Staff Picks: The Ingenious Ingmar Bergman

Today marks the birth of Sweden’s premier master of the motion picture, Ingmar Bergman. In honor of this occasion, we at A Fistful of Film have chosen some of our favorite films of his.

The Seventh Seal (1957): By Amos Lamb

What can I say about The Seventh Seal that hasn’t already been said? It’s easily one of the most famous films of all time, with the image of Death playing chess being so ingrained in pop culture that I was aware of this film throughout my teenage years without having seen it or even knowing the name Ingmar Bergman. For years as I was trying to expand my worldwide film knowledge this was always in the back of my mind as something I needed to get around to, and when I finally did it was one of those rare occasions where as soon as the film ends you instantly know you’ve got a new all-time favorite film, something that I’ve only experience with a handful of films, but none of those other films came close to that feeling I got when the credits rolled after the famous “Danse Macabre” shot. 

The idea of my own mortality is something I’ve struggled with for years, even now it’s something that is hard for me, and I imagine most people, to reconcile with, so Bergman’s examination of death, life, and the meaning of it all was something that drew me in instantly. Similarly as someone who grew up in a Christian school but became disenfranchised with religion at an early age, I can reconcile with Bergman’s own tumultuous relationship with God and his trouble accepting the “silence of God,” a motif that is ever present in the film but best exemplified by the confessional scene where it is revealed Max Von Sydow’s emotional plea to a priest has actually been only heard by Death himself, a scene that has an important narrative meaning as well as a subtler thematic meaning too. Modern existentialism fits perfectly with the medieval setting, written shortly after the end of the Second World War, the idea of the crusades and the plague echo the idea of the impending Cold War and the uncertainty of the remainder of the 20th century. The setting creates a world that manages to be past, present and future all at once, I know some have tried to criticize the film for its historical inaccuracy, it would be remiss to imply that Bergman was trying to make a period piece, the setting serves as an allegory that represents the constant and ever present fear of morality that is intrinsic to humanity as a whole. 

It’s no secret that The Seventh Seal is my favorite film of all time, I’ll chew the ear off anyone who gives me the opportunity to talk about this film, and I’m sure for a lot of people it seems like the “safe” option or that with my limited knowledge of Bergman’s films that I only say that to seem more “cultured” or “pretentious”. But I can honestly say that no film has left a bigger impact on me or how I view life than this film and while there are a few films that have come close, so far I’ve yet to see anything that has managed to top Bergman’s masterpiece.

Wild Strawberries (1957): By David Alkhed

As a Swede, I have a very special relationship to Ingmar Bergman. Bergman was at once very Swedish yet very universal in his explorations into the human psyche and various moral and philosophical questions. Although I’ve only seen a small handful of his work (twelve out of more than thirty feature films), my feelings towards Mr. Bergman and his work can be described in two words: admiring yet detached. I will always respect Bergman’s role as an artist and his skills as a writer/director, and it’s also pretty darn cool to have a Swedish filmmaker be considered one of the world’s most influential, considering how tiny and regularly overlooked Sweden is as a country. But there is something about his films that come across as cold and detached to me, that sometimes can make it hard for me to relate to. This could also be due to some of the themes he regularly revisited such as religion having little to no significance to me or most Swedes in general. So I’m rarely too emotionally involved in his films as much as I’d perhaps like to be sometimes, but one of the few Bergman films I would consider genuinely moving is Wild Strawberries.

It seems like with Wild Strawberries, Bergman decided to let go of any rationalism and intellectualism that can sometimes hinder my enjoyment of some of his work and make a film that directly dealt with human emotions such as loneliness, nostalgia and guilt through a lens that can perhaps best be described as sentimentality, which actually made me think of this as Bergman’s version of A Christmas Carol. Yet all the emotions and all of the sentimentality is earned, with a lot of it having to do with Victor Sjöström’s brilliant performance as lead character Isak, who is able to display all of these emotions through his facial expressions and his vocal acting abilities. It is genuinely heartbreaking to see him virtually forcing himself to live through some painful memories, such as losing his sweetheart to his brother, or coming to the realization that he never loved his wife which had a negative impact on his son Evald. This was Sjöström’s final performance, and it stands as one of the great performances of all time, in any film or medium for that matter. If it wasn’t for Persona, this would be my favorite Bergman film.

This was also one of two films (the other being The Seventh Seal) that I had the privilege of seeing in a theatre in 2018, the year of Bergman’s 100th birthday.

Through a Glass Darkly (1961): By Saoirse Selway

Mental illness, family, and theatre were always central concerns of Bergman’s. The man would always do at least one play as a director a year and that was indeed how he met many of his favorite actors to work with. His conflict with his religious father fueled much of his incisive looks at families falling apart and also his central career thesis that man is abandoned on earth to suffer. This not only led to some of his darkest works but also some of his most transcendent. 

His next film after his first “best foreign language picture” win for The Virgin Spring, Through A Glass Darkly continues Bergman’s train of oblique examinations of human darkness and despairs. A chamber piece insomuch as the chamber is an island, Through a Glass Darkly often feels like a theatrical performance with its limited setting and cast, all the more highlighted when some members of the film’s central family put on their own amateur theatrical performance for the patriarch, (a top form Max Von Sydow), that seems to unlock the torment at the center of the family. 

The thing that makes this film special amongst Bergman’s canon though is the character of Karin, (in a supreme performance by Harriet Andersson) as a schizophrenic young woman who believes she is a channel for God. The question as to how true this is is the central crux of the movie and continues Bergman’s tradition of being thoroughly nihilistic but leaving the door open for transcendence. The best moment of the film is a scene where we see Karin receive God in this strange, ethereal dance of light body contortion and existential horror that gives Adjani’s breakdown in Possession a run for its money. 

Persona (1966): By Jacob Calta

The moment the film breaks, reality is shattered, and the world that was is changed.

Ingmar Bergman’s Persona is one of the few films that truly rocks me whenever I watch it. The story of an actress struck with muteness and her relationship with her nurse has become one of the great staples of film as a whole, and it is easy to see why. Every moment, performance, cut, and shot is a revelation. The kaleidoscopic opening of the film, the chemistry between Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson that goes through a whole range of emotions, that masterful moment of optical work where half of the faces of our two women form an unsettling whole. What we are treated to are 85 minutes of cinema at its most spectral, tormented, and emotionally potent.

While it would be disingenuous of me to say that I cried while watching this, it is hard not to be moved by it. Andersson sharing moments of devastating vulnerability with Ullmann in the dark of night is a powerful example of the film’s ways. The way these two interact, and the tragedian twists that come as their identities become mixed up, are what truly made this. There is only so much Bergman has in his power, and the final pieces of this puzzle come in the form of Andersson & Ullmann’s gripping performances.

Aesthetically, the film is blessed with a desolate feel in even the brightest summer day thanks to cinematographer Sven Nykvist. The film is told in extremes; wide shots and closeups. The closeups give the audience an express look deep into our leads’ feelings, and the wide shots are almost alienating in how far the figure we know is. Add in the simple, yet effective lighting, Lars Johan Werle’s Avant Garde score, and the cutting room chops of Ulla Ryghe, Bergman brings forth his modern masterpiece with great intelligence and ingenuity. Few perfect films grace this Earth, and few can make perfect films with the frequency and genius of Bergman.

The Rite (1969): By Amos Lamb

I feel like the phrase “underrated Bergman” is a loaded term, after all Bergman is one of the most influential and critically successful directors of all time with a whole catalog of classic films. But what comes with this is a back catalogue of lesser known films and TV movies that rarely get as seen as his more talked about films but end up excelling in a way that only a Bergman film could. The Rite follows the interrogation of a trio of actors who are accused of putting on an obscene performance, the interrogations take place collectively and individually all presided over by a Judge who provokes the trio to reveal their insecurities and unravels their complicated relationship to each other as well as their personal lives.

The film feels like a play, and could very possibly be put on as one, it uses limited sets, there’s only 4 actors in the entire thing, and the props required would be very little. But the film also utilises the technical ability of filmmaking to turn this simple premise into a cinematic marvel with traditional Bergman close-ups, tight editing and the use of black & white colouring that highlights the Judge’s binary considerations of obscenity. The performances from all four of the actors is incredible, each fleshing out and realising their own character while bouncing off of the others seamlessly. Ingrid Thulin & Erik Hell especially work well together with their dialogue together during the interrogation have such great chemistry that the emotion of the scene is so visceral.

It’s a very clever piece about the tyranny of censorship, the complexities of artists and what art itself means, running at only 72 minutes long the made for TV movie manages to wear you down emotionally as we see the breakdown of these characters before culminating in climactic performance of the allegedly obscene play itself. While I wouldn’t say it’s Bergman’s best, I would easily say that it is criminally underseen and shows that even working in a different format in a comparatively stripped down production Bergman can still create a powerfully stirring film that is equally entertaining as it is thought-provoking.

Cries and Whispers (1972): By Saoirse Selway

Many of Bergman’s most famous images are rendered in stark black and white. Whether it’s the dance of death from The Seventh Seal or the famous faces shot from Persona, the man knows how to tell stories in monochrome. It must be said though that equally some of his most prized cinematography, from Autumn Sonata to Fanny & Alexander is in immaculate color. In this respect, Cries and Whispers needs to be celebrated not only as one of Bergman’s most formally experimental films but also as a towering achievement in sound and vision. 

Cries and Whispers is fundamentally a film about trauma and grief which manifests themselves in different ways. Partly the overbearing reds that make us feel like we’re in some gothic blood red hell, and the immersive sound design that in a way that preempts Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, completely immerses us in the trauma of these characters. 

This deeply unsettling drama often plays out like the best of psychological horror, poking unconscious buttons and creating a mephitic atmosphere in doing so. It explores how we are trapped by ourselves, our lives, our pasts. Our mental illnesses trap us in our own worst qualities. In Bergman’s world, we suffer in our own interior existences until we die slowly and painfully, but there are moments of stark and tragic beauty along the way. 

We are each haunted by our pasts and traumas, which come back to us in our nightmares in the forms of cries and whispers. 

Fanny and Alexander (1982): By David Alkhed

After making more than thirty films over the last forty years, and now having spent several years as a refugee from his own country due to a tax scandal, Bergman (having reached the age of sixty) decided that he would bet all of his chips on the table and make one more final film before going into retirement. This didn’t exactly hold up, as he continued to direct many television films, stage plays, continued to write scripts for other director, and would also go on to live for another twenty-five years. If Fanny and Alexander had been his final film, it would’ve been the perfect way for Bergman to go out.

At once tender, sweet and funny but also disturbing, scary and provocative, Fanny and Alexander feels, in some ways, like the film Bergman had always wanted to make in his subconscious. Directly tackling his childhood memories, the film in some ways transcends traditional “autobiographical” films by having the film present itself almost as a piece of magical realism, where the line between a harsh reality and a more fantastical reality is always blurred, which in some ways depicts the childhood experience than any newsreel presentation of a childhood could do, at least in this case.

The Dickensian tale of the Ekdahls, seen primarily through the eyes of its children Alexander and his sister Fanny in turn-of-the-century Sweden in Bergman’s own hometown of Uppsala, is made even more compelling through its beautiful use of colors, and in the later parts of the film with the bishop (based on Bergman’s father) the lack of color. Fanny and Alexander deservedly became a huge hit amongst both critics and moviegoers alike, took home the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and is perhaps Bergman’s masterpiece.

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