“He almost works out his own problems onscreen and invites us, the audience, to be part of that solving process.” The speaker is Ingmar Bergman biographer Peter Cowie, and the subject is the Swedish director’s ambitious yet intimate early 1960s trilogy of films on the search for God’s existence in an unforgivingly secular world. Extraordinary movies, bounteous extras and magnificent packaging add up to another essential release from the Criterion Collection. It belongs on the shelf of any serious cineaste–and any aspiring filmmaker with dreams of taking on the human condition.
After winning an Oscar for best foreign-lingo film for “The Virgin Spring” in 1960, Bergman shifted from Expressionism to chamber drama to grapple with the residual demons from his strict Lutheran upbringing.
“Through a Glass Darkly” (which also earned the Oscar) explores the mental dissolution of schizophrenic Karin (Harriet Andersson) upon learning that her writer father David (Gunnar Bjornstrand) is using her illness as inspiration for a new novel. “Winter Light” follows three hours in profound spiritual crisis of consumptive Lutheran pastor Tomas Ericsson (Bjornstrand again) as he counsels a troubled fisherman (Max von Sydow), bickers with ex-lover Marta (Ingrid Thulin) and ministers feebly to his dwindling, listless flock. “The Silence” presents sisters Ester and Anna (Thulin, Gunnel Lindblom) as they lose their moral bearings during an impromptu layover in a foreign city.
The set’s fourth disc contains “Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie,” a five-part, 146-minute TV docu by Vilgot Sjoman (who later made the “I Am Curious” pics) on the conception, filming, post and reception of “Winter Light.” It was the “one picture that I really like,” Bergman told John Simon in 1972, and it remains among his most unsparing and powerful works.
“Grand opera in the guise of chamber music,” claims “Glass” essayist Peter Matthews of the style, and while pics play rather theatrically today they are better for it. They draw the viewer into the intensely private world of spiritual struggle via provocative subject matter and unflinching close-ups (Bergman calls his actors’ eyes “the alpha and omega for me”).
Each title has been given the high-def digital treatment from original Svensk Filmindustri negative, in the fullframe 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The transfer serves to showcase luminous lensing of Sven Nykvist, then in the early years of his long-time collaboration with Bergman. Cowie speaks with authority on each title in brief taped interviews, and informative, opinionated essays are provided by film scholar Matthews, Cowie and author Leo Braudy, respectively.
Special credit must go to Eric Skillman for the starkly gorgeous menu and box design; glossy stills adorn the brochures, inspired slipcase features the spider and wallpaper design that figure crucially in “Glass.” This is, by any measure, a stunning package.