In June 1983, my dad dropped me off at an Edwards Cinema near South Coast Plaza, in Santa Ana, California, to see Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, a 3-hour foreign film that had been covered enthusiastically by the Los Angeles Times’ Calendar section. I was 15 years old. It’s the first time I can remember transitioning from my usual teenage fare—say, Return of the Jedi or Wargames or Christine—toward more intriguing, arthouse cinema. But I distinctly remember coming out of that theater a changed moviegoer. I still love my escapist cinema, but the films I really treasure now are the ones that make me think, the ones that dig deeper.
I’ve had a soft spot for Bergman since then, although for some reason I’ve never taken it upon myself to seek out many of his older films. I’d catch them here or there as I could—a startlingly small number of them were available over the years!—but I never gave it a ton of effort. There’s always been plenty of other oddball, independent, and foreign fare out there. It wasn’t until the Criterion Collection began reissuing Bergman classics that I began to sit up and take notice, and the real turning point was when the company recently put out an exhaustive “film school” Blu-ray collection called Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema. I decided it was high time to go through the director’s entire filmography.
Once the massive set hit my doorstep with a resounding whump!, I dove in eagerly. Although my typical modus operandi when exploring a director is to march chronologically through the oeuvre, the Criterion method grouped the movies into a “film festival” schedule, including opening night, centerpieces, and closing night (decidedly non-chronological!), with themed double features throughout. I decided to go with that order, and although if I were to do it all over again I’d go with chronological, I do appreciate the unique order that the set suggests. It made me appreciate more fully Bergman’s proclivities and see how they developed across time.
And those themes became apparent immediately. Overriding everything is the Swedish setting of the vast majority of his films—and everything that comes with that. The long days of the short Nordic summers provide light at odd hours, disrupting behavioral rhythms, and long, interminable winters give way to all-too-fleeting summer seasons that seem to erupt from the soul and intensify human relationships that have been dormant for too long. Consistent throughout Bergman’s filmography is the joyous celebration of summer—and by extension, life—which is fleeting and tinged with melancholy. Along with this seasonal motif comes the struggle between idyllic rural and necessary-evil urban life (freedom vs. oppression), as well as the meaning of life itself.
More than any director I know, Bergman struggled with the meaning of life and the existence of God—in deep, thoughtful ways that I’ve never before seen on film. In conversation, in symbolic imagery, in dreams … he pondered the meaninglessness of existence, the inevitable trudge through life, the search for higher consciousness, and ultimately the rapturous joy of the world. He lamented the pointlessness of bringing children into a rotten world, while at the same time expressing the spiritual ecstasy of beholding wild strawberries strewn across a rare summer field. He explored both fervent religious attitudes and stark atheism—and everything in between.
As to more worldly matters, he had a lifelong fascination with women! He was married five times, and enjoyed affairs with his leading ladies more than a few times. And his interest in women carries through to his films, in which the women are usually the ones with the most complex arcs, the most turbulent and interesting lives, the most emotional heft. Bergman also had a powerful love of the stage, producing and directing as many plays as films. When you understand that, you see why he brought a “stage” sensibility to his filmmaking, from writing to blocking to a general sense of cohesiveness regarding his cast and crew.
The Criterion “film festival” disc order also offers the byproduct of seeing his troupe of actors at different stages of their lives, going forward and backward through time. One of the set’s final films, the 1958 Brink of Life, contains a wide cross-section of his favorite actors and actresses, and the very next night you can see a few of them suddenly in old age in his final film, 1982’s Fanny and Alexander, and thus appreciate the full breadth of their career with Bergman. At the conclusion of this project, I come away with enormous respect for Bibi Andersson (who actually died in the middle of my marathon, perhaps as I watched her in The Touch), Gunnar Bjornstrand, Ingrid Thulman, Harriet Andersson, Erland Josephson, Liv Ullman, Max von Sydow, and others. When you go through all of Bergman’s films in a short time period, you even notice familiar character names popping up all over the place, further enhancing the cohesiveness of his ideas.
And with all that out of the way, here are my rankings (totally subjective and likely to change day to day). After all is said and done, I’d categorize nearly a third of the films as A-level classics spanning four decades, another third as strong, B-level creations still worthy of study, and then a final third as simply OK—either early films that showed fumbling first steps, or later tone-deaf exercises. But overall, that’s a great track record, especially considering that those top films were so influential and profound and moving. Here we go!
- Persona (1966). Wow. This is an unbelievably striking, avant-garde film that was clearly a turning point in Begman’s career, when he moved from his usual stately narratives to a norm-busting technique more influenced by the French New Wave. A young nurse is put in charge of an actress who has experienced a mental breakdown. Alone together during the actress’s convalescence, the nurse is driven slowly bonkers by the woman’s silence. Or are these two women actually one? What is dream, and what is real? Who is who? There is so much to think about in this film’s many layers; it almost requires multiple viewings. It is rich, it is shocking, it is resonant. My jaw actually dropped at several points in this fourth-wall-breaking marvel. (A+)
- Cries and Whispers (1972). Here’s a complicated, emotionally profound film about love and death, siblings, comfort, bitterness, selfishness, coldness, and solace set in turn-of-the-century Sweden. This excellent film took me by surprise. One of three sisters is dying of cancer, and her sisters join her at her rural mansion to provide comfort in her final days. Also present is her maid, the warmest and most devoted of them all. As the end draws near, old grudges surface, and through scenes from the past and the present, we gradually understand how horrible this family really is. The crimson color palette and exacting cinematography provide perfect counterpoint to a soul-wrenching narrative. (A+)
- Wild Strawberries (1957). A stunning film about humanity itself—life, death, regret, loss, redemption. An old man, on the verge of receiving an honor for his celebrated work in medicine, reflects on his life and memories and the meaning of his existence. Especially as you experience it a second and third time, it feels like poetry on celluloid. Sumptuous cinematography combines with striking imagery that captures both great beauty and nightmarish grotesqueries. This film has echoes of Citizen Kane and It’s a Wonderful Life but does a better, more humanist job of climbing inside you and finding your soul. (A+)
- The Seventh Seal (1958). I have to admit that I needed two screenings to fully appreciate this film, which was arguably the granddaddy of arthouse cinema in the United States. My first screening was not promising: I found it slow and just plain odd. But on second viewing, knowing what the film was up to, it grew immediately in stature. You probably know the basics: In the time of the Crusades and the Black Death, a traveling knight and his squire meet up with a motley troupe of plague survivors—all while the knight plays a consequential game of chess with Death. What nobody tells you about The Seventh Seal is how funny and life-affirming it can be and how it broke all the existing rules of cinema as moviegoers of the time knew them. (A+)
- Hour of the Wolf (1968). Watching Hour of the Wolf made me aware of how startling and experimental and innovative Bergman could be—and how influential! This story of a painter who slides into a spiral of madness presages Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, the end of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, and most of all Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, with which it shares images of brutal violence, symbolism, and a descent into increasingly horrific, nightmarish allegory. (A)
- Through a Glass Darkly (1961). The first of Bergman’s unofficial “Silence of God” trilogy about his own spiritual journey, this film follows a schizophrenic young woman as she descends into psychological chaos during a visit to her family’s island home. (This is the first of Bergman’s films set on the small Faro Island, where the director would make his home for years.) She believes she’s visited by God in a sordid, crazily wallpapered attic—but in the end, the meaning is the stuff of nightmares and incest. The family dynamics are subtle and troubling and engaging, as are the performances. (A)
- Winter Light (1963). This tale of a small-town preacher suffering a crisis of faith tells a simple, powerful story—and it’s the exact same story as Paul Schrader’s First Reformed! The latter film is essentially a remake. Plagiarism? Possibly! This is the second film in Bergman’s “Silence of God” trilogy, and I’m amazed he was communicating these spiritual ideas in the 1960s. Very different from American film of that era! Outstanding performances and characterizations are slightly marred by an interminable opening 15 minutes, but overall excellent. (A-)
- Autumn Sonata (1978). This introspective chamber drama is about a mother and daughter gradually revealing awful, poignant truths about their history and their relationship. It’s a story of decades-long neglect and tense confrontation, played out in conversation—but what remarkable conversation it is, delving deeply into human psychology. Ingrid Bergman plays the mother in her final big role, and her work with Liv Ullman is extraordinary. The single setting and static camera limits this one slightly for me, personally, but there’s no denying its power. (A-)
- The Magician (1958). This film comes directly after two of Bergman’s outright classics (Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal) and is often overshadowed by them. But I found this story—about a traveling magic show that’s called to task by authorities who want to expose the troupe as charlatans—extremely involving, especially because it poses the age-old question about superstition (religion) vs. science. I’m still amazed by the depth to which Bergman explored these existential questions in his work. Great performances and great fun. (A-)
- The Devil’s Eye (1960). I kinda loved this stab at ribald Shakespearian comedy. To cure an eye ailment, the devil sends Don Juan from hell back to Earth seduce a 20-year-old virgin—but Don Juan ends up falling in love with the independent, modern girl. Full of hilarious writing and surprisingly dirty humor, The Devil’s Eye is entertaining and thoughtful, and it’s far better than Bergman’s later attempt at humor, All These Women. (A-)
- Shame (1968). Bergman imagines a civil war taking place on a Swedish island, and in doing so, recalls the horrors that WWII and Vietnam inflicted on ordinary people caught in the crossfire. We see how the dehumanizing aspects of war impact two former artists’ livelihood, their marriage, and their very lives. The film is outwardly explosive but also introspective. I’m really enjoying Bergman’s collaborations with Liv Ullman and Max von Sydow. (A-)
- Fanny and Alexander (1982). Sprawling and, yes, meandering, the 5-hour cut of Fanny and Alexander can be trying—but ultimately rewarding. Inspired by Dickens, it immerses itself inside the dynamics of a large turn-of-the-century family as it endures theater-related joys as well as personal tragedies—chiefly, the death of the patriarch and manager of the central stage troupe. After the widow remarries a sadistic bishop, her son defies him and initiates supernatural revenge. The 5-hour TV version is slow to get going, but it contains some pretty beautiful scenes missing from the 3-hour theatrical version, which I believe is nevertheless tighter and more effective. This movie requires patience, and sometimes it feels like an indulgent mess, but in the end it’s poetic and elaborate and novelistic. (A-)
- The Passion of Anna (1969). A companion piece to Shame, this story of two emotionally wounded people (Ullman and Sydow again) finding each other on Faro Island is experimental and compelling. Trying to get at deep inner truths, Bergman even inserts pieces in which the actors reflect on the characters they’re playing. I’m not sure some of this experimentation works, and it all seems edited together haphazardly at times (with pieces missing), but the performances are fantastic. And it’s got a great ambiguous ending! (B+)
- The Virgin Spring (1959). Here’s a medieval rape-murder-revenge tale that supposedly inspired Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left. Beneath the simple story—about a doomed young princess taking an ill-advised trip to the local church and encountering a trio of low vagabonds, who are later slaughtered ruthlessly by the king—is an allegory about 14th century Sweden’s struggle between paganism and burgeoning Christianity; the move is rife with symbolism. The violence caused quite an international stir in its day. (B+)
- Summer Interlude (1951). Bergman switches perspective from male to female, and the result is transformative. Watching this film and To Joy back to back is a revelation in tone—much more assured and affecting. It’s about a ballet dancer looking back on her idyllic and tragic first love, years earlier during an all-too-fleeing summer in the Swedish countryside. Dealing with regret and philosophy and dashed dreams, it’s quite powerful for an early effort. (B+)
- Scenes from a Marriage (1973). Produced for Swedish TV, this 5-hour miniseries (eventually condensed into a 3-hour feature film) explores the disintegration of a marriage over 10 years. Introspective, frank, and sometimes startling, the series digs deep into emotional truths. It’s full of raw arguments and unforgiving close-ups, and it provides an eye-opening look at Swedish social norms at the time. It’s easy to see how much of an inspiration this (and the idea of its follow-up, Saraband), was on Richard Linklater’s Before series. (B+)
- From the Life of the Marionettes (1980). Here’s a wild bit of unexpected Tarantino-esque filmmaking! Lurid and shocking, Marionettes uses a chronologically fractured narrative to investigate the murder of a prostitute by a prominent businessman. Bergman’s only German-language film, it’s full of explicit nudity and waking nightmares and shifts from color to black-and-white. And despite its true-to-the-era misogyny and questionable notions of homosexuality, it’s quite gripping. (B+)
- Dreams (1955). Although this film received a mediocre critical reception, I found it fascinating in its structure. Two women—the owner of a modeling agency and her star model—travel together to a location shoot and embark on parallel, separate journeys involving fantasies about love that are dashed by other women. It may be a bit predictable in the end, but I enjoyed the writing. And it’s got a great laugh-out-loud moment toward the end. (B)
- Summer with Monika (1953). A couple of disaffected teens fall in love, escape the stifling realities of their working-class reality, and flee to the Stockholm archipelago to enjoy a fleeting summer of freedom together before reality sets in again. This film continues Bergman’s focus on the female point of view, and the lead actress provides a scorching portrayal of a young, determined, rebellious woman. The frank, erotic subject matter caused global gasps. I appreciated the message of this film a little more than the sometimes overwrought execution. (B)
- Waiting Women (1952). An interesting episodic narrative propels this story of four women who are married to four brothers. While waiting in a summer cottage for their husbands to come home, they each tell stories about their rocky marriages in a series of flashbacks. The final episode, about a couple stuck in an elevator, is hilarious, and the framing story—about a young couple yearning to run away to an idyllic future—anticipates Summer with Monika. (B)
- Brink of Life (1958). An interesting counterpoint to Waiting Women, Brink of Life takes place in a maternity ward and tells the story of its three inhabitants, dealing with such subjects as abortion, divorce, and loss/grief. This movie really reinforces the fact that Bergman had a keen understanding of women’s issues: He almost always got more deeply into the emotions and concerns of women than men. (B)
- Crisis (1946). Bergman’s first movie is an involving fable about a young woman who has lived her life with an adoptive mother in the idyllic Swedish countryside. When her birthmother arrives in town to sweep her away to the big city (Stockholm), she jumps at the chance. But the sin-washed big city ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Crisis is full of melodrama and some cheesy dialog, but I found it involving. Really felt for the adoptive mom. Watch for one of the most egregious goofs (camera equipment visible) that I’ve seen in all my movie-watching days. (B)
- The Silence (1963). This is the final film in Bergman’s “Silence of God” trilogy, and though it is a technical marvel (especially for its time) and admirably tells most of its story in silence, I didn’t find it all that involving. An outright allegory in which two sisters holed up in a hotel in a foreign, war-threatened city represent two sides of human nature, the film is too muted and perhaps self-indulgent for my tastes. (B-)
- Smiles of a Summer Night (1955). This was Bergman’s breakout film, a hit at Cannes, and the movie that apparently was make-or-break for Bergman’s career. It’s a Shakespearian romp in the vein of Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which all the players are initially paired with the wrong partners but through a series of misadventures find their way to the right ones. I found this film to be overwrought, although there were some sequences that seemed to portend an interesting future for the director. (B-)
- Port of Call (1948). Here’s an effective early Bergman film about a suicidal, depressed young woman yearning to find human connection in her life. She meets a young man with his own problems, but maybe together they can find their way toward a brighter future. I admired the frankness of the subject matter—from both a psychological and sexuality perspective—and its narrative is very involving, unlike some of the others in this period. (B-)
- Face to Face (1976). Although this film contains some fascinating nightmare imagery and a scorching central performance from Liv Ullman, it’s ultimately disappointing, sometimes feeling like a Bergman parody. It tells the story of a psychiatrist who has a psychological breakdown, and the causes are gradually revealed after a suicide attempt. Not quite strong enough to fully recommend, but it’s got its high points. (Note that this film is not included in the Criterion set because of rights issues.) (B-)
- The Rite (1969). This made-for-TV film is a Kafka-esque stage-influenced chamber drama in which a judge interviews three actors (each supposedly representing an aspect of Bergman’s personality), investigating a pornographic performance for which the actors may face a fine. In a series of nine acts, the film is by turns talky and philosophical and erotically charged. But it feels a bit too navel-gazing to me. (C+)
- Sawdust and Tinsel (1953). This film—about the relationships between a circus ringmaster, his estranged wife, and his lover—is generally considered Bergman’s best film before he entered his classic period (Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries), but I found it in equal parts technically interesting and greasily unappealing. There’s a loud, overacted sweatiness to its circus setting that gets in the way of the central story, which I didn’t find all that interesting. (C+)
- Thirst (1949). This early film presents a portrait of a young marriage haunted by the past—specifically, traumatic events in earlier relationships that have shaped the characters for the worse, including a botched, sterilizing abortion and (gasp) lesbianism. The themes would pop up repeatedly in later Bergman films. This one feels very formative and choppy, but fascinating because of what Bergman learned in technique and technology. (C+)
- A Lesson in Love (1954). This weirdly uneven comedy, which anticipates Smiles of a Summer Night a year later, is a mix of slapstick and big ideas. I was actually surprised by some of the progressive attitudes in the film, from women’s equality to gender identity, but the narrative—about a gynecologist and his wife enduring mutual infidelity only to appreciate each other again—is too reliant on jumbled flashbacks and gimmicks. (C+)
- After the Rehearsal (1984). A bit of well-deserved stage-bound navel-gazing from Bergman in this story of a theater director having a conversation with his young actress following the rehearsal of his most recent production. Flashbacks and unexpected familial ties and sour history come to the emotional forefront of this no doubt autobiographical film. (C+)
- The Touch (1971). A fantastic performance by Bergman regular Bibi Andersson, who is surrounded by a turgid tale about a housewife who embarks on a turbulent affair with an American archaeologist. Elliot Gould plays the American in an odd, schizophrenic performance. This was one of only two English-language films that Bergman made, and it just doesn’t feel right. At times, it’s cheesy. Lost in translation. (Andersson died the day I watched this.) (C)
- To Joy (1950). Two young foolish members of a Swedish orchestra fall in love, get married, and live a life of misery. Apparently, this film is semi-autobiographical, and learning that actually depressed me, because for the entire running time I couldn’t swallow that the beautiful, loving young woman would ever be attracted to this sour, immature, grating asshole. That being said, To Joy boasts some already-familiar deep themes, and its use of music is inspired. (C)
- A Ship to India (1947). This tale, told in one long flashback, is about a young man’s contentious relationship with his awful father. In the flashback, he’s tormented repeatedly but finally stands up to his old man by stealing his mistress and slapping him on the deck of the family’s sea-salvage boat. In the odd framing device, the young man, now returned from 7 years at sea, is tasked with saving the mistress—his love—from depression. More early melodrama from Bergman (darkness, thoughts of suicide, depression), but this one didn’t do much for me. (C)
- Faro Document (1970). This made-for-TV documentary about the geography and inhabitants of Faro Island—the setting for many of Bergman’s films and his home for years—is an interesting look at a time and place, giving you some context for the director’s favorite setting. The scenes of lambs being slaughtered and giving birth wore out their welcome, but the talk of democratic socialism at the end—and how it would solve a lot of the island’s woes—was eye-opening. (C)
- Faro Document 1979 (1979). This follow-up revisits Faro Island nearly 10 years later to check back on some interview subjects, discover some new ones, and generally provide a picture of what the island is like after a decade. Bergman planned a third part, but never got around to it; either way, the inspiration for Michael Apted’s Up series is clear. Dwelled-upon images of pig slaughter made this doc a tough watch. (C)
- The Serpent’s Egg (1971). A sad case of Bergman inserting himself into the Hollywood studio system with Dino De Laurentiis, and working with far more money than he usually did, this film finds the director flailing—out of his element. It’s about an out-of-work American circus actor in 1920s Germany going through a series of misadventures following his brother’s suicide. It’s a weird, horror-tinged, pre-Holocaust slog. (C)
- The Magic Flute (1975). Bergman is uncredited for directing Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute as a TV movie. Apparently, this opera was a lifetime obsession for him, and his approach to it is by all accounts revolutionary—for example, he provides behind-the-scenes glimpses of the actors and the movement of sets (pure Bergman)—but it just ain’t my bag. I skimmed most of it. (C)
- Saraband (2003). This follow-up to Scenes from a Marriage is disappointing for several reasons, not least of which because it was Bergman’s final film. Not a great swan song, for sure. A perfect opportunity to revisit the former film’s characters is instead a story about two peripheral characters, leaving the two we care about on the sidelines and actually betraying them. (C-)
- All These Women (1964). Yes, it’s possible: Even Ingmar Bergman can make an embarrassing piece of crap. A pretentious critic, writing a biography of a famous cellist, must wade through the cellist’s many mistresses to get at the man’s truth. Intended to be a film of satirical Fellini-esque slapstick—a humorous reprieve to follow the intensity of Bergman’s “God’s Silence” trilogy—it’s actually a horrifying, unfunny dirge. (D)
And that’s it! I’m so glad I embarked on this film festival and had the fortitude to stick with it for 45 days straight. I also watched 90 percent of the special features, including the always illuminating commentaries.
If (when) I decide to do the Bergman marathon again, I’ll go chronological—which is still my favored way to go through a director’s work. I often found myself referring to the chronological listing at the back of the Criterion booklet to get a sense of progression and perspective. And I’ll be honest, I’d probably only watch my top 20 here. Some of these films … once was enough. But overall? What a ride.