A Tribute to Ingmar Bergman

Anything can happen; all things are possible and plausible. Time and space do not exist: over a minute patch of reality imagination will weave its web and create fresh patterns…”

–August Strindberg, Preface to A Dream Play (1902)

This spring I arrogantly went through my own self taught film school where I explored critically for the first time some of the defining works of legendary directors like Carl Dreyer, Fritz Lang, Carol Reed, Orson Welles, and Francois Truffaut, among others, many of which I have discussed and reviewed on this blog.  It seems foolish now to think I could sample all of the greats of cinema’s past in just a few short months.  What I came to realize is that my film school will never end as long as I continue my love affair with movies.  For all the careful planning that went into the selection of the films I explored and searched for, sometimes it is the film that finds me before I realize I had been looking for it all this time.  Thus is the case with Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. 

Two kids lost inside Ingmar Bergman’s head.
My interest in Bergman began with his 1966 classic Persona, which had allured me since first seeing David Lynch’s 2001 masterpiece Mulholland Drive, as it was often quoted as a heavy influence.  Persona tells the story of a nurse (Bibi Andersson) caring for an actress (Liv Ullmann) recently struck mute and the eventual blurring of their personalities and existence under the harsh scrutiny of solitude together at a beach house.  In the film, Bergman brilliantly composes the best close-ups since Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc while utilizing a noirish technique with lighting and framing.  From the highly subliminal flashes of imagery in the prologue to the mundane nothingness of the closing scenes, Persona is experimental, weird, stunning, and clearly not in line with everyone’s taste in art.  It’s the type of film that leaves you pondering, “If Persona was the deconstructionist’s take on modern existential dilemmas, then is Mulholland Drive the reconstruction of film in a post-modern milieu?”  Watch it if you dare.

However, it was Bergman’s 1982 epic family drama Fanny and Alexander that caught me completely off guard when I watched it by chance on the IFC Channel this July.  Originally made as a five hour long miniseries for Swedish television (available now on DVD through the Criterion Collection), the film was edited into a three hour long theatrical cut for international release and went on to win four Oscars.  Exquisite use of classical music (including the great opening piece by Robert Schumann), gorgeous lighting and cinematography, and fluid mise-en-scene create an ethereal atmosphere into which Bergman’s heavily autobiographical dream-like tale can take form.  This is one of those rare films where I came into it with certain misconceptions and was captivated by how drastically different the film actually was from my grave prejudices.

The following quote from Bergman explains the amazing level of detail he was able to achieve across such a sprawling episodic canvas:

I’m deeply fixated on my childhood. Some impressions are extremely vivid, light, smell, and all. There are moments when I can wander through my childhood’s landscape, through rooms long ago, remember how they were furnished, where the pictures hung on the walls, the way the light fell. It’s like a film-little scraps of a film, which I set running and which I can reconstruct to the last detail-except their smell.”  –Ingmar Bergman

Opening with a Christmas Eve party (circa 1907) held at the lavish home of the loving matriarch of a wealthy family of theater owners, actors, and businessmen, Fanny and Alexander begins like a Swedish version of James Joyce’s “The Dead” as seen through the eyes of children.  Young Fanny and Alexander go on to lose their father shortly after the holiday and are later ripped from their happy lives and barred from seeing the rest of their family when their mother foolishly remarries an emotionally tortured bishop.  The film wonderfully explores the bonds of family, joy, grief, loneliness, spiritual and religious torment, the powers of the imagination and the birth of art as it effortlessly (and eerily) shifts tones from bawdy humor to Dickensian melodrama to magic realism to European existentialism.  Bergman brilliantly weaves in all of his defining obsessions into one blistering and bloated piece of pure cinematic art.  It poignantly concludes with the grandmother reading the Strindberg quote that began this post.

It’s hard to imagine it’s been a year since Ingmar Bergman passed (having died on July 30th, 2007).  While he continued to ply his trade in Swedish theater and television until the end, Fanny and Alexander was his final major film and the culmination of his life’s work.  Like the ghosts and dreams that so frequently haunt his art, Bergman’s spirit will be forever with us through what he left behind on film–if only every artist could be so blessed.

Film can be as a dream.  Film can be as music.  No form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does, straight to our emotions, deep into the twilight room of the soul.”  –Ingmar Bergman


Written By David H. Schleicher 



  1. Thanks for your comment, David — I’ll definitely watch Persona next in my Bergman series. I think the element in Bergman that gets overlooked is his humour: films like Smiles on a Summer Night and The Magician have real warmth to them, and even The Seventh Seal has a streak of black comedy. Your book looks great, by the way — definitely one for the Amazon list. best wishes Jonathan.

    Thanks, Jonathan. On the Persona DVD they have clips of an interview with Bergman, and his humor certainly comes through there. The few segments of The Seventh Seal I have seen always struck me as darkly humorous…or perhaps absurd would the better word. –DHS

  2. For further viewing:

    Recommended Dreyer
    Day of Wrath

    Recommended Bergman:
    Cries & Whispers
    The Virgin Spring

    Oh, that’s strange, I just watched Day of Wrath today–a very creepy and stark melodrama. I enjoyed very much the simple framing and directorial choices, and all those great tracking shots. Ordet isn’t available from Netflix, though apparently there is a Criterion DVD–I can’t wait to see it. Dreyer was a master craftsman.

    Cries & Whispers is in my Netflix queue as many claim it to be among Bergman’s best. –DHS

  3. briliant director, I would also mention ” the magician” ” the seventh seal” ”the hour of the wolf” and so on… Bergman it’s a poet of cinematography, I have his entire work on DVD’s, and a I am a big fan of his vision/work, as well i would recomand opera too, ”the magic flute” from 1975.
    Nice blog. keep it on!

    Thanks for reading! I have not seen The Magician yet but I have seen and enjoyed the other two since writing this post (as well as Cries and Whispers). I especially liked The Hour of the Wolf — creepy as hell! –DHS

  4. Is there anything like American existentialism as well? Or Americans don’t worry about existentialism at all?

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