2020 was the year of Ingmar Bergman
My big pop culture goal for 2020 was to watch all of Criterion’s “Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema” box set. I have not been ignorant of Ingmar Bergman over the years, but the Swedish director has long been the world cinema giant whose work has seemed the most daunting. (Akira Kurosawa has been my movies-with-subtitles fave since high school.) So, while standing in a Barnes and Noble in December 2019, pondering a purchase of this massive 30-disc box set, I set myself the challenge of actually watching the whole darn thing over the next year.
I succeeded. And, unsurprisingly, I am now a huge Ingmar Bergman fan. Of the 39 films and two miniseries included in the box (it’s not all of Bergman’s work but a vast majority), I found myself truly disliking only one film. There are some mixed-bag efforts, to be sure, but in general the hit-to-miss ratio is ridiculously high on hits.
Here is my personal take on these films. Obviously, it’s quirky and specific to me, but I’m not reinventing the wheel. I think most of the acknowledged classics deserve their reputations, even if I thought some highly praised films (Summer with Monika, Summer Interlude) were simply good, not amazing.
My 5 Ingmar Bergman favorites
Scenes from a Marriage (1973) – Originally broadcast in Sweden as a six-part miniseries, this minutely observed examination of the crumbling of a relationship is possibly the best thing I’ve ever seen. In the box set, the original miniseries and the 3-hour U.S. theatrical edit are both presented. The miniseries is better, but the theatrical version creates a slightly different, more claustrophobic mood by cutting out most scenes not involving the two main characters, played by Bergman superstars Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson. Bergman’s characters are so fully realized, even in the elliptical “scenes” we are presented, that we feel like voyeurs peering into the lives of neighbors. The effect is electrifying and emotionally intense.
The Seventh Seal (1957) – Maybe Bergman’s best known film. This is the one where a medieval knight plays chess with death, a scene parodied in beer commercials and movies like Last Action Hero and Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey. I cued this one up after learning of the passing of star Max von Sydow back in March. von Sydow is the knight, who has returned disillusioned from the Crusades to find his home is beset with the black plague. He hooks up with a caravan of actors and they travel the countryside. Meanwhile, the knight tries to fend off his inevitable death, which Bergman has made literal with his chess game conceit. Anyone who thinks this film is pretentious probably hasn’t seen it. This oddly might be Bergman’s funniest film, if only to cope with the terror of death and pestilence. It won’t replace The Big Lebowski as someone’s go-to comedy, but it’s not the dreary slog you might be fearing.
Through a Glass Darkly (1961) – One of three films by Bergman to win the Best Foreign Film Oscar (the others are Fanny and Alexander and The Virgin Spring.) I watched this back in February in anticipation of the Academy Awards. (Remember that? When Parasite won? That was great.) Harriet Andersson is heartbreaking and mesmerizing as a schizophrenic woman whose family fumbles to cope with her condition during a seaside vacation. The characters’ conversations deal with God, sex, and family-inflicted trauma — Bergman’s pet subjects. The rawness of Andersson’s tour de force performance was a surprise to a lot of folks at the time — including Andersson — who knew her only from lighter and less intense roles earlier in Bergman’s career. She later excelled at playing another tortured soul in Bergman’s 1972 film Cries and Whispers.
Fanny and Alexander (1982) – I bookended my little Bergman box set challenge with the 3-hour theatrical edit of Fanny and Alexander last December and the 5 1/2-hour uncut miniseries version this December. It seemed fitting, since this sumptuous period drama begins with a long Christmas party, where we are introduced to the Ekdahl family. It’s a well-to-do extended clan held together by grandma Gunn Wållgren. Her three sons are: a businessman who is an unrepentant womanizer, a drunk professor who is bad with money, and an overworked theater manager who doubles as a bad actor. The theater manager is the father of young Fanny and Alexander, and he has the bad luck to fall ill one day during rehearsal and die. In her loneliness, the children’s mother marries a bishop who forces the children to submit to strict discipline. Sensitive daydreamer Alexander (presumably a stand-in for young Bergman) does not adjust to the change. Watching the long version at the end of the box set, it feels like a magnum opus that encompasses so much of what Bergman is about: a memory piece about a wild and warm family with its own traumas and tribulations, informed by ruminations on religion, love, theater, magic, and folklore.
Sawdust and Tinsel (1953) – I had seen this film years ago, and misremembered it as a happier film. Maybe because of the fact that it is set in a traveling circus. Instead, this is an unflinching look at the way love makes people humiliate themselves, especially when their lovers get tired of them. The opening dialogue-free sequence, in which a clown is humiliated by his good-time wife, is justifiably famous as one of Bergman’s most bravura pieces of filmmaking. Sawdust and Tinsel is a tear-jerking melodrama whose brilliant performances and empathetic storytelling makes the whole thing much more of a pleasure to watch than it reasonably should be.
The next 10 Ingmar Bergman masterpieces (in alphabetical order)
There’s not a lot separating these 10 films from the first five, apart from my slight preference. These are all must-sees too.
Autumn Sonata (1978) – Ingmar directs Ingrid, in their only collaboration. Casablanca star Ingrid Bergman plays an aging actress who decides to visit her adult daughters, not realizing all the long-simmering resentments that will be exposed during her stay.
Cries and Whispers (1972) – Bergman is often noted as a great writer and director of women. This film assembles three of the best women he has worked with as 19th Century middle-class sisters, stuck in an existential purgatory. Harriet Andersson is dying, and neither Ingrid Thulin nor Liv Ullmann know how to cope. Even for Bergman, this film is pretty spare, and it took me a few watches (over many years) before I warmed to this. The key is the performances: they are the life-blood of this thing.
Hour of the Wolf (1968) – This film and The Magician (listed next) are Bergman’s two closest approximations of a traditional horror film. Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann are a couple living in a secluded cabin. Their relationship becomes more fraught as von Sydow slowly drifts away from reality. Is it mental illness? Is he a vampire? A werewolf? The film never comes right out and says it, but Bergman soaks the atmosphere in dread and indulges in a few harrowing gross-outs.
The Magician (1958) – A traveling magician is put on trial in this psychodrama steeped in slow-burn horror with some unexpected twists up its sleeve. I could say more, but this is a film that is fun to be surprised by.
Persona (1966) – Bergman is prone to using symbolism in his films, but Persona is the flick of his that most feels like it was written in code. A young nurse spends time caring for a traumatized actress at a secluded beach house. During their time together, they become uncomfortably close — so close that the threat of merging into the same person arises. Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann are so powerful and strange that they became icons in these roles.
The Silence (1963) – Another hallucinogenic psychodrama. Two sisters find themselves stranded in a large decrepit hotel in a foreign country on the brink of war. There are shades of Persona here, as the two sisters could be two aspects of the same person: one driven by the sensual and the other obsessed with the mental. The film is full of jarring, primal images.
Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) – An ensemble romantic comedy that became Bergman’s international calling card. (The success of this paved the way for Bergman to make the less commercial Seventh Seal.) Early in the ’50s, Bergman tried to shed his reputation as a dour maker of melodramas, but this is the first of his comedies that has the same depth and quality as his best known downbeat films. During the bleak early days of the pandemic, this was a nice balm.
The Virgin Spring (1960) – The only Bergman film to be remade as a slasher. Based on a 13th Century folktale, Max von Sydow plays a grief-stricken father who takes revenge on the transients who terrorized, raped, and murdered his daughter. Wes Craven later admitted The Last House on the Left was loosely based on this film.
Wild Strawberries (1957) – I think this might have been my first Bergman, back in high school. It has always stuck with me. It’s about an aging professor who takes a road trip that sends him down memory lane. One suspects that David Lynch was taking notes during the surreal opening dream sequence.
Winter Light (1963) – Real Bergman heads know. This is a brilliant showcase for less-heralded Bergman actors Gunnar Björnstrand and Ingrid Thulin, as a pastor and schoolteacher in a small rural town. Björnstrand wrestles with his dwindling faith in God while trying to provide comfort to a small and uncertain congregation. Thulin loves him, but realizes she cannot save him. Beautiful, searing, intimate.
Some lesser-known greats
Further examples of Bergman’s sensitive and complex work with ensemble female casts can be found in the maternity ward melodrama Brink of Life and the multi-story romance Waiting Women.
His 1960 supernatural sex dramedy The Devil’s Eye initially seems like one of Bergman’s overcooked attempts at laffs — with Don Juan sent by the devil to seduce to a virgin for him — but the characters are given unexpected depth and humanity, both by Bergman’s script and his talented troupe of actors.
Bergman spun off two unusual films from Scenes from a Marriage: two side characters reappeared as the main characters in the Fassbinder-esque murder story From the Life of the Marionettes while Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson returned as their central characters after thirty years for Bergman’s final film, Saraband.
He also followed-up Hour of the Wolf with two thematically similar films about a couple in seclusion whose existence is shattered by violence, Shame and The Passion of Anna.
In 1977, Bergman made a relatively big-budget film in West Germany, The Serpent’s Egg, starring David Carradine of Kung Fu (and later, Kill Bill) fame. It’s considered a disaster, but I really dug its grungy high-concept take on Weimar-era Berlin. If you like the series Babylon Berlin on Netflix, you should give this a shot too.
In 1970 and ’79, Bergman made documentaries about his adopted home on the island of Fårö: Fårö Document and Fårö Document 1979. The second one is a little better and more fleshed-out, but they are both fascinating insights into rural life and the inspiration it had on Bergman’s later movies.
Bergman worked in the theater at the same time he was making movies, and it offered a backdrop for much of his work, including the 1984 Strindberg-style chamber drama After the Rehearsal, the psychosexual mindfuck of The Rite, and the theater-cinema hybrid found in Bergman’s fairly straightforward mounting of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute.
The interesting early flicks
Bergman is best known for having a fairly sedate visual style. Great shots, but not a lot of flashy movements and whatnot. It’s a shock then to see Bergman’s early work that is in the box set. He was often a lot bolder and flashier with his style then. His first film, Crisis, looks kind of like an early film noir directed by Pedro Almodóvar.
Bergman slowly found his voice as he made a series of tragic romances: A Ship to India, Port of Call, To Joy, Summer Interlude, and Summer with Monika. All of them are much franker about relationships and especially sex than American films of the time. Summer Interlude includes jokes about cunnilingus, while Summer with Monika was initially marketed in the U.S. as a skin flick thanks to its (pretty brief and tame) nudity.
A Lesson in Love was Bergman’s first attempt at romantic comedy. And while it lacks the zip of, say, a Preston Sturges script — or even the ingenuity of Bergman’s own work on Smiles of Summer Night — it’s agreeable and charming nonetheless.
The mixed bags (and worse)
All These Women was Bergman’s first color film, and his broadest attempt at a comedy. I say attempt, because there really aren’t any laughs. That’s not to say it’s a complete washout. Bergman crafts some enjoyably barbed dialogue, and it’s kind of amazing how wildly bonkers this thing is. He made this between the visually striking and narratively experimental flicks The Silence and Persona; you can see Bergman tinkering like he did with those films, but this time it didn’t totally work.
The Touch was Bergman’s first English-language film, with Elliott Gould starring opposite Bibi Andersson. It’s kind of a manic-depressive love story. The manic scenes are more fun, unsurprisingly.
Similarly, Bergman’s earlier modeling agency melodrama Dreams shows glimmers of his greatness, but it’s kind of dull overall.
The only film in the set I couldn’t bring myself to like was Thirst. It had all of the bad habits of Bergman’s early soapy melodramas and none of the good ones.
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While I won’t be rewatching the entire box set any time soon, I am extremely likely to revisit each of these flicks at different intervals in the future. Bergman is not stiflingly highbrow; he’s just a great storyteller. Don’t be scared off. Plunge in!
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Justin Remer makes movies, directs music videos, and plays in the bands Duck the Piano Wire and Elastic No-No Band when he is not writing movie reviews. His folk-rock documentary MAKING LOVERS & DOLLARS is currently streaming on Amazon.