Ingmar Bergman, 1918-2007

Swedish Director Probed Darkness of Human Psyche

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Ingmar Bergman, 89, a Swedish writer-director whose name came to define an entire genre of stark movies about the human condition, including "The Seventh Seal," "Wild Strawberries" and "Persona," died yesterday at his home on Faro Island, off the Baltic coast of Sweden. No cause of death was disclosed.

Three of Bergman's movies received the Academy Award for best foreign-language film: "The Virgin Spring" (1960), about a 14th-century Swede who avenges the rape and death of his daughter; "Through a Glass Darkly" (1961), about a modern family in spiritual crisis; and his final film, "Fanny and Alexander" (1982), a story of an adolescence that is alternately charmed and terrifying.

Bergman's style of intensely personal cinema -- where desire and suffering dominated the characters' lives -- first gained wide attention in the early 1950s. His work contrasted with the output of some American filmmakers, who were making far lighter comedies and dramas or promoting gimmicks such as 3-D and Smell-o-Vision.

Film historian and critic David Sterritt said Bergman made it fashionable among American audiences to discuss movies as an art form. Previously, that distinction was largely reserved for adaptations of Shakespeare or other literary classics.

"He showed that cinema could be a genuine art that could take on the deepest of all human themes," Sterritt said.

In Europe, movie directors such as Jean-Luc Godard and Fran├žois Truffaut helped break visual and narrative rules. But Bergman stood out for making disturbingly psychological films that explored emotional isolation and spiritual crisis, often about living in a nuclear age.

Women were especially prominent in Bergman's films -- and not as cardboard heroines. Bergman's female characters usually stood on the brink of mental collapse, confused by their doubts and passions.

Men were often hapless bystanders, incapable of understanding their own lives, much less those of anyone around them.

"The people in my films are exactly like myself -- creatures of instinct, of rather poor intellectual capacity, who at best only think while they're talking," Bergman once said. "Mostly they're body, with a little hollow for the soul."

Critics saw in Bergman's films a tendency for characters to use sex as a way of overcoming their sense of isolation and finding tenuous connections with one another. Yet fear of intimacy frequently caused the characters to cloak their true emotions. Bergman underscored this theme by focusing on people who were involved in theater and used disguises and role-playing.

For his psychological insights, Bergman won favorable comparisons with August Strindberg, the 19th-century playwright he admired.

Bergman's nearly 60 motion pictures found their greatest fans among viewers in art-house theaters, who felt challenged by his heavily abstract, sometimes allegorical storytelling technique.

CONTINUED     1              >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company