Ingmar Bergman, Giant of Stage and Film, Dies at 89

Obituaries   Ingmar Bergman, Giant of Stage and Film, Dies at 89
Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish director whose theatrical and cinematic excursions into philosophy, psychology and human relations made him one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, died July 30 on the small island of Faro, on the Baltic coast of Sweden, where he had long lived and worked. He was 89.
Ingmar Bergman
Ingmar Bergman Photo by Johan Ljungstr

Unusual among his peers, Mr. Bergman was recognized as a master of both the theatre and film. His most famous movies — "The Seventh Seal," "Wild Strawberries," "Persona" "Cries and Whispers," "Smiles of a Summer Night" (the inspiration of A Little Night Music) and "Fanny and Alexander" — are unparallelled achievements in personal filmmaking, and are studied and idealized by generation after generation of young filmmakers. He was a seminal force in the emergence of the European art-film movement that came to the fore in the 1950s and '60s.

Common themes in his highly theatrical, visually striking films were man's ultimate isolation; the difficulty marriage; the life of the soul; and a being's constant grappling with the looming realities of religion, the meaning of life, and the eventuality of death. His characters were often embarking on journeys, both actual and metaphysical, and lived much of their lives inside their heads. The surrealistic dream sequence was a device frequently used by Mr. Bergman (and sent up by those who wished to parody his style). His films were those of a restless man forever questioning what he knew or didn't know about existence.

Mr. Bergman made his last film, "Fanny and Alexander," in 1982 (though he continued to direct television films and write screenplays). He, however, never completely left the theatre, Hedirecting for the stage from the 1950s until a few years before his death. "The theatre is like a faithful wife," he said. "The film is the great adventure — the costly, exacting mistress."

Most of his productions were for Stockholm's Royal Dramatic Theater, where he was managing director from 1963 to 1966. He directed two plays every year there — a remarkable commitment for someone so established in the movie world. He often focused on the work of his fellow Scandinavians, in particular August Strindberg and Henrik Ibsen, and his stagework was as visually inventive and emotionally raw as were his films.

In his later years, he frequently brought his plays to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Among his productions presented there were Ibsen's Peer Gynt, Schiller's Maria Stuart, Strindberg's The Ghost Sonata and The Image Makers by Per Olov Enquist. Mr. Bergman's theatrical swan song, Ibsen's Ghosts, played at BAM in summer 2003. Thereafter, he devoted himself to writing.

"Examples of what Mr. Bergman does better than anyone else are also on harrowing display," Ben Brantley wrote of Ghosts in the New York Times. "Emotions erupt straight from the guts of the performers here, and there are moments of confrontation in which characters seem to flay the very skins off one another. More than anything, however, it's the emphasis on Woman, as nurturer and destroyer, lover and involuntary killer, that marks this as a Bergman work."

It was while directing another play, Strindberg's Dance of Death, in 1976, that he was arrested and jailed by Swedish authorities for income-tax fraud. Though the charges were later dropped, he felt humiliated, suffered a breakdown and became depressed, leaving Sweden for a number of years to make films for Germany, England, Norway and the U.S. He returned to work in Sweden in 1978, but didn't come back permanently until the mid-80s.

Ingmar Bergman was born July 14, 1918, the son of a strict Lutherman clergyman who eventually became chaplain to the Swedish royal family. Young Bergman was severely disciplined as a child; he was frequently beaten and locked in closets for hours at a time. He loved his mother, Karin, but she was chilly as often as she was loving. Later on, Mr. Bergman would draw on these painful early experiences with love, religion, loneliness and faith to feed the plots and images of his movies.

His initial artistic passion was for theatre. He saw his first play at the age of five. Soon after, he created a toy theatre under a table in his playroom. At the University of Stockholm, he became involved in theatre, as an actor and director. He also wrote plays, novels and short stories. (He would go on to write the screenplays of many of his best-known films.)

He entered the movie world in 1941, but wouldn't be recognized as an artistic force until the mid-'50s, when "Smiles of a Summer Night" (1955) and the moody, allergorical "The Seventh Seal" (1957) would both win prizes at the Cannes Film Festival. The image in the latter movie of von Sydow talking to the dark-cloaked, pale, gaunt figure of death on a barren, heavily shadowed beach is known to even the most casual film enthusiast, and ranks as a sort of shorthand for what many think of as serious, foreign filmmaking.

He followed these up with what many call their favorite Bergman film, "Wild Strawberries" (1957), about an aged physician who run over the regrets of his life as his travels to a ceremony where he is to be honored.

That film starred Bibi Andersson, one of the actors Mr. Bergman would turn to again and again. Others included Gunner Bjornstrand, Harriet Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, Liv Ullman, and, most importantly, Max Von Sydow, who was regarded as Mr. Bergman's filmic alter ego; they made 13 films together. These performers also sometimes appeared in his stage shows.

With Ullman, he had a child. In total, Mr. Bergman married five times, to Else Fisher, Ellen Lundstrom, Gun Grut, Kabi Laretei and Ingrid von Rosen. The latter union lasted from 1971 until van Rosen's death in 1995. He is father to a total of nine children, several of whom followed him into the movie business.

A scene from <i>Ghost Sonata</i>, directed by Ingmar Bergman.
A scene from Ghost Sonata, directed by Ingmar Bergman.
Today’s Most Popular News: