2018: The year of Bergman

Arts Editor Johanne Elster Hanson explores the multifaceted and highly influential work of filmmaker Ingmar Bergman in the year celebrating his centenary.

2018 marked the centenary of legendary Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s birth. Bergman, who wrote and directed more than 60 feature films, is widely viewed as one of the most influential filmmakers in history. Long before “hygge” and Nordic Noir took the English-speaking world by storm, Bergman’s more than 60-year long career placed Scandinavia firmly on the cultural map. He has been celebrated around the globe throughout 2018, with film screenings, exhibitions and plays being put on everywhere from Sweden to England, China to Mexico. A dramatised version of his masterpiece Fanny and Alexander was put up both at the Old Vic in London, starring Penelope Wilton and Michael Pennington. New documentaries explore Bergman’s genius, as well as his menacing fury, his jealous nature and his crippling insecurity, ensuring that the Swedish master remains as multi-faceted and contradictory as his numerous works.

Ingmar Bergman in 1966.

Ernst Ingmar Bergman was born on July 14 1918 in the Swedish city Uppsala, and died 89 years later on the small island Fårö. He began his movie career in the early 1940s rewriting scripts and serving as assistant director on several films, among them Torment directed by Alf Sjöberg. The success of this film enabled him to start directing himself: Summer with Monika became popular abroad due to its uncensored nudity, and Smiles of the Summer Night brought Bergman worldwide success and was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival. This was followed by classics such as The Seventh Seal, a now iconic film about a knight who plays chess with Death on his journey through a plague-ridden Sweden, and Wild Strawberries, which featured Victor Sjöström in his final role as an old man reminiscing about his life. As his career progressed, he won acclaim abroad, as well as in his native Sweden; touring productions of his plays turned Bergman into an icon in New York, thus coining the term “Bergmania.”

Bergman worked with a fervent intensity in several mediums; he made successful films, worked in radio and televised theatre, and directed more than 170 plays by writers such as Ibsen, Strindberg and Eugene O’Neill. He led the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm between 1963-1966 and established a towering presence there in the 80s and 90s. In his works, Bergman kept returning to themes such as the inner workings of the human mind, the question of spiritual faith, and the relationship between dream and reality. He developed a distinct visual style with extreme close-ups that tracked every fleeting emotion on his actors’ faces, and would later describe the camera as the perfect instrument for “registering the human soul.” His work was often autobiographical – his memories, dreams, anxieties and shortcomings were channelled on-screen. In Images: My Life in Film Bergman writes that “although I am a neurotic person, my relation to my profession has always been astonishingly non-neurotic.”

Bergman on the set of “The Seventh Seal” with actor Bengt Ekerot.

Interestingly, his most autobiographical characters are often women. Bergman’s one-time partner and lifelong colleague Liv Ullman claimed that the director wrote his best roles for women, and actress Pernilla August claimed that Bergman “understood women very well” because he gave them “such a great spectre, so many colours to play around with.” He produced his most psychological films from the 1960s onwards, among them The Silence, The Virgin Spring, and most notably Persona. One of Bergman’s most iconic films, Persona stars Liv Ullmann as an actress who has gone mute and is taken care of by her psychiatric nurse, played by Bibi Andersson. Shot on the small Swedish island of Fårö, where Bergman eventually moved and produced most of his films, Persona was later described by the director as one of the two films (the other being Cries and Whispers from 1972) where he “succeeded in compressing the medium into something beyond normal boundaries”.

Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann in “Persona”.

Deeply selfish and brim-full of demons and phobias, Bergman was himself a contradictive and often controversial figure. He was infamous for his short temper and furious outpourings of abuse (what he called “pedagogical outbursts”), often aimed at young and inexperienced members of cast and crew. Jealous and controlling, Bergman would later use his tremendous success to manipulate the Swedish cultural scene in the 1990s, which effectively hindered up-and-coming directors from succeeding without his explicit support. The centenary of Bergman’s birth also coincided with the emergence of the Me Too movement, and earlier this year biographer Thomas Sjöberg questioned Bergman’s habit of seducing young women whom he worked with. Love and eroticism are major themes in Bergman’s films, and it is clear how the director fed off this energy while working. He married five times, had nine children with six different women, and often conducted several relationships at once. It is impossible to deny the degree to which he took advantage of young actresses, but, like so many men before him, Bergman was granted free reign due to his “artistic genius.”

Lighthouse on the island of Fårö. where Bergman lived and worked

It is good then, that all facets of Bergman are being discussed during his jubilee. Earlier this year, The British Film Institute launched its very own Bergman festival: From January through March, screenwriters, experts on Scandinavian studies, even Liv Ullman herself came to the South Bank to discuss everything Bergman. Ingmar Bergman served as an ambassador for Scandinavian film for several decades and was a defining figure within the film industry from the 1950s onwards. His works have been tremendously influential on directors such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Lars von Trier. 100 years after the director’s birth, his works remain sensitive, explorative, and strangely recognisable. Some of the people who worked with him now call him a tyrant, others claim he was sensitive and charismatic – many describe him as both.

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