Film director Bergman dies at 89

Special to the Tribune

Ingmar Bergman, one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of cinema and an artist who changed the way the world perceived the movies, died Monday, local media reported. He was 89 years old.

Bergman died at his home in Faro, Sweden, Swedish news agency TT said, citing his daughter Eva Bergman. A cause of death wasn't immediately available.

Though he worked almost exclusively in Sweden, Bergman became, through his long directorial career (1946-2003), the prime example of the film director as serious artist. He was a filmmaker who regularly tackled serious subjects and profound themes—love, death, guilt, redemption, psychological and sexual traumas, the relationship of man and God—and an artist who elevated filmmaking to the same lofty plateaus as great literature, music and theater. Though his range was narrower, he was the Shakespeare of his age.

Lauded for his films' brilliant acting, shocking imagery and beautiful cinematography (the last thanks to his great longtime collaborator, Sven Nykvist), Bergman created numerous classics over his 57-year directorial career (from 1946's "Crisis" to 2003's "Saraband.")

That long list includes "Smiles of a Summer Night" (1955), "The Seventh Seal" (1957), "Wild Strawberries" (1957), "Winter Light" (1963), "Persona" (1966), "Shame" (1968), "Cries and Whispers" (1972), "Scenes from a Marriage" (1973), "The Magic Flute" (1975) and "Fanny and Alexander" (1982).

Bergman was also a starmaker, fostering the international careers of cinematographer Nykvist and actors Max von Sydow, Harriet Andersson, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, Lena Olin and his supreme collaborator, Liv Ullmann. Remarkably, parallel with his film career, Bergman led an almost as illustrious life as Sweden's leading theater director, leading finally to over a hundred plays and a long association with Stockholm's Royal Dramatic Theatre. Though his work for film and television often intersected, as in the longer multi-part TV versions of "Scenes from a Marriage," "Face to Face" (1976) and "Fanny and Alexander," he was that country's leading TV drama director as well.

Bergman may have owed part of his incredible productivity to something against which he fought for much of his life: the strict religious upbringing he received from his parents. Born in Uppsala, Sweden in July 14, 1918, Bergman was the son of Erik Bergman, a rigid, ultra-conservative Church of Sweden Lutheran pastor who eventually became chaplain of the Royal Court of Stockholm, and of the art-loving Karin Bergman—celebrated by her son in the 1985 short "Karin's Face."

The long clash with his father—who disapproved of his son's profession and lifestyle (five wives and a number of mistresses, including actresses Ullmann and Harriet and Bibi Andersson)—fed Bergman's divided artistic spirit. It can clearly be seen in films like "Fanny and Alexander," "Winter Light" and in his script for the semi-autobiographical "The Best Intentions" (1992).

It was a wealthy aunt who fostered his lifelong passion, when she gave the family a magic lantern when he was 6. He saw his first play at 10, began staging puppet productions at home with his sister Margareta and plunged into theater in college at the University of Stockholm.

Bergman staged his first play ("Outward Bound") at 20 and in 1944, he was hired as the director of the Helsingborg Town Theatre (the youngest main director in Swedish history at the time), leading to similar engagements at Malmo (where he assembled most of his great early stock company, including von Sydow, the Anderssons, Thulin and Gunnar Bjornstrand) and eventually at the Royal Dramatic Theater.

Later, Bergman's big break came not as director, but as a 26-year-old screenwriter for much-admired cineaste Alf Sjoberg on the 1944 "Hets" ("Frenzy"), a major prize winner at Cannes. Bergman made his own directorial debut with 1946's "Crisis." Through all his later ups and downs, as he won world adulation and retreated to a private home on Faro Island, the site of many of his films, Bergman's stature never dimmed.

The worst of his crises came in 1976 when, at the height of his career, he was arrested at the Royal Dramatic Theatre during a rehearsal of Strindberg's "Dance of Death" by two plainclothes policemen, hustled off to a tax office and grilled about an alleged 1971 tax violation, which—after Bergman's nervous collapse three days later and a public outcry—was dropped by the public prosecutor. Miffed, the overzealous tax representatives of Sweden's Social Democrat welfare state (which Bergman supported) tried again, focusing on a dubious 1974 case.

This time, Bergman responded by announcing his self-exile from Sweden (though he vowed to pay all taxes and penalties) and the closing of his studio, leaving for an unhappy sojourn in Germany. The resulting scandal helped lose the next election for the Social Democrats, followed by a 1979 settlement of Bergman's case in which he paid 7 percent of the original demand and the government was ordered to cover all court costs.

Bergman eventually returned to Sweden to direct "Autumn Sonata" with Ullmann and Ingrid Bergman and his masterpiece "Fanny and Alexander," after which he announced his retirement from movies. Typically, he kept on directing plays and even a few more films, while flourishing in a new career as a scriptwriter of semi-autobiographical pictures for other directors, including: 1992's "The Best Intentions" (a Cannes Palme d'Or winner) for Bille August, and 1992's "Sunday's Children" for son Daniel and 1996's "Private Confessions" and 2000's "Faithless" for his ex-lover Ullmann— whose string of performances for Bergman, from "Persona" to "Saraband," are among the finest in screen history. Bergman announced his retirement again after "Saraband," a sequel to "Scenes from a Marriage."

Bergman's reputation as a serious artist made him susceptible. But few filmmakers received more critical acclaim. His list of awards includes many citations at Cannes as well as Venice, Berlin and other festivals and three foreign language film Oscars for "The Virgin Spring" (1960), "Through a Glass Darkly" (1961) and "Fanny and Alexander."

During his long, amazingly productive career, Bergman remained devoted to the cinema, the arts and the mysteries of the human spirit. His early work was largely dark and brooding, his middle films intense and virtuosic, his later films intimate and self-revelatory. Through it all, he never lost his passion for drama and for his primary subject: the human face, mask and persona.

Bergman was married five times: to dancer Else Fisher, dancer Ellen Lundstrom, screenwriter-journalist Gun Hagberg, pianist Kabi Laretei and Ingrid Karlebo. His children include sons Jan (deceased), Mats, Ingmar and Daniel and daughters Lena, Eva, Anna and (his daughter with Ullmann) Linn.

This report makes use of Ingmar Bergman's "Images" and Peter Cowie's "Ingmar Bergman: A Critical Biography." The Associated Press contributed.

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