(1918 - 2007)
Three Key Films: Persona (1966), Cries and Whispers (1972), Fanny and Alexander (1982)
Underrated: Shame (1968) In North America one could say that most of Bergman’s films are underrated. Ask the average film fan to name five of his movies and they will be able to do it comfortably. But ask them to name another five and it’ll get tough. Which, as any Bergman fanatic knows, is proof positive that as famous and revered as the Swedish auteur might be, much of his best work is still under-seen, underexplored, and underappreciated. And it’s in that tier of films below the world-famous ones that we’ll find films like Shame, Bergman’s extraordinary treatise on the unimaginable suffering and destruction endured by civilians in war zones. Using a fictionalized civil war on an isolated island as a stand in for any of the global conflicts then raging (though I have always imagined this as a statement on the American War in Vietnam in particular), we watch as locals struggle to figure out who is the enemy. No one knows why the war is being fought. No one knows how it will end, or what it will have accomplished. Bergman ends the film with among his most uncomfortable, searing, and unforgettable images, survivors in a boat adrift on a fog-enclosed sea, bumping into bodies, bodies floating everywhere.
Unforgettable: The chess scene from Seventh Seal (1957) As a metaphor for our always futile but nevertheless persistent battle against the inevitability of death, few moments in film history have been so effective. A medieval knight, alone on a windswept beach, looks up and sees Death who tells him it is his time to die. Refusing this as absurd (for what is more absurd than a sudden death sentence?), the knight challenges Death to a game of chess for his life. He will lose. We know it, Death knows it, and maybe the Knight knows it too. But, he has to try. That’s all we can ever do.
The Legend: Ingmar Bergman was famously described by his acolyte Woody Allen as “probably the greatest film artist, all things considered, since the invention of the motion picture camera”. Though almost equally revered in his native country as a theatre director, Bergman’s work behind the camera remains his greatest contribution, though his work remains criminally under-viewed by a global cinema audience that remains uncomfortable with his refusal to sentimentalize the darker aspects of human experience. A tireless artist with a truly frighteningly efficient work ethic, Bergman produced dozens of extraordinary films over his career (from 1946-1982 he would make a film most every winter, before spending the summer producing and directing (and sometimes acting in theatre!).
From his early chamber dramas in the 1940s through to his elaborate, ornate, and utterly enchanting Fanny and Alexander in 1982, Bergman explored every facet of the emotional, spiritual, physical, and psychic complex that makes us human. Through an astonishing string of harrowing masterpieces between 1957’s The Seventh Seal and 1973’s Scenes From a Marriage—a period which includes such stone classics as Persona (1966), Cries and Whispers (1973), Through A Glass Darkly (1961), Wild Strawberries (1957) and The Virgin Spring (1960)—Bergman redefined the “art film”, and set the template for the thoughtful, penetrating drama of a generation (or two, or three) of high-minded filmmakers to come. His unflinching attention to the harshest realities of existence—pain, disease, death, fear, anxiety, dread, depression, and loss were his favoured (overlapping) themes—was only matched by his careful cinematic focus and vision.
An inspiration to scores of artists of every description, and the basic premise behind every foreign film course at every film school you can think of, his films are impeccably constructed, and frequently boast some of the finest performances one might ever hope to see. How Bergman was able to so consistently achieve such vertiginous heights remains one of the great mysteries of film. He died in 2007, at the not-so-tender age of 89, the same day as fellow cinema luminary Michelangelo Antonioni. Stuart Henderson
Fanny and Alexander (1982)