The great Swedish auteur director died yesterday at his home on Faro island, off the coast of Sweden. He was 89 years old.
Bergman was known and revered for the absolute craftsmanship of his films, beginning with the scripts, most of which he wrote himself. He was also known for championing and consistently working with a relatively small group of Swedish actors, who became more or less of a sort of "repertory company" from which he cast his films. Notable in this regard are Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman (with whom he was to father a child in 1966).
He directed over 44 films, mostly for the cinema although several were for television, including a production of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte for Swedish television. He also directed hundreds of stage and radio theater productions. Three of his films won Academy awards (Best Foreign Language Film): The Virgin Spring (1961), Through a Glass Darkly (1962), and his last cinematographic work Fanny and Alexander (1984). Five of his other films were nominated for other Oscars including Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Picture (the last was Cries and Whispers in 1974; a film Bergman regarded as one of his best). He received numerous other awards and honors in his lifetime, including an Irving Thalberg award in 1971, and is cited by numerous directors (including Woody Allen & Stanley Kubrick) as having had an influence on their own work.
I'm personally acquainted with three of his films: Wild Strawberries, Fanny and Alexander and The Seventh Seal. This last is supposedly widely regarded as one of Bergman's best and I believe it to be one of the greatest films ever made. As in most of his films, the theme is existential: Man's search for meaning. The theme is therefore a transcendent one and the setting and the manner in which the story plays out are beautifully evocative of such a grand design: a knight (Max von Sydow) and his squire returning home from the crusades finds their homeland ravaged by the plague and Death waiting to take them. Desperate to return home, the knight challenges Death to a game of chess with his life as the stakes. Through this gambit he is able to delay Death long enough to allow him to reunite with his wife and daughter before his inevitable loss. During the course of the game, which takes place along the knight's journey home, the knight and his squire meet several other characters, each struggling through life on their own journeys and each, in their own way, must deal with the reality of Death. In the end, the knight finds meaning in his own life by enabling a young couple and their child to escape Death and continue their journey.
Bergman has long been assured of his place among the great cinematic artists, the auteur directors, and students of cinema will continue to study his works for decades to come. His work, particularly in its focus, represents one of the greatest cinematic achievements of our time.