Monday, 30 July 2007

Ingmar Bergman 1918-2007

Antonius Block: "Nothing escapes you!"
Death: "Nothing escapes me. No one escapes me."
(from Det sjunde inseglet by Ingmar Bergman)

"All our times have come
Here but now they're gone
Seasons don't fear the reaper
Nor do the wind, the sun or the rain
We can be like they are..."
("Don't Fear the Reaper," by Buck Dharma, originally performed by Blue Oyster Cult)

Recently legendary cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs died. Yesterday French actor Michel Serrault died. Today talk show pioneer Tom Snyder died. Sadly, I will have to wait to eulogise them, as today a man died whose influence extends farther than even these towering figures in their respective fields. Quite simply, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman died today at the age of 89 in Faro, Sweden.

Bergman was born on July 14, 1918 in Uppsala, Sweden (fittingly enough, the spiritual capital of Sweden in the Viking Age). His father, Erik, was a Lutheran minister of Danish descent. His upbringing was rather strict, and he grew up in a religious atmosphere that would later inform his films. He attended Palmgrens School in Stockholm. It was while he was attending Stockholm University that he became interested in film. It was in 1943 that he joined Svensk Filmindustri as a screenwriter. From the beginning Bergman also worked on the stage. He was director of Helsingborg City Theatre in 1944. It was also that year that the first film to ever bear a credit for Bergman was released; Hets was written by him. Two years later would see the release of the first film directed by Bergman, Kris (literally Crisis). By 1949 Bergman was being noticed. His film Musik i Morker was nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival that year; however, it would be Sommarnattens leende (Smiles of a Summer Nihgt), released in 1955, that would be his break out film. It was nominated for the Palm d' Or at the Cannes film festival and won the award for Best European Film at the Danish Bodil Awards.

Two years later saw the release of the film that would make Bergman a force to be reckoned with. Det sjunde inseglet (The Seventh Seal, literally) received a good deal of critical acclaim and several awards, including the Special Jury Prize at Cannes (it was nominated for the Palm d'Or). Its imagery of a knight who plays a game of chess with Death became the most iconic of Bergman's entire career. It was with The Seventh Seal that Bergman entered his best period. Within a few years he directed the classics Smultronstallet (Wild Strawberries), Ansiktet (The Face, called The Magician here in the United States), Jungfrukallan (The Virgin Spring), Nattvardsgasterna (Winter Light), and Persona.

While the period from Det sjunde inseglet to Persona could be described as Bergman's Golden Age, he continued to produce widely acclaimed movies for nearly the rest of his life, turning his eye to television in his later years. Ansikte mot ansikte (Face to Face), released in 1976, would earn Bergman a Best Director nomination at the Oscars and win the award for Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globes. Fanny och Alexander (Fanny and Alexander) won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1984 and earned Bergman another Best Director nomination. It would be his last major feature film, although he would continue to work both on stage and in television. His last work was the telefilm Saraband, first aired in 2003.

It is perhaps important to remember that Bergman was not only a film director,but worked in theatre as well. He directed his first play in 1938 when he was only 19. The last play he staged was a reinterpretation of Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts in 2002.

There can be no doubt that Ingrid Bergman was an innovator who revolutionised film. Alongside contemporaries Akira Kurosawa and Frederico Fellini he changed motion pictures forever. And like most innovators he went through a period of unpopularity. In the late Fifties and early Sixties he was known for his symbolism, existentialism, and the blending of fantastic imagery with realism. As the French New Wave grew ever more popular, it became fashionable to hold Bergman up to scorn. Much of the mockery hurled Bergman's way ended when he began to make more personal films such as Persona. Regardless, in the end Bergman would have his revenge. As legions of new fans discovered The Seventh Seal and The Virgin Spring, Bergman's early films regained their reputation as numbering among the greatest films of all time. Indeed, it is arugable that Bergman's early work is better remembered than many movies of the French New Wave. If Bergman's work was able to return to its rightful place among the classics of cinema, it is perhaps because he dealt with the ultimate questions of life: the meaning of existence, the existence of a deity, and how humanity relates to each other. In dealing with these questions, his films became timeless.

In time Bergman would prove to be a influence on such directors as Lars von Trier, Bille August, Woody Allen, and even Wes Craven. What is more, he is one of the few arthouse directors whose films have entered the collective unconscious of the United States and the United Kingdom. The Seventh Seal was parodied in Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, in which Bill and Ted must play Death at Battleship, Clue, electronic football, and Twister. Wes Craven remade The Virgin Spring as Last House on the Left. His early film Smiles of a Summer Night was tranformed into the musical A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim. A script direction in The Simpsons episode "Moaning Lisa," in which Lisa looks in a mirror, was simply, "an Ingmar Bergman moment." His impact on Anglo-American pop culture can even be seen in the influence he had on, of all things, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, whose Middle Ages look remarkably like that of Det sjunde inseglet. It is not every director who can say his works have had an impact on entertainment both high and low brow.

Sadly, many of the homages and references to Bergman's work is probably lost on the average American. This is tragic, as he was quite possibly the greatest living director of our time. With passing today, there is simply no one left to match him. The other truly great directors of his time, Kurosawa, Kubrick, Fellini, and Truffaut, had all died before he did. With Bergman, we have seen the passing of a generation of filmmakers. And, unfortunately, I doubt that we see their like again for many, many years.