“Reality is diabolical.” — Ingmar Bergman

Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann, Ingmar Bergman

It’s Ingmar Bergman’s birthday today.

I saw Persona in college – while studying acting – and was so intimidated by it I thought, “Okay. I can’t ever watch this again.” I needed courage to feel like I still could give a good performance myself, but watching Bibi and Liv made me realize how high the bar had been set. But you need those high bars. You need to know what great acting looks like, feels like, what it can BE. It helps you go deeper in your own work, it helps you ask better questions, strive harder. Last year was Bergman’s centenary and I did a Bergman binge in chronological order (my brief notes here), watching many films I haven’t seen in years: Summer with Monika, Smiles of a Summer Night, Winter Light, Through a Glass Darkly, The Silence. I know Persona, Wild Strawberries, The Seventh Seal and Cries and Whispers very well. Those are the ones I pop in often. I think Shame might be his best, in all honesty. It has a jagged in-your-face style, unique to him, and appropriate to the material. It’s a truly frightening film. You are not allowed any distance from the events onscreen.

Last year, for the centenary, I wrote and narrated three video-essays for Criterion, about Bergman’s actresses. (One has still to launch: all of this was going on as FilmStruck was vanishing.) But I’m very proud of the work I did with these videos, so go check them out!

Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson, Sisters in the Art

The Eerie Intensity of Ingrid Thulin

Bergman went places other directors do not go. Even his “failures” are personal. To those of you not really familiar with him, or intimidated at where to start, I would suggest starting with Wild Strawberries, I think it’s a good entry-point. It has the familiar Bergman themes: mortality, the fear of death, etc. Plus ragingly unhappy couples. But it also has sequences of warmth and joy, making it more accessible (horrible word) than, say, Winter Light. (Being “accessible” is not better than being dense or inaccessible. I prefer unhappy films, so take that into consideration. It was when I got to Bergman’s REALLY dark films that I fell in love with him.)

After Wild Strawberries, I’d suggest moving onto The Seventh Seal (it’s always funnier than I remember), Persona (it lives up to the legend) and then Cries and Whispers, his grand excruciating melodrama drenched in red. Smiles of a Summer Night, Bergman’s first international hit, is an ensemble drama/comedy about infidelity, love and sex. It’s “accessible.” You need to see Shame too. It’s a great war film. Because everything with Bergman is personal, if you don’t like him this could be tough going. But I would say he’s one of those artists that anyone who considers themselves a “film fan” really needs to at least check out. He is so imitated you really should know the source. Even people who haven’t seen The Seventh Seal probably recognize the images of this scene:

Bergman’s more difficult work comes in the early 1960s, before PersonaPersona represented a new phase in his career, it ushered in “the Liv Ullmann years.” But before that came his dauntingly great trilogy – which I’ve heard referred to as “the silence of God trilogy” as well as the “spider trilogy” (shivers): Through a Glass Darkly (starring Harriet Andersson), Winter Light and The Silence (both starring Ingrid Thulin, in one of the greatest one-two-punches in cinema history). If you started out your Bergman journey watching an entry in this trilogy, you might never watch another Bergman film. These films are ruthless, they are unblinking examinations of … portrayals of … the lack of God in our world, the bleak landscape of faithlessness, where there is no hope for anything better, and no release possible. The only release is into madness. These are tough tough films, but ESSENTIAL. Without them, Bergman’s work would not be complete. Very few people go AS FAR into their obsessions as Ingmar Bergman did.

Through a Glass Darkly

Winter Light

The Silence

These three films feature towering performances – by Harriet Andersson (Through a Glass Darkly) and Ingrid Thulin (both Winter Light and The Silence – and she is so radically different in each she makes Meryl Streep look like an amateur playing make-believe. This is not hyperbole. Ingrid Thulin is on a level all her own.)

Criterion Collection has come out with a gigantic box-set, complete with 39 of his films. Yes, the price is high, but when you consider what you will be getting (including some films that have been long unavailable), it’s worth it.

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6 Responses to “Reality is diabolical.” — Ingmar Bergman

  1. HelenaG says:

    I’m embarrassed to say that I have never seen an Ingmar Bergman film, not counting “Fanny and Alexander”, which I saw as a child, and of which I remember nothing except for one image.

    I’ve been trying to remedy that, and recently I was fortunate to receive the Criterion Collection package of “Through a Glass Darkly”, “Winter Light”, and “The Silence”, which I haven’t seen yet. A big silvery spider crawls across the case, and I’ve been wondering why… I see now that it is known as the “spider trilogy”, so that makes sense, although why it’s called that, I still have not found out.

    Thanks for the heads up, that of his films, these are likely his toughest and bleakest. There are so many of his films I am eventually looking forward to seeing.

    Thanks for a great post, as always.

    • sheila says:

      HelenaG! You are in for a real treat – there is so much to discover. And much of it is actually rather light – including some damn near slapstick films early on!

      The Trilogy you have is – yes – super bleak. No way out. But with performances the likes of which the world of cinema has almost never seen – and you know I don’t say that lightly. Harriet Andersson and Ingrid Thulin … just extraordinary.

      Winter Light, in particular, is really really difficult – very pared down, brutal, you feel the vice of the emotions. There’s really only two people in the whole damn thing, too. But the acting!!

      I look forward to hearing your reactions if you feel like sharing!

  2. Love him. Own a passle of the DVDs. Special shoutout to Gunnar Bjornstrand in everything, but particularly as the knight’s squire in Seventh Seal.

  3. Paul Balber says:

    Nice work, Sheila. Thanks.
    It’s amazing how many great actors Bergman was working with.
    Btw, have you seen Thulin in Return From The Ashes? She’s great.

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