“Without any hesitation, he’s one of the great artists in the history of cinema,” said Jake Perlin, director of Cinema Conservancy and founder of The Film Desk, both of which distribute repertory films in New York City.
“It’s no exaggeration to say that, on the short list of filmmakers who really matter, who contribute something unique and lasting to the art form, he’s at the top of the list,” said Wheeler Winston Dixon, a film professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and co-author of “A Short History of Film.”
They were both answering the question: “What is Ingmar Bergman’s place in film history?”
I asked because Film Streams, Omaha’s nonprofit arthouse movie theater at 14th and Mike Fahey Streets, is opening a 10-film retrospective of Bergman’s work starting Friday with “Smiles of a Summer Night.”
Ask Perlin and Dixon why Bergman is important, and they wax eloquent.
“The topics he discusses, and the way they’re discussed,” Perlin began. “And, what’s often overlooked, he’s an incredible visual artist as well. Few people have a better command of space and composition and landscape. His films look absolutely exquisite. He has influenced many, many filmmakers.”
“You can’t say you’ve got an understanding of film unless you see the films of Bergman,” Dixon contends. “His films are riveting, they have great entertainment value and they’re absorbing experiences. From the beginning, he addressed the timeless questions of human existence: life, death, love, faith, hope. Meditations on what it is to be alive, to have friends and lovers, to face mortality.”
Ernst Ingmar Bergman was born in Uppsala, Sweden, in July 1918. His father was a Lutheran minister, later chaplain to the king of Sweden. Ingmar directed more than 60 films and documentaries, most of which he also wrote.
He also directed 170 stage plays, through which he developed a core company of actors for his films: Max von Sydow, Liv Ullman, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, Anders Ek and Gunnar BjŲrnstrand among them.
He was one of the first European filmmakers to break through in the United States. Three of his films won the foreign-language Oscar: “The Virgin Spring” (1960), “Through a Glass Darkly” (1961), and “Fanny and Alexander” (1983). Another, “Cries and Whispers” (1974), was nominated for best film. Five scripts earned him Oscar nominations: “Wild Strawberries” (1957), “Autumn Sonata” (1979), “Through a Glass Darkly,” “Cries and Whispers” and “Fanny and Alexander.”
Dixon said Bergman’s career began with a stroke of luck: being born in Sweden. Through its Svensk Filmindustri, the nation underwrites the first film of its best students from the national film school. Bergman’s first was a hit.
“He never had to cater to anyone other than himself,” Dixon said. “He created cinema as an art form because he didn’t worry about audience feedback or test screenings or producers.”
When Dick Cavett once asked Bergman what he’d do if a producer told him to change a script, Bergman replied that he’d tell the producer to go to hell.
“That was a deeply inspirational model to filmmakers around the world, an art form undiluted,” Dixon said.
Asked to list the hallmarks of a Bergman film, Perlin said they are psychologically complex. And though he worked in many genres — comedy, opera, romance, drama — the intensity of the characters’ feelings is heightened.
“In fact, everything is heightened,” he said. “The way the film looks is a notch above others. The performances are a notch above. The ideas he’s wrestling with resonate. They’re the same issues people have been grappling with since the beginning of time: life and death, relationships.”
Bergman was terrified of death. Eventually it became clear his movies were deeply personal, in ways autobiographical.
“He’s trying to understand mortality and how to spend one’s life — making choices that make life worthwhile,” Dixon said.
Dixon sees three phases to Bergman’s film career. His early films are heavily symbolic. The second phase, beginning with “Persona” in 1966, moves away from theatrical form, as if directed on a proscenium stage, and is influenced by New Wave cinema, embracing the creative possibilities of film.
In the third phase he returns to his youth and the early 1900s, and his films explode with light and color. “Cries and Whispers” (initially bankrolled by Roger Corman, of all people) and “Fanny and Alexander” are prime examples.
Perlin said Film Streams’ retrospective “is a really good, smart representation of as many different facets of his career as possible. It’s not to be missed.”
Dixon said the only place you’d expect to see a retrospective like this is New York City. “I’m thrilled,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity to see these films.”
For a complete list of titles, dates and times in Film Streams’ Bergman retrospective, visit online at filmstreams.org or call 402-933-0259.