Alone, intimidated, and aware of your smallness in an overwhelming universe? Try our essential primer on where the hell to begin with the director who changed film forever
Celebrating the mammoth retrospective at the British Film Institute this spring, we explore the world of cult auteur Ingmar Bergman – from his groundbreaking depictions of mental health to his collaborations with his number 1 muse Liv Ullmann.
Finding an entry point into Ingmar Bergman’s colossal filmography is like being a character in one of his movies. You feel alone, intimidated by the task at hand, and suddenly aware of your smallness in an overwhelming universe. But oh, it’s so worth it. The Swedish auteur directed 45 full-length features, mostly from his own scripts, and they include several of the most celebrated works of all time. He’s a provocateur, a ground-breaking explorer of the human condition, the artist most associated with world cinema. But seriously, where the hell do you start?
Adding to the confusion, Bergman didn’t have a rough patch. He was a prolific writer-director who solidly released acclaimed films between 1946 and 2003. With regards to subject matter, he unabashedly asked existential questions regarding death, religion, and the value of love in a godless world. What’s more, the performances are intense. “Drama and film are incontrovertibly two professions that are immensely erotically charged,” he claims in the 2004 doc Bergman Island. “The director tries to be perfect… the actors and actresses also try to be perfect. And this can easily give rise to incredibly pleasurable tensions.” (If you didn’t guess by his word choices, he also bedded many of his collaborators.)
Film-wise, Bergman was unpredictable. He created esoteric period-dramas, witty fever dreams, screwball sex comedies, nakedly honest relationship stories, or just whatever he felt like making at the time. So bearing that in mind, here are the 10 films we recommend you watch first. Better yet, try to catch them at BFI Southbank, on the big screen, as part of Bergman season.
BAD GIRLS AND EARLY BREAKOUT HITS
SUMMER WITH MONIKA (1953)
By the time Bergman released Summer with Monika, he was on his 12th film, which is 12 more than most of us. Remarkably, the director was just getting started. The coming-of-ager, simply put, excels by mining every possible emotion from its lovers-on-the-run storyline. Harriet Andersson, a future Bergman regular, makes her screen debut as Monika; along with Albert, another young local, Monika flees the greyness of Stockholm for a seaside summer of outdoor naughtiness. (It was released in America as Monika, the Story of a Bad Girl.)
Away from their parents, the love-struck duo dance on a beach to a record player – a scene recreated in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom – and it’s intoxicating. However, unlike most feel-good films of the genre, the drama details the feel-bad hangover of a teenage fling: Andersson breaks the fourth wall with a lengthy, heartfelt gaze that hints towards Bergman’s forthcoming experimental aesthetic.
SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT (1955)
Unsurprisingly, Bergman’s international breakthrough wasn’t one of his austere dramas exploring the human condition, but a frisky, rapid-fire sex comedy that culminates in a night of partner-swapping. That said, Smiles of a Summer Night has plenty to say about the futility of relationships, the impossibility of snagging a soul mate, and the lies everyone tells themselves to survive the torture chamber that is life. It’s also very funny.
The plot itself is a mathematical achievement. Frederik lusts after a theatre actress, Desiree, but he’s also married to Anne, a 19-year-old virgin; Anne, instead, has the hots for her stepson, Henrik, except she’s competing with the flirty maid, Petra; and so on. Even though Bergman later admitted he was suicidal during the writing process, it probably has more one-liners than the rest of his filmography combined.
MAKING FANTASY REALITY
THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957)
A dehydrated knight is lying on the shore when Death rocks up and informs him the only way to stay alive is to checkmate him at chess. Look, we’ve all been there, but what Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) does, rather smartly, is to extend the match and thus his life. In between moves, Block wastes further time by gallivanting off to investigate if life has any meaning. If God doesn’t exist, he wonders, then what’s the point?
The 14th century setting offers Bergman an excuse to lavish an esoteric landscape with monochrome doom and gloom. The Black Plague is rampant, supporting characters are in constant despair, and every image is striking for its glorious misery. It’s one of the director’s best-known films, not least thanks to Keanu Reeves challenging Death to Twister in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey.
WILD STRAWBERRIES (1957)
They say before you die that your life flashes before your eyes. In the case of Isak Borg, a 78-year-old professor, it’s in pristine, dreamy black-and-white cinematography. Though not greeting the Grim Reaper just yet, Isak is haunted by ghosts (very glamorous ones, played by Swedish movie stars) and regrets that still gnaw at him in old age. His daylong car journey, subsequently, really becomes a trip.
For instance, Sara, a hitchhiker played by Bibi Andersson, happens to be a doppelganger for the woman who broke Isak’s youthful heart decades ago; in flashbacks, Andersson recreates the moment Sara opted for Isak’s brother instead. (That Bergman was having an extramarital affair with Andersson is part of the meta narrative present throughout the director’s work.) It’s the cinematic version of the existential dread one feels from Facebook’s “On this day” feature, but with a poignant lesson in letting go of the past. Victor Sjöström, who played Isak, died three years later.
WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN
THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY (1961)
Bergman’s first of many films to be shot on the desolate landscape of Faro Island, Through a Glass Darkly details the family holiday from hell. A schizophrenia sufferer, Karin (Harriet Andersson), yearns for post-hospital relaxation with loved ones, except her companions are: a father (Gunnar Björnstrand) exploiting her illness for his writing career; a husband (Max von Sydow) who insists she can’t be cured; and a younger brother (Lars Passgård) whose horniness sparks a deeply upsetting chain of events.
Occasionally soothing (Karin basks in the meditative aura of the Baltic Sea) and other times harrowing (the rest of the film), TAGD doubles as a showcase for Andersson’s career-best performance. Karin’s revelation that God is evil and, in fact, a spider, will send shivers down your spine – especially if you’re an arachnophobe.
THE SILENCE (1963)
Bergman’s abstract closer to his “Faith Trilogy” (along with Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light) is also, arguably, a warm-up for Persona. Set in an eerily empty hotel, The Silence features two travelling sisters – Ester (Ingrid Thulin) and Anna (Gunel Lindblom) – with opposing personalities. Ester, uptight and ill, spends most of the visit in her bed; Anna, meanwhile, seeks to enjoy the night in someone else’s.
The title may be a reference to God rudely ghosting our prayers, but the film contains relatively little dialogue. Instead of witty banter, gloomy images accumulate and complement a bare soundscape. Anna’s 10-year-old son wanders the hotel and stumbles upon, for instance, a circus troupe. But he’s one of many isolated figures feeling lost, metaphorically or otherwise. As for Ester’s apparent physical attraction to Anna, that’s for viewers to draw their own interpretation.
The Mulholland Drive of its day, Persona stands as Bergman’s most critically adored movie and the director at his most enigmatic. You could watch it twice (it’s only 83 minutes!) and leave with different conclusions, each one as valid as the other. Above all, it’s a gut-wrenching two-hander, starring Liv Ullmann as Elizabeth, an actress temporary unable to speak, and Bibi Andersson as Alma, a nurse voicing her own concerns.
Though the pair stay up for late-night storytelling, it’s not a typical slumber party. Messed-up secrets emerge as stark monologues, and that’s when Bergman fucks with us. The actors switch, their faces converge, and our jaws are left hanging. It’s brilliant casting, and also what happens when a director has what you might call “a type” when it comes to leading ladies. Plus, if you watch carefully and learn to blink less often, you’ll spot an erect penis appears onscreen for a fraction of a second.
NAKEDLY AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL STORIES
SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (1973)
Forget Breaking Bad; the golden age of TV started when Bergman made six episodes of Scenes from a Marriage, a heart-wrenching, intimate drama that lasts 281 minutes in total. Even if opting for the theatrical cut (a measly 167 minutes), you’re in for an eye-opener into Bergman’s personal life. Spanning a decade, the collection of intimate conversations maps out the marriage and eventual divorce of Johan (Erland Josephson) and Marianne (Liv Ullmann, who was Bergman's partner for five years).
Dialogue-driven and brutal, the semi-autobiographical story will appeal to fans of Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight. In fact, Scenes from a Marriage caused such a stir, Bergman was blamed for an increase in Sweden’s divorce rates and he subsequently removed himself from the phone directory. “I’ve taken your feelings into account too much,” Marianne tells Johan in the fifth chapter. “Being considerate killed our love.” Ouch.
FANNY AND ALEXANDER (1982)
Bergman constructed Fanny and Alexander as his final film for cinemas, and so he goes all in with the immersive visuals and thematic scope. From the get-go, the costly production is on display. It’s how the lush opening act, set during Christmas, lures viewers into the rhythms of childhood bliss: Fanny and Alexander, two young siblings, treat their packed family home like a playground and wish it could last forever.
Of course, it’s Bergman, and their father’s sudden, un-festive death leads to their mother remarrying and an abusive bishop taking custody. What follows is an ambitious mix of traumatising confrontations, magical realism, and a fiery escape plan. Bergman called it “the sum total of my life as a filmmaker” for a reason. The uncut version, the one the director preferred, runs for 312 minutes and aired on Swedish TV across five episodes.
After the release of Fanny and Alexander, Bergman designed his remaining films for the small screen. While our inner snob might howl with disdain, the subsequent works achieved a certain level of intimacy. Case in point, his final movie, Saraband, a raw, downbeat sequel to Scenes from a Marriage; it reunites Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson as Marianne and Johan, a living reminder that happiness is fleeting. Their children, it turns out, have it even worse.
Admittedly, much of the film’s power comes from imagining Bergman, a frail man at the time, pouring his heart into a closing artistic statement. “I think a lot about death,” admits Johan’s son, Henrik. “I think, one day I’ll walk through the forest to the river. A foggy, windless autumn day. Absolute silence.” The director himself died aged 89 in 2007, leaving behind an unrivalled filmography for future generations to cherish.
Ingmar Bergman season is on January through March at the BFI.