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The 20 Greatest Performances in an Ingmar Bergman Film

22 September 2015 | Features, Other Lists | by Isabel Abu-Absi

the-seventh-seal-chess-game

Film aficionados really like talking about Ingmar Bergman. They like talking about Sven Nykevist almost as much. The discussion about Bergman’s filmmaking always seems to be centered on either the the dense thematic qualities of Bergman’s screenplays or the breathtakingly beautiful shots his long partnership with Nykevist produced. Rarely does anyone address just how actor driven Bergman’s films are.

Bergman’s screenplays never made it easy for the actors; in any given film, one actor may be tasked with developing a character who never speaks while another must keep the attention of the audience over a ten minute monologue about God, death, or some other heady topic. However not only is it rare for a Bergman actor to not succeed in interpreting such demanding roles, a number of performances in Bergman films are truly the best in the medium.

 

20. Eva Dahlbeck as Desiree Armfeldt in Smiles of a Summer Night

Eva Dahlbeck as Desiree Armfeldt in Smiles of a Summer Night

Eva Dahlbeck, although not in any of Bergman’s 1960s masterpieces, must be ranked among Harriet Andersson and Liv Ullmann as one of Bergman’s hugely influential muses; in fact, she is the first one of all.

In Smiles of a Summer Night, Dahlbeck plays Desiree Armfeldt, a voluptuous actress with a constantly changing string of men after her. On the particular Summer Night that the film takes place, Desiree’s two suitors are Fredrik Egerman, a former lover (and, it is implied, the father of her son), and Count Malcolm, her fiery, pugnacious new beau.

Generally considered to be Bergman’s only successful foray into the comedy genre, is actually an incredibly witty, funny movie. Its comedy is largely derived from Dahlbeck’s performance as the glamorous yet goofy actress.

Dahlbeck brings to life an intricate picture of the liberated, turn-of-the-century woman; Desiree is as silly as she is enchanting, at turns wistful and vivacious. Dahlbeck does not sacrifice comedy for substance, however, and it is her performance that drives the film and ultimately makes it a delightful early example of Bergman’s diverse talents.

 

19. Ingrid Bergman as Charlotte Andergast in Autumn Sonata

greatest bergman performances

Although he had previously explored the often bitter complexities of father-son relationships in Through a Glass Darkly, Autumn Sonata is Bergman’s first and only attempt at capturing the mother-daughter dynamic on screen. In her only role in a Bergman film, Ingrid Bergman appears as Charlotte Andergast, an aging concert pianist who stays at her daughter Eva’s (Liv Ullman) home for a visit after not seeing her for seven years.

Mother and daughter could not be more different; Charlotte is a glamorous, talented woman with a long string of husbands and lovers while Eva is a dowdy woman in a sexless marriage. Although Ullman shines as always in her role as Eva, it is Ingrid Bergman’s performance that ultimately elevates the film.

Bergman’s acting in Autumn Sonata is incredibly subtle, a great counterpart to Liv Ullman who, in one impressively suspenseful, taut scene, screams at Charlotte until her body shakes. All the while, Charlotte bears the pain of her daughter’s accusations and hate rather gracefully. Her still radiant face conveys great emotion throughout the scene, in which she hardly speaks at all; one moment she is listening thoughtfully to her daughter, the next she is supercilious and defensive.

Ingrid Bergman’s performance ultimately comes down to her incredible control as an actor; control over her face, her voice, and the ability to hold together every scene with her naturalistic approach to acting.

 

18. Jan Malmsjӧ as Edvard Vergerus in Fanny and Alexander

Jan Malmsjӧ as Edvard Vergerus in Fanny and Alexander

Jan Malmsjӧ is truly terrifying as Bishop Vergerus in Fanny and Alexander; this is a performance you feel along the back of your neck. Set in turn-of-the-century Sweden, Fanny and Alexander is the story of two children whose blissful lives change when their father dies of a stroke. When their mother Emilie remarries the town Bishop, the children leave behind their decadent lifestyle and affluent, bohemian family to live in the Bishop’s austere home with his equally malevolent sister, maid, and aunt.

As is the case with many villains, from the first moment the audience is introduced to Vergerus, it is clear that there is something detestable about him. As the Bishop weasels his way into the emotionally fragile Emilie’s life, urging her to leave behind everything to be with him, it becomes clear just how detestable he is.

The cloying mock affection with which he treats Fanny and Alexander whenever Emilie is present is enough to make anyone’s skin crawl, especially in light of how horribly he abuses them when Emilie is gone. Malmsjӧ plays the role masterfully; his portrayal of Vergerus’ sadistic treatment of Alexander is especially spine-tingling.

Vergerus’ controlled, considered words and movements as well as his mock concern for Alexander’s character lend tension and propulsion to each scene he is in. Anyone researching how to play a bad guy need look no further than Malmsjӧ’s performance in Fanny and Alexander.

 

17. Gunnel Lindblom as the Girl in The Seventh Seal

Gunnel Lindblom as the Girl in The Seventh Seal

Gunnel Lindblom is “the lost Bergman girl”. Although she possesses all of the physical beauty and acting chops of Bergman’s other favorite actresses such as Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman, Gunnel Lindblom is often overlooked. This can probably be attributed to Bergman’s pattern of casting her in small roles with few lines. Perhaps it is then a testament to her talent that she ranks on this list for a role in which she is on screen for all of five minutes.

Gunnel Lindblom’s character in The Seventh Seal is both the most ambiguous and the most believable. While Antonius Block (concerned with intellectual and religious dilemmas) and his squire Jӧns (pursuing violence and sex) represent medieval masculinity, the Girl is medieval femininity. She is anonymous, a victim, and an afterthought.

After saving her life from an attacker, Jӧns decides that the Girl belongs to him. Out of fear or habit she follows him, and for a while the audience forgets about her. That is until the band of travelers reaches Antonius Block’s castle, and Sven Nykevist’s camera begins to linger on her face. It is clear that she is aware of something her companions are not.

Soon after, Death himself enters into the castle and the girl kneels before him, her face radiant with something that can only be called relief. Hearing her utter the words “it is finished” is as shocking as it is inevitable.

The image of Death and the Crusader playing chess on the beach may be iconic, but the image of Gunnel Lindblom’s face as she meets Death is essential to anyone trying to understand Bergman. No amount of rewatches could strip this cinematic moment or Lindblom’s performance of its power.

 

16. Bengt Ekerot as Death in The Seventh Seal

Bengt Ekerot as Death in The Seventh Seal

Watching Bengt Ekerot’s portrayal of Death in Bergman’s 1959 classic The Seventh Seal is an essential experience for anyone trying to understand Bergman’s cinematic worldview. Although in appearance Ekerot’s Death is incredibly traditional- black cape and hood, ghost white face, bulging eyes- what makes him most frightening is his civility.

When he meets Antonius Block on the beach after Block has been fighting in the crusades for decades, he does not take him forcibly. He asks, “Are you prepared?” Antonius Block’s reply is a resounding “no”; he proposes a game of chess to settle the matter of whether he will keep his life. Few shots are as iconic as Death and Antonius Block arranging the chessboard on the beach, the waves crashing around them.

Indeed, much of Ekerot’s performance in The Seventh Seal is reduced to images; a man in a black cloak standing on the beach, playing chess, dancing along a hilltop with his victims trailing behind him. Although these images are essential to the film, Ekerot’s performance transcends images.

From his suspicious, self-important smile to him physically cutting down a tree in order to claim another victim, Death is anthropomorphized in a way that adds tremendously to the eerie existentialism of Bergman’s best known film.

 

15. Maj-Britt Nilsson as Marie in Summer Interlude

Maj-Britt Nilsson as Marie in Summer Interlude

Summer Interlude is thematically almost identical to The Summer with Monika and the latter is undoubtedly the better film, but nevertheless, Summer Interlude was a breakthrough for Bergman as a filmmaker and showcases incredible acting from Maj-Britt Nilsson.

As the cold, seemingly emotionless ballerina Marie, Nilsson delivers a performance full of sorrow, remembrance, and fear that makes the film truly special. He would go on to find better ways to express religious doubt and loss of innocence in later films, but Bergman never found another actress who so perfectly encapsulated emotional isolation the way Nilsson does in Summer Interlude.

Marie, at 28, is nearing the end of her career as a ballerina. She is emotionally incapacitated because of the death of her first lover, Henrik, with whom she spent a summer 13 years earlier. Shortly before the summer was to end, Henrik died in an accident, leaving Marie to pick up the pieces of her now empty and seemingly meaningless life. Marie copes with her loss by involving herself in an unhealthy, perverse relationship.

Although the film ultimately finds a happy resolution, its themes of sorrow and loss foreshadow Bergman’s later work, and Maj-Britt Nilsson’s emotional depth as Marie gives any one of Bergman’s more famous actresses a run for their money.

 

 

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  • Chandradeep

    Allan Edwall’s performance in Winter Light must be listed here. Must

  • Dimitrije Stojanovic

    Liv Ulman in Face to Face? This is a very big miss.

  • Veronica Clarke

    Great article, thank you.

  • Salvatore M. Ruggiero

    io ne discuterei meglio.