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Ingmar Bergman.

Aweary knight and a black-hooded figure called Death meet on a rocky shoreline and sit down for a game of chess. Two women's faces merge to become one, so similar that it's impossible to divide them. Caught between life and death, a woman is soothed by the pieta-like embrace of her maid. These images from three of Ingmar Bergman's most celebrated films - The Seventh Seal (1957), Persona (1966) and Cries and Whispers (1972) - are as indelible to the Swedish filmmaker's legacy as they are to the history of cinema. Multiple interpretations have attached to them. But like many of Bergman's images, they also instigate a powerful emotional response. As he explained, T don't want to make merely intellectual films. I want audiences to feel, to sense my films. This to me is much more important than their understanding them.' (1)

While Bergman's cinema is undeniably intellectual, it's also a cinema of sensations. His films emerge from a deeply personal place. Born in 1918 in Uppsala, Bergman was raised under the strict eye of his father, a Lutheran minister who would later become court chaplain to the King of Sweden. (2) Within this severe environment, the young Bergman experienced a crisis of faith, a doubt in the existence of God that he would wrestle with for much of his adult life. His agnosticism was expressed in many of his films.

Bergman took refuge in his imagination, with literature and then the theatre, where he would make his first artistic home. Early films like Summer with Monika (1953) and Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) explore a tension between dreams and reality, escape and compromise. From the start of his career, Bergman was an auteur - not simply the writer and director of his films, but visibly their author, each film advancing his lifelong investigation into human nature.

By the late 1950s and early 1960s, Bergman's films posed increasingly metaphysical or spiritual questions. The Seventh Seal was a breakthrough, both in terms of its global audience and in relation to Bergman's developing visual style. A film of intense religious inquiry, it wouldn't be Bergman's final word on faith and doubt. The filmmaker's canvas darkened further: the world that appears in Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and Winter Light (1963) is bleak and spiritually barren. Within this meaningless landscape, Bergman's characters seek salvation but rarely find it.

Bergman made over forty films - his first, Crisis, in 1946, and his final, Saraband, in 2003, for television - before his death on 30 July 2007 on Faro, the island where he had lived since 1966. (3) To explore even a small portion of his extraordinary output is to embark, as the filmmaker himself said, on 'a hell of a walk'. (4) There are farces, metaphysical meditations and lush historical period pieces. Films like Shame (1968) and Hour of the Wolf (1968) create societies pushed to the point of collapse that reflect the times in which they were made. Later films like Scenes from a Marriage (1973) and Autumn Sonata (1978) dissect human relationships with a sharp, unforgiving eye.

What strikes a newcomer about Bergman's filmography is how far it pushes film forwards as an aesthetic form. With their frequent concern with death, Bergman's films are profound meditations on the meaning of life. But they are also stunning works of visual art. Persona is a bold experiment, as memorable for its visual poetry as it is for its complex psychological fabric; The Seventh Seal looks like no other film of its time.

From 1953, Bergman began to work with the cinematographer Sven Nykvist, and together they developed the visual aesthetic of his films - high-contrast black-and-white photography on the one hand, and the colour-saturated images of Cries and Whispers on the other. Bergman's interest in faces saw him explore the close-up shot with a rigour and intensity previously unseen in cinema. In Bergman's hands, the close-up is a shot of bold psychological significance and great beauty.

Bergman's films won countless European film-festival awards for direction and writing, and received three Oscars for Best Foreign Film: The Virgin Spring (1960), Through a Glass Darkly and Fanny and Alexander (1982). In 1971, the Academy awarded him the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, an honorary Oscar that acknowledges a body of work of a consistently high quality. But Bergman's importance extends beyond these accolades and to the regard with which other filmmakers hold him. The influence of his belief in cinema as a space for posing philosophical, psychological and spiritual questions can be seen in the work of many filmmakers, including Andrei Tarkovsky, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Andrey Zvyagintsev, Asghar Farhadi, Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Paul Schrader.

'Contrary to appearances - indeed very much their opposite - it is life that is celebrated by Bergman's cinema,' critic Jacques Mandelbaum concludes. (5) After watching a number of Bergman films, one might feel overwhelmed by their existentialism, but what lingers most profoundly is their humanism. Amid the spiritual, intellectual and emotional crises he depicts, Bergman still believes in our potential for connection and communion with one another. As scholar Hamish Ford has said, 'Bergman's most difficult work forces us to ask of ourselves who and what we are, and how we live with others.' (6) In times of darkness and loneliness, Bergman affirms the human spirit in all its ragged glory.


Summer with Monika

Bergman's earliest films have been described as being 'drenched through with a pessimistic existentialism' and 'youthful existential despair'. (7) These films, from Crisis to Thirst (1949), feature youth in joyless situations. Summer Interlude (1951), what Ford describes as Bergman's 'first wholly masterful utterance', (8) marks a shift that Summer with Monika perfects. Both explore modes of escape and refuge through memory and movies respectively, but Summer with Monika evokes a new freedom - both in Bergman's filmmaking and in postwar European cinema's shift towards a more modern visual language. It gained international recognition after Bergman found success with Smiles of a Summer Night and The Seventh Seal. In France, Jean-Luc Godard championed it as 'the most original film by the most original of filmmakers'. (9)

Summer with Monika portrays the love between eighteen-year-old Monika (Harriet Andersson) and nineteen-year-old Harry (Lars Ekborg) with a sensual openness. Dissatisfied with the contours of their life in Stockholm, they head out for an island in Harry's little boat to spend a summer idyll together. Their adventure is liberating, expressed via the camera that sits on the bow. We see the open waters ahead of the two lovers. Theirs is a summer of sex, sun and the outdoors. 'I want summer to go on just like this,' Monika says, but of course it can't When Monika falls pregnant, they have to return to the city and a cramped apartment.

Bergman described Summer with Monika as his least complicated film, (10) and while simplicity might define its production, its emotional terrain is a sophisticated one, especially in its representation of the tensions around female sexuality. Much of this has to do with how intensely Andersson - one of the great actresses in Bergman's recurring core group - embodies Monika's dreams physically. We feel her desire to escape the harassment she receives both at work and at home. With Harry, she's increasingly free, and Bergman frames her body as if the sun's rays bring it to life. Monika takes pleasure in being touched, in feeling the water on her bare skin.

Although we see her in various states of undress, Andersson is most exposed in a striking scene towards the film's conclusion. Monika is on a date with another man; after he lights her cigarette, she turns and looks directly into the camera's lens, defiant in her refusal to conform and daring us to judge her. It's a break with naturalism - a shot held that beat or two longer than it feels comfortable to look. But it's done so that we can see her eyes are also wet with regret. Godard rightly called it 'the saddest shot in the history of cinema'. (11)

The Seventh Seal

Widely described as the film that 'launched art-house cinema', The Seventh Seal resembled no other film Bergman had made when it debuted in 1957. While expanding on many of his recurring anxieties, The Seventh Seal gave voice, most completely, to his difficulties with faith and doubt by placing them within an allegorical context that allowed for direct questioning. The film feels like a riddle, structured like a conversation between a man and the imminent demise that he is moving towards, his desire to better understand the meaning of his life and his fear of what awaits him beyond it.

The Seventh Seal's plot is well known. Antonius Block (Max von Sydow, in the first of eleven films with Bergman) is a jaded knight who has returned from the Crusades. As he waits on the beach, a black-hooded man (Bengt Ekerot) appears. 'I am Death,' he announces. The plague is ravaging the country. To delay his fate, Block challenges Death to a game of chess, which becomes a bargain between life and death. Along the way, Block encounters a world of physical horrors and moral hypocrisy. He seeks answers, but God won't speak to him. As the quote from the Book of Revelation (13) that gives the film its title suggests, God's silence dominates. Von Sydow embodies Block with all the asceticism the role demands of a man devoted to God and war. When Death finally comes for Block and his group, his squire, Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand), tells him, 'There's no-one to hear your cries or be moved by your suffering.' In contrast to Block, Jons accepts his fate.

The Seventh Seal contains striking visual language. Characters are posed like figures in medieval art. Shot by Gunnar Fischer, The Seventh Seal's images are highly stylised and austere, lit in stark contrasts of black-and-white. Block is often surrounded by darkness, whereas Jof (Nils Poppe), the juggler, his wife, Mia (Bibi Andersson), and their baby, as symbols of goodness, are bathed in light. In the film's final scene, this contrast is magnified. Jof sees Block and his acquaintances locked in a dance with Death 'under the dark, stormy sky'. They are tiny, indistinct black figures. Against the smoky horizon, they are mere smudges, as if Bergman and Fischer had turned out the lights. As Jof describes it, they are dancing away from the dawn.

The Silence

If The Seventh Seal concerns a man seeking God and finding only silence, it at least retains a sense of the possibility of connection, with either a spiritual being or one another. In the early 1960s, Bergman made a series of films, referred to as the 'Faith Trilogy', that furthered his investigation into faith and doubt. Here, however, from Through a Glass Darkly through Winter Light and finally to The Silence (1963), it is doubt that dominates. By this time, Bergman had 'put to rest' what he called his 'childhood inheritance' of belief. (14) In The Silence (originally titled 'God's Silence'), there is little more than emotional isolation in a void where God is so absent he's never mentioned.

One of Bergman's most radical films, The Silence personifies its title - it's a film with very little dialogue. It opens in a train carriage: Johan (Jorgen Lindstrom), his mother, Anna (Gunnel Lindblom), and her chronically ill sister, Ester (Ingrid Thulin), are travelling home to Sweden, passing through an unnamed wartorn country. It's a silent, oppressive environment. They don't talk to one another, and can't understand the language of the country they travel through. Modern life, like Ester, is suffering a malaise for which there's no apparent cure.

This tension between the film's three main players is transferred to a hotel when Ester's illness delays their journey. Bergman magnifies the failure of language to bridge the void through the tension between the sisters. If Ester's attempts to communicate with the hotel porter are almost comical in their ineptitude - he speaks in a garbled tongue that isn't translated through subtitles - her conversations with her sister show how words pervert communication. Ester, as a translator of foreign languages, is defined by language. But Anna revels in the flesh; her primary mode of expression is sexual desire.

The film's central philosophical exchange takes place after Ester intrudes on Anna in the hotel room where she's taken her foreign lover (Birger Malmsten). The gap between the sisters is emphasised. If Anna and her lover don't understand each other at all, Anna and Ester use language to tear each other apart. At his darkest, Bergman suggests that, when speech fails, so does any chance of human connection. Anna finds Ester's principles repulsive: 'Everything has to be desperately important and meaningful and goodness knows what.' But for Ester, there is no other way to live. As she later reveals, she's sickened by the sensual. 'It's all a matter of erections and secretions,' she concludes, in a film that frequently startles with its frank sexuality.


Persona is arguably Bergman's most challenging film, marking a shift in interest from spirituality to psychology. It emerged from a period of illness and exhaustion. (15) After his resignation from the Royal Dramatic Theatre in 1965, Bergman spent time convalescing in a private hospital in Stockholm.' (6) Fascinated by the physical resemblance between Bibi Andersson and the Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann, Bergman devised the foundations of Persona. He wrote the script in fourteen days while recovering. (17)

Bergman believed that Persona 'touched wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover'. (18) Some of these are excavated from his own psyche and cinematic history, as Persona's bold prologue makes clear. Film is fed through a projector: a series of images including a spider that recalls Through a Glass Darkly, a close-up on a hand being crucified, the killing of a lamb, and then a boy under a white hospital sheet. He sits up and, in a radical move, reaches out for us, as if touching the camera. Then the shot reverses and we see him touching a screen bearing the image of an indistinct female face.

From there, we shift into the film's main narrative. An actress, Elisabet Vogler (Ullmann), suddenly, for unexplained reasons, stops speaking during a performance of Electra. Months pass in a hospital, where the doctor (Margaretha Krook) suggests that she has ceased talking as a form of self-annihilation in a world that demands she wears a mask. She rests at the doctor's summerhouse, under the care of a nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson). The contrasts between the two women centre on their use of language. One is speechless; the other, loquacious. 'I think you're the first person who's listened to me,' Alma says. 'It feels so good to talk.' But Elisabet effectively mocks their 'bond' with her silence.

Elisabet and Alma are mirror images, something that Bergman conveys without words. In an early scene, the women smoke and drink coffee. Alma talks. Positioned in the front of the frame, Alma moves her head forward and obscures Elisabet's head, as if her face replaces Elisabet's on her body. There are other 'face swapping' scenes, including an iconic sequence in front of a bathroom mirror, rendered dreamlike by Nykvist's soft-lit cinematography. But the most significant of these magnifies the slipperiness of identity. Towards Persona's conclusion, Alma recounts the story of Elisabet's son, speaking for her and confronting her about it simultaneously. Suddenly, Alma's face has a strange appearance. It has merged with Elisabet's. (19) We barely notice it; and then we do. They have lost themselves in the mirror, and it's profoundly disturbing.


By the late 1960s, Bergman's metaphysical inquiries found a natural home in the dire sociopolitical situation engulfing the world. Shame, just like Hour of the Wolf and The Passion of Anna (1969), stars Ullmann as one half of a couple under extreme pressure in a world descending into chaos. 'When I made Shame, I felt an intense desire to expose the violence of war without restraint,' Bergman explained. (20) Made during the Vietnam War but set during a fictional civil war, Shame focuses on Eva (Ullman) and Jan Rosenberg (von Sydow), former musicians who have now retired to an island away from the mainland. They make their money selling berries in town. They live a simple life.

From the film's opening scene, Bergman makes it clear there is already tension in this marriage. 'It's better not to know anything,' Jan says. 'Your escapism drives me mad!' Eva cries. She is the stronger of the pair, grounded in the reality of running the farm and house; her husband, who has a weak heart, isn't coping with their situation quite as well, and is prone to tears. When the island is invaded and war directly assaults their lives, the tensions between them are magnified. It's this focus, on what Bergman calls the 'inner violence' (21) of war, that makes Shame a distinctly Bergman-esque film - a 'nightmare' (22) unfolding inside an abstract and absurd reality.

Shame features some of Bergman's most visceral images. This is especially true as the war intensifies. As Eva and Jan escape their house, they drive past burning buildings. Nykvist's cinematography is dark and inky; the light emitted by the flames offers a searing contrast. When the couple inspect the mess of burning earth, Bergman shoots them in the centre of the frame, a long shot from the feet up, with the physical drama of burning trees behind them. Close-ups on Eva's face alternate with close-ups of Jan, back and forth, until a strange sense of calm is achieved from the constant movement.

Our attention is on Eva and Jan for the entirety of the film. Close-ups on each of their faces - Ullmann, luminous and fierce; von Sydow, confounded then determined - bring us into their experiences and influence our shifting sympathies as we question where the true shame lies. These are performances typical of a Bergman film - full of human frailty and imperfections.

Cries and Whispers

Four women dressed in white in a big red room. They came and went, whispered to one another, and were utterly secretive. At the time my mind was on other matters, but since the images kept coming back so insistently I understood that they wanted something from me. (23)

So Bergman described the roots of Cries and Whispers, his 1972 masterpiece about truth in the face of death, as images that had lodged themselves firmly in his brain and from which he couldn't escape. It's appropriate, since these images - red rooms, whiteclad women positioned at a distance from one another, whispering voices - are those that remain most powerful to the viewer of this film long after it's ended.

Cries and Whispers is a striking formal experiment. Although it's not Bergman's first film to use colour (that honour is bestowed on 1964's All These Women), the intense saturation employed by Nykvist here makes it feel as if it were, in a filmography so frequently associated with a black-and-white palette. Cries and Whispers' raise en scene is drenched, famously, in symbolic red interiors - walls, curtains and furnishings. In addition, it uses fades to red (as opposed to the conventional fades to black) to move in and out of scenes and into the minds of its four female characters.

Cries and Whispers is set in the late nineteenth century in a country house where Maria (Ullmann) and Karin (Thulin) wait for their long-ill sister, Agnes (Harriet Andersson), to die. Maria and Karin are mostly indifferent to Agnes' pain, incapable and unwilling to offer any real comfort. A maid, Anna (Kari Sylwan), who has suffered the death of a child, is the only one able to soothe her, and the one she repeatedly cries out for. Death and its inevitability are the film's main organising principles. The film emerged for Bergman during a particularly depressing period in his life. (24)

Cries and whispers manifest literally throughout. Agnes frequently cries out in physical pain and existential despair: 'I can't take it! Can't anyone help me?' As shots fade to red and into the minds and memories of each character, we hear whispering voices, like memories of the past bubbling back to the surface. The emotional estrangement between the sisters is expressed through these extremes, where the hope of ever being understood is remote. But if communication between the sisters is fraught, Anna communicates with love. She's more than a servant to Agnes - she's a friend, a mother figure and perhaps even a lover - and the one who provides her with a moment of grace at the moment of her greatest suffering.

Scenes from a Marriage

'Could there be anything more terrifying than a husband and wife who hate each other?' asks Peter (Jan Malmsjo), a dinner guest at Marianne (Ullmann) and Johan's (Erland Josephson) home. In the middle of an epic argument with his own wife, Katarina (Bibi Andersson), he's quoting playwright August Strindberg, but it's a question that also provides an emotional structure to Scenes from a Marriage, one of Bergman's finest films.

Originally made as a 297-minute, six-part television series, the theatrical edit of Scenes from a Marriage is considerably shorter at 169 minutes, yet retains its episodic feel. Divided into six 'scenes', the film dissects the collapse of Marianne and Johan's ten-year marriage in painful, terrifying detail. The dialogue-heavy film, as critic Phillip Lopate points out, signals that 'Bergman had worked through, or put aside, his anguished questioning about how to live in a world without God' (25) and turned his attention to another question: 'On what basis can men and women, natural antagonists, expect to sustain love?' (26) Given the personal nature of so much of Bergman's work, Scenes from a Marriage seemed destined to be read as a personal text, a commentary of sorts on the filmmaker's complicated romantic history, which at this point had included five marriages and several relationships with leading ladies, including Ullmann from 1965 to 1970. (27)

Emerging amid the explosion of second-wave feminism, Scenes from a Marriage might be viewed as not quite critical enough of marriage as an institution. But Bergman certainly disrupts its sanctity. He reveals that for Marianne, in particular, what she desires in no longer compatible with the world that marriage provides. There is no idealisation of relationships here, just raw, often difficult truths that both Marianne and Johan must come to terms with.

Coupled life is presented as both cosy and confining. Bergman made use of small sets, restricting the film's action often to just one room, usually a bedroom. In the aftermath of Johan's announcement that he is leaving Marianne for a younger woman, Nykvist's framing of close-ups captures the intimacy of long-term relationships that, even in the midst of a crisis, is difficult to disband. Marianne asks Johan to lie beside her. They kiss. We assume they make love. They wake up holding hands. Their faces fill the screen so we don't miss a flicker of feeling. There is an obvious ease between Ullmann and Josephson, who shared a long working relationship with both Bergman and each other, and were able to convey the authenticity of a couple falling in and out of love and then in love again.

Fanny and Alexander

Bergman intended the sprawling family saga Fanny and Alexander as his final film. As a cinematic swan song, this semi-autobiographical film is a culmination of all the major themes of his career: family; identity; the meaning of art; the inevitability of death; the severity of religion. Fanny and Alexander is focused primarily on the experience of a child - a first in Bergman's universe - ten-year-old Alexander (Bertil Guve). Bergman described the film as 'the sum total of my life as a filmmaker'. (28)

Fanny and Alexander screened on Swedish television in December 1983 as a 320-minute film divided into a prologue and four episodes. While this is Bergman's preferred version, (29) the more widely seen 188-minute theatrical cut that was released in cinemas in 1982 would go on to win a number of international awards, including the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, as well as Oscars for cinematography, art direction and costume design.

Beginning on Christmas Eve, the film introduces us to the Ekdahl family, who live together in a distinguished house in turn-of-the-century Sweden. The production design is sumptuous and detailed; the camera's movement, fluid; and the cinematography, vivid. In the film's early scenes, matriarch Helena (Gunn Wallgren), a retired actress, waits for her three sons to join the festivities along with their wives and children. Among them are Alexander and Fanny's (Pernilla Allwin) father, Oscar (Allan Edwall), and mother, Emilie (Ewa Froling), who run a theatre. A year will pass, and in that time there will be births, deaths and marriages. When Oscar dies, Emilie remarries the stern Edvard (Malmsjb), with whom Alexander is frequently in conflict. But, overall, Fanny and Alexander, unlike many of the director's other films, isn't remembered primarily for its angst. Bergman achieved his goal: 'to depict a life, luminous and happy'. (30)

The freedom of the imagination is central here. Fanny and Alexander maintains the emotional intensity of youth from beginning to end. It is, as Bergman explained, the world of his childhood brought to life through random memories. (31) For Alexander, much of life's magic is located in the theatre, which was also Bergman's first love. Fanny and Alexander opens on a miniature stage, a puppet theatre. The 'curtain' rises to reveal Alexander, like a director, putting pieces into place. As Alexander wanders around the house, he imagines a statue lifting her arm. Later, Alexander receives a magic lantern, which arouses his dreams further. Fanny and Alexander depicts childhood as a time in which it is difficult to distinguish between what is real and imagined, exemplified by Alexander's encounters with his father's ghost.

DISTINGUISHING FEATURES Seeking meaning in the universe

From his earliest films to his last, Bergman was always interested in one question: what is the purpose of our lives here on Earth? In The Seventh Seal, it is posed as an explicitly religious inquiry, sought by Block in his desire to hear God's voice. But it also emerges consistently in Bergman's films, from Summer with Monika to Cries and Whispers, in the meaning found in human connections.

Bergman frequently envisions the world as a place in which we are all essentially alone, forced to find our way in the dark without spiritual guidance - and, in the worst scenarios, unable to rely on one another. The lingering effect of a Bergman film is often despairing. Making films in the aftermath of a world war, and then during a series of continuing violent international conflicts, Bergman's pessimism is not unreasonable. Two of Persona's most harrowing scenes involve Elisabet coming face to face with this barbarous inhumanity. In her hospital room, she's horrified by scenes on the television of the Vietnam War - specifically, of a monk's self-immolation. Later, at the country house, she finds a photo of Polish Jews with arms lifted in surrender as the Warsaw Ghetto is liquidated. The frame narrows around the boy in the foreground of the photo, as he becomes Elisabet's focus and a symbol of the absence of meaning in this catastrophe.

Fanny and Alexander, however, marks a shift towards a brighter worldview. Young Alexander goes through his own trial by fire at the hands of his stepfather, and has a late-night encounter with 'God' in Isak Jacobi's (Josephson) antique shop after he and Fanny are rescued. The voice behind the crude marionette is, in fact, Isak's nephew, Aron (Mats Bergman), who believes that God is all around them in everything that is good or bad. Despite Alexander's continuing spiritual anger and doubt, there is also a sense of acknowledgement that, if the divine exists anywhere, it is inside all of us. If Fanny and Alexander can be said to have a 'message', it's to remind us that that everything we do, whether it's good or bad, has meaning and leaves a lasting mark on the world.

Communication breakdown

What will happen if we can never talk to one another again?' Eva asks towards Shame's grim conclusion. In Bergman's universe, communication repeatedly breaks down or fails completely. In films like The Seventh Seal and Winter Light, this silence is connected explicitly with God's absence. But most often, silence hangs between people. Bergman's characters are unable to talk to one another, fail to find adequate words to express what they are feeling or simply don't speak the same 'language'.

In Scenes from a Marriage, Marianne thinks that Peter and Katarina are on the verge of divorce because 'they don't speak the same language [...] they have to translate everything into a common language'. Later, when Johan declares, in a deluge of words, why he is leaving her, he decides, Words don't mean much.' A similar emptiness permeates The Silence when Anna remarks to her lover, 'How nice that we don't understand each other.' In this case, they literally don't speak the same language, and while Anna continues to talk to him, he doesn't say a word throughout any of his scenes. Her words, not received, are ultimately empty. In the film's final scene, Johan mouths the foreign words his aunt has written down for him, trying to find meaning in them.

Bergman's films espouse what we might call an ethics of communication. Language in his films is frequently a problem, perverting meaning and creating discord. In Cries and Whispers, words are deceitful and wound. Maria pleads with Karin: 'I want us to talk to each other.' But when Karin finally starts talking, the things she says are cruel. 'Now you hear what it sounds like when the real Karin speaks,' she declares. The emotional estrangement between the sisters is conveyed through the extremes of cries and whispers, from which the hope of ever being heard or understood is remote.

Persona takes this dynamic between speech and silence to its logical conclusion when Elisabet simply can't, or won't, speak. Her doctor suggests that, for her, this is actually a more honest way to live: 'You can be immobile, you can fall silent, then at least you don't lie.'

Masterful close-ups

'There is nothing better. That incredibly strange and mysterious contact you can suddenly experience with another soul through an actor's gaze.' (32) Bergman's enthusiasm for the close-up shot, of faces specifically, is an uncompromising feature of his visual poetry. From Monika's defiant direct gaze into the camera to Alexander's wondrous expression at the sight of his magic lantern's projections, the close-up, as its name suggests, allows us to look closely at a character and not only see the expression or movement of their features, but connect deeper with their soul. Bergman's films are flooded with faces, creating a portal into human psychology that shows us, rather than tells us, who a character is. He repeatedly reveals it to be the most fascinating cinematic landscape of all - the terrain on which he was able to trace the total drama of human experience across his extraordinary career.

In a Bergman film, this experience is most often one of anguish. Cries and Whispers is a film made up almost exclusively of distressed women's faces. Our first view of Agnes is a close-up that stays with her as she writhes in pain. Her sisters get their close-ups, and Anna too, as each is drawn back into a memory from their past. Maria, pleading for Karin to be her friend, is positioned against a wall, shot in a close-up that emphasises her distance from her sister. In Shame, there is a similar sense of quarantine. When Eva recounts her dream in the film's final moments, her face is framed up close, as if separated from the rest of the boat's inhabitants. Despite their physical proximity, it is Eva's emotional isolation from Jan that lingers when the story ends on her face.

But there is pleasure too, especially for Harry and Monika, whose faces reveal their love for each other so that we feel we are invading their private, precious world. After they have run away, Bergman frames their faces up close, glowing in a reverie of liberation, their cheeks pressed together as they share a cigarette. In the realm of his films' romantic couplings, Bergman's close-ups are also often painfully intimate, whether expressing joy or misery. In Scenes from a Marriage, the camera stays close to Marianne as Johan continues to explain why he is leaving her the morning after he has announced his intentions. As she registers his words, we see Marianne's expression stripped bare, as if Johan's words are a knife that has flayed her skin.

A family of actors

Harriet Andersson. Gunnar Bjornstrand. Victor Sjdstrom. Bibi Andersson. Erland Josephson. Ingrid Thulin. Gunnel Lindblom. Max von Sydow. Liv Ullmann. Bergman built a repertory of actors with whom he would work on multiple occasions - with Harriet Andersson ten times, Bibi Andersson eleven times, Bjornstrand nineteen times, Josephson fifteen times, Thulin ten times, von Sydow eleven times and Ullmann ten times.

Many of these actors were drawn from the Malmo City Theatre, and would become Bergman's lifelong collaborators (on stage and screen), friends and even lovers. Each brought something essential to the emotional landscape Bergman assembled - von Sydow personified existential struggle; Harriet Andersson, a tough sensuality; Ullmann, a tremendous ability to express so much with just her face. It's impossible to imagine Bergman's films without them, and wrong to discuss these films without acknowledging the tremendous contribution these actors made to their success.

While Bergman's actors can be seen as stand-ins for various permutations of the director's own personality, (33) it's his actresses who linger as the most vital elements of his films. From Summer with Monika, Bergman's films shifted their focus to women, increasingly making them the centre of his narratives. He wrote roles for women that were, for the most part, deeply complex, challenging and rich. Arguably, his most important films, Persona and Cries and Whispers, both focus exclusively on women's experiences and interactions. Ullmann's emotional range, on show in her first performance for Bergman in Persona (she was only twenty-six), was all the more extraordinary because she was required to communicate almost exclusively without speech. In Cries and Whispers, she is one part of an extraordinary ensemble whose comfort with their director - and one another - make them fearless in their exploration of suffering.

Joanna Di Mattia has a PhD in women's studies from Monash University. She is an award-winning film critic living in Melbourne.


(1) Ingmar Bergman, quoted in Cynthia Grenier, 'Playboy Interview: Ingmar Bergman', Playboy, vol. 11, no. 6, 1964, pp. 61-8, available at <>, accessed 18 January 2019.

(2) See 'Bergman: From Tormented Childhood to Film Icon', Reuters, 30 July 2007, <>, accessed 18 January 2019.

(3) See Michiko Kakutani, 'Ingmar Bergman: Summing Up a Life in Film', The New York Times Magazine, 26 June 1983, <>, accessed

18 January 2019.

(4) Ingmar Bergman, Images: My Life in Film, trans. Marianne Ruuth, Faber and Faber, London, 1994, P. 15.

(5) Jacques Mandelbaum, Masters of Cinema: Ingmar Bergman, Phaidon Press, London, 2011, p. 91.

(6) Hamish Ford, 'Bergman, Ingmar', Senses of Cinema, issue 23, December 2002, <>, accessed 18 January 2019, emphasis in original.

(7) ibid.

(8) ibid.

(3) Jean-Luc Godard, quoted in Mandelbaum, op. cit., p. 24.

(10) Bergman, Images, op. cit., p. 295.

(11) Godard, quoted in Mandelbaum, op. cit., p. 24.

(12) Gary Giddins, "The Seventh Seal: There Go the Clowns', The Current, 15 June 2009, <>, accessed 18 January 2019; see also Ford, who calls it 'a genuine landmark in film history that would exemplify "art cinema" the world over for years to come', op. cit.

(13) 'And when [the Lamb] had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.'

Revelation 8:1 (King James Version), available at Bible Hub, <>, accessed 18 January 2019.

(14) Bergman, Images, op. cit., p. 238.

(15) ibid., p. 45.

(16) ibid., p. 46.

(17) Abbey Lustgarten, '10 Things I Learned: Persona', The Current, 31 March 2014, <>, accessed 18 January 2019.

(18) Bergman, Images, op. cit., p. 65.

(19) This scene was shot twice - once with the camera on Andersson, and then with the camera on Ullmann. See Lustgarten, op. cit.

(20) Bergman, Images, op. cit., p. 300.

(21) ibid., p. 300.

(22) ibid., p. 301.

(23) ibid., p. 83.

(24) ibid., p. 85.

(25) Phillip Lopate, 'Scenes from a Marriage: Natural Antagonists', The Current, 13 March 2004, <>, accessed 18 January 2019.

(26) ibid.

(27) See Daphne Merkin, An Independent Woman', The New York Times Magazine, 21 January 2001, <>, accessed 18 January 2019.

(28) Ingmar Bergman, quoted in Rita Kempley, 'Bergman's Fanny and Alexander', The Washington Post, 1 July 1983, <>, accessed 18 January 2019.

(23) Marc Saint-Cyr, 'The Kids Are Not All Right: Fanny and Alexander Thirty Years Later', Senses of Cinema, issue 65, December 2012, <>, accessed 20 January 2019.

(30) Bergman, Images, op. cit., p. 370.

(31) ibid, p. 366.

(32) Ingmar Bergman, quoted in Alex Barrett, 'How Ingmar Bergman Mastered Filming Faces', BFI website, 2 January 2018, <>, accessed 18 January 2019.

(33) Mandelbaum, op. cit., p. 64.

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Author:Mattia, Joanna Di
Publication:Screen Education
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Mar 1, 2019
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