News and Commentary – Ingmar Bergman 99!!

Ingmar Bergman would have turned ninety-nine on July 14.  One of the true titans in the history of cinema, with a prolific career, distinct voice, and an indisputably prominent place in the pantheon—he is also one of our All-Time Favorites.  And so the crack staff here at Mid Century Cinema have decided to get a jump on what will surely be an enormous celebration of his upcoming centennial with this, the first of a series of occasional pieces that we post over the course of what would have been his hundredth year.  We begin here with a modest overview of his career (one that inevitably only skims the surface) including our now-legendary, always idiosyncratic, and welcoming-of-contestation user’s guide to (almost) every feature film. Future entries will hone in on specific movies and notable controversies; we will also feature a “bookshelf” installment. (With regard to reading material, essential sources include Bergman’s two autobiographical statements The Magic Lantern and Images: My life in Film, as well as Ingmar Bergman: A Reference Guide, and The Ingmar Bergman Archives.)

There are those in Sweden for whom Bergman’s achievements in the theater eclipse his reputation as a filmmaker – and the Reference Guide devotes about 400 pages to “Ingmar Bergman in the Theater” – but, not surprisingly, we’re going to stick closely to the movies.  Bergman’s films, although expressive of his singular voice, vary widely in content and subject matter—and, we should mention, include more than a few comedies.  Nevertheless, some recurring themes are identifiable across the broad tapestry of his oeuvre: the interpersonal politics of family drama (especially troubled relationships between men and women); the silence of god (and how one is to live with that); shame (often deriving from a failure to live up to expectations); and the relationship between theater and “real life” (this latter touchstone makes a marvelous cameo appearance in Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre, with the story of how Andre, overwhelmed by the line “I could live in my art but not in my life” from Bergman’s Autumn Sonata, is left weeping in an alleyway).  

Like many of the greats, another unifying element across Bergman’s films is the imprint of an informal stock company of collaborators, including Harriet Andersson, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin and longtime paramour Liv Ullman, along with Gunnar Bjornstrand, Max Von Sydow, and Bergman’s good friend Erland Josephson; many of the movies these artists made together are inseparable in the mind from the performances of these players. Behind the camera, Bergman worked closely with his cinematographers; first Gunnar Fischer, and then, crucially, Sven Nykvist, an intimate and essential creative partner whose contributions to Bergman’s films are hard to exaggerate.  A famous exchange with David Lean underscores the special nature of these collaborations: in response to Bergman’s comment that he invariably shot his films with the same crew of eighteen friends, the British director quipped “that’s funny . . . I work with 150 enemies.”

The fairly small scale of his productions (and the relatively modest commercial imperatives imposed by the Swedish film industry) afforded Bergman the opportunity to work in this fashion. As Nykvist explained to Roger Ebert: “We've already discussed the new film the year before . . . Then Ingmar goes to his island and writes the screenplay. The next year, we shoot - usually about the fifteenth of April.”

The results, Bergman’s fifty-plus films, can be envisioned in five phases. A first decade can be further sub-divided into the very early, mostly undistinguished films of the forties (though each, in particular Port of Call and Thirst, feature impressive hints of things to come), and the increasingly accomplished films of the early 1950s as Bergman emerged as a local figure of some repute. This would all change in 1956, with the international reception of Smiles of a Summer Night, ushering in the period in which Bergman would become an Art-House sensation, making a series of films – including The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries – that are so revered it is easy to lose sight of the fact that they are, indeed, great movies to be relished, not museum pieces to respect from a hushed distance. This phase closed with the “godless trilogy” of the early 1960s, and was followed by a period of personal crisis and professional uncertainty for the filmmaker—a moment at which it was possible to whisper that the pushing-fifty Bergman might be past his prime.

But he was not. Staring with Persona, Bergman embarked on a series of films shot on his beloved island of Fårö (where he would settle in splendid retreat from the bustle of the city), which would yield one of his most fertile seasons, including the simply staggering Shame (don’t watch it at night), the brilliant Passion of Anna (experimental and ambitious), and culminating in the celebrated Cries and Whispers (full disclosure—not one of our favorites). And there was still more to come; the following ten years could be described as those of “late career triumph”—highlighted by the long-form masterpieces Scenes from a Marriage and Fanny and Alexander.  Then Bergman announced his retirement, leading to a final period, which we have dubbed “I said I retired but now and then I keep doing interesting things”: writing screenplays, remaining very active in theater (and working on film versions of some of those productions), and, occasionally, directing, helming Saraband at the age of eighty-five.   

Our user’s guide follows the vid-caps below. It excludes some TV work, short films, documentaries, and numerous screenplays written but not directed by Bergman (a few of these are included, and marked “w only”; the guide also includes some noteworthy items we have not seen, denoted ns.) Note as always we follow a version of the Halliwell system: stars are not ratings, but designations of merit. Which also means that there can be good things and often striking sequences in an un-starred film, but as a whole we did not find the movie worthy of special attention or urgent recommendation. Moreover, there is something of a “Bergman curve” here; if not for the expectations established by his twenty best efforts, some of the more “minor” films would probably be valued more highly.

 

Magician

Ingrid Thulin and Gunnar Bjornstrand in The Magician

 

Shame

Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann in Shame

 

Scenes

Liv Ullmann with Erland Josephson in Scenes from a Marraige

 

Fanny

Fanny and Alexander

 

The Films of Ingmar Bergman: A User's Guide:

Torment (w only) (1944)

Crisis (1946)  

It Rains on our Love (1946)

A Ship Bound for India (1947)

Music in Darkness (1947)

Port of Call (1948)

Thirst (1949)

Prison (1949)

To Joy (1950)

High Tension/This Can’t Happen Here (1950) ns

Summer Interlude (1950) *

Waiting Women (1952) *

Summer with Monika (1952)

Sawdust and Tinsel (1953) *

A Lesson in Love (1954) *

Dreams (1955) *

Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) *

The Seventh Seal (1957) ***

Wild Strawberries (1957) ***

Brink of Life (1958) *

The Magician (1958) **

The Virgin Spring (1960) *

The Devil’s Eye (1960) *

Through a Glass Darkly **

Winter Light (1962) *

The Silence (1963)

All These Women (1964)

Persona (1966) **

Hour of the Wolf (1968) *

Shame (1968) ***

The Passion of Anna (1969) ***

The Rite (1970) *

The Touch (1971) *

Cries and Whispers (1972) *

Scenes from a Marriage (long version) (1973) ***

The Magic Flute (1975)

Face to Face (short version) (1976) *

The Serpent’s Egg (1977)

Autumn Sonata (1978) *

From the Life of the Marionettes (1980) *

Fanny and Alexander (long version) (1982) ***

After the Rehearsal (1984) **

The Best Intentions (w only) 1992 *

Sunday’s Child (w only) (1992) ns

Private Confessions (w only) (1996) ns

In the Presence of a Clown (1997) ns

Faithless (w only) (2000) **

Saraband (2003) **