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Ingmar Bergman: Volume 2
The BFI’s second of four Ingmar Bergman Blu-ray box sets, with eight films each, reaches the 1950s, the period where he made his first masterpieces and became a major figure in world cinema. Review by Gary Couzens.
 

This is the second of four eight-film Ingmar Bergman Blu-ray box sets released by the BFI. Volumes Three and Four will follow in 2022. Volume One took us up to 1950, and for an account of Bergman’s life and films up to that point, please see my previous review. As I say there, it’s fair to call Bergman a late developer. The last film in Volume One, To Joy, was his eighth as director (of which six were included in the set), and he had also written three features directed by others (two in the set). The one of the latter that isn’t in Volume One, 1947’s Woman Without a Face (Kvinnan utan ansikte), one of three films written by Bergman but directed by Gustav Molander, is at the time of writing in the odd position of being the only film Bergman wrote and/or directed to be available on Netflix in the UK. At first, Bergman was allowed to write original screenplays or direct those written by others or from material by others, but not both. He first directed a film from his own original script with 1949’s Prison, and To Joy was the second. While watching these films – and the ones not in the set from the same period – you can see Bergman’s development, at first as a writer but with his directing abilities catching up. Some of his early films are clearly influenced by other directors and filmmaking styles: the films of Marcel Carné for example, or Italian neo-realism in Port of Call especially, but as he made more films these influences gradually became absorbed. He was creating with working relationships with actors whose services he would use several times, likewise with key crew members like cinematographer Gunnar Fischer and editor Oscar Rosander.  However, none of these early films would rank among his masterpieces, and some were commercial assignments taken on when more personal projects flopped.

In the UK as the 1950s dawned, Bergman would have been known, if at all, as the screenwriter for Torment, which had created quite some impression but had been directed by Alf Sjöberg. None of the films Bergman directed had had commercial releases at the time, though some did see the light of British projector lamps towards the end of the decade or at the start of the next as a result of Bergman’s fame and are or have been available since on VHS or disc. As well as Bergman’s lack of a reputation in Britain, there was also the strong possibility of censorship, with just the U and A certificates available (other than the rarely-awarded H, standing for horrific) before 1951, when the X was introduced, then banning under-sixteens. In terms of sexual references, as well as some remarkably casual nudity, some of Bergman’s 1940s films went beyond what was allowed in both the UK and the USA, then governed by the Production Code. Censorship was no idle fear: the brief sight of Eva Dahlbeck’s nipples had to be removed from Smiles of a Summer Night before the BBFC granted it a X certificate.

So, here’s a question for a film trivia quiz: what was the first film that Bergman directed to receive a British cinema release? Summer Interlude (see below) is often cited as Bergman’s first masterpiece, but it was preceded into cinemas in 1950 by a film Bergman made after it, This Can’t Happen Here (Sånt händer inte här), which could hardly have been less auspicious. It’s fair to say it made little impression, not even in Sweden, and certainly not in Britain where it was cut by seventeen minutes to sixty-seven (so presumably playing as a second feature), dubbed into English and retitled High Tension. It’s fair to say that this was one of his commercial assignments, written by Herbert Grevenius from an (uncredited) novel by Waldemar Brøgger. It’s a spy thriller (yes, that’s right) involving agent Atkä Natas (Ulf Palme), out to defect to Sweden from the fictional state of Liquidatzia, somewhere behind the Iron Curtain. His wife (Signe Hasso) lives in Sweden, with a new partner and is not happy at the news. However, there’s more to Natas than at first appears (spell his name backwards, for starters): he’s been sent to stir up trouble between the Liquidatzian expatriate community and the Swedes. This is a curious film, to say the least, which varies wildly in tone, sometimes seeming like a spoof and at others wanting to be taken seriously. The film died a death everywhere it played, with only Gunnar Fischer’s black and white cinematography receiving praise. Sadly, that’s an element not shown at its best in the VHS-quality English-subtitled copy that can be found at a certain video-sharing site. Bergman by this stage was too much of a professional for this to be truly bad, but it’s best described as anonymous. Bergman loathed this film like none other of his, and refused to let it be shown in retrospectives or be reissued, not even allowing the trailer or poster to be seen. Some Bergman documentaries, such as the one I cite below when we get to Bergman’s big year of 1957, respect his wishes.

SUMMER INTERLUDE

Hailing as he did from a cold country, there’s something about summer in Bergman’s filmography. Summer Interlude (Sommarlek, first released in the USA as Illicit Interlude, though I’d imagine 1950s American smut-seekers would have been rather disappointed) was shot in that season between April and June 1950 but not released for over a year. (It was not released in the UK until 1959.) Marie (Maj-Britt Nilsson) is a prima ballerina who while rehearsing a performance of Swan Lake is sent a mysterious package containing a diary written by Henrik (Birger Malmsten). He was her first love. Troubled by this, Marie travels to the island where they had met thirteen years previously, and she and we flash back to their summer romance that ended in tragedy.

Certainly the subject matter is familiar: the artistic background, with ballet instead of orchestral music, is reminiscent of To Joy the year before, in which Nilsson played one of the lead roles. The travails of a (heterosexual) relationship is territory that Bergman staked out from the start of his career, whether from his or, in this case, her perspective. The holiday romance is partly autobiographical, inspired by one that Bergman had when he was sixteen, the same age as past-time Marie here. Not for the first or last time, Bergman’s surrogate in one of his own films is a woman. He first wrote Summer Interlude as a short story called “Mari”, which became a film treatment, which co-credited writer Herbert Grevenius then rewrote.

Summer Interlude

Present time is mostly backstage at the theatre, but past time is on location, beautifully shot by Gunnar Fischer. We don’t find out the reason why Marie and Henrik’s love story ended, nor the involvement of Marie’s uncle Erland (Georg Funkquist) until some way in. By contrast, we know how the love story of To Joy ends right from the outset. However, this plays out in the present, as Marie’s lack of emotional attachment, to anyone, is putting her relationship with David (Alf Kjellin), a journalist at risk. The film ends with a backstage conversation between Marie and the ballet master (Stig Olin), both in costume for a performance of Coppelia (him as a clown). He is the man who possibly knows her better than anyone else, and we wonder if she, and he, are most themselves when in stage makeup and costume, playing a role. Most critics thought that Bergman made a breakthrough with Summer Interlude, and Bergman agreed. In the book Bergman on Bergman, he said, “This was my first film in which I felt I was functioning independently, with a style of my own, making a film all my own, with a particular appearance of its own, which no one could ape. It was like no other film. It was all my own work. Suddenly I knew I was putting the camera on the right spot, getting the right results; that everything added up. For sentimental reasons, too, it was also fun making it.”

Commercial assignments continued for Bergman, of course, not least a series of commercials for Bris soap, all shot by Gunnar Fischer, between 1951 and 1952. Gustav Molander also directed hgis third feature film from a Bergman script, Divorced (Frånskild), which isn’t commercially available in the UK and which I haven’t seen.It’s also worth mentioning that Bergman was also an active stage director as well as one for the big screen – and later in the decade, the small screen as well. Summer Interlude was released in Sweden in October 1951 and six months later Bergman’s next feature film was in production.

WAITING WOMEN

One lesson Bergman learned early on was concision: most of his cinema films have two-digit running times, and some notable examples come in under ninety minutes. (You could compare Bergman with his admirer Woody Allen, who didn’t crack three digits until Hannah and Her Sisters in in 1986.) At 108 minutes, Waiting Women (Kvinnors väntan, also known as Secrets of Women) was his longest feature to date, but it’s also more expansive than previously.

In form, Waiting Women is a portmanteau film, with three stories embedded in a frame narrative. Its basic story came from Gun Grut, who was Bergman’s third wife and mother of his fifth child, and was the model for many of his female characters at the time. Five women wait on an island summer home for the men in their lives. Four of them – Annette (Aino Taube), Karin (Eva Dahlbeck), Marta (Maj-Britt Nilsson) and Rakel (Anita Björk) - are married into the wealthy Lobelius family. The fifth woman is Marta’s teenaged younger sister Maj (Gerd Andersson). As they wait for their husbands, and Maj’s boyfriend, to arrive, Rakel, Marta and Karin tell their stories to the others, so we have a series of flashbacks and, in the case of the middle and longest story, flashbacks within flashbacks. Rakel is married to Eugen (Karl-Arne Holmsten) but at the same time was having an affair with Kaj (Jarl Kulle). When she confesses this to Eugen, he at first threatens to throw her out and then storms away with a gun, threatening to kill himself. The situation is resolved and the marriage continues, but not happily.

Waiting Women

Marta’s story begins with her in labour, on her own, when she remembers meeting Martin (Birger Malmsten), whom she takes to be an impoverished artist but who turns out to be another Lobelius brother about to be disinherited due to his fecklessness. This is the longest of the three stories, and the one with the least dialogue, partly inspired by Bergman’s admiration for Gustav Machatý’s 1933 film Extase, though not including the nude scenes (and a scene of onscreen sexual intercourse, a cinema first) for which that film became notorious. Finally, Karin tells not so much a story but a comic interlude in which she and her husband, oldest brother Fredrik (Gunnar Björnstrand), are stuck in the lift. The three stories are in different modes: Ellen Cheshire, in the book with this release, identifies them as melodrama, expressionism and comedy. That comedy is significant. It was not a mode Bergman is generally associated with and most of his comedies are minor works in his filmography, with a significant exception we’ll come to later. Yet there are comic interludes in many of his films, including some of the most ostensibly serious ones, and this sequence was Bergman’s most extended exercise in the mode. Dahlbeck had shown her comic ability in earlier films, such as the Bergman-scripted Eva, in which she played the protagonist’s landlord’s flirtatious wife, and she plays off beautifully against Björnstrand at his most stiff-backed.

This film is familiar Bergman territory in its various dissections of relations between the sexes, including and especially in marriage. Yet he does leave us with hope for the future, with Maj’s relationship with her boyfriend. Maybe all the other stuff will come later. Waiting Women came out in Sweden in 1952 but did not receive a British release until 1960. When it was belatedly seen in British cinemas, it seemed lightweight in comparison to some of the films that had come out in betwee. But it’s a film which still offers many pleasures. Bergman’s next film was a breakthrough for him.

SUMMER WITH MONIKA

Summer with Monika (Sommaren med Monika) may seem mild now, but it reminds us that at the time it made, one of the less elevated reasons for watching foreign-language films, especially those from certain Western European countries, was you might have the chance to see some young actress in the nude, which you certainly would not see in an American or British film. It’s quite startling to see, in such a fairly conventional early Bergman from 1948, Music in Darkness, Mai Zetterling’s character (maybe Zetterling’s body double) completely naked from behind as she crosses a room to use a washbasin. The American distributor of Summer with Monika took this lure and ran with it, cutting thirty-six minutes out of it, dubbing it into English and releasing it into less salubrious cinema chains as Monica: The Story of a Bad Girl. The dirty raincoat brigade, or its American equivalent, turned out in force. Among them was Woody Allen, watching his first film from the director he became a huge admirer of. Monika (Harriet Andersson) is nude only in one shot, reprised as a memory at the end of the film, but those liberal and insatiable Swedish women – what could you say? Summer with Monika was released in Sweden in February 1953 but British audiences had to wait until the end of 1958 to have some of this hot stuff, despite the A certificate given to it by the BBFC (cut or uncut, I don’t know, but if the latter surprisingly lenient).

Based on a novel by P.A. Fogelström, with the author co-writing the screenplay with Bergman, Summer with Monika was shot with a small crew, Gunnar Fischer still on board as cinematographer, on a small budget, largely on location in the late summer and autumn of 1952. It tells a fairly simple story. Harry (Lars Ekborg) meets Monika (Harriet Andersson) meet in a cafe and fall in love straight away and run away to spend the summer together on a Swedish islands. However, real life and its responsibilities soon intrude, not least when Monika falls pregnant.

Summer with Monika

Summer with Monika does resemble some of Bergman’s earlier films. His second feature as director, It Rains on Our Love, is another tale of lovers on the run, and the working class setting harks back to that film, A Ship to India and Port of Call in particular. However, the film breaks from Bergman’s earlier films in several ways, not least in its location shoot allowing a fair amount of improvisation, with the result being reminiscent of the New Wave which would break in France at the end of the decade. In addition, many of his regular actors are absent here. Lars Ekborg went on to have a role in Bergman’s later The Magician (see below), but fine as he is Summer with Monika is not his film. Harriet Andersson would have a greater impact on Bergman’s life and work. Twenty years old when the film was made, she grabs the role with both hands. She also entered into a relationship with Bergman, fourteen years her senior, who was married to Gun Grut then, and this relationship lasted three years. Her Monika is aware of her position in society, but she doesn’t care what other people think of her, often seen with a cigarette in her mouth or chewing gum. We have to take her on her own terms, and if that doesn’t always involve Harry, the father of her child, then so be it. Late in the film, there’s a long-held closeup where Monika stares at the camera and us. Who are we to judge? Bergman by then was aware of the power of the facial closeup, and this is one of his major examples. Fischer’s camerawork is also masterly.

After that, Bergman changed gear again with a film not in this set, released on Blu-ray in the UK by Criterion, Sawdust and Tinsel (Gycklarnas afton, also known as The Naked Night in English - the title translates literally as The Evening of the Jesters, and has been more idiosyncratically rendered as Carnies’ Twilight). While Bergman’s films up to then had been more or less contemporary in setting, sometimes going into the recent past, with this film he crossed the line from period to historical (i.e. to a time before his own birth) and a film set in the early years of the twentieth century. The film takes place among a circus troupe that has seen better days, and is another examination of male-female relations, with ringmaster Albert (Åke Grönberg) alienating his younger mistress Anne (Harriet Andersson) so that she begins an affair with Frans (Hasse Ekman) and clown Frost (Anders Ek) humiliated by his wife swimming nude in the sea. The film is notable as beginning the second of Bergman’s great relationships with a cinematographer as it was co-shot by Sven Nykvist as Gunnar Fischer, whose partnership with Bergman was now well established, was unavailable, though he shot some parts uncredited. Nykvist would not become Bergman’s regular cinematographer until the next decade.

Sawdust and Tinsel became the second film that Bergman had directed to receive a UK cinema release, in May 1955. It wasn’t however a success in his native Sweden. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Woody Allen, intrigued enough by Summer with Monika to seek out another by the same director, saw this film and was impressed that both were the work of the same man. He became a devotee of Bergman’s work.

A LESSON IN LOVE

In 1994, BBC2 put on a short season that on the face of it seemed quite perverse: some of Ingmar Bergman’s comedies, but without the one that is usually counted among his major works. On the other hand, that season (called Bergman’s Women) did give British viewers the chance to see some less-often-seen Bergmans, and indeed earlier the same year they had shown some of his more rarely shown 1940s films too. While no one would claim that comedy was Bergman’s forte, he had become increasingly adept at including comic interludes in otherwise serious films. That said, most of his out-and-out comedies are minor works (and Now About These Women, from 1964 and Bergman’s first film in colour, is among his worst) but they are still of great interest. A Lesson in Love (En lektion i kärlek), shown in that season, is no exception.

The film is the story of gynaecologist David Erneman (Gunnar Björnstrand) and his wife Marianne (Eva Dahlbeck). They have been married for several years and are on the brink of going their separate ways with their loves. However, David realises he still loves his wife and comes up with a plan to win her back.

A Lesson in Love

Björnstrand and Dahlbeck is the same pairing as in the third story of Waiting Women, and their chemistry  was undeniable then, so it wasn’t a stretch to pair them again. It’s also worth noting that Björnstrand, despite his presence as one of Bergman’s most chamaeleonic leading men in his dramas, was known at the time mostly as a comedy actor. David’s profession leads to some rather prurient speculation, as he’s asked what it’s like watching women undress all day. This results in some sexual references, mild nowadays but rather less so at the time. In a conversation with his daughter Nix (Harriet Andersson, playing teenage but actually in her early twenties) there is talk of the possibility of gender reassignment surgery. That was a current topic, given that Christine Jorgensen’s surgery in Denmark in 1952 had made headlines, but if there is an earlier reference in a film than this, given the state of censorship in many countries at the time, I’m not aware of it. The film may be in a lighter mode, but it’s still another return by Bergman to his prevailing interest in the relationships between the sexes, especially in marriage. Bergman was certainly qualified to talk about that, given that he was on his third by then, even if he was still having an affair with Andersson. Much of the wit is verbal, delivered with brio by the cast, and it’s possibly the nearest Bergman got to the classical Hollywood screwball comedy. Dahlbeck and Björnstrand even helped out, reworking and shooting one scene themselves after Bergman lost confidence that it would work. A Lesson in Love was a hit in Sweden when it was released in October 1954. In the UK, it didn’t receive a cinema release until May 1959.

Bergman’s first cinema film of 1955 was another minor work, and one not included in this box set, Dreams (Kvinnodröm, originally released in the UK in September 1959 as Journey into Autumn). While it may star Eva Dahlbeck, Harriet Andersson and Gunnar Björnstrand, it’s not a comedy but a drama set on a ship to Gothenberg. It contrasts the love affairs of two women on the surface quite successful, fashion photographer Susanne (Dahlbeck) and model Doris (Andersson). Susanne has a married lover in Gothenberg and Doris has just split up with her boyfriend. Bergman and Andersson had split up themselves by this point and this may have coloured the film for him, which he was never satisfied with. The film was a critical and commercial failure too. However, with his next film, released in Sweden on Boxing Day 1955, Bergman began a purple patch, one of the greatest combinations of quality and quantity in a short time in cinema history.

SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT

Smiles of a Summer Night (Sommarnattens leende) is by some way Bergman’s best work in comic mode, and the corrective to the impression that his work is little more than Nordic doom and gloom and existential angst. That was recognised not only after it opened in Sweden, but after it played at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival. The story has found further life in other media. Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler adapted it to stage as the musical A Little Night Music in 1973, which was itself filmed in 1977. And, after referencing (and parodying) Bergman’s work for several years, Woody Allen adapted the story for his 1982 film A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy.

Bergman returns to the turn of the twentieth century. Fredrik Egerman (Gunnar Björnstrand) is married to the much younger Anne (Ulla Jacobsson). The marriage remains unconsummated, and Anne is secretly in love with her stepson Henrik (Björn Bjelfvensztam), but he is having an affair with Petra (Harriet Andersson), a house servant. Before he remarried, Fredrik had had an affair with Desiree (Eva Dahlbeck), an actress. She has a son who may or may not have been fathered by Fredrik. Desiree is now involved with army officer Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Jarl Kulle), whose wife Charlotte (Margit Carlqvist) is an old friend of Anne’s. Over the course of a summer night, the couples change partners…

Smiles of a Summer Night

It’s notable that one of Bergman’s most joyous films – and by far his most successful comedy – came about at a low point in his life. His marriage to Gun Grut was more or less over (they divorced in 1959) and his affair with Harriet Andersson had ended too. He was also quite unwell, with gastric flu and stomach cramps, possibly caused by overwork – a lesson he clearly didn’t learn, if that was the case. Also, Dreams had flopped. The choice he faced, he later said, was to write and make Smiles of a Summer Night or to kill himself. We know the fortunate outcome, and Svensk Filmindustri responded positively to the script he wrote. This was Bergman’s most expensive film to date and fortunately for him it was the success it was. The film was shot in a heatwave (by Swedish standards) and Bergman was unwell and miserable throughout the shoot. However, the film did have an effect on his private life, as he met Bibi Andersson (no relation to Harriet) when she played a small role in the film, and they began a relationship.

None of this is visible in the finished film, which is feather-light without overlooking some darker material, with the plentiful verbal wit counterbalanced by the poise of Bergman’s direction and the beauty of Gunnar Fischer’s cinematography. Smiles of a Summer Night opened in the UK in September 1956, relatively quickly after its Cannes showing, and the following year was nominated for a BAFTA Award for Best Film from Any Source. The winner was René Clément’s film Gervaise, though I doubt that posterity would support that judgement nowadays. Björnstrand and Dahlbeck also nominated as Best Foreign Actor and Actress. Smiles of a Summer Night was and remains a triumph. However, Bergman’s purple patch was just beginning.

THE SEVENTH SEAL

There is an entire documentary made about Bergman’s annus mirabilis of 1957, Bergman: A Year in a Life, directed by Jane Magnusson in 2018. (It’s available on Blu-ray from the BFI, in a set which includes the alternative four-part television-series version, Bergman: A Life in Four Acts.) While Bergman isn’t among the select few film directors who made more feature films than they lived years – unlike, for example, Allan Dwan, Ford Beebe, Maurice Elvey, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and the still-active Takashi Miike – at times his work rate must have rivalled theirs. Bergman’s 1957 was bracketed by the premiere of The Seventh Seal in February (shot the previous summer) and that of Wild Strawberries on Boxing Day (26 December seemed to be a favoured time to release a new Bergman, for a few years in the 1950s at least). Those two films, along with Smiles of a Summer Night, placed Bergman at the forefront of world cinema at a very rich time, at least in Western Europe, the USA and Japan. In between those, he made another cinema feature, Brink of Life (released in 1958) and a production for the new, medium of television (only launched in Sweden in 1956), an adaptation of a 1917 one act play by Hjalmar Bergman (no relation), Mr Sleeman is Coming (Herr Sleeman kommer). If that wasn’t enough, he directed four radio plays and two stage productions, including a five-hour version of Ibsen’s notoriously difficult-to-stage Peer Gynt. At some point he also he wrote the script for Last Pair Out (Sista paret ut), which was directed by Alf Sjöberg, released in 1956. Presumably he slept as well. Of course, you could argue that such a workrate was possible because he had support: by his own admission he had neglected his families (he was on his third wife and sixth child by then) and indeed dramatised this in later films, for example Autumn Sonata. Unsurprisingly, all this activity had an effect on Bergman’s health, and he was hospitalised with stomach and intestinal ulcers. While in hospital, he wrote the script of Wild Strawberries and it went into production just over a month later.

Bergman’s filmography from the early 1950s onwards is so rich in masterpieces that several of them could be candidates for his greatest. (I’d go for Persona, myself.) Yet it’s undoubted that The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet) is his best known, even to a non-cinephile audience, and it has been referenced and parodied ever since. Other than Woody Allen’s films, I’d also mention the 1968 Oscar-nominated short film The Dove (De Düva), which sends up Bergman in fifteen minutes, with dialogue in cod-Swedish. And there’s of course Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, with William Sadler’s portrayal of Death heavily reminiscent of Bengt Ekerot’s in The Seventh Seal. And to think the film was almost never made. Svensk Filmindustri had turned the project down, but when Bergman heard about the success of Smiles of a Summer Night at Cannes (he hadn’t been aware that the film had been entered and had heard about it by reading the newspaper while on the toilet) he pressed them to reconsider. And they did, on a small budget and short schedule. The film is derived from a stage play that Bergman had written three years earlier, Trämålning (Wood Painting) and he had directed the play both on radio and in the theatre.

The Seventh Seal

The film begins with a voiceover quote from the Book of Revelations: “And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven…” It’s that silence that Bergman is concerned, via his characters, a God who does not reveal himself and is silent in the face of great evil. Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) wants to believe but isn’t able to. We’re in the middle ages, with Block and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) returning from the Crusades. They come back to a land ravaged by plague. Sitting alone on a desolate beach, Block is approached by Death (Ekerot). Block challenges Death to a game of chess, looking to survive as long as the game lasts.

While Bergman had made films with historical settings before, he hadn’t gone back before the beginning of the twentieth century. Now he went back much further, though it’s an allegorical rather than entirely historically accurate setting. (The flagellant movement wasn’t native to Sweden and witch burnings took place rather later than the time of the Crusades.) But amidst the despair there is hope, in the face of travelling actor Jof (Nils Poppe) and his wife Mia (Bibi Andersson) and their young son Mikael. It’s with them that Bergman ends the film. If you didn’t know that Bergman and Andersson were an item at the time the film was made, it’s almost possible to tell given the way he films her, with Gunnar Fischer’s invaluable assistance of course. In another religious reference, the couple’s names have sometimes been rendered into English as Joseph and Mary, so read into that what you will.

The Seventh Seal had a mixed reception at home, but its impact worldwide was immediate and considerable. It won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes, shared with Andrzej Wajda’s Kanał. (That’s a hard choice right there, though the Palme d’Or went to William Wyler’s Friendly Persuasion, another choice not endorsed by posterity.) Many of the film’s images entered the iconography of world cinema. As Kat Ellinger describes in her commentary, The Seventh Seal has a lot in common with what would later be called folk horror, in its rural setting and interest in folklore and religious imagery. However, the film’s reputation as a standard bearer for cinematic high seriousness is misleading and possibly offputting for a first viewer. While he was quite open to using cinema to discuss issues of faith, of God and the Devil, Bergman also knew that this would be all for nothing if he wasn’t able to engage an audience by emotional means. And that he does: it’s easy to forget how humourous The Seventh Seal is, how richly human. The characters are highly recognisable, even if they are from a society centuries in our past.

WILD STRAWBERRIES

Bergman had included dream sequences in his films from close to the beginning (though oddly, the film called Dreams in English doesn’t include one). After a brief prologue with narration by the film’s protagonist and the opening credits, Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället) begins with perhaps his most celebrated example. The film takes us, and the central character, on a journey, both an external one by road and an internal one into its central character’s past.

Professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjöstrom) is a retired doctor, now widowed. As the opening voiceover says, “tomorrow”, he is to travel from Stockholm to Lund to be awarded an honorary degree. He is accompanied by his daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), who is about to separate from his son Evald (Gunnar Björnstrand) and bear a child by him that he does not want. As they travel, the people they meet on the way inspire daydreams, reveries and flashbacks to Isak’s past. He has a reckoning with his behaviour up to now, and his emotional coldness.

Bergman wrote the script of Wild Strawberries while in hospital, having had approval of a short synopsis before then. He completed the script at the end of May 1957 and shooting began on 2 July.  At this time, his relationship with his third wife, Gun Grut, had broken down, and they divorced two years later. His affair with Bibi Andersson (who plays both a hitchhiker and in flashbacks Isak’s cousin, both named Sara) was coming to an end. Bergman’s relationship with his own parents was also troubled.

Wild Strawberries

Bergman once again used many of his regular actors in the film, but there were two significant additions. This was Ingrid Thulin’s first role for him and they would work together nine more times, into the 1980s. Victor Sjöstrom, at seventy-eight the same age as his character, had played a featured role for Bergman in To Joy, and gives his greatest performance as an actor here. However, like Alf Sjöberg and Gustav Molander (who had both directed Bergman scripts), he had been a pioneer as a filmmaker in Sweden, going back to the silent era. His major films as a director include The Phantom Carriage (Körkalen, 1921) and, in Hollywood billed under the anglicised name of Victor Seastrom, He Who Gets Slapped (1924) and the late silent masterpiece The Wind (1928), starring Lillian Gish. Bergman regarded Sjöstrom as a mentor and took this opportunity to pay him tribute. However, there’s no doubt autobiography in this film, maybe a portrait of the artist as an old man: see, for example, the character’s initials. Sjöstrom died in 1960, aged eighty.

When it opened in Sweden, Wild Strawberries had a positive reception. It went on to win the Golden Bear at the 1958 Berlin Film Festival and Bergman received his first Oscar nomination, for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen. It went into British release in November 1958.

Wild Strawberries has gone on to be regarded as one of Bergman’s greatest films. That’s not the case with his next film, Brink of Life (Nära livet, also known as So Close to Life), despite its wins at Cannes in 1958: Best Director for Bergman and an ensemble Best Actress for Bibi Andersson, Eva Dahlbeck, Barbro Hiort af Hornäs and Ingrid Thulin. It’s notable as the last but one feature film that Bergman directed but did not write (last but two if you count his film of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute). It was written by Ulla Isaksson (who also wrote the last one, The Virgin Spring) from her own stories. You might wonder that he thought the film’s subject matter – the stories of three pregnant women in a hospital maternity ward – would need a script based on direct experience he obviously would not have had. Despite the Cannes wins, it had a mixed reception. While it did receive a UK cinema release, it wasn’t as quick into British screens as other Bergmans of the time: not until 1961, though the BBFC had passed it in 1959. It is not in this box set.

THE MAGICIAN

After all that activity, The Magician (Ansiktet, sometimes known as The Face, which is a literal translation of the Swedish) opened in Sweden on Boxing Day 1958 but instituted a brief pause by Bergman’s standards, of just over a year before his next film. No doubt he was as busy as ever, and the gap was caused by other factors such as cinema production and release schedules. So The Magician was his last film of the 1950s and brings this box set to its end.

We’re back in historical times, not specified but around the turn of the twentieth century. Albert Vogler (Max von Sydow, with facial hair remiscent of Gunnar Björnstrand in Smiles of a Summer Night) leads a troupe of performers, which also includes his grandmother (Naima Wifstrand) and his wife Manda (Ingrid Thulin), who has short hair and dresses in male costume, passing as a man called Mr Aman. Vogler himself is mute. His stage act involves what he claims are supernatural powers and discoveries in animal magnetism. When they arrive in a village to spend the night, they are confronted by the town authorities, led by the Minister of Health, Dr Vergerus (Björnstrand), who are determined to expose Vogler as a fraud and a quack. But is he?

The Magician

If The Seventh Seal can be discussed in the context of horror, that is certainly also true of The Magician. Particularly towards the end, horror tropes abound (including business with a disembodied eye and a severed hand, not to forget a seeming rising from the dead) and Bergman even pulls off a jump scare with a potential act of violence coinciding with a lightning flash and a clap of thunder. Bergman drew on G.K. Chesterton’s play Magic, which he had staged in the theatre in 1947.

The film moves into questions of faith, which Vergerus, being a rationalist and a scientist, readily dismisses. He believes that inexplicable things could be explained, eventually, by science...or else that would need a belief in God. The emphasis on an artistic background, here travelling players, is typical of Bergman, and theatricality is present in Manda’s as a kind of principal boy – something which seems to take in those around her, if maybe not the audience of the film. Vogler’s mutism allows Bergman to stage several one-way conversations which reveal more about the speaker than anything else. The most celebrated example is almost the entirety of Persona, but it’s something that had been in his work from early on. Although he began as a writer before his directorial abilities fully came to fruition, Bergman several times attempted to direct scenes with little or no dialogue.

Following its Swedish release, The Magician won the Grand Jury Prize at Venice in 1959 and appeared in British cinemas in September 1959. It was BAFTA-nominated for Best Film from Any Source (Ben-Hur won). It hasn’t over the years become one of the big beasts of world cinema at the time, as his two previous films have done, and it’s been less often shown than them. Yet it’s a worthy part of Bergman’s great run of films that would continue into the next decade.

sound and vision

Ingmar Bergman Volume 2 is a five-disc Blu-ray box set from the BFI, all discs encoded for Region B only. The films are presented in the order above, that is chronologically, with two films each on Discs One, Two and Five, and Smiles of a Summer Night and The Seventh Seal on their own discs, with all but one of the extras there. The Seventh Seal also has a standalone release as the BFI’s first 4K disc (a dual-format release with a Blu-ray disc included) and Wild Strawberries will have a standalone Blu-ray release in January 2022.

The box set has a 15 certificate. That is due, rather surprisingly, to Wild Strawberries, which was passed at that rating (rather harshly) three times for home viewing between 1986 and 1995. It was an A in British cinemas and was passed at PG for a reissue in Bergman’s centenary year of 2018, but as it hasn’t been resubmitted for home viewing, that 15 still stands. Of the others, Summer Interlude was an A and is now PG, Waiting Women then X now 12, Summer with Monika A then and now PG, A Lesson in Love then X and a PG now, Smiles of a Summer Night a X originally but a PG for home viewing (in 1995) though given a 12A for its 2018 cinema reissue, and finally both The Seventh Seal and The Magician were originally X and are now PG.

All eight films in this set were shot in black and white 35mm. During the period covered by this set, cinema became widescreen, with non-Scope productions abandoning the Academy Ratio (1.37:1) that had been standardised for the previous twenty years and being framed for one or other widescreen ratio, 1.66:1 or wider. By the end of 1953, Hollywood and British studios were making their films in widescreen. The changeover may well have taken later to happen in other parts of the world and I’m not aware what the situation was in Sweden, but Bergman continued to make his films in Academy Ratio and, with one exception, in black and white until the end of the 1960s. No doubt arthouse cinemas in the UK and USA, where subtitled foreign-language films like these would have played, could still show Academy. The narrower ratio did suit Bergman, given that he was a great exponent of the facial closeup and, to use the words of another European director who often favoured Academy, Eric Rohmer, his films are portrait rather than landscape.

The transfers are framed at 1.37:1 (Wild Strawberries and The Magician at 1.33:1 for some reason, though that makes next to no difference). The masters are from restorations, 4K for The Seventh Seal, 2K for the others. They come from a variety of 35mm materials. Summer Interlude and Waiting Women, from duplicating negatives, are a tad softer and the grain is more noticeable, but Summer with Monika and A Lesson in Love are pin-sharp, from the original negative and interpositive respectively. Smiles of a Summer Night, from the original negative, is a little darker in its greyscale. The Seventh Seal, from the original negative again, is sharp and detailed with a wider range of grey, and a good amount of shadow detail in the blacks. (This disc is reviewed without reference to the 4K disc, as I’m not UHD-enabled.) No complaints about Wild Strawberries, also from an original negative, and pin-sharp as well. The dream sequence is intentionally grainier and contrastier than the rest of the film, with blown-out whites. The Magician, from a finegrain master positive is sharp and detailed in the brighter-lit scenes, but detail tends to get a little lost in darker-lit scenes, of which there are quite a few. There is some minor damage to the sources here and there but nothing distracting and all very pleasing.

The soundtracks are the original mono, rendered as LCPM 1.0. There’s not much to be said, as Bergman’s sound crew do a fine job, with dialogue, music and sound effects well balanced. Audio fidelity is obviously less than it might be now, and occasional distortion can be heard at the top end, but we are limited by the abilities of monaural optical soundtracks from over sixty years ago. English subtitles are optionally available for the hard of hearing on all the features and the Swedish-language extras.

special features

Trailer for Summer with Monika (1:54)
The only extra on Disc Two is this trailer. It’s made for Swedish audiences so more emphasis on drama, less on potentially sexy stuff, with Monika’s nudity only fleeting and largely hidden by the title card.

The Women and Bergman (28:40)
This is an extra on Disc Three, with Smiles of a Summer Night. Directed by Eva Beling in 2007 for Swedish television, The Women and Bergman (Kvinnorna och Bergman) is introduced by Nils Petter Sundgren. He hosts a discussion with four women who had worked with Bergman at various times of their and his career: Bibi Andersson, Gunnel Lindblom, Pernilla August (who had effectively played Bergman’s mother twice, in Fanny and Alexander and the Bergman-scripted The Best Intentions) and Elin Klinga, the youngest here, who had acted for Bergman on stage. The four women span most of Bergman’s career, and given that Andersson and Lindblom are no longer with us, this programme does allow them to contribute to this Blu-ray. The four pass on their memories of Bergman, both to work with, and in Andersson’s case as part of her personal life too. She says that her role in The Touch was written for Liv Ullmann, but when the film was made Bergman and Ullmann had broken up, so she was asked to play the role as a favour. Bergman soon had a strong reputation as a director of women, and there are stories of actresses asking their agents how they could be introduced to him. On this evidence, the women in his professional and personal lives often remembered him fondly.

Audio commentary on The Seventh Seal by Kat Ellinger
New to this release is a full-length commentary by Kat Ellinger. She says that Bergman is one of her favourite directors (along with Fellini) and defends him against accusations of intellectual angst and dourness, pointing out the rich humanity in Bergman’s work. However, as she says late on, she discovered this film and Bergman via her watching Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey as a teenager, however heretical that admission might be (I’d say it’s not). Much of the commentary is making a case for The Seventh Seal being a folk horror film and Bergman being a pioneer of that genre. It’s certainly true that horror (if maybe not genre horror) is never far away from much of his work – see also The Magician in this set and the later Hour of the Wolf in particular. Ellinger gives a detailed analysis of this film, and the result is an excellent commentary.

The remaining extras are also on Disc Four.

Behind-the-scenes footage on The Seventh Seal(14:50)
Shot in very grainy black and white, this is a compilation of footage shot at the time of the film’s location shooting, and we see Bergman, Gunnar Fischer, Max von Sydow and Bibi Andersson. The film shot on location for just three days, and the sparse crew we see was due to the film’s low budget. There’s quite a bit of playing to camera involved. You have the choice of watching this footage mute or with an informative commentary by Ian Christie.

Karin’s Face (14:32)
Karin’s Face (Karins ansikte) is a short documentary, made in 1984 but premiered on Swedish television in 1986. It’s Bergman’s tribute to his mother, beginning with her passport, issued in her last years, and covering her life through family still photographs. Bergman almost effaces himself entirely, as this film uses the simplest of means: those photographs, some text captions (no voiceover) and a solo piano score from Käbi Laretei, a concert pianist who had been Bergman’s fourth wife from 1959 to 1969. Simple it may be, but it’s clearly deeply felt.

Trailer for The Seventh Seal (2:44)
Nowadays, of course, it would be easy to sell The Seventh Seal to an audience, but you’d imagine the marketing people at Svensk Filmindustri scratching their heads back in 1957. The result is this trailer, which begins with several disconnected scenes before a voiceover narration basically summarises the film’s plot and themes. What someone who knew nothing about the film would make of this, or if they would be enthused to go to see it, is a good question.

Book
The BFI provide a 96-page book with this release, with a spoiler warning to watch the films first if you haven’t seen them before. There’s no overview essay this time, so the book begins with David Jenkins on Summer Interlude. He looks at the film as a story about trauma, comparing it with To Joy, which also starred Maj-Britt Nilsson. In the earlier film, the traumatic event that ends the central love story is at the beginning, precipitating a long flashback, but with this it’s in the middle of the film’s running time, so we have both cause and effect. Ellen Cheshire talks about Waiting Women, pointing out that the women are less passive that the title, literally translated from the Swedish, might suggest. Cheshire goes on to discuss the film’s experimental structure, with the stories/flashbacks inside a framing narrative and the three embedded stories in different modes. She also discusses some of the reviews of the time, which tended to look on the film unfavourably given that British audiences saw the film eight years late and some of Bergman’s greatest films had been released in between.

Leigh Singer discusses Summer with Monika. He gets the film’s then-scandalous reputation out of the way early on, and concentrates on Harriet Andersson’s performance, in particular the long-held close-up near the end. If the film, atypically for Bergman, looks like a proto-New Wave film, it should be noted that Truffaut and Godard both praised the film, Godard this scene especially. Kieron McCormick tackles A Lesson in Love, now generally regarded as a more minor work, but at the time commercially successful and part of what people then called Bergman’s rose period, of comedies of manners. McCormick allies the film to Hollywood screwball “comedies of remarriage”, which work in reunited estranged couples rather than bringing them together originally.

Next up is Philip Kemp on Smiles of a Summer Night, describing how well Bergman achieves a comedy like this, though it’s one not without its darker elements. The essay ends with an account of what Bergman said to Stephen Sondheim after seeing the latter’s stage musical A Little Night Music – the film and the play had nothing in common except the same story. Jessica Kiang makes a similar case for The Seventh Seal that Kat Ellinger does, emphasising the film’s humanity and accessibility and its vivacity in the face of (literal) Death.

Geoff Andrew begins by describing Wild Strawberries as a road movie, one made about two decades before that genre appeared, If so, it’s a story of a journey through time as well as through space and fulfils the criteria for a road movie in being more about revealing the characters of those on the journey than the goal of the destination. Andrew also talks about how the film has many coded autobiographical aspects: for example, the ages of Isak and his son Evald (seventy-eight and thirty-eight) matched those of Sjöstrom and Bergman, with the latter casting himself as a kind of son and successor to the former, much as father and son are in the film itself. Finally, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas talks about The Magician, starting with a discussion of the Chesterton play Magic. She goes on to talk about the film’s theatrical background and use of masks and its themes of truth and deception.

The book also contains full credits for each film, notes on and credits for the extras, and stills.

summary

At the beginning of the 1950s, Ingmar Bergman was an established writer but less so as a director and barely known outside Sweden at all. By the end of the decade, he was a major figure in world cinema during a rich period for the form. At the time and in the next decade, to be culturally up to date, you had to watch the latest major work of an international auteur, from Bergman or others (such as Kurosawa, Fellini, Antonioni and the French New Wave). It’s hard to narrow Bergman’s filmography down to just a few masterpieces, but some of his 1950s films certainly do fall in that category and are well presented in this BFI box set. Volumes Three and Four will follow in 2022.

Ingmar Bergman: Volume 2 Blu-ray cover
Ingmar Bergman: Volume 2

Summer Interlude
Sommarlek
Sweden 1951
96 mins
directed by
Ingmar Bergman
production managed by
Allan Ekelund
written by
Herbert Grevenius
Ingmar Bergman
cinematography
Gunnar Fischer
editing
Oscar Rosander
music
Erik Nordgren
art direction
Nils Svenwall
starring
Maj-Britt Nilsson
Alf Kjellin
Birger Malmsten
Annalisa Ericson
Georg Funkquist
Stig Olin

Waiting Women
Kvinnors väntan
Sweden 1952
107 mins
directed by
Ingmar Bergman
production managed by
Allan Ekelund
written by
Ingmar Bergman
cinematography
Gunnar Fischer
Maurice Brunet (Paris)
editing
Oscar Rosander
music
Erik Nordgren
art direction
Nils Svenwall
starring
Anita Björk
Eva Dahlbeck
Maj-Britt Nilsson
Birger Malmsten
Gunnar Björnstrand
Karl-Arne Holmsten

Summer with Monika
Sommaren med Monika
Sweden 1953
96 mins
directed by
Ingmar Bergman
production managed by
Allan Ekelund
written by
PA Fogelström
Ingmar Bergman
from the novel by
PA Fogelström
cinematography
Gunnar Fischer
editing
Tage Holmberg
Gösta Lewin
music
Erik Nordgren
art direction
PA Lundgren
Nils Svenwall
starring
Harriet Andersson
Lars Ekborg
Dagmar Ebbesen
Åke Fridell
Naemi Briese
Åke Grönberg

A Lesson in Love
En lektion i kärlek
Sweden 1954
96 mins
directed by
Ingmar Bergman
produced by
Carl Anders Dymling
written by
Ingmar Bergman
cinematography
Martin Bodin
editing
Oscar Rosander
music
Dag Wirén
art direction
PA Lundgren
starring
Eva Dahlbeck
Gunnar Björnstrand
Yvonne Lombard
Harriet Andersson
Åke Grönberg
Olof Winnerstrand

Smiles of a Summer Night
Sommarnattens leende
Sweden 1955
109 mins
directed by
Ingmar Bergman
production managed by
Allan Ekelund
written by
Ingmar Bergman
cinematography
Gunnar Fischer
editing
Oscar Rosander
music
Erik Nordgren
art direction
PA Lundgren
starring
Gunnar Björnstrand
Ulla Jacobsson
Björn Bjelfvenstam
Eva Dahlbeck
Naima Wifstrand
Jarl Kulle

The Seventh Seal
Det sjunde inseglet
Sweden 1957
96 mins
directed by
Ingmar Bergman
production managed by
Allan Ekelund
written by
Ingmar Bergman
based on the play Trämålning by
Ingmar Bergman
cinematography
Gunnar Fischer
editing
Lennart Wallén
music
Erik Nordgren
art direction
PA Lundgren
starring
Max von Sydow
Inga Landgré
Gunnar Björnstrand
Nils Poppe
Bibi Andersson
Bengt Ekerot
Åke Fridell

Wild Strawberries
Smultronstället
Sweden 1957
91 mins
directed by
Ingmar Bergman
producer
Carl Anders Dymling
written by
Ingmar Bergman
cinematography
Gunnar Fischer
editing
Oscar Rosander
music
Erik Nordgren
art direction
Gittan Gustafsson
starring
Victor Sjöström
Bibi Andersson
Ingrid Thulin
Gunnar Björnstrand
Jullan Kindahl
Folke Sundquist
Björn Bjelfvenstam

The Magician
Ansiktet
Sweden 1958
107 mins
directed by
Ingmar Bergman
production managed by
Allan Ekelund
written by
Ingmar Bergman
cinematography
Gunnar Fischer
editing
Oscar Rosander
music
Erik Nordgren
art direction
PA Lundgren
starring
Max von Sydow
Ingrid Thulin
Gunnar Björnstrand
Naima Wifstrand
Bengt Ekerot
Bibi Andersson
Gertrud Fridh

disc details
region B
video
1.37:1 / 1.33:1
sound
LPCM 1.0
languages
Swedish
subtitles
English
extras
Trailer for Summer with Monika
The Women and Bergman discussion
Audio commentary on The Seventh Seal by Kat Ellinger
Behind-the-scenes footage on The Seventh Seal
Karin’s Face short film
Trailer for The Seventh Seal
Book

distributor
BFI
release date
8 November 2021
review posted
15 November 2021

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Ingmar Bergman: Volume 1
The Seventh Seal [UHD review]
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