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Last Updated: Monday, 30 July 2007, 13:33 GMT 14:33 UK
Why Bergman was an artistic giant
Ingmar Bergman
Bergman made more than 50 films in a career spanning six decades
Film historian Geoffrey Macnab reflects on the surprisingly versatile career of director Ingmar Bergman, who has died aged 89.

Internationally, Ingmar Bergman is known almost exclusively for his films, but in Sweden he's a huge cultural figure.

He may have made more than 50 films, but he was also extremely active in writing and directing radio plays, he did a lot of work for television, he wrote novels, he wrote scripts.

You could say he has covered every base. On that level alone, that's why he is important.

Bergman's theatre career and film career ran more or less in tandem, and there was a period in the 1950s where he'd be doing theatre work in the winter months, and he would go off in the summer to make films.

It seems as though he had an extraordinary work ethic.

'Death and doom'

Outside Sweden, people have a vision of Bergman as a very austere figure who made melancholic Scandinavian films about death and doom.

But ironically, his breakthrough film internationally was a comedy - Smiles of a Summer Night.

That was a quintessential summer house farce, which directly influenced Woody Allen's Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy.

You could loosely describe something like The Hour of the Wolf as a horror film - with an artist going mad on an island as he's preyed upon by weird, grotesque aristocratic figures who live in a castle.

And, because of his messy private life, he had to direct a whole bunch of soap advertisements in the 1950s to support his ex-wives and children.

So he was much more versatile than his reputation would suggest.

Divorce debate

In Sweden, he found his audience with two films.

There was Scenes From a Marriage, which apparently almost every Swedish couple watched, and which fomented a huge debate on marriage and divorce in Sweden.

It appealed to an older generation who maybe thought his films were too experimental and avant-garde.

For younger viewers, his production of The Magic Flute was the film they loved.

It was shown on Swedish television in the mid-'70s and around half the population watched it.

But, to my mind, he did some of his absolute best work in the 1960s.

Persona is an extraordinary film. It's really an experimental film. It has a lot of weird silent cinema imagery and a distressing montage before the main action begins.

But his reputation was such that even an avant-garde film like that was able to get a mainstream reception.

He made 54 films and it would be more or less impossible for a European director today to work anything as like as quickly - because the finance isn't there.

In that sense, he's the last of a breed.

Geoffrey Macnab writes for Screen International, Sight and Sound and The Independent. He is currently writing a biography of Ingmar Bergman, which is due for publication later in the year.


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