With all respect to Woody Allen, Ingmar Bergman was not the easiest director to love. His movie required leaps of imagination, of belief. The viewer often had to work as hard as he did very little came easy, but his films often rewarded anticipation. For half his filmmaking career, which began in the mid-1940s, even his comedies could be academically remote.
He always worked with virtuosic assurance, but only when he began to look inward at himself, his relationships, his art as he began to around 1967, did his filmmaking thaw a little, and the films themselves turn visually and psychologically penetrating, connecting with life as it is lived, not only as it is abstracted. These are a few of the highlights from Bergman's rich and legendary career.
"Smiles of a Summer Night" (1955): This is the best of Bergman's early films and the first to break through with audiences. It's a bedroom farce that came as close to lightness and Shakespeare as he could stand. Bergman was so witty about the ways of the flesh without shortchanging their importance. Bergman had tried in early films to marry lust and comedy, but it was leaden and sentimental. By this film, with its theatrical staging and zesty slapstick, he'd perfected his touch.
"The Seventh Seal" (1957): If you could tattoo yourself with any movie's images, Bergman's most identifiable film might be the way to go. The plot is simple, yet elemental: A knight fresh from the Crusades challenges death to a game of chess. The great existential themes of life's meaning are meant to give the film ballast. Considered essential for any film lover, it conveys the torments of the soul while maintaining allegorical distance.
"Wild Strawberries" (1957): Bergman's other meditation on death concerned a professor (the director Victor Sjostrom) on his way to receiving an honorary degree. The film marked a structural breakthrough for Bergman, who used flashbacks, dreams, and nightmares to convey remorse and longing in the face of approaching mortality.
"The Virgin Spring" (1959): There has never been so strangely handsome a movie star as Max Von Sydow. He was a member of Bergman's troupe of actors, and in this grim drama set during Sweden's transition from paganism to Christianity, he plays a Christian avenging the rape and murder of his daughter. This is Bergman's most linear movies (from one of the few screenplays he didn't write) and also marks the first major collaboration with the legendary cinematographer Sven Nykvist.
"Persona" (1966): On one level, it's a masterpiece about an actress (Liv Ullman) who's suffered a nervous breakdown and the nurse (Bibi Andersson) who tends to her. On another, it's about the act of performance, how the actorly shedding of one identity to assume another is all-consuming.
The physical and psychological proximity between Ullman and Andersson remains erotic, but Bergman, working with Nykvist, fashioned the film as a stunning and mysterious meditation on the very difficult nature of being yourself.
"Hour of the Wolf" (1968): This little-remembered drama is odd but surreal.
The film continued Bergman's examination of alienation and psychological rupture though long, insightful monologues. Von Sydow plays an ostracized artist on an island with his pregnant wife (Ullman). Bergman dramatizes the tortures of an artist's soul until the line evaporates between what is actual and what's imagined. Here Bergman reminds us of his particular genius. He could make that line so chillingly inconclusive that determining what's true and what isn't seems moot: The images are real unto themselves.
"Cries and Whispers" (1972): Probably the toughest, strongest, and most emotionally visceral of Bergman's movies. He was in full command of his art with this story of four sisters (Liv Ullman, Harriet Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, and Kari Sylwan) in a manor house that seems alive by association. The movie is all-purpose, losing itself in the stuff of life, death, lust, contempt, and, most powerfully, touch. Rarely have images of simple tactility, of flesh grazing flesh, seemed to skip past language into some other realm of response. The movie has supernatural lapses, but those mesmerize, too even if, by Bergman's standards, using a literal ghost to haunt you is a cheat.
"Scenes from a Marriage" (1973): The standard by which most serious modern movies about the vicissitudes of love are measured. Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson play a couple on the rocks. The version released here was pared down from a five-hour television production (which is available in a Criterion Collection DVD), but the abridged version is a wonder unto itself: the most dramatically and emotionally transparent film Bergman ever made.
"Fanny and Alexander" (1982): The director famously called this family saga "the sum total of my life as filmmaker." Amazingly, it took an arrival at the end of middle age for him to discover the free, playful spirit that he always seemed too serious to indulge. To that end, the movie relies on the point of view of something rarely glimpsed in Bergman's pictures: a child.
Told from the perspective, more or less, of his boyhood self, the film, which is recommended in the original 312-minute version he made for Swedish television, this is a gentle personal remembrance and an acknowledgment of a mortality that was still 25 years away. It was the sum total of his life as filmmaker, yes. But it also seems like the sum of his life as a man.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.