The 20 Greatest Performances in an Ingmar Bergman Film

14. Gunnel Lindblom as Ingeri in The Virgin Spring

Gunnel Lindblom as Ingeri in The Virgin Spring

Of the two young women in The Virgin Spring, one is an angel and the other a demon. Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), is the beautiful, naive, and spoiled young daughter of a wealthy Christian farmer in medieval Sweden. Adored by her parents and all who know her, Karin is a picture of feminine grace and chastity.

Gunnel Lindblom portrays a vastly different character as Ingeri, the wild haired, pagan servant of Karin’s family (and, it is implied, Karin’s half-sister). Whereas Karin says she refuses to go to bed with anyone until marriage, Ingeri carries the evidence of her sin with her; she is heavily pregnant. Unalike in every way, Ingeri and Karin set out to bring candles to church one day and, while Ingeri watches from the bushes, Karin is brutally raped and murdered by three shepherds.

In a world teetering between paganism and Christianity, Ingeri is caught in the middle. In the opening scene, Ingeri invokes the pagan god Odin to deliver her from her humiliating existence and to bring suffering onto Karin. Ingeri’s idea of making Karin suffer, however, is putting a frog in her lunch; as she watches Karin’s murder, Ingeri’s face is contorted with disbelief and horror.

As in The Seventh Seal, Lindblom hardly speaks at all in The Virgin Spring. In this film more so than any other Bergman, we appreciate Lindblom’s remarkable control over her darkly beautiful, brooding face as an instrument for conveying profound emotion.


13. Max Von Sydow as Martin in Through a Glass Darkly

Max Von Sydow as Martin in Through a Glass Darkly

Although many consider his role as the knight errant in The Seventh Seal to be his best, Max von Sydow was born to play husbands in troubled marriages. Without von Sydow as Martin, Bergman’s 1963 Oscar-winning picture Through a Glass Darkly would have taken on a completely different feel, more akin to the at times stiflingly allegorical ‘Art House’ nature of The Seventh Seal.

After all, the other three characters are David, a depressive, egomaniacal author, his emotionally isolated, sexually frustrated teenage son Minus, and his daughter Karin, a young woman suffering with schizophrenia. The film takes place over one day, on the desolate shoreline of Faroe.

Von Sydow plays Martin, Karin’s husband and a truly good, simple man. In one luminous scene, we see David and Martin out at sea in a motorboat, discussing Karin’s condition as well as her father’s perverse desire to exploit it. David asks Martin if can “control his innermost thoughts”. Martin replies, with total believability, “Thankfully I am not very complex. My world is very simple. Very human.” Characters who say things like this are rare in Bergman films.

To say that von Sydow brings warmth to Through a Glass Darkly would be incorrect. Rather, he infuses this story of family dysfunction and metaphysical anguish with a distinctly earthy touch; while Karin, David, and Minus struggle with some level of being removed from reality, Martin is firmly grounded in the fact that he loves his wife, and he wants her to get better. Thanks to von Sydow’s beautiful performance, Through a Glass Darkly is the least cynical and nihilistic of Bergman’s God’s Silence trilogy.


12. Ingrid Thulin as Mӓrta in Winter Light

Ingrid Thulin as Mӓrta in Winter Light

Although marvelous actors in their own right, Gunnel Lindblom and Max von Sydow’s performances in Winter Light are completely upstaged by Gunnar Bjornstrand’s portrayal of the pastor Tomas. Only Ingrid Thulin, as Tomas’ clinging, smugly intellectual mistress Mӓrta, manages to hold her own against and, in some scenes, overshadow Bjornstrand.

As a cynical, egocentric atheist, Mӓrta is the manifestation of Tomas’s deepest fear and doubt in himself, humanity, and God. Never quite able to shirk her, Tomas succumbs to Mӓrta’s neurotic, hypochondriac pretensions as the body succumbs to a sickness. A marvelous actor, Thulin manages to repulse the audience with her narrow-minded selfishness as deeply as she does Tomas.

In one scene, Mӓrta sits squarely in front of the camera and recites a letter to Tomas. She does not move, make outrageous facial expressions, or change her tone significantly, and yet she manages to capture the audience’s attention for nearly ten minutes. It is a feat of acting. During her monologue, Mӓrta recalls when she once forced Tomas to pray for her eczema-covered hands out of spite.

The screen cuts quickly to a short flashback of Marta tearing at the bandages on her hands, and crying out to God “Why must I realize how wretched I am?” The monologue, and Thulin’s entire performance in Winter Light for that matter, is a landmark of Bergman’s cinema.


11. Bertil Guve as Alexander Ekdahl in Fanny and Alexander

Bertil Guve as Alexander Ekdahl in Fanny and Alexander

Few adult actors could muster up a performance so beautifully nuanced as Bertil Guve did at the age of twelve in Fanny and Alexander. Bergman reserves on of his most gorgeous introductions for Alexander Ekdahl, the imaginative son of wealthy actors in turn of the century Sweden. From the first scene, it is clear that Alexander is a special boy.

As he wanders through his grandmother’s sprawling house, Alexander calls out for the women in his life; his sister Fanny, his mother, his maid. The only one who answers him is a marble statue, magnificently “brought to life” by Alexander’s vivid imagination. She beckons to him in a gesture that can only be read as sensual. And then out of nowhere, a hooded figure dragging a scythe disrupts this preadolescent reverie.

Thus the audience is introduced to the mind of Alexander, for whom all things magical are ruined by the death of his father. Few scenes better convey the pain of childhood than Alexander cursing under his breath during his father’s funeral procession, a shocking nihilistic reaction. Few viewers will ever forget Alexander robotically spewing out light profanities, which become stronger and fouler with each step he takes.

The scene strikes a raw nerve with anyone who remembers their childhood, and Guve delivers with extraordinary power. This scene is just one example of how Bertil Guve managed to portray the anxieties and melancholy of childhood with great sensitivity and maturity. Much of Fanny and Alexander’s status as a film classic can be attributed to Guve’s singular performance as Alexander Ekdahl.


10. Victor Sjӧstrӧm as Isak Borg in Wild Strawberries

Victor Sjӧstrӧm as Isak Borg in Wild Strawberries

It apparently took quite a bit of persuading on Bergman’s part to convince Victor Sjӧstrӧm to play the part of Isak Borg in Wild Strawberries. Thankfully Sjӧstrӧm eventually agreed; it’s impossible to imagine the film without his performance. Even more impressive than the fact that Sjӧstrӧm was 79 and in poor health during the filming of Wild Strawberries is the fact that he really was not much of an actor; Sjӧstrӧm made his living as a director of silent films.

Wild Strawberries is oft quoted as being Bergman’s most tender film. It is a story about memories, a coming-of-age in which the protagonist is nearing the end of his life. At the film’s opening, Isak Borg is a man who squanders all of his relationships with his egotism and disregard for the feelings of others.

However on a journey to accept an award from his former university, Isak becomes acquainted with a group of young travelers, one of whom reminds him of his first love (Bibi Andersson, in an early role). Over the course of the journey, Isak’s icy exterior is broken by a wave of nostalgia; he remembers his family vacations as a boy, picking strawberries with his first love, Sara, and his brother, whom Sara eventually married.

Slowly, as he realizes how little love he’s given and received, Isak in his old age begins to form meaningful relationships. The honesty and vulnerability with which Sjӧstrӧm plays the role is a landmark in Bergman filmography; Wild Strawberries is his first film to depict the human heart with total believability.


9. Liv Ullmann as Elisabet Vogler in Persona

Liv Ullman as Elisabet Vogler in Persona

Persona, which many consider to be Bergman’s best film, is rooted in the mystery, beauty, and melancholy of Liv Ullmann, Bergman’s muse and lover at the time Persona was filmed. Elisabet Vogler (Ullmann) is a famous stage actress who curiously stopped speaking without any known psychological or physiological reason. She is brought to a hospital and placed in the cafe of Alma, an eager, confident young nurse.

Together, the two women move to a secluded island in the Swedish archipelago in the hopes that a change of scenery will help Elisabet. At the island, Elisabet remains fairly unresponsive while Alma chatters incessantly.

At this point in the film, Alma is clearly the dominant one; her brisk energy and earthiness a clear foil to Elisabet’s otherworldly tranquility. Their relationship changes however, when Alma reveals to Elisabet a shameful secret, all the while with Elisabet’s wan, all-knowing eyes regarding her mysteriously. From then on, Elisabet is the dominant one, at least until she and Alma are nearly imperceptible from one another.

Part of the reason Ullmann’s performance in Persona is so outstanding is that it is clear the film was made by someone passionately in love with her. Whenever her pale, haunting face enters a frame, the camera sings. Nevertheless, Ullmann’s performance is what ultimately makes Persona such a fascinating, scary, and utterly breathtaking film.

Never before had the female psyche been approached with such complexity and daring as Liv Ullmann approaches the character of Elisabet Vogler, and few times after.


8. Erland Josephson as Johan in Scenes from a Marriage

Erland Josephson as Johan in Scenes from a Marriage

Scenes from a Marriage should only ever be watched in its full, miniseries format; the editing on the theatrical cut is disastrous, and this is one film you’ll want to see every second of. The plot, the cinematography, seventies color scheme, clever intertitles, and astonishing chemistry between Liv Ullmann as Marianne and Erland Josephson as Johan make this one of Bergman’s most life-affirming films.

Although Josephson had appeared in a number of Bergman films prior to Scenes from a Marriage, his performance as the egotistical, immature, but ultimately redeemed Johan is his swansong.

Ten years into his happy marriage with Marianne, Johan decides to leave her for another woman. He then spends years trying to erase his selfish decisions. At times, Scenes from a Marriage is difficult to watch; it is an incredibly comprehensive depiction of both the joy and heartbreak of adult relationships.

However Josephson’s performance a Johan is as much about a man struggling with his marriage as a man struggling with himself; throughout the film, Johan must contend with the consequences of his caddish impulsivity. Ultimately though, we see Johan as a man who has, perhaps a bit later than most, made peace with himself. This film, and Josephson’s performance, are not to be missed.