The 20 Greatest Performances in an Ingmar Bergman Film

7. Birgitta Valberg as Mӓreta in The Virgin Spring

Birgitta Valberg as Mӓreta in The Virgin Spring

Birgitta Valberg’s performance as Karin’s doting mother Mӓreta is truly agonizing to watch; this is one instance in which an actor playing opposite Max von Sydow steals the show. Valberg manages to make Mӓreta, a smaller character, incredibly multifaceted. From the beginning of the film, it is clear that Mӓreta suffers from profound depression, and that she channels this energy into an unhealthy practice of her newfound Christian faith that includes severe penances.

The source of Mӓreta’s sadness is her relationship with her only child Karin, who clearly prefers her father, Tӧre. When Karin sets out on her horse to bring candles to church, Mӓreta asks her for a kiss. Karin proceeds to lick her finger and tap her mother on the forehead mockingly. Mӓreta then averts her eyes as Karin embraces and kisses Tӧre with real affection.

Valberg’s depiction of this quiet suffering is difficult to watch, but nothing compares to the scene where the men who rape and murder Karin offer her torn and bloodied clothes to Mӓreta. Mӓreta cradles the dress, her face conveying profound emptiness and grief. She walks away from the men, and sobs into the dress.

Later on when Tӧre kills the men who murdered Karin, Mӓreta clings to the young boy who travelled with them, pleading with her husband to spare the child. In his rage, Tӧre kills the boy as well. The Virgin Spring may well be the saddest film in the Bergman canon and if so, it is largely because of Birgitta Valberg’s agonizing, perfect performance as the tragic Mӓreta.


6. Max von Sydow as Jan in Shame

Max von Sydow as Jan in Shame

Shame is both one of Bergman’s most biblical films and one that discusses God the least; much like the first chapters of Genesis, this is a story of humans making trouble for themselves. Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann play a man and woman living in an artificial Eden; while an unnamed war rages on in the distance, Jan (von Sydow) and Eva (Ullmann) live in seclusion and safety on the Faroe Islands.

As two sides of a slowly dissolving marriage, von Sydow and Ullmann’s performances complement each other perfectly; the tension between them and their mutual guilt and shame are palpable despite the fact that there is little dialogue in the film.

Whatever Max von Sydow accomplished in Through a Glass Darkly, he expands upon in Shame. Although the characters are similar; a well-meaning husband unable to fully connect with his wife sexually or emotionally, von Sydow’s character in Shame is much more disturbing.

While the audience sympathizes with Martin’s uncomplicated, unconditional love for Karin in Through a Glass Darkly, one cannot help but think of Jan in terms of his cowardice and the horrible deed he commits towards the end of the film. In Shame, Von Sydow’s portrays all that Bergman finds detestable in men; the insensitivity, the violence, and the refusal to acknowledge painful realities.

Von Sydow’s performance makes best sense when seen in the context of Liv Ullmann’s Eva, however; if Jan represents that which is most base in men, Eva lives up to her biblical namesake. Despite the film itself being generally underrated, Max von Sydow’s performance in Shame is one of the best in any Bergman film.


5. Ingrid Thulin as Karin in Cries and Whispers

Ingrid Thulin as Karin in Cries and Whispers

Cries and Whispers is an incredibly challenging film even for Bergman enthusiasts. For one, it may be difficult for some viewers to accept a film entirely about female relationships written and directed by a man. There is very little dialogue. The film is tinged with undercurrents of masochism and incest. The list goes on.

Cries and Whispers is the story of Agnes, a woman dying of cancer, and her sisters Maria and Karin who stay with her during her last days. Despite sharing the screen with Liv Ullmann (Maria) and Harriet Andersson (Agnes), it is the plainer, more stolid Ingrid Thulin that stands out. Her portrayal of the choleric eldest sister Karin is undoubtedly her triumph as an actor.

Few could capture repressed anger, jealousy, and sexual dysfunction better than Thulin does even with the addition of more dialogue. In one of the most shocking and disturbing scenes in the Bergman canon, Karin mutilates her genitalia with broken glass to ward off the advances of her older husband. It is a scene of unbearable pain and sadness, but also great ferocity, as the audience can see from Thulin’s flinty eyes fixed defiantly on her husband.

There are many powerfully emotive close ups in Cries and Whispers, but the image of Karin reaching between her legs and smearing her own blood across her mouth leaves them all behind. Although Persona is oft referenced as Bergman’s best effort at capturing the convolutedness of female emotions, Ingrid Thulin’s performance as Karin, an anxious, ruthless, and entrapped woman is the fullest realization of this Bergman theme.


4. Harriet Andersson as Karin in Through a Glass Darkly

Harriet Andersson as Karin in Through a Glass Darkly

Through a Glass Darkly represents a shift in Bergman’s cinema; it is the beginning of his “God’s Silence” trilogy, in which he explicitly began exploring the implications of a distant, unloving, and sometimes perverse God. As Karin, Harriet Andersson portrays a woman whose illness has put her directly in touch with this aspect of God.

Much like the rest of her work, Andersson’s performance in Through a Glass Darkly is incredibly authentic; the only difference is that the film itself is more thematically complex than say The Summer with Monika. In the film, Karin’s schizophrenia negatively impacts her relationships with members of her family; she preys sexually upon her younger brother Minus while avoiding her husband and urging him to find a new wife. She is obsessed with a small attic room in her family’s beach house, believing the unusual wallpaper to be a doorway into a different world, a world where everyone is like her.

Although these scenarios would come across as far-fetched in the hands of a less talented actor, Andersson convinces her audience not only of her character’s mental struggles but also that in Karin’s mind, there is a supernatural, spiritual force pushing her to do the things she does.

At the end of the film, Karin returns to the room with the wallpaper, her husband and father following her. She kneels on the floor, hands folded, her face radiant with expectant joy. Any minute her God will open the door. When the door finally opens, Karin lashes out into an almost epileptic frenzy; her eyes roll back in her head and she thrashes about wildly.

It is one of the most frightening, intense climaxes in any Bergman film, and Andersson gives it her all. Once she is finally subdued, Karin explains to her family that the thing that opened the door was a spider, with a terrible, stony face. Exhausted, Karin rests her head against her husband’s hand, and utters her last line: “I have seen God”.


3. Bibi Andersson as Alma in Persona

Bibi Andersson as Alma in Persona

Although thematically and cinematographically Persona leaves most films in the dust, the true magic of the film is in its acting. Bibi Andersson shines as Alma, the plucky, optimistic young nurse tasked with caring for Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), an actress who inexplicably becomes mute. If the film is grounded in the silence and mystery of Ullmann, it is propelled by Andersson.

Alma is exceedingly self-assured for the first half of the film, and seemingly happy with her career and love life. As her and Elisabet’s relationship morphs into something far more ominous, however, Alma’s thin attempts at composure come crashing down.

Can this performance best be seen as a depiction of a woman’s descent into insanity? Does it give us insight into the dark recesses of femininity? Is it a comment on the social construct of identity? Is this simply a story of unbridled obsession? Bibi Andersson’s performance as Alma somehow transcends all labels; it is almost unimaginably complex. Anyone who is interested in film ought to see Persona.

Anyone who is interested in acting ought to see Persona for Bibi Andersson’s performance; there is nothing quite like it in all of cinema.


2. Gunnar Bjornstrand as Tomas in Winter Light

Gunnar Bjornstrand as Tomas in Winter Light

Gunnar Bjornstrand’s intelligent, wearily handsome face looms large in the Ingmar Bergman canon; he is the cynical scene stealer Jӧns in The Seventh Seal and the only man given screen time in Persona. Despite his obvious talents,

Bjornstrand appears only once on this list, in a performance that one could argue transcends even Bergman’s loftiest ambitions of depicting spiritual emptiness, and is surely one of the finest in cinema. Bjornstrand plays Tomas, a widowed pastor going through the motions of a loveless relationship, spiritual frustration, and his cleric responsibilities on a bleak winter day.

Opposite Ingrid Thulin and sharing the screen with Max von Sydow and Gunnel Lindblom, Bjornstrand outshines them all. His performance is one of the highpoints of naturalism as it is used in film. Indeed, the word “naturalism” simply doesn’t do this film or Bjornstrand’s performance justice. This is no Chekhovian drama rife with social criticism or existential angst-it is angst itself.

And unlike with the work of Chekhov, the audience has to contend with a subtext far more disturbing than social or economic inequality and injustice. The meaning of Winter Light, which it would appear Tomas is aware of far before the audience is, is that there may not be a meaning. No other actor in a Bergman film conveys doubt, fear, and frustration to the extent that Gunnar Bjornstrand does as Tomas in Winter Light.


1. Harriet Andersson as Monika in Summer with Monika


Harriet Andersson’s interpretation of the titular character in Summer with Monika is a vision; it must be ranked among the most beautiful, perfect cinematic performances of all time. Andersson plays Monika, a young woman in love with a young man but also with herself.

More so than even his films with notoriously little dialogue such as The Silence and Cries and Whispers, Summer with Monika is Bergman’s quiet film. The story is universal; it could take place in any location or time period.

However anyone who has seen this film would find it impossible to imagine anyone but Andersson as the protagonist. As the adventuresome Monika, Andersson’s performance is incredibly tender without being wry or self-effacing. Instead, she focuses on the fleeting but life-affirming force of nature that is first love.

The plot of Summer with Monika is simple; two people meet and for a time, they are each other’s entire world. For a summer, Monika and her boyfriend Harry leave their unhappy homes for the wilderness of the Swedish Archipelago and a life of anarchic bliss. Andersson approaches the character of Monika as a woman innocently, but not naively, brought into the world of love. Indeed, Monika is far from naive; she initiates all of her and Harry’s sexual encounters. Yet for all her erotic power, Monika is not oversexualized.

Even when she strips nude to bathe in the sea, Andersson’s honesty and accuracy in depicting budding self-identity rids the scene of sexploitative undertones. Andersson’s performance as Monika makes everything from her sharing a cigarette with Harry to admiring a new pair of stockings to scrounging for food in the woods seem majestic and sacred. Indeed, Summer with Monika is a majestic, sacred film.

Author Bio: Isabel Abu-Absi is an International Studies and Spanish student at Denison University with an interest in film. Her favorite filmmakers are Hal Ashby, Luis Buñel, Ingmar Bergman, Shohei Imamura, Alfonso Cuarón, Lindsay Anderson, and Sidney Lumet.