You no doubt have a filmmaker you’ve always meant to check out. Goodness knows there’s a million and a half such directors, and a metric ton of new movies every year. Those classic films probably take a backseat most of the time. Like, Ingmar Bergman. People are always harping on about how great the Swedish auteur was, but he directed—is this right?—45 feature films?! Oh wow, who has time for that?
Well, you. You have time. We all do. We’re social distancing; you can’t go places. So why not watch a bunch of movies designed for introspection and seclusion? Like many a Nordic drama of today, Bergman’s cinema depicts people living in remote locations. Often they live in fear of the world around them. Perfect for these angsty COVID-19 days. After actor Max Von Sydow’s sad passing, people are looking to celebrate his career. Guess what; Von Sydow and Bergman made 11 feature films together!
And because we know you’re at home, looking for things to watch, we want to let you know of all the great Bergman movies you can watch on either the Criterion Channel (via subscription) or Kanopy (through your local library, where available). It won’t be every single movie. For those of you looking for a primer, here are the Essential Ingmar Bergman Movies, Streaming Now.
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Note: It’s of course wholly subjective what one considers an “essential” film, so I’m basing these on how much they’re usually talked about in Bergman’s overall filmography. And we’ll talk about them chronologically from release date.
The Seventh Seal (1957)
We’re going to start with arguably Bergman’s most famous film. It stars Von Sydow as a medieval knight who returns to Sweden from the Crusades with his squire to find Denmark ravaged by the Black Plague. On his way home, the knight encounters the personification of Death (Bengt Ekerot), there to collect his life. The knight challenges Death to a chess match, believing he can stave off his own mortality if he keeps the game going. As the knight and Death play their movie-long game, we see him search for religious meaning in a world seemingly devoid of divine interference.
This is indeed one of Bergman’s great works, and it’s a testament to his ability to weave fantasy and reality that it’s at once a deep search for meaning and a fanciful history of a bygone age.
Wild Strawberries (1957)
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What a year Bergman had in ’57! Just 10 months after the release of The Seventh Seal, the director’s next movie proved what a moving and thoughtful filmmaker he could be. It stars another Swedish filmmaker, Victor Sjöström, as an aging, grouchy bacteriologist who travels to his medical school alma mater to receive the honor of Doctor Jubilaris. He travels on long ride with his pregnant daughter-in-law (Ingrid Thulin) and along the way he meets various people who making him relive—through daydreams, nightmares, and memories—his life.
A gorgeous film about reflecting on your life’s biggest moments and perhaps not in the best of light. It perfectly encapsulates Bergman’s filmic ethos.
The Virgin Spring (1960)
One of the most harrowing movies Bergman ever made. Or anyone, really. We’re back in medieval Sweden; Von Sydow plays a a devout man who sends his young daughter Karin and her pregnant servant to town to deliver flowers to a church. Karin meets three herdsmen and asks them to join her for lunch. After eating, the two older men brutalize and murder her.
Unknowingly, the herdsman later seek shelter at Karin’s parents’ house, attempting to sell the girl’s clothes to her mother. After discovering the truth, the parents decide to take bloody revenge on the men. If it sounds familiar, it’s because this is the movie which Wes Craven effectively remade for his own debut, The Last House on the Left, in 1972. But unlike Craven’s film, the revenge isn’t the point; Von Sydow’s character has to beg for his God’s forgiveness and live with his actions of hate, antithetical to his own beliefs.
The Faith Trilogy (1961-1963)
Bergman made so many films in such great succession that his filmography reflects certain periods, like a painter. In the early ’60s, following the fantastical films that gave him international acclaim, he made a trio of thematically connected movies that are not fun to watch, but are absolutely masterpieces. They deal with modern day people losing their faith. 1961’s Through a Glass Darkly focuses on a young schizophrenic woman (the brilliant Harriet Andersson) and her family on a holiday near the sea; her novelist father uses her condition as fodder for his stories, and she sees the visage of God visiting her in the form of a spider.
The second film, Winter Light (1963) follows a pastor (Gunnar Björnstrand) of a rural church who has a crisis of faith in a town with fewer and fewer churchgoing members. Again, God is described as a giant spider. The final movie, The Silence (1963), follows a pair of sisters (Ingrid Thulin and Gunnel Lindblom) and their travels home through a fictional Central European town on the brink of war. While stuck in the town’s big empty hotel, the younger, more sensual sister forsakes her young son for carnal pleasures, while the older, terminally ill sister tries desperately to commune with God and her family before the end.
All three of the films are small yet grandiose in their own ways and feature some truly outstanding lead performances.
This period is where Bergman started to get real David Lynchian. Or, more appropriately, these are the movies where David Lynch probably got his style and tone. Many of his films have elements of horror, but Persona‘s psychological horror remains some of the most disturbing. It stars Bibi Andersson as a nurse caring for a famous stage actress (Liv Ullmann) who has recently had a psychiatric break and gone mute. The two move to the country and the nurse confides in her patient and becomes fixated on her to the point where the two women don’t know which one of them is which. And Bergman makes that line as blurred as possible. Maybe my favorite Bergman film.
Hour of the Wolf (1968)
Another downright chilling psychological horror movie, this one stars Von Sydow as a painter who lives in the country with his wife (Ullmann). He’s plagued with insomnia and frightening visions, all centering on the titular hour in the night, when folklore says blurs the line between life and death. Von Sydow eventually goes to a neighboring manor house where he encounters seemingly supernatural, possibly vampiric aristocrats.
If you like Persona and Hour of the Wolf, also check out Shame and The Passion of Anna.
Cries and Whispers (1972)
If you’re one who longs for sumptuous costume drama and rich, saturated colors, then this is the movie for you. While all the previous Bergman films on the list are in black and white, perfect for the frigid themes at play, this one is in full color, particularly utilizing the color red. It follows three sisters (Harriet Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, and Liv Ullmann) and their young servant (Kari Sylwan) as they deal with the terminal cancer of the eldest and their emotional distance and closeness throughout their lives.
Scenes from a Marriage (1973)
Think of this as a precursor to A Marriage Story. This follows Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson as a couple whose marriage is slowly disintegrating over a period of 10 years, which we see in snapshots. This was filmed as a six-episode series for Swedish television, but a shorter theatrical version exists as well. With a focus on realism and dialogue, this is surely one of the projects that best encapsulates Bergman’s latter work.
Obviously there are many, many more amazing films in Ingmar Bergman’s filmography. But if you want a good cross-section to start, these make a great primer. And, hey, now you have all the time in the world, or at least several evenings free.
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