- Born: 1918
- Died: 2007
- Rank: 5
- Score: 913.70
- Awards: 2 NYFC / 3 NSFC / 2 NBR
- Nominations: 3 Oscars / DGA / Golden Globe
- Feature Films: 42
- Best: Cries and Whispers
- Worst: The Serpent’s Egg
Top 10 Feature Films:
- Cries and Whispers – 1972
- The Seventh Seal – 1957
- Wild Strawberries – 1957
- Fanny and Alexander – 1983
- The Virgin Spring – 1960
- Smiles of a Summer Night – 1955
- Scenes from a Marriage – 1973
- Winter Light – 1963
- Persona – 1966
- Autumn Sonata – 1978
Top 10 Best Director Finishes (Nighthawk Awards):
- 1956 – 9th – Sawdust and Tinsel
- 1957 – 3rd – Smiles of a Summer Night
- 1958 – 2nd – The Seventh Seal
- 1959 – 1st – Wild Strawberries
- 1959 – 8th – The Magician
- 1960 – 2nd – The Virgin Spring
- 1962 – 7th – Through a Glass Darkly
- 1963 – 5th – Winter Light
- 1967 – 4th – Persona
- 1968 – 7th – Hour of the Wolf
- 1968 – 8th – The Shame
- 1970 – 10th – The Passion of Anna
- 1973 – 1st – Cries and Whispers
- 1974 – 6th – Scenes from a Marriage
- 1976 – 7th – Face to Face
- 1978 – 3rd – Autumn Sonata
- 1983 – 1st – Fanny and Alexander
The Nobel Committee lost a great chance in July of 2007 when Ingmar Bergman died. There was no better opportunity to explore the idea of film as literature than to give Ingmar Bergman the Nobel Prize for Literature. His screenplays are the most literate of any filmmaker and have been widely published. He has written (and directed) some of the greatest meditations on death (The Seventh Seal), god (Winter Light) and family relations (Cries and Whispers). He was one of the most widely respected and critically hailed filmmakers to ever live. And to top it all off, he was Swedish. He wins my Best Director award three times, but he wins my Best Original Screenplay award a mind-boggling 8 times (he also wins my Best Foreign Film award 10 times). Yet somehow neither Academy, the Swedes or the AMPAS, managed to give him an award (Academy records list the producer of Foreign Film as the winner, thus Bergman never officially won an Oscar despite his three Best Foreign Film awards).
He began as a screenwriter during World War II before graduating to the position of writer-director. He made several solid films in the late 40’s before starting to find some international recognition in the early to mid 50’s with Summer Interlude, Monika and Sawdust and Tinsel. He began to gather around him a troupe of talented actors, some of whom like Liv Ullmann and Max Von Sydow would eventually find international stardom, but many like Gunnar Bjornstrand, Eva Dahlbeck, Ingrid Thulin, Bibi Andersson, Erland Josephson and Harriet Andersson, would remain with Bergman for years and years. Many of these stars were with him for the two films that began the true heights of his international recognition: Smiles of a Summer Night and The Seventh Seal. Then came Wild Strawberries, and his first Oscar nomination. The sixties brought back to back Oscar wins for Best Foreign Film (The Virgin Spring and Through a Glass Darkly). Through a Glass Darkly was the start of what is now known as The Silence Trilogy (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, The Silence), a highly praised trilogy of films on the silence of God.
Not all was perfect. Hidden between his masterpieces are much lesser works like The Devil’s Eye and Now About These Women, films that are often overlooked by Bergman enthusiasts. The seventies would also have its fair share of failures (The Touch and The Serpent’s Egg). But surrounding those would be the great collaborations with Liv Ullmann. While various members of the troupe had moved in and out of the lead roles, starting with Persona, Bergman began and on and off screen relationship with Ullmann and would produce some of the finest of Bergman’s films and the best work Ullmann would ever do: Persona, The Shame, Hour of the Wolf, Cries and Whispers, Scenes from a Marriage, Face to Face and Autumn Sonata. Cries and Whispers would finally break through and get a Best Picture nomination and Ullmann herself would finally get nominated for Face to Face. In 1983, Bergman presented his farewell film, a look back at his childhood with Fanny and Alexander, presented both as a 3 hour feature film and as a 6 hour television mini-series. Only two more films would follow; After the Rehearsal, a television film, would get a theatrical release in 1984 and Saraband, a long awaited follow-up to Scenes from a Marriage reuniting Ullmann and Josephson in their original roles would be Bergman’s true farewell in 2003 (another great film – finishing just outside his top 10). In the middle years he continued to write, finishing novels and various screenplays, one of which would be directed by Liv Ullmann, another great overlooked film that seemed to be very much about Bergman himself (played by Josephson, no less). But then he finally died and the great chance for the Nobel Committee to expand their definition of literature and embrace film, the great literary form of the 20th century, was lost.
Smiles of a Summer Night – #3 film of 1957
I had skipped my film class one day in the Spring of 1996. When I was asked why during the next class, I protested being shown a film that was dubbed (at the time it was the only way to see Day for Night), especially one I had seen before. When I was asked what I spent the time doing instead, I replied “I watched a Woody Allen drama and a Bergman comedy.” That stopped my teacher dead right there. But then she thought about it and realized what I had been watching (the Allen film was Interiors) and knew I had done as well as I could; I had been expanding my own film horizons with great films.
Smiles of a Summer Night is out of place in the Bergman history; not because it is a comedy, but because it is a comedy that ranks among his best films. Bergman was a deadly serious director and many of his best films are emblematic of that; while there are some scenes of comic relief in Seventh Seal, there is very little to even smile about in Cries and Whispers, Virgin Spring or Fanny and Alexander. Bergman did make other comedies; Smiles isn’t unique in being a Bergman comedy. It’s just that the other comedies (A Lesson in Love, Secrets of Women, Devil’s Eye, Now About These Women) tend to be among his weaker films. Yet Smiles is an unqualified masterpiece, and my love of is only enhanced by the fact that it is the direct inspiration for one of my favorite musicals of all-time: A Little Night Music (which I had just seen in London with Judi Dench in the starring role a month before).
At heart, Smiles is a combination of two things: a romantic comedy with switching partners, and a country house play that was typical of Britain and Europe, but almost unknown in the States (Bergman’s film mentor, Alf Sjoberg, had made a fantastic film from Miss Julie, one of the great country house plays). But Bergman added something more. In part he added humiliation. How odd for the male lead in a romantic comedy to be so constantly humiliated as is poor Frederik Egerman (the first great role for Gunnar Bjornstrand, whose brilliant work for Bergman includes the page in Seventh Seal, the father in Through a Glass Darkly and the tortured priest in Winter Light). His wife has refused to allow herself to be de-flowered, he must exit with wet clothes to avoid a duel and after his wife leaves, he can’t even kill himself in proper fashion. There is his poor son Henrik, tortured by the sultry maid, torn by his love for his step-mother and forced to watch all the ongoings without being able to act. Were it not for the lucky placement of a secret moving bed, his luck would never improve. But of course there is dignity as well. There is Eva Dahlbeck as Desiree, the role that would become so famous on stage. She is proud and smart and strong and she is going to get what she wants, no matter what it takes and her machinations are what makes the script run towards its conclusion.
But then there is other aspect that Bergman brings to the proceedings. There are Petra, the maid and Frid, the groom. Because, really, what would the film be without them? Another look at how screwed up the upper class can be? But here we have the servants given their own storyline, their own sexy romp in the hay (literally). They add a side of lusty sensuality to the whole proceedings. In fact, it is Harriet Andersson who holds the whole film together, with one of the best performances of her career (a fantastic career that includes Sawdust and Tinsel, Through a Glass Darkly and Fanny and Alexander). Here, blonde, and in a role that would later have been played by Bibi Andersson, she uses her sexuality in her relationship with Frederik and observes all the silly maneuverings of the masters of the house. But she finds her own match with Frid and she demands at the end of the film that he must marry her, that their carnality will lead to something more. And this look at these two characters, heralding the light of day, is the truly fine conclusion of the film. There is a reason, after all, that it’s this picture of the two of them that sits on the cover of the Criterion DVD.