Famously prolific, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman established long-lasting relationships with many of his actors, most of whom worked with him on the stage as well as on the screen (both cinema and television).
More than this, though, many became his friends and, somewhat notoriously, his lovers. They often worked with him in other capacities too – writing with him, directing films that he wrote or produced, or appearing in films made from his screenplays.
All of these actors, in their own unique manner, contributed to the construction of the Bergman universe as we know it. Here, we take a brief look at eight of the key players.
While still just a teenager, Bibi Andersson appeared in Bergman’s playful commercials for Bris soap (1951-53). Falling for her youthful charm, he later used her to symbolise a free-spirited hope and innocence in a number of the 11 feature films they made together – see, for instance, the way she breezily helps awaken Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström) from his world-weary slumber in Wild Strawberries (1957).
Distress crept into the roles as the actress got older, and America soon beckoned, leading to parts for John Huston (The Kremlin Letter, 1970) and Robert Altman (Quintet, 1979). She also won the Silver Bear for best actress in 1963 for her role in Vilgot Sjöman’s The Mistress.
Bergman count: 11
Essential collaborations: The Seventh Seal (1957), Wild Strawberries (1957), Persona (1966)
The title role in Summer with Monika (1953), Harriet Andersson’s first film with Bergman, was written especially for her, and it would set the tone for many of the characters she played in the collaborations that followed: a tough, impulsive and independent working-class woman, fully aware of her sexuality.
In total, Andersson played 10 roles for Bergman on screen, including superb turns as a tortured schizophrenic in Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and a woman in the throes of a horrifying death in Cries and Whispers (1972). Her work with other directors includes Sidney Lumet’s The Deadly Affair (1966) and Lars von Trier’s Dogville (2003).
Bergman count: 10
Essential collaborations: Summer with Monika (1953), Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Cries and Whispers (1972)
An actor with a background in comedy, Gunnar Björnstrand’s sprightly early roles for Bergman helped the director breathe humour into his work – see, for instance, his turn as the bickering husband in 1952’s Waiting Women.
Over the course of their 19 films together, Björnstrand took on the role of Bergman’s befuddled alter ego – often paired with Max von Sydow, the two together represented multiple sides of Bergman’s personality. But performances such as the tortured pastor in Winter Light (1963) showed that Björnstrand could more than carry a film and revealed a deep range of dramatic skill beyond his comedic origins.
Bergman count: 19
Essential collaborations: A Lesson in Love (1954), The Seventh Seal (1957), Winter Light (1963),
A near lifelong friend of Bergman’s, Erland Josephson was the actor with the longest-running working relationship with the director and, in addition to appearing in 15 of his films, he co-wrote two screenplays with Bergman and directed a TV movie that Bergman produced.
Bergman often cast Josephson as a frustrated, egotistical intellectual, perhaps best typified by Johan, the unfaithful husband of Scenes from a Marriage (1973) and its belated sequel Saraband (2003). Outside his work with Bergman, Josephson is best known for his two films with Andrei Tarkovsky: Nostalghia (1983) and The Sacrifice (1986).
Bergman count: 15
Essential collaborations: After the Rehearsal (1984), Scenes from a Marriage (1973), Saraband (2003)
Though rarely a leading player, Gunnel Lindblom had significant parts in eight of Bergman’s films, her striking features and piercing eyes always imbuing her roles with a forceful, magnetic impact. Perhaps the biggest, and the best, of these was the sensual Anna in The Silence (1963).
In addition to her work with Bergman, Lindblom starred in the Palme d’Or-nominated, Bodil Award-winning Hunger (1966), and was more recently seen in Niels Arden Oplev’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009). In the late 70s, she made the move into directing, and Bergman produced her first two features.
Bergman count: 8
Essential collaborations: The Seventh Seal (1957), The Virgin Spring (1960), The Silence (1963)
Happy to downplay her physical beauty, Ingrid Thulin was cast by Bergman in roles she termed “difficult” and “psychological”. Her characters were often anxious, anguished and tortured (both physically and emotionally). One highlight (of many) among the 10 screen roles she played for Bergman is the eczema-ridden Märta in Winter Light (1963).
Internationally, her work included a high-profile Hollywood flop (Vincente Minnelli’s 1962 Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse) and roles for Alain Resnais (La guerre est finie, 1966) and Luchino Visconti (The Damned, 1969).
Bergman count: 10
Essential collaborations: Wild Strawberries (1957), Winter Light (1963), Cries and Whispers (1972)
With her near wordless role as Elisabeth Vogler in Persona (1966), Liv Ullmann exploded into Bergman’s life – both personally and professionally. Her extraordinary emotional range, deep intelligence and uncanny ability to simultaneously convey conflicting emotional states made her the perfect conduit for Bergman’s searing, searching explorations of the human soul – something he exploited to the full during their 10 screen collaborations.
She would also go on to direct two of his screenplays, Faithless (2000) and Private Confessions (1996). Despite her inseparability from Bergman, Ullmann has long claimed that her best films are Jan Troell’s diptych The Emigrants (1971) and The New Land (1972). She also worked in America, to mixed success, in such films as Pope Joan (1972) and 40 Carats (1973).
Bergman count: 10
Essential collaborations: Persona (1966), Face to Face (1976), Autumn Sonata (1978)
Max von Sydow
As the anguished knight Antonius Block in The Seventh Seal (1957), Max von Sydow became the most iconic of all Bergman’s leading men, the embodiment of the director’s famous existential doubt. Between 1957 and 1971, they made 11 features together, with von Sydow as the director’s avatar – a symbol of the modern man, often an artist, struggling with both the world around him and the world within.
Later, von Sydow would have a successful career in Hollywood, creating icons of a different kind: Father Merrin in The Exorcist (1973), Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon (1980), Blofeld in Never Say Never Again (1983) and, more recently, Lor San Tekka in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015).
Bergman count: 11
Essential collaborations: The Seventh Seal (1957), The Virgin Spring (1960), Hour of the Wolf (1968)
Also look out for…
Bergman’s films are littered with far too many memorable recurring faces to list them all here, but perhaps two more of the most important are Birger Malmsten and Eva Dahlbeck. Malmsten appears in 11 of Bergman’s films, often as the leading man in his youth-focused early work, while Dahlbeck appeared in six, often in sophisticated roles imbued with warmth and wit.