I rewatched every film Bergman directed specifically for this post, so my thoughts on his films are as current as they can be. This post is a bit long (Bergman made a lot of movies), but I hope you find value in it.
There’s a common misconception that great filmmakers aren’t allowed to make bad movies, and if they do, we often skewer them more viciously than we would a mediocre filmmaker. To be clear, Crisis isn’t an awful film, but there’s nothing inherently grand about it either. The plot is relatively simple: a small town gal named Jenny gets a dose of the big city and returns home a wiser, fuller woman. There are interesting character developments, including three love triangles. The first is Jenny’s daughterly affection being split between her foster mother and her birth mother; the second is between Jenny, her mother, and the man they both love, Jack; and the final one concerns Jenny, Jack and a homely suitor pursuing Jenny.
Crisis doesn’t feel like a Bergman film – there are dashes of decent cinematography, and the performances are occasionally strong – but, interestingly, I like the movie more than Bergman himself. In his memoir, “Images” (which I’ll be referencing often in this post), Bergman said the making of Crisis was one of the worst experiences of his life. “I recall the first day of shooting as a complete and unadulterated horror,” he writes. “In theory I knew exactly what I wanted to do. In reality, everything went straight to hell.” As we’ll see, Bergman was always his harshest critic. C-
There’s a poignant message at the core of It Rains on Our Love, which declares that once you are persecuted, you never look at things the same. The world around you is uglier, a little less friendly. This film concerns itself with Maggi and David, two troubled people who meet by chance and fall in love. They start a new life together, intending to bother no one in their quaint little town. But because Maggi and David have made mistakes, they are consistently marginalized by the people around them. The best scene of the film comes near the end, when the lovers look out over their village, a place they once adored together, and remark how it no longer seems beautiful. They were unjustly harmed, and they will never look at people, and the world that inhabits them, the same. While the film is far from great, it’s nice to see one of Bergman’s favorite themes, that of tested love, exercised so well so early. B-
A Ship Bound for India is a needlessly complex melodrama about the strained relationship between a sailor, Johannes, his stern father, Captain Alexander, and Sally, the woman they both love. Relying heavily on flashbacks (a narrative device Bergman would later master), the film begins in the present, with Johannes and Sally reconnecting, then jumps back seven years to chronicle the sad stories of everyone involved.
The film is too complicated for its own good. Bergman initially liked the movie, thinking he had made a small masterpiece. But after a disastrous screening at the Cannes Film Festival (the sound didn’t work and reels played out of order), the film was critically panned and never regained its footing. Still, Bergman learned a valuable lesson from his hardship: it is essential to oversee all aspects of the filmmaking process, including the sound mixing and printing of your film. D+
After losing his sight due to a firing range accident, once-talented pianist, Bengt (Birger Malmsten, a staple of Bergman’s early work), becomes an embittered man, despite receiving love from Ingrid, a servant of Bengt’s wealthy parents. What’s unique about Music in Darkness is that Bergman isn’t interested in watching a disabled person grow to accept their circumstances. As the movie goes on, Bengt becomes more callous, while the disenfranchised Ingrid becomes more wholesome. Once the character roles are established, Music in Darkness becomes rather conventional, but the film is still a fine effort. In fact, the movie is worth seeing alone for its surreal montage that takes place while Bengt is in a coma. If you’re as obsessed with Bergman’s Persona as I am, you’ll appreciate watching the director embrace obscurity so early in his career. B-
Port of Call is one of Bergman’s finest early efforts. It also marks the first time Bergman really got outside and explored a setting. The movie releases Bergman from the caged-in, theater-like sets of his first four features, and places him in a gritty, working-class Swedish shipyard. The film is about a small town girl with a troubled past who meets a sailor and falls in love. Port of Call is a love story told Bergman’s way, with tragedy being the bridge that brings the lovers together. There’s some risqué material in the film (for one made in 1948), including critiques of the juvenile penal system, religious conservatism, and man’s hypocrisy of female sexual exploration.
Most notably, Port of Call is the first Bergman film where the cinematography is engaging throughout. Lensed by Gunnar Fischer (who would go on to shoot Bergman’s Summer with Monika, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Magician, and more) Port of Call’s reliance on darkness and reflection help capture the secretive unease of the characters. B
One of the principal intentions of film is to create a world your audience becomes so engulfed in, they forget they’re watching a movie. Bergman, however, never cared about this. His films often contained characters talking to the audience, and Bergman himself occasionally appeared, most notably in Persona, when he’s shown directing a scene with cinematographer Sven Nykvist. Prison contains a great early instance of this. After the film’s amusing prologue, a narrator (Bergman himself) tells us that we’ve just seen the prologue of “our” film, and proceeds to recite the credits for Prison. He ends by cheekily saying, “Something like six months has passed since the prologue,” and then the movie begins again.
Prison is a very complex film. In the beginning, a director is pitched an idea by his old professor: make a movie in which the Devil declares that Earth is hell. The director doesn’t like the idea, but he can’t stop thinking about it. He tells his friend, a suicidal writer, about the idea and suddenly the idea turns into a film within the film. Prison was Bergman’s first movie made outside of the studio system, and while it isn’t as accomplished as his other complex work, it is the first taste of what the director would do with his independent vision. B-
At the center of Thirst is a tumultuous train ride shared by wife Ruth (Eva Henning) and husband Bertil (Birger Malmsten). As they travel from Italy to Stockholm during post-WWII, Ruth, who’s troubled past fuels her alcoholic mania, and Bertil fight over present hardships and past woes. The argument is vicious and engaging, but when Thirst devotes long sections to various subplots, the film becomes less interesting. The movie is based on a series of short stories, and I suspect the disconnected nature of the tales works better in print than it does on film. Eva Henning gives one of the great early Bergman performances as Ruth, but I wish Bergman found a way to sustain the Ruth/Bertil sequence for the length of a feature film. Cutting away from it does that portion of the movie a disservice. B-
Bergman often put a bit of himself in his films, and To Joy is one of his most blatantly autobiographical pictures. The film opens with a musician named Stig learning that his wife and child have died in a horrible accident. We then jump back to see how Stig (Stig Olin) and Martha (Maj-Britt Nilsson) met, fell in love and shared a life together. Their marriage was not an easy one; Martha was riddled with insecurity, Stig was an unfaithful asshole. But the love was there, and for better or worse, they managed to keep finding each other.
The parallels between To Joy and Bergman’s life are plentiful. Stig is a musician trying to prove himself, which reflects Bergman’s filmmaking career at the time. The film was made when Bergman was going through his second divorce (one caused by his own infidelity), Stig’s mentor in the film is played by Bergman’s real life mentor, the great director and actor Victor Sjöström, and Bergman himself appears in To Joy, looking right into the camera as if to shame himself. I was indifferent on To Joy when I first saw it, but knowing how openly Bergman was critiquing himself through Stig makes me appreciate the movie much more. B
“Few of my films do I feel ashamed of or detest for various reasons. This Can’t Happen Here was the first one.” Those are Bergman’s thoughts on This Can’t Happen Here, taken from “Images.” This Can’t Happen Here is a lame spy thriller Bergman made for a paycheck. It was meant to be a crossover hit with America (they simultaneously shot it in English and Swedish), but the movie bombed everywhere. Bergman called the process of making the film tortuous from beginning to end. He had no casting control or script approval; no interest or no vision. This Can’t Happen Here is a rare Bergman film that looks and feels nothing like a Bergman film. Bergman’s wish was that no one ever saw it (I was only able to watch it in a college course focused on showing obscure foreign films). Best to respect the man’s wishes. D
Summer Interlude is where things begin to shift for Bergman. For the most part, his post-Summer Interlude career consists of very well made films that are still discussed, with a few oddballs mixed in. Before Summer Interlude, it was the other way around.
When we first meet Marie (Maj-Britt Nilsson), she’s a 28-year-old successful ballet dancer getting little out of life. She’s down, repressed, lost. When she receives the diary of a former lover, she remembers. She remembers the summer she spent with Henrik (Birger Malmsten). She remembers their innocence, their discovery; she remembers what it was like to live. She also remembers the tragedy that struck toward the end of summer, leading her down the depressing path that leads her to where she is now.
Summer Interlude is an Ingmar Bergman film. It looks and feels like his work while dealing with themes that would come to define his career. Marie’s transformation from old and cynical to young and free is jarring; it makes for a classic Bergman performance. The film was based on a summer interlude Bergman had with a woman when he was young. The film took him years to write, but the result is a smart, unsentimental remembrance of love and love lost. A-
Secrets of Women is about a group of four sisters-in-law who take turns telling stories about the men in their lives. Some stories are sad, others are funny, but most aren’t as profound as they intend to be. These flashback tales of infidelity, depression, pregnancy, and paternal disarray all carry little weight. But Secrets of Women is notable for its most humorous segment, in which a wealthy married couple (played by Gunnar Björnstrand and Eva Dahlbeck) is stuck in an elevator and forced to talk to one another. As a standalone sequence, the elevator scene is one of the best things Bergman made at the time of the film’s release. But everything else falls just below the line of being noteworthy. B-
We’ve all thought about it: quitting our jobs, leaving home, going away. No responsibility, no worry. Maybe you’re leaving with someone special, someone you just met, someone you’re infatuated with. Maybe your trip is an open-ended boat journey for the summer. Docking at this pier and that, skinny-dipping during the day, making love on the beach at night. You’ll fall in love, you’ll be happy. But what happens when the illusion stops? When the money runs out and the clothes are dirty and the food is gone. Worse still, what will come of your love when you inevitably return home?
Such is the journey of Harry (Lars Ekborg) and Monika (Harriet Andersson, her first of many incredible Bergman performances), two young, idealistic lovers who leave jobs they hate and families who don’t respect them, and go away for the summer. What develops is a great film about the idolization of young love. “Why do some people have all the luck while others are miserable?” Monika asks Harry during the most telling exchange in the film. “We have each other,” he responds. And in return, she says nothing. Because at that point, what else is there to say? A
Sawdust and Tinsel is often regarded as a comedy, but the film is actually a uniquely dark look at how past mistakes haunt you forever. Circus owner Albert Johansson (Ake Grönberg) is not a decent man. He left his wife and children years ago and has now taken up with a much younger actress in his troupe, Anne (Harriet Andersson). When the circus returns to Albert’s hometown, Anne warns him that if he visits his abandoned wife, Anne will leave him. Albert visits his wife anyway and is faced with a dilemma of atoning for his past or saving his future. He can’t have both, and he could have neither.
Bergman said that this film was intensely autobiographical, and it displayed many of his worst qualities as a man, including his longing after former lovers, and his romantic jealousy when in relationships. Fun fact: When cinematographer Hilding Bladh had to leave the shoot for other commitments, the great Sven Nykvist came on board to finish shooting, planting the early seeds of what would become one of cinema’s finest director/cinematographer collaborations. A-
A Lesson in Love showcases a gentle and easygoing Bergman. The film is often labeled as a decent warm-up to Smiles of a Summer Night, the finest comedy Bergman made. David (Gunnar Björnstrand) and Marianne (Eva Dahlbeck) are a married couple on the outs, who together remember how they got to where they are. The film relies on extensive flashbacks, some revealing the couple in happier times, others showing David and Marianne at their humorous worst. Björnstrand is the clear highlight here. David is unlike any performance the actor delivered for Bergman (Smiles of a Summer Night aside); whimsical, charming, light on his feet. When you juxtapose David with Björnstrand’s work as a vile priest in Winter Light, for example, you can fully appreciate the range of one of Bergman’s most gifted actors. B
Dreams was spawn out of retribution. Having made a series of box office failures (including Sawdust and Tinsel, which failed to connect with audiences), Bergman promised his financiers that he would bring in money with his next film. So he made Dreams, a conventional film about three people hoping their dreams will come to life, even for a moment.
A fashion photographer, Susanne (Eva Dahlbeck), travels to Gothenburg with her best model, Doris (Harriet Andersson), and each manages to get into romantic trouble while they’re there. Susanne longs to reconnect with a former lover, while Doris meets and goes home with an older man (Gunnar Björnstrand). All three main characters have secrets and desires, and they act on them accordingly. The problem is, the film goes where you expect it to. Every actor involved is great, and Bergman has fun shooting a frantic scene set in an amusement park, but all told, Dreams is proof that intentional convention and Ingmar Bergman do not necessarily mix. C
Let’s get it all straight: Fredrik (Gunnar Björnstrand) is married to the much younger Anne (Ulla Jacobsson), but Fredrik is still smitten with Desiree (Eva Dahlbeck), an actress he had a relationship with between his marriages. Desiree may feel the same about Fredrik, but she’s currently sleeping with Count Carl-Magnus (Jarl Kulle), who is married to Charlotte (Margit Carlqvist). To add to the romantic entanglement, Fredrik has a grown son, Henrik, who may be in love with Anne (who is technically Henrik’s step mother). Desiree gets the idea to put all of these people together in her country home for an evening, where comedic chaos ensues.
Smiles of a Summer Night is one of Bergman’s best films, and easily the best comedy he made. The film toes the line of farcical and earnest; it’s extremely well written, and every cast member (I haven’t even mentioned Fredrik’s nosy maid, played by Harriet Andersson) is excellent. Despite the complicated romantic intentions of the characters, Smiles of a Summer Night is one of Bergman’s most accessible films. At the time of its release, the film was the most expensive Swedish film ever made. But the movie was a huge success, resulting in Bergman being given full financial and creative freedom in many of his films to follow. And look where he went from there. A
The most moving explanation I have ever heard of a director describing why they do what they do comes from Ingmar Bergman explaining what happened to him while writing The Seventh Seal. Before making the film, Bergman had a paralyzing fear of death. It was a fear that took hold of his every waking moment. So he wrote about it. He wrote about his fear of mortality and his desire to understand religion. He titled the prose The Seventh Seal, named after a passage in the Book of Revelation. And right as Bergman was set to begin shooting the film, he realized that his fear of death had been excised. Of this revelation, Bergman said, “Either I did away with that fear through writing, or in the course of writing, I discovered it was no longer intrusive. The bottom line is: it’s gone.”
From The Seventh Seal forward, Bergman (mostly) made films to understand who he was. He explored his faults, personal fears, and constant struggles, and put them into his work. It is for this reason that his career is sharply divided by the movies he made before The Seventh Seal (many of which are fine, most of which are lacking), and the films he made after The Seventh Seal.
The Seventh Seal is often parodied for its unique, stark imagery, but most of these humorous incarnations come from a place of respect. Because who can forget the tired, embattled knight, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), playing chess with Death (Bengt Ekerot) on a foreboding beach? Similarly, once you’ve seen The Seventh Seal, the shot of several people dancing with Death in silhouette, en route to their ultimate demise, will not leave your mind.
Concerning the film’s story, I find it’s better to let the film reveal itself to you. If you haven’t seen it, I promise it isn’t as complicated as you may have heard. It’s easy to consume and even has amusing bits of humor sprinkled throughout. The Seventh Seal is an uncontested masterpiece, one of cinema’s finest works. I will cherish it forever. A+
Bergman’s meditative masterpiece, Wild Strawberries, is one of the film’s finest depictions of melancholic remembrance. The film is a journey into the mind of a hopelessly broken man named Isak Borg. Borg (the great actor/director Victor Sjöström) is an obstinate asshole, rife with contradictions. While en route from Stockholm to Lund, Borg has dreams and nightmares about his youth; harsh reflections that force him to examine his plight. Sjöström is astounding in the film; the performance ranks among the finest Bergman ever captured. Ingrid Thulin (as Borg’s daughter-in-law) gives her first (and ultimately one of her best) Bergman performances here. Her quiet consideration is a perfect balance to Sjöström’s cantankerous attitude.
Wild Strawberries was Bergman’s way of commenting on his failures. Like Isak Borg, Bergman was in a personal crisis, suffering through his third divorce, fighting bitterly with his parents, and ending yet another affair (this time with Bibi Andersson). But professionally, Bergman, like Borg, was highly respected. It is this dichotomy of personal struggle and professional success that Bergman was interested in exploring. “Isak Borg equals me,” Bergman wrote in “Images.” “I had created a figure who, on the outside, looked like my father but was me, through and through.” All of Bergman’s best films were a lacerating depiction of his personal troubles. Wild Strawberries is certainly one of the best examples of this. A+
Brink of Life (also widely known as So Close to Life) is a rare Bergman effort that is hardly discussed but remains great. The film tells the stories of three women sharing the same room in a maternity ward. Stina (Eva Dahlbeck) is excited to have her child and is supported by her loving husband (a gentle Max von Sydow); Cecilia (Ingrid Thulin) has a horrible husband (Erland Josephson), who she is considering separating from; and Hjördis (Bibi Andersson), alone and unsupported, resents her unborn child and is considering an abortion.
The film is one of Bergman’s most exacting portrayals of life as a woman. Bergman was such a keen observer of the hardships of women, and that is on full display here. The three female leads (along with Barbro Hiort af Ornäs, who plays a nurse) were all awarded the Best Actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival (Bergman also won Best Director). Interestingly, Brink of Life never really resonated with Bergman. Prior to writing “Images” in 1990, Bergman hadn’t seen the film since its release. “All together, the film isn’t much,” Bergman wrote. “The actresses remain its biggest asset.” I agree with the second part. A-
The Magician is Bergman’s way of openly mocking his critics. Back in Bergman’s day, if a critic didn’t like your work, they described why they didn’t like it, and arrogantly suggested ways in which the filmmaker could improve. Focus on this theme or that, use different lighting, hire other actors, and so on. This infuriated Bergman, and of this anger, The Magician was born.
The film is about Albert Volger (Max von Sydow), a magician who has increased trouble believing in his work. Volger travels to a new town with his troupe, including wife Manda (Ingrid Thulin). Once in town, they are immediately scrutinized by Vergerus (Gunnar Björnstrand), the Minister of Health, and Egerman (Erland Josephson), the police chief. The townspeople fear that the magician will actually harm them with real magic, even though Volger himself insists he is a complete fraud
Volger represents Bergman’s insecurity as a filmmaker, while Vergerus and Egerman are surrogates of the critics who preyed on Bergman’s self-doubt. Bergman said that Vergerus was a proxy for critic Harry Schein, who loathed much of Bergman’s work. (Most interestingly, Schein was married to Ingrid Thulin. Can you imagine what dinner parties with these people must have been like?) This is clever film, one I’ve never been able to pin down fully. One on hand, The Magician doesn’t hit me as hard as Bergman’s other films do. In the middle of the movie, for example, von Sydow, Thulin, Björnstrand and Josephson are all absent for more than 20 minutes, and the film suffers for it. On the other hand, I never want to stop writing or talking about it. A lot is going on in this film, certainly more than what’s on the surface. Bergman always insisted it was a comedy. That’s something to think about. A-
I suppose every prolific filmmaker has a movie like The Virgin Spring. That is, a film the director himself hates, but the audience generally appreciates. The Virgin Spring is a complex morality tale. After a young woman is raped and killed on her way to church, her father (played by Max von Sydow) vows revenge on her murderers. The film posits a few dilemmas: Is the concept of “eye for an eye” morally correct, even if the Bible says so, and how proportionate should the revenge should be to the crime?
This is a masterful film, and its story has been retold countless times in film, most notably in Wes Craven’s first feature, The Last House on the Left. But Bergman grew to hate The Virgin Spring. While he says the making of the film was pleasant, Bergman eventually sided with his critics, who called the movie a cheap knockoff of Kurosawa. The Virgin Spring ultimately won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film, but Bergman didn’t care. He barely mentions the movie in “Images” and refers to the film as “an aberration” in “Bergman on Bergman.” I simply do not understand Bergman’s problem with the movie. I believe it remains one of his seminal classics; a turning point from “old Bergman” (in which his films were set far in the past), to “contemporary Bergman.” The Virgin Spring is one of my favorite Ingmar Bergman films, and will undoubtedly remain as such. A+
The old Irish proverb says that “A woman’s chastity is a sty in the Devil’s eye.” And while you and I may dismiss that amusing maxim, Bergman based an entire comedy on it. In The Devil’s Eye, the wholesomeness of a vicar’s daughter (Bibi Andersson) has caused a sty to form in the eye of the Devil himself. Annoyed by this, the Devil sends Don Juan to Earth on a mission to deflower the innocent young woman. But when Don Juan arrives, he finds himself entranced by the woman, thus sending everyone involved into a frenzy.
As the plot may suggest, The Devil’s Eye is slight Bergman. Bergman himself never really liked the movie, and time has proven that what went on behind the scenes was more impactful than what made it into the movie. The Devil’s Eye marked the last time Bergman and his then-regular cinematographer, Gunnar Fischer, would work together. Fischer and Bergman had polar opposite personalities and rarely saw eye to eye. Due to a prior commitment, Fischer was unable to shoot The Virgin Spring, so Bergman hired Sven Nykquist to lens that film. With the Bergman/Nykquist collaboration going so well on The Virgin Spring, and the Bergman/Fischer collaboration going so poorly on The Devil’s Eye, Bergman made Nykquist his new cinematographer, and together, they created some of the finest looking films ever made. B-
Through a Glass Darkly presents a new form for Bergman: contemporary-set films, small cast, shot locally (on Bergman’s resident island, Fårö), and lensed with a keen understanding of physical light as character. The film was a career rebirth, a metaphor Bergman makes clear during the movie’s opening shot, which shows four characters running out of the ocean, toward the camera.
Through a Glass Darkly is an emotionally complex tale of mental health, jealousy, and deception. Karin (Harriet Andersson) has just been released from the hospital after being treated for schizophrenia. Her kind husband, Martin (Max von Sydow), does not think she can be helped. Her detached father, David (Gunnar Björnstrand), is using Karen’s illness to enhance his writing. And her young brother, Minus (Lars Passgård), is tormented by the neglect he receives from his father. The film covers 24 hours of emotional hell for the characters, mainly Karin, whose mental state slowly descends into a living nightmare.
Although the movie won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, Bergman was never a fan of it. He loved Andersson’s performance and cherished Sven Nykquist’s photography, but not much else. I disagree with the master, yet again. A+
Winter Light is one of the best character studies ever made. The film is 81 minutes long, and needn’t be a minute longer. In that tight frame, Bergman perfectly encapsulates regret, turmoil, angst, and rage through the character of Pastor Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Björnstrand, a career-best performance). The film is as easy to watch as it is difficult. The ease of the picture is in its length, sure, but also in the way it looks. Bergman and Nykquist constructed a church on Fårö and spent days sitting in it, watching how the sun would affect the lighting within the structure. Once they had their lighting cues, they began filming, creating a film in which every shot is gritty, cold, and flawless.
The difficulty of the film is how ruthless the characters can be; many are spiteful and beyond redemption. When I rewatched the movie for this post, I remembered Tomas being a bastard from the beginning. But this is wrong. At the start, he is confused, sick, longing for answers. He becomes mean. This is best captured in two sequences, which remain highlights of Bergman’s career. The first is Tomas’ ex, Märta (Ingrid Thulin, her beauty hidden behind her character’s angst), reading a long, scathing letter she has written to Tomas. The second is Tomas sharing his frustration about the letter to Märta.
Winter Light is a great film. It’s so good, that a documentary about the making of Winter Light, Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie, runs more than two times the length of Winter Light itself. Sometimes it takes a while to explain why something is great. A+
The time, unknown. The place, unknown. We don’t know where they are, but neither do they. So begins The Silence, Bergman’s conclusion to his unofficial Faith Trilogy, preceded by Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light. The movie starts on a train, but soon, Ester (Ingrid Thulin), Anna (Gunnel Lindblom), and Anna’s son, Johan (Jörgen Lindström), decide to shack up in a mostly abandon hotel and wait. For what, we’re not sure. The setting seems to be war-torn. The people of the town walk around aimlessly; some look hungry, others look energized. There’s a purposeful displacement of The Silence that makes the movie inherently unsettling. It’s pure Bergman.
Ester and Anna aren’t getting along, and it’s unclear if they ever really have. While Ester drinks and smokes her health away in the hotel room, Anna takes to the streets, experiencing the mystique of the town. Johan is left to fend for himself, quietly encountering people around the hotel. Of the Faith Trilogy films, The Silence is the most mysterious. There’s a hypnotism within it that’s appealing. To pick a favorite among the trilogy is reductive, but The Silence could safely be called the most captivating. A+
On paper, All These Women is essential. It was Bergman’s first film in color, one of his few comedies, and it contains the direct influence of Federico Fellini’s 8 ½, a film Bergman revered. All These Women is about a gregarious biographer, Cornelius (Jarl Kulle), who has been hired to pen the biography of a great cellist, Felix. Cornelius is invited to Felix’s mansion, where the musician lives with his (many) wives and mistresses. Chaos ensues shortly after Cornelius’ arrival, as he spends most of his time behaving like a sex-crazed loon.
All These Women is an absolute farce, amusingly blanketed between Bergman’s great Faith Trilogy, and his experimental, near-horror masterpieces (Persona, Hour of the Wolf, Shame, The Passion of Anna). Bergman said he only made All These Women to help his financiers at Svensk Filmindustri earn a profit. Also, Bergman was so unsatisfied with the color palette of the film that he didn’t shoot on color again for another five years. In short, the historical significance of All These Women is better than the film itself. C-
Persona is the one. It’s the Ingmar Bergman film above all Ingmar Bergman films. It’s his game changer. The film is a deconstructive masterpiece; perhaps the finest “mind fuck” movie ever made. With Persona, it’s as if Bergman was daring us to judge it, knowing damn well that the film was nearly impossible to understand fully.
A famous actress, Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann, in her first Bergman role), falls mute for reasons not fully explained. Elisabet is cared for by nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson, deviating from Bergman comic relief to deliver the best performance of her career), who travels with the actress to a remote sea cottage in hopes of healing Vogler. Without knowing what you’re getting into, one can assume that the simple plot, along with the film’s brisk 83 minute run time, should make for easy viewing. But from the first frame of Persona, Bergman makes it clear that we’re in for something different. The first six minutes of the movie are worthy of intense discussion, and the subsequent minutes reveal a psycho-sexual, minimalist horror work of art that I will love forever.
The first time I saw Persona remains one of my most memorable movie-watching experiences. It was a weekday, and I woke up strangely early. I decided to watch Persona, which I had bought blind a few days before. The film was short, so I would have plenty of time to watch it before work. I turned it on and sat transfixed for 83 minutes, unable to move, unable to divert my eyes. When it was done, I immediately replayed it, not caring that I’d be late for work. The movie puzzled me. It tortured and inspired me. Currently, Persona sits as my third favorite movie of all time. I don’t anticipate it leaving anytime soon. A+
Hour of the Wolf is a hypnotic fringe nightmare that enraptures me more every time I watch it. Some say it’s Bergman’s only true horror film, but I think it plays better as a warped psychological thriller. In that regard, it makes for a great double bill with Persona. As noted astutely by Bergman biographer, Marc Gervais, both Persona and Hour of the Wolf are about artists suffering through a personality disintegration. The collapsing artist in Hour of the Wolf is the painter Johan Borg (Max von Sydow, at his most unhinged), who, with his wife, Alma (Liv Ullmann), experience many strange occurrences on a small island.
The film is best known for two crazed sequences. The first is an extended flashback in which Johan harms a boy near the water. The scene is shot in stark contrast, the blacks and whites nearly blinding us, and remains one of the most audacious sequences Sven Nykvist ever shot for Bergman. The second sequence is the film’s conclusion, in which Johan spends 20 minutes falling into his own insane, sexually humiliating nightmare. Like many of the great Bergman films, Hour of the Wolf takes some warming up to. Its impact hits you long after you watch it. A
Shame is unlike any war film I’ve seen. The film does not concern itself with military tactics or political agenda. We are given no soldiers to root for, no side to lash out at. Instead, Bergman was interested in showing what war does to people. As Roger Ebert said, “Shame is a war film that is against all war.”
In the film, Bergman creates a fictional Swedish civil war and uses a married couple as a gateway into the madness of conflict. What makes Shame so unique is that, like Eva and Jan Rosenberg (Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow, respectively), we have no idea who is terrorizing the couple at any given time. Or why. Eva and Jan have no opinion about the war. They’re only trying to understand and survive. “When society can no longer function, the main characters lose their frame of reference,” Bergman writes of Shame in “Images.” “Their social relations cease. The people crumble. The weak man becomes ruthless. The woman, who had been the stronger, falls apart.”
Shot to perfection and mixed with hauntingly realistic sound, Shame is a technical marvel. Narratively, Shame is one of Bergman’s most secretly complex films. On the surface, it’s a straightforward war film, but when you dig deeper, Shame challenges its audience to identify the nightmare of war. I didn’t really “get” Shame when I first saw it, but the film improves with every viewing, always making me question who, and why. A
A judge (Erik Hell) interviews three performers in his office: Hans (Gunnar Björnstrand), the genial leader, Thea (Ingrid Thulin), Hans’ irritable wife, and Sebastian (Anders Ek), an unstable drunk who is sleeping with Thea. The Rite is split into segments, half of which are set in the judge’s interview room, while the other half shows us the performers living their daily lives. The problem is that for most of the film’s running time, we have no idea why the judge is questioning the artists so severely, and by the time the judge’s intentions are revealed, it is too little too late.
Ultimately, The Rite is an uneven effort. The sets are distractingly claustrophobic, but the performances are pleasantly amusing. The film is also one of the most sexually explicit Bergman made, which is one of the reasons it’s still talked about today. Simply put, The Rite is lesser Bergman, with sparse waves of redemption included throughout. C+
The Passion of Anna (titled more appropriately as The Passion in Sweden) is one of Bergman’s strangest films. Bergman narrates the film himself, clips from Shame are edited in (odd, given that The Passion of Anna is in color, and Shame is in black and white), and, most inexplicably, The Passion of Anna occasionally cuts to interviews with the actors discussing the film we’re watching. For the first 10 minutes of the movie, for example, we watch Andreas (Max von Sydow) go about his life. Then without warning, we cut to Bergman briefly interviewing Max von Sydow about Andreas, then cut back to the film itself. Bergman does this four times, once for each main character in the film. But why?
The film is about the quietly morose Andreas and his interactions with Anna (Liv Ullmann), a sad woman who wanders into his life, and Eva and Elis (Bibi Andersson and Erland Josephson), the married couple that both Andreas and Anna know. Time passes freely as the characters deal with sexual exploration, emotional confusion, and psychological terror. The Passion of Anna is not polished Bergman - it’s gritty by design. The camera moves erratically or stays still for single extended takes, the color is muted but also strangely vivid, the landscapes are dirty but gorgeous, and the narrative is self-reflexive but unique. Like Persona, Hour of the Wolf and Shame, The Passion of Anna isn’t interested in reality. It’s an experiment in emotional derailment. A-
One of the biggest debates among Bergman enthusiasts is whether or not The Touch was lost in translation. The dialogue is flat, and the delivery is often detached; did shooting the film in English degrade the quality of the script? The plot of The Touch is familiar but compelling. A married woman (Bibi Andersson) meets a charming man (Elliot Gould) by chance. The two engage in a passionate affair, and the man slowly begins to reveal his true, manipulative colors.
The Touch should work; it has a plot Bergman explored often, and it features great actors. But something was lost while making it. For example, there is very little to appreciate about the look and pace of the film, which is rare for a Bergman film. Bergman typically went to great lengths to frame his compositions, and hold the tension of a scene, but those things are absent in The Touch. Bergman himself detested the film, noting in “Images” that he, “Bungled [the story] so badly.” The Touch isn’t necessarily a bad film, but it is inferior Bergman. C
The Touch was a disaster, both commercially and critically. Yet Bergman, himself no stranger to finding inspiration in his inner turmoil, used the depression he experienced while making The Touch to fuel his next screenplay, Cries and Whispers. And here we have a great artistic lesson: if you fail, accept it. Take that failure and use it as motivation. Because through Bergman’s crippling depression, he subsequently made the best film I have ever seen about loss and grief.
Cries and Whispers is a masterpiece. Rarely do films understand shame, jealousy, pain and death as well as this one. The film takes place at the end of the 19th century and is set almost entirely within a few rooms of a large mansion. The interiors of the mansion still haunt me. Massive, sparse, bathed in a blood red color. Four women occupy the lifeless space: Agnes (Harriet Andersson), who is slowly dying of cancer (few film deaths are more emotionally gruesome than this one), Agnes’ cold sisters, Maria and Karin (Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Thulin, respectively), and their kind maid, Anna (Kari Sylwan).
Few can watch Cries and Whispers easily. It’s a draining film. Every time I brave a viewing, I spend 91 minutes yearning for the women in the film to love and be loved in return. But they can’t. They’re too far gone. They’ve experienced the harshness of life, and it has made them cold. But I hope. I hope they have days like the one the movie ends with. It’s such an oddly satisfying conclusion, perhaps the most moving thing Bergman ever captured on film. Cries and Whispers has been one of my Top 10 films for a decade, and I certainly cannot imagine it ever leaving. A+
The expansive relationship drama, Scenes from a Marriage, was a huge departure for Bergman. Cries and Whispers was a financial burden. No one wanted to finance the challenging film, so Bergman put up most of the money himself. Even the cast forfeited their salaries, instead taking percentage points of the film’s profit. With Scenes from a Marriage, Bergman set purposeful budget limitations for himself: modern day setting, blank interior sets, dialogue-heavy screenplay; six scenes each taking one week to shoot. The scenes would be shot for Swedish television, airing over two months in 1973. The film was a risk – a tonal and aesthetic reversal from Cries and Whispers – but the risk was beneficial, as every subsequent Bergman film was made for television.
Scenes from a Marriage details the arduous marriage of Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and Johan (Erland Josephson). We see the highs and lows of their union, in all its ugly glory. The lasting result is as honest and unflinching as relationship movies get. Note that there are two versions of the film, the original 281 version (with each scene lasting 50 minutes), and the 167-minute version that played in theaters. The short version is superb, but the full version is unquestionably superior. A+
There were few things Bergman revered more than Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute. His love for the piece was boundless. “The Magic Flute became my companion through life,” Bergman wrote in “Images.” It was his life-long dream to direct the opera, and in 1975, he released one of cinema’s highest-regarded stage performance films.
Filming a play or opera with the intention of releasing it as a film is not easy. The camera is still and afar, the sound is distant, the emotion is lost. To make the filmed version of The Magic Flute more vibrant, Bergman used editing as his best asset. During the movie, he often cuts to audience reactions; children staring gleefully at the stage, they’re expressions of wonder filling our hearts. Bergman also gives us backstage glimpses of the performers getting ready and taking breaks. I get very little satisfaction from watching filmed stage events, but damn if The Magic Flute isn’t completely alive. For each of its 135 minutes, you can tell Bergman is living out his dream. His passion for the material fills every frame. A-
Face to Face is Liv Ullmann’s movie. She’s the reason to see it, she’s the reason to talk about it. Like much of Bergman’s best work, Face to Face is a challenging meditation on the madness of the mind. Nightmares executed as reality is one of Bergman’s favorite themes, it’s what makes his best films so relentlessly engaging.
Ullmann plays a successful psychiatrist who is losing her grip on reality. Her breakdown is slow but absolute. We’re often confused by what is real and what is being conjured in Ullmann’s head. The material is Ullmann’s to own, as the film would not endure without her dedicated performance. Take, for instance, the astounding seven and a half minute scene that occurs nearly an hour into the film. In the scene, which is captured in one shot, Ullmann lays in bed and tells her would-be lover (Erland Josephson) about a horrific attack she recently survived. In the sequence, Ullmann is given free reign to explore any emotion at her disposal. She hits a great many of them – confused adulation, crippling sadness, sudden anger – and ultimately, we’re left with an extended close-up of her pained face as she stares off, vacantly exploring the hell of her damaged mind. A damaged mind the viewer has a hell of a time exploring. A-
The Serpent’s Egg is one of the most frustrating films Bergman made. The movie, which was Bergman’s only Hollywood production, is about an American Jew (David Carradine) in Berlin dealing with the loss of his brother, while living with his newly-widowed sister-in-law (Liv Ullmann). The first 100 minutes of the film are full of forced moments, ridiculous sequences, bland performances, and lazy narration. Sven Nykvist shoots the hell out of the movie, but his compositions are filled with empty material. Then everything changes. The final act of The Serpent’s Egg is tightly constructed, mysterious, and thrilling as all hell. The act is so excellent, it deserves to be in a better movie. Based on this, I feel confident recommending the movie in its entirety. The third act may be too little too late, but the film is one worth exploring all the same. C-
While writing this post, I rewatched every film Bergman directed. And I can tell you with absolute certainty that my rewatch of Autumn Sonata was one of the most visceral movie watching experiences I’ve had in some time. I had only seen the film once, nearly a decade ago. Age and perspective made Autumn Sonata better. It’s one of the most emotionally draining films I’ve ever seen; so full of love, longing, and emotional cruelty.
Eva (Liv Ullmann) invites her mother, Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman), to Eva’s home for an extended visit. The two haven’t seen each other in seven years as Charlotte is a famous pianist and has been away performing. The visit begins smoothly. Charlotte is energetic, nervous, and controlling, but it’s nothing Eva isn’t prepared for. After some initial small talk, Eva reveals a secret: Eva’s disabled sister, Helena (who is Charlotte’s other daughter), is in the next room. Upon hearing this, Charlotte’s rage is unleashed. She feels trapped and deceived. We come to learn that Charlotte is a quiet monster, a woman who cares only about herself and loathes anyone (her children included) who tries to occupy her time.
During this visit, Eva comes to terms with her mother’s mistreatment, and finally gains the courage to say something about it. Autumn Sonata is a simple film, but one laced with so much heartbreak that it’s uncomfortable to watch. Nearly one-third of the film is a drunken argument between Eva and Charlotte, a scene that matches the best acting both Ullmann and Bergman ever put on screen. Throughout the movie, it’s important to take note of Ullmann’s appearance. Her hair, glasses, and clothes are designed specifically to make Eva look like a child who never grew up. Autumn Sonata is about a daughter who wants nothing more than to be loved by a mother who has no idea how to love anyone. And it is absolutely devastating. A+
From the Life of the Marionettes begins with a shocking jolt of violence. A man and a woman stand amicably, then, without warning, he kills and rapes her. Throughout the rest of the movie, we see interviews with people who knew the murderer, Peter, then jump back in time to give those interviews context. Why did Peter murder this woman? What could provoke such a hideous crime? And, most tellingly, how reliable are the subjects of these interviews?
Bergman made From the Life of the Marionettes while he was exiled from Sweden. The director was scared and pissed off, and from his passionate fury, From the Life of the Marionettes was born. While the film may be considered lesser Bergman, Bergman himself regarded it as one of his favorite films he made. The movie is a raw experiment, but one that mostly works. B
Fanny and Alexander is Ingmar Bergman’s magnum opus. It was intended to be Bergman’s final film, one unlike any he had made. “After Fanny and Alexander there will be no more feature films for me,” Bergman said. “Fanny and Alexander is like a summing up of my entire life as a filmmaker.” The film was a massive undertaking. It had more than 50 speaking parts, a huge budget, lavish sets and costumes, and a final runtime that exceeded five hours. The result is a film of absolute importance, one of cinema’s grandest achievements.
The film concerns itself with the wealthy Ekdahl family, as witnessed through the eyes of the two titular children in the family. The Ekdahl’s are big and festive, an important theater family. But after Fanny and Alexander’s father dies, their mother remarries a strict bishop, forcing the children out of their peaceful home and into a concrete dungeon where the bishop resides. There is, of course, much more to the film than I’ve described (I could spend pages dissecting this movie), but it’s best to discover it for yourself.
Like Scenes from a Marriage, there are two versions of Fanny and Alexander readily available. I was raised on the three-hour theatrical cut; the version that won four Oscars, including Best Foreign Film and Best Cinematography. But when Criterion released the longer, five-hour version of the film (made for Swedish television), I was able to view Fanny and Alexander in all its intended glory. Both versions are excellent, but the extended cut is as big and bold and beautiful as cinema gets. There is magic in every frame of this film. What a sight it is to behold. A+
After the Rehearsal is one of the great, hidden gems of Bergman’s filmography. The film is 72 minutes long, features three characters, and takes place entirely on one stage. Because Fanny and Alexander was meant to be Bergman’s final film, the inspiration for After the Rehearsal surprised the director. “After the Rehearsal was meant to be a pleasant title episode on my road toward death,” Bergman wrote in “Images.” The film is about Henrik (Erland Josephson), an aging theater director who is preparing a production of Stringberg’s “A Dream Play.” On this particular day, Anna (Lena Olin), the lead actress in the play, returns after rehearsal to speak with Henrik. The two dive into an intensely personal conversation, and by the end, Henrik is left questioning the value of his life and art. An older, alcoholic actress named Rakel (Ingrid Thulin) occasionally appears on stage as well, though it is unclear whether Rakel is alive or dead, related to Anna and/or Henrik, or not.
All three actors are excellent in the film, as is Bergman’s script (the film is very autobiographical) and strong direction. The one problem I have with After the Rehearsal is that it is so damn hard to find. The film was never given a proper home video release, so you either have to find crude copies online (none of which have English subtitles), or purchase a rare DVD on Amazon. For Bergman enthusiasts, this late Bergman entry should not be missed. A-
Finding The Blessed Ones, let alone watching it, is an achievement in and of itself, as this movie is all but impossible to track down today. If you can find it, however, you’ll discover a fragile little Bergman wonder. The film is about an older couple who meet through their faith and soon marry. The woman (Harriet Andersson, great as ever) slowly goes insane while her co-dependent husband (Per Myrberg) does nothing to treat his wife’s madness. In fact, as she gets worse, he quietly accepts his wife’s delusions, perhaps realizing that she won’t live much longer regardless.
Furious that After the Rehearsal was distributed in American theaters (Bergman wanted it to be solely released on television), Bergman intentionally shot The Blessed Ones on video, and it looks it. The film has the aesthetic of a soap opera, rather than a lavish Bergman production. Yet, the man’s craft remains mostly intact. The Blessed Ones is another personal, late Bergman film that is worth tracking down if you can find it. B
At the start of In the Presence of a Clown, Carl Åkerblom (Börje Ahlstedt), is in a mental hospital having attempted to murder his fiancée. He is joined by another patient, Professor Osvald (Erland Josephson), and later visited by a kindhearted clown, who may or may not be Death. Carl is sprung from the hospital in 1925, and he quickly discovers a way to give silent movies dialogue. But during his first “production,” a mishap occurs, forcing Carl to face the people of his life in an intimate way.
In the Presence of a Clown is a fine film, but certainly a lesser final effort from Bergman. The movie is two hours long and could be considerably shorter. Still, Ahlstedt and Josephson are great, and the film leads up to a surprisingly satisfying conclusion. Also worth noting, In the Presence of a Clown is easy to find online, if interested. C+
Many directors soften with age. The emotional despair of their work lessens, the risks they take are less dire. Such is not the case with Ingmar Bergman’s final film, Saraband. The film is a family drama in which humility and pain are paramount. It’s one of the most emotionally brutal films Bergman ever made, which is certainly saying something.
Saraband reunites Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and Johan (Erland Josephson) from Scenes from a Marriage. The two have been estranged for decades, but at the start of the film, Marianne tells us she’s been thinking about Johan. She goes to visit Johan in his country home, where she intends to stay for an undisclosed amount of time. Shortly after Marianne’s arrival, we meet the film’s other two characters: Johan’s son, Henrik (Börje Ahlstedt), and Henrik’s daughter, Karin (Julia Dufvenius). Johan and Henrik detest one another, while Henrik and Karin are stuck in a wildly inappropriate co-dependent relationship. The four characters spend the film contemplating their lives and their purpose of their relationships.
While it is great to see Ullmann and Josephson reunited for Bergman’s swan song, the real triumph of the film is Börje Ahlstedt. The first time we meet Henrik, he is aggressively lashing out at his daughter. As the film progresses, we get context for Henrik’s fury. About an hour into the movie, Henrik asks Johan for money. What follows is a brutal conversation that rivals any similar conversation Bergman wrote. Ultimately, Henrik wants to be heard and loved. Instead, he lives as a sad man. And we can’t take our eyes off him. Ahlstedt’s Henrik is one of the great Bergman performances.
It’s also worth noting that Saraband is by far the most contemporary film Bergman ever made, and not only because it was his last. Characters curse freely (rare in Bergman’s films), they wear New Balance sneakers, and say things like, “You’re on a roll.” It’s so refreshing to know that Bergman could write for any time. Now and then, past and present, the man was always relevant. A
Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)
The Seventh Seal (1957)
Wild Strawberries (1957)
The Virgin Spring (1960)
Through a Glass Darkly (1961)
Winter Light (1963)
The Silence (1963)
Hour of the Wolf (1968)
Cries and Whispers (1972)
Scenes from a Marriage (1973)
Autumn Sonata (1978)
Fanny and Alexander (1982)
Summer Interlude (1951)
Summer with Monika (1953)
Sawdust and Tinsel (1953)
Brink of Life (1958)
The Magician (1958)
The Passion of Anna (1969)
The Magic Flute (1975)
Face to Face (1976)
After the Rehearsal (1984)
It Rains on Our Love (1946)
Music in Darkness (1948)
Music in Darkness (1948)
Port of Call (1948)
To Joy (1950)
Secrets of Women (1952)
A Lesson in Love (1954)
The Devil’s Eye (1960)
The Rite (1969)
The Serpent’s Egg (1977)
From the Life of the Marionettes (1980)
The Blessed Ones (1986)
In the Presence of a Clown (1997)
A Ship Bound for India (1947)
All These Women (1964)
The Touch (1971)
Just Plain Bad
This Can’t Happen Here (1950)