Not only was Ingmar Bergman one of the greatest artists in the history of cinema, he was also one of the most prolific. Chalking up over 60 films as director, he worked quickly with regular collaborators, often taking inspiration from his own life – be it his experiences as the son of a Lutheran minister, his adulterous liaisons with his many lovers, his home life with any of his five wives, or simply his own artistic process.
His films were personal, constantly rehashing and reworking the same preoccupations, from existential crises about the meaning of life and the silence of god, to a fleshy, sexually-driven humanity – jealousy, humiliation, guilt and cruelty recur time and again. If other people are hell, he suggests, then hell together is still preferable to loneliness.
His films twist and turn, feeding off one another and each giving rise to the next – a body of work best understood as a totality, a self-portrait of a tortured genius. Each one, therefore, is essential in its own right; even the lesser works contribute something to the whole. The films below, then, are but a starting point to the many, many essential films that he made.
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Summer with Monika (1953)
Much of Bergman’s early work focused on embittered young lovers struggling against the adult world. Coming towards the end of this cycle, Summer with Monika can be seen, perhaps, as the culmination of the first phase of Bergman’s career – both a summation and an evolution.
Featuring Harriet Andersson as Monika, the first of the many tough and impulsive, sexually-aware characters she would play for Bergman, the film tells of the idyllic summer love affair between Monika and Harry (Lars Ekborg) – but, as so often in Bergman, the respite of the summer months is followed by the autumn rain. Monika falls pregnant, real life intrudes, and the transitory innocence of summer gives way to a poignant study of young love, broken marriages and infidelity.
Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)
Somehow, Bergman retains a reputation for being dark and dour, despite the fact that a cursory glance over his back catalogue proves this isn’t the case; there is humour sprinkled throughout even his darkest work, and there are many outright comedies – such as this glorious, joyous period farce. The film is a comedy of manners, concerning the sexual sparring of a group of a couples; on midsummer, an actress invites her ex-lover and his wife to stay, even though her current lover and his wife are already there – and that’s to say nothing of the randy servants.
Still, this being Bergman, the laughs aren’t without purpose. As Bergman himself put it, the film “explores the frightening insight that it is possible for two people to love each other even when they find it impossible to live together”.
The Seventh Seal (1957)
The most famous (and parodied) of all Bergman’s films, The Seventh Seal focuses on Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), a knight returning from the Crusades. When Death (Bengt Ekerot) comes for him, Block challenges the reaper to a game of chess in the hope of gaining enough time to find some kind of meaning to his life. As he sets off through plague-ridden medieval Sweden, Block encounters a group of travelling players – a ray of light within the darkness.
Released in 1957, near the height of nuclear anxiety, the film reflected contemporary concerns, while presenting a timeless meditation on man’s relationships with death and God. It became a huge success, and helped launch the international vogue for arthouse cinema.
Wild Strawberries (1957)
Featuring the final performance of Victor Sjöström, one of the titans of early Swedish cinema, Wild Strawberries follows a road-trip taken by an ageing professor, from Stockholm to Lund, to receive an honorary degree. As so often in Bergman, the physical journey becomes metaphysical, and the film drifts through time, space and dreams to present a detailed portrait of the professor’s inner life, and his relationships with those around him.
Bergman called the film “a desperate attempt to justify myself to mythologically oversized parents”, and this is just one of his many films that features a look at the bonds between parents and children – but it is also, perhaps, the warmest of them all.
Winter Light (1963)
Sometimes considered, alongside Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and The Silence (1963), to be part of a trilogy focusing on faith and God’s silence, Winter Light concerns a pastor struggling with his dwindling congregation and his declining faith. Like The Seventh Seal before it, Winter Light is infused with the anxiety of the atomic age – Max von Sydow returns, this time as a fisherman seeking the pastor’s solace over his fears of the bomb.
Bergman declared that he made no concessions to the public with Winter Light, and it’s one of his most bitter and stripped back works – he had recently said that his films going forward would be like ‘chamber music’ or ‘small chamber plays’, intimate works with a focus on interior lives.
To describe the narrative of Persona may be to miss the point – but, ostensibly, it focuses on an actress, Elisabet (Liv Ullmann), who falls ill and suddenly stops speaking. She moves to a cottage by the sea to recover. She is cared for by nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson), to whom she listens in silence. As the tale unfolds, the women begin to merge and break down, until the very fabric of the film itself tears apart.
Is Elisabet’s illness a response to the horrors of the world? An avatar for the silence of God? A personification of Jungian theory? A comment on an artist’s inability to communicate? The choices are endless, and the choice is yours – the film is brazenly experimental and shows Bergman as a playful innovator, a postmodernist Svengali unafraid to weave the most open of texts.
Cries and Whispers (1972)
No longer the fresh-faced youth of Summer with Monika, Harriet Andersson gives a harrowing performance as the cancer-ridden Agnes, lying on her deathbed. She is cared for by her two sisters, Maria (Liv Ullmann) and Karin (Ingrid Thulin), in a large country manor at the turn of the 20th century, but they are cold and distant. In flashback, their lives, loves, cruelties and humiliations are revealed, wrapped in a saturated red glow, which Bergman declared to be a manifestation of the human soul.
As the film begins, clocks tick. Time passes, keying us into a major theme. As Bergman said while shooting: “It’s the same old film every time. The same actors, the same scenes, the same problems. The only thing that makes it different is that we’re older.”
Scenes from a Marriage (1973)
A six-part miniseries made for television on a shoestring budget, which was also released in cut-down form as a feature, Scenes from a Marriage is a penetrating portrait of a disintegrating marriage. Marianne (Ullmann again) and Johan (Erland Josephson) appear to have the perfect relationship – but all is not as it seems, and Marianne soon discovers that Johan is having an affair. The story unfolds as a series of snatched moments – the titular scenes – many of which are drawn directly from Bergman’s own life.
A huge hit upon release, the series instigated a national discussion about marriage in Sweden, and raised Bergman to the level of leading marriage counsellor. Bergman later adapted the series for the stage, made a spinoff (From the Life of the Marionettes, 1980) and a sequel (Saraband, 2003), and it was recently remade as an American miniseries by Hagai Levi.
Autumn Sonata (1978)
Bergman’s only collaboration with his famous namesake, Ingrid, Autumn Sonata features another variation on the theme of parental-child relationships. Ingrid stars as Charlotte, a world famous pianist who decides to visit her daughter, only for the trip to unleash years of bitterness and resentment, much of which is the result of Charlotte prioritising her career over her role as mother. As an artist torn between life and art, one can’t help but feel that Charlotte is another thinly-veiled self-portrait of the workaholic Ingmar.
It’s said that the two Bergmans had something of a fraught working relationship, but the results are nothing short of spectacular. The film proved to be Ingrid’s final role for the cinema – and what a role it was.
Fanny and Alexander (1982)
So much of Bergman’s work (and, indeed, life) was informed by his juvenile experiences, but this late masterpiece is his most thorough examination of the wonder, mystery, magic and cruelty of childhood. Bergman himself described it as “a tapestry”, and it’s a fitting phrase for a five-and-half-hour miniseries featuring several generations of a large theatrical family. The focus, however, is on the eponymous children, and what happens to them after their widowed mother marries a stern local bishop.
Epic in length and novelistic in scope, Fanny and Alexander can be seen as the culmination of a lifetime’s work – a swansong of sorts, even if he directed a number of powerful television films afterwards. A shorter, theatrical cut was also released.
Originally published: 17 December 2021