Swedish director was master of incisive cinema
Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, one of the masters of modern cinema whose brooding and incisive studies of the human psyche won international acclaim — and three Oscars — died Monday at age 89.
Bergman died at his home in Faro, Sweden, his daughter Eva Bergman told Swedish media. A cause of death wasn’t immediately available, but according to friends, he had never fully recovered from an October hip operation.
Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring” (1960), “Through a Glass Darkly” (1961) and “Fanny and Alexander” (1982) won the foreign-language Academy Award. The director also won the Irving Thalberg Award as well as the Directors Guild of America’s D.W. Griffith Award for lifetime contribution. In addition, he was nominated for Oscars multiple times in the writing and/or directing categories.
“Bergman was the epitome of a director’s director — creating beautiful, complex and smart films that imprinted permanently into the psyche — inspiring filmmakers all over the world to create their own movies with similar passion and brio,” DGA prexy Michael Apted said in a statement Monday.
The style and content of his work on some 50 films influenced an entire generation of filmmakers, including Woody Allen. But they were not always easy to watch. Some of the films dealt so deeply in religious and Freudian symbolism that they were almost impenetrable, including the 1958 “The Magician” and the 1997 TV film “In the Presence of a Clown.”
Others disturbed audiences because they were so psychologically raw, including the 1972 “Cries and Whispers,” the 1973 miniseries “Scenes From a Marriage,” and the 1978 “Autumn Sonata,” which paired.
But these films are among his best, with the stunning list of films also including the 1957 “Wild Strawberries,” the ’62 “Winter Light,” “The Silence” (1963) and “Shame” (1968).
His films combined beautiful compositions and photography with stark examinations of human relationships. The director was particularly noted for his depictions of women, with actresses such as Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Bergman offering beautiful work under his direction.
Bergman was once asked how he had such insight into women and he responded that he only depicted how women talk and behave, and he never tried to explain them.
Bergman’s vision encompassed all the extremes of his beloved Sweden: the claustrophobic gloom of unending winter nights, the gentle merriment of glowing summer evenings and the bleak magnificence of the island where he spent his last years.
The director, who approached difficult subjects such as the plague and madness with inventive technique and carefully honed writing, became one of the towering figures of serious filmmaking. He was “probably the greatest film artist, all things considered, since the invention of the motion picture camera,” Woody Allen said in a 70th birthday tribute in 1988.
Bergman first gained international attention with 1955’s “Smiles of a Summer Night,” a romantic comedy that inspired the Stephen Sondheim musical “A Little Night Music.”
“The Seventh Seal,” released in 1957, riveted critics and audiences. An allegorical tale of the medieval Black Plague, it contains one of cinema’s most famous scenes — a knight playing chess with the shrouded figure of Death.
“I was terribly scared of death,” Bergman said of his state of mind when making the film. The film distilled the essence of Bergman’s work — high seriousness, flashes of unexpected humor and striking images.
His next, “Wild Strawberries,” received equally high praise for its gravity — the subject, once again, was death — told through dream sequences and flashbacks. He received first Oscar nom, for writing, for the film.
Subsequent works such as the highly theatrical “The Magician” and “The Virgin Spring” continued to fuel Bergman’s reputation. And his somber trilogy on the existence of God, “The Silence,” “Through a Glass Darkly” and “Winter Light,” was studied and discussed by serious filmgoers and film students.
Bergman’s acting company was formed from members of the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, which Bergman headed from 1963-66, and included Harriet Andersson, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, Max Von Sydow, Gunnar Bjornstrand and Gunnel Lindblom. His films were photographed by Gunnar Fischer and Sven Nykvist.
Although Bergman admitted that he was a stern and uncompromising director (“I was very cruel to actors and to other people,” he once confessed), his troupe remained intact through most of his career.
“It’s very sad, but he was an old man, so we were prepared that he would die. I knew him well and will miss him very much,” Bibi Andersson said Monday.
Decades ago, while he was being treated for a serious viral infection of the inner ear in the mid-’60s, Andersson introduced him to a young actress named Liv Ullmann. During his convalescence, Bergman wrote a two-character piece for the actresses, “Persona,” a strange tale of interchanging personalities that is still considered one of his finest films.
It was also the first of his movies to introduce a political subtext — he included footage of the Vietnam War — and led to two harrowing tales of survival and isolation, “Hour of the Wolf” and “Shame,” which were shot on the island of Faro, where Bergman lived for the better part of his adult life.
Ullmann became Bergman’s primary leading lady over the next decade as well as his offscreen romance. She starred in Bergman’s finest mature works, “The Passion of Anna,” “Cries and Whispers,” “Scenes From a Marriage” and the 1976 “Face to Face.” Each was an international hit bringing in critical and audience accolades for both director and star.
“The Touch,” a marital drama and his first film in English, starring Bibi Andersson, Von Sydow and Elliot Gould, suffered by comparison to those films but holds up well in retrospect. Bergman’s 1974 adaptation of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” was a rare and welcome venture away from drama and is considered one of the better filmic adaptations of opera.
Though best known internationally for his films, Bergman was also a prominent director of theater. He staged many plays by the Swedish author August Strindberg, whom he cited as an inspiration.
He was born July 14, 1918, in Uppsala, Sweden, the son of a stern Lutheran clergyman who became chaplain to the Swedish royal family. His childhood sounds like a combination of his own “Fanny and Alexander” and the Italian film “Cinema Paradiso.”
Ernst Ingmar Bergman grew up with a brother and sister in a household of severe discipline that he described in painful detail in the autobiography “The Magic Lantern.” The title alludes to an incident in his childhood. His brother received a “magic lantern” — a precursor of the slide projector — for Christmas; Ingmar was consumed with jealousy, and he managed to acquire the object of his desire by trading it for 100 tin soldiers. The apparatus was a spot of joy in an often-cruel young life.
In between regular canings and being locked in closets for minor infractions by his father, Bergman fell under the thrall of movies through a friendship he developed with a projectionist at a local moviehouse.
With cardboard puppets and magic lanterns, he created a fantasy world in the confines of his bedroom, alongside his older brother and younger sister.
He would return time and again to his youth, particularly in his later films. “I have maintained open channels with my childhood,” he once told an interviewer. “Sometimes in the night … I can just go through a door into my childhood and everything is as it was — with lights, smells, sounds and people. I remember the silent street where my grandmother lived, the sudden aggressivity of the grown-up world, the terror of the unknown and the fear from the tension between my father and mother.”
In 1937, after attending private schools, Bergman entered the U. of Stockholm to study art history and literature. An offer to direct the campus drama group led to a stormy confrontation with his parents. Bergman left home, dropped out of school and took a menial job with the Royal Opera House in Stockholm.
After the Royal Opera House, Bergman was hired by the script department of Svensk Filmindustri, the country’s main production company, as an assistant scriptwriter. In 1944 his first original screenplay was filmed by Alf Sjoberg, the dominant Swedish film director of the time.
“Torment” won several awards, including the Grand Prize of the 1946 Cannes Film Festival, and soon Bergman was directing an average of two films a year as well as working in stage production.
“Sixty years have passed, nothing has changed, it’s still the same fever,” he wrote of his passion for film in the 1987 autobiography. But he said the escape into another world went so far that it took him years to tell reality from fantasy, and Bergman repeatedly described his life as a constant fight against demons, also reflected in his work.
The demons sometimes drove him to great art — as in “Cries and Whispers,” the deathbed drama that climaxes when the dying woman cries, “I am dead, but I can’t leave you.” Sometimes they drove him over the top, as in “Hour of the Wolf,” where a nightmare-plagued artist meets real-life demons on a lonely island.
Bergman also waged a fight against real-life tormentors: Sweden’s powerful tax authorities. In 1976, during a rehearsal at the Royal Dramatic Theater, police came to take Bergman away for interrogation about tax evasion. The director, who had left all finances to be handled by a lawyer, was questioned for hours while his home was searched. When released, he was forbidden to leave the country. The case caused an enormous uproar in the media, and Bergman had a mental breakdown that sent him to hospital for over a month. He was later absolved of all accusations, and in the end had only to pay some extra taxes.
In his autobiography he admitted to guilt in only one aspect: “I signed papers that I didn’t read, even less understood.” The experience made him go into voluntary exile in Germany, to the embarrassment of the Swedish authorities. After nine years, he returned to Stockholm, his longtime base.
Bergman remained active later in life with stage productions and occasional TV shows. He said he still felt a need to direct, although he had no plans to make another feature film. In the fall of 2002, Bergman, at age 84, started production on “Saraband,” a 120-minute television movie based on the two main characters in “Scenes From a Marriage.”
In a rare press conference, the reclusive director said he wrote the story after realizing he was “pregnant with a play.”
“At first I felt sick, very sick. It was strange. Like Abraham and Sarah, who suddenly realized she was pregnant,” he said, referring to biblical characters. “It was lots of fun, suddenly to feel this urge returning.”
His fifth wife, Ingrid Karlebo Bergman, died in 1995. He had at least nine children from his marriages and relationships, including director Daniel; actress Anna; actor Mats; director Eva; and Linn Ullmann, an author. Son Ingmar Bergman Jr. is an airline captain.
(Timothy M. Gray and the Associated Press contributed to this report.)