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What To Expect When You’re Existential: A Beginner’s Guide to Ingmar Bergman

Posted on the 10 November 2011 by Tjatkinson @T_J_atkinson

Ingmar Bergman is one of my all-time favorite filmmakers, second only to Krzysztof Kieslowski. But time and time again, I find friends both across the blogging and Twitter spectrum and in real life asking me “Where’s the best place to start with Bergman?”, or remarking annoyingly “I don’t get Bergman.” And I’ve had enough. So, I’ve decided to write a short post to help the Bergman newcomers adjust to his world-view, and what the world looks like through his lens.

What To Expect When You’re Existential: A Beginner’s Guide to Ingmar Bergman

Ingmar Bergman has made around 30-40 (possibly more) films. And of those I’ve seen around twenty, though I can’t be exact. I’ve seen films from his first, Crisis, through to the astonishing career denouement Fanny and Alexander, though his TV movies and the later movie Saraband continue to elude me. And I’ve seen all these movies in the space of eight months. I began with The Seventh Seal, and worked my way through much of his career. There’s only really one film left that I’m itching unbearably to see, and that’s Scenes from a Marriage, but I’ll eventually come to it I’m sure.

What To Expect When You’re Existential: A Beginner’s Guide to Ingmar Bergman
Foreign film fans and people who aren’t experienced with foreign cinema will have a very different approach when coming to Bergman for the first time. Experts with foreign cinema will see his themes of existentialism as inviting and refreshing. People with not as much experience will find them daunting. His films can be very dark and dreary, and deal with themes such as suicide, sexual frustration, the complexities of the human soul and broken family relationships.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. He has also made some lighter pictures, the most famous of which, Smiles of a Summer Night, was his first truly successful film overseas. Without that, he’d never have made The Seventh Seal, and without that, the Bergman we know today would be a very different figure indeed.

One of the big themes he’s dealt with is religious doubt. Now some people will find this frustrating, but don’t give up. I’m not a religious person; I, like Bergman, am an agnostic, though I have more atheistic tendencies. Despite this, one of my top ten favorite films of all time is also probably the Bergman film that deals with religion with more direct confrontation than all the others: Winter Light.

What To Expect When You’re Existential: A Beginner’s Guide to Ingmar Bergman
A lot of people recommend The Seventh Seal as a starting point for Bergman beginners. While this is certainly a reasonable recommendation, I’ve found a lot of people confused by the film, especially if it’s their first Bergman. I myself didn’t fully appreciate it until I viewed it after seeing a few more of his films. But we’ll get into recommendations later.

Sexual frustration: Bergman loved to cast some sexy and provocative women in his films (which I touched on in a post earlier this week), and dealing with such intense and personal feelings as those associated with sex in the 50s and 60s was something he had a skill for. The provocative sexuality of movies like Summer with Monika (starring an indescribably sexy Harriet Andersson) was typical of him during his playful 50s period, and even when he settled down to make more serious films, those ever-present themes of sexuality kept surfacing occasionally in pictures like The Silence, Persona, and Scenes from a Marriage.

Religious doubt: A topic so pivotal to Bergman that he based a trilogy on it, religious doubt was indeed a serious matter. In many of his films, religion is considered a very sacred and important thing, and for one to have doubt in religion was a terrifying thing. Take for example the controversial scene in Through a Glass Darkly when the main character (sexy Harriet Andersson again in a very serious, somewhat unattractive role), suffering from mental illness, has a hallucination in which God appears as a spider and rapes her.

What To Expect When You’re Existential: A Beginner’s Guide to Ingmar Bergman
Human relationships: Not to be confused or mixed with the sexual frustration category, human relationships was another important area Bergman tackled. Namely, the relationship between members of a family. Bergman loved to break up families, and there would always be some sort of strife or disagreement between them, a feeling most apparent in The Virgin Spring, Through a  Glass Darkly, The Silence, Autumn Sonata and especially Cries and Whispers. Another aspect of human relationship he touched on was characters that mirrored each other, reflecting the other one either in similar looks (Persona) or differing attitudes (The Silence).

Children: In many of his films, he liked to show things from a child’s perspective, or a character that emotionally can be related to a child. Take for example the character of Anna the nurse in Cries and Whispers. Though at times she may seem motherly with the character of Agnes, she is like a child in comparison to Agnes’s sisters, Karin and Maria, who always seem emotionally dominant, especially in their status as rich, powerful women, which they abuse at the end of the film when sending Anna away with nothing.

Those are some of the chief themes and emotions apparent in Bergman’s more well-known and accessible films. There are a lot more of other things he touched on, but that should be enough for a Bergman beginner. Now, for the recommendations. Where to start if you’re a newbie to Bergman? Well here goes:

In general, great films to start with for all Bergman lovers are: Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Virgin Spring, Through a Glass Darkly, Shame, Cries and Whispers, Scenes from a Marriage and Fanny and Alexander. However, to fully appreciate some of these films, you will probably need to view them again after seeing about ten or so more Bergman movies. Believe me, you appreciate your first Bergman film a lot more after you’re used to him. Once you think you’ve got the hang of it, you can move into more serious and darker films, such as the excellent Persona, Winter Light, The Silence, The Hour of the Wolf, Autumn Sonata, and all the other films of his.

So tell me… what Bergman films have you seen? What are your favourites? What Bergman films haven’t you seen?

Are you new to Bergman? Did you find this post interesting? Did it make you want to see some of his films? Or not? Leave a comment below and let me know. Thanks.


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