Ingmar Bergman: A Life in Film

“ACTUALLY, IT DEALS (AS USUAL, I WAS ABOUT TO SAY!) WITH LOVE, LIFE AND DEATH. BECAUSE NOTHING IN FACT IS MORE IMPORTANT.”

– INGMAR BERGMAN, IN A LETTER TO THE CREW OF ‘FACE TO FACE’

Whether you love or hate Ingmar Bergman’s work, you have to admit that he is a giant of Swedish cinema, television and theatre, whether as a writer, director, or as both. Bergman directed over sixty films and documentaries, some made for the cinema, others for television, many of which he also wrote, as well as over one hundred and seventy plays. Bergman was – and still is, even after his passing – one of the most influential film directors of all time, influencing the likes of Liv Ullman, Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, Ang Lee, and countless more.

Bergman poured his own ideas, his own experiences and his heart into his work. He explored his own nature, his own psyche and desires through his films and plays, providing the viewer with an often unsettling and always challenging insight into Bergman’s own mind and his own personal view of the world in which we all live. His reflective psychological explorations have created a plethora of cinematic masterpieces, ranging widely in genre and topic. We can follow his life, and understand the great man, through his films, as his life had a habit of continuously influencing his work. While chronologically out of order – it was made released in 1992 – The Best Intentions provides us with a glimpse into the life, courtships and tensions between Bergman’s parents, Erik Bergman (named Henrik in the film), a Lutheran Minister, and Karin Åkerblom (re-named Anna).

Bergman’s upbringing was religious and strict, and he and his siblings were constantly surrounded by religious imagery and discussion, and, while he claimed to have lost his faith at a young age, it was not until the making of Winter Light (1962) that he fully explored his own experiences with religion, faith and his own existential crisis, and finally ‘Realized who he really was.’ Winter Light was the second of what would become known as Bergman’s unintentional ‘Trilogy of Faith’, the first being Through a Glass Darkly (1961), itself a reference to the living’s comprehension of God, and the third, The Silence (1963), perhaps referring to the silence of God –  a theme that Bergman first explored in The Seventh Seal (1957), along with his own sense of mortality.

Fanny & Alexander (1982) also owes a lot to Bergman’s personal life. Alexander is based on Bergman and Fanny on his sister, Margareta. The stepfather in the film, the widower bishop with a terribly authoritarian outlook, who inflicts a rigid, even cruel upbringing on his step-children, is undoubtedly based on how Bergman viewed his own father. Bergman’s use of what became essentially his own repertory company of a select group of actors, also allows us to observe not only Bergman’s own life, but also the lives of those actors as they age through the years. Bergman also became romantically involved several of his actresses, Harriet Andersson (for whom Summer with Monika (1953), was specifically written), Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman, and the highs and lows of those relationships can be traced on screen.

Bergman’s films consistently deal with issues that Bergman himself struggled with: illness, betrayal, insanity, mortality and loneliness as well as issues of faith. Yet, many of his films deal with sexual desire. Despite all his many marriages and affairs, Bergman’s ultimate mistress was his films. In one interview he stated that for him ‘theatre is like a faithful wife, film is… the expensive and demanding mistress.’ His string of failed marriages gave him fodder for the series Scenes from a Marriage, which chronicled the disintegration of the marriage of Marianne and Johan; meanwhile his jealous tendencies and his sometimes unflattering opinions about the female sex are reflected in his films, as in Shame (1968) and in Faithless (2000) – written by Bergman and directed by Liv Ullman. Yet his female characters are often far more in touch with their own emotions and sexuality than the men, as so shockingly depicted in Cries and Whispers (1972).

The breakdowns in Bergman’s works do not just relate to relationships; in Face to Face (1976) we witness the extraordinary psychological breakdown of the female psychiatrist, Dr. Jenny Isaksson, as she is inescapably haunted by her own past. Bergman yet again breaks down the very heart of the matter in order to almost forensically examine it, and this can be a disturbing or cathartic experience. Sweden too, is often present, changing as it did through the twentieth century, and the Swedish landscape is undoubtedly its own character in many of Bergman’s works. Several of Bergman’s movies, mostly from the sixties, were made, at least in part, on the island of Fårö, his adopted home. These include Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Persona (1966), Hour of the Wolf (1968), Shame (1968) and The Passion of Anna (1969). Bergman’s tax exile from Sweden was also to have an effect on his films, his annoyance and frustration over this, as well as the necessity to film and produce films outside of Sweden, would result in such dark, heavy and bleak films as the Munich based From the Life of the Marionettes (1980).

In many ways all of Bergman’s films are an exploration of his life, especially his own childhood. Isak’s reflections on his own childhood in Wild Strawberries (1957) are clearly influenced by those of Bergman himself, as he ponders his own ambivalent, cold mother. Bergman wrote the script while hospitalised, in part for stress, and during a time when he was tackling the imminent breakdown of his third marriage and his affair with Bibi Andersson. Bergman’s reevaluation of his life at that time is shown through Isak’s reevaluation, brought on by his dreams and nightmares. The old men in both Faithless and Wild Strawberries are representative of Bergman as he explores his past, in an attempt to understand who he is and why is the way that he is. This journey of self-discovery by Bergman, woven into every part of the fabric of his films, is a driving force and gives us – the viewers – a profound and deep insight into one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.

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