At the midpoint of each month, we feature a figure or theme within the film community and share our thoughts about related works. Each of our critics chooses a particular film to write about (sometimes two!). Our choice for a Retrospective Roundtable might be inspired by a recent event in the film community, an exciting new release, or from a common interest shared between our critics.
In honor of what would have been Ingmar Bergman‘s 100th birthday, we take this opportunity to reflect on the legendary director’s work. Though no brief retrospective can appropriately encapsulate the contribution that Bergman made to world cinema, we hope that these musings on some of our favorites of his work will properly state how formative an impact he had, both on ourselves and on filmmaking.
Summer With Monika (1953)
By Nick Adrian
In one of his more accessible films, Bergman not only paints a beautiful picture of the adventurous optimism that young love can bring us, but also the consequences that come with the impulsive decisions we make. Summer with Monika marked the director’s first collaboration with recurring actress – and short-time lover – Harriet Andersson. Despite being exploited for its nudity (which seems extremely tame by today’s standards), the film brought great success to Bergman as it caused international audiences to finally sit up and take notice of his talents.
The film follows Harry (Lars Ekborg) and Monika (Andersson), a young couple who spend a solitary summer together away from their overbearing families and dead-end jobs. Once the summer is over, however, they are left to face the consequences the previous season had brought.
Though it was far from his first film, it seemed to signal a shift in artistic tone that would lead to some of his greatest successes. Showcasing a moment of joy in a filmography rich with melancholy, Bergman’s tale of young lovers escaping their troubles proves to be an important addition to his work whose influence can be seen from François Truffaut‘s The 400 Blows to Wes Anderson‘s Moonrise Kingdom.
The Seventh Seal (1957)
By Matt Schlee
There is virtually no film as synonymous with arthouse cinema as The Seventh Seal. The image of Max von Sydow playing chess on the beach with Death is so iconic that it is recognized by many a casual film viewer. The imitation that this film has sparked both in a satirical and reverent tone is overwhelming.
The Seventh Seal is the perfect entry point to Bergman. It is profound and well crafted, but its themes aren’t quite dense enough to be alienating. I can’t imagine a Cinema 101 handbook that doesn’t include this film as it is, in my mind, the fundamental art film. That’s not to say that it’s the greatest film ever made, or even the greatest Bergman film. In fact, I’d assert that most people who really wade into Bergman’s work end up finding something more personally effective than The Seventh Seal. However, it seems to contain all of the fundamental queues for an entry point to art cinema.
Wild Strawberries (1957)
By Dalton Mullins
Ingmar Bergman has been regarded for many years as one of the greatest directors of all time, and rightfully so. He has an oeuvre that can match up with just about any other director in the history of film. Admittedly, I haven’t delved deeply into his mammoth body of work, but of the cinematic masterpieces that he has created, the film that has stuck with me the most is Wild Strawberries. It features a myriad of themes such as aging, loneliness, and coming to terms with the emptiness of existence. The story follows a professor by the name of Isak Borg (played to absolute perfection by the famed Swedish film director Victor Sjostrom). He is to receive an honorary doctorate in Lund and chooses to drive there from Stockholm with his daughter-in-law, Marianne. They take a detour to a cottage he visited in his youth and near there they encounter a girl and two boys who remind him of his years that passed ages ago.
Despite the weighty themes present throughout, Wild Strawberries has always been one of the most heartfelt and sincere films that I’ve ever had the pleasure to see. The ending is so profoundly touching as Isak overcomes his loneliness and comes to terms with aging and death and reconciles himself with the significant people in his life. He no longer is bitter about unchangeable events in his past and accepts the need to take pleasure in his depleting time on earth.
The Virgin Spring (1960)
By Kevin Jones
It is almost hard to believe that The Virgin Spring is not part of Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith, but it does set up the trilogy quite brilliantly. Set in medieval Sweden, the film depicts the rape of a young virgin and her father’s eventual revenge against her attackers, all while he grapples with God. How could He allow this to happen? How could he, as a Christian himself, exact revenge rather than letting God dole it out in His own time? Those around the assault, whether the younger brother of the rapists, a companion of the girl, or the girl’s mother all experience similar guilt, similar doubt, and a similar array of unanswered questions about the role that God, pagan gods, and themselves played in this atrocity. How the characters respond to their guilt and the paths they choose to cope with their sense of loss and anguish prove to be the driving force behind The Virgin Spring, allowing Bergman to tap into that theme of faith that he would probe in greater depth in the Trilogy of Faith.
All Bergman films are powerful and intensely human, but The Virgin Spring stands out as one that proves quite harrowing as well, especially whenever Bergman pulls away from medium shots or close-ups. Scenes such as the rape or the father’s anguished shaking of a tree are captured from a distance, putting the characters in visual isolation with their presence taking up a relatively limited portion of the frame. Bergman’s films, in capturing the emotional isolation and pain of the characters, often feel isolated and distant. However, The Virgin Spring is able to both feel isolated and visually portray that isolation. In this, it asserts that, whether or not God exists, there is truly no one coming to help Karin (Birgitta Pettersson) and no one will comfort Tore (Max von Sydow) and his family. They are on their own when on Earth, in charge of their own soul, and what happens to their body does not need to make sense. The audience, like a possible God, is forced to just watch as these people suffer with no way to help them.
Winter Light (1963)
By Ben McDonald
Despite a remarkably brief runtime of 81 minutes, Winter Light packs quite a thematic punch. Frequent Bergman-collaborator Gunnar Bjornstrand plays the subject of the film in Tomas Ericsson, a misanthropic pastor of a dwindling church. Becoming abundantly clear from the film’s first moments, Tomas is tired. He’s tired physically, under the weather with a nasty cold that exhausts his every movement. He’s tired emotionally, lashing out at his ex-lover Marta (Ingrid Thulin) because she can never compare to his deceased wife. But most of all he’s tired spiritually, almost completely barren in his faith in God.
In Winter Light, Bergman throws his recurring existentialism through the wringer with religious thought, exploring the inherent conflict of a benevolent God coexisting with a cruel humanity. Through the character of Tomas, Bergman seeks to observe and understand how the religious can reconcile their faith against the overwhelming despair of isolating silence. In one scene, a parishioner wonders aloud to Tomas why Christianity places so much emphasis on the physical suffering of Christ. “Wasn’t God’s silence worse?”, he asks. How do the faithful continue to believe in the face of deafening silence and the wickedness of mankind? The film’s ending suggests one answer, however defeating it may be.
By Kevin Jones
One of the most influential films to come from Ingmar Bergman – counting Robert Altman’s 3 Women and David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr as two of its major influenced works – Persona tells the story of two young women. Alma (Bibi Andersson) cares for now-mute actress Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann) in an isolated cottage, all while slowly merging into one being to the point that Alma struggles to distinguish herself from Elisabet. Infusing this with issues from his own childhood and repeated images of Jesus being nailed to the cross, Persona proves to be yet another highly personal film from Bergman, a culmination of many of his ideas to that point, and a hypnotic work in its own right. As these two women merge together, Persona manages to often blend the pair together in shots with one being positioned behind the other or lying similarly to one another. As with the films it inspired, Persona is a nearly impossible film to pin down completely. Opening itself to a variety of interpretations due to the array of information Bergman puts on screen, Persona‘s rather ambiguous nature provides different ideas and experiences to anyone who watches the film. It is in this mystery that Bergman both finds complexity and beauty, rewarding viewers who are willing to dive in and explore both what the film intends and what it means to them.
By Alex Sitaras
Ingmar Bergman seldom directed anything but dramas. Thus when we do have a film like Shame, a war film, it is an anomaly. If you thought Shame would somehow be any less existential or probing than his other films, you would be incorrect. Shame may very well be the bleakest film to emerge out of Bergman’s filmography. Rather than center his film around battles like many war films, Bergman explores cruelty, propaganda, and manipulation through the story of a couple attempting to flee from war.
An entry in the second half of Bergman’s filmography, Bergman considers what are single individuals to do when faced with immense evil. This question is a development upon a similar question Bergman posed in Winter Light: how are we to believe in God if God allows such evil? Released in the midst of the Vietnam War, many critics have claimed the film to be commentary on the war though Bergman has denied those claims. Still, with footage related to the war shown in Persona– released just two years prior- and The Passion of Anna, the third film of a thematic trilogy shared with Shame, it is clear that the subject of war and the cruelty it enables is one that plagued Bergman’s mind for years.
The Passion of Anna (1969)
By Alex Sitaras
The Passion of Anna is the second to last time we see Bergman’s leading man Max von Sydow perform in one of Bergman’s film, and the last of three films that star von Sydow and Liv Ullmann as a couple. It is a film that I treasure for its melancholy portrayal of loneliness and its almost dreamlike quality. Shot in Fårö, the island where Bergman shot many a classic film, The Passion of Anna displays well the tranquility of the island and how it is disturbed by the contentious romance that starts between von Sydow’s and Ulmmann’s characters as well as by graphic acts of animal cruelty that are committed by an unknown character.
One highlight of The Passion of Anna is a scene masterfully shot by Bergman’s frequent collaborator Sven Nykvist that is lit by the light of a single candle. While many film historians have (rightfully so) admired the shooting by candelight in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, Nykvist’s accomplishment is seemingly ignored despite being shot years before Barry Lyndon. The Passion of Anna’s final shot is also one for the ages: minimalist, yet expressive of the simple, utter desperation of von Sydow’s character.
Cries and Whispers (1972)
By Ben McDonald
Precisely two films have so profoundly affected me that I was left in an emotional stupor the day after watching them. The first is Elem Klimov’s expressionist nightmare of war, Come and See. The second is Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers. Cries and Whispers is about death. It follows the family of Agnes, a young woman dying slowly and painfully in a mansion with her two unaffectionate sisters and her oppositely loving maid. Bergman traps his viewer as much as the family in their prison of suffering, suffocating the production design with an unbearable abundance of red and the sound design with the violating whispers of a loved one crying out in agony.
To me, Cries and Whispers is a film predominantly concerned with existential dread. Bergman considers this idea in much of his work, but perhaps what makes it so harsh here is that he does so through the lens of death. In his film, Bergman questions the entire purpose of existence in his viewer. How can one live their life knowing that it is a brief and temporary condition? He depicts the sisters as averse to the death of their sister as they mentally and emotionally dodge it despite its equal inevitability for themselves. Although the ideas he poses in Cries and Whispers are indeed deeply horrifying, Bergman does close on a hopeful note, suggesting that the fleeting moments of happiness one finds in life make it all worth it.
Fanny and Alexander (1982)
By Matt Schlee
Fanny and Alexander feels like Bergman’s most epic undertaking. Where many of his films were exceedingly intimate, focusing on a few characters, this one has a dozen or more important characters each with their own independent story and significance. The film follows a woman and her two children, the titular Fanny and Alexander, after the woman’s husband dies. However it also observes their expansive family and the sometimes dramatic, sometimes humorous events of their lives.
The film was originally conceived and aired as a TV mini-series, so it is episodic in nature. It almost feels like a series of films and the different episodes take large shifts in tone and subject matter. The first, focusing on the family’s Christmas dinner, is joyous and often comedic. It lets the viewer soak in the personalities of all of the family members, not focusing on any person or story in particular. It’s an interesting juxtaposition with some of the extremely dark moments that occur throughout the film.
The three hour theatrical cut of the film is adequate in telling the story and capturing Bergman’s main themes, but the massive scope of Fanny and Alexander is what makes it so enjoyable. I think there’s a sound argument to be made that it packs the most content of any entry in Bergman’s filmography which makes it ripe for revisiting despite its massive run time.