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Cinematic master Ingmar Bergman dies

Took filmgoers along currents of despair, hope

Ingmar Bergman's works unleashed a wave of soul-searching creativity among European and American filmmakers.
Ingmar Bergman's works unleashed a wave of soul-searching creativity among European and American filmmakers. (AP/File/1963)

Ingmar Bergman, the protean master filmmaker whose work opened the cinema to spiritual and philosophic inquiry and introduced the adjective "Bergmanesque" into the lexicon, died yesterday morning at his home on the island of Faro, in Sweden. He was 89.

Arguably the most daring and artistically uncompromising of the writer/directors who transformed world cinema in the years after World War II, Mr. Bergman brought a new seriousness of purpose to the medium. Simply put, he was to movies what the Existentialists were to literature: a questing and questioning voice that would not be denied. He took the human interior as his landscape, a metaphysical Monument Valley that none before him had put on celluloid and few afterward captured so well.

Mr. Bergman burst upon the international scene in the 1950s, winning festival awards for "Wild Strawberries" (1957), the wisely comic "Smiles of a Summer Night" (1955), and the dark, allegorical "The Seventh Seal" (1957). It is two scenes from "Seal" -- a hooded Death (Bengt Ekerot) playing chess with a wandering knight (Max von Sydow) and, later, leading a representative daisy-chain of humanity across a mountain ridge -- that remain the popular culture's shorthand snapshots for "Ingmar Bergman."

Much parodied and hugely influential, those early works unleashed a wave of soul-searching creativity among European and American filmmakers. The careers of such diverse American talents as Woody Allen, John Cassavetes, Robert Altman, and Francis Ford Coppola would be vastly different without his example.

In the 1993 book "Woody Allen on Woody Allen," the director discusses what drew him to the Swedish filmmaker's work: "Bergman developed a grammar, a vocabulary to express . . . inner conflicts brilliantly. Part of this grammar was the use of the close-up in a way it hadn't been used before. Very close and very long, long, long static close-ups. The effect is so exciting because it's infused with his special genius."

Mr. Bergman's key films probe the absence of God and man's search for meaning; initially despairing, they grew over the course of his career to be filled with bitter, clear-eyed hope. "Wild Strawberries" is a young man's movie about old age. By contrast, the made-for-television "Saraband" (2003), Mr. Bergman's last completed work and a film that revisits the agonized couple of "Scenes from a Marriage" (1973), extends an Olympian forgiveness toward humanity.

Similarly, the director evolved from the enfant terrible of Swedish stage and screen, known for ripping phones off walls when he didn't get his creative way, to a demanding but benevolent father figure who encouraged his actors to improvise moments of truth. His artistic "family" included such regular performers as von Sydow, Bibi Andersson, Harriet Andersson, Erland Josephson, and Gunnar Björnstrand, as well as the cinematographer Sven Nykvist.

His other great subject was the battle between men and women, portrayed with scathing honesty in "A Passion" (1969) and "Scenes from a Marriage." Key to many of those movies was the actress Liv Ullmann, with whom the director had a romantic relationship and a daughter, Linn Ullmann. In addition, Mr. Bergman married five times, had numerous liaisons, and fathered nine acknowledged children. His insights into human relationships came from personal experience, and his most damning conclusions often stemmed from his own behavior.

Starting with "Persona" (1966) -- a mystical rumination on identity -- Mr. Bergman embarked upon a second run of masterpieces that are more mature. "Hour of the Wolf" (1968), "Shame" (1968), and "A Passion" led to a commercial resurgence with "Cries and Whispers" (1972) and "Scenes from a Marriage."

"Cries" was nominated for five Academy Awards, unusual for a foreign-language film. "Fanny and Alexander" (1982), his final film before retiring to concentrate on stage and TV directing, was nominated for six Oscars and won four. Over the course of his career, the director was nominated for nine Oscars and in 1971 he was presented with the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. Three of his films won the Foreign Language Oscar: "The Virgin Spring" (1960), "Through a Glass Darkly" (1961), and "Fanny and Alexander."

Ernst Ingmar Bergman was born July 14, 1918, in the university town of Uppsala, Sweden, where his father was a Lutheran minister and a harsh disciplinarian. Caned and locked in closets for such infractions as wetting his bed, the child found little solace in his mercurial mother, and a double-helix of guilt and spiritual malaise seems to have been entwined early. He also quickly showed a gift for storytelling. "I became a great liar to escape the punishments," Mr. Bergman once told a reporter.

Acquiring a magic lantern at a young age -- a rudimentary cinematic toy that crops up repeatedly in his films -- the future director created ambitious productions that included puppet versions of August Strindberg dramas. He attended the University of Stockholm and concentrated on the stage, writing plays and managing the Helsingborg City Theatre.

His first film credit was as the screenwriter of 1944's "Hets" ("Torment"), a brooding university-set triangle of love and power directed by Alf Sjoberg. In 1946, Mr. Bergman directed his first film, "Crisis," but his early movies were often derided by critics as adolescent and overly intense.

The breakthrough came with two 1953 films, "Monika" and "Sawdust and Tinsel." Both displayed a gloomy honesty about human relationships and a sexual frankness that brought them to the attention of global audiences tired of the hypocrisies of commercial movies. For US audiences, Harriet Andersson's breathtakingly sensual performance in the title role of "Monika" was a revelation.

Then came the unprecedented festival and art-house successes of "Smiles of a Summer Night," "Wild Strawberries," and "The Seventh Seal," capped by the stark, powerful "The Virgin Spring," about a young girl's rape and her parents' revenge in medieval Sweden. It's a mark of Mr. Bergman's universality that "Smiles" was the source for the 1973 Stephen Sondheim musical "A Little Night Music" (and, unofficially, Woody Allen's 1982 "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy"), while "Virgin Spring" was remade as the 1972 horror movie "Last House on the Left."

With the trilogy of "Through a Glass Darkly," "Winter Light" (1962), and "The Silence" (1963), Mr. Bergman's spiritual crisis reached its apotheosis, but the films also represented a personal and artistic watershed. In a 1964 interview with Playboy magazine, the director insisted that the three films "are not concerned -- as many critics have theorized -- with God or His absence, but with the saving force of love . . . We're saved not by God, but by love. That's the most we can hope for."

The films that followed represented a fresh start. There may, in fact, be no 1960s film as startling and as inarticulately powerful as "Persona," in which Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson portray a stricken actress and a nurse who gradually exchange personalities. The film is probably the closest Mr. Bergman came to the poetry to which he aspired throughout his career, but its willful obscurity also led to a backlash among casual moviegoers.

His subsequent work focused on men and women and their frenzied inability to communicate. "Shame" uses an unidentified apocalypse to examine the failed marriage of two artists (Ullman and von Sydow), while "A Passion" deals with four emotionally locked people on a desolate island. The two films are austere, unrelenting, psychologically acute, and possibly his masterpieces.

"Cries and Whispers" and "Scenes from a Marriage" brought larger audiences back into the Bergman fold; the director later admitted he changed his phone number after fans of "Scenes" sought him out for marital advice. A lovely version of Mozart's "The Magic Flute," made for Swedish TV and receiving US theatrical distribution in 1975, offered proof of the director's lighter touch.

Only twice in his career did he even remotely go Hollywood, both times to ill effect. The 1971 film "The Touch" stuck an out-of-place Elliott Gould among the usual stock company. "The Serpent's Egg" (1977), with Ullmann and David Carradine and made while the director was in exile from Sweden pending resolution of a tax-evasion charge, is considered by most critics to be his worst film.

By contrast, "Fanny and Alexander" was a rapturously received memory-film that channeled the light and shadows of Mr. Bergman's childhood. Feeling he had no more to say on a big screen, the filmmaker forsook what he called the "whoring and slaughterhouse trade" of cinema and concentrated on stage and television work. He had never stopped directing for the theater, but his efforts took on new energy in the 1980s and '90s, during which he mounted two plays each year for Stockholm's Royal Dramatic Theater.

Of the films made for TV, "After the Rehearsal" (1984) and "Saraband" reached world audiences in theaters, while Bergman-penned scripts were directed by Ullmann ("Private Confessions," 1996; "Faithless," 2000), Bille August ("The Best Intentions," 1992), and his son Daniel Bergman ("Sunday's Children," 1992).

"Best Intentions" and "Sunday's Children" were based on his childhood and family; "Intentions" in its initial form was a Swedish miniseries about the director's parents' rocky relationship before his birth. "The doors between the old man today and the child are still open, wide open," he said 1995. "I can stroll through my grandmother's house, and know exactly where the pictures are, the furniture was, how it looked, the voice, the smells. I can move from my bed at night today to my childhood in less than a second. And it has exactly the same reality."

As with so many of the greatest artists, the further Mr. Bergman pushed, the closer he got to home.

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