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Ingmar Bergman, Dead at 89

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Legendary filmmaker Ingmar Bergman has died at the age of 89 at his island home off the coast of his native Sweden. The son of a Lutheran minister, Bergman grew up in a home marked by strict discipline and devotion to God. As a youngster, he often accompanied his father when he preached at local country churches and he came of age immersed in the religious imagery that would later come to characterize much of his work.

Considered to be one of the greatest directors of all time, Bergman’s long career included directing for television and the stage. It is his film work, however, that stands as his monumental achievement, bringing as it did a seriousness of purpose to modern cinema that had previously been lacking. His work is cited by many directors working today as having been highly influential not only on their own work but to the development of contemporary cinema as a whole.

Little known outside his native Sweden at the outset of his career, he began to attract international notice in 1956 when his film Smiles Of A Summer Night won a special prize at the Cannes Film Festival. A year later, The Seventh Seal won another prize at Cannes, and in 1960, The Virgin Spring won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. These breakthroughs brought Bergman’s work to a much wider audience and assured him his place in the history of film.

Bergman found it productive to surround himself with familiar artists and established a kind of repertory company of actors and crew members with whom he often worked. Most notable among his collaborators were the actors Max von Sydow, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Ingrid Thulin, Bibi Andersson, Erland Josephson, and Liv Ullman.

His approach to filmmaking was collegial and respectful of the contributions of others. In 1953 he began a longstanding collaboration with cinematographer Sven Nykvist, who won Academy Awards for his work on two of Bergman’s films, Cries and Whispers (1973) and Fanny and Alexander (1983). (Nykvist would later work with Woody Allen on that director’s 1989 film, Crimes and Misdemeanors; Allen’s work has been deeply influenced by Bergman, perhaps right down to his style of working with a repertory group of actors and technicians.) In a 1984 interview with the American Film Institute, Nykvist described the sense of collaboration that existed on a Bergman set:

The whole crew meets two months before shooting to read the whole script, then we start to make tests. We build sets, and when everyone — the costume designer, the production designer, the makeup artist — is there, we make tests for the whole picture so we will never be surprised when we start shooting. We are already halfway through a picture when we start to shoot it, and that is psychologically very important for all the people because everyone, including the grips and electricians, feels that he or she is as important as all the others. We had a group that had been working together for 20 years; we didn't really have to speak to each other because we always knew the answer.

Bergman has stated that his work was “of course” autobiographical. In a 1995 interview with the New York Times, Bergman stated that "[t]he doors between the old man today and the child are still open, wide open … I can stroll through my grandmother's house, and know exactly where the pictures are, the furniture was, how it looked, the voice, the smells. I can move from my bed at night today to my childhood in less than a second. And it has exactly the same reality."

Bergman stopped making films in 1983 with Fanny and Alexander, although that didn’t mean that he withdrew into retirement. He continued to work in television and to direct theater, and also found the time to write several novels. He was married five times and conducted numerous romantic affairs, most notably with actress Liv Ullman, who appeared in several of his films. His various relationships produced nine children.

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About Lisa McKay

  • The Seventh Seal is masterful and captivating. I watched it recently with some friends, and my children wanted to watch it, too. I explained ahead of time it would be monochromatic and confusing, but my nine-year-old loved it. I could see her thinking about it for several days. Great, great film.

  • Went through an intense period of Ingmar Bergman worship back in college (with my first viewing of The Seventh Seal) that has abated slightly as I’ve grown older but still holds as an abiding love for his movie work. I remember feeling disheartened when I learned that Fanny and Alexander was to be his last complete film, and I have to admit to having limited knowledge of his later TV work. But, damn, could that man make movies . . .

  • Checkmate, Ingmar. Truly one of the greats of all-time. Thanks for the write-up.

  • Bergman did not stop making films in 1983; there was also “After the Rehearsal” in 1984, and a few years ago he made “Saraband,” the sequel to “Scenes from a Marriage.”

  • Weren’t those both TV productions (as was the original Scenes from A Marriage) as opposed to full-blown feature films? Granted, the distinction can be minor when discussing an artist like Bergman, but it did affect, I suspect, how broadly his work was distributed outside of his native country.

  • It would appear (according to my sources, anyway) that After the Rehearsal and Saraband were both produced for Swedish television and that Fanny and Alexander was indeed the last film he made exclusively for theatrical release.

  • Both “After the Rehearsal” and “Saraband” were released theatrically in this country, so that makes them films.

    I saw “Sarabande” in a theater last year. It brought him lots of press; Bergman’s comeback and all that. It was also nominated for a Cesar Award in France — the equivalent of our Oscar –as “Best European Union Film.”

  • “Both “After the Rehearsal” and “Saraband” were released theatrically in this country, so that makes them films.”

    If you want to get technical, Saraband was a made-for-television movie that aired on Swedish public television in December 2003. Where you first experienced something doesn’t change what it is.

  • El Bicho —

    You tell me, then: what does determine what it is? When is a film not a film?

    I could just as well say that where it was first presented doesn’t establish its identity either. Look at Fassbinder’s 15-hour “Berlin Alexanderplatz.” It was photographed with high artistic values and is regarded by many as one of the greatest films of the late 20th Century. It also first aired over several nights on German TV. Doesn’t that make it a mini-series — even if it wasn’t shaped into one-hour segments or filmed to allow for commercial breaks?

    There have been films that were originally made for TV, and then went on to have successful theatrical releases.

    Fact of the matter is, these have become increasingly outdated categories in determining what a “film” is. When we think “made for TV” we tend to mean movies that aren’t really movies, because the production values are lower and they are made for mass consumption — not at all unlike the vast amount of product that Hollywood churned out in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.

    It’s hard to argue, when you get right down to it, that a Lifetime movie is less genuine than, say, an old B-movie starring Sonny Tufts.

    And “made for TV” no longer means what it used to mean; not when you have cable programming that is better than a lot of what you see at the theater.

    Another point worth keeping in mind: in all likelihood, most of the films you probably regard as great are ones you have only seen on TV. At least, that’s the case with me. I’ve never seen Citizen Kane in a theater, for example. In my head, it’s a great film; in actual experience, it’s a TV movie.

    Anyway, however you slice it, the statement Bergman “stopped making films” after Fanny and Alexander is simply incorrect.

    Saraband is a film and a damned fine one. It’s the sequel to another great film, Scenes From a Marriage. Oh, wait, that’s not a film though, is it, since it first aired on Swedish TV?

  • You raise some good points, Rodney: the distinction between film and filmed television movies has grown progressively blurrier over the years. At one point, you could more clearly differentiate between film and television as media – so much so that when teevee producers attempted to pawn off sixties teleseries as feature films in other countries (as with, say, Man from U.N.C.L.E. features), the difference was more discernible. With the growing use of more cinematically filmed teevee series, though, this distinction has grown blurrier.

    With Bergman, the issue for me comes down on the man’s own words. When he finished making Fanny and Alexander, Bergman stated repeatedly that this was his last feature film. Now, this statement could be taken as seriously as one of David Bowie’s “retirements,” or it could be taken to mean that the man himself saw a clear difference between the work he produced for the moviehouses and the work he produced for the TV screen. I think it’s the latter, but you’re free to disagree.

    I first saw Citizen Kane (and Seventh Seal) on the big screen as part of a university film society program – definitely, the optimal way to view either work . . .

  • Great piece, Lisa. I imagine if any filmmaker got anywhere near to presenting what might go through a man’s head five minutes afore dying, it’s Bergman. the pre-titles sequence in Persona is, i’m willing to bet, exactly what that whole “Life flashing” carry on probably looks like. Or when a baby’s just about to be born. headed for the hospital sheets out there, i’m guessing something very similar to that amazing sequence is running rings around its brain. All that anyone need ever know about anything can be found in The Seventh Seal, Persona, Wild Strawberries and Hour Of The Wolf. God bless you, Mr Bergman, you brilliant old bastard.

  • Rodney Welch

    Everybody changes their mind, Bill. Saraband is as much of a film as Through a Glass Darkly. The technical differences are unimportant.