Ingmar Bergman

The Philosopher Behind the Camera

Ingmar Bergman, widely regarded as one of the most eminent directors in motion picture history, left a lasting impact on cinema with films like Persona, showcasing a stylish split personality, and The Seventh Seal, a masterful exploration of faith and death.

Born in Uppsala, Sweden, in 1918, Bergman had a troubled childhood. He described his father, a Lutheran minister, as abusive, claiming he beat Bergman and his siblings and confined them in closets. His mother, Karin, a nurse, was “cold and rejecting.” Bergman vividly recalled, “One of the strongest feelings I remember from my childhood is of being humiliated; of being knocked about by words, acts or situations.”

Ingmar Bergman (left) and Victor Sjöström (right) pictured during the filming of Wild Strawberries, 1957

Ingmar Bergman (left) and Victor Sjöström (right) pictured during the filming of Wild Strawberries, 1957

From an early age, Bergman developed a critical perspective on institutionalized religion, believing its primary function was “to create obedient slaves, with God at the top.” This viewpoint, coupled with the philosophical burdens from his upbringing, led to a challenging school experience, where he found little intellectual stimulation.

His escape came in the form of cinema, a passion kindled by his grandmother, who would take him to the movies. This love for film was further nurtured at Stockholm University, where Bergman studied art and literature and engaged deeply with student theater. This period marked the beginning of his film career, starting with script rewriting. Over the next decade, he honed his skills in directing and writing, culminating in his first dual role as director and writer for the film Prison, which he later criticized as “a mess.”

His global breakthrough came with the 1955 comedy Smiles of a Summer Night, earning a Palme d’Or nomination at Cannes. This success was followed by what is often deemed his magnum opus, The Seventh Seal, in 1956.

Film as dream, film as music. No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls.

Ingmar Bergman

Existential themes are central to Bergman’s films. He explored the nature of existence, the role of religion, and the quest for meaning in a seemingly meaningless world, often incorporating philosophical debates into his narratives. French film director Bertrand Tavernier once remarked, “Bergman was the first to bring metaphysics—religion, death, existentialism—to the screen.”

A prime example is The Seventh Seal, where the knight’s chess game with Death symbolizes the ongoing struggle between life and death, faith and despair. The film masterfully explores these existential themes with a thoughtfulness and emotional depth that resonates with audiences.

A moment captured from The Seventh Seal

A moment captured from The Seventh Seal, featuring a game of chess between Antonius Block, a knight, and Death

A distinctive characteristic of Bergman’s filmmaking is his use of close-up shots. These shots intimately capture the subtlest facial expressions of his characters, conveying their emotions in remarkable detail. In Persona, for instance, the extreme close-ups of Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson intensify the emotional depth, drawing the viewer into the heart of the psychological drama.

Bergman’s minimalist set design further defines his style. He frequently utilized sparse, monochromatic backgrounds, focusing attention on the actors and their performances. This approach enhances the themes of bleakness and isolation prevalent in many of his films, creating a stark, almost ascetic visual aesthetic.

A scene from Persona featuring Liv Ullmann as Elisabeth Vogler and Bibi Andersson as Alma

A scene from Persona featuring Liv Ullmann as Elisabeth Vogler and Bibi Andersson as Alma

Throughout his impressive career, Bergman directed more than 60 films, many of which have become integral to cinematic history. His range, from the psychological explorations in Persona to the evocative portrayal of childhood in Fanny and Alexander, has left a profound impact on cinema. His influence extends to numerous filmmakers, including Woody Allen, who aptly described Bergman as “probably the greatest film artist, all things considered, since the invention of the motion picture camera.”

Editors’ finds

Words of wisdom

“Only someone who is well prepared has the opportunity to improvise.” —Ingmar Bergman

“Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood.” —George Orwell, 1984

“Count your age by friends, not years. Count your life by smiles, not tears.” —John Lennon

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” —Martin Luther King Jr.


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