Movies and Film: Ingmar Bergman and the Triumph of Scandinavian Cinema

Ingmar Bergman and the Triumph of Scandinavian Cinema

Though never one for exaggeration, Woody Allen once described Ingmar Bergman as "the greatest film artist … since the invention of the motion picture camera." A bit over the top, Allen's superlative nevertheless reflects Bergman's massive influence upon world cinema—and, even more, upon the past 50 years of Swedish film.

Short Cuts

As a young boy, Ingmar Bergman was locked in a dark and stifling closet for hours at a time by his dominating father. Many have speculated that these early childhood traumas lie behind Bergman's explorations of ominous paternal figures in early films he wrote and/or directed, such as Frenzy (1944).

Second Take

They'll insist it's true till they're blue in the face, but don't let anyone tell you that Swedish-cum-American golden age superstar Ingrid Bergman is the daughter of Ingmar Bergman. Ingrid was an orphan from early on, and it was only in 1978 with Ingmar's Autumn Sonata that the two ever collaborated in a motion picture.

Filmophile's Lexicon

Art film (or film d'art) is a term generally used to distinguish more self-consciously artistic and "cerebral" films from their generally higher-budget counterparts, "commercial films." Though the term is still used by critics to separate art-house productions from mainstream Hollywood studio releases, it's often more of a convenience than an accurate reflection of a real division.

Like Sjstrm's for the silent era, Bergman's reputation and filmic vision tend to overshadow Sweden's many other great modern directors. Mai Zetterling's long and distinguished career has included features like Loving Couples (Flskande Par, 1964) and Night Games (Nattlek, 1966) in the '60s and Of Seals and Man (1980) and Amarosa (1986) in the '80s, not to mention an early and highly successful period as one of Sweden's border-crossing international actresses. Arne Mattson came to international prominence in 1951 with One Summer of Happiness, while Lasse Hallstrm's My Life as a Dog (Mitt Liv Som Hund, 1985) was a worldwide hit in the mid-'80s.

But Bergman has long been the name of the game in Swedish cinema, and the nation's directors have been dealing with his living legacy since the early '50s. And if you want to become at all knowledgeable about the breadth and character of world cinema, you'll have to begin dealing with it as well.

A Cinema of Life, Death, and Everything in Between

In some ways the Mozart of twentieth-century film-making, Ingmar Bergman started making his own pictures while still a child. He began his artistic career proper as a theater director, however, and his first experience in the Swedish film industry was as the writer for Alf Sjberg's Frenzy (Hets, 1944). Eleven years later, he gained his first international recognition for Smiles of a Summer Night (Sommarnattens Leende, 1955), a light comedy that's still very enjoyable, if much less complex than his subsequent pictures.

It was also in the mid-'50s that Bergman started getting medieval. The Seventh Seal (Det Sjunde Inseglet, 1957) is set in Europe during the Black Death, and it's a true allegory in the medieval sense, rife with hidden meanings and significances. The chess game staged between a knight returning from the Crusades and Death symbolizes wider human struggles to understand the nature of life and its limitations. And Virgin Spring (Jungfrukllan, 1960) is a medieval drama of murder, betrayal, and redemption.

Throughout his so-called art films Bergman tempered his enthusiasm for film as an art form with searching, sometimes parodic, often bitter exposs of the pretensions and limitations of the artist himself. The Face (Ansiktet, 1958), Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen, 1968), and The Rite (Riten, 1969) all center in very different ways around the figure of the existentially anguished artist searching for the meaning of it all. At the same time, in films like his powerful Wild Strawberries (Smultronstllet, 1957) and a less successful early '60s trilogy that included Through a Glass Darkly (Ssom i en spegel, 1961), Winter Light (Nattvardsgsterna, 1963), and The Silence (Tystnaden, 1963), he dealt more broadly with questions of divine existence, human isolation, and metaphysical angst.

Bergman's last film was Fanny and Alexander (Fanny och Alexander, 1982), an uplifting family saga staged a century ago in Uppsala. The film won Bergman his third Academy Award for best foreign language film as well as worldwide acclaim for a long and illustrious career.

How to Watch a Bergman Film

Like most meat-eating Americans, you probably shy away from artsy Bergman films when it's time to rent. But there are a few simple insights that will help you get the most out of these often perplexing pictures and keep you from throwing your remote against the wall in frustration when things get slow. Here's a list of four:

  • Don't watch for the plot! Very few of Bergman's films are driven by narrative sequence; when someone asks, "What's going on now?" the answer will more often be, "This guy's trying to figure out the meaning of life," than, "This guy's chasing a thief who just stole his wallet."
  • Watch for the overall psychological and philosophical questions that Bergman is trying to ask (and get you to ask) in the film you're watching. When the old man in Wild Strawberries gazes at himself in the mirror, Bergman wants us to speculate on the inner turmoil that he experiences as he looks at his reflection and ruminates on the past and future of the life he's leading.
  • These sorts of existential dilemmas are often refracted in Bergman's films through an overarching allegorical structure that determines the hidden meanings of the persons, dreams, symbols, and so on portrayed in the film. When Antonius Blok plays chess with Death or watches flagellants whipping themselves in The Seventh Seal, it's your job to determine what each individual event or gesture might mean within the overall framework of the allegory.
  • One of Bergman's favorite allegorical figures is that of the anguished artist, who plays a central role in numerous films and whose inner struggles to define the place of art in society and in the ethical and psychological development of the individual can provide a powerful lens through which to view Bergman's oeuvre as a whole.

In short, don't give up on Ingmar! His films will take some getting used to, but once you've learned how to watch them with patience and intelligence you'll start to wonder what took you so long to discover them in the first place.


Victor Sjstrm as Professor Isak Borg in Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries (1957).

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Movies and Film © 2001 by Mark Winokur and Bruce Holsinger. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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