Ingmar Bergman: five essential early films

Bergman’s breakthrough didn’t come until nearly a decade into his career, but there are gems among his early work that reward discovery – and hint at his genius emerging.

David Parkinson

Summer with Monika (1953), Ingmar Bergman’s breakthrough film

Summer with Monika (1953), Ingmar Bergman’s breakthrough film

Ingmar Bergman served a lengthy and uneven apprenticeship as a filmmaker. Indeed, were it not for a couple of indulgent producers swayed by his reputation as a stage director, he might never have had the opportunity to forge his international reputation with Summer with Monika (1953).

That bittersweet adaptation of a Per Anders Fogelström novel came almost a decade after Bergman (who was then working in the script department at Svensk Filmindustri) had produced the screenplay for Alf Sjöberg’s Torment (1944), an anti-fascist allegory that allowed Bergman to exorcise some of the demons of his own unhappy youth.

As he sometimes struggled to find funding for his own projects, Bergman would continue to write for other directors, such as Gustaf Molander (Woman without a Face; Eva) and Lars-Eric Kjellgren (While the City Sleeps). He also remained a man of the theatre, with residencies in Helsingborg and Gothenburg persuading sceptical backers to follow up his debut feature, Crisis (1946).

Indeed, when producer Lorens Marmstedt called to offer Bergman work, he joked that Crisis was “an awful film” and that it was “hard to imagine anything worse”. But the resulting poetic realism of It Rains on Our Love (1946) and A Ship Bound for India (1947) prompted critic André Bazin to laud him for creating “a world of blinding cinematic purity”.

Likewise, François Truffaut was quick to commend Thirst (1949) and Waiting Women (1952), comparing the former to Hitchcock and the latter to Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s A Letter to Three Wives (1949).

Certainly, the influence of film noir was strong on Bergman’s pessimistic existentialism, as was the neo-realism of Roberto Rossellini. But the social climate in postwar Sweden also had a considerable impact on his evolving style, as the combination of secularism and permissiveness enabled him to tackle adult themes with a degree of gravitas.

Here are five early Bergman gems that reveal his distinctive voice emerging.

Crisis (1946)

Crisis (1946)

Bergman’s debut as director is a town-and-country saga centring on the relationship between an ingénue (Inga Landgré) and her biological (Marianne Löfgren) and foster (Dagny Lind) mothers. The 27-year-old filmmaker considered the source material to be “grandiose drivel”, but, mentored by veteran director Victor Sjöström (the future star of 1957’s Wild Strawberries), he survived a difficult shoot and a hamstringing blend of stylistic ambition and indecision to create a poetic realist study of conflicted women that foreshadowed The Silence (1963), Persona (1966) and Cries and Whispers (1972).

Port of Call (1948)

Port of Call (1948)

Roberto Rossellini’s spirit pervades this gritty waterfront drama, which gave Bergman his first box-office success. It also marked his earliest collaboration with longtime cinematographer Gunnar Fischer and caused a stir abroad with its frank discussion of maternal cruelty, premarital sex and abortion.

Heavily revising Olle Länsberg’s doorstop script to include a harrowing flashback sequence, Bergman devoted as much time to capturing the atmosphere of Gothenburg’s docks and factories as he did the hesitant romance between working-class waif Nine-Christine Jönsson and Bengt Eklund, the sailor who had thwarted her suicide bid.

Bergman still considered himself “a technical half-wit”. But, seven decades on, this retains its noirish potency. 

Prison (1949)

Prison (1949)

Working for a profit percentage that never came, Bergman was given considerable freedom to produce this provocatively inventive treatise on cinema, morality and faith. Yet, while he could use a self-penned screenplay for the first time, he was restricted by a shoestring budget and tight schedule that prompted him to follow Alfred Hitchcock’s example in Rope (1948) of shooting in long takes.

Editor Lennart Wallén still had a key role, however, most notably during a slapstick film-within-a-film and in a nightmare sequence lit with expressionist menace by Göran Strindberg. Truly a harbinger of things to come.

To Joy (1950)

To Joy (1950)

Documentarist Jane Magnusson’s upcoming Bergman: A Year in a Life is set to explore the director’s relationships with his leading ladies. But he produced his own mea culpa in this revealing insight into how his artistic ambition and crippling self-doubt had contributed to the breakdown of his first two marriages.

Despite the many discordant moments, there’s something touching about the bond between Maj-Britt Nilsson and journeyman violinist Stig Olin. Hence, the emotional power of Olin’s remorseful recollections during the redemptive performance of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’, which conductor Victor Sjöström hopes will convey “a joy so great, so special, that it lies beyond pain and boundless despair… a joy beyond all understanding”.

Summer Interlude (1951)

Summer Interlude (1951)

Leaving behind the confining spaces that had characterised his earliest works, Bergman ventured into the Stockholm archipelago for this watershed picture, which he later claimed “was my first film in which I felt I was functioning independently, with a style of my own, making a film all on my own”.

Dusting down stories he had written in his youth, Bergman creates the first of his great female characters, while Maj-Britt Nilsson excels as the ballerina reminiscing about the idyllic summer romance that had ended in tragedy and a dangerous liaison. Such is the brilliance of Gunnar Fischer’s photography that Jean-Luc Godard declared this “the world’s most beautiful film”.

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