Night was a huge success. The success of the film gave Bergman carte blanche over the next few years; The auteur had, for the first time in his career, no trouble getting financing to make more movies. Towering career highlights like The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, and Persona may not have been possible without the existence of this light, giddy, and sexy cinematic romp.
Wild Strawberries (1957)
While cinema can often seem like a young person’s game, on-screen and off, there have been some amazing films that have addressed the trials and tribulations of old age. Classic films like Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow and Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story touched on the cruel ways that younger generations isolate and take advantage of their elders, while Kurosawa’s masterful Ikiru examines how one elderly man tries to use the little time he has left to build a worthwhile legacy. You can add Bergman’s Wild Strawberries to this list of “twilight of life” classics.
Wild Strawberries follows an elderly professor who comes to grips with his impending death by reconnecting with the things that brought him joy as a young man. Encountering strangers on a road trip who remind him of his first romance and his unhappy marriage, the once-egotistical and bitter professor makes peace with every stage of his life and finally accepts his place in his family and in the world.
What gives this film added resonance (and an extra layer of meta meaning) is the casting of Bergman mentor and Swedish silent film director Victor Sjöström as the lead. Sjöström, who would pass away three years after filming Wild Strawberries, used all his skills and considerable experience as a theatrical and film performer to give Bergman’s film the gravitas and warmth it needed.
The Magician (1958)
For moviegoers who only know Max von Sydow as the wizened exorcist Father Merrin, seeing a fiery, dark-haired younger von Sydow can be as disorienting as looking at a photo of a young Willie Nelson. Max von Sydow was a frequent Bergman collaborator, and in 1958 the director gave von Sydow one hell of an acting showcase. As the titular magician, von Sydow’s Albert Vogler is a glowering, magnetic presence. A stage magician who barely speaks throughout the first half of the film, Vogler uses his skills to bedevil and fool the authorities that are harassing him and his traveling troupe of performers, his illusions and sleight-of-hand becoming instruments of vengeance. The Magician conjured up the image of stage magicians also being con artists offstage long before Now You See Me or The Prestige got around to it.
Aside from being one of the greatest film directors in world cinema, Bergman was also a highly regarded and active theater artist. It’s why traveling acting ensembles, circus groups, and magicians are recurring elements in many of his period films, especially in Sawdust and Tinsel and The Seventh Seal. He understands the strange pseudo-family units ensembles can become, that foster the us-against-the-world camaraderie that binds them together. The Magician is both his tribute to live theater as well as a haunting meditation on the tug of war between faith and reason.
Winter Light (1963)
The middle film in Bergman's harrowing "God's Silence" trilogy along with 1961’s Through a Glass Darkly and 1963’s The Silence, Winter Light brings together a few of Bergman's regulars: Max con Sydow, Ingrid Thulin (who played von Sydow's wife in The Magician), Gunner Björnstrand, and cinematographer Sven Nykvist. It’s these three films that helped cement Bergman’s reputation for being a Heavy, Serious Filmmaker.
Featuring one of Bergman’s most complex protagonists, Winter Light tells the story of a priest who continues to go through the motions of his vocation while losing his faith in God. It’s a movie that lingers on the question of how God can stay silent and absent in the face of human suffering. Whether it’s characters fretting over the existence of atom bombs, the unrequited love one character feels for Björnstrand’s Pastor Tomas, suicide, or Tomas’s own memories of witnessing horrific war crimes during the Spanish Civil War, Winter Light casts a bleak and unsparing eye on all the psychic ills afflicting this small community.
Faith and the dignity (and meaninglessness) of human suffering are also recurring themes in Bergman’s work. The God’s Silence trilogy is an extended, dark rumination on these concerns. What makes these grim films worth watching (and re-watching) is the combination of astonishing performances, sharp writing, and Nykvist’s stunning black-and-white cinematography. Existential misery has never looked this good.
Crucifixions, spiders, dead lambs, flickering animation: The opening moments in Persona are an avant-garde film onto itself. Kicking off the film with a series of seemingly-disconnected, violent images, Bergman lobs a montage bomb into the audience. Persona begins as a nightmare, and maintains that dreamy, anything-can-happen feel for the duration of the film. Shot by Nykvist, Persona features two of Bergman’s most iconic leading ladies (Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson), focusing on the eerie intimacy of their relationship as they begin to mirror each other.
While The Seventh Seal remains Bergman’s most famous film, one can argue Persona is the most influential. It established a template for psychologically-based suspense and horror films that many films have used over the years (like Lynch’s Mulholland Drive). Like Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Persona is a battle of wills, the story of one dominant personality trying to overwhelm and overwrite itself on top of another. But what makes the film so haunting is how Bergman wrings tension out of these two characters psyching each other out, like a long sequence where one of the women paces back and forth barefoot on a floor covered in broken glass or when the film itself falls apart halfway through when the celluloid on the projector splits apart to create a literal break in the action.
Cries and Whispers (1972)
Bergman once said of his work "all of my films can be thought of in terms of black and white, except Cries and Whispers." Throughout his long career, Bergman made black-and-white films that shined like polished silver. While most of his best-known films (shot w/ either Fischer or Nykvist) are monochromatic, the director did shift towards color later in his career, and of all his color films, none were as striking as Cries and Whispers.
A film that chronicles the trauma of a family of women with almost operatic intensity, Bergman externalizes the grief and pain of the three sisters who forms the film's core by covering their home in blood-red hues. Red and white dominate the film's palette: White for the dresses of his actresses, red for the walls and drapes of the house they're in. It gives the film an almost flesh-like appearance, as if the characters are venting and raving and crying inside a massive human body.
Bergman would shift towards more naturalistic settings and acting styles following Cries and Whispers, so in some respects this film is kind of a last hurrah for Bergman's over-the-top side. But what a note to go out on: It's a film that glows and burns with raw feeling.
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Autumn Sonata (1978)
Starring the legendary star of Casablanca Ingrid Bergman (no relation) in her final film role, Autumn Sonata found the auteur settling into his new life as TV auteur. Bergman had experimented with making TV movies before with his acclaimed 1973 miniseries Scenes from a Marriage and 1976's Face to Face. But Autumn Sonata would usher in a new era of filmmaking for Bergman as the director made films as television productions. Even his 1982 masterpiece Fanny and Alexander was initially conceived as a TV mini series.
Ingrid Bergman milks every second of her swan song for all its worth, inhabiting her role as an elderly concert pianist and distant mother with the dedication of someone who knows they won’t get a second chance (the actress was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer prior to production). Her tremendous performance brings out the best in the rest of the cast (which includes Liv Ullmann), making this story of familial discord and estrangement feel particularly charged and authentic. They feel like a real family that can barely stand to be in the same room together.
Autumn Sonata also has a distinct autumnal look, thanks to the efforts of Nykvist. Using candles, lamps, and other artificial light sources, Nykvist gives Autumn Sonata a faded, washed-out look. Flowers also appear throughout the film, offering a splash of color in the gray and tan rooms that much of the action takes place in. The spectre of winter is never far from the picture: Coldness, both literal and emotional, threatens to blow into the frame at any moment.
Bergman's Fanny and Alexander (the 188-minute cinematic cut) is playing at FilmBar on Sunday, November 18. Presale tickets are available via FilmBar. Phoenix Art Museum will also be doing screenings of his Faro Document and Through A Glass Darkly in 2019 on February 27 and March 27 (respectively).