When I heard that Filmotomy would be doing an Ingmar Bergman series to commemorate what would be his 100th birthday, I could barely contain my excitement! In the last few years, I’ve gone from seeing my first Bergman film (The Seventh Seal) to now holding him up as one of my very favorite directors. I have such a deep love for his films and for the power of his art.
I think there are many cinephiles who would share my affinity for Bergman. At the same time, there seems to be a stigma surrounding his films that may keep people from immersing themselves in his filmography. This piece is my encouragement to you to give Bergman a try. You may find, like I did, that some of the greatest treasures in all of cinema are waiting for you.
Why is Ingmar Bergman such a great director?
Before we dive into his filmography, maybe you’re wondering who Ingmar Bergman is and why he’s considered such a great director. Bergman (1918 – 2007) was a Swedish director who came to prominence in the 1950s for his arthouse films. Over the years, he amassed an incredible track record – directing over 60 films and winning numerous awards (including three Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film). Even if you haven’t heard of him, you may have seen images from some of his films. The construct of “playing chess with Death” is a major part of his 1957 film The Seventh Seal, for instance.
Aside from his resume, I can only tell you why I find him to be one of my personal favorite directors. First and foremost, I love that so many of his films deal with topics of faith and doubt. I have not found any other director who handles such spiritual topics so beautifully. For some, this may be as much of a curse as a blessing. I love the spiritual elements in his films, but I do think part of the reason for the stigma that surrounds Bergman films is that they tend to deal with heavy themes like death, silence, philosophy and theology. It’s understandable that, at first blush, those themes might give a viewer pause.
But the genius of Bergman is that he’s able to deal with those themes in a way that evokes emotion. His stories are infused with so much love, tenderness and light that you are able to embrace his heavier themes.
Another thing I love about Bergman is that he is able to communicate so much in his films both emotionally and technically. Every Bergman film I’ve seen is visually stunning and technically brilliant – especially his collaborations with cinematographer Sven Nykvist. But Bergman films are always communicating through words and images as they are simultaneously communicating through effects like editing and lighting. It is virtuoso filmmaking at its finest.
Bergman is also famous for his focus on the human face, and his ability to work closely with actors to produce astounding performances. Many of his films feature close-ups on actors’ faces. So much is communicated in these moments without words. This is also an example of the closeness he shared with many of his performers. You’ll notice as you watch his films that he often uses the same group of actors and actresses. I think this personal connection translates into his films, and the acting performances that result are nothing short of incredible.
Where to start?
So now that you know a little more about Bergman, the question becomes which of his films should you watch first? Everyone is different, and you can’t go wrong starting with ANY of Bergman’s films. I’m going to give my own opinion after having seen many of his most famous films and a few of his lesser-known ones. But everyone is going to react differently based upon their own experience. What I’ll try to do is give you both a general recommendation on which film I think would be a good starting point, while also giving you enough information about his other films in case you see one that particularly interests you.
The first Bergman film I ever saw was The Seventh Seal. It is arguably Bergman’s most famous film, and it remains near the top of my list of personal Bergman favorites. It is a perfectly fine place to start for any Bergman beginner. It will give you a feel for his themes and common techniques. The thing is, those themes and techniques are quite dark. The film is about death, and it even has a character that personifies Death. If you’re looking to ease into Bergman, you may want to start elsewhere.
My favorite Bergman film is Through a Glass Darkly, released in 1961. As I said before, I love that Bergman is able to wrestle with themes of faith and religion in his films while still creating an entertaining narrative. Through a Glass Darkly may just be the best example of this. At the same time, you may have some reservations about spiritual elements in film. If that’s the case, you may want to get familiar with Bergman’s techniques and other supporting themes before watching Through a Glass Darkly.
Many of Bergman’s films are in black and white. If you enjoy color films more, Cries and Whispers was both one of Bergman’s first films in color and one of his most acclaimed films in general. Bergman and Nykvist’s use of crimson is a major theme in the film and the cinematography won an Academy Award in 1972. Despite the incredible visuals, the film is, again, quite dark thematically. While this is certainly a great Bergman film, I’d recommend some others for those just beginning their journey with the Swedish director.
Bergman’s most influential film is arguably his 1966 release Persona. It is this film where Bergman toyed with the idea of films being one step removed from reality. At different points in the film, Bergman shows the physical film itself breaking apart to remind you that you are watching an artist’s creation.
At the same time, I find Persona to be one of his most emotionally-moving films for its investigation into how we view the various pieces of our “selves.” If not for its prologue, I would probably pick this as my recommended starting point for Bergman beginners. To be clear, I find the prologue of Persona to be fascinating and an incredible display of filmmaking.
But its portrayal of “the birth of cinema” is certainly an odd way to start a film, and it may keep some viewers at arm’s length. This is an early example of the “puzzle” type of filmmaking that we have become more accustomed to with directors like Christopher Nolan. Persona is a surreal, mind-bending film, something that may excite you or bring about some apprehension. While it is one of my all-time favorite films, I think my general recommendation would be to start elsewhere.
One of Bergman’s thematically lighter films is the comedy Smiles of a Summer Night. This film is incredibly enjoyable while still containing Bergman’s usual visual skill. If you’re a fan of comedies, this would be a great place to start. However, I’m not recommending it simply because it isn’t the best example of Bergman’s common themes.
For my general recommendation to Bergman beginners, I would encourage you to first watch his 1957 release Wild Strawberries. This is not my favorite Bergman film, but that’s only because he created so many masterpieces. This is a fantastic film, and it wrestles with themes of aging and death while also still being emotionally moving and, at times, even jovial. Part of that is that the film’s genesis came from Bergman’s relationship to his own grandmother, with whom he felt very close. There’s a childlike quality to the film’s story that makes it more approachable, maybe, than some of Bergman’s other films. It is no less powerful, though.
So there you have it! Hopefully this can be a helpful guide to anyone just starting out with Bergman’s films. No matter where you start, I encourage you to explore all his films. He certainly built one of the most unique and acclaimed resumes in all of film history, and he is deserving of his consideration as one of the greatest directors to ever live. I still have many Bergman films to explore, and I can’t wait to find more favorites.