The Ingmar Bergman 100 / L.A. Rep-port Crossover Event: Handicapping the Bergman Retrospective, by Scott Nye
Ingmar Bergman directed forty films between 1946 and 1982, when he announced his retirement (he’d break this with another three films for television and one theatrical, but what can you do). Across our fair city, twenty-six of those will be shown in one form or another through May and into June. This retrospective is obviously not wholly comprehensive, but it is considerably larger than any that has been presented in L.A. in many years, possibly decades. As I’ve seen nearly all of the films playing, I wanted to provide a quick overview and guide for the essentials and curiosities.
Every film on this list is stellar, and if you catch all of them you’ll get an excellent overview of Bergman’s career.
The Seventh Seal / The Magician (Friday, May 4th) – The Seventh Seal is one of Bergman’s best, certainly his most iconic and indelible film, and is absolutely breathtaking to see on film. He never again found such a perfect balance between the darkness and the light, represented both by the humor and pathos in the film, and by Gunnar Fischer’s remarkable high-contrast photography. The Magician is one of Bergman’s more directly personal works, and is also a terrific entry point on the director. These two films are well-paired, too. Both are set amidst castles, deal with costuming and acting, and the ever-unshakeable possibility of a spiritual realm. Both on 35mm!
Through a Glass Darkly / Winter Light / The Silence (Saturday, May 12th) – All DCP, tragically, but the chance to see these three – which collectively make up a sort of trilogy, in one sitting on the big screen is too good to pass up. May prove somewhat depressing, but they move in a pretty natural way altogether, Winter Light being the hardest to take and The Silence the most abstract and strange. And anyway they’re all in the 90-minute range; Bergman was kind that way. Through a Glass Darkly is one of Bergman’s very best, and Harriet Andersson’s performance in it is, for me, perhaps the best performance ever given for film.
Cries and Whispers / Summer Interlude (Thursday, May 17th) – His two best films from their respective eras. Cries and Whispers takes the simplest premise – three sisters are gathered together as one of them is dying – and builds out this whole world of memory and imagination and expression from that. Summer Interlude is at first a terribly sweet, then terribly tragic love story told in memory. It’s one of Bergman’s most romantic films, completely transportive, and the best thing he made before The Seventh Seal. It also has a fun bit of animation!
Wild Strawberries / A Lesson in Love (Saturday, May 19th). Wild Strawberries is, to me, his finest film, at once relaxed and introspective, a beautiful evocation at the minor tragedies of life and the way memory, time, and imagination tend to shape our experiences. It’s a perfect film, top to bottom, one that never fails to put me nearly in tears at its conclusion. A Lesson in Love miiiiiiiight be his best comedy (yes, I know, I love Smiles of a Summer Night), as his two most perfect technical actors – Gunnar Björnstrand and Eva Dahlbeck – play out a Hollywood-esque comedy of remarriage. Both on 35mm!
Maybe only one movie in each pair really works, but that one movie is a masterpiece. Might be worth leaving before the second feature starts though.
Persona / From the Life of the Marionettes (Saturday, May 5th) – Persona is, along with Fanny and Alexander and Wild Strawberries, one of the three Bergman films that I hold in the absolute highest esteem, not only among Bergman and not only in the realm of film. It is absolutely a must-see. That said, this screening is DCP and the film is available on FilmStruck and Blu-ray, so if you’re cash-strapped, those might be better bets. From the Life of the Marionettes, on the other hand, is a mess, and is the one Bergman film I have zero interest in ever seeing again.
Hour of the Wolf / The Serpent’s Egg (Friday, May 11th) – Confession here that I’ve yet to see The Serpent’s Egg and this screening will finally take care of that. But its reputation almost couldn’t be lower. Hour of the Wolf, however, is a magnificent, nightmarish work that is an ideal entry point to Bergman for modern viewers. I’m so excited this is screening on 35mm too.
Smiles of a Summer Night / The Rite (Friday, May 16th) – As alluded to above, Smiles of a Summer Night is a lovely comedy, one of the most purely pleasurable of Bergman’s films. The Rite is some weird experimental theatre business that is (probably purposefully) off-putting. I kinda dig its aesthetic and general scumminess, but it’s certainly not for everyone.
These are sort of odd double features, and the films have wildly different reputations depending on who you ask. There’s someone who will say just about each of them are excellent, and a good deal more who will insist they’re mediocre at best. All I can do is say where I stand on them.
Waiting Women / All These Women (Sunday, May 6th) – Waiting Women is a little overlong, and by nature episodic, as women recount the stories from their past about their love lives. Each viewer bound to latch onto some more than others. Historically, it’s most notable for its final farcical section, which gave Bergman the confidence to make the superior A Lesson in Love. Still, there are some incredibly moving aspects to it and some very graceful performances. All These Women doesn’t work on any manageable level, but is so wacky and so distinct in Bergman’s filmography (it’s a Technicolor screwball fantasy of sorts) that I find it enrapturing. And for fans of Bergman women, it’s hard to ignore a film with Bibi Andersson, Harriet Andersson, and Eva Dahlbeck.
The Passion of Anna / Thirst (Thursday, May 10th) – Like The Rite, The Passion of Anna is a fascinating gambit that pushes Bergman’s curiosity about exploding cinema’s artifice (hinted at in Persona, Hour of the Wolf, and Shame) well past the extreme by including interviews with his cast about the characters they’re playing. It doesn’t really come together, but it’s not without its strong suits, especially the cast – Max von Sydow, Bibi Andersson, and Liv Ullmann. I know there are some who consider it one of Bergman’s best, but it’s much further down the list for me. Thirst is perhaps my favorite of his 40s dramas, though, and really starts to show his maturity as a director.
The Virgin Spring / The Devil’s Eye (Friday, May 18th) – I actually think this is a pretty stellar double bill, both films intensely compelling in very different ways. The Virgin Spring is almost a thriller (to the point that its structure was utilized for Last House on the Left), and The Devil’s Eye is an extremely arch spiritual comedy, playful in the way of a tossed-off one-act play. Bibi Andersson is at her loveliest in the latter, playing a great dynamic role posited between the dream women she played in her prior Bergman collaborations and the more complicated roles she would take under him soon after. The Virgin Spring is widely liked, but some of Bergman’s most devoted fans feel he’s a little diluted and distracted within it, and some newcomers are put off by the religiosity, which is admittedly fairly strong, though not uncritical.
Confession Time – I Haven’t Seen The Magic Flute
The Magic Flute / Summer With Monika (Sunday, May 20th) – Yeah, I’m looking forward to seeing it, and its reputation is stellar, but as it’s one of Bergman’s longest (over two hours!) and takes up most of this evening, I can’t say for sure whether it’s worth making it out for this, though Summer With Monika is super-awesome. And both are on 35mm!
The TV Work, Stamina Depending
Both of these are absolutely essential, but sitting for five hours at UCLA’s Billy Wilder Theatre is quite the demand, and consequently they may be best experienced via FilmStruck. Of the two, I think Fanny and Alexander would prove the more revelatory when done in one sitting, as Scenes From a Marriage is more directly designed for television.
Scenes From a Marriage (Saturday, June 9th)
Fanny and Alexander (Saturday, June 23rd)
One-Off Extra Credit
Autumn Sonata (Tuesday, May 15th) – As part of their Anniversary Classics series, Laemmle is celebrating the 40th anniversary of Autumn Sonata with DCP screenings in West LA, Pasadena, and Encino. For the longest time, I didn’t get this film, but I revisited it recently and it all fell into place for me. I now feel like it’s kind of a masterpiece.
Backups at LACMA
If they’re hard to attend at the Cinematheque and you’d rather go to LACMA’s Tuesday matinees, they’ll be screening Summer with Monika, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Magician, and The Virgin Spring on DCP. Nice encapsulation of a very particular point in Bergman’s career, his most productive and fruitful in many ways.
What’s Missing? Subjects for Further Study
There’s quite a bit we’re not getting, but the ones I really, really, really wish were here, that I think are among his finest works and should be sought out immediately, are 1958’s Brink of Life (in which Eva Dahlbeck, Ingrid Thulin, and Bibi Andersson wait and talk in a maternity ward in the days before each is to deliver her baby) and 1968’s Shame (in which Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann try to hide from war). They’re two of Bergman’s most ferocious and emotionally intense films, riveting and extremely satisfying. Beyond those, Sawdust and Tinsel and The Touch are both extremely personal works for him that are well worth your time once you have several of his others under your belt.