A Beginners Guide to Ingmar Bergman

To celebrate Film4’s Ingmar Bergman season starting tonight on Film4, What Culture! presents a beginners guide to one of the most influential directors in the history of cinema.

To celebrate Film4€™s Ingmar Bergman season starting tonight, Monday July 4th, I decided to use the director as the first subject in this new regular weekly series of beginners guides for WhatCulture! Ingmar Bergman is one of the most influential directors in the history of cinema. Thematically and stylistically his work lives on through various filmmakers such as Francis Ford Coppola, Pedro Almodovar and most famously Woody Allen. He began his career in his home country of Sweden, where he worked as a script writer for a production company in the early 1940€™s. The company asked him to watch a regular dose of American films and copy the Hollywood way of script writing but Bergman, a young man with ambitions far greater than those around him, grew frustrated as the movies he had to watch all seemed fake and superficial to him. The narrative structures too linear, the characters too one dimensional and the cinematography too bland and forgettable. In retaliation to this he wrote his own scripts which dealt with issues he felt cinema was obliged to address. He also felt that the audiences deserved better quality and deeper stories. Bergman€™s movies mainly deal with isolation, loneliness, religion and mortality - themes which he always brought to the forefront and dealt with in depth. Other filmmakers of this time normally shied away from delving too deep into these ideas and more often than not left issues such as these for the audience to interpret and ponder. Bergman however reveled in these idea€™s and in doing so was able to produce some of the deepest, darkest character studies in cinematic history. His films deal with frighteningly complex issues, such as the loss of passionate youth (Summer Interlude), battling religion with reason (Through a Glass Darkly) and €˜spiritual€™ death (Cries and Whispers). He explored these issues and dramatises them with great theatricality. But please don€™t get the wrong idea. Even though these films may sound awfully deep and complex, Bergman is first and foremost an entertainer. Not that I€™m saying his films work as entertainment are on the same level of, say, a James Bond movie but what I mean is that Bergman can take these deep, dark, depressing cerebral themes and somehow make the film feel like a worthwhile experience. They hold your interest and make sure that you are invested in the characters by getting so deep into their heads and making them so flawed and personal that when the film ends you feel a sense of satisfaction for following them on their journey. When lesser films deal with these themes, the finished films can often come off as boring and pretentious, with Bergman this is not the case.
Visually, Bergman€™s films always stand out. On paper, the stories that he wrote would seem more at home on a stage rather than a cinema screen, but he was so creative and artistic that he made these dramas as visual as possible. Think of €˜The Seventh Seal€™ arguably his most famous film, that deals with mortality and death head on. If it sounds boring to you, then you should consider those themes and contrast them with the image of Death playing chess on the beach with the knight. It€™s one of cinema€™s most famous images, parodied and imitated many times since out of respect to it€™s originality. Even if you have never seen the movie, even if you never knew it€™s name, you would of course know that image. This goes to show how visual he was. He kept you interest with amazing cinematic visuals, obscure editing styles and beautiful black and white photography.
Cinema is a visual medium, which many modern day directors forget. The less words you can use to get a point across on the screen the better, otherwise stick to novels and plays. Bergman utilizes the camera as it should be. One of his biggest trademarks is his use of the close up. He doesn€™t just use it to emphasise drama, he uses it to get into characters head, with the close up normally lingering on the actor for an almost uncomfortable amount of time. It helps the audience to connect with the character and also forces the actor to make the most of the situation with only their face. It brings out some great performances. He knows how to convey important story elements without having anyone on screen say one word. In €˜Wild Strawberries€™ his main character has a nightmare in which he wanders through an empty street before coming across a coffin. At closer inspection he is horrified to discover that the body in the coffin is his own. From this one scene we know all there is to know about the character, he is lonely, feels isolated and is wary of his own mortality, fearing death and yet also trying to come to terms with the fact that he will soon pass on.
Granted Bergman€™s movies can be lengthy and deep. They require a lot of patience but they can be worth the effort. Some of his films require multiple viewings, but you will never walk away from one of them unimpressed. You will either be pleased with the thematic side of the film or the visual stylistic side. I hope that you walk away impressed with both. If however all this sounds boring to you, fear not, as I said earlier, in the hands of a lesser director these films would turn out to be very pretensions and hard to invest in. With Bergman they are art. And like all art, there is a certain air of entertainment to be found in it.
Film4€™s Ingmar Bergman season begins July 4th at 10.50pm with €˜Through a Glass Darkly€™. The season runs until July 17th. Film4 can be found on Sky digital channel 315 in the U.K. If you have anything you'd like to see me cover for the Beginners guide series, a director, actor, genre or franchise, please sound off in the comments and let me know!
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