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Goddbye Mr Bergman

It perhaps seemed improbable that one of the world's funniest filmmakers was a devoted acolyte of one of the world's most serious. But that was the case for Woody Allen, whose devotion to the Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman was a life-long obsession. He often referenced the great director in his films. In ANNIE HALL, in a scene that all hardcore cinephiles can relate to, Woody refuses to go to a screening of Bergman's FACE TO FACE because he and Diane Keaton have missed the first 60 seconds of the film ("I can't go into a movie in the middle", he famously remarked). In MANHATTAN, Keaton ridicules Woody's contention that "Bergman is the only true film artist in cinema today". Woody was not just content to praise the Master, but in many of his serious films (INTERIORS, ANOTHER WOMAN, SEPTEMBER, SHADOWS AND FOG, CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS), his emulation of the themes that haunted Bergman throughout his legendary career was a mix of homage and hero worship. So, things must have gone deadly silent in Woody's Fifth Avenue penthouse apartment today when he learned, along with the entire world, that the Master, Ingmar Bergman, had passed away.

Astrid Soderberg Widding, president of the Ingmar Bergman Foundation, made the announcement that the “poet with the camera”, considered one of the great film masters of the medium, died today on his island retreat of Faro on the Baltic Coast of Sweden at the age of 89. Bergman, who had been in semi-retirement (done with films, but still involved with television, theater, opera and writing), was an enigmatic figure who directed more than 50 films, married five times and famously had relationships with most of his leading actresses. His canvas told the tale of pain and torment, desire and religion, evil and love, where God is either silent or cruel, and mankind is a prisoner of fate and innate desire. Much of his philosophy and obsession stemmed from his childhood as the son of a deeply religious and menacing Lutheran priest, who early on taught him that man was created in corruption and sin, but longed for redemption and fulfillment.

In his more than 40 years in the cinema, he often focused on his two favorite themes: the often stormy relationship between the sexes and mankind's longing for God. In an essay he wrote in the beginning of his career, he found in cinema "a language that literally is spoken from soul to soul in expressions that, almost sensuously, escape the restrictive control of the intellect.” He started his career in the late 1940s, directing films that were widely hailed in his native Sweden, but barely known outside his country. However, by the mid-1950s, he began to produce the metaphysical allegories and semi-religious parables that brought him international recognition. SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT (1956) won a special prize at the Cannes Film Festival that year. The following year, he directed one of his most recognizable films, THE SEVENTH SEAL, the haunting tale of a knight (played by Bergman favorite Max Von Sydow) who confronts a world terrorized by the Black Plague. The chess matches between the knight and the shadowy figure of Death are among the best known scenes in the history of film. THE SEVENTH SEAL was an international smash, and won the director another special prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

That same year, Bergman directed one of his most loved films, WILD STRAWBERRIES, a thoughtful and emotional study of old age. He ingeniously cast the silent film director and actor Victor Sjostrom as the octogenarian retiree, who relives the glories and disappointments of his past on a road trip to his childhood home. It is a film that is still much admired, even for those who find Bergman a bit too "heavy". In 1959, his enigmatic film THE MAGICIAN took the special jury prize at the Venice Film Festival, thus securing his position as one of cinema's great auteurs. However, it was his next film, THE VIRGIN SPRING, the story of a rape and its aftermath in medieval Scandinavia, that brought him his biggest fame yet, winning many international prizes, including the Best Foreign Film Oscar of its year. Not only was he acclaimed as a director of actors, a visual poet and a dynamic screenwriter, but his films were studied in philosophy and religion classes around the world. Few filmmakers were taken quite so seriously, especially at a time when film was not yet considered a serious art form by most film critics. Bergman won his second Academy Award in 1961 for THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY, a moody exploration of sexual longing and religious rapture.

This was the first of a trilogy of intimate religious films that defined one of his major themes....the loneliness of modern man, estranged from his faith in God and the love of his fellow human beings. With subsequent films WINTER LIGHT (1963) and THE SILENCE (1965), Bergman's questioning of whether "God is dead" was the subject of passionate discussions in the media and the common culture. These themes were inspired by an episode when Bergman was hospitalized and realized he was no longer scared of death. He realized during his brush with mortality that love remains the only hope of salvation for the unloved and unrepentant. While some critics jeered the films as obscure and pretentious, Bergman's reputation among intellectuals, students and religious figures elevated him beyond simply being a master filmmaker.

In the late 1960s and into the 1970s, he created an astonishing series of films that hauntingly explore the complexities of human relationships. In such well-regarded films as PERSONA, THE PASSION OF ANNA, HOUR OF THE WOLF, SHAME, FACE TO FACE and his first color film CRIES AND WHISPERS, Bergman touched on universal themes that became known as Bergman-esque. In these films, he utilized again and again a group of actors who became his own personal repertory company. These included Max Von Sydow, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Ingrid Thulin, Bibi Andersson, Erland Josephson and, above all, Liv Ullmann, with whom he had a long personal relationship and a child. He also worked for many years with the brilliant cinematographer Sven Nykvist, who gave his films the austere feeling that complimented the text and the intensity of the performances.

Memory, its fidelity and distortions, was another major theme in his work, In the films SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (1976, originally done for television) and AUTUMN SONATA (1981, with the unforgettable teaming of Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullman), he played on this theme of memory. It also figured strongly in his final film FANNY AND ALEXANDER, a spectacular ode to his childhood and one of the most beautiful films of his career. The film won four Oscars, including the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1984. Bergman did not, however, leave the world of film altogether. While spending more and more time on his island retreat of Faro, he worked on several projects that were produced for Swedish television (but sometimes were released internationally as theatrical films). AFTER THE REHEARSAL (1989) is a jigsaw puzzle of a film that follows three actors preparing for a production of August Strindberg's DREAM PLAY. In 1991, he adapted his own novel THE BEST INTENTIONS for a six-hour mini-series for television about his parents' troubled marriage, that was directed by Billie August (and was released in a shorter version in theaters). THE BEST INTENTIONS was one of three novels he wrote in the 1990s about the relationship of his parents. The second, SUNDAY'S CHILDREN, was made into a film and directed by his son Daniel Bergman. The third, PRIVATE CONFESSIONS, about his mother, was directed by his long time muse and lover Liv Ullmann.

In 2002, at the age of 84, Bergman updated one of his most famous films, the brilliant SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE, starring Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson, for televison. SARABAND set the story of the husband and wife 30 years later, when they have long since divorced, and only come together when the husband is near death. The film was screened in theaters around the world in 2004 and was an arthouse hit. At the time of his death, Bergman was said to be involved with a number of different theater projects. He had become somewhat of a loner in his later years, making rare public appearances and serving as the subject of a television documentary, BERGMAN'S ISLAND. The devotion he had inspired over six decades has made him one of the most celebrated artists in the world. A sign of his prominence was evidenced by hs obituary appearing on the front page of today's New York Times (rather than in the standard obituary listings at the back of the paper). Such was his status as a philosopher, poet, visual shaman and spiritual thinker. Goodbye Mr. B, we won't see your like again.

Sandy Mandelberger, In Memoriam Editor
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