I'm not especially savvy when it comes to foreign film directors, but Ingmar Bergman is an exception with the highest honors. That he would be featured in this monthly blogathon
was a given. Even by arthouse standards he went places undreamed. Bleakness, sickness, eroticism, nihilism, madness, and death were his forte, and I wasn't surprised to learn that when he got old he couldn't watch his own films anymore because they were too damn depressing. But Bergman had a sense of humor too, and he knew tenderness at the right moments. He recycled first-rate actors like Max Von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Harriet Andersson, and Liv Ullman the way Scorsese would do with Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci. No filmmaker, in my view, has more forcefully examined the human condition and dissected its soul. Here are my personal favorites, ranked in descending order.
See also Carson Lund's rankings
1. Cries and Whispers
. 1973. This film is a harrowing meditation on the theme of pain, possibly Bergman's bleakest work (which says a lot), and a perfect exit point for Harriet Andersson who plays the dying Agnes. The hurt on display is relentless; facial contortions, gasps, and screams are so hideous I cringe. Most unforgettable is the use of red color, which permeates everything. Cries and Whispers
is the world of women, where men are gluttonous oafs and blind to their wives' contempt. But it's not simple male-bashing; the women have complexly repulsive relationships with each other, bruising each other with enough emotional pain to match the physical assault of Agnes' cancer. The late Roger Ebert made a fascinating analogy: "The year 1973 began and ended with cries of pain. It began with Bergman's Cries and Whispers
, and it closed with Friedkin's The Exorcist
. Both films are about the weather of the human soul, and no two films could be more different. Yet each in its own way forces us to look inside, to experience horror, to confront the reality of human suffering." Both are masterpieces, and very hard to watch.
2. The Seventh Seal
. 1957. Bergman's most famous film is richly rewarding, laced with gratifying, cutting-edge humor. It sounds a bit boring when described (a knight plays chess with Death), but it's the knight's journey around the game's intervals, through a land struck by plague and fanaticism, and his attempts to penetrate God's mysteries, that drive the story. His close-to-atheist squire is played hilariously by Gunnar Björnstrand, and he gets in great lines, a perfect counterpart to Max Von Sydow's glacial reserve and tormented anguish. There's so much grand entertainment here -- bar brawls, apocalyptic tirades, insult contests, self-mutilation, and a witch-burning to top it off -- that the theological side helpings make it one of the most balanced arthouse films I know. The Seventh Seal
is an ambitious work that somehow, almost effortlessly it seems, tackles death, existential horror, and spiritual uncertainty all at once. And if it's a nihilistic dance of death that awaits us all, then at least Bergman allows us to enjoy some comforts, and through a great cast of characters, before we get there.
3. The Silence
. 1963. Here Bergman suggests that there's no solution to the riddle of God's existence, and yet the search for a solution remains important. The setting is a foreign country that gets few visitors, and where tanks roll down the streets ready to fire; the hotel is a fantastic set piece and like something out of a paranoid dream state (even anticipating The Shining
), with the hyper-friendly old porter and the room of circus dwarves, all of whom speak gibberish. The theme of non-communication pervades on every level, carrying "silence" to its symbolic extreme. The visiting sisters resent each other and retreat into their own silences or dysfunctions: sexual promiscuity (Anna) and alcoholism (Ester); by contrast, the boy Johann almost represents unfallen humanity before being corrupted by the world -- he can interact with all of the hotel's grotesqueries with delightful naivete, even despite the language barriers. This is the third part of the so-called "faith trilogy" -- the most intelligent, subtle, and terrifying of the three.
4. Fanny and Alexander
. 1982. This soaring masterpiece is diminished by accolades; it has to be experienced to feel the magic, and despite the three-hour length (or even five-hour, if you see the extended version), you won't want it to end. It's a Dickens-like wonder, populated by ghosts and magical surrealism, the stuff of rare epic, weaved around a boy's imagination that helps him deal with the death of his father and an abusive new one. There is the wild Christmas party of the first part, the tyranny and bloody lashings of the second, the dazzling dream-flight of the third. What stands out most is the optimistic ending, unique for Bergman. It was intended to be his last film, and I imagine him wanting to leave something more uplifting in his legacy. Fanny and Alexander
is pure enchantment, pure storytelling, and its triumphant conclusion is richly earned.
. 1968. Shame
shows the personal cost of war -- and without any political axe to grind -- by focusing on a simple married couple all the way through. We share their intimacies, then their hopelessness when they're uprooted from home, falsely accused of bad allegiances, then freed on the condition that Eva performs sexual favors for a government official (played by the flawless Gunnar Björnstrand). Things escalate to the point of such humiliation that Jan, clearly a pacifist by nature, snaps and becomes a moral monster. The exodus into a sea of corpses haunts me to this day. It's a miserable ending, but the only one that fits. Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory
showed us the politics of war, and Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line
looked at war from a cosmic perspective; but Bergman's Shame
is all the close-up intimacy.
6. Hour of the Wolf
. 1968. Known for being Bergman's only horror film, and like Shame
(which was released the same year) it involves the actors Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullman as a married couple (Johan and Alma) on an island, with Johan's psyche crumbling under extreme pressure, only this time the pressure is interior rather than exterior. It's a film about inner demons, personal alienation, homosexual guilt, necrophilia, and the intensified blurring of reality and fantasy. We're never quite sure if we're seeing Johan's demons, or those shared by Johan and Alma together, or some combination with reality. The theme of contagious insanity is strangely compelling, and Alma's "If I'd loved him less, would I have been able to protect him more?", shows the devastating liabilities of love in this context.
7. Sawdust and Tinsel
. 1953. This brutal clash of the sexes shows Bergman funneling his personal guilt, romantic betrayals, and artistic dissatisfaction into a cruel-cutting misanthropic parable. It's such a nasty piece of work, and so refreshingly honest, that it has to be the product of an artist going through personal turmoil. (Much has been written on this by Bergman scholars.) Albert and Anne are among my favorite cinematic couples, playing off each other with betrayals and suffering degradations, unable to escape their miserable relationship in a harsh career. Gunnar Björnstrand is also priceless as the theater director, dishing out insults wrapped in ironic wisdom: he publicly lambastes Albert while cheerfully admitting that his own world (tinsel, the theater) is as humiliating as Albert's (sawdust, the circus). Sawdust and Tinsel
is one of Bergman's most underrated films.
8. The Virgin Spring
. 1960. The same year Hitchcock served up the first slasher with Psycho
, Bergman gave us rape revenge. But unlike the modern formula that often glorifies retribution, The Virgin Spring
puts the screws to it. The father's revenge is portrayed as ugly and self-righteous, and this is what keeps this classic above American copycats like The Last House on the Left
. It refuses to allow us moral holidays. The father is almost an anti-Charles Bronson in this light, atoning for his revenge by dedicating a holy shrine on the spot his daughter was killed. Bergman uses the medieval setting to great effect, teasing out conflicts between paganism and Christianity, as in the way the foster-sister worships Odin and even wishes the harm on Karin right before she's attacked. The film's enduring power matches Psycho's
, and of course both Hitchcock and Bergman have been abused in imitations, spin-offs, and remakes of their artistry.
9. The Magician.
1958. A film based on the wisdom that "deception is so generally common that he who tells the truth as a rule is classed as the greatest liar" is a sure slam-dunk. All things considered, I don't think The Magician
intends the often-supposed clash between science and the supernatural, rather honesty and deception, and in this arena neither reason nor superstition wins. Vogler may be proven a charlatan, but he frankly doesn't come off bad for it, and he's even given royal approval at the end. The morbid climax had my skin crawling, and wondering if he had actually died and come back to life, but when the black show is done, Vogler admits to chicanery without any shame at all, telling Vergérus (whom he succeeded in terrifying out of his wits) that he should be pleased to have received the experience of a lifetime. The Magician
vindicates the evolutionary-psychological wisdom that humanity needs its self-deceptions in order to stay healthy. Besides that, it's a great showcasing of some of the most colorful characters in any Bergman film.
. 1966. Many consider this the ultimate masterpiece, and it's certainly been analyzed to death more than any other Bergman film. Oddly, it's not one of my top-notch choices. I think its real significance lies in what it represents at a critical turning point in Bergman's career. Persona
was forged in the fires of his mental breakdown, and from here on out his strategies changed. He began treating bisexuality seriously. The pre-1966 films typically resigned heterosexual couples to bleak endings; now he felt free to engineer the utter destruction of these relationships (as in Hour of the Wolf
) and veer off into homoeroticism. In the case of Persona
, the two women go beyond intimacy so that they merge metaphysically, signaled in the famous disturbing shot where the halves of their faces are combined. Alma craves Elizabeth's identity as much as her affection, and I think that's what makes Persona
the legendary experiment it is.
11. Through a Glass Darkly
. 1961. This was my first Bergman film and will always be special for that reason alone. The isolated island setting and small cast of four makes for an intense character study, and it doesn't hurt that my favorite Harriet Andersson takes the lead, as a schizophrenic affecting her family in complex ways. The theme of spiritual doubt is the subtle undercurrent, always subordinate to the personal relationships, the most fascinating of which is the incestuous one between Karin and her brother Minus. Though the denouement has the father holding out hope for a loving God, that possibility seems disingenuous in the extreme, and raised precisely to call forth the audience's denial given Karin's grim fate. It's the first part of the "faith trilogy".
12. Winter Light
. 1962. Before The Silence
interrogated God's existence, Winter Light
tested his benevolence. It does this through the spiritual struggle of a priest, and his relationship with a woman who loves him, but whom he can barely tolerate under his contempt. It's devastating to watch her poleaxed expression when he finally tells her how much he despises her -- fed up with her "loving care, clumsy hands, rashes, and frostbitten cheeks", among other things that don't bear mentioning. Winter Light
is essentially about a pastor so furious at God's silence, that he breaks his own "silence" towards the kindest woman with an avalanche of brutality that makes the Almighty's treatment of Job seem almost benign. The second part of the "faith trilogy".
Of Bergman's 45 films I've seen 22. Here's my complete ranking of them. Many no doubt will be shocked to see Wild Strawberries
placing so low; that tends to be a favorite I've seen on top-5 lists.
1. Cries and Whispers -- 5+
2. The Seventh Seal -- 5
3. The Silence -- 5
4. Fanny and Alexander -- 5
5. Shame -- 5
6. Hour of the Wolf -- 5
7. Sawdust and Tinsel -- 5
8. The Virgin Spring -- 4 ½
9. The Magician -- 4 ½
10. Persona -- 4 ½
11. Through a Glass Darkly -- 4 ½
12. Winter Light -- 4 ½
13. Autumn Sonata -- 4
14. Face to Face -- 4
15. Summer with Monika -- 4
16. The Passion of Anna -- 4
17. Wild Strawberries -- 3 ½
18. Summer Interlude -- 3 ½
19. From the Life of the Marionettes -- 3 ½
20. Scenes from a Marriage -- 3
21. Smiles of a Summer Night -- 3
22. The Serpent's Egg -- 2
Next month: Stanley Kubrick