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The Essentials: The 15 Greatest Ingmar Bergman Films

The Essentials: The 15 Greatest Ingmar Bergman Films

There are phases to every cineaste’s relationship with film. It probably starts as a voracious, omnivorous hunger that gorges itself on everything in sight, with little regard for quality or provenance. Eventually it slows a little, as diverse flavors and distinctive patterns start to emerge; one develops a certain taste. At this stage, some fall by the wayside, developing other interests, passions, careers —you could call call them lives— but the truly smitten stay the course, seeking out ever more rare and wondrous treasures with a guiding sense of quality control. Soon, they graduate to fully-fledged cinephile status, but only after a period that, for convenience’s sake, we’ll dub “Bergman Week.”

Ingmar Bergman is a director whose daunting reputation precedes him by several thousand miles. And now among the confirmed pantheon of greats-who-are-no-longer-with-us, his back catalogue has been canonized to the point that it is difficult to simply happen across a Bergman film, or to discover his movies organically. For many, there is an overt, slightly serious sense of duty when you first sit down to pop on a Bergman DVD, or a self-conscious “look at me being all intellectual” feel to buying your first ticket to a Bergman rep screening. It’s unavoidable, and unfortunate, but it also means that generation after generation of film lovers get to make the same incredible discovery that many of us did: Bergman is amazing. Experimental, alive, almost shockingly modern at times, Bergman’s films are not museum artifacts set back behind glass, but enormous, immersive, thrummingly alive works of art that can impact you so profoundly that all you really want to do is devour one after another at a gallop and see if you are even remotely the same person on the other side. That’s Bergman week.

Yesterday, Criterion added a new restoration of Bergman’s magnificent “Cries and Whispers” to their collection, and it got us all reflecting on our own Bergman Weeks — those revelatory moments in which our personal relationships with the Swedish master’s work were forged. So in an effort to encourage even more into the fold (and frankly, in horror that we hadn’t already done so), we thought this was a good time to run through his most essential films. There’s little to be said about Bergman that is not best discovered through his work, but we can say this: a filmmaker who changes and enriches your perception of cinema is a great; but one who changes and enriches your perception of life — of people, human relationships, the whole wide world — is a master. 

“Summer With Monika” (1953)

A number of filmmakers started off their careers in soft-core porn, with
Francis Ford Coppola the most notable in a list that includes Wes
Craven
and Barry Sonnenfeld, but it’s still a little surprising when you
remember that one of Ingmar Bergman’s earliest films, 1953’s “Summer
With Monika,” was repackaged in the U.S. as a sexploitation
picture, cut down by half-an-hour and renamed “Monika, The Story Of A
Bad Girl
.” Even in that form, though, the quality shone through, as the
world’s most famous Bergman fan, Woody Allen, noted to The Hollywood Reporter,
saying “The first Bergman I ever saw was [Monika] because there was
talk in the neighborhood that there was a nude scene. This was unheard
of in any American film, that level of advancement. It’s so funny to
think of it that way. I saw it, and it was a very, very interesting film
apart from the utterly benign nude moment… it was just a fabulous
movie. I was riveted in my seat by it all. I thought to myself, ‘Who is
this guy?’” Billed as “A Picture for Wide Screens and Broad Minds” and
briefly seized by the L.A. vice squad for indecency, the film, which
marks the director’s first team-up with the first of his many muses,
Harriet Andersson,
is actually a tremendously powerful and raw story of
first love that likely didn’t sit particularly well with grindhouse
audiences in search of T&A (of which there’s very little). Andersson
plays a young girl from the wrong side of the Stockholm tracks who
falls for a boy her age (Lars Ekborg), and run away together for the summer,
only to discover that she’s pregnant: they’re forced to marry, but too
soon, and things swiftly turn unhappy. Free of melodrama and beautifully
played by the youthful leads, it’s lyrical, painful, surprisingly
claustrophobic stuff, suggesting that love, at least when you’re young,
needs space and oxygen to thrive. And while there are some solid Bergman titles before this, ‘Monika’ is popularly accepted as ushering in the most remarkable phase of Bergman’s career, all the more so because it was a “phase” that would last five decades. 

“Smiles Of A Summer Night” (1955)

The film that made Bergman’s international reputation after screening in
competition at Cannes in 1956 was not one that pointed to the
grand, metaphysical torment that was to come from the filmmaker across
the next decades. It was in fact, a comedy, not something that
Bergman is known for by the more casual viewer but, as anyone who’s seen
“Smiles Of A Summer Night” will know, a form that he had quite some
capacity for. Set at the turn of the century, it centers on the various
romantic infidelities between the middle-aged Fredrik (Gunnar
Bjornstrand
), his much younger wife, Anne (Ulla Jacobsson), his son, Henrik (Bjorn Bjelfvenstam), his actress ex-lover (Eva Dahlbeck) and
several other figures both upstairs and downstairs (the flirtations
between maid Harriet Andersson and servant Ake Fridell are among the
highlights, though the whole cast is game), one Midsummer’s night. On the surface, it’s different
from so much of what would follow, coming across like a classic stage
farce by Wilde or Noel Coward as adapted by Ernst Lubitsch, with effortless plotting and a heady, sweaty sense of
sex and sensuality running through it, but this isn’t just empty farce. Bergman knew, or at least would come to know, the pleasures and
pain of infidelity, his personal life taking in five marriages (he was
on his third, and would leave Harriet Andersson for Bibi Andersson soon after production) and multiple affairs with his leading ladies,
and there’s a real inquisitive sense here asking why people are driven to
look for sex elsewhere. While many of his films would leaven the
bleakness with comic elements, here it’s the other way around, with
stabs of real pain amidst the wit and partner-swapping, something that
proved enormously influential, and not just on the work that it directly
inspired — Stephen Sondheim’s musical “A Little Night Music,” and Woody
Allen’s film “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy.

“Wild Strawberries” (1957)

If you want to disrupt someone’s misbegotten idea of Bergman as a
miserabilist (off-topic: is Woody Allen’s reverence for Bergman’s
“seriousness” perhaps the worst thing to have happened to Bergman’s
legacy in terms of recruiting new adherents?) and “Smiles of a Summer Night” or “Fanny and Alexander”
don’t spring to hand, let us suggest “Wild Strawberries,” as, if not
his happiest film, then the one that is most surprisingly uplifting. We
could assume otherwise, given the themes of aging and regret, and yet
it’s a film whose mood evolves outward, and upward, before finally
opening up later on like a flower that blossoms at night. Aging Professor
Isak Borg (played brilliantly by great Swedish director Victor Sjostrom)
decides on a whim to drive to the ceremony being given in his honor at
his old University. The grouchy, self-confessed pedant is accompanied by
his flinty daughter-in-law, Marianne (Ingrid Thulin). And along the way,
Borg’s nightmares, dreams and memories are sparked by people he meets,
in particular a “Jules et Jim“-esque threesome of hitchhikers in which
the young girl, played by Bibi Andersson, who also plays Borg’s
remembered ex-sweetheart, is torn between the affections of the two
contrasting men. The Expressionist reveries can feel a little on the
nose now, and the cinematography, by “The Seventh Seal“’s Gunnar Fischer,
is heavier and more deliberate than the lithe deceptive naturalism of
Sven Nykvist’s style, if no less luminous. But really what these
episodes serve to illustrate is Borg’s gradual, sometimes painful, shucking off of the regret and guilt that could easily overwhelm a man
of his age. Calling to mind everything from “King Lear” to Kurosawa’s
Ikiru” to Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” “Wild Strawberries”
occasionally creaks but still builds to a warm, emotional climax with an
unusual perspective on acceptance as a route not merely to contentment,
but to genuine joy. And as such, it’s simply one of the greatest, gladdest films about old age ever made. 

“The Seventh Seal” (1958)

Say the words ‘Ingmar’ and ‘Bergman’ to the average person, and it’s likely that they’ll think of the image of a knight
playing chess with Death on a beach (if those two words mean anything at all). “The Seventh Seal” is, thanks to
parodies from everyone from Woody Allen to “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey,” his most
familiar work to a general audience, even if they’ve never
actually seen it. But the film is far, far more significant its inclusion of one of the most
iconic and influential scenes in cinema history. Based on his play “Wood
Painting,
” and according to Bergman made “under difficult
circumstances in a surge of vitality and delight,” the film stars Max von
Sydow
 in the first of his eleven collaborations with the director as a
medieval knight who returns to plague-ridden Denmark after the Crusades
with squire Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrandt), only to encounter Death (Bengt
Ekerot
), who he challenges to a chess match in an attempt to prolong
his life and accomplish one last meaningful act. Satisfyingly tackling most of the director’s favorite themes —mortality,
faith, the pain of existence— through a prism of poetic imagery that feels
closer to Chaucerian parable or a sacred mural than anything that
cinema was producing at the time or since, von Sydow’s
search for God and goodness is set against a medieval landscape that feels
positively apocalyptic, thanks to the gorgeously austere photography by
Gunnar Fischer
. It’s sincere, almost puritan work, and yet for all its
reputation as an oblique and alienating work, it can be disarmingly funny and always maintains the humanism of Bergman’s earlier pictures (in part
thanks to the lightness and charm delivered by the family of actors who von
Sydow and Bjornstandt encounter). By the time the knight departs, doing a ‘dance of death,’ it’s clear that Bergman has not just been
talking about what it is to die but what it is to live.

“The Virgin Spring” (1960)

Bergman worked in many forms, but probably thanks to the way “The
Seventh Seal” permeated pop culture, his oeuvre feels most closely associated
(especially if you don’t know his filmography all that well) with the
fable. But of the several times he essayed this type of story —one that
begs to be read on allegorical levels, with the
characters being more important for the ideas they represent than for
their human personalities— he never did so with more clarity and
simplicity than with “The Virgin Spring,” winning the first of his three Foreign Language Film Oscars as a result. The unusually linear and
comprehensible story, especially in light of thickets of
interpretations thrown up by films like ‘Seventh Seal’ or ‘The Silence,’
is based on an old Swedish ballad. It tells of the rape and murder of
Karin (Birgitta Peterson), beloved daughter of local landowner Tore (von Sydow) and his wife, Mareta (Birgitta Valberg), which is witnessed by
her surly, pregnant servant Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom). Karin’s
assailants seek shelter in Tore’s home, where they unwittingly betray
themselves, leaving Tore to exact revenge. But there are
recognisably Bergmanian flourishes: the relationship between Karin
and Ingeri is fractured along sexual, class and religious lines, between
Karin’s “purity,” elevated status and Christianity, and Ingeri’s
sensuality (Lindlblom’s one-note glowering wild child is a rare
performance misstep in Bergman’s canon), lowly birth and paganism. Yet
the pious, goodnatured Karin is also vain and spoiled, and the resentful
wildling Ingeri is wracked with guilt over the attack, so the moral
divide between the two is blurred. Add to that Sven Nykvist’s
near-miraculous photography, and Von Sydow’s commanding yet internalized
performance, and “The Virgin Spring” is a compelling access point to
Bergman’s more complex investigations elsewhere. Alone among Bergman’s films, it also  inspired an exploitation-horror remake with “Last House
on the Lef
t.”

“Through A Glass Darkly” (1961)

It’s difficult to discuss any of the films in Bergman’s deeply resonant trilogy of faith without seeing them as a whole; an anguished series of stories steeped in existential crises about belief, love and the meaning of life itself. All of the pictures take place in isolated, single setting locations, crystallizing the interior claustrophobia of Bergman’s emotionally-charged chamber dramas, and all can be cold, austere watches. Pitched in a minor key, “Through A Glass Darkly” centers on a slow and painful disintegration; a family vacationing at a summer home on the island of Fårö (Bergman’s favorite locale where he exiled himself for many years) trying to cautiously cope with the elephant in the room: the deteriorating mental state of the family’s eldest daughter Karin (Harriet Andersson) who has suffered a nervous breakdown. Von Sydow plays her empathetic doctor husband trying to put on the brave face, Gunnar Björnstrand is her detached, emotionally distant father who’s often cared about his writing career more than his own children and Minus (Lars Passgård) is the emotionally troubled, sexually insecure younger sibling who’s never received his father’s approval. As they attempt to celebrate Karin’s return from a psychiatric hospital, the delicate fissures in the family dynamic begin to show; Karin begins to hear voices and believes a spider in the wall is God. Theatrical in nature, the quietly harrowing picture culminates in an even more incarcerated milieu that makes a disquieting allusion to incest. “Through A Glass Darkly” suggests that Bergman’s genius (much like that of Robert Bresson) is in how he extracts maximum bruising emotional effect from simple set-ups and inspired staging, and the Academy agreed: the picture won the 1962 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Bergman’s second Oscar.

“Winter Light” (1962)

Anguish, anxiety and spiritual crisis are each front and center in Bergman’s “Winter Light” as well, but it’s replete this time with a stronger undercurrent of bitterness and cruelty. This severe and rigorous picture centers on an unraveling local pastor (Gunnar Bjornstrand) whose creeping doubts in God are beginning to show. Set over a three-hour period on a coldly inhospitable November afternoon, the preacher finishes his Sunday sermon and then is overwhelmed by the demands from members of his dwindling parish with their own needs. One man (von Sydow) is disabled by his own existential melancholia; his fears of China’s nuclear capabilities are paralyzing. Another parish member, a plain-looking woman (Ingrid Thulin) in love with the priest confesses her affection, further complicating and weighs down his personal turmoil. As such, the cleric cannot help his community and when set upon by an enamored school teacher, his resentment and contempt begins to seethe to the surface. Bergman considered “Winter Light” one of his favorite films, and it begins to break out of the constraints of the theatrically staged chamber drama thanks to full-time cinematographer Sven Nykvist, who masters a more aggressive and visceral style of framing: note how the framing renders the priest’s and woman’s long exchange as both interrogation and confession. Stark and marked by periods of uncomfortable silence (“God’s silence,” Bergman said) “Winter Light” is as austere a film as he ever made, but within its formidable confines resonates an exquisitely observed story of haunting, internalized suffering.


“The Silence” (1963)

On the surface (and beneath) one of Bergman’s most forbidding films, “The Silence” is the final segment, after “Winter Light” and “Through a Glass Darkly” of his “Faith Trilogy” (so-dubbed by critics —Bergman himself only adopted the term with reservations). But the film also prefigures many of the themes of “Cries and Whispers,” though here, Sven Nyqvist’s photography is in silky, insinuating black and white as opposed to the crushing reds of the later film, lending an even more austere edge to what is already an overtly formalist exercise. Two sisters, the ailing, intellectual Ester (Ingrid Thulin) and the sensuous, uncaring Anna (Gunnel Lindblom), along with Anna’s young son Johan, are making a journey through an unnamed Eastern European country, in which none understand the language (dialogue is minimal). They hole up for a few days in a hotel of crumbling grandeur, and as Ester contends with bouts of body-wracking pain and despair, Anna ventures out and has several sexual encounters, while Johan drifts between his sick aunt and the other hotel residents, most memorably a troupe of circus dwarves. There are several ways to interpret this curious, quiet, and often cruel film, but the sisters inevitably come to stand for two mutually distrustful, equally solipsistic halves of the same person —Ester the intellectual, who tries to find meaning in every occurence; Anna the flighty, earthy, selfish individual who engages in sex as meaningless as her worldview. What’s remarkable for the humanist Bergman is the cool dispassion with which he regards both women here, verging on distaste —instead little Johan is his proxy, and so the film becomes a kind of passive/aggressive battle for the boy’s unformed soul between the polar opposites represented by these two women, who are almost abstractions rather than recognizable human beings. Its subzero atmosphere makes “The Silence” hard to adore, but it’s what also makes the film impossible to forget.

“Persona” (1966)

Rhetorical question: what kind of filmography can, no matter the
vagaries of fashion, always offer up a title that feels like it’s of
primal importance to our understanding of who we are right now? With
its hard edge of experimentalism verging on science fiction, and its
motifs of porous identity, consciousnesses and memory, step forward, “Persona.” This constantly astonishing, vital but boundless film stars
Liv Ullmann as the actress Elisabet and Bibi Andersson as her nurse
Alma, and unfolds as the strangest, plangent melody in which each note
is deft, definite and clear and yet the whole makes unearthly,
unfathomable, uncanny music. “Persona” tells the story of the recuperating
Elisabet being tended by the gregarious nurse Alma, but over the course
of the film, the mutual reliance and occasional mutual antipathy of the
relationship introduces a kind of static buzz into the background, increasing in intensity until, at a moment of controlled cataclysm, the women seem to
conflate irrevocably. At least this “eclipse” sensation is one
interpretation —there are many, as “Persona” can be deconstructed on
just about any level and still not give up all its mysteries. It is also
shockingly modern —from the flash-screen image of an erect penis that
prefigures “Fight Club” by decades; to the avant-garde projector jam
effect; to the reveal of Bergman and his crew filming; to the scenes of
the boy watching the images of the women (in the famous
straight-on/profile shot that no one ever made feel as unforced as Sven
Nykvist
). For any aspiring cinephile for whom Bergman’s
reputation can seem daunting and stuffy, as though grown over with
respectability and ivy, it is an astounding corrective; nearly fifty
years old, nothing in “Persona” feel less than brand new today —it
will all still be a revelation tomorrow.


“Hour of the Wolf” (1968)

Widely billed as Bergman’s only horror movie, though the psychological horror he summons in many of his dramas cannot be denied, ‘Hour of the Wolf’ sees
him conjoin the trappings of the Gothic horror tradition  —a spooky castle; a forbiddingly dense forest; a
chorus of depraved aristocrats; hauntings, murder, necrophilia— with
more recognisably Bergmanian concerns about the value of art, guilt, and
the line between genius and madness. It’s not wholly successful, and
the film splits rather too neatly into two parts, but both parts have
their separate strengths. Renowned painter Johan Borg (von Sydow) is
recuperating on a isolated island with his wife Alma (an unusually
underwritten Ullmann). They are invited to the nearby castle and
discover that the lady of the house owns one of Borg’s paintings (which
we never see), of Veronika, the woman he loved and lost and whose memory
begins to obsess him all over again, despite Alma’s steady, practical
devotion. For all the carnival grotesquerie of the castle scenes (and
there’s a great walking-up-the-wall scene straight out of David Lynch), the
film’s most chilling sequence is a high-contrast flashback, either a
dream or a memory, in which Borg is fishing and a young boy sunbathes
nearby. Deliriously framed with the boy’s smooth, almost blindingly white limbs  against the slick black rocks, they struggle and Borg eventually
kills him, first crushing his body between his own and the rockface
behind, then smashing at him with a stone. The shades of
Rosemary’s Baby” and Hammer Horror and Edgar Allen Poe that abound
elsewhere can verge on the camp at times (enjoyably so, especially as you can feel Bergman letting loose a bit), but true to form, the most
horrific image he summons is not a horror trope at all. It is simply the boy standing wordlessly behind Borg as he fishes for
what seems like a doom-filled forever, and all the horror is in our minds —our fear of what he represents and our fear of what will happen next.


“Shame” (1968)

The premises for many of Bergman’s finest films can seem almost like sociological experiments, the placing of disparate “specimens” into some sort of inescapable
situation —a family reunion, a foreign hotel, an island, a road-trip— in order to observe their interactions. “Shame,” an inexplicably
overlooked entry in Bergman’s filmography, is one such, only this time he
places his central married couple (unusually characterized by the
strength, practicality and impatience of the woman and the weepy
emotionality of the man) directly into the crucible of war. What results
is a stunningly provocative statement about personal morality in a
conflict situation, and a remarkably incisive analysis of a crumbling
marriage which finds in the incident-rich progress of the unnamed war
all the fuel that mutual distrust, marital discontent and personal moral
rot could ever need. Featuring two atypical but brilliant performances
from Ullmann and von Sydow — here the latter, so often a bastion
of saturnine, masculine strength for Bergman, plays the ostensibly weaker
partner— the film is also a showcase for the singular clarity of Sven Nykvist’s images, even in the tumult of the battle scenes. It is
partially an anti-war statement, eloquently made not just by the
brutality displayed, but by the motivelessness and the lack of detail
about the competing ideologies— war is war is war and never is it
anything but dehumanizing. But it is also an intensely personal film
that despite its empathy indicates flashes of disgust at the two artists
who somehow feel it is their right to escape because they are
apolitical and uninvolved. That the final stages of the escape are
thwarted when their boat becomes entangled in a mass of floating bodies is the perfect ironic encapsulation of the futility and ignobility of
their instincts to flee the bigger forces at work.

“Cries and Whispers” (1972)

Among the unlikeliest Best Picture nominees of all time, not only due to
its status as a foreign-language film but also as it’s a formally experimental,
thematically uncompromising work, “Cries and Whispers” is one of the Bergman’s bleakest films. A chamber piece forged in
blockish blacks, whites and blood-reds, it’s perhaps the culmination of
Bergman’s recurrent obsession with the jealousy, malice and sheer
hatefulness that can infect sisterly relationships. Yet the film takes in
other familiar notions, like female duty versus female selfishness,
maternal relationships, religious faith, and an almost paranoiac horror
of the body, whether as a sexual plaything or a vessel for the
inordinate degradation of disease and death. With “present” tense
episodes sitting alongside flashbacks, it’s the story of three sisters,
Maria (Ullmann) whose flighty sensuality masks a contempt toward
her husband that allows her to watch dispassionately while he attempts
suicide; Karin (Thulin), whose disgust at sexual contact is such
that she mutilates her genitals; and Agnes (Harriet Andersson), who is
dying horribly (the scenes of Andersson writhing and screaming in primal animal pain are among the most distressing Bergman ever filmed), and to
whose deathbed the other two have come in a show of sisterly concern
that only seems fleetingly genuine. Laughs are few. The maid Anna (Kari
Sylwan
), drawn as the only decent person in the house, is religious and
devoted to Agnes, perhaps to the point of their having been lovers, but
is unceremoniously fired with little severance as soon as Agnes dies,
and while the ending may have her gaining comfort from a memory in
Agnes’ diary of a happy moment between all three sisters, it is
emphatically not a happy ending. Bergman is rightly known as cinema’s
great humanist, but sometimes his vision of humanity is one that begins
and ends in despair.


“Scenes From A Marriage” (1973)

Originally a miniseries made for Swedish television (though if you can’t
commit to all 300 minutes, there is a serviceable
168-minute theatrical cut, which makes it feel slightly soapier, but only slightly), the things that Bergman loses in the
transition to the smaller screen, such as the magnificence of Sven
Nykvist’
s big-screen cinematography, are vastly
outweighed by what he gained. Namely, Nykvist’s clever small-screen cinematography, as well as the ability to go broad
and deep into his area of greatest expertise: middle class marriage. Ullmann, whose every
performance for Bergman we’ve probably labelled “definitive,” but we
really
mean it this time, stars alongside an equally remarkable Erland
Josephson
, as Marianne and Johan, the central pair who start the show as a literal magazine-spread-happy-couple, only for the more flirtatious and sexual Johan to announce
that after ten years of marriage he is leaving her for another woman.
Their divorce proceeds fitfully and eventually they marry other people, but what do they do with this instinctive familiarity, this muscle memory of each other? Despite the psychological and physical pain and humiliation they inflict on each other (and Bergman is as ever unflinching in these details)
and though there’s a good deal of mordant mileage to be had out of the
fact that in a show about marriage, they separate a third of the way through and later divorce (how very Bergman), the bond between Marianne and
Johan is revealed to be a lasting marriage in its non-legal sense. As
they come together again by the end, not resolving their differences but perhaps resolving the foolishness of trying to define their relationship in simple societal terms, they are acknowledging a deeper connection, which despite his Swedish pessimism elsewhere,
“Scenes from a Marriage” tells us Bergman truly does believe in. For all its insight into the viciousness and unmanageability of long-term relationships and its ambivalent attitude toward the social institution of marriage, Bergman ultimately surprises and delights us all by subscribing in his own hard-won, uniquely anti-romantic way, to the immensely romantic notion of The One. 


Autumn Sonata” (1978)

It’s hard to trace the exact moment at which “Autumn Sonata” begins to break your heart (we suggest it’s about 5 minutes in, or just after the opening credits have faded), but once it starts it never, ever stops and will leave you in smithereens by its conclusion. The wrenchingly truthful story of a single day and night during which renowned concert pianist Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman) comes to stay with her daughter, Eva (Ullman), with a few quick cuts of Bergman’s scalpel-sharp dialogue lays this ossified mother/daughter relationship painfully bare in all its guilt, neglect, selfishness and repression. Charlotte hasn’t seen Eva for seven years, during which time Eva has married and suffered the death of her little boy. Eva has been frequently writing to her mother, but Charlotte has often neglected to fully read the letters, caught up in a more glamorous life of world travel, career success and love affairs. Following the death of her longtime companion, Charlotte comes finally to visit, and discovers to her unconcealed horror that her other daughter Helena, who is crippled and almost unable to speak due to a degenerative disease, is living with Eva, and not in the home in which Charlotte placed her. The intensity of the emotional tug of war between the women can be monstrous, yet neither is a monster, and the speed with which our sympathy swings from one to the other at times threatens whiplash. It’s a brilliant evocation of a kind of horrible irony: they’re different in every way from each other but must continually orbit each other, united by tethered histories and a few stubborn strands of DNA. In contrast to the simple good that families and mothers often represent elsewhere, here that bond is shown to be less a blessing than some sort of life sentence that Charlotte and Eva are both fated to serve to term.

“Fanny And Alexander” (1982)
Weighing in at an even greater length
than “Scenes Of A Marriage,” though unavailable in the U.S. in its full
five-and-a-half hour TV edit until relatively recently, “Fanny And
Alexander” was seen by Bergman as something of a summing-up and a
swansong for his career, though he went on to make several other films
for television over the next two-and-a-half decades. It’s a magnum opus
in the truest sense, one of the director’s most personal, powerful
pictures, a Dickensian, Proustian epic that despite its length (even the
cinema edit was over three hours) could be the most accessible entry
point to his work —the Academy certainly thought so, giving it four Oscars and
nominating it for another two. Based loosely on Bergman’s own childhood
with his strict and abusive minister father, it’s set in Uppsala in the
early years of the 20th century and told through the eyes of the two
young title characters (Pernilla Allwin and Bertil Guve), as their warm,
joyful life is upturned when their father dies and their mother (Ewa
Froling
) marries the harsh local bishop, who begins to punish Alexander
for the slightest infractions, including making up stories. The film’s
expansive and beautifully textured cast of characters encompasses most
of Bergman’s favorites, and moves from a naturalistic, legitimately
enjoyable opening through increasingly harrowing and bleak aspects
(the sequence where the bishop’s aunt lights herself on fire is one of
the most haunting things he ever shot). Visually lavish, with regular
collaborators like Sven Nykvist doing perhaps their finest ever work, and with
the depth and complexity of a great novel, it might not be Bergman’s
most iconic film, but it’s easily one of his greatest and loveliest achievements, and
proof that a filmmaker can go out on top.

It is a mark of Bergman’s stature that this list was irreducible beyond 15 titles, and could easily have gone past 20 had we included films he wrote as opposed to those he directed. So if there’s anyone out there who wishes to berate us particularly for leaving off fascinating experimental opera adaptation “The Magic Flute,” “Summer Interlude,” “Sawdust and Tinsel,” “The Passion of Anna” or “Prison” especially, we’ve no good defense —they are each brilliant films that would summit most directors’ filmographies. Beyond that, newly minted fans have more to discover like “Face to Face” and the weird and wondrous “The Magician” along with earlier films including “The Devil’s Eye” and TV films like “From the Life of the Marionettes.” But we hope this selection, as well as giving several suggested entry points for the total neophyte, has given some hint of our utterly fathomless admiration for this peerless filmmaker. We’re deeply jealous of anyone just now embarking on their voyage of Bergman discovery.  —Jessica Kiang, Oli Lyttelton & Rodrigo Perez

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Comments

Chris_Parker

In my opinion, Bergman’s greatest masterpiece is Fanny and Alexander (the 5 1/2 hour version), closely followed by the incredibly underrated Winter Light and Persona. The Seventh Seal has a lot of cranky and cheesy jokes that hold it back imo.

loudrockmusic

The greatest Bergman film is Interiors.

Mike

Thank you for this. A worthy list for the greatest of cinema auteurs (a wholly personal writer and director). Cries and Whispers and Shame are personal favorites, while I find Passion of Anna the most interesting of the films that just made your list. Anyway, bravo for a fine write-up.

Chili

Ugh. Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, not Excellent Adventure.

Dave

After scenes of a marriage aired on Swedish TV, divorce rates skyrocketed.

Nathan Duke

This is one of those rare occasions when a best-of list managed to (in my opinion) pick all the right choices. I can’t think of any of his films (well, maybe Face to Face) that should have been on here.

MAL

Since my teens and for the 30 years since, Bergman has been my favourite director. Like so many others, I first came to Bergman with The Seventh Seal and was immediately taken. Fanny and Alexander is my favourite film of all time, one that I watch at least once every couple of years (in its full 5+ hours version), but I am often equally enamoured by Wild Strawberries, Scenes from a Marriage and Through a Glass Darkly. Thanks for throwing a spotlight on this sometimes misjudged artist and for pointing out Sven Nykvist’s essential role in the greatness of the work.

richard crawford

Passion of Anna is a great one…Best Lists are nonsense…just a way to get me to post.
Pauline Kael was my dearest friend…Lucky me…U need to contact her on the other side so she can give you guys…HELL. CHEERS AND BEERS…RICHARD

    Richard Willett

    Right you are, Richard! “Passion of Anna” is as worthwhile, if not more so, than “Hour of the Wolf,” the same as “Summer Interlude” is less famous but on a higher plane than “Monika.” Why not just do a piece about all of his films and let those who *need* an essentials list make their own. I’m tired of a group of know-it-alls making a subjective selection based on no more criteria than a show of hands, telling us that “Vertigo” is more essential than “Citizen Kane,” Judy Garland is less essential than Billie Holiday and that black is the new orange, which was the new black.

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