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.

His most enthusiastic American champion was Woody Allen, who tried to mimic Bergman's themes with "Interiors" and "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy," but Ang Lee ("The Ice Storm") and Peter Greenaway ("The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover") also spoke of Bergman's influence on their works.

Bergman created a stock company of performers, including Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, Harriet Andersson, Gunnar Bjornstrand and Erland Josephson. He relied heavily on cinematographers Gunnar Fischer and Sven Nykvist, who captured with unparalleled beauty the cruelty, sensuality and selfishness colliding in the same scene.

Bergman worked closely with his cinematographers to create some of the most memorable images in cinema. One such moment was the finale of "The Seventh Seal" (1957), in which a parade of characters dance to their doom with scythe-wielding Death leading the way.

Ernst Ingmar Bergman was born July 14, 1918, in Uppsala, Sweden, and raised in Stockholm, where his father, a Lutheran minister, became chaplain to the Swedish royal family.

His upbringing was filled with harsh punishments administered by his father, from canings to being locked in dark closets. His mother was an unreliable source of comfort, sometimes displaying warmth and at other times, coldness. Bergman later said his mother wanted to leave her husband but stayed for the sake of the children.

The future filmmaker cynically thanked his parents for the unhappy environment in which he was raised, saying they "created a world for me to revolt against."

Going to the movies brought Bergman rare happiness. One Christmas, he traded 100 tin soldiers for the movie projector a wealthy aunt had given his brother.

He also created a puppet theater, which became more elaborate as he needed new ways to entertain a younger sister. He put on small-scale works by Strindberg, whose dramas of tormented relationships between the sexes already appealed to him.

Bergman infuriated his parents by dropping out of the University of Stockholm to work in local theaters. He became an unpaid errand boy at the prestigious Royal Opera House in Stockholm. He maintained ties to the theater throughout his life and was a former director of Sweden's Royal Dramatic Theatre and the Royal Opera.

In 1942, he joined the film company Svensk Filmindustri as a scriptwriter adapting stories. His first original script, "Hets" (1944), about a sadistic teacher who disrupts an affair between two youths, was directed by Alf Sjoberg and received eight "Charlies," the Swedish equivalent of the Oscar, and the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

After writing and directing a series of adolescent dramas and suspense tales of varying quality, Bergman foreshadowed many of his later classics with the bittersweet themes in "Summer Interlude" (1951) and "Summer With Monika" (1953).

The first was about a ballerina who revisits her childhood vacation spot and recalls a fateful teenage summer fling. The second concerned a young woman's sexual awakening and the man who rejoices and then suffers because of her whims.

Bergman received favorable attention in the United States with "Smiles of a Summer Night" (1955), which blended Shakespearean farce with a disquieting sexual undercurrent. Critic Bosley Crowther, writing in the New York Times, called it "delightfully droll," and the film won a Special Jury Prize at Cannes.

"It was an attempt to be witty," Bergman said in the book "Bergman on Bergman." "People were always bawling me out for being such a gloomy guy."

That film's plot was adopted by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler for their musical "A Little Night Music" and Woody Allen for "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy."

Bergman showed some other lighter touches when he filmed Mozart's opera "The Magic Flute" (1975) as well as "The Devil's Eye" (1960), about Don Juan's ascent from hell to seduce a minister's virginal daughter. According to the film, its title came from a Swedish proverb, "A faithful woman is a sty in the Devil's eye."

One of his best-known films of the period, "The Seventh Seal," was a forewarning of nuclear devastation even though it was set in the 14th century.

Von Sydow played a knight who returns from the Crusades to his plague-infested homeland and finds Death waiting for him. While buying time by playing chess with Death, the knight leads an anguished search for meaning. He crosses paths with a society of fools and self-flagellating fanatics and finds Death the game's victor.

"Wild Strawberries" (1957) was Bergman's next major project, and years after its release, film critic Leonard Maltin wrote that it remained a "staple of any serious filmgoer's education."

The main character was an old, emotionally distant professor, played by the silent-era film director Victor Sjostrom. He picks up a series of passengers during his car trip to collect an award, and they prompt him to reflect on his life and realize, too late, his human flaws.

Bergman made a series of films in the early 1960s that focused on the search for a lost faith: "Through a Glass Darkly," about a woman's mental and spiritual breakdown; "Winter Light," about a widowed country pastor unable to persuade a parishioner that life is worth living; and "The Silence," about two sisters whose emotional and erotic tensions reach their peak while staying at a strange hotel in an unfamiliar country.

"The Silence" -- with its explicit treatment of masturbation, lesbianism and masochism -- shocked audiences and became one of Bergman's most financially successful films.

As with "The Silence," his 1966 film "Persona" was essentially a two-woman tour de force. "Persona" showed a mute actress (Liv Ullmann) and her caregiver (Bibi Andersson) spending time alone by the barren seashore.

Ultimately Bergman shows their faces morphing into the same image, leaving it unclear whether they were ever two separate people in the first place.

The idea for "Persona" came to him after seeing his friend Andersson sunning next to Ullmann, a Norwegian actress who became Bergman's companion and muse for many years. Struck by the resemblance between the two actresses, Bergman decided "it would be wonderful to write something about two people who lose their identities in each other."

Bergman made films about the apocalyptic nature of war ("Shame," 1968) and the emotional sacrifices of an artist ("Hour of the Wolf," 1968). Increasingly, he turned to the excruciating tensions of marriage, notably in "Cries and Whispers" (1972), with its harrowing scene of female self-mutilation, and "Scenes From a Marriage" (1973).

Of the second, critic Alan M. Kriegsman wrote in The Washington Post: "The truth of so much of Bergman's insight is borne out by how often you find yourself reacting or being reacted to as if you were one of the protagonists. Time and again, what appear to be avoidable traps from the vantage point of an 'outside' observer of the movie turn out to be inescapable pitfalls of one's own daily life."

Bergman wrote in his autobiography that one need only look at the womanizing husband's verbal assault of his wife as they break up in "Scenes From a Marriage" to understand how he parted from his second of five wives.

Bergman said the lowest moment of his life came Jan. 30, 1976, during rehearsals of Strindberg's "Dance of Death" at the Royal Dramatic Theatre. He was arrested on charges of income tax evasion stemming from an abandoned business deal with an Italian television company.

Three days later, Bergman reportedly suffered a nervous breakdown. The perceived harassment of an internationally regarded director embarrassed the Swedish government of Prime Minister Olof Palme, and the case was dropped that March.

Bergman went into self-imposed exile in West Germany and made what is essentially a political horror film: "The Serpent's Egg" (1978), an account of Germany's early descent into fascism that starred David Carradine as an alcoholic circus performer in Weimar Berlin.

Most critics viewed "The Serpent's Egg" as a low point in his career -- a case of seemingly endless sadism. Yet the same year, after declaring the end of his inspiration, he entered another golden phase of his career with 1978's "Autumn Sonata," a tightly knit emotional battle between mother and daughter starring Ingrid Bergman (no relation) and Ullmann.

Between films, he retreated to his home on the rain-swept, stony seascape on Faro Island and spoke of his need to live a remote existence, among the sound of waves and a ticking grandfather clock.

He called the island an ideal place to confront his daily fears about death. "The demons don't like fresh air," he said in a Swedish television documentary last year, "Bergman Island." "What they like best is if you stay in bed with cold feet."

He frequently threatened to retire, though he continued to work until recent years on scripts for movies, including Ullmann's "Faithless" (2000). His final work as writer and director was "Saraband" (2003), a made-for-television sequel to "Scenes From a Marriage" that received a U.S. theatrical release.

His marriages to Else Fisher, Ellen Lundstrom, Gun Hagberg and pianist Kabi Laretei ended in divorce. His fifth wife, Ingrid Karlebo von Rosen, died in 1995.

He reportedly had nine children among his wives and other relationships, one of whom he acknowledged only in later years.

On his admitted disregard for parenting, he told the documentarians in "Bergman Island": "I had a bad conscience until I discovered that having a bad conscience about something so gravely serious as leaving your children is an affectation, a way of achieving a little suffering that can't for a moment be equal to the suffering you've caused. I haven't put an ounce of effort into my families. I never have."

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