The Ingmar Bergman Collection Review

The Swedish director Ingmar Bergman occupies a formidable position in history of world cinema, creating a body of work with a distinctive cinematic voice that is comparable only with Kurosawa, Fellini, and Tarkovsky, but in a career in cinema that has spanned almost 60 years, there are perhaps more truly classic films among Bergman’s filmography than most. By anyone’s standard, Fanny and Alexander, Cries and Whispers, Persona, Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal must surely rank amongst the greatest and most influential films ever made.

Not all these films are included among the 30 titles that make up the Tartan Complete Bergman Collection, but they do span his full career, from his first film script for Torment in 1944 to his final directorial masterpiece Saraband in 2003. Bergman’s early career was as a playwright and theatre director, and he would remain involved with theatre all his life, learning from his experience there the benefits of building up a strong troupe of actors who could be relied upon to meet the considerable demands of his later deeply involved psychodramas of characters undergoing the turmoil of familial and relationship breakdowns and crises of faith.

Bergman’s break into movies came about as the Svensk Filmindustri (The Swedish Film Industry) were casting around for scripts for their main directors to celebrate the studio’s 25th Anniversary. Having previously worked as a script-fixer, Bergman had submitted one of his own scripts to the studio, and this first script Torment was given to the veteran director Alf Sjöberg to direct. Bergman was present on the set of the filming, working as script-doctor and assistant director, getting his first opportunity to direct himself with the final scene of the film.

Bergman’s early films for Svensk Filmindustri were subject very much to the commercial demands of the studio system, adapting stories from other popular literary sources, often confronting social issues and youths looking to live their own lives. As Bergman’s films began to take on a darker, more personal tone, box-office returns correspondingly suffered, forcing the director to even work on television commercials in order to feed his family. Bergman eventually would find an outlet for his own original scripts through Lorens Marmstadt and his independent Terrafilm studio, notably in the film Prison (1949), but his own limited experience and those of his actors – principally Birger Malmsten, Mai Zetterling, Gunnar Björnstrand, Eva Dahlbeck, Bengt Eklund, and Maj-Britt Nilsson – didn’t allow him to examine those darker subjects to their full extent. The experience of the starving artist however was an invaluable lesson for the director, and he took advantage of his education, ensured that he would have all the necessary skills by immersing himself in the filmmaking elements such as sound recording, camera lenses and editing that were at his disposal at the major film studio.

Bergman’s first taste of real freedom in filmmaking would come however with the casting of Harriet Andersson in the remarkable Summer with Monika (1953), Andersson bringing a wonderful freedom to a controversial role of a young woman who seeks to live a hedonistic life of pleasure and escape from the dull existence of her family life. Andersson, along with Gunnar Björnstrand, would also light-up the atypical romantic sex comedy Smiles Of A Summer Night (1955), and become one of an outstanding troupe of Bergman actors, most of them gaining their experience through Bergman’s theatre work in Malmö. With Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephson, Bibi Andersson and Ingrid Thulin, Bergman would go on then to create some of his most powerful and dramatic films – The Seventh Seal (1957), Wild Strawberries (1957) and The Virgin Spring (1960). But it was his collaboration with cinematographer Sven Nykvist – a partnership that would last throughout their careers – that Bergman was able to find the perfect balance of austerity, expression and experimentation in his presentation of devastatingly powerful and - it must be said - deeply depressing psychological melodramas during the 1960s including his Faith Trilogy of films showing the characters driven to desperation at the silence of God - Through A Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1962) and The Silence (1963) – through to the identity, creative and existential crises of Persona (1966) and Hour Of The Wolf (1968).

The Bergman stamp of mental breakdowns, concerns about death and disease, family and relationship breakdowns would also be evident in the 1970’s with another masterpiece Cries and Whispers (1972), and in a made-for-TV drama Scenes From A Marriage (1973), but there were signs that Bergman was bordering on self-parody by the time of Autumn Sonata (1978), although it is no less remarkably performed and filmed. Forced to work abroad because of a dispute with the tax authorities, Bergman would move to Germany to wallow in the neo-gothic grotesquery of The Serpent’s Egg (1977) and From The Life of Marionettes (1980), films that, although they have their admirers, are rarely considered among the director’s best work.

Bergman signed off his career in filmmaking in 1982 with the all-encompassing Fanny and Alexander – a look at the formative influences on his life, told as an epic childhood drama. Although retired from filmmaking, Bergman would continue to write film scripts (most notably Faithless (2000) for Liv Ullmann), direct theatre and television movies, only returning to cap his filmmaking career in 2003 with Saraband, a 30-years-later sequel to the drama Scenes From A Marriage. In this remarkable film, Bergman would show that he had lost none of his powers over the years, with a powerful script, intensely performed and directed, it is a fitting final testament from one of the greatest and most important filmmakers in the world.

The Bergman Collection is released in the UK by Tartan. It consists of 30 films, 28 of which were previously released individually on DVD by Tartan, with the addition of 2 new titles unavailable elsewhere - Dreams and Farodocument 79. One of the titles previously released individually is not collected here, the Gustaf Molander directed Eva, from a script by Bergman. Two subsequent Bergman films have also been subsequently released by Tartan - Sawdust And Tinsel and The Devil’s Eye, neither of which are included here. The boxset contains an exclusive book Bergman: A Life In Films by David Parkinson, covering the films and their background in chronological order. All of the discs in the set are Region 0 and in PAL format.

The Films

Torment (1944) - Full Review
A young man finds himself locking horns with a sadistic schoolteacher, jeopardising his chances of finishing school successfully. Bergman’s first film script is a thrilling, full-blooded, coming-of-age melodrama, brought to the screen with fevered delight by Alf Sjöberg. Despite its stylistic excesses, it’s still an insightfully scripted and well performed film.

Crisis (1946)
A young girl, Nelly, is torn between the happy life she has led with her foster mother in a provincial town and the lure of her real mother in the big city, only to find it doesn’t live up to her ideals. Bergman’s very first directorial outing, an adaptation of a play by Leck Fischer, is another melodrama that doesn’t really manage to rise above its stage origins, but intriguingly sets a strong direction for what is to follow.

Music in Darkness (1947) - Full Review
The story of a melodramatic romance between a young man who has been made blind by an unfortunate accident, and a young peasant girl who looks after him was an early independent commercial success for Bergman, striking out beyond the studio system.

Port of Call (1948) - Full Review
Shocking for the time it was made, Port of Call follows the misfortunes of a young girl whose promiscuous adolescence flies in the face of social attitudes and threatens her subsequent relationship with a young man she meets and falls in love with. Strongly developed characters and a certain level of social commentary lift the film above its melodramatic origins, even if it doesn’t have the depth of later Bergman films.

Prison (1949) - Full Review
Bergman’s second independently produced film was one of the director’s earliest films to explore the torment of characters enduring hell on earth in a Godless universe. The social commentary aspects of teenage prostitution and abortion are less than successfully treated, but Bergman’s experimentation with the form makes this film perhaps his earliest minor masterpiece.

Three Strange Loves (1949) - Full Review
Also known as Thirst, here Bergman delves into the darker side of married relationships – not for the last time – but here he doesn’t quite convince. The storyline and treatment, with mental breakdowns, suicides and suggestions of lesbianism being perhaps too melodramatic in its attempts to shock rather than getting behind the characters.

To Joy (1950)
Taking its title from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, Ode To Joy, Bergman again presents a story of young love through two lovers in an orchestra who get married and subsequently go through difficult times. Bergman ambitiously attempts to convey the complexity of relationships with its wealth and variety of experiences through the music which features heavily in the film, but the drama tends to have a hollow ring to it.

Summer Interlude (1951)
A similar theme is repeated in this simple and sometimes sentimental story, based on an autobiographical romance from Bergman’s youth, of the tragic love affair between a young ballerina and a college student. Again Bergman delineates the progress of their relationship well, but it all feels very stagy and melodramatic, with little of the sense of realism that Harriet Andersson would bring to a similar subject two years later in Summer With Monika.

Waiting Women (1952) - Full Review
Restored from the cut version that was released in 1952, Bergman takes another frank look at relationships in a triptych of stories shared by a group of women who reflect on the defining moments when they came to the bitter realisation of the nature of their marriages. The film never quite coheres, but there is sufficient variety in the stories, Bergman even experimenting for the first time with comedy.

Summer with Monika (1953) - Full Review
On the surface very similar to many of Bergman’s earlier films of young women looking for freedom to live and love as they choose, and the disillusionment they eventually endure, Summer With Monika is distinguished by a much stronger script, a lightness of touch in the direction and an uninhibited performance from the extraordinary Harriet Andersson.

A Lesson in Love (1954) – Full Review
Attempting to make something lighter and more entertaining, Bergman brought back Eva Dahlbeck and Gunnar Björnstrand from their little farce in Waiting Women to try and make a fully-fledged romantic comedy. Alas, the exploits of a philandering gynaecologist and his long-suffering wife are neither as sophisticated nor as witty as the writer would like to think, but the film looks marvellous.

Dreams (1955) – Full Review
Another compendium of relationship dramas in the style of Thirst and Waiting Women, like those films Dreams lacks the balance and acuity of observation in its examination of the suffering of two women, one older, the other younger, both involved in unhealthy relationships. Originally intended to be a comedy, the break-up of Bergman’s relationship with Harriet Andersson would cast an unfortunate shadow over the film.

Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)
Perhaps his only successful foray into the romantic comedy genre, the romantic entanglements of a group of couples who spend a weekend together at a house in the woods displays a playful lightness and effervescence that is not to be found in any other Bergman film. The inspiration for the Stephen Sondheim musical A Little Night Music and the Woody Allen film - A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, this is Bergman at his fluffiest and most brilliant.

The Seventh Seal (1956) – Full Review
Featuring some of the most iconic moments in cinema history, not least of which is the black-robed figure of death playing chess with a medieval Knight on a beach, The Seventh Seal is one of the most impressive films ever made. Although Bergman would continue to question the purpose of living in a cruel world abandoned by God in later films – where his silence is even more unbearable - nowhere is it confronted in such an inventive, dazzling and playfully dialectic manner.

Wild Strawberries (1957)
Consolidating the reputation gained with The Seventh Seal’s success at Cannes, Wild Strawberries would bring Ingmar Bergman to a much wider international audience. On his way to a university to receive an honorary degree, an elderly professor recalls the joys and disappointments of his youth, his family difficulties in the present and the premonition of his death in the near future. Much more than just a road movie, Bergman manages to summarize the experience of living with a dazzling array of parallel situations, flashbacks and dream sequences.

The Magician (1958) – Full Review
A travelling illusionist and his troupe are detained in a small border town, where the magician becomes the centre of a debate between the town elders who seek to uncover a rational meaning behind his apparently supernatural tricks. A deeply-layered film, it was partly a cry for the purity of the artist to be preserved from the views of critics, but the unspeaking magician can also be taken again as the silence of a God we want to believe in, whose apparently flawed actions cannot be rationalised.

The Virgin Spring (1960) – Full Review
The same doubts about God’s purpose and his actions surface also in The Virgin Spring, though it was not scripted by Bergman. Set in the 14th Century and based on an old legend, the shocking rape and murder of a young girl in the woods while on her way to church is followed up by the fearful vengeance of her distraught father. Bergman, with Sven Nykvist as cinematographer, handles the material with remarkable precision and ability, producing one of the most powerful and moving films ever made.

Through a Glass Darkly (1961) – Full Review
The sixties would see some of Bergman’s most experimental not to mention gruelling films. Although never formally acknowledged as a series, the film is regarded as the first part of his “Faith Trilogy” exploring the impact of the silence of God. It stars Harriet Andersson as a young woman on an isolated island with her family undergoing a mental breakdown and communicating with a spider-god through her wallpaper.

Winter Light (1962) – Full Review
The crisis of coming to an awareness of the silence of God strikes a clergyman harder than most, and Winter Light, for all its brevity, is perhaps the most intensely bleak film Bergman ever made, every frame filled with the most absolute sense of despair. The depth of existential suffering of Gunnar Björnstrand’s Pastor whose non-belief leaves him incapable of helping Max Von Sydow’s Jonas is only matched by the cold austerity of Nykvist’s brilliant cinematography.

The Silence (1963) – Full Review
Two sisters, Ester and Anna, travelling home from a vacation with Anna’s 10 year-old son, arrive in a strange East European city, Ester gravely ill. Both sisters share an uncomfortable relationship with each other, one that may once have been sexually intimate, but now is marked by silence and resentment. One of Bergman’s most complex and metaphorical films – one that is not so far away from the later Persona - covers themes of sickness of the mind, the body and the inability to communicate in a godless universe.

All These Women (1964) – Full Review
As if needing to break from the grim subject matter of recent films, Bergman returned, ill-advisedly, to comedy for his first film shot in colour. Nykvist’s glorious cinematography is the only reason however for watching the tedious and deeply irritating exploits of a pompous music critic attempting to interview a famous cellist only to be frustrated in his endeavours by the women that make up his circle.

Persona (1966)
After suffering a breakdown, an actress retreats into silence, and is sent to an island with a nurse who has been assigned to look after her. Gradually, the actress comes out of herself, finding a connection with the nurse, but the identification goes both ways. A deeply enigmatic and experimental film, with Persona, and later Cries and Whispers, Bergman would recognise that he had “touched wordless secrets that only cinema can discover”.

The Rite (1969) – Full Review
Furious at the treatment he had been subjected to while head of the Royal Dramatic Theatre, Bergman created this small chamber piece for television. Three performance artists who have had their show censored, are called before a judge, where they to enact a bizarre ritualistic revenge upon him.

Cries and Whispers (1972) - Full Review
Out of an image of a red room inhabited by a group of women dressed in white, Bergman would craft one of his most visually arresting and, it must be said, harrowing films. It relates the relationships and difficulties between two sisters and their maid who have gathered around another sister who is in an agonising state between life and death. Essential Bergman and essential cinema.

Scenes From A Marriage (1973)
Made as a 6-part TV series with practically no budget, the process of the break-up of a seemingly blissful wealthy professional couple is meticulously scripted with unsparing frankness and performed by Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson with nerve-shattering intensity. The shorter theatrical film version of the series, which is no less intense, is the version included here. Bergman would film a sequel, Saraband 30 years later as his final film.

Autumn Sonata (1978)
Another bitter family situation is the subject of Autumn Sonata starring Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullman as a mother and daughter. The mother, a famous concert pianist comes to stay with her daughter and her husband, and is shocked to discover the deep hatred and bitterness her daughter has harboured towards her for many years. Very much Bergman by numbers, it’s nonetheless an intense film that is beautifully shot and performed.

Farodocument 79 (1979) – Full Review
In 1969 Bergman would film a documentary on the people and the history of Faro, a remote island north of Gotland that would become the director’s adopted home. In the follow up, made 10 years later, Bergman returns to see what progress, if any, had been made in the intervening years.

From the Life of the Marionettes (1980)
In self-imposed exile to West Germany on account of tax issues, Bergman’s bitterness would surface in The Serpent's Egg but even more so in the unimaginably bleak and nihilistic From The Life Of The Marionettes. Featuring two of his bitterest characters, the feuding Peter and Katarina Egerman from Scenes From A Marriage, the film follows the fractured timeline of Peter’s descent into madness as a recurring dream of killing his wife leads to the murder of a prostitute.

After the Rehearsal (1984) – Full Review
Although he had retired from filmmaking in 1983 with Fanny and Alexander, Bergman felt the need to express some further thoughts on what it means to live one’s life as a director working with actors on the stage and screen in a made-for-TV dialogue between a young actress and an aging director. Along the way, Bergman has much to say about life and relationships in general.

Saraband (2003)
For his final film Bergman returned after thirty years to two characters who were the subject of his 1974 television mini-series and film, Scenes From A Marriage. A perfect and moving epilogue to an illustrious career, the 86 year old demonstrated that there been no diminishing of his powers, writing and directing a film that is as intense as anything he has ever made.

Not all the discs in set where provided to DVD Times for review, but it would appear that the transfers here are the same as those already released individually by Tartan. As such I can’t verify the quality of every single title in the set, but I have seen most of them and, in general, the print quality of each of the films is exceptionally good, with even the oldest films in the set looking pristine, with scarcely a mark or flaw, the black and white films often with an excellent range of greyscale tones, the colour films vivid and accurately toned. There are exceptions to this rule, After The Rehearsal in particular looking very faded and worn. The majority of the films are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Those films in 1.66:1 aspect ratio are presented non-anamorphically. Nearly all the discs are single-layered, which should be more than adequate for the films and the few text-based extra features and trailers on them, but they do often tend to suffer from compression artefacts and flickering backgrounds. More details on the presentation of individual titles can be found in the full reviews of those titles received by DVD Times, linked above.

The audio quality, Dolby Digital 2.0 mono throughout but for Saraband, is variable from disc to disc, some of them exhibiting minor background noise and crackle - Music In Darkness more than most - but the dialogue in the majority of the films is relatively clear.

Optional English subtitles are provided for all the films in a clear white font. They translate the films exceptionally well.

As the discs have been repackaged, I can’t say whether the liner notes by Philip Strick that accompanied each of the individual releases are included here, but if not, it’s a regrettable omission, as they were often the only information specific to the film on each of the discs. In its place however, a booklet is included Bergman: A Life In Films where David Parkinson takes an extensive and chronological look at Bergman's Career. On the discs themselves, some titles include extracts from Bergman’s notebooks about the creation of the films, but the majority only include trailers for Autumn Sonata and Persona, as well as filmographies for Bergman and the principal actors.

The collection of films gathered here in the Ingmar Bergman Collection do not contain the complete films of Ingmar Bergman, nor do they even contain all his very best films, but over the course of thirty films they representatively cover all the major periods and principal works of one of the most important figures in 20th century European cinema. Few of Bergman’s early films that make up a third of the collection merit a great deal of attention, but, rarely seen, they present an intriguing insight into the development of a major filmmaker. The remainder of the set contain some of the finest films you will ever see, as well as some of the most challenging and experimental, whose depths may never be fathomed. Certainly many of them are extremely bleak, filled with despair, agony and suffering, with the few attempts at light relief more often than not completely missing the mark, but with a remarkable troupe of actors – some of the finest in the world – and a sympathetic cinematographer, there is no other director who has explored those depths of personal, spiritual and creative breakdown quite so brilliantly and compellingly. The quality of Tartan’s editions of these films is good, but not exceptional. The prints, despite the age of many of them, are remarkably preserved, but a little more care could have been applied in their digital transfer. Supporting features for these films would certainly have been welcomed – and may even be essential in some cases - but the boxset would appear to contain little additional material beyond the meagre trailers and filmographies on each of the discs. Nonetheless, as a substantial collection of a major body of important film work from one of the world’s finest directors, this has to be highly recommended to anyone who can afford it.

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