Remembering Ingmar Bergman

Last Updated: August 8, 2011By Tags:

On Monday morning, the world mourned the passing of the world’s greatest living filmmaker, Ingmar Bergman. His death comes as less of a tragedy and more of a shock, a jarring reminder of the frailty of human existence. Bergman outlived virtually every other cinema great of his generation – most notably, Federico Fellini (who died in 1993) and Akira Kurosawa (who died in 1998). And unlike those directors, Bergman seemed to be working constantly up until near the end. His last film, “Saraband” – a sequel-of-sorts to Scenes from a Marriage – was screened at the 2004 New York Film Festival.

Bergman also granted numerous interviews in his last years. In these, he projected a wizened and robust personality that showed no sign of letting up. For a while, it just seemed to me that Bergman would hang on for the next decade or so. Because of Bergman’s steady activity and ubiquitous interview presence, his death seems very sudden and unreal. There will never be another Bergman Film. The world has lost one of its greatest visionaries. But he left us a legacy of nearly 50 films. Together, they constitute a rich portrait of the human comedy every bit as persuasive and artful as Shakespeare, Dickens and Henry James.

Though much of Bergman has made it onto DVD- largely thanks to the Criterion Collection – there are still several titles that have yet to surface, notably The Magician, Face to Face, After the Rehearsal and From the Lives of the Marionettes. Last night, I held a screening of The Virgin Spring – Bergman’s first Foreign-Film Oscar – and invited a couple of friends over. I thought it best to celebrate his life and work, rather than mourn. Immerse yourself in Bergman’s confident and tragic-comic world. Discover or rediscover the poetry of his filmmaking. It will be more than apparent that no grave will ever be able to fully contain him.

Here are some viewing suggestions:

Early Bergman – Eclipse Series
Several months back, the Criterion Collection debuted a new line of DVDs. The Eclipse Series showcases lesser-known works by major directors, unadorned by the special features that have become Criterion’s hallmark. For their first set, they elected five early Ingmar Bergman films. The earliest addition to the set is 1944’s Torment, directed by Alf Sjöberg (best known for his 1951 version of Miss Julie), to which Bergman contributed an original screenplay, based loosely on his own hellish schoolboy experiences.

This first dip into movies also provided Bergman an unlikely directing debut: he unexpectedly shot the film’s final scenes himself, after being requested to alter the bleak ending he had originally written.Bergman’s proper directorial debut, Crisis (1946), is also the most overtly melodramatic tearjerker in the collection. This story of a country girl dragged from her foster mother by an extravagant aunt (who turns out to be the woman who birthed her) suffers from stilted narration and overly theatrical dialogue. As seen often in Bergman’s other works, characters soliloquize about life rather eloquently.

At this stage in his career, though, Bergman hasn’t yet found a way to successfully integrate such raw psychological content into a narrative film. Port of Call (1948) was Bergman’s first collaboration with cinematographer Gunnar Fischer. Fischer would remain Bergman’s cinematographer throughout the 1950s and go on to photograph Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal. He brings a gritty, Rossellini-eque sensibility to this dark and sexually frank love story. It is somewhat ironic that Port of Call, written by Olle Lansberg, is the most striking work in the box set as the only film that Bergman didn’t author alone. Perhaps at this early stage in his career, he benefited from the remove that directing somebody else’s screenplay allowed him.

Of the films included in the set, it is the least theatrical. Bergman employs distancing techniques, such as multiple (sometimes confusing) narratives told in flashback, to present this story of a disintegrating marriage. The opening sequence is remarkable for its stillness, and points the way to his later forays into quiet desperation (see The Silence and Cries and Whispers). The final film in the collection, To Joy (1949), stars Stig Olin (the irascible and charming star of Crisis) as a second-rate violinist unable to accept his own mediocrity. It features an incredibly mobile and fluid camera (courtesy, again, of Fischer) and is remarkable for how Bergman uses music-a crucial element in many of his later films.

Winter Light / the Silence / Through a Glass Darkly – Criterion Collection.
Ingmar Bergman once remarked, “I’m like the common whore; I have an enormous need for people to like me and what I’m doing.” This is a strange quote, considering that most of the director’s work can hardly be termed crowd-pleasing. The quote exists in the context of a 1963 documentary by Vilgot Sjöman (I Am Curious (Yellow)), which supplements the Criterion Collection’s release of a trio of “chamber” films that Bergman himself termed a trilogy.

While the transfers of Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and The Silence (1963) are gorgeous, Winter Light (1962) is definitely the centerpiece of the set. The filming of the Trilogy marked a new era in Bergman’s career, when the director moved away from the expressionism of films like The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries and evolved a paired-down, more theatrical and minimalist film art.

Keeping the films’ more subdued character in mind, it is perhaps appropriate that Criterion has resisted the urge to load this box set with thousands of special features. Film historian Peter Cowie (who provided wonderful and insightful commentary for Criterion’s releases of Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal) introduces each film with a 10-minute discussion of the film’s symbolism and how Bergman’s evolving sensibilities mark both the content and style of the Trilogy, as well as his later films. Brief as these video introductions are, they are highly informative and serve as suitable replacement for garrulous audio commentaries.

The Magic Flute – The Criterion Collection
Bergman’s gifts extended to his opera productions, notably his staging of The Rake’s Progess). He only made one opera-movie in his career, however, 1974’s “The Magic Flute.” Bergman frames his Magic Flute as a theatrical performance playing to a live audience. The production he recreates on a movie set is meant to evoke the original production of 1791 at the Theater auf der Wieden in Vienna. The film ushers us onto the stage and into the opera, cutting between the audience and the quaint production and gradually leading us deeper and deeper into the opera. While we are given a proscenium arch, his film feels far from stagy. Slowly, the action moves further and further backstage until the stage has become the world.

Bergman uses arresting close-ups and profile shots of his singer-actors, often training the camera on characters who react rather than act (The Queen of the Night aria is a terrifying example of both devices). There is a fair amount of spoken dialogue in Mozart’s Singspiel, which Bergman makes his singer-actors whisper in a way that both slows things down and reminds of film’s power to capturing subtle human psychology. That Bergman marries this potential to opera’s searing emotionalism is part of what makes his one of the finest of all film-operas.

Fanny and Alexander – Criterion Collection
Though Bergman is often associated with Sturm und Drang explorations of existential despair and marital discord, it would be limiting to view Bergman as a purely sinister filmmaker. Made in 1982 and intended to be his swan song, Fanny and Alexander is the director’s most optimistic and humanistic film. It also ranks among his most visually lavish and dramatically rich. At once epic and intimate, the film recounts a year in the life of an aristocratic theatrical family living in early 20th-century. Through the eyes of ten year-old Alexander, the audience follows the family through their trials and triumphs, witnessing a dizzying spectrum of human experience which includes love, death, suffering, the supernatural, and the transcendent power of art.

Criterion’s beautiful five-disc box set more than does justice to what is perhaps Bergman’s greatest achievement. It contains restored transfers of the standard three-hour theatrical version and, for the first time on American video, the uncut five-hour version Bergman made for Swedish television.

One Comment

  1. Anonymous August 7, 2007 at 10:00 pm

    Thanks for a great overview of this major filmmaker’s work. Although he hadn’t done much in recent years, his name will remain as one of the greatest directors of all time.

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