2007-07-30 16:03:27 UTC
From the New York TimesJuly 30, 2007
Ingmar Bergman, Famed Director, Dies at 89
By MERVYN ROTHSTEIN
Ingmar Bergman, the "poet with the camera" who is considered one of
the greatest directors in motion picture history, died today on the
small island of Faro where he lived on the Baltic coast of Sweden,
Astrid Soderbergh Widding, president of The Ingmar Bergman Foundation,
said. Bergman was 89.
Critics called Mr. Bergman one of the directors - the others being
Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa - who dominated the world of
serious film making in the second half of the 20th century.
He moved from the comic romp of lovers in "Smiles of a Summer Night"
to the Crusader's search for God in "The Seventh Seal," and from the
gripping portrayal of fatal illness in "Cries and Whispers" to the
alternately humorous and horrifying depiction of family life in "Fanny
Mr. Bergman dealt with pain and torment, desire and religion, evil and
love; in Mr. Bergman's films, "this world is a place where faith is
tenuous; communication, elusive; and self-knowledge, illusory,"
Michiko Kakutani wrote in The New York Times Magazine in a profile of
the director. God is either silent or malevolent; men and women are
creatures and prisoners of their desires.
For many filmgoers and critics, it was Mr. Bergman more than any other
director who in the 1950s brought a new seriousness to film making.
"Bergman was the first to bring metaphysics - religion, death,
existentialism - to the screen," Bertrand Tavernier, the French film
director, once said. "But the best of Bergman is the way he speaks of
women, of the relationship between men and women. He's like a miner
digging in search of purity."
He influenced many other film makers, including Woody Allen, who
according to The Associated Press said in a tribute in 1988 that Mr.
Bergman was "probably the greatest film artist, all things considered,
since the invention of the motion picture camera."
In his more than 40 years in the cinema, Mr. Bergman made about 50
films, often focusing on two themes - the relationship between the
sexes, and the relationship between mankind and God. Mr. Bergman found
in cinema, he wrote in a 1965 essay, "a language that literally is
spoken from soul to soul in expressions that, almost sensuously,
escape the restrictive control of the intellect."
In Bergman, the mind is constantly seeking, constantly inquiring,
Mr. Bergman often acknowledged that his work was autobiographical, but
only "in the way a dream transforms experience and emotions all the
He carried out a simultaneous career in the theater, becoming a
director of Stockholm's Royal Dramatic Theater. He married multiple
times and had highly publicized and passionate liaisons with his
Mr. Bergman broke upon the international film scene in the mid-1950s
with four films that shook the movie world, films that became
identified with him and symbols of his career - "Smiles of a Summer
Night," "The Seventh Seal," "Wild Strawberries" and "The Magician."
He had been a director for 10 years, but was little known outside
Sweden. Then, in 1956, "Smiles" won a special prize at the Cannes Film
Festival. The next year, the haunting and eloquent "Seventh Seal,"
with its memorable medieval visions of a knight (Max von Sydow)
playing chess with death in a world terrorized by the plague, won
another special prize at Cannes. And in 1959, "The Magician" took the
special jury prize at the Venice Film Festival.
Audiences flocked to art cinemas all over the world to see his films.
Then, in 1960, "The Virgin Spring", told of a rape and its mysterious
aftermath in medieval Scandinavia; it won the Academy Award as best
foreign film. In a few years, he had become both a cult figure and a
Throughout his career, Mr. Bergman often talked about what he
considered the dual nature of his creative and private personalities.
"I am very much aware of my own double self," he once said. "The well-
known one is very under control; everything is planned and very
secure. The unknown one can be very unpleasant. I think this side is
responsible for all the creative work - he is in touch with the child.
He is not rational, he is impulsive and extremely emotional."
Ernst Ingmar Bergman was born on July 14, 1918, in the university town
of Uppsala, Sweden. His father, Erik, a Lutheran clergyman who later
became chaplain to the Swedish royal family, believed in strict
discipline, including caning and locking his children in closets. His
mother, Karin, was moody and unpredictable.
"I was very much in love with my mother," he told Alan Riding of The
New York Times in a 1995 interview. "She was a very warm and a very
cold woman. When she was warm, I tried to come close to her. But she
could be very cold and rejecting."
The young Mr. Bergman accompanied his father on preaching rounds of
small country churches near Stockholm.
"While father preached away in the pulpit and the congregation prayed,
sang or listened," he once recalled, "I devoted my interest to the
church's mysterious world of low arches, thick walls, the smell of
eternity, the colored sunlight quivering above the strangest
vegetation of medieval paintings and carved figures on ceilings and
walls. There was everything that one's imagination could desire -
angels, saints, dragons, prophets, devils, humans."
His earliest memories, he once said, were of light and death:
"I remember how the sunlight hit the edge of my dish when I was eating
spinach and, by moving the dish slightly from side to side, I was able
to make different figures out of the light. I also remember sitting
with my brother, in the backyard of my flat, aiming with slingshots at
enormous black rats scurrying around. And I also remember being forced
to sit in church, listening to a very boring sermon, but it was a very
beautiful church, and I loved the music and the light streaming
through the windows. I used to sit up in the loft beside the organ,
and when there were funerals, I had this marvelous long-shot view of
the proceedings, with the coffin and the black drapes, and then later
at the graveyard, watching the coffin lowered into the ground. I was
never frightened by these sights. I was fascinated."
At the age of 9, he traded a set of tin soldiers for a battered magic
lantern, a possession that altered the course of his life. Within a
year, he had created, by playing with this toy, a private world, he
later recalled, in which he felt completely at home. He fashioned his
own scenery, marionettes and lighting effects and gave puppet
productions of Strindberg plays in which he spoke all the parts.
He entered the University of Stockholm in 1937, nominally to study the
history of literature but actually to spend most of his time working
in amateur theater. He soon left home and university for a career in
the theater and the movies.
He split his time between film and theater beginning in the early
1940s, when he first was taken into the script department of Svensk
Filmindustri - a youth, as his first boss described him, "shabby, rude
and scampish with a laugh born out of the darkest depths of the
In his theater career, he became head of the municipal theater in the
southern Swedish city of Halsingborg in 1944; in 1946, he switched to
Goteborg for four years, then spent two years as a guest producer in a
couple of cities before going to Malmo in 1952 to become associated
with the municipal theater there.
In films, he wrote many scenarios as well as directed. His name first
appeared on the screen in 1944 in "Torment," which he wrote and Alf
Sjoberg, one of the dominant figures in Swedish film, directed. The
film, based on a story Bergman wrote about his final, torturous year
at school, won eight Swedish awards as well as the Grand Prix du
Cinema at Cannes. It made an international star of its leading
performer, Mai Zetterling, who portrayed a shop girl loved by a young
student and shadowed by the student's sadistic teacher.
Mr. Bergman got his first chance to direct the next year. His early
films were essentially training films - basically soap operas that
enabled him to experiment with directorial style.
Most experts agree that his first film of note was "Prison," his sixth
movie and the first all-Bergman production. The film is the story of a
prostitute who committed suicide. He made it in 18 days, and while
critics have called it cruel, disjointed and in many ways sophomoric,
it was an early favorite of his.
In the next few years, he made "Summer Interlude" (1950), a tragedy of
teen-age lovers; "Waiting Women" (1952), his first successful comedy;
"Sawdust and Tinsel" set in a traveling circus and originally released
in the United States as "The Naked Night"; "A Lesson in Love" (1953),
a witty comedy of marital infidelity, and, finally, "Smiles of a
Summer Night" and "The Seventh Seal," his breakthroughs to fame.
In 1957, the same year as "Seventh Seal," Mr. Bergman also directed
"Wild Strawberries," his acclaimed study of old age. In the film, the
78-year-old Isak Borg (played by the silent-film director and actor
Victor Sjostrom), drives through the countryside, stops at his
childhood home, relives the memory of his first love and comes to
terms with his emotional isolation. "I had created a figure who, on
the outside, looked like my father but was me, through and through,"
Mr. Bergman has said. "I was then 37, cut off from all human
Mr. Bergman won his second Academy Award in 1961 for "Through a Glass
Darkly," and then came the turning point in his career - "Winter
Light," which he made in 1963, the second of his trilogy of the early
60s that ended with "The Silence" and portrayed the loneliness and
vulnerability of modern man, without faith or love. Many of his
earlier films had been animated by an anguished search for belief, Ms.
Kakutani wrote, but "Winter Light" - which shows a minister's own loss
of faith - implies that whatever answers there are are to be found on
Mr. Bergman explained that the philosophical shift occurred during a
brief hospital stay. Awakening from the anesthesia, he realized that
he was no longer scared of death, and that the question of death had
suddenly disappeared. Since then, many critics feel, his films have
contained a kind of humanism in which human love is the only hope of
Some critics lashed at individual films as obscure, pretentious and
But every time he made a failure, he managed to win back critics and
audiences quickly with such films as "Persona" - in which the
personalities of two women break down and merge - "The Passion of
Anna," "Cries and Whispers" - a stark portrait of three sisters - and
"Fanny and Alexander."
Mr. Bergman often used what amounted to a repertory company - a group
of actors who appeared in many of his films. They included Mr. von
Sydow, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Ingrid Thulin, Bibi Andersson, Erland
Josephson and, above all, Liv Ullmann, with whom he had a long
personal relationship and with whom he had a child. He also for many
years used the same cinematographer, Sven Nykvist.
The ideas for his films, he said, came to him in many ways. "Persona,"
the study of two women in neurotic intimacy, came to life, he said,
when one day he saw two women sitting together comparing hands. "I
thought to myself," he said, "that one of them is mute and the other
The germ for "The Silence" - in which a dying woman and her sister are
in a foreign country with no means of communication - came from a
hospital visit, he said, where "I noticed from a window a very old
man, enormously fat and paralyzed, sitting in a chair under a tree in
"As I watched," he said, "four jolly, good-natured nurses came
marching out, lifted him up, chair and all, and carried him back into
the hospital. The image of being carried away like a dummy stayed in
In other cases, films were suggested by essays, novels, pieces of
music. In every case, he said, some outside event had turned the key
on some deep-seated memory - each film was a projection of some past
"I have maintained open channels with my childhood," he told Ms.
Kakutani. "I think it may be that way with many artists. Sometimes in
the night, when I am on the limit between sleeping and being awake, I
can just go through a door into my childhood and everything is as it
was - with lights, smells, sounds and people . . . I remember the
silent street where my grandmother lived, the sudden aggressivity of
the grown-up world, the terror of the unknown and the fear from the
tension between my father and mother."
Mr. Bergman used his memories in many other films: "Scenes From a
Marriage" (which was originally done for television), "Autumn Sonata,"
"From the Life of the Marionettes," "Hour of the Wolf," "Shame," "Face
to Face" and his version of Mozart's "Magic Flute," considered by many
to be the most successful film ever made of an opera.
From the 1950s through the 1990s, Mr. Bergman maintained hissuccessful theatrical career in Sweden. It was while rehearsing
Strindberg's "Dance of Death" at the Royal Dramatic Theater in
Stockholm in 1976 that he was arrested for tax evasion. The incident
received a great deal of publicity, and while the charges were later
dropped and the Swedish Government issued a formal apology, Mr.
Bergman exiled himself from Sweden to West Germany, where he made "The
Serpent's Egg." He had a nervous breakdown over the incident and was
hospitalized for a time. The exile lasted for a number of years and he
only returned permanently to his native country in the mid-80s.
In 1982, Mr. Bergman announced that he had just made his last
theatrical film - it was "Fanny and Alexander," a look at high society
in a Swedish town early in the last century that was in part inspired
by his own childhood.
"Making 'Fanny and Alexander' was such a joy that I thought that
feeling will never come back," he told Ms. Kakutani. "I will try to
explain: When I was at university many years ago, we were all in love
with this extremely beautiful girl. She said no to all of us, and we
didn't understand. She had had a love affair with a prince from Egypt
and, for her, everything after this love affair had to be a failure.
So she rejected all our proposals. I would like to say the same thing.
The time with 'Fanny and Alexander' was so wonderful that I decided it
was time to stop. I have had my prince of Egypt."
"Fanny and Alexander" won four Oscars, including the Academy Award for
best foreign film in 1984.
Mr. Bergman did not, however, leave the world of film altogether. He
spent much of his time on Faro, a sparsely populated island that
visitors described as chilly and desolate but that he considered the
one place he felt safe, secure and at home. And he would devote his
mornings to working on his plays, novels and television scripts.
He made a television film, "After the Rehearsal" - about three actors
working on a production of Strindberg's "Dream Play" - which was
released theatrically in the United States. He wrote "The Best
Intentions," first as a novel and then in 1991 as an eloquent six-hour
film directed by Billie August about Mr. Bergman's parents' troubled
marriage just before his birth.
"The slightly fictional Anna and Henrik Bergman are complex, stubborn,
well-meaning people who share a heartbreaking inability to be happy no
matter what they try," Ms. James wrote, and Mr. Bergman "is a
benevolent ghost hovering over the film."
Mr. Bergman said in an interview in Sweden that the act of writing the
film had changed his attitude toward his parents. "After this," he
said, "every form of reproach, blame, bitterness or even vague feeling
that they have messed up my life is gone forever from my mind."
"The Best Intentions" was one of three novels he wrote in the 80s and
90s about his parents. The second, "Sunday's Children," was made into
a film and directed by his son Daniel. The third, "Private
Confessions," about his mother, became a film directed by Ms. Ullmann.
In 1997, he directed a two-hour made-for-television movie, "In the
Presence of Clowns," set in the 1920s and based on a story he
discovered among the papers left by an uncle who appeared as a main
character in "Fanny and Alexander" and "Best Intentions" and was
played in all three films by Borje Ahlstedt.
He directed two plays every year at the Royal Dramatic Theater. In May
1995 the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as part of a New York Bergman
Festival that included retrospectives by the Film Society of Lincoln
Center and the Museum of Television and Radio, presented the Royal
Theater in two plays Mr. Bergman directed, Shakespeare's "Winter's
Tale" and Yukio Mishima's "Madame de Sade."
He also directed operas, and wrote many plays and television dramas,
several novels and a 1987 memoir, "The Magic Lantern."
[In the fall of 2002, Bergman, at age 84, started production on
"Saraband," a 120-minute television movie based on the two main
characters in "Scenes From a Marriage," The Associated Press reported.
In a news conference, the director said he wrote the story after
realizing he was "pregnant with a play." "At first I felt sick, very
sick," he said. "It was strange. Like Abraham and Sarah, who suddenly
realized she was pregnant," he said, referring to biblical characters.
"It was lots of fun, suddenly to feel this urge returning."]
In addition to Oscars and prizes at film festivals, Mr. Bergman's
films won many awards from the New York Film Critics and the National
Society of Film Critics, among others. In 1977, he was given the
Swedish Academy of Letters' Great Gold Medal.
Mr. Bergman's fifth wife, Ingrid Karlebo Bergman, died in 1995. He had
many children from his marriages and relationships.
Once, when asked by the critic Andrew Sarris why he did what he did,
Mr. Bergman told the story of the rebuilding of Chartres Cathedral in
the Middle Ages by thousands of anonymous artisans.
"I want to be one of the artists of the cathedral that rises on the
plain," he said. "I want to occupy myself by carving out of stone the
head of a dragon, an angel or a demon, or perhaps a saint; it doesn't
matter; I will find the same joy in any case. Whether I am a believer
or an unbeliever, Christian or pagan, I work with all the world to
build a cathedral because I am artist and artisan, and because I have
learned to draw faces, limbs, and bodies out of stone. I will never
worry about the judgment of posterity or of my contemporaries; my name
is carved nowhere and will disappear with me. But a little part of
myself will survive in the anonymous and triumphant totality. A dragon
or a demon, or perhaps a saint, it doesn't matter!"
Mr. Bergman's celluloid carvings often revealed an obsession with
death. But in later life he said that the obsession had abated. "When
I was young, I was extremely scared of dying," he said. "But now I
think it a very, very wise arrangement. It's like a light that is
extinguished. Not very much to make a fuss about."
According to The A.P., which cited TT, the Swedish news agency, the
date of Mr. Bergman's funeral has not been set but will be attended by
a close group of his friends and family.