Cinema’s brooding auteur of the psyche

Special to The Times

Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish auteur whose visionary work in early masterpieces such as “The Seventh Seal” and “Wild Strawberries” and later films such as “Persona” and “Cries and Whispers” probed the depths of the human psyche with existential dramas that redefined cinema, died Monday. He was 89.

The reclusive Academy Award-winning director and writer died at his home on the Baltic island of Faro off the coast of Sweden. Astrid Soderbergh Widding, president of the Ingmar Bergman Foundation, confirmed his death on the foundation’s website. Bergman had never fully recovered from hip surgery in October, Swedish news media reported.

Bergman was considered one of the greatest directors in motion picture history. His movies are credited with helping open America’s doors to foreign films in the 1950s.


He won Oscars three times for best foreign-language film -- for “The Virgin Spring” (1960), “Through a Glass Darkly” (1961) and “Fanny and Alexander” (1983) -- and received the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Irving J. Thalberg Award in 1970 for his body of work.

“Bergman was the epitome of a director’s director -- creating beautiful, complex and smart films that imprinted permanently into the psyche -- inspiring filmmakers all over the world to create their own movies with similar passion and brio,” Michael Apted, president of the Directors Guild of America, said in a statement.

Filmmaker Woody Allen, in a statement, called Bergman a friend. “He told me that he was afraid that he would die on a very, very sunny day, and I can only hope that it was overcast and he got the weather he wanted.”

The reference acknowledged Bergman’s reputation for gloomy and introspective films, which he had admitted to early in his career:

“I don’t want to produce a work of art that the public can sit and suck aesthetically.... I want to give them a blow in the small of the back, to scorch their indifference, to startle them out of their complacency.”

Critic Peter Rainer wrote for The Times in 2005 that “Bergman is undeniably one of the great directors, but he has always stood for more than the sum of his films. From the first, he was regarded ... as a visionary who grappled with the Big Questions of God and Man. His symbol-thick films were drenched in the night sweats of mortal torment. He was the kind of artist we had been brought up to believe was the real deal: He suffered for our souls.”


Bergman’s films plumbed personal relationships, social dilemmas and ethical issues, with their attendant emotions of joy, love, longing, fear, shame, desire, loneliness, pain and hate.

Often seen as a vanguard feminist, Bergman created female characters who were strong, patient and innately wise, while his male characters were usually selfish, self-indulgent or intolerant.

Cinematographer Sven Nykvist became his most familiar collaborator in a partnership that began in 1960. They shared a preference for location shooting and natural light, and Nykvist won an Academy Award for “Cries and Whispers” (1972), which told the story of a dying woman and the two sisters and servant who attend her.

The film had “the hypnotic style of a single dream,” critic Pauline Kael wrote in her book “Reeling” (1976). “It is all one enveloping dream fantasy; the invisible protagonist, Ingmar Bergman, is the presence we feel throughout.”

She also observed that in much of his work “the imagery derives its power from unconscious or not fully understood associations” that could cause Bergman to explain a scene by saying, “It’s just my poetry,” while leaving the viewer to wonder what he was trying to accomplish.

His strength as a filmmaker began to emerge with “Wild Strawberries” (1957), a movie many critics considered his best although it was made early in his career. He masterfully used flashbacks to tell the story of an elderly doctor who reviews his life’s failures through dreams and a visit home.


“There is no more resonant leave-taking in movies than the final shot of Victor Sjostrom’s aged physician in ‘Wild Strawberries,’ his head on the pillow after a long odyssey, as he turns into a revenant before our eyes,” Rainer wrote in The Times.

“Wild Strawberries” significantly influenced the American film “Five Easy Pieces,” the 1970 production by Bob Rafelson about a concert pianist, played by Jack Nicholson, who drops out to work in an oil field, Kael wrote.

Allen once described Bergman as “probably the greatest film artist

“I still recall my mouth dry and my heart pounding away from the first uncanny dream sequence to the last serene close-up. Who can forget such images? The clock with no hands. The horse-drawn hearse suddenly becoming stuck -- the blinding sunlight and the face of the old man as he is being pulled into the coffin by his own dead body,” Allen wrote in the New York Times in 1988. “Clearly, here was a master with an inspired personal style; an artist of deep concern and intellect, whose films would prove equal to great European literature.”

Allen’s gloomy “Interiors” (1978) evoked “Persona” (1965), and “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986) was in some ways reminiscent of the master’s “Fanny and Alexander.” Like Bergman, Allen often concentrates on a cluster of overwrought female characters, and some of his films drew on Bergman’s company of actors, including Liv Ullman and Max von Sydow.

Von Sydow starred as the knight in “The Seventh Seal” (1956), the medieval morality play in which Von Sydow famously played chess with Death. The harrowing meditation on faith in 14th-century Sweden further cemented Bergman’s international reputation.

When the film was released, Bergman was so revered that the editors of a Swedish film magazine declared they would print only negative criticism about the director and his movies. Bergman was amused by the ploy and, using a pseudonym, penned an attack on himself.


With “Persona,” he confirmed his instinctive talent for directing actresses.

The haunting and self-reflective work was “Bergman’s sparest and most economical film while at the same time having unusual complexity and density. It makes inordinate demands on the audience, yet compels its fascination if not always its comprehension,” critic Robert Emmet Long wrote in the 1994 book “Ingmar Bergman: Film and Stage.”

“Persona” focuses on two look-alike women, played by Ullman and Bibi Andersson, who meet in a psychiatric hospital where one is a patient and the other a nurse. Their personal boundaries blur to the point that their consciousness seems to merge.

Bergman’s consciousness was formed through his strict upbringing and complicated family relationships.

He was born Ernst Ingmar Bergman in Uppsala, Sweden, to Lutheran pastor Erik Bergman, who became the royal family’s chaplain, and his wife, Karin.

His early life was often reflected in his films, including his script for “The Best Intentions” (1992).

His first childhood visit to “film town,” a studio in Rasunda, Sweden, he noted years later, was “just like entering heaven.”


“When I was 10 years old I received my first, rattling film projector, with its chimney and lamp,” Bergman wrote in an introduction to his 1960 book “Four Screenplays.”

“This little rickety machine was my first conjuring set. And even today I remind myself that I am really a conjurer.... I perform conjuring tricks with an apparatus so expensive and so wonderful that any entertainer in history would have given anything to have it.”

At Stockholm University, Bergman studied art and literature and became involved in stage production, acting and directing. He also distanced himself from his family.

“That strict middle-class home gave me a wall to pound on, something to sharpen myself against,” Bergman said, crediting his family with much of his development. “At the same time, they taught me a number of values -- efficiency, punctuality, a sense of financial responsibility -- which may be ‘bourgeois’ but are nevertheless important to the artist.”

After leaving college, Bergman became a trainee-director at a Stockholm theater and wrote many plays, novels and short stories, most of which were never published.

He joined Svensk Filmindustri as a script doctor in 1941, and in 1944 was assigned to write his first film script, “Hets,” which became “Torment” in the U.S. The film was such an international success that the Swedish film industry assigned him to “Crisis” the next year.


Bergman became engrossed with films primarily to escape his personal life, which he called “a fiasco,” he told The Times in 1984.

“I had been married three times when I was 30,” he said. “I wanted to become a good director because as a human being I was a failure. In the studio and the theater, I could live happily. I still feel that way.”

In all, he married five times, fathered nine children and had a succession of mistresses that included actresses from his films -- Harriet Andersson, Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman, with whom he had a daughter, novelist Linn Bergman.

He married choreographer Else Fisher, dancer Ellen Lundstrom, journalist Gun Grut, pianist Kabi Laretei and, from 1971 until her death in 1995, Ingrid von Rosen, who became his secretary and manager. “It’s not hard for me to say farewell to the cinema,” Bergman told The Times somewhat surprisingly in 1984.

He had declared his 1982 film “Fanny and Alexander” his last, but planned to continue to work in theater and television.

“It would be a catastrophe if I was forced to leave the theater,” said Bergman, who directed more than 100 plays. “I love it much more than the cinema.”


The last play he directed was Ibsen’s “Ghosts” in 2002, and his last work was “Saraband,” a made-for-television movie that aired in Sweden the same year he retired, 2003.

When “Saraband” was released in theaters in 2005, Time magazine said it “may be Bergman’s final primal scream, which his art and craft give the severe majesty of a Bach cello suite.” The film dealt with another painful issue from his past, the death of an estranged son.

Bergman continued to write -- screenplays, a novel and his autobiography, “The Magic Lantern” (1987). The memoir became the basis for his youngest son Daniel’s 1989 film, “Sunday’s Children.”

Early in his career, Bergman often spent as many as seven months a year directing theater, including running the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm from 1963 to 1966.

“The theater is like a loyal wife,” he said in 1950. “Film is the great adventure, the costly and demanding mistress -- you worship both, each in its own way.”

Bergman often rated the 1950s as “the richest period in my life,” directing 17 plays and eight films in six years.


The period included his most celebrated films -- “Smiles of a Summer Night” in 1955 (later made into the oft-revived Stephen Sondheim musical “A Little Night Music”), “The Seventh Seal” and “Wild Strawberries.” The latter film won the Golden Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival.

In January 1976, Bergman was devastated when he was arrested while rehearsing at Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theater. He was charged with evading more than $600,000 in income taxes in an aborted film deal with Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini. Although he was cleared of the charges two months later, the episode sent him into a deep depression that was characterized as a nervous breakdown.

Somewhat recovered by April, a bitter Bergman wrote a newspaper article with the headline “Now I Am Leaving Sweden” and began an eight-year self-imposed exile to Germany.

The exile, he insisted, was “not a statement. It’s just a move to save my brain, my nerves, my health ... my soul.”

Settling in Munich, Bergman directed theater and formed a new film company, Personafilm.

Regardless of where he made his films, many viewers around the world conceded they couldn’t understand them. Some of those who did were critical -- claiming Bergman espoused his own rigid view of the world, with brooding pessimism, and displayed an obsession with death, betrayal and disillusionment.

“I was very cruel to actors and to other people,” he said when he was in his 60s. “I was a very, very unpleasant young man. If I met the young Ingmar today, I think I would say, ‘You are very talented and I will see if I can help you, but I don’t think I want anything else to do with you.’


“I don’t say I’m pleasant now, but I think I changed slowly in my 50s. At least I hope I’ve changed.”

Ingrid Bergman, the late Swedish-born actress, was kinder. When she worked for him in Oslo on “Autumn Sonata” in 1977, she said:

“I heard he was a beast, very temperamental, always yelling and screaming, but he never raised his voice once to me.... He’s big enough to listen to your ideas, and if he likes them he’ll use them. He’s very flexible ... allowing his actors to feel they are creating too, and are not just marionettes in his hands.”

Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander” was something of a valedictory, a reinvention of his childhood and a summation of his work, with many allusions to his previous films.

“To make another picture and have it feel gray and heavy and difficult with lots of problems -- that would be very sad,” he said after declaring the 1982 film his finale.

“And I have seen many of my colleagues get older and older and more and more dusty until suddenly they are thrown out.... Better to stop now when everything is perfect.”


Near the end of his life, Bergman said his own movies depressed him and he couldn’t watch them anymore.

For the 50th anniversary of the Cannes International Film Festival in 1997, former winners of the festival’s top award, the Golden Palm, assembled on stage to give Bergman -- who had never won the trophy -- the honorary Palm of Palms super award.

In accepting for Bergman, his daughter read a message from her father: “Forgive an old man for not being here tonight. He says: ‘After years and years of playing with the images of life and death, life itself has finally caught up with me.’ ”

Myrna Oliver is a former Times staff writer. Times staff writers Elaine Woo, Valerie J. Nelson and John Horn contributed to this report.



Bergman films

Some of the movies directed by Ingmar Bergman, who also wrote or co-wrote the screenplays unless otherwise noted:

* “Crisis”

* “Eva”

* “Illicit Interlude”

* “Secrets of Women”

* “Smiles of a Summer Night”

* “The Seventh Seal”

* “Wild Strawberries”

* “The Virgin Spring”

* “Through a Glass Darkly”

* “The Silence”

* “Persona”

* “Hour of the Wolf”

* “Cries and Whispers”

* “Scenes from a Marriage”

* “The Magic Flute” (director)

* “Face to Face”

* “Autumn Sonata”

* “Fannie and Alexander”

Sources: Associated Press, Times Reporting