Ingmar Bergman: Reinventing Film

The Swedish Filmmaker Was the First to Use the Medium as a Serious Tool of Self Expression

Filmmaker and dramatist Ingmar Bergman died July 30th. In a career that spanned over five decades and included the production of over sixty films and 170 plays, Bergman is credited with the reinvention of film as an art form and, in the view of supporters and critics alike, having changed the perceptions of what was possible in the medium.

“Ingmar Bergman’s work left no doubt that film and its expressions are at least as strong as any of the old arts: music or painting,” said director of the Austrian Film Museum, Alexander Horwath. “He was one of the greatest dramatists in the world – for many he was the absolute greatest. I think it is difficult today to understand the enormous contribution to drama and the film industry, both in Sweden and abroad, that Ingmar Bergman made.”

Ingmar Bergman printed men and women on celluloid | Photo: Associated Press

Bergman’s influence was due, in large part, to his foundation of introspective cinema.

His work saw a beginning of “the purist form of film making,” said Vienna-based American filmmaker Joshua Sinclair. Bergman was, in this sense, the first to establish film as a serious tool for self-expression.

“Bergman concentrated the creative process,” Sinclair remarked, allowing filmmaking to aspire towards its earliest intentions, “a man or woman printed on celluloid.”

It was a highly autobiographical process for Bergman, with his films springing from his repressive Lutheran upbringing in Uppsala, Sweden. Films like Fanny and Alexander show this tormented early life: It was a family suffocated by his father’s piety as much as the reverence of the bishop step-father in the film choked the children’s happiness. The film won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (1984), as did two earlier Bergman films: The Virgin Spring (1961) and Through a Glass Darkly (1962).

But it was a series of groundbreaking films of the 1950s that first established Bergman as an imagistic storyteller, relying not on a linear narrative, but rather on the evocation of strong emotion through visual experience.

In The Seventh Seal (1957), perhaps his most unforgettable encounter, Max von Sydow plays a 14th century knight playing chess with the Black Death (Bengt Ekerot), whose ashen face and sunken cheeks loom in the harsh half shadows of funereal light, so that each move on the board is an exchange of bluff, brinkmanship and ultimate risk, so ominous and dangerously intimate that one can’t help feeling personally affronted.  In Bergman’s films, the context and dialogue of a scene is never as important as the emotions stirred by the force of its imagery.

In Persona (1966), a film in which a young nurse begins to feel an affinity with her mentally ill patient, Bergman pushed the possibilities of the medium by using cinematographic devices to parallel the two women’s mental states. In moments the images seem to burn off the screen while later, a split screen produces an image of the women’s faces combined. Bergman could clearly be visually inventive even within an existentialist genre.  The film – his first starring the Liv Ullmann who would dominate his work in later years – also illustrates his interest in female characters, whom he treated with unusual sympathy and realism.

Such alienating films were often made on his austere island of Fårö

“There I can be, there I can live,” Bergman said.

His willingness to let his business of film interact with his home on the island highlights his unadulterated devotion to the medium. In a 1998 interview, Bergman said that he can only barely remember his children’s birthdays by the movies he was making at that time:

“Yes, yes, that was the summer I made Smiles of a Summer Night. Then I know it was 1955.”

His directorial methods of letting actors inhabit their roles also led to reciprocal attachments with many in the reparatory company he gathered for his movies. Aside from a string of romantic liaisons with his leading ladies, he had a child with Ullmann, who also starred in The Passion of Anna (1969), Scenes from a Marriage (1973) and   (1976).

Filmmaker Sinclair felt that this aspect of artistic inter-reliance had a strong influence on some of his own work, particularly his 1988 thesis called The Theory of Re-entry. In the text, he considers the relationship between the legendary British actor Sir Laurence Olivier and the character of Hamlet. Olivier’s portrayal in the 1948 film opened the door to the possibilities of putting Shakespeare on screen. What  interested Sinclair, however, was not Olivier’s transition into Hamlet, but how Hamlet became Olivier again once the production was over. Similarly, Bergman let his actors become so enveloped in production that re-entering real life was difficult for them.

Many post-WWII European filmmakers adopted this acting philosophy (inspired by Russian actor/director Konstantin Stanislavsky), with Bergman at their helm. Unlike the movie-making process in Hollywood, which often resembled an automobile assembly line, Bergman’s work and the legions of films it inspired, retains its aesthetic power and reaches for universality.

“Bergman films projected into space would make aliens cry,” Sinclair said with a laugh. “Bergman is definitely universal, because truth is universal.”

In Europe, a continent as yet insulated from the tyranny of audience ratings and the pressure for blockbuster sell-outs, Bergman’s eloquent films, even after five decades, can still stop a viewer cold, startled, and forced to rethink their way of seeing the world. This is Bergman’s form of immortality. Checkmate.

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