Swedish director Ingmar Bergman remains one of the cinema’s most respected artists. His filmography, stretching from the 1940s to the 2000s, is filled with the most profound meditations on religion, art, family, death, and life. His often deceptively simple style changed the world, inspiring radicals like Jean-Luc Godard and challenging Hollywood as his work became embraced by directors like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. Yet as a director with such a long and distinguished career, it can be difficult to find an easy introduction. So here are 10 ways to get into Bergman. Prepare for death-defying chess matches, repeated monologues, and a lot of quiet suffering.
Want to start with an early success?
Try SUMMER WITH MONIKA (1953)
Ingmar Bergman began his film career in 1941, working in the script department. In a post-war Sweden, he was finally given his first opportunity to direct in 1946 with the film CRISIS. He directed many more films over the following ten years, but Bergman’s career was small and largely un-noticed. He built up his craft with each film and by the early 1950s was starting to produce respected films like SUMMER INTERLUDE (1951) and SAWDUST AND TINSEL (1953). However, if there’s one film from those early years to watch, it has to be SUMMER WITH MONIKA.
While Bergman is often known for his philosophical and abstract films, his early career is more concerned with a brand of social realism. SUMMER WITH MONIKA is about two disillusioned, working class characters who fall in love and start a hasty relationship, only for things to later fall apart. As lead actress Harriet Andersson displays some nudity in the film, a rarity for 1950s cinema, it became a worldwide success and Bergman’s first real hit movie. Yet while the commercial value was derived from something crass, the artistic strength of SUMMER WITH MONIKA set the stage of Bergman’s later career. If you want to start simple, this is the perfect place to begin for Bergman.
Want to start with the most iconic?
Try THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957)
Whilst Bergman did have mild success with films like SUMMER WITH MONIKA and in 1955 with SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT, it was not until 1957 that he became a cinematic icon. THE SEVENTH SEAL was the film that shot him to stardom and acclaim. It is an allegorical tale of a knight playing a game of chess with death, and considering mortality in the medieval world around him. The lead role is played by a young Max von Sydow, one of Bergman’s most prominent collaborators, and someone whose later career grew into one of the most respected of any actor.
THE SEVENTH SEAL has been parodied and referenced endlessly, from Bill & Ted to The Muppets. No other Bergman film has imagery so distinctive and so ingrained in popular culture. Yet above all THE SEVENTH SEAL is a deeply meditative film on history and Christian values. Almost certainly the most common starting point for Bergman, THE SEVENTH SEAL is an important work and probably the one to seek out as being the most culturally relevant.
Want to start with his most moving?
Try WILD STRAWBERRIES (1957)
Bergman’s films are often considered cold. His films display humanity as weak and indecisive, callous in decisions and alone in the world. Yet on occasion he did make deeply moving films. WILD STRAWBERRIES is the most humanistic film of Bergman’s career, a film of deep human warmth. The lead role is taken by legendary silent film director Victor Sjöström, playing an elderly professor on a road trip to collect an award. As with any good movie, the story is about the journey and not the destination. Bergman explores what it is that people value and in doing so WILD STRAWBERRIES touches on all the delicate feelings of the heart. The iconic penultimate shot is one of eternal peace, something so rarely distilled in a single image. If you make choices with your heart, WILD STRAWBERRIES is the Bergman film to seek out.
Want to start with an adventure?
Try THE VIRGIN SPRING (1960)
After the double whammy of THE SEVENTH SEAL and WILD STRAWBERRIES, Bergman continued to make films in the same vein. This late 50s era is a mixture of Bergman at his most mainstream whilst also remaining firmly an art director. One of these films, THE VIRGIN SPRING, is an attempt, in Bergman’s own words, to create an “imitation of Kurosawa”. This is a medieval tale of rape and revenge, presented in Bergman’s simple style and with his usual detachment. It digs over the usual themes you can find in many of his other works, but is streamlined and more accessible due to its more adventure-like approach to storytelling. The film was hugely inspirational, giving Bergman his first Oscar, and being unceremoniously remade by horror auteur Wes Craven in his debut film. If you want some bleak entertainment, THE VIRGIN SPRING is the Bergman film to begin with.
Want to jump into religious topics?
Try WINTER LIGHT (1963)
After his previous more entertainment-heavy efforts, Bergman decided to tackle contemporary religion in his early 60s Faith Trilogy. The trilogy consists of THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY (1961), WINTER LIGHT, and THE SILENCE (1963). All three are excellent, independent efforts and they changed Bergman considerably. Bergman’s father was a Lutheran minister and strongly pressed faith into Bergman as a child. In the early 60s, with substantial artistic freedom, he was finally able to address his repressed feelings towards religion. It could be said that this trilogy made Bergman an atheist, for afterwards he never made any films as directly about religion as these three, or THE SEVENTH SEAL or THE VIRGIN SPRING.
If there’s one to witness however, WINTER LIGHT is the strongest and simplest of the bunch. It follows the pastor of a church dealing with an existential crisis and a loss of faith. Obviously this is a personal film for Bergman, and it’s easy to see both Bergman and his father represented in the lead character. In an era of nuclear weapons and increasing secularism, the Church seemed obsolete and Bergman confronts that with uncertainty in WINTER LIGHT. It’s a powerful work, and an inspiration for films like FIRST REFORMED, and truly one of the finest films ever made about the silence of God.
Want to start with the most acclaimed?
Try PERSONA (1966)
After the faith trilogy Bergman made the quick Fellini-esque comedy ALL THESE WOMEN (1964), and then embarked on his boldest film: PERSONA. To this day PERSONA is considered one of the finest films ever made. It appears on almost any list of cinema’s greatest films, always appearing high on the most prestigious film poll of them all, Sight & Sight’s decennial Greatest Film survey. PERSONA defies interpretation, being enigmatic in a million ways. It is abstract and surreal, breaking new ground for cinema. The plot follows a mute woman and her nurse staying together in the countryside, only for things to get strange. It is experiment in cinema itself, as well as examination into psychology, identity, and sexuality. No one truly understands it, which is why it remains unparalleled in the world of film.
Want to start in an unconventional place?
Try SHAME (1968)
After PERSONA, Bergman embarked on another trilogy. This time he made three films all about different artistic couples, always played by Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow, and the conflicts that engulf their lives. In many ways, these are an extension of the experimentation and ideas of PERSONA. However they are often side-lined as more minor Bergman works, as they showed him play with genres he usually avoided. The first film, HOUR OF THE WOLF (1968), is a horror film. The second, SHAME, is a war film. Finally, THE PASSION OF ANNA (1969) is an experimental meta-film in a French New Wave style. Any of these are excellent, but in this author’s opinion SHAME is the greatest. As a hypothetical war film, it deals with war in the abstract. It is about inner civilian turmoil, not the physical damage to soldiers. It’s a meditation of life yet in a different context to usual for Bergman. If you want something different, this is a good one to explore.
Want to start in colour?
Try CRIES AND WHISPERS (1972)
Starting with THE PASSION OF ANNA, Bergman transitioned to color films. He began the 1970s with THE TOUCH (1971), an English-language love story. However one of his greatest films soon followed, with 1972’s CRIES AND WHISPERS. Of all Bergman color films, none appear as lush as CRIES AND WHISPERS. The colors are saturated, most notably in shades of red and crimson, to produce an incredibly profound psychological effect. The film itself deals with Bergman’s usual fixations on the female psyche, faith, and the meaning of suffering. Nominated for 5 Academy Awards, including Picture and Director and a win for Cinematography, CRIES AND WHISPERS is one of Bergman’s most beloved and respected works. It’s an absolute must-watch, whether as your first Bergman or at any other point.
Want some star power?
Try AUTUMN SONATA (1978)
The 1970s saw Bergman moved away from Swedish film. He followed CRIES AND WHISPERS by directing a bunch of TV series and films. The most notable of which is the massively popular SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (1974). In 1976 however, disaster struck. Bergman was charged with tax evasion by Swedish authorities and he had a mental breakdown. Despite the charges being dropped, Bergman chose to leave Sweden, which led to the Swedish film industry losing millions of potential dollars. Based now in Germany, Bergman began to work with noted actors. He made a disappointing US-backed film called THE SERPENT’S EGG (1977), starring David Carradine. However he followed that up with the British-American-Norwegian-German effort AUTUMN SONATA, one of his last masterpieces.
AUTUMN SONATA stars the great Ingrid Bergman (no relation), best known for CASABLANCA (1942) and Hitchcock’s NOTORIOUS (1946). Ingrid Bergman plays a mother whose relationship with her daughter is greatly strained. It is one of the greatest acting showcases in Ingmar Bergman’s filmography, allowing Ingrid to perform a difficult and reflexive role. As usual, family difficulties and human failures dominate Ingmar Bergman’s writing. Yet, of all his films, this is one of the best for personal contemplation and a great final film for one of Hollywood’s most legendary actresses.
Finally, in the early 1980s, Bergman returned to Sweden. There he completed his magnum opus, his finale. FANNY AND ALEXANDER was Bergman’s final statement, and a personal look at his own childhood. Existing in both 3 hour and 5 hour versions, FANNY AND ALEXANDER is an epic which touches on everything Bergman had previously attempted. It has success, emotion, iconic visuals, adventure, religion, beautiful colour, an all-star cast of Swedish performers, a willingness to break convention, and incredible acclaim. It follows the childhood of Alexander, a clear Bergman surrogate, and deals with confrontations with a deeply religious step-father. If Bergman’s soul and feelings were ever put to film, it was in FANNY AND ALEXANDER. This was the grandest film he ever made, and one of the very best.
After FANNY AND ALEXANDER, Bergman quietly retired from filmmaking. He did direct a few small television movies over the subsequent years, including SARABAND (2003), a sequel to SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE. However mostly he stayed out of film. He remained in Sweden, with his family until his death in 2007. By then, he was most respected filmmaker in the world. With at least 20 masterpieces to his name, Ingmar Bergman remains a titan of cinema. Hopefully this list of 10 is a useful place to start for anyone who wants to delve deep into some of the finest films ever made.