Ingmar Bergman: Movies, theater and the importance of music and books in his life

Ingmar Bergman

Talking about Ingmar Bergman is to refer to one of the greatest film directors in history. However, the Swedish filmmaker is not only that, a director. Screenwriter, playwright, and tormented human being better define his imprint. This last aspect, not in vain, is essential in his work, not so much to understand it, but especially to better comprehend how this also became part of what made him a cult author throughout his career.

Since his death in 2007, the cult around his work has not diminished. On the contrary, it remains alive, as well as the number of admirers and detractors of the legacy he left us. Therefore, we will take a position on it.

In this blog, we are big fans of Ingmar Bergman, both his filmography and his books, of the attraction that everything he did generates for us, the catharsis that his work still provokes, and the honesty, from our point of view, with which he always approached his scripts. Also, for the zeal and meticulousness he brought to his work.

In the following lines, we will delve into some of the great moments of Director Bergman and also the person Bergman, writer and playwright, including some interesting links for those who want to learn more about the Swedish director.

Filmography and Life: Understanding Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema as if it were a lover

Ingmar Bergman's filmography

With 70 directed films and 77 written, according to IMDB, Ingmar Bergman’s filmography could be defined as that of an auteur (not summarized). Auteur cinema, although it has always existed, took on a different existential dimension with him. Specifically, that of existentialism unto death. Although his career began like that of many others, making films written by others, the truth is that he started by writing what others would later direct, and not the other way around. Proof of this is Torment, by Alf Sjöberg.

If the aforementioned movie was released in 1944, it wouldn’t be until 1946 that he would demonstrate his directing skills for the first time with the film Crisis, which he also wrote. Since then, he alternated more personal films with others written by others and adapted by him, despite always feeling that there was a specific personality in all of them. What kind of personality are we talking about? One filled with anxiety and anguish, with drops of Søren Kierkegaard and notes of Johann Sebastian Bach, though not yet overwhelming. At that time, it was more focused on love and heartbreak.

Because, as in any significant career, there is always a turning point. For many, that exact moment happened with the Cannes premiere of Smiles of a Summer Night (almost a comedy), but for us, it’s Summer with Monika. Mainly because that’s the turning point in our lives when they still broadcast film cycles by directors on La2 (Spanish TV broadcast). Long before discovering Smiles of a Summer Night or much more famous films he made later on, the first one that caught our attention was the one starring the legendary Harriet Andersson in 1953.

Bergman and His Great Year in Cinema: The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries

Using the title of one of the last documentaries made about Ingmar Bergman (Bergman, A Year in a Life), we remember that after his unanimous turning point, premiered in 1955, two years later he would release the two films that would definitively make him the most influential director of the moment. Yes, those were different times. But not because they were different from the present, we can’t say there weren’t hipsters and pedants back then. There were, but that wasn’t Bergman’s fault.

Because several things should be taken into account about Bergman. Everyone associates him with pedantry, with boredom, and with the absence of God. However, the director’s career, as well as his life, underwent a clear evolution that led him to focus sometimes on other less-known things for those who hadn’t followed his track too closely.

In 1957, for example, Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal were released in theaters for the first time. The former is about a retired professor confronting old age and everything it entails while reflecting on his youth. The latter is about a Medieval knight who returns from the Crusades, prepared to play a game of chess against Death. Death is very present in both films, but not in the same way. While the latter clearly speaks about the absence of God and answers about what happens after death, the former is a comprehensive study of aging.

Auteur Cinema, Triptychs, and the First Period of Splendor

Derived from the critical and public success of both films, each new project by Ingmar Bergman became something very similar to an event. Similar, not the same, because Twitter did not exist then. Even so, it must be recognized that he had truly become a significant figure in the world of cinema. Not only in auteur cinema, where he was one of the main figures. Influenced by Dreyer’s spirit, contemporaneous with other European cinema giants like Robert Bresson, influential to the Nouvelle Vague and many others, he was also a critic. Or a hater.

Because Bergman had his own opinion about other cinema giants. He didn’t like Orson Welles’ films at all, he didn’t understand Godard’s films at all, and he didn’t particularly appreciate Antonioni. But not everything was bad; he loved Tarkovsky, envying his way of depicting dreams, or Truffaut’s cinema, for how he conversed with the audience. Years later, he even confirmed his admiration for Pedro Almodóvar’s films in an interview with Juan Cruz.

Beyond the personal tastes of the famous director, we focus on his cinema. The well-known trilogy of the silence of God, composed of Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1963), and The Silence (1963), is one of the greatest examples of existentialism on the big screen, as well as a profound dissection of mental illness (and how a writer can exploit it), anxiety, and fear. As a counterpoint, the label becomes definitive: everyone thinks he is obsessed with death and God. And it’s true, but it’s time for many to renounce him in the future for being boring.

All These Women (1964), Bergman’s major commercial and critical failure

It’s worth noting that Ingmar Bergman was truly tormented. A person who bared himself year after year, artistically expressing his mistakes and fears, above all. This was his approach throughout his career, but not all of his life was focused on death, which led him to other concerns in cinema. The interesting aspect, in all the films of his filmography, is that, in addition to the artistic quality, narrative ability, script, and other technical elements, in all of them he creates a connection with the viewer. This way, the same viewer evolves alongside the director, especially if they started watching his films at the age of 18 and kept up with an annual rhythm more or less.

Therefore, if a viewer starts watching his filmography in order, it’s likely that they would reach the end of Winter Light feeling exhausted and desiring something a bit less intense. That’s where All These Women comes in, the first official comedy by the director, although not the first for us, as we consider Sawdust and Tinsel (1960) as the true first one. In any case, both films emerged after the intensity. The latter after The Magician (1958), starring Max Von Sydow, as most of the films mentioned in this period.

Although Bergman is also remembered for his ability to understand women in cinema, or to make them realistic through actresses, All These Women, with seven lead actresses, was a huge misstep. He disowned it for years, and even at the end of his life, he maintained that it was a complete mistake. His first fully colored film, according to him, was not well made, did not use color properly, and lacked any sense of humor.

Persona (1966), anxiety and new topics

But from the failure with color to black and white and the perennial pain. After the events of 1964, we can observe the first major shift in Bergman’s cinema, at least since he became famous and international. The work pace he maintained, juggling between cinema and theater, along with the stress and stomach problems he had already, led him to experience an anxiety attack. Hospitalized for this reason, he began writing Persona, which many years later he would also publish as a book, showcasing his talent as a scriptwriter once again, and where he met actress Liv Ullmann, with whom he would have a daughter a year later.

As many other articles on the internet have done, we won’t focus too much on the filmmaker’s love affairs or on all the children he had, etc. We won’t pass judgment on his personal acts, not because we don’t want to. We believe he did it as a director and scriptwriter, and always with a fair amount of honesty and harshness. We have the example of Through a Glass Darkly, where we seem to identify him with the father-writer, though in this case writing about his daughter and not his wife (as Bergman would do about his first wife). Or we can see Scenes from a Marriage, for instance, to very clearly observe how he always behaved with most of the women who loved him.

As he himself said, he didn’t know how, but none of those women ever spoke ill of him in public, unlike his older brother. Privately, however, they did, just as his children did, and he also portrayed in Saraband. In short, the key to Bergman’s filmography, in both black and white and color, was in the filmmaker’s life, in his sincerity, because he used cinema as a form of liberation. He wrote and filmed, and then what he had written and filmed no longer belonged to him. It was his catharsis, and that was also Persona, whose monologues and shots represent a pinnacle of his career.

Red is the most Iintense color

During the subsequent years, Ingmar Bergman’s filmography continued to grow limitlessly, but it no longer surprised as much, though it still did. He delivered a psychological horror film like Hour of the Wolf or Shame, but it was upon his return to color in 1972 that his international popularity grew once again. This time with the intense Cries and Whispers, where again the core of the plot lies in the psychological realm and the figure of the woman in the moment.

In any case, beyond the success it achieved (being nominated for Oscars in Best Cinematography, Picture, Director, Script, and Costume Design), we’d like to dedicate this section to the cinematographer of most of Bergman’s films: Sven Nykvist. Together, they created a partnership that will always be remembered in cinema history for the great images they created together. In both black and white and color, Nykvist proved to be one of the greatest cinematographers in the world, collaborating in the years that followed with other admirers of his work, with Woody Allen being a notable example.

We mention the color red in the title of this section mainly because it’s Ingmar Bergman’s favorite color. At least in his films. Apparently, it all goes back to his childhood, as in most of his work, by the way. His grandmother’s house, as he recounts in his autobiography, was filled with red. In the same way he believed, while being in that house, that he could see spirits, he was also marked by the color red. This would also be demonstrated in Fanny and Alexander, for example, a film that seemed like his farewell to cinema forever, but not entirely.

The Arrival of Television and Exile to Germany

With the advent of television in Swedish homes, Bergman somewhat shifted his focus from cinema, valuing the tremendous possibilities offered by the new format. In this new phase of his career, he produced great miniseries like Scenes from a Marriage in 1973, which he also released in a condensed version beyond his country’s borders, once again achieving success. The performances of Erland Josephson and Liv Ullmann, once more accompanied by direction, turned this story about a crumbling marriage into a reflection of relationships for many, beyond the façade of perfection they represent to others.

And this, we say once again, is the essence of Ingmar Bergman’s cinema, beyond even the indisputable quality of his films. It’s not about what you can see of yourself in his films or if you feel represented. No. It’s the ability that any of his films, whether well-known or less so, have to make you reflect on yourself. Whether it’s with Summer with Monika, revisiting your past, or with In the Presence of a Clown, understanding or empathizing more with other human beings, in the end, we are always judging and being judged. You don’t have to like it, but it’s intriguing when they make you arrive at that point.

During these years, the filmmaker was accused of tax evasion, though years later we would learn that it was his accountant who did it. He went to live in West Germany to avoid public humiliation in his home country. His output didn’t decrease during this period, but he did lose some international following (according to him, due to his inability to communicate effectively in German and vice versa). However, in 1978, a milestone of Swedish cinema took place in Germany. The collaboration of two legends: Ingrid Bergman and Ingmar Bergman. We’re talking about the mother-daughter drama Autumn Sonata, where Liv Ullmann, Gunnar Björnstrand, and Erland Josephson also participated.

Ingmar Bergman’s Demons, Maturity, and the Oscar

Anyway, what’s important in Ingmar Bergman’s career, besides his individual films, is to observe the evolution. From being focused on death, he shifted to focusing on romantic relationships, and eventually began to explore his childhood and parents. In many of these cases, he allowed others to direct his scripts, handing some of the best ones to Liv Ullmann (whose merit is obviously hers, as demonstrated by Bergman’s works directed by others like his son). With the exception of Faithless, directed by Ullmann, the other works directed by others were also novels, and we’ll discuss them later.

The key in these ten years from the release of Scenes from a Marriage to the release of Fanny and Alexander, beyond the Oscar, exile, and return to his country, was his withdrawal from international cinema. Although he continued to film and work, it was now primarily for television and generated little attention outside of his own country.

It appears that Bergman finally found some mental stability at the age of 50, matured, and fully embraced love with Ingrid (whose last name became Bergman, but not the actress). Ingrid, by the way, is the lover depicted in Faithless, among other works. In addition to the exhaustion that came from filming and completing projects, abandoning the joy he once found in it, and living intensely with a hundred people for a couple of months, the illness and subsequent death of his partner also influenced him. This left him locked in his chambers, continuing his battle against demons through unbreakable daily routines.

Theater, as if it were his wife

Ingmar Bergman's chair

As Ingmar Bergman himself said he understood his work, “the theater is my wife, and cinema my mistress.” He was happy with both, but working on one meant abandoning the other. However, theater was a true passion for him. There, he didn’t have to perform his work; instead, he dedicated time to actors and to great works by others, such as Henrik Ibsen or August Strindberg, as well as Mozart’s The Magic Flute and many others. His love for theater was so profound that for many years he was the director of the Swedish National Theatre, the Dramaten.

Not in vain, even today, Bergman is remembered as one of the most prolific theater directors in the world. In theatrical production, names like Shakespeare, Molière, or the aforementioned Ibsen and Strindberg had a significant influence, not only through his work in the theater but also in his artistic production overall. His exceptional ability to interpret and uncover new aspects in historical dramas, breathing life and relevance into them for our time, made him one of the great theater directors.

For Bergman, the play itself and its essence, what he considered the dramatist’s intention behind the play, constituted one of the three pillars of theater, alongside actors and the audience. Let’s not forget that it all started with puppet theater, which he began experimenting with at the age of 11 (along with the magic lantern), and he developed it to a highly sophisticated degree before entering the real theater in the late 1930s. From the outset, he drew inspiration from the best of his compatriots, like Alf Sjöberg, whose Big Klas and Little Klas was his first experience in the theater at The Royal Dramatic Theatre in 1930, and Olof Molander, whose production of A Dream Play (1935) the director described as “the foundation of all his theater experiences.”

When Music Is the Closest Thing to God (and God Doesn’t Exist)

Taking into consideration that Ingmar Bergman dedicated a significant portion of his filmography to portraying the absence of God among humans, his assertion that music was the closest thing to divinity perfectly explains its importance to him. Because music was a crucial component in his life and work, playing a tremendous role in both his cinematic and theatrical productions. He incorporated it into his films, creating a wide range of sensations, using classical music by his favorite composers.

However, one of the most important composers for him turned out to be Bach. His music frequently appeared in Bergman’s films and theatrical works, particularly from the 1950s onward. He used Bach’s works in the credits, highlighted crucial climactic moments, and orchestrated his dramas with the help of Bach’s music.

In a way, Bergman’s narrative structure is closely related to Bach’s music in its structure, internal conception, and title. This is especially evident in the last film he directed: Saraband. Sarabande is the fifth suite for solo cello by Bach in C minor (BWV 1011), and it is played five times during the course of the film. It appears in various episodes that divide each part, serving as a kind of refrain (in its structure) and symbolizing an image (in its meaning).

Ingmar Bergman’s Biography Through His Books

To conclude the article, we shouldn’t overlook Ingmar Bergman’s literary work, primarily focused on his childhood, which he predominantly explored during the productive later years of his career, allowing others to adapt these works into films afterward.

Among the autobiographies that have never been adapted into films, we must recommend “The Magic Lantern” and “Images.” The former speaks about his life from childhood until the year he wrote the book, and the latter is more focused on his professional career. In both cases, we discover an engaging writer, both imaginative and honest, with a great ability to captivate readers with his storytelling. So much so that due to their success, he allowed himself to write and publish other biographical novels.

These novels include “The Best Intentions,” which explores the early stages of his parents’ romantic relationship before he was born (or rather, up until just before he was born); “Private Confessions,” a follow-up focusing on the same couple but much more centered on Bergman’s mother; and finally, “Sunday’s Children,” which reminisces about a weekend from the director’s own childhood with his father, a figure very present in his filmography, by the way. All of these novels were adapted into films, as we mentioned, while the Swede decided to remain on his island, where he continued to live from the time he filmed “Persona” until his death in 2007 at the age of 89.

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