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

Ingmar Bergman is one of my all-time favourite 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.

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.

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 favourite films of all time is also probably the Bergman film that deals with religion with more direct confrontation than all the others: Winter Light.

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.

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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Posted on November 10, 2011, in Filmmakers, Movies and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 31 Comments.

  1. This post is interesting…I’ll bookmark it for when I get into Bergman! Damn, my Fatso queue is going to get such a workout. I’ve decided I’ll be upgrading this month!

    I’ve only seen Persona, which I liked, but I personally found it really exhausting. I’ll probably check out Fanny and Alexander first, as it is already somewhere in my queue. This was a really helpful post!

  2. After your post on the women of Bergman, I decided to watch one of his movies. I intended to go with Fanny and Alexander, but i only found the 5h tv show, so I went with Persona instead.

    Yes, I know you said we shouldn’t start with that, but I did and guess what? I loved it- the story, the direction, the women, the themes and subjects he touched upon- I am very intrigued and I will see more of his work soon! Thanks!

    • The 5 hour version of FANNY AND ALEXANDER is not worth passing up. If you get a chance to see it, take it. You can watch it in parts rather than all at once.

      Glad you liked PERSONA, it is my favourite Bergman.

  3. Brilliant and insightful write up my friend.

    I am glad you put this together as it has taught me a lot!!

    S

  4. 1 thing I can not insist more on is you need to watch him movies again once you know him a little bit better. Especially in case of Burgman, Understanding him has to be an evolving process.

    When I saw Persona, I knew I am watching something brilliant but didn’t understand what? But after watching some of his movies, you definitely get a perspective and start appreciating him more. And now, I do appreciate Persona more than I saw it first.

    Looking forward to The Seventh Seal, Scenes of a Marriage and Faith Trilogy.

  5. I have only seen The Seventh Seal (couple of weeks ago) and although it was very clear which subject matter it deals with I wasn’t completely invested in it. Wasn’t a bad movie though!

  6. So here we are again, yet another superbly crafted post at Southern Vision.

    Bergman is, bar none, my favorite director. I started about where you did, with Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal, and I honestly think that’s the best place for Bergman newbies. They were released in the same year, only months apart, and in them, there is a pretty broad gammat of familiar Bergman themes and techniques.

    Persona is not only one of his most obscure, it’s also my favorite. After that, take your pick. Every film mentioned above is masterful.

    One thing I would like to stress: I’ve never LOVED a Bergman film upon first viewing. Now I love nearly every one of them that I’ve seen. His films (much like Stanley Kubrick’s) have a way of growing on you. I mention this so those new to Bergman aren’t immediately turned off by his work.

    I envy those new to the great Ingmar Bergman. Be prepared, your life is about to change.

  7. Great post, I’m bookmarking this! I’ve got some Bergmans ahead of me as I tackle the Top 1000 Films and I’m ashamed to say that I’m a bit of a rookie. Will definitely refer back to this as needed! 🙂

  8. I will start a Bergman marathon at some point, and hopefully i will be able to get his stuff more. I think right now the artier stuff is just not for me

    • There are some Bergman films which are a lot less “artier” than others. His most accessible truly great film is probably SHAME, from 1968. I’d check that one out if you’re looking for something more literal and mainstream and less inaccessible and existential.

  9. I started with The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries and they are still my favourites. I loved them immediately, though The Seventh Seal has grown on me even more on subsequent viewings. During my Bergman run I also saw Through A Glass Darkly and Winter’s Light (both amazing), Cries and Whispers and Persona. The latter I own and have to confess it isn’t a film I enjoy very much, though I do respect it’s bold artistry.

    I still need to see so many many more (The Virgin Spring, The Silence, Fanny and Alexander, The Hour of the Wolf and Autumn Sonata). I might make him a DOTM in the new year – and plough through everything. Great post Tyler. Bergman is a legend.

    • He DEFINITELY deserves to be DOTM at some point. FANNY AND ALEXANDER is simply a must-see; I remember after seeing it for the first time, the moment the credits rolled I instantly jumped up and proclaimed it “the best foreign film of all time!” It’s still in my Top 10 favourite films.

  10. I would *never* recommend Seventh Seal as a first Bergman film. My own first Bergman was Wild Strawberries, which I think is a much easier way in (Smiles of a Summer Night is easier still but it’s not exactly representative). Possibly if I’d seen Seventh Seal around that same age (19) I might’ve liked it better; as it was, I think I was in my late 20s or my early 30s when I did finally see it, and by that time I was a lot less easily impressed by that sort of thing. I know I need to give it a second chance, but Bergman isn’t one of those filmmakers who entices me…

    • The first five I watched were: THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY, PERSONA, THE SEVENTH SEAL, WILD STRAWBERRIES, CRIES AND WHISPERS. Loved them all but liked them more the second time round.

  11. Thanks for sharing this guide. I am a Bergman novice, just watched my first film of his a couple months ago (Wild Strawberries, which I enjoyed). I have The Seventh Seal near the top of my queue, and I also am interested in checking out Persona sooner rather than later. I will be bookmarking your list for ideas on where to go after those two. 🙂

  12. Loved the post. It was a great insight into a new director for me s I shall be exploring his movies soon enough. Other than that I loved how you wrote. As an article it just flows, without the use of “heavy” words and explains everything well. Great fun reading and thanks for the info as well.

  13. Bergman is a filmmaker that I still find challenging. I’ve seen 5 of his films, of which only 2 I could grasp all of it’s grandeur. The five are The Seventh Seal, Hour of the Wolf, Wild Strawberries, Persona, and Cries and Whispers, in this order. Only Wild Strawberries and Persona gave me a truly satisfying ending, and this only came with Persona after a second view, yesterday. The other three definitely require future rewatches, in order for me to understand all of the related themes and undertones. My priority being Cries and Whispers that left me perplexed. Thank you very much for this post, I’ll surely use it as a guide to continue my adventure into Bergman’s work.

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