Often recognised as one of the most masterful, prolific and accomplished directors of all time, Ingmar Bergman is an auteur unlike any other in cinema history. He directed over 60 films during his career, writing almost all of them and dealt with themes such as death, illness, betrayal, faith, redemption, insanity and bleakness.
Yet amid all of those supposedly grim themes there was such a humanity to his movies, a sense that vital human emotions were being explored and displayed repeatedly to the tune of such brutal honesty that his movies can be described as disturbing just for what they imply about the human condition, for better or worse.
His name carries such a reputation and recognition with it that anyone who has yet to watch a Bergman film will naturally be skeptical, cautious of whether he can be nearly as amazing as everyone says he is. But in my opinion, he is even better than the praise that proceeds him.
His films are experimental, thriving, haunting, inspirational and surprisingly modern. Travelling through his filmography is not like ploughing into a museum of film history, they are immersive, beautifully crafted utterly relevant and endlessly compelling.
There are so many impeccable masterpieces within his career such as Wild Strawberries, The Seventh Seal, Persona, Cries and Whispers, Through a Glass Darkly, Fanny and Alexander and Scenes from a Marriage. But the next best thing to understand why Bergman means so much is to not just look at his films, it is to examine the number of filmmakers whom he has impacted.
Either through style, themes, tone or inspiration these filmmakers share a common influence that permeates their careers. Bergman’s effect on cinema is still keenly felt today due to these filmmakers and will undoubtedly continue to have an impact on generations to come.
1. Woody Allen
“Possibly the greatest artist since the invention of the camera” is what Allen said of Bergman. If one looks closely enough at Allen’s movies it is not hard to tell that he is a huge fan of Bergman’s career as he left dozens of small and subtle visual clues to Bergman, mimicking certain shot and paying homage to the visual style Bergman displayed with several of his films.
The most notable examples are the similarities between Allen’s Interiors and Cries and Whispers with their framing techniques, as well as Love and Death mimicking Persona’s overlapping faces shot. Allen’s one act play, Death Knocks, is even a farcical parody of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and when it came to providing Crimes and Misdemeanours with its emotionally identifiable aesthetic, Allen employed cinematographer Sven Nykvist, a frequent collaborator with Bergman.
Both filmmakers have utilised the same work ethic, with Allen and Bergman essentially making one film per year for their professional careers as directors. Additionally, both filmmakers have displayed variations of the same theme throughout their careers, meaning that while they offer different perspectives and outlooks with each film they are all centred on one broad theme.
For Bergman that could be the human condition, as his films were explorations of mortality, illness, human interaction and psychology. Allen meanwhile has also extensively explored the same theme throughout all of his movies concerning human relationships. F
rom Annie Hall to Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanours and Midnight in Paris, even Sleeper with the emphasis being a lack of relationships, Allen has never failed to find some kind of outlook on the way humans interact with each other and the absurdity of it, like a woman obsessed with life falling for a man obsessed with death.
Then there are the broader similarities such as their extensive use of female leads, writing them as strong, fully rounded and complex individuals. Not only that but they are both experts at exploring the female psyche, from their outlook on death and sisterhood from Cries and Whispers to the intertwined familial story of Hannah and Her Sisters.
When Bergman dies on July 30th 2007, almost every obituary and tribute paid some kind of reference to Woody Allen. It was no secret that Allen was a huge admirer and he even wrote a lengthy article for the New York Times concerning his reaction to the news of Bergman’s death in which he wrote “Bergman, the great cinematic poet of mortality, couldn’t prolong his own inevitable checkmate, and the finest filmmaker of my lifetime was gone”.
2. Francis Ford Coppola
Coppola is often cited as one of the most important filmmakers in the history of American cinema. Like Bergman he was fascinated by the potential for cinema to represent the human condition, he found ways to represent some of its most basic social conventions through the big screen from family to conflict and society.
With Wild Strawberries Bergman is not just reciting the story of an elderly man just as Coppola was not just conveying a tale of spies with The Conversation. Both have greater meanings concerning humanity and society around it as well as being superbly crafted character studies.
A common theory is that in one way or another, every Bergman film is semi-autobiographical (perhaps most prominently in Fanny and Alexander), representing an understanding of the material and a sense of empathy with it.
Coppola has also found huge success through an understanding of his source material. The Godfather’s portrayal of Italian American life was considered so compelling because Coppola himself was one, and held a profound understanding of their experience.
As for making his film socially relevant, Coppola made the characters admirable yet repulsive and having been released in a period of intense cynicism, this portrayal of immigrants struck a chord with the American psyche of dual identities. As opposed to an outsider’s perspective, The Godfather’s viewpoint came from within and Coppola used this as a response to society’s corruption.
As well as this, both Bergman and Coppola frequently explored the darkest parts of the human soul. Cries and Whispers Bergman touches on aspects of pain and suffering that few other films have, but one of them might arguably be Apocalypse Now, an uncompromising descent into hell and madness.
But despite this endless amount of darkness neither director chose to shy away from the small inkling of hope, this is obvious even in Coppola’s less acclaimed movies such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
3. Todd Haynes
One of the leading artistic visionaries of modern filmmaking, Todd Haynes is known for subverting narrative structure and rarely dealing with the unambiguous. Hi films are just asking to be judges, deciphered and interpreted (anyone want to explain what Safe is about?) much like Bergman.
But the similarities hardly stop there. Haynes’ movies resonate with a transgressive and postmodernist audience more than most, as his films often deal with the issue of identity and sexuality, perhaps most prominently seen in his most recent film Carol.
Putting forward the notion that his films are predominantly about identity and sexuality, the comparisons to Bergman become more and more obvious.
Hayne is known remind the audience of the artificiality of film as a medium such as using Barbie dolls in the place of actors in Superstar, or having multiple actors play the role of Bob Dylan in I’m Not There, most of whom look nothing like Dylan, but are there to represent his various personas at different stages of the musicians life.
Bergman utilised very similar methods, with Persona actually breaking apart halfway through, what starts as a structured narrative literally disintegrates (as the film reel itself burns up) into a wave of surrealism, repeated scenes and interpretative imagery.
Both Haynes and Bergman favour formalism over naturalism, often appropriating and reinventing cinematic styles, even when they are sticking to a naturalistic structure both directors will do the utmost to convey some sort of emotional imagery through the aesthetics of their films, from deep crimson representing violence and turmoil to layer of clothing that represent oppression and subjugation.
In the case of both directors their protagonists are customarily social outsiders whose subversive identity, trauma or sexuality pits them at odds with the received norms of their society.
Haynes used an entire section of I’m Not There as a reference to 1960s European arthouse movies, and Bergman has rarely been afraid to break social convention in a similar manner to him.
Despite not characterising himself as a gay filmmaker who makes gay films Haynes’ has become heavily associated with the New Queer Cinema movement and its work to both explore and redefine the contours of homosexual culture in America and beyond.
4. David FincherWorking with the dark, disturbing and psychological, Fincher’s exploration of the most sadistic and gloomiest areas of the human psyche owes itself heavily to the way in which Bergman examined personality and its fragility. The most glaring parallel comes from Fight Club and Persona, they both examine the concept of split personalities (or at least, that’s one interpretation of Bergman’s movie).
If you stick with that interpretation then both movies undertake an exploration into a character that is unsatisfied with the world around them and in psychological terms are on the verge of collapse and escape into a prolonged interaction with (what may be) their dissociated personalities.
Then you examine the ways in which Bergman and Fincher played with the concept of film with each movie, utilizing subliminal imagery in a single frame, from the split second appearances of Tyler Durden to the crucifixes and spiders and anything else that Bergman added. Also, long before Tyler Durden started tampering with film reels,
Bergman used a remarkably similar technique in Persona to convey …. Whatever it was he wanted. In fact if you were to select a few films that are most open to interpretation, Fight Club and Persona are probably high on that list.
But as for the rest of their work, virtually everything that each director did has been impeccably stylish, unequivocally tenebrous and meticulously technical movies about damaged individuals, maintaining a consistent theme throughout, but occasionally dabbling in more fanciful projects. Their artwork is ridiculously deep and detailed, endlessly fascinating, intensely dark and always challenging.
5. Ang Lee
Few directors can transcend international lines as well as Bergman did, but out of all the filmmakers working today Ang Lee could be the one who has come closest. His films are all about characters uncovering their hidden and repressed emotions or desires (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Sense and Sensibility and Brokeback Mountain) and are endlessly humane.
Bergman’s films held similar themes, from a married couple gradually discovering they no longer love each other (Scenes from a Marriage) from a man coming to terms with who he really is through an existential crisis (Winter Light).
To say that both filmmakers craft emotionally charged movies is an understatement. In fact they are emotions that go beyond language and nationality to reach all corners of life and have an almost universal appeal to them.
Lee’s earliest films such as Pushing Hands and The Wedding Banquet examined the relationship and conflict between tradition and modernism, eastern and western. They all express the same humanistic values, a consistent and repeated theme executed with a new perspective and new views on them.
But at the same time, Bergman and Lee share a quality that few directors have, not only are they consistent with their themes, they are varied within their styles. From their restrained direction on films like Sense and Sensibility and The Virgin Spring to the more stylised ways in which they have wielded a camera from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Seventh Seal.