Disc-cussion: Bergman leaves behind relevant body of work
The name Ingmar Bergman is such a strange and uncommon one that only someone who has seen a film by him is able to recognize it. The prolific Swedish film and play director died at the end of last month, and has left behind an impressive filmography. Most of his films’ motifs concern the human condition’s problems and privileges, and while the bulk of them were filmed in the 1950s and 60s, these motifs are still important to modern audiences.
Bergman’s most impressive work is from the earlier part of his catalog, in black and white, and meditates on death and despair. The following titles are probably the best introduction to his work, and are available on DVD (both of which can even be found – for free – in the M.D. Anderson Memorial Library’s DVD collection).
The Seventh Seal
This 1957 masterpiece is one of Bergman’s most acclaimed and referenced films, and is considered by the Criterion Collection to be "an essential building block in any collection."
While wandering the plague-ridden countryside on his way home from the Crusades, the knight Antonius Block meets a personification of Death who has come for him. Block challenges Death to a chess match in order to buy time to make it home.
Between his game sessions with Death, Block and his squire come across plague-infested towns and horrific situations which force him to question his faith in God and his subsequent actions. When, finally, his belief is seriously and ultimately called into question, Block decides that he would rather have doubts about God than believe life is meaningless. Block knows he will lose the chess game, but still plans his win with a knight and a bishop – or a combination of himself and faith. God is not necessarily his concern anymore, it’s finding meaning in his short life.
The final scene is one of the most famous in European cinema; Death leads the silhouettes of Block and others dancing across a hilltop in a bizarre passage ceremony. This scene is frequently referenced and spoofed in modern cinema, but remains Bergman’s most chillingly beautiful interpretation of life’s end.
The Criterion Collection DVD contains an annotated, illustrated Bergman filmography, which features excerpts from Wild Strawberries and The Magician with commentary. This serves as an excellent addendum to these two essential recommendations.
Frequently cited as the film that put Bergman in the international cinema spotlight, this 1960 Academy Award winner for Best Original Screenplay is considered equally, if not more, important as The Seventh Seal. Wild Strawberries is also a film about death and the tendency to re-evaluate one’s life and worth, though it is presented in a dramatically different way.
With an abrupt start, Professor Isak Borg walks down an empty town square and into a nightmarish hallucinatory scene awash in symbols from his life and impending death. After he awakes, the narrative begins and the doctor travels with his daughter-in-law Marianne to Lund, Sweden to receive an honorary degree from a university.
His trip is haunted with nightmares, hallucinations, daydreams and flashbacks, all of which prompt him to continuously re-evaluate his life and past, forgive his regrets and face his approaching death. The people he meets along the way remind him of his past (however indirectly) and challenge his assumptions and allow him to rediscover himself and mankind.
The latest DVD release includes a thorough and thought-provoking hour-and-a-half documentary on Bergman by author and director J√∂rn Donner called Ingmar Bergman on Life and Work.