There were plenty of serious filmmakers before Ernst Ingmar Bergman, the famed Swedish director of movies and stage who died Monday at the age of 89.
But there had been none before – and arguably none since - who seized the world’s attention by bringing the same sort of maturity, sophistication and artistic daring to the film medium.
Bergman was the last legendary director of the 20th century to have drastically influenced contemporary movies – an artistic peer to Kurosawa, Fellini, Hitchcock and Godard – although his films are arguably among the least well-known classics to contemporary audiences.
Bergman’s name became forever synonymous with the term art film in the mid-1950s and 1960s, based on the strength of several early masterpieces –The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Virgin Spring, The Magician – that brought him acclaim far beyond the borders of his native Sweden.
The Seventh Seal, perhaps the best known of his movies, centered on a knight (Max Von Sydow) returning home from the Crusades who discovers the plague has ravaged his country and challenges Death itself to a game of chess. Using bold imagery and striking symbolism, The Seventh Seal was an allegory for our collective search for meaning in our lives and the difficulty of accepting death when saddled with a lack of faith in God.
Those two heady themes recurred throughout Bergman’s career, which was marked in its early period by films of uncommon gloom and existential angst. Raised by severe disciplinarian parents - his father was a Lutheran pastor - Bergman endured a darker-than-most childhood where fantasy and daydreams provided the only escape. He landed a job as an assistant script writer with the Swedish Film Institute in 1942 and was soon directing films and stage plays at a steady pace.
The most personal of personal filmmakers, Bergman almost always wrote his own scripts, channeling his philosophical beliefs and inner struggles into his work with an uncommon candor. And it was because of their extreme personal meaning that those movies also become universal. The Virgin Spring, which won Bergman the first of his three Oscars for Best Foreign-Language Film, was almost fable-like in its simplicity, an archetypal revenge tale about a Christian man (Von Sydow) who hunts down and kills the men who raped and murdered his daughter.
An exploration of Old Testament justice and Christian forgiveness and atonement, The Virgin Spring, released in 1960, became the biggest financial success of Bergman’s career. It also marked the beginning of a new phase of his career where he would increasingly pull away from spiritual and religious themes and towards the exploration of human psychology. The main theme of 1962’s Winter Light is Bergman’s quest to determine whether religion was of any real, practical use in the contemporary age (His answer: A definitive no).
From then on, Bergman’s movies almost invariably dealt with the ways in which human being relate to each other and to themselves, be it 1966’s Persona, Bergman’s most surreal film, in which a mute actress (Liv Ullman) absorbs the persona of her nurse-companion (Bibi Andersson), or 1973’s Cries and Whispers, about the complex feelings and emotions experienced by two sisters while waiting for their third, ill sister to die.
Married five times and the father of nine children, Bergman increasingly focused on the interpersonal relationships between family members, as if he had discovered with age and experience the things in life that truly mattered most. His epic Scenes From a Marriage, a five-hour miniseries made for Swedish television and released in the U.S. as a three-hour film in 1973, centers on a man and a woman whose marriage dissolves into painful divorce, but their love for each other keeps them coming back from more.
And 1982’s Fanny and Alexander, which is among his most accessible films as well as his best, reveals the ways in which the childhood of a brother and sister will haunt their entire lives. That is a concept Bergman could certainly relate to: The movie felt like a summation of his entire career in many ways, which is probably why, aside of some TV projects and stage plays, Bergman never returned to the director’s chair.
Bergman's self-imposed absence caused his star to fade among film buff circles over the last decade. But revisiting his work instantly reminds you why Bergman was so revered – and why his contributions transcend the fickle whims of ever-changing popular tastes.