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.