By Lavinia Dickson-Robinson
Brought up by his father, a strict Lutheran minister and later chaplain to the King of Sweden, and his mother a nurse, Bergman once said: “I devoted my interest to the church’s mysterious world of low arches, thick walls, the smell of eternity, the coloured sunlight quivering above the strangest vegetation of medieval paintings and carved figures on ceilings and walls. There was everything that one’s imagination could desire-angels, saints, dragons, prophets, devils, humans…”
Celebrating his centenary, BFI Southbank’s Definitive Ingmar Bergman Season is a comprehensive study of this extraordinary director’s work, taking place until 20th March 2018. Bergman is recognised as one of the most accomplished and influential filmmakers of all time. He is most famous for films such as The Seventh Seal (1957) which is considered a classic of world cinema; Wild Strawberries (1957) is seen by many as one Bergman’s greatest and most moving films; while Persona (1966) is considered by many critics to be one of the greatest films ever made, and also one that influenced many future directors such as Robert Altman and David Lynch.
Bergman first achieved critical and worldwide acclaim with Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) which was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes the following year. This was followed by some of his best known works – The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries released 10 months apart in 1957-. The Seventh Seal was awarded the Special Jury prize at Cannes and was Bergman’s second nomination for the Palme d’Or. Bergman directed over sixty films and documentaries, most of which he also wrote. Many of his films dealt with complex issues such as death, love, illness, betrayal and insanity.
From 1953 Bergman forged a creative partnership with cinematographer Sven Nykvist. Nykvist went on to win Academy Awards for his work on two Bergman films, Cries and Whispers (1973) and Fanny and Alexander (1983). In 2003 Nykvist was judged one of the ten most influential cinematographers of all time in a survey conducted by the International Cinematographers Guild. It’s no wonder that these two sublime masters of their crafts formed such a strong tie and made some of the most beautiful films of all time. This extraordinary film season is the result of a collaboration between the BFI, the Ingmar Bergman Foundation, The Swedish Film Institute, SF Studios and The Swedish Ministry of Culture. The human condition will be the theme running through February, with screenings of his best known film The Seventh Seal (1957) and The Virgin Spring (1960), in which Bergman deals with the rape of a young girl and her father’s revenge. Also showing will be Prison (1948), shot early in his career and on a very tight budget.
How can one start to comprehend, the brilliance of the late Ingmar Bergman? a writer and director of such talent, who worked not just in film, but in theatre and television as well. I have asked the programmer of the BFI season, Geoff Andrew, to put into his own words how he would explain this complex man and incredible director. Bergman was unusual in focussing so many of his films on a woman’s experience and/or point of view. Generally his films seem to be rather more sympathetic to his female characters than to his male characters, who are often depicted as proud, vain, deceitful and self-deluding. This may have come about because he was devoted to his mother, and very close to his grandmother, whereas he had a very difficult relationship with his father. But his portraits of women – which are never hagiographic, but show them as plausibly flawed, rounded personalities – are probably also shaped by the actresses he worked with repeatedly over the years; very often he wrote roles with specific performers in mind. So all this probably contributed to his sympathetic and insightful depictions of women.
What makes Bergman so distinctive as a filmmaker is his readiness to draw upon his own personal fears, anxieties, doubts and uncertainties about life and death, and use them as a source of inspiration and expression for his films. This he did with a rare, uncompromising honesty. This is probably why most people think of his films as ‘dark’, but that is only because most other filmmakers do not make such personal films; instead, most of them prefer to offer up ‘feel-good’ or escapist entertainment. Bergman was different in that he dealt with the issues that affect us all (at least those of this living relatively comfortable lives in the West): questions like how we live with ourselves and others, how we find and substance a sense of balance, purpose and contentment in our lives, how we face up to our inevitable mortality, and how we cope with a world which includes so much pain, suffering and injustice. In other words, Bergman made films inspired by life, not by other movies.
Ingmar Bergman Film Season at BFI Southbank
Until March 20th 2018