When Ingmar Bergman died at 89 on July 30 on Fårö, a remote island off the coast of Sweden, the weather was cold and rainy. It was an all-too-fitting send-off for a man whose legacy includes some of cinema’s bleakest visions of humanity. ”He told me that he was afraid that he would die on a very, very sunny day,” quips Woody Allen, his longtime friend and greatest mainstream disciple.
From the chess match with Death in 1957’s The Seventh Seal to the intertwined female psyches in 1966’s Persona, Bergman was best known for deeply contemplative black-and-white sagas set in stark Scandinavia. A stage director by training and practice, he created 56 movies, three of which won Best Foreign Language Film Oscars (1960’s The Virgin Spring, 1961’s Through a Glass Darkly, and 1983’s Fanny and Alexander); he also earned the Irving G. Thalberg award in 1971. Alongside Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa, he was one of the great ambassadors of art-house cinema.
Despite some of his more off-putting films, or perhaps because of them, Bergman influenced pop culture enormously. Allen, who dubs Bergman ”the greatest film artist of my lifetime,” famously paid homage via satires (Love and Death) as well as dusky dramas (Interiors) — and frequently employed two key members of his celebrated repertory company, actor Max von Sydow and cinematographer Sven Nykvist. But Bergman’s imprint extended to everything from Stephen Sondheim’s stage musical A Little Night Music (based on the unusually buoyant Smiles of a Summer Night) to, yes, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (in which the heroes battle Death in a game of…Twister).
Bergman also leaves a remarkable canon of confessional films, pieces unmistakably by and about himself: his sickly childhood, his domineering minister father, and his strained home life (he wed five women, fathered at least nine children, and had a long relationship with his most notable leading lady, Liv Ullmann). These lit a path for the early work of Martin Scorsese, Bob Fosse, and even George Lucas. ”Ingmar was always digging,” says Elliott Gould, who played the director’s surrogate, an archaeologist, in 1971’s The Touch. ”He told me that, up until that time, his two best films were Persona and Winter Light. And the message in [Winter Light] is that even if there’s nobody in the congregation, you must continue to deliver the message…. That’s what he’s doing right now.”