It hardly needs to be said that Ingmar Bergman (pictured), who died today at 89, was one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived, and yet I wonder if today’s audiences are familiar at all with his work, with pillars of world cinema like The Seventh Seal, Persona, and Cries and Whispers. Deserved or not, Bergman’s films have a reputation for being as chilly and forbidding as the stark Swedish landscapes where many of them were set. After all, for more than half a century, Bergman’s movies defined (at least for American audiences) the parameters of the European Art Film: unafraid to tackle the biggest philosophical questions (life, death, faith, man’s place in the universe) and equally unafraid to explore sex and the darkest corners of relationships. Fifty years ago, Bergman’s movies helped convince American audiences that European fare was smarter and sexier than anything Hollywood dared to make; today, his work still has the power to challenge viewers’ preconceptions by showing them the often unforgiving consequences of human behavior in extreme situations.
Still, even if you haven’t seen Bergman’s movies, his legacy is inescapable. Besides inventing the art-house film as we know it, he made huge international superstars of Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullmann; he enabled a generation of Scandinavian filmmakers — including Bille August, Lasse Hallstrom, and Lars Von Trier — to find worldwide success; and he influenced filmmakers all over the globe — especially Woody Allen, who often borrowed from Bergman his plots (for movies from A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy to Deconstructing Harry) and even his luminous cinematographer, Sven Nykvist. His influence was felt not just in the art-house, but even in the grindhouse; slasher-movie king Wes Craven launched his career by remaking Bergman’s The Virgin Spring as Last House on the Left. And of course, the influence extended to Broadway, where Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night became A Little Night Music and spawned Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns.”
After the jump: the Bergman films you must see, and more Bergmanalia on the Internet.
Don’t let Bergman’s grim and forbidding reputation keep you from seeing the movies of his that are cornerstones of world cinema. You’ll be rewarded with surprising humor and eroticism, along with some of the most sublime images ever committed to film. Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), a wise and gentle sexual farce, is still pretty delightful. Wild Strawberries (1957) is the archetypal film about looking back on a lifetime of memories. The Seventh Seal (1957), featuring the famous image of Death playing chess against a medieval knight (Von Sydow), is surprisingly jaunty and picaresque for an allegory about mortality set during the Black Plague. Persona (1966) is still shocking for its sexual candor and for its haunting and pioneering use of close-ups to explore the psychology of the two heroines’ shifting identities. Deathbed tale Cries and Whispers (1972) is as wrenching as it sounds, but it’s also unmissable. Same with Scenes From a Marriage (1973), the definitive film about marital strife. (Bergman revisited the couple 30 years later in the remarkable made-for-TV drama Saraband, his last project.) And finally, you should see Fanny and Alexander (1982), a lush and vibrant film about childhood that serves as a career summation and Bergman’s farewell to the big screen.
Clips from several of these movies are collected at the Guardian’s film blog. It’s also worth checking out Bergman’s official website. The New York Times has the best Bergman obituary I’ve yet read, as well as Woody Allen’s reminiscences of how much Bergman meant to him. Your own reminscences you may share below.