July 14 marks the 100th birthday of writer-director Ingmar Bergman, whom Variety declared on Nov. 24, 1954, to be “Sweden’s top director.” Within three years, Bergman went beyond that: He was recognized as one of the top filmmakers in the entire world, thanks to the 1957 duo of “The Seventh Seal” and “Wild Strawberries.” A year later, Carl Dymling, president of Sweden’s leading production unit Svensk Filmindustri, told Variety that “Seventh Seal” marked a new era in moviemaking: “Bergman uses the film much as an author does his book. As a rule, one can’t afford to be too explicit about one’s own feelings in making a picture. But Bergman does it.” The director made global stars of Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow and inspired young filmmakers around the world for decades with his tales of existential crisis, the tenderness and brutality between individuals, and the pleasures and insanity of sex.
Ever since the early silent films, directors and producers have often put a personal stamp on studio fare; the post-WWII Italian neorealist directors created intimate studies of life in post-war Europe, often using street shooting and non-professional actors.
Bergman showed the inner workings of a mind, which was often tormented by doubts about God, humanity and self, tapping into images of Scandinavian spiritualism and mythology. He didn’t offer any warm reassurances, but his films were so thoughtful and beautiful that audiences felt exhilarated rather than depressed.
His first movies, in the mid-1940s, gave a hint of what was to come: They were titled “Torment” and “Crisis.” On Nov. 28, 1951, Variety reviewed his “Sommarlek” (aka “Summer Interlude”), saying, “It represents Swedish filmmaking at its best.” Bergman later said “Summer Interlude” was the first time “I was functioning independently, the first film with a style of my own.”
In the same 1951 issue, Variety ran an unbylined story from Stockholm saying, “There is probably no country in the world where sex is so freely flaunted by all phases of the (entertainment) industry as here in Sweden.”
Movies with nude scenes had a difficult time getting past U.S. Customs, but some distributors recognized the marketing value of nudity. U.S. distributor Jack Thomas acquired Bergman’s 1953 “Summer With Monika,” retitling it “Monika, Story of a Bad Girl” and cutting the 96-minute movie to 62 minutes; he also added his own footage of nude swimming.
Its success was guaranteed when the manager of Los Angeles’ Orpheum Theatre was arrested for screening the film. At the sentencing, Judge Byron J. Walter said: “‘Monika’ appeals to potential sex murderers. … Crime is on the increase and people wonder why. This is one of the reasons.’”
There is no record of any crimes inspired by Bergman’s work during the next 60 years, but accolades piled up. His memorable films include “The Virgin Spring,” “Persona,” “Cries & Whispers,” “Autumn Sonata,” “Scenes From a Marriage” and “Fanny and Alexander” (the last two were released as both miniseries and feature versions). After the 1982 “Fanny,” he concentrated on TV with such telefilms as “After the Rehearsal” and “Saraband,” while others directed big-screen versions of his scripts, like Bille August with “The Best Intentions” (1992) and Ullmann with “Faithless” (2000).
Bergman also did extensive theater work throughout his life, heading companies in Helsingborg, Gothenburg, Malmo and Stockholm, and, after leaving Sweden for tax reasons, in Munich. His final production was a staging of Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck” in 2002. He died in July 2007.
He was nominated for nine Academy Awards and received the Thalberg Award in 1971.
At the 1956 Cannes Film Festival, he was honored with a “Poetic Humor” prize and got a special jury award the following year; he also was given a 1997 Palme d’Or des Palmes d’Or Award (given to a top filmmaker who’d never won the Palme) and in 1998, a Prize of the Ecumenical Jury, for his body of work.
In honor of his centennial, Cannes 2018 screened two documentaries about the director and offered a display/exhibit at the Swedish/Norwegian Film Commissions Pavilion that re-created his home on Faro Island.
At the 1997 ceremony, Bergman’s award was accepted by daughter Linn Ullmann, who read a note from her father saying: “After years and years of playing with images of life and death, life has caught up with me and made me shy and silent. With honor and humility, I want to say, ‘Thank you.’”