Woody Allen once described Swedish-born director Ingmar Bergman as "probably the greatest film artist, all things considered, since the invention of the motion picture camera." Bergman got his start in theater, where, from his student days at Stockholm University until his retirement in 2003, he directed some 170 productions. His initial outing as a movie director would come in 1946 with the family drama Crisis. It would be the first of 67 films he directed—for television and theatrical release—and the second of the 72 films he wrote.
“No form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does—straight to our emotions, deep into the twilight room of the soul,” said Bergman. Though his films were not without humor—indeed, his first major splash on the international scene was a romantic comedy—his work was often dominated by such weighty themes as religion, man's existence and death.
Here are ten must-see motion pictures from one of cinema’s most artful and influential directors.
Autumn Sonata (1978)
Ingrid Bergman gave her final film performance in Ingmar Bergman’s drama about renowned concert pianist Charlotte (Bergman) coming to visit her neglected daughter Eva (Liv Ullmann). Unbeknownst to Charlotte, her mentally disabled daughter Helena (Lena Nyman) is living with Eva, who has removed Helena from the institution Charlotte placed her in and has become her caregiver. Initial cordiality between Charlotte and Eva falls away over the course of the visit, culminating in an anguished and ultimately cathartic all-night discussion between mother and daughter. On the set, after a bumpy start and a lengthy, aggressive exchange between Bergman and Bergman, the director heralded his lengendary star as “brilliant…incredibly difficult, but brilliant.” Autumn Sonata would earn Ingrid Bergman her seventh Oscar nomination.
Cries and Whispers (1972)
Referring to the dominant color scheme the director used for his period drama, Bergman said, “Cries and Whispers is an exploration of the soul, and ever since childhood, I have imagined the soul to be a damp membrane in varying shades of red." Inside a rural mansion in the late 1800s, Agnes (Harriet Andersson) lays dying of cancer and receives a visit from sisters Karin (Ingrid Thulin) and Maria (Liv Ullmann), with neither of them doing much to ease her physical or psychological pain. As unpleasant memories and attitudes rise to the surface, Agnes finds her only comfort in the arms of Anna (Kari Sylwan), a servant and unofficial nurse, mother and guardian angel. The movie received enormous critical acclaim upon its release in the United States. It was also an awards-season rarity—a foreign-language film that earned a healthy handful of major Oscar nominations that included Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Costume. Its only win was for longtime Bergman collaborator Sven Nykvist, who took home the Academy Award for Best Cinematography. Likely none of those American accolades would have been possible without Roger Corman, the schlock filmmaker responsible for such flicks as Teenage Cave Man (1958) and Bloody Mama (1970). Bergman was looking for an American distributor; Corman was looking for a prestige picture to distribute under the aegis of New World, his newly minted distribution company.
Fanny and Alexander (1982)
From 1,000 handwritten pages came a late-career magnum opus for the director, one of the biggest, most populated and most expensive films ever attempted in Sweden. Two versions exist—a 312-minute, four-part edition intended for television and, after Bergman begrudgingly “cut into the nerves and lifeblood of the film,” the 188-minute rendering that most movie audiences know. Taking Charles Dickens as his influence, Bergman set his tale in the Swedish town of Uppsala in the early-20th-century, where the siblings of the title bear witness to the events and conflicts occurring within their enormous, high-spirited family. It would be Bergman’s final theatrical film as a director.
Heralded as another of Bergman’s masterpieces, Persona is a modern, illusory story of identity that New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael called “an open puzzle…which affects some people very profoundly, permits them to project into it so much of themselves that what they think the movie is about has very little to do with what happens on the screen.” What does happen on screen involves Alma (Bibi Andersson), a nurse who is assigned to look after Elisabeth (Liv Ullmann), an actress who has stopped speaking. In Elisabeth, Alma finds a sympathetic listener to her secret thoughts, an act that gradually leads to the subtle subsuming of each other’s personalities. Bergman's drama was a strong influence on director Robert Altman's 1977 film 3 Women.
Scenes From a Marriage (1973)
Bergman’s six-part series for Swedish television clocked in at 300 minutes, a hefty run-time that was judiciously cut to 167 minutes for theatrical release in the United States. The film offers a close and often difficult examination of the marriage between college professor Johan (Erland Josephson) and divorce lawyer Marianne (Liv Ullmann), picking up ten years into their union and following them for the next ten. As the decade unfurls, we see them separate, have affairs, reconcile, divorce and eventually come to an understanding about being a permanent part of the other person’s life, married or not. Its broadcast in Sweden proved so popular that couples often called Bergman or approached him on the street for marital advice. The director reportedly had to change his phone number when the requests became too intrusive.
The Seventh Seal (1957)
The Crusades are over with, the plague rages unabated, and Death (Bengt Ekerot) comes for a knight named Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), which propels Block to the bargaining stage of the Kübler-Ross model. The deal? They play chess, and if the knight wins, he gets to delay his higher graduation. Throughout, Block questions his faith and ponders life’s meaning. The film won the Special Jury Prize at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival and greatly elevated the stature of the Swedish director and stars von Sydow and Bibi Andersson.
Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)
Bergman achieved worldwide fame with Smiles of a Summer Night, easily the most carefree of his major works. Set in the late 19th century, the film is a comedy about the ensuing romantic entanglements when an actress invites two of her former lovers and their wives to spend a weekend at her family’s country estate. For this picture, the director received an award at Cannes, recognition by BAFTA, enthusiastic reviews and an international following. The story was later adapted by playwright Hugh Wheeler and composer Stephen Sondheim for the 1973 Broadway musical A Little Night Music.
Through a Glass Darkly (1961)
Bergman’s stark depiction of mental instability was lauded by critics and, in a bizarre happenstance, Oscar-nominated two years in a row. (The movie’s 1963 nomination for Best Original Screenplay was preceded by its 1962 nomination and win for Best Foreign Language Film.) The plot follows Karin (Harriet Andersson), who is vacationing with her husband Martin (Max von Sydow), her brother Minus (Lars Passgård) and her father David (Gunnar Björnstrand) amid the rugged, sea-swept terrain of Sweden’s Fårö Island. A lighthearted atmosphere quickly fades as Karin begins to hallucinate and hear voices. Reactions of the men vary—the husband is despairing and the father emotionally remote, while the adolescent brother makes awkward incestuous advances. Through a Glass Darkly was the first film in the director’s Silence of God Trilogy, which also included Winter Light (1962) and The Silence (1963).
The Virgin Spring (1960)
In medieval Sweden, a young girl journeys through the woods to deliver church candles and—in one of the most disturbing scenes in any of Bergman’s films—is raped and murdered by three goatherds. From there, the story follows the men, who seek shelter at the girl’s home, and the girl’s father, who exacts his retribution on them. “[I]t is far from an easy picture to watch or entirely commend,” wrote New York Times critic Bosley Crowther about the director’s revenge drama. “For Mr. Bergman has stocked it with scenes of brutality that, for sheer unrestrained realism, may leave one sickened and stunned. As much as they may contribute to the forcefulness of the theme, they tend to disturb the senses out of proportion to the dramatic good they do.” It was a sentiment not entirely shared with Oscar voters, however, who voted it the Best Foreign Language Film of the year.
Wild Strawberries (1957)
Veteran actor/director Victor Sjöström gave his final performance in Bergman’s drama about an aging professor travelling to his former university to receive an honor. Along the way, he encounters people who elicit a series of strong, and sometimes painful, memories that spur him to reassess his life. “So it struck me,” Bergman said. “What if you could make a film about this; that you just walk up in a realistic way and open a door, and then you walk into your childhood, and then you open another door and come back to reality, and then you make a turn around a street corner and arrive in some other period of your existence, and everything goes on, lives. That was actually the idea behind Wild Strawberries.”