The festival begins Friday, May 4 with The Seventh Seal and The Magician at the Egyptian, and concludes May 20 at the Aero with his lauded 1975 version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute and his 1953 romantic drama Summer with Monika, which raised more than few eyebrows with his frank depiction of sexuality (and its nudity).
The cinematic landscape would be a far different place without Bergman. In fact, the films of those he has influenced including Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, and Woody Allen would have been less rich and complex without Bergman, who made more than 60 films, nearly 200 theatrical productions, and several TV miniseries.
Scorsese once said that “if you were alive in the 50’s and ‘60s and of a certain age, a teenager on your way to become an adult, and you wanted to make movies, I don’t see how you couldn’t be influenced by Bergman.”
“It’s not that Bergman was the first artist to confront serious themes,” Scorsese told an interviewer. “It’s that he worked in a symbolic and an emotional language that was serious and accessible. He was young, he was setting an incredible pace, but he was looking at memory, old age, the reality of death, the reality of cruelty and it was so vivid. One aspect of Bergman’s work that is quite striking is his masterful simplicity.”
Bergman has long been Woody Allen’s favorite director. Allen has both spoofed him (1975’s Love and Death) and used him as a serious template (1978’s Interiors.)
Allen told Richard Corliss in Time that the three films the director made that proved that film could be art were Wild Strawberries, The Seventh Seal, and The Magician.
“The whole group of films that came out then told us Bergman was a magical filmmaker,” Allen said. “There had never been anything like it, this combination of intellectual artist and film technician.”
He made 10 films with Oscar-nominated actress Liv Ullmann (with whom he has a daughter) and Ingrid Thulin, and 13 with another lover, Bibi Andersson.
But perhaps no one is more recognized as the epitome of a Bergman actor than Max von Sydow, who came to international fame when he played a medieval knight who plays chess with Death in Bergman’s 1957 masterpiece, The Seventh Seal.
They collaborated on 17 films including 1958’s The Magician, 1961’s Through a Glass Darkly, and 1962’s Winter Light.
I once asked the tall, imposing actor what it was working with Bergman.
“He forced everyone to concentrate,” Von Sydow related. “Mr. Bergman was a man of great working discipline. No disturbing noise during rehearsal. A code of silence.”
But he also had an incredible sense of humor. “In between [the camera and lighting] being changed and re-rigged, there were a lot of laughs and a lot of fun. Mr. Bergman had a great imagination and saw the possibilities “
Bergman helped usher in arthouse cinema in the U.S., and thankfully when I came of age in the 1970s, it was still thriving. His films frequently screened at my tiny college in Pennsylvania, and at the countless revival theaters I practically lived in when I came out to L.A. to attend USC in 1976.
Of course, Bergman was doing some of his best work in the 1970s, and I remember being part of the long line at the Music Hall in Beverly Hills to see 1978's Autumn Sonata with Ullman and Ingrid Bergman (who earned her final Oscar nomination for the role). And as the revival and arthouse theaters started to close, his films became a staple on the late lamented Z Channel, along with the brilliant 1968 parody De Duve, an Oscar-nominated short film that lovingly mocked Bergman's style.
Bergman was never afraid to explore subjects most filmmakers shied away from, including crises of faith (his father was a stern Lutheran minister who ruled with an iron fist), alienation, sexual desire, repression, and difficult relationships between distant, cold parents and their children.
Those performances from his stock company which also included Harriet Andersson (another one of his lovers), Gunnar Bjorstrand, and Gunnel Lindblom, are as gut wrenching as they were 50 and 60 years ago.
And his collaborations with his cinematographers, most notably with Sven Nykvist, whom he began working with in 1953, were beyond compare.
The Cinematheque retrospective is a treasure trove of Bergman riches - be prepared to be wiped out. The films can be a harrowing experience, but richly rewarding.
I decided to revisit four of Bergman’s features that changed my life. Hopefully, they will change your lives too.
The Seventh Seal
I felt 18 again watching Bergman’s masterpiece just last week. I was a sophomore when the college activities department screened the film, and was shocked to realize I only remembered the opening sequence when the knight challenges the hooded figure of Death (Bengt Ekerot).
The images, the themes, and the performances (by von Sydow, Bjornstrand as his cynical squire, Bibi Andersson and Nils Poppe as part of a traveling group of performers, and Lindblom, as a mute woman Bjorstrand rescues) will be seared in your mind.
Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light
Bergman explored faith and God in countless of his films and he made his "Death of God" trilogy - Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence - between 1961-1963. The three screen at the Egyptian on May 12.
I’m embarrassed to say I was too young the first time I encountered Through a Glass Darkly, which won the best foreign language film Oscar, and walked out within 30 minutes.
Two years later, it was a different story. I actually saw it two times in a row.
It is a devastating personal chamber play covering 24 hours in the lives of a family - the cold, famous writer father (Bjornstrand) suffering from writer’s block; his married daughter (Harriet Andersson) with schizophrenia; her concerned husband (von Sydow); and her troubled younger brother (Lars Passgard), with daddy and sister issues - on their vacation to a remote island
(Through a Glass Darkly was the first of many films Bergman shot on the island of Faro, where he lived and died).
Andersson’s Karin has just been released the mental hospital and though initially she seems better, we learn she’ll never get better. The actress gives an extraordinary performance as Karin descends into madness - at one point, she ends up seducing her brother - and believes God is talking to her. Nykvist’s black-and-white cinematography captures the mystery and fear overtaking Karin.
Music is very important in Bergman’s films. In fact, he once confessed “If I was forced to choose between losing my hearing or losing my sight, I would keep my hearing. I can’t think of nothing worse than having music taken away from me.”
And classical musical became very important in this film, which uses the saraband from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 2 on the soundtrack.
Winter Light, from 1962, isn’t as well known as Though a Glass Darkly and The Silence, but it’s a heart-rending drama about a minister (Bjornstrand) who has lost his faith in God.
Bjornstrand collaborated with Bergman for over 30 years; his last film with the director was 1983’s Fanny and Alexander. His performances are always spellbinding, but Winter Light is his best. He is able to show emotions, his pain, and his loss of faith with just his face. He would have been an amazing silent film actor. And Bergman and Nykvist aren’t afraid to show us his agony in close-up.
Thulin also is outstanding as a plain-Jane school teacher who loves him, as well as von Sydow in a supporting role as a fisherman frightened with the evil in the world.
If Bergman heralded the renaissance in Swedish cinema in the 1950s, Victor Sjostrom was the best known, most influential Swedish director during the silent golden age of cinema in the country. And when MGM brought him to the U.S., he directed my favorite Lon Chaney film, 1924’s He Who Gets Slapped, as well as 1928’s The Wind, with Lillian Gish. Sjostrom was also a renowned actor and his haunting performance anchors this 1957 drama. (The film also features Thulin, Bibi Andersson and Bjornstrand.)
The actor/director was 78, a cranky widower in poor health when Bergman approached him to play Isak Borg, a well-respected professor emeritus who, while traveling by car to accept an honor for his work, is beset by memories of his childhood and youth. And he knows death is imminent.
Sjostrom’s performance may be a quiet revelation, but he certainly wasn’t quiet on the set. He would get angry and frustrated every time he would forget his lines.
And according to the cinematographer Gunnar Fischer, some outdoor scenes were shot indoors because of his health. “We had to make some very bad back projection in the car because we never knew if Victor would come back alive the next day,” he said.
But Sjostrom came back. In fact, Bergman made a deal with his idol that he would always spend the night in his own room at home and have a whiskey grog at 5 p.m.
Wild Strawberries was the perfect swan song for Sjostrom, who died in 1960 at the age of 80.
Veteran journalist Susan King wrote about entertainment at the Los Angeles Times for 26 years (January 1990 - March 2016), specializing in classic Hollywood stories. She also wrote about independent, foreign and studio movies and occasionally TV and theater stories. She received her master's degree in film history and criticism at USC. After working 10 years at the L.A. Herald Examiner, she moved to the Los Angeles Times.