Everyone carries a piece of Ingmar Bergman with them, even if they don’t know it. It’s an image from his 1957 film The Seventh Seal, of a medieval knight playing chess with Death. The game attempt to fend off the inevitable has become a stock item in our visual culture, a shorthand for mortality whose seriousness has been leavened by everyone from Woody Allen and Monty Python to The Muppets.
While that image is fixed in the collective consciousness, Bergman’s work has remained an acquired taste, more familiar to fans of the art house than the multiplex – and even then, only to those willing to face up to the Swede’s austere, emotionally gruelling investigations of existential angst, romantic failure and family dysfunction.
To stay the course, however, invariably meets with ample reward. His work can leave one overwhelmed as much by the sheer power of the film-making as the suffering on show.
Bergman, who died in 2007, aged 89, wrote and directed more than 60 films and documentaries. Three of his films won best foreign language Oscars, while he himself was nominated nine times as writer or director. He’s regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of cinema.
This year will offer plenty of opportunity to test that claim, as the centenary of Bergman’s birth is marked by an international celebration of his work, with a plethora of film retrospectives, theatrical productions (his scripts are often adapted for the stage), exhibitions and documentaries, as well as the publication of Bergman’s writings. The British Film Institute is to feature a comprehensive Bergman season in London and will re-release three of his films nationwide.
‘A deeply human artist’
Liv Ullmann, his former lover, muse and frequent star, says that the jubilee will reveal “a deeply human” artist. “When Ingmar died it was written that his films were just long, dark nights of the soul. That wasn’t so. His films are about you and me, about finding wisdom, about striving to connect. In the world that we have now, we need artists like him to remind us who we are.”
He was born in Uppsala in July 1918, the son of a Lutheran parish priest and strict disciplinarian. Childhood was often hell. “Most of our upbringing was based on such concepts as sin, confession, punishment, forgiveness and grace,” Bergman once wrote. His own punishments included strokes of a carpet beater, and being shut inside a cupboard.
But inside that cupboard, the boy would shine a torch at the wall and pretend he was in a cinema. When he was nine, he traded 100 tin soldiers for his brother’s magic lantern. Subject matter and a mode of storytelling were forged in the same moment.
The twenty-something Bergman first worked in the theatre; in fact, he never left the stage, eventually directing more than 170 plays. But in the early Forties he was also hired by the Swedish film industry – first to rewrite other people’s scripts, then write his own, and eventually to direct.
His rising fame in the Fifties was sealed by the remarkable one-two of Wild Strawberries (above) and The Seventh Seal. The Sixties included three powerful films that have since been dubbed ‘the faith trilogy’ – Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light and The Silence. That astonishing decade also saw the avant-garde masterpiece Persona and the prescient anti-war film Shame.
In the Seventies he finally became a household name in his own country, with the television mini-series about marital breakdown, Scenes from a Marriage. And in 1982 the magically pleasurable family saga Fanny and Alexander – also made for TV, but whose film version won an Oscar – sealed the bond. Theatre director Stefan Larsson, who has adapted it for the stage, says that “The film, the characters, the actors constitute a part of Swedish cultural history. They are just about as Swedish as anything could hope to be.”
Complicated, controversial, reclusive
Throughout his career Bergman used an extraordinary ensemble of devoted actors, many of whom he first met in the theatre, including Bibi Andersson, Harriet Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand and Erland Josephson. And he had long collaborations with two outstanding cameramen, Gunnar Fischer and Sven Nykvist, creating a distinctive visual style characterised by a striking use of the close-up.
But though he cherished collaboration, he remained a complicated, controversial and reclusive figure – living the last 40 years of his life on Fårö, a sheep-farming island in the Baltic. Just like his troubled childhood and his many doubts and anxieties, the island made its way onto the screen, featuring in six of his films.
“At one time he was one of the few filmmakers whose surname sufficed to bring people into a certain mindset – Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa,” muses Jan Holmberg, a film historian and CEO of the Ingmar Bergman Foundation, which oversees the director’s personal archive and is coordinating the jubilee.
“I’m biased, but I do think that Bergman is largely responsible for film being considered an art form. It’s no coincidence that it was during the height of his fame in the early 1960s when cinema studies became an academic discipline. In a way his films legitimized the study of cinema as something you could use to discuss theology, philosophy, psychology and so on. I think his legacy in film history will be as a symbol of that.”
Tomas Alfredson, the 52-year-old Swedish director of the horror film Let the Right One and the film adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was recently on Fåro, to shoot one of six, Bergman-inspired shorts to be screened on Swedish TV as part of the jubilee.
“For most of my generation the entry point was Scenes from a Marriage,” he recalls (pictured above). “It was one of those few TV shows where your parents said, ‘We have to see this. Shut up and close the windows.’ Everyone was watching it.” He laughs. “Even though it was quite scary to watch as a kid.”
A personal favourite is Hour of the Wolf, a psychological drama about an artist (von Sydow) who loses his mind. “It’s influenced me a lot, especially with sound editing, which Bergman is a master of. He dares to use silence, which is such a useful narrative instrument.”
At the same time, Alfredson notes the quality of Bergman’s writing. “He is one of the best at dialogue, certainly comic dialogue. He would have been a fantastic writer for Seinfeld.” Surprisingly, the man often dismissed as the ‘gloomy Swede’ did make a few, entertaining comedies. “The more I get to know him through his work, I find a very charming and playful person. He wasn’t as dark as people think. He was imprisoned in his own image.”
Another admirer is the Norwegian director Joachim Trier (Louder Than Bombs, Thelma). “There are very few film directors who wrestled the big machine of cinema into a personal place,” he observes. “Bergman made it fairly simple in production terms, and achieved something very specific. It’s honest, there’s no bullshit. ‘We’re going to talk about death now’, loneliness, some essential thing.”
The film that “hooked” Trier was Persona (above). “I don’t think there’s a film in the history of cinema that is more filmic – it even starts with the ignition of the light of the projector. It’s formally so sophisticated, a Citizen Kane of Sixties art movies. It plays with all the possibilities of pure cinema.”
It was while filming Persona that Bergman and Liv Ullmann fell in love. Now 79, she agrees that to a degree their romantic and working lives were symbiotic, with interesting consequences.
“He was so much older, but sometimes we were very much alike, we recognised things in each other. He felt I somehow understood him. But that doesn’t mean that when I started doing films with him that I took parts away from Bibi or Harriet. I took parts away from Max von Sydow and Erland Josephson.
“I knew that my characters were saying so many things that were a part of Ingmar – his loneliness, his fear, seeking for acceptance and love. And he would rather do that with a female character, because he felt women are not so scared of undressing their feelings, as men.”
Bergman’s female characters are certainly among the most complex in film; it’s notable too how many of his actresses became directors, including Ullmann herself, whose film Faithless – written by Bergman – is in the BFI season, where she will also appear in conversation.
Geoff Andrew, the critic and programmer who has curated the South Bank retrospective, hopes that it will introduce Bergman’s work to a new generation of filmgoers.
“Bergman still matters enormously,” he says. “His films look at the things which affect us all in our daily lives – love, sex, family relationships, the role of the artist in the world, the inescapable fact of mortality, whether or not there is a god overseeing human suffering and injustice.
“And because he deals with the kind of questions we ask ourselves as we move into adulthood, I think his work can be especially interesting and relevant for young people.”
There are currently intimations of this at the Danish Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, with a role-reversing production of Scenes from a Marriage in which it’s the wife who now leaves the husband.
“It’s working well,” says director Morton Kirkskov, who also stars alongside The Killing’s Sofie Gråbøl. “We have a lot of young audiences, who don’t know Bergman, and they come and think it’s a brand new play about love. Bergman is turning out to be a classic for all of us.”
This feature first appeared in The Times