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Death of a legend

Movies | Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman expanded the dramatic potential of the image

Issue: "Tough love," Aug. 18, 2007

At the time of his death on July 30 at the age of 89, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman had already been a legend for several decades. Of the more than 50 feature films that he directed and/or wrote from 1944 to 2003, at least a dozen are must viewing by students of serious cinema, with even his failures or merely uneven works often demonstrating how a frivolous medium can be used to produce penetrating art.

The philosophical tone of his films was set by the Lutheran faith in which he, as the son of a pastor, was reared and against which he rebelled both onscreen (most compellingly in 1963's Winter Light) and off (he was married five times and fathered at least one of his eight children out of wedlock).

The emotional tone was set by his family. Even his excellent and relatively light-hearted 1955 comedy Smiles of a Summer Night reflects attitudes toward romantic infidelity and the "complications" caused by children rooted in the familial experiences of his youth.

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He made what has become his most famous film, the psychologically baroque medieval morality play The Seventh Seal, in 1957 at age 39. Best known for its depiction of a Crusading knight's chess match with Death, it saddled Bergman with a reputation for existential brooding that, while only partially deserved, commercially stigmatized even his more accessible films as "art house" fare.

Actually, his work was seldom "heavier" than Shakespeare's King Lear or Othello. (Then again, it was seldom lighter either, with 1968's Hour of the Wolf and 1973's Scenes from a Marriage rivaling Macbeth for depictions of supernatural diabolism and descents into marital hell, respectively.)

Indeed, if any films turn out to prove as enduring as Shakespeare, Bergman's best will be foremost among them. As Shakespeare expanded the dramatic potential of the word, Bergman, with his longtime cinematographer Sven Nykvist, expanded the dramatic potential of the image. Although his carefully crafted screenplays account for much of what makes his films unique, it was his patient attention to the faces of his actors and actresses and their mastery of nonverbal expression that made his work vibrant.

That Bergman fine-tuned this vibrancy without special effects and in black-and-white (he didn't film in color until 1969) is particularly striking in light of contemporary cinema's ever-increasing reliance on technological pyrotechnics. By forgoing the casting of stars and working with a fluid but small group of gifted regulars, he cultivated a director-actor sympathy that translated into powerfully unaffected performances (and that launched the Hollywood careers of Max Von Sydow, Liv Ullman, and Pernilla August).

Perhaps the most obvious explanation for Bergman's artistry is that, while neither living nor believing as a Christian (he once expressed satisfaction that divorces in Sweden had increased after Scenes from a Marriage aired as a television miniseries), he resisted reducing his films to agnostic propaganda. Instead, he devoted himself to the painstaking illumination of characters for whom not believing in sin is never a protection against the reality of its wages.

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