Death plays chess with Ingmar Bergman, Death Wins

Being a Woody Allen film fan, I can say I saw spoofs of Ingmar Bergman films before I was able to actually see one of this brilliant directors works.

For 30 years and more, Seventh SealIngmar Bergman, the dominant Swedish artist in cinema and theatre, brought to his work an intensely personal vision, shot through with pain and pessimism and charting the breakdown of human relationships with a piercing insight. He was a visionary and used film like many artists use a canvas to portray their talent.

Bergman has taken his Final Taxi at the age of 89.

His films usually deal with existential questions of mortality, loneliness, and faith; they also tend to be direct and not overtly stylized. Persona, one of Bergman’s most famous films, is unusual among Bergman’s work in being both existentialist and avant-garde.

Bergman usually wrote his own scripts, thinking about them for months or years before starting the actual process of writing, which he viewed as somewhat tedious. His earlier films are carefully structured, and are either based on his plays or written in collaboration with other authors. Bergman stated that in his later works, when on occasion his actors would want to do things differently from his own intentions, he would let them, noting that the results were often “disastrous” when he did not do so.

Bergman developed a personal “repertory company” of Swedish actors whom he repeatedly cast in his films, including Max von Sydow, Bibi Andersson, Harriet Andersson, Erland Josephson, the late Ingrid Thulin, and Gunnar Björnstrand, each of whom appeared in at least five Bergman features. Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann was the last to join this group (in the 1966 film Persona), and ultimately became most closely associated with Bergman, both artistically and personally. They had a daughter together, Linn Ullmann (b. 1966).

Bergman began working with Sven Nykvist, his cinematographer, in 1953. The two of them developed and maintained a working relationship of sufficient rapport to allow Bergman not to worry about the composition of a shot until the day before it was filmed. On the morning of the shoot, he would briefly speak to Nykvist about the mood and composition he hoped for, and then leave Nykvist to work without interruption or comment until post-production discussion of the next day’s work.

One of the film regarded as one of his great early works and help to launch his fame was Smiles of a Summer Night (1955). This is an elegant comedy of manners set in the 19th century, it seems to embrace all aspects of love – from earthy passion, through adultery to marriage – depicted through seven characters whose lives interlock on one of those endlessly bright Swedish summer nights.

Most people, myself included, consider his masterpiece to be The Seventh Seal (Swedish: Det sjunde inseglet) is an existential 1957 Swedish film about the journey of a medieval knight (Max von Sydow) across a plague-ridden landscape. Its best-known scene features the knight playing chess with the personification of Death, his life resting on the outcome of the game. The title is a reference to the passage from the Book of Revelation used both at the very start of the film, and again towards the end, beginning with the words “And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour” (Revelation 8:1). The film won the jury prize at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival.

In the next 10 years, Ingmar Bergman made Wild Strawberries, The Silence, The Virgin Spring, and Through a Glass Darkly, the last two of which won best foreign language film.

In the ’70s, Ingmar Bergman went on to make the acclaimed Cries and Whispers, Scenes From a Marriage, and The Magic Flute. In 1984, Ingmar Bergman made what many consider his masterpiece, certainly his most personal film, Fanny and Alexander. Bergman even claimed that it would be his grand finale as a filmmaker. The film, which can be found in three and five hour versions, won four Oscars in 1984 including best foreign language film. Ingmar Bergman, in classic fashion, unplugged his phone and didn’t even attend the ceremony.

I will have to agree with the obituary in the New York Times that took note of the fact that critics regarded Bergman as “one of THE directors — the others being Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa — who dominated the world of serious film making in the second half of the 20th century.”

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2 Responses

  1. “A man does not die of love or his liver or even of old age; he dies of being a man, Ingmar Bergman will be missed,”Death is as sure for that which is born, as birth is for that which is dead. Therefore grieve not for what is inevitable.”-Bhagavad Gita.

    His great movies were ,The Seventh Seal (1957) and Fanny and Alexander (1982). Good Bye My Friend you will be in our mind and heart. You will be missed for generations to come.

    Ramesh Manghirmalani
    Danville,California

  2. Thanks for the Bergman recap. I learned much about the man I did not know.

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