The Life and Work of Ingmar Bergman

Essay, 2005

12 Pages, Grade: B

Free online reading

Table of contents:

1. Introduction

2. Biography of Ingmar Bergmann

3. Extracts of Bergman’s work

4. Recurring Themes and their Relations
4.1. Unfortunate love
4.2. A Trip to Germany
4.3. Humiliation and Fear
4.4. Religion and Faith
4.5. Family Affairs

5. More than a Job

6. Filmform

7. Swedish Features

8. An Example

9. Conclusion:

1. Introduction

In this essay, I will present the work and life of Ingmar Bergman, one of the most innovative and productive filmmakers of the 20th century. First his record respectively the most important milestones of his life is shown, followed by his body of work.

In section 4, his youth and influencing childhood is further analysed and related to his work.

After that some more aspects that are responsible for his success and the driving forces of his career should be enlightened more. Filmform as well as the Swedish aspects of Bergman’s work are further topics I will consider. Finally “The seventh seal”, one of Bergman’s movies is introduced and analysed as an example.

2. Biography of Ingmar Bergmann

Ernst Ingmar Bergman was born on the 14 July 1918, in Uppsala, Sweden.

He is the middle of three children brought up by their parents Erik (curate Hedvig Eleonora Church, Stockholm) and Karin. In1918 the family moved to Stockholm where Bergman’s father appointed Chaplain to the Royal Hospital, Sophiahemmet in 1924.

Ingmar was fascinated by films at an early age; 1930 he attended a real theatre for the first time and saw Geigerstam's Stor Klas och Lill Klas, directed by Alf Sjöberg. Furthermore he learned how to splice films and visited the “Rasunda” studios in the same year.

1934 was an eventful year for Bergman. He attends Palmgren's School, Östermalm and left on an exchange school trip to Germany. There, he got to know the Hitler-regime and its’ influencing instruments, like the “Hitler Youth” and the propagandized school and church. He was fond of the dictator and fell in love with a Jewish girl, which had to flee later.

Meanwhile, his father appointed parish priest at Hedvig Eleonora Church.

In 1938, Ingmar began to study literature and the history of art at Stockholm University, after having completed a compulsory military service in Strängnäs.

After a conflict with his parents that turned rough, Bergman broke with his family for the following four years. In 1940, he quit the university without graduating and concentrated on theatre. At the student theatre in Stockholm, he directed Macbeth (William Shakespeare), and produced his first plays as “The death of punch”, performed two years later.

He starts to work at the script department of Svensk Filmindustri in 1943.

1946 Bergmann made his film-debut with “Crisis”, after a play of Leck Fischer.

Bergman reached his break-through by “Smiles of a summer night” (1955) with which he won a prize at Cannes. After this success, he got the permission to produce “The seventh seal” (1957) which was rejected before, since being a tragedy. The film again received excellent reviews. With “Smiles of a summer night” (1955), “The seventh seal” (1957) and “Wild strawberries” (1957) Bergman first gained major success.

1987 Bergman published his autobiography “Laterna Magica” in Sweden.

The rest of Bergman’s biography is represented by his body of work, since he consistently was busy by producing films.

Ingmar Bergman achieved a couple of honours and prices during his career. Examples are:

The Golden Bear, at Berlin Festival, for “Wild Strawberries” in 1958, the Gold Plaque, from the Swedish Film Academy, in 1958, an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, The Virgin in 1961, an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, “Through a glass darkly”, in1962 and the Erasmus Prize (shared with Charles Chaplin), in Netherlands, 1965. Furthermore he got Honorary doctorate of philosophy, at Stockholm University, in 1975, another Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and four Academy Awards for “Fanny and Alexander”, in 1983.

3. Extracts of Bergman’s work

Bergman, as the most productive and influencing Swedish director created more than forty films during his career. In addition to that he had an enormous output of television-, theatre-, and radio-plays. Therefore it would go beyond the scope of this paper to list every of his productions. In the following I will give a chronologically overview of his most important works and try to point out and to describe the main themes and topics they deal with.

In “Sawdust and Tinsel” (1953) the theme of humiliation is clearly pictured. The protagonist Albert is humiliated and beaten up by the actor Frans, another main character. Also “misplaced love and the portrait of the ultimate loneliness of the human condition”[1] occur.

“Wild strawberries” (1957) deals with death forgiveness, loneliness, love, marriage, middle age, old age, time, youth. The topics are centred on the main character Isak Borg an egocentric doctor played by Victor Sjöström. Child-bearing is considered as absurdity, what might relate to Ingmar’s own bad childhood.

Abortion or deaths of infants are topics in “So close to life” (1958), where three women lose their child and take different consequences out of it. Also loneliness, marriage and family are considered in the film.

Absence of god or of religious faith are described in the three consecutive films “Through a class darkly” (1961), “Winter light” (1962) and “The silence” (1963).

“Through a glass darkly” (1961) reports a young woman's decline into insanity and describes the absence of familiar love.

In “Winter Light” (1962) the story of a village pastor that becomes an atheist since his wife's death is told. His faith is tested by an offer of marriage from a school-teacher. The pastor fails and realizes that his faith had gone.

“The Silence” (1963), which Bergman personally appreciates a lot, deals with sexual satisfaction and divides the people presented into their intellectual and physical parts. The film caused a lot of trouble and furore for Bergman by being very oppressive and leading progressively to the rejection of religious belief.

In his first accepted screenplay “Frenzy” or “Torment” (1944) Bergman represents the existence of strictness and humiliation.

“Persona” (1966) uses images of death, embarrassment and humiliation. It deals with the isolation on an island and people not reaching each other.

With the making of “Fanny and Alexander” (1982), Bergman announces his retirement from the cinema.

4. Recurring Themes and their Relations

From his early beginnings, Bergmann worked with topics like love and death. In “a ship bound for India” (1946) a conclusion is that if you have none to love, you might as well be dead. In “Music in darkness” (1948) he already worked up personal incidents respectively his experience of the army. The concept and portrayal of several topics as well as a personal note can be tracked through all his works and should be described consecutively. I will try to point out the main topics of Bergman work and to relate them to his biography and experiences of life. Of course some considerations are obvious and provable, while others remain speculative. At least the comparison of his films to his key impacts in life might lead to some interesting results and discoveries. In my view the following themes presented cover the main aspects used in Bergman’s films:

4.1. Unfortunate love

Bergman was taught a strange picture of women, consisting of a mixture of horror and fascination, by his mother. When he broke up with his family at age 22 he firstly got in contact to the female gender. Some people suggest that this also was his intention to join the theatre.

Man-woman relationships are successively and uncompromisingly examined in a series of Bergman films. “Scenes of a marriage” concerns the troubled, long-term love of a professional couple who are divorced but unable to endure separation. Also in other films, Bergman relates to the failures of married love.

Also Bergman pictures females as the mystic, respectively hard to understand gender as we can for example see in some characters used in “The Magician”.

4.2. A Trip to Germany

When visiting Germany, in 1934 at the age of 16, he admired the dictator Adolf Hitler and the Nazi-regime as role models. During the war, when the whole evilness of the system turned out, Bergman was deeply disappointed and felt guilty by association. The consequence for him was the complete renunciation to politics. The trip furthermore might have increased his mistrust and belief in unsuccessful love since the love he found in Germany disappeared as described in section 2.

The experience of the war devastated Germany was also influencing to the oppressive mood of “The Silence”. The sadistic Caligula in “Frenzy” (1944) sympathises with the Nazis.[2] Furthermore we can see that his films lack of political content.

4.3. Humiliation and Fear

Bergman hates being humiliated. He feels being raised in this way and criticises the top-down society he grew up in. As a child he often experienced humiliation, for example by being forced to wear a red shirt when he wetted his bed[3], or by receiving a letter from school that accuses him of lying to his parents. The scene when having to apologize for it to his mother is represented in “Fanny and Alexander” (1982).

Fear plays an important role in „Persona“ (1966) in a psychological way. It’s the fear of being seen through, powerlessness towards others, and the attempt to break security of others by their fear of death.

4.4. Religion and Faith

God’s existence or absence is a personal matter to Bergman that is represented in several films. This might have is cause in the historical religious roots of his family and the strict religious-related career of his father, and being brought up by his parents that way. His main concept of god consists of “god being love and love being god”.

“The Silence” has the objective to show the silence of god.

Also “Winter Lights” was strongly influenced by his father respectively the end of the story relates to an experience with him he kept in mind. Basically he took the courageous act of his father to fulfil a spiritual matter as key message for his film. The film’s priest got an absence of faith. Also characters that occur are an obsessive schoolmistress and an unhappy married couple with a suicidal husband what again represent the themes of marriage, humiliation and death. Bergman states:

"To me, religious problems are continuously alive ... not ... on the emotional level, but on an intellectual one" [4]

4.5. Family Affairs

Ingmar Bergmann suffered under his strict and severe father.

He is strongly focussed on his mother that he loved and admired, and even confesses that he tried to recreate her image in close-up scenes of his films.

“In Face to Face” (1976), Bergman refers to his own family life by portraying Dr. Isakssons grandparents in the film similar to his own ones in reality. The film is also related to his traumatic childhood.

Concerning the film “Fanny and Alexander” (1982), Bergman himself denies, that the film represents his autobiography by showing his own childhood with Alexander as his “alter ego”, but sees it as a story of a middle-class family in 1910.[5] Nevertheless, the film contains plenty of connections to Bergman’s childhood. Examples are the magic lantern of Alexander that he also had as a toy, and the setting of the rooms as well as the theme of humiliation he experienced as described above.

As we see, Bergman’s biggest inspiration for his films is his own Biography. He constantly puts personal experiences, questions and conflicts into his scenes and as themes for his movies.

Regarding the trend of Bergman’s film career, it is noticeable, that his early works, like “Summer with Monica” (1953) portray “adolescent crises and the instability of first love”[6] Later on, spirituality and the religious themes presented above become the focus of his interest. During the seventies Bergman’s films were most pessimistic. Relationships turn out to be faked and based on wrong, misleading expectations in those movies. After that period Bergman’s films get more and more childhood-related by recovering infantile innocence or mirroring experiences of his boyhood.

I think, the development of themes related in films follows the line of Bergman’s personal concerns in life and thus the movies are the forum to his thoughts and ideas.

If these personal relations provide an advantage or disadvantage to his films is hard to say. According to Widerberg, Bergman “refused to assume his responsibility as an artist by repeating […] his personal problematic.”[7] At least they were responsible for the emergence of some of the greatest films made by now.

5. More than a Job

In this section, the driving forces and motivations for Bergman’s work and ability to be excellent are pointed out. I think it is an interesting point to figure out his methods, and what he did to make his films special.

At the age of more or less twelve, he stole money from his father to be able to go and see new movies. He even traded his collection of toy soldiers for a movie projector given to his older brother. These events are symbolic for his early fascination of the theatre and films. He even taught himself how to splice films inspirited by his projector, what underlines the passion he put into films and theatre. In his further life this obsession will lead him close to theatres and the film industry. In 1939 he obtains post as production assistant at the Royal Theatre (the Stockholm Opera).

During his early days as a producer his moody and eccentric behaviour stood out. For example he lay on office floors without saying a word. This form of behaviour can be seen by other ingenious artists as well. It reminded me of the outstanding Klaus Kinski who for example played in “Nosferatu”.

Anyway Bergman was not picky by getting a job. At his beginnings he tried to use every possibility he got. Before his debut, Bergman said he would do any “rubbish” to get the chance to make a film.

According to Bergman, a strong technical and creative development during his first periods of work has taken place.

He states that first films should be forgotten. Also, he entitled his first public success (“Music in darkness”) as “silly little film”.

He also possessed plenty of discipline, influenced by his family and people like Lorens Marmstedt, a production manager and film critic and Torsten Hammaren, who gave him tips and support for his work.

Not even the worst working conditions or bad critics could discourage him or lower his enthusiasm to continue producing movies. After his two previous films didn’t succeed, and he was seen as a “flop”, Ingmar said, that he would do anything just to be enabled doing a picture.

Bergmann furthermore learned editing when filming “Summer with Monica” in 1952.

An important strength is the direction he gives his actors. “He entrusts the principal roles in his films to the five or six actors he loves best, never type-casting them. They are completely different from one film to the next, often playing diametrically opposite roles”[8] as François Truffaut (Cahiers du Cinéma) states in 1958. Bergman arranged so called Film-sessions for his close friends to get educated in film techniques. A big advantage to his work was that he treated the actors in a fair and friendly way and also took their proposals and suggestions seriously. He allowed them to influence the characters by bringing up their own ideas.

Bergman also had a close relationship with his actors at the Malmö city Theatre, what led him to promise them parts in his planned films without looking for better fitting casts. This might be seen as one of Bergman’s mistakes, since it finally discreated some of his films. Another failure, Bergman admitted to himself, was the psychologizing and interpreting a therapeutic idea in “The virgin spring” (1960), what harmed the movie.

Sven Nykvist became his favourite cameraman since first worked together in “Sawdust and Tinsel” (1953) and as time went by, their working-relationship further strengthened. Bergman makes high demands on his cameraman, which consist of perfection concerning technical abilities and lightning as well as at operating on his camera. He emphasizes the importance of the connectivity between him and Nykvist, as himself giving impulses and his cameraman executing the scenes as they agreed before.

Furthermore, Dymling the head of Svensk Filmindustri described Bergman as sensitive, short-tempered, sometimes ruthless in his pursuit of his goals and unpredictable.

In my opinion he is not only a talented artist but also hard and accurate worker using intelligent methods and a lot of passion for his directory.

6. Filmform

In the following paragraph, the filmform Bergman uses is examined. Considering the filmform, narrative aspects and the filmstyle and techniques can be distinguished.

Narrative form concerns the way story and plot are told, whereas filmstyle decribes the way that the filmmaker tells the story, respectively the stylistic elemets and techniqes he uses.[9]

Ingmar Bergman had discovered his unique style. Most of his films are hard and follow the concept of realism with only slight hope. There mostly is a lack of optimism and struggling.

Crisis, he is debut was a first practice for Bergman’s future working style.

At the beginning of his career, Bergman analysed constructions of films he considered as good. Thus like many artists he first learned and improved by regarding other work.

He was influenced by films of Rossellini and Neo-realism, which describes the tendency to produce more realistic films for example through the use of long-lasting scenes. Bergman started to experiment with stylistic devices like dramatic switches from exteriors to interiors and flashbacks. Also he increased his repertoire by using metaphorical and suggestive optical devices that he also mirrors within the underlying sound.

Bergman also uses and has a good command of close up techniques that he introduces effectively.

By the year 1950, Bergman himself thought, that he now found a style of his own that could not be imitated.

He experiments with emphasizing the pictures and keeping the dialogues short.

This innovative and high developed technical abilities and stylistic devices distinguish his film from the masses and guarantee the high quality standard.

Even if a story or plot filmed by Bergman might be not good, or a film was a commercial failure, the quality of the pictures mis-en-scene and cinematography remains unquestioned. Based on Bergman’s accuracy and willingness to reach perfection, as well as his broad technical knowledge, camera settings, lightning, shots and timing are at the top-level of the appropriate time. He was even titled “a poet with the camera” after his success “Wild strawberries”. The film has outstanding excellence by using dream sequences, flash backs, voice-overs, a simple cutting and striking lightning contrasts.

Strong pictures and close-ups are used to express moods and feelings and atmospheres. Also lighting and setting are related to these expressions. There can be found lots of examples like the attempt to picture claustrophobia in “Waiting women” (1952) or the moody symbolism in “Sawdust and Tinsel” (1953).

In “Now all these women”, Bergman firstly uses colour for his film, what he considered as terrible and boring from a professional point of view.[10] However, he kept using colours for his following movies.

Two important aspects of filmstyle are casting and camerawork.

As mentioned before, Bergman preferably chose the same team of actors for his films. This provides the advantage of a self-evident understanding at the set and therefore efficient and authentic filming. Also he constantly relies on Sven Nykvist as his cameraman. For him the suggestiveness of a film lies in the “combination of rhythm and faces, and tensions and relaxations of tension.”[11] The lighting of an image is of greatest importance to him.

7. Swedish Features

The lack of exaggerated special effects and the mostly calm atmosphere as well as the landscapes of Bergman’s films might be aspects that supports the swedishness of the films.

“Summer with Monica” portrays the contradiction of the idyllic island versus a pessimistic-associated picture of the city.

In “Through a class darkly” Bergman uses simplycism, naturalism and soft tones of Swedish light to create a melancholic mood.

According to the Soila, “Bergman is in no way representative of Swedish film production of the 1950’s and 1960`s [..] but anyway a follower of the melodrama, which has his roots in the Swedish theatre.”[12]

In my opinion we have to relate Bergman’s films a rather to himself than to cultural aspects. As explained above the most important influences develop from Bergman’s life and experiences that are often mirrored in his films.

8. An Example

In this paragraph, the film “The seventh seal” should be examined a little more detailed, exemplary. There, we can find several issues of importance towards Bergman’s work.

The story is simple; a knight (Max von Sydow) meets the personified death and starts a game of chess with him. The knight will be alive as long as he does not loose the match. On his way through the country, the he meets religious fanatics driven by the fear of the plague respectively of death. He is always concerned about the existence of god and the question what is to come after death. This gives us an image of Bergman’s (unfulfilled and often desperate) journey through life. The go(o)dness and love of the film is represented by an artist-couple moving around in their wagon, especially in a scene where they picnic with milk and strawberries, and the knight feels relaxed and happy for the first time in the film. At the end all main characters except for the artists are gathered up by death. The topics of god and death are often visible in Bergman’s films. He personally seemed to be in a state of uncertainty towards these themes. As described before, this might be related to his parents’ religious education and his attempt to create an individual approach towards religion and god and death.

"My whole life has been a meaningless search", declares the knight in The Seventh Seal. He assumes, because his search has turned up nothing, that there is nothing to find. This might mirror Bergman’s own attitude towards the topic. Of course there are a lot more connections that can be made, and the analyses of this film itself is worth an essay. There are plenty of metaphors, symbols and thoughts represented by the film that relate and his points of view.

Looking at “The seventh seal” the audience is completely stunned by the nature and the music that has the power to easily change the perception of each scene. So the stylistic and technical perfection is also a typical trademark of Bergman’s work.

9. Conclusion:

Considering Bergman’s career I think he is not only a perfectionist and natural, bur rather a passionate director. His films even have to be respected more when considering the often bad working conditions and the lack of technical possibilities.

Bergman strongly connects and refers to his childhood by recalling and using memories in his films. Not only the big concerns but also little details in his films, like giving Märta, one of his characters in “Winter Light” eczema, like his second married wife Ellen Lundström had have personal influence.

I think, in his films Bergman like many other artists found the possibility to express his feelings, fantasies and fears. Conflicts of characters often represent conflicts of Ingmar himself.

Through his unconformity, technical brilliance and success, Bergman formed the image of the film producer as artist. Therefore he started a new era for the recognition and attention given to directors. Cinema further on was seen as a serious form of art.


Andersson, K., An introduction to Filmform, Lecture notes, 2004.

Bragg, M., The seventh seal, in BFI Film Classics, BFI, London 1993.

Bordwell, D., Thompson, K. Extracts from Film History – An introduction (fourth edition).

Mc Ilroy, B., World Cinema: Sweden, Flicks books, London 1986.

Soila, T., Nordic National Cinemas: Sweden, Routledge, London, New York 1998.

[Webpage] The magic works of Ingmar Bergman [online]. Available from: [Accessed 13.01.2005]


[1] Webpage

[2] Bordwell

[3] Compare Bragg

[4] Webpage

[5] Compare Mc Illroy, p. 139

[6] Bordwell

[7] Soila, p. 206

[8] Webpage

[9] Compare Andersson, p.2

[10] Compare Mc Illroy, p.89

[11] Mc Illroy, p.60

[12] Soila, p.204

12 of 12 pages


The Life and Work of Ingmar Bergman
Swedish Film
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Life, Work, Ingmar, Bergman, Swedish, Film
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Dipl. Kfm. Peter Weyel (Author), 2005, The Life and Work of Ingmar Bergman, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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