“Not a day has gone by in my life when I haven’t thought about death.”—Ingmar Bergman
Swedish director, writer and producer, Ingmar Bergman is undoubtedly one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.
A highly accomplished auteur who produced multiple seminal works, he is known for his brilliant films like The Seventh Seal (1957), Persona (1966) and Wild Strawberries (1957). Bergman directed over 60 films and documentaries and also wrote 170 plays during his lifetime. Critically adored, he has often been heralded as the greatest artist of the 20th Century. American director Martin Scorsese once said, “If you were alive in the ’50s and the ’60s and of a certain age, a teenager on your way to becoming an adult, and you wanted to make movies, I don’t see how you couldn’t be influenced by Bergman…It’s impossible to overestimate the effect that those films had on people.”
As a child, Bergman was very interested in Christianity, the influence of which is obvious in his later works. In his autobiography Lanterna Magica, he wrote, “I devoted my interest to the church’s mysterious world of low arches, thick walls, the smell of eternity, the coloured sunlight quivering above the strangest vegetation of medieval paintings and carved figures on ceilings and walls. There was everything that one’s imagination could desire—angels, saints, dragons, prophets, devils, humans.”
He enrolled in Stockholm University in 1937 to study art and literature where he became a self-proclaimed “movie addict”. Although he never graduated college, he started writing scripts for plays during that time with his first major accomplishment being the 1944 film Torment directed by Alf Sjöberg for which he wrote the screenplay. The rest is history.
On what is the 102nd anniversary of his birth, we take a look back at some of the best films of his outstanding filmography. Each and every one of the entries is proof of the genius of Ingmar Bergman.
Ingmar Bergman’s Top 10 Films
10. Winter Light (1963)
This 1963 film is the second part of Bergman’s trilogy of dramas (preceded by Through A Glass Darkly and followed by The Silence) and is set within a three-hour period on a Sunday afternoon in November. It is a bleak, thoughtful depiction of human suffering. Winter Light challenges the strict Lutheran upbringing that he had been subjected to as a child.
“These three films deal with reduction,” the director said of the trilogy. “Through a Glass Darkly – conquered certainty. Winter Light – penetrated certainty. The Silence – God’s silence – the negative imprint. Therefore, they constitute a trilogy.”
Bergman constructs a philosophical and moral puzzle and shies away from solving it. We are left grappling with the profound loss of faith and the meaninglessness of traditional symbols.
9. The Virgin Spring (1960)
Scenes of absolute brutality and the despairing artistic sensibility of Ingmar Bergman create a distinguished place for The Virgin Spring in Bergman’s filmography. Described as “Bergman’s murder ballad”, the 1960 film shows a 15-year-old girl being raped and murdered by two older men. It is a film of terrible beauty and heavy symbolism.
“It shows the crime in its naked atrocity, forcing us, in shocked desperation, to leave aesthetic enjoyment of a work of art for passionate involvement in a human drama of crime that breeds new crime, of guilt and grace,” Bergman once said of the controversial scene. “We must not hesitate in our portrayal of human degradation, even if, in our demand for truth, we must violate certain taboos.”
The Virgin Spring is a tragic exploration of the concept of God, a God which lets terrible crimes happen and does nothing to comfort the bereaved.
8. Scenes From A Marriage (1974)
A film of extraordinary intimacy, Bergman’s 1974 film, Scenes From A Marriage, is an attempt of unparalleled honesty to deconstruct and study the mechanisms of a romantic relationship. It is a powerful and compelling account of a superficially perfect couple that ends with the disintegration of the ideal of marriage.
Exploring dialectical power struggles through something as personal as a relationship, Scenes From A Marriage is a beautiful investigation of honesty and love.
7. Persona (1966)
Persona is a modernist, self-reflexive psychological drama that questions the validity of individual identities in an age of mass-spread schizophrenia. One of Bergman’s many masterpieces, it is a complicated and radical film that hits the viewer with hardcore surrealism but hides its secrets behind ambiguous mysteries.
“Today I feel that in Persona—and later in Cries and Whispers—I had gone as far as I could go. And that in these two instances when working in total freedom, I touched wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover,” Bergman later wrote in his book Images. “At some time or other, I said that Persona saved my life—that is no exaggeration. If I had not found the strength to make that film, I would probably have been all washed up,” he added.
“One significant point: for the first time I did not care in the least whether the result would be a commercial success.”
To this day, Persona remains one of the most difficult and problematic films in Bergman’s extensive filmography.
6. Fanny and Alexander (1982)
Bergman’s 1982 three hour epic psychodrama, Fanny and Alexander, is one of his most critically acclaimed films. It is a sprawling, carefully constructed narrative which has the emotional power of Dickensian stories mixed with the psychological exposition of modernism.
The project offered a new difficulty for Bergman who, at the time of creating the screenplay, was drawing heavily on the childhood memories of his grandmother’s home: “It was difficult to differentiate between what was fantasy and what was considered real,” he commented. “If I made an effort, I was perhaps able to make reality stay real. But, for instance, there were ghosts and specters. What should I do with them? And the sagas, were they real?”
An extremely personal and detailed work, Fanny and Alexander is one of many Bergman’s bold and ambitious achievements in cinema.
5. Autumn Sonata (1978)
Autumn Sonata is an intense domestic drama that portrays the troubled relationships between a mother and her two daughters. The 1978 film is a beautifully sombre meditation on death and therefore, life. Bergman recognised that the pain in his subjects faces revealed much more than any exaggerated cinematic technique could.
Autumn Sonata, a film which holds the mantel of being the final of Bergman’s films to be made for theatrical exhibition, stars the likes of Ingrid Bergman, Liv Ullmann, Lena Nyman, Halvar Björk and tells the story of a classical pianist and her neglected daughter.
Autumn Sonata is a simple but powerful film that should be admired for its passionate dialectics.
4. Cries and Whispers (1972)
Another product of Ingmar Bergman’s dark vision of the human condition, this grim work is not just a film. It is an experience. Cries and Whispers propounds a brutal revelation, that humans are incapable of real relationships except on the most primitive level. The 1972 film is one of the most painful works of Bergman.
In typically poetic fashion, Bergman would later explain that he drew inspiration from a childhood memory of a mortuary during this project: “The young girl who had just been treated lay on a wooden table in the middle of the floor. I pulled back the sheet and exposed her. She was quite naked apart from a plaster that ran from throat to pudenda,” he explained. “I lifted a hand and touched her shoulder. I had heard about the chill of death, but the girl’s skin was not cold but hot. I moved my hand to her breast, which was small and slack with an erect black nipple. There was dark down on her abdomen. She was breathing.”
Cries and Whispers is perhaps the most accessible Bergman film but also, paradoxically, a very disturbing and difficult watch.
3. Through A Glass Darkly (1961)
Through a Glass Darkly is set on a remote island and follows the story of a schizophrenic woman who is discharged from the hospital and recovers in the company of her family, much like Persona. It is a visually exquisite work of art that unravels the meaning of human existence in the characteristically bleak fashion of Ingmar Bergman.
Bergman, on reflection of his work, once explained that “while I was preparing the film, I became interested in the human drama surrounding another human being who really was in the process of slipping away”. The filmmaker, discussing Through A Glass Darkly, described the screenplay as “a desperate attempt to present a simple philosophy: God is love, and love is God.”
Bergman’s 1961 film, the first of his trilogy, offers an introspective look at the psycho-dynamics of a family, each coming to terms with their own identities.
2. Wild Strawberries (1957)
This 1957 film is a profound character study that follows an elderly medical professor on his automobile trip to receive an honorary degree. An archetypal work of Bergman’s oeuvre, it is one of Bergman’s warmest films. In addition to Bergman’s poetic mastery of the camera, Victor Sjöström’s magnificent performance gives Wild Strawberries a much needed emotional authority.
The film is fondly remembered for a number of reasons, included the work of Sjöström in what would prove to be his final screen performance. The serious health concerns around Sjöström began to become more apparent on set but the actor was persuaded to take the role after being told: “All you have to do is lie under a tree, eat wild strawberries and think about your past, so it’s nothing too arduous.”
Elsewhere Bergman returned to his regulars in Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, and Gunnar Björnstrand who all bolstered the bustling cast.
In Wild Strawberries, Bergman conducts a fascinating exploration of the psychological realm of dreams and memories.
1. The Seventh Seal (1957)
The culmination of all the philosophical battles that Bergman fought in his films, The Seventh Seal is his finest film which allegorically depicts the violence and the struggle of modern life through a game of chess played between a disillusioned knight and the figure of Death. Bergman paints an unforgiving picture of a godless landscape with the only true master being Death.
The process of completing the project was a natural one for Bergman, who wrote in his autobiography, The Magic Lantern: “Wood Painting gradually became The Seventh Seal, an uneven film which lies close to my heart, because it was made under difficult circumstances in a surge of vitality and delight.”
The Seventh Seal is now famously remembered for its now iconic penultimate shot: “The image of the Dance of Death beneath the dark cloud was achieved at hectic speed because most of the actors had finished for the day,” Bergman said of the scene. “Assistants, electricians, and a make-up man and about two summer visitors, who never knew what it was all about, had to dress up in the costumes of those condemned to death. A camera with no sound was set up and the picture shot before the cloud dissolved.”
Asking questions about life, death and everything in between, The Seventh Seal is one of the most memorable works in the history of world cinema. It has solidified its place in cinematic tradition among the greatest films of all time with its haunting imagery and superb narrative techniques.