There is no doubt that Ingmar Bergman has an absolutely formidable reputation. As a director, his body of work stands shoulder to shoulder with the titans of Twentieth Century cinema, with his films as respected and revered as those of Hitchcock, Fellini or Kurosawa (to name but a few). Yet that reputation is formidable not merely because of the quality of the work but also due to the tone and themes than imbue them. While Kurosawa is acclaimed for making stunning samurai films that combine sublime cinematic action with Shakespearean scope and Hitchcock is venerated for being the ultimate master of suspense and thrills, Bergman’s films command an altogether less populist quality; namely a preoccupation with guilt, death, the trauma of childhood and the consistent failure of love to provide long lasting happiness or stability. A scene from his most iconic film, The Seventh Seal, offers a perfect encapsulation of Bergman’s cinematic reputation, where a Knight sits down to play a game of chess with Death. Concerned with the darker side of life, his often bleak stories, loaded with philosophical concerns and psychological depth, don’t seem to offer themselves to the uninitiated as light or easy viewing.

Yet that would be a serious misconception. While Bergman’s films do indeed deal with the darker side of human experience, the stories he tells are equally defined by brilliant writing, stunning performances, novelistic characters and breathtaking cinematic technique. It is worth noting that Bergman began his career in film as a screenwriter and this apprenticeship for a Swedish film studio taught him valuable lessons in screen storytelling. For anyone who might be intimidated by Bergman’s reputation, his films are actually as engaging and as gripping as any of his peers. For all the heaviness of their subject matter, they are often never less than brilliant examples of a master storyteller at work, where a deftness of touch and a profound insight into the human condition (most frequently explored through a female perspective) allow his work to be regarded as some of the best cinema produced in the Twentieth Century. 

For such an important director, there has been a lack of access to the majority of Bergman’s films on Blu Ray in the UK for some time (although savvy shoppers would have imported Criterion’s sublime boxset from 2018) a situation which is now being brilliantly addressed by the BFI, which is releasing a brand new Bergman Blu Ray boxset this month. Yet, rather than attempting to capture an entire career in one single edition (as Criterion did) the BFI has instead taken a different route. What we have here is ‘Volume 1’ of four planned boxsets that will eventually cover most of Bergman’s filmography, with this inaugural edition of eight films covering the director’s early work from the 1940s and early 1950s.

There are two way to appreciate at this boxset. The obvious way to digest the films contained here is to try and place them within the context of the Bergman’s wider career. From that perspective, they seem almost doomed to failure. Bergman certainly wasn’t a director who hit the ground running Orson Wells style. It took him time to find his voice and aesthetic and while these films offer a fascinating insight into that process, there are no masterpieces included in this collection, nothing, say, that is comparable to films like Wild Strawberries or Persona. Yet looking at the films from only that perspective, I felt, might do them a great disservice. While it is easy to watch these eight films with an eye on how they relate to Bergman’s later career, I  wanted to see if they could actually be enjoyed in their own right, disassociated from the weight of Swedish director’s aforementioned formidable reputation…

TORMENT

Director: Alf Sjöberg
Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Stig Järrel, Alf Kjellin, Mai Zetterling 
Year: 1944
Duration: 101 mins
Country: Sweden

The first film in the boxset wasn’t actually directed by Bergman at all, instead being helmed by his mentor Alf Sjöberg. Instead, Bergman wrote the screenplay (claiming it to be based upon his own schooldays) but the story’s themes of childhood trauma and guilt are such recurrent motifs throughout the director’s body of work, that this first exploration of them makes Torment’s inclusion in the boxset fully justified.

Like almost all of these early films, the plot itself is fairly simple. Jan-Erik (Alf Kjellin) suffers, like the rest of his schoolmates, under the cruel tutelage of their Latin Master, whom they nickname Caligula (Stig Järrel). The naive Jan-Erik finds respite, both away from his school and from his suffocating upper class home life, in the arms of Bertha (Mai Zetterling), a lonely young woman with a drinking problem. Yet Bertha remains terrified of the visits she receives from a cruel older man, whose tormenting of her is forcing Bertha into a downward spiral towards oblivion…

Sjöberg turns out to be a fantastic director in his own right. Torment is nicely filmed and edited, with Sjöberg being particularly fond of using high, wide camera angles to capture the action. He also adeptly taps into the melodramatic darkness of the plot, at one point capturing the older tormenter’s shadow on a staircase that seems to be a direct and deliberate nod to Nosferatu.

Torment outstays its welcome slightly towards the end and the film’s conclusion feels rather cheesy compared to what has come before (the original ending was changed because of fears that it was too bleak). Despite these small flaws,  the film itself was actually very well received at the time of its release (it won the Grand Prix at  Cannes and the screenplay was later adapted into a play starring Peter Ustinov) and you can certainly see why. It is a dark, thoroughly engaging melodrama, elevated by a creepily smug performance from Stig Järrel. A really enjoyable watch.

CRISIS

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman (screenplay) Leck Fischer (play)
Starring: Inga Landgré, Dagny Lind, Marianne Löfgren, Stig Olin
Year: 1946
Duration: 93 mins
Country: Sweden

Bergman’s directorial debut was later dismissed by the director as the work of an amateur. This, coupled with the fact that the film had a troubled production (so much so that filming had to be completely stopped then restarted) mean that many might approach Crisis with an air of trepidation. Yet it is remarkable, for a directional debut, how assured it actually is. It is certainly no Citizen Kane but it equally doesn’t deserve to be so easily dismissed.

The plot revolves around Nelly (Inga Landgré) a young girl from a sleepy country town who has been brought up by her adopted mother Ingeborg (Dagny Lind). When Nelly’s birth mother Jenny (Marianne Löfgren) arrives on the scene with her sleazy companion Jack (Stig Olin), Nelly is tempted away from the life she has known to the thrills and dangers of a big city, with dramatic and tragic consequences…

Crisis doesn’t have the most gripping or interesting of narratives and a wry, almost patronising voiceover that breaks the fourth wall trivialises the story somewhat. Yet what does work works well; the conflict between Nelly’s guardians remains interesting, with Dagny Lind’s performance being especially poignant and effective. Yet Stig Olin (get ready to be familiar with this actor!) steals the show, playing Jack with more depth than might be expected for a rather stock character.

While the film never really achieves the sense of tragedy that you feel is consistently lurking in the wings, it remains eminently watchable thanks to Bergman’s direction. The way his camera drifts through a waltzing crowd to find Jenny sitting with Jack, or a pan from a jazz dance to a stuffy classical recital may not hint at the genius yet to come but certainly nods to a young director with talent and potential. This is most strikingly captured during a sequence on a train, where Ingeborg’s internal distress is evoked through rich dissolves from train tracks to the various memories that are darting through her mind. It may not be much, but it certainly hints at the psychological depth and insight that Bergman would come to be known for.

MUSIC IN DARKNESS

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman, Dagmar Edqvist (screenplay) Dagmar Edqvist (novel)
Starring: Birger Malmsten, Mai Zetterling, Olof Winnerstrand
Year: 1948
Duration: 97 mins
Country: Sweden

Only A Ship to India and It Rains on our Love (Bergman’s second and third films, which are not included in this boxset) separates Crisis from Music in Darkness but you can tell immediately that Bergman already feels more confident in his fourth directorial effort.

Based upon a rather lengthly novel by Dagmar Edqvist, Bergman also collaborated in writing the screenplay for this tale of love and acceptance. It tells the story of Bengt Vyldeke (Birger Malmsten – get used to his face too!) a soldier from a rich family who is blinded by gunfire while trying to save a puppy (and yes, that is the real plot). Ingrid, a poor farmer’s daughter (Mai Zetterling from Torment) falls in love with Bengt but has her hopes dashed when she overhears Bengt’s snobbish dismissal of her affections. Yet when they meet again when Bengt is struggling as a working musician, will they both be able to overcome their differences and learn to love one another?

As mentioned, Bergman feels a lot more confident and assured in Music in Darkness. There is a brilliantly surreal dream sequence right at the start of the film that sees Bengt dragged down in the mud by desperate, groping hands, while a set piece on a train track towards the end is tautly and effectively staged. There is a flicker of something great from Bergman here – still faint but growing distinctly more noticeable.

With a story that feels like it belongs more to Hollywood that post-war European cinema,  Music in Darkness might be one of the more optimistic films in Bergman’s filmography. While it has its dramatic moments, we don’t see it mining the same vein of darkness used in the other films from this boxset, not to mention Bergman’s subsequent career. Yet that shouldn’t take away from what is still a sweet, tender love story. Birger Malmsten delivers a thoroughly convincing and respectful performance as the blind soldier Bengt and, despite its optimistic overtones, the film still has one foot firmly placed in reality, mostly avoiding over the top melodramatic touches. 

EVA

Director: Gustaf Molander
Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman, Dagmar Edqvist (screenplay) Gustaf Molander (scenario)
Starring: Birger Malmsten, Eva Stiberg, Eva Dahlbeck, Inga Landgré
Year: 1948
Duration: 98 mins
Country: Sweden

This is the second film included in the BFI’s boxset that Bergman only wrote the screenplay for. Directing duties this time are taken on by Gustaf Molander, a veteran of the Swedish film industry who had been making films since the 1920s.

Molander provides component direction of what is the weakest screenplay in the collection. Eva centres around Bo (Birger Malmsten again) who caused a traumatic and devastating accident when he was a child. Years later, after he returns home from a stint in the army, he reacquaints himself with his childhood love, Eva (Eva Stiberg). Yet will Bo be able to settle down and find a degree of happiness with his life when he is still so haunted by past events?

Eva certainly feels like a film of two halves. The opening, which includes flashbacks to Bo’s past and deals with his courtship of Eva, feels far more conventional compared to the films that have come before. Things briefly spark into life when Bo finds himself caught up in a romantic entanglement with two flat mates (which sees Stig Olin taking on yet another sleazy role) before the film settles down again in its final third.

The problem with the film is that both Bo and Eva are fairly uninteresting characters, depicted in a courtship that fails to provide much drama or engagement. Coupled with heavy handed metaphors and rather clunky, theatrical dialogue, Eva fails to ever take off. Yet it is far from a disaster and the film’s exploration and acknowledgment of both the dark and light sides of life, as well as the continuing examination of how past trauma and guilt can wreck future chances of happiness, means that it deserves its place in this collection of Bergman’s key early works. As a standalone film, however, it certainly leaves something to be desired. 

PORT OF CALL

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman (screenplay) Olle Länsberg (novel)
Starring: Nine-Christine Jönsson, Bengt Eklund, Mini Nelson
Year: 1948
Duration: 94 mins
Country: Sweden

One of the prominent European directors to capture a young Ingmar Bergman’s imagination was Roberto Rossellini and his work within the Italian Neo-Realist movement of the 1940s. Bergman was keen to incorporate elements of the movement in his next film Port of Call, which saw him not only move away from mostly studio based sets to real locations but also saw the director focusing on the poorer and more destitute elements of Swedish society.

It is not just this slight change in perspective and aesthetic that grabs your attention in Port of Call. The film is arresting right from the start, which sees Berit (Nine-Christine Jönsson) a lost and lonely young woman, trying to kill herself by jumping into the sea. The plot thereafter remains taut and engaging. Berit (after having recovered) meets dock worker and former sailor Gösta (Bengt Eklund) at a dance. The two soon strike up a passionate relationship that feels almost too good to be true. Berit decides to tell Gösta the truth about her past, fully aware that she might be destroying the one thing that can make her truly happy.

Port of Call was the first time that Bergman worked with cinematographer Gunnar Fischer, who went on to shoot some of his later masterpieces. This new collaboration marks yet another moment that sees Bergman’s filmmaking increase in maturity and depth, not only on the technical side, which sees Bergman utilise some fluid and expressive camera moves, but also in the film’s handling of its two lead characters.

Both Berit and Gösta have an almost novelistic depth and quality, each of them written with clear insight and nuance. Nine-Christine Jönsson particularly excels in her performance as Berit, brilliantly combining anger with vulnerability that sees her evoke great sympathy for her character while ensuring that she is never simply presented as a mere victim. Even the smaller characters, such as Gertrud (Mimi Nelson) leave a harrowing and memorable impression.

While the films that precede it have been engaging and entertaining, with brief flashes of talent and promise, Port of Call is the first film in this set where you can feel that Bergman is on the road to something greater. With a maturely written love story, coupled with a narrative that witnesses a clash in society between the old and young, where modernity struggles to push against old fashioned values, Port of Call emerges as one of the most enjoyable and memorable films of Bergman’s early career. And he was only going to take it up a notch with his next film…

PRISON

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Doris Svedlund, Birger Malmsten, Eva Henning 
Year: 1949
Duration: 79 mins
Country: Sweden

Prison is often described at the first true ‘Bergman’ film, mainly because it was the first to be written and directed by himself that was based solely on one of his own original ideas. Yet it can also claim to be the first true Bergman film beyond the uniqueness of its credits. Unlike every other film in the boxset, Prison feels like a work from an auteur, unique and idiosyncratic in its pursuit and exploration of themes that would become synonymous with Bergman’s later films.

The plot for Prison is harder to describe than the other films in this collection. It begins on an actual film set, where a director receives a visit from one of his old teachers, who pitches him a film idea that revolves around the presumption the God is dead, Satan has won and that life on Earth is actually hell. When the director jokingly tells this story to two of his friends, Thomas (Birger Malmsten once again), a writer, argues that he has met a prostitute, Brigitta Carolina (Doris Svedlund) whose life could actually be described as hell on Earth. Reinvigorated after telling her story, Thomas tries to seek her out once again…

From the opening credits, which are spoken out loud instead of appearing on screen, it is clear that Bergman has discovered a new found creative freedom, which sees him playing and experimenting with form and convention. Yet Bergman doesn’t throw the bath out with the bathwater. The first portion of Prison is in fact rather slow, languid and conventional. It is only in the film’s later stages that Bergman unleashes his imagination.

This is evidenced in two contrasting moments of fantasy and surrealism. The first sees the film’s narrative briefly paused to allow two characters to watch a delightful Chaplin inspired silent comedy while the second, a dark slice of poetic fantasy, sees Brigitta Carolina wandering through a wood where humans have become trees (the surrealism here strongly anticipates The Seventh Seal). Outside of these standout moments, the rest of the film is beautifully lit and shot, which sees Bergman capturing a kiss in sparkling, sensual light or following a character into a shadowy basement lit by expressionistic shafts of dust motes.

It is not only in the film’s aesthetic that something feels different. Prison, despite the attempt to highlight the artificiality of cinema through its film-set bookends, feels incredibly bleak. With themes of infanticide and suicide happily lurking in the shadows of a plot that revolves around entrapment and despair, life comes across as something ordinary and pointless, something that is easy to discard and throw away. 

Nihilistic and bleak though it may be, Prison is without doubt the standout film of this first boxset from the BFI. It sees Bergman the artist, the auteur, begin to take on shape and definition, where the flicker of talent seen in Crisis or Music in Darkness has become a flame, lighting the way out of the shadows that would see Bergman emerge in several years time to become one of the pre-eminent directors of his generation. 

THIRST

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman (screenplay) Herbert Grevenius, Birgit Tengroth (short stories)
Starring: Eva Henning, Birger Malmsten, Birgit Tengroth
Year: 1949
Duration: 83 mins
Country: Sweden

Thirst saw Bergman go back to working from adapted sources rather than his original ideas, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a significant drop in quality; his ability to indulge in the surreal is curtailed here though, so Thirst certainly ends up feeling more conventional compared to Prison’s dark flights of imagination.

Also known by the title Three Strange Loves, Thirst has one of the most ambitious and forward looking structures of this eight film collection. The film focuses on three main characters – Ruth (Eva Henning) and Bertil (Birger Malmsten, again!) a badly matched married couple traveling home from Europe and Viola (Birgit Tengroth, who also wrote some of the short stories upon which the film is based ) who has a past connection with Bertil. The film, through a series of vignettes, intercuts between the characters as the script worms its way towards the question of whether it is better to be unhappy in love or to face the horror of being alone. 

Despite feeling slightly theatrical in its opening half hour, Bergman takes material that could have been filmed very drily and injects it with cinematic flair. As Leigh Singer points out in his video essay on the first disc in this collection, Bergman uses long 2-3 minute takes to capture the action, his camera almost imperceptibly weaving and flowing around the actors as they move around tight and confined spaces. 

Bergman of course came to be known for his love and fascination with close ups and Thirst sees a striking example of this during a scene where Viola is talking to a psychiatrist. In a stunning yet beautifully simple set up, Bergman moves from a medium shot into very tight close ups, then allows his camera to pan and drift between each character’s face as it follows their conversation. It is a pure example of a potentially staid moment injected with raw cinematic power.

Thirst also sees Bergman’s blossoming interest in the female perspective continue to take shape. While Port of Call and Crisis focused primarily on their female leads, Bergman begins to dig deeper in Thirst, which sees him expand and develop his favoured perspective. This is a story about damaged relationships and damaged lives, told from a female point of view that sees their interior lives flourish, while the male standpoint, less refined and developed, is pushed to the periphery.

With its almost modern structure, selfish, damaged characters, bold suggestions of lesbian sexuality and a bleak, almost fatalistic tone, Thirst feels strikingly audacious in its depiction of love and relationships. While it may not be based on an original idea, Thirst remains a film laced with regret at past mistakes, where a fragile redemption can only be found in compromise and a future that feels empty and uncertain. In this respect, it thematically fits very comfortably into the director’s broader body of work while at the same time revealing itself to be one of the very best of Bergman’s early films.

TO JOY

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman 
Starring: Maj-Britt Nilsson, Stig Olin, Birger Malmsten
Year: 1950
Duration: 98 mins
Country: Sweden

If you have worked your way through the film’s sequentially, one of the first things that will strike you about To Joy is the role reversal of the two actors who have dominated most of Bergman’s early work. Here, Stig Olin shakes off the shackles of being continually cast as a sleazy rouge and takes on a character who feels more shy, gentle and romantic (albeit still with flaws) while Birger Malmsten utilises his good looks not to play a vulnerable, flawed hero but a smug and arrogant antagonist.

The story, like Music in Darkness, has more of a Hollywood tone. Stig (Stig Olin) and Marta (Maj-Britt Nilsson) both perform as violinists in the same orchestra. They meet and fall in love, after which Stig gets the opportunity to become the orchestra’s lead violinist. Yet will his ambition match his talent… and if it doesn’t, how will that potential failure effect his life and his relationship with Marta?

As certain plot points are revealed in the film’s opening moments, it is no spoiler to say that this feels like Bergman’s attempt to make a traditional tragic love story with a structure that doesn’t feel too dissimilar from a classic Hollywood melodrama. Yet the heart of the film, which is the charting of Stig and Marta’s marriage, feels far more realistic and mature than what was usually made across the Atlantic, where the realities of everyday life encroach upon Hollywood optimism.

You can see that Bergman, as far as he had come by this point, was still trying to settle on a  defined worldview and artistic perspective. If Prison suggested that life is bleak and pointless, then To Joy takes the opposite view, where our existence and the lives that we share with others are in fact delicate and precious and certainly not to be taken for granted.

With a big emotional ending, To Joy is one of Bergman’s most yearningly romantic films that is nevertheless anchored by frank and honest depictions not only of love but of the dangers of ambition and creative failure. It might be the most purely enjoyable film in the boxset and captures Bergman once again developing and maturing as a director, where his talent and ambition swell and flow as boldly as the classical music that infuses To Joy with its stirring emotional core.

Ingmar Bergman Volume 1 is released by the BFI on the 26th July. The boxset spreads its eight films out across five discs. The extras are included on the first disc only. The BFI use the same 2K restorations that Criterion used for their boxset a few years ago. For films of this age, the picture quality is actually stunning throughout. Crisp, pin sharp at points, vividly detailed with a wonderfully rich contrast, each film sings off the screen. There are a few, very slight instances of print damage here and there, but nothing to detract from the quality of the presentations. The discs were encoded by David MacKenzie of Fidelity in Motion, so they look flawless with no signs of compression or macro-blocking. Beautiful all round. Extras are as follows:

    • The Guardian Interview: Ingmar Bergman (1982, 62 mins, audio only): Bergman pays tribute to Alf Sjöberg, the director of Torment discussing his influence and impact on his own career
    • Ingmar Bergman: First Cries, Early Whispers (2021, 20 mins): a new video essay by writer, filmmaker and film journalist Leigh Singer
    • 100- page perfect-bound book featuring new essays by Jan Holmberg (CEO of the Ingmar Bergman Foundation), Philip Kemp, Geoff Andrew, Jessica Kiang, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas , Kat Ellinger and Laura Hubner

The Guardian Interview: An hour long, this audio interview with Ingmar Bergman from the BFI in 1982 plays out over Torment. This is fitting, as the majority of the discussion focuses on Bergman’s friend, mentor and director of Torment, Alf Sjöberg. Bergman begins by describing the director’s early career in the theatre and how he subsequently moved into film (Bergman highlights a rather sad fact that he felt Sjöberg lost some confidence between his first film directed at 26 and his second at 36). Bergman then goes on to describe the background to Torment and offers a humorous and self deprecating look at his role in the film, before the discussion moves on to cover other aspects of Sjöberg’s career. A fascinating and essential listen.

First Cries, Early Whispers: This twenty minute video essay by Leigh Singer offers an analysis of all the films in the boxset, picking out themes and motifs and tying them into Bergman’s later career. Well edited with numerous interesting clips from the films (and others not included in the boxset) this provides a great overview of the director and brilliantly helps to place the films within a larger context. Absolutely worth a watch.

Book: The BFI include a 100 book with the boxset that offers further analysis of each of the films. The separate essays offer everything from general background information and analysis to focusing on more specific or more un-discussed aspects of the films – for example, Kat Ellinger’s essay on Thirst offers great insight into the career of Birgit Tengroth, who both starred in the film and wrote some of the stories upon which the screenplay was based. The booklet expands upon and beautifully compliments the video essay by Singer. It’s also clear that each writer admires the films they are writing about and appraises them as successful works in their own right rather than just stepping stones towards a great career.

Overall, this feels like an essential boxset from the BFI for numerous reasons. For those of you who have already imported Criterion’s mammoth effort, this volume from the BFI contains four films not included in that set (Torment, Music in Darkness, Eva and Prison, which is arguably the most essential of all of Bergman’s early films) and therefore, for Bergman completists and fans, this becomes a must own.

For anyone who is keen to start their journey exploring the work of the great director, this is obviously a fantastic place to start. The booklet and extras offer brilliant insight and analysis of these early films and easily draw you into the world of this most renowned of filmmakers.

Yet beyond those reasons, this boxset remains an essential purchase because of the films themselves. Yes, there may not be a ‘masterpiece’ included here, but what you do get are eight simple, human stories laced with tragedy and darkness. Some might have a lighter touch than others, but each one works as an effective drama filled with well written, rounded characters, stylish direction (even from those not directed by Bergman) powerful moments and fantastic performances (I haven’t had time to go into the performances in this review, but each film is bursting with great ones!)

A final point to note is that, if you are coming to these films for the first time and have only seen British or American films from this era, then prepare to be pleasantly surprised. Without the moral straitjacket of the Hayes code, these early Bergman films contain nudity, swearing as well as frank depictions of love and relationships. The films deal with their darker subject matter, such as abortion and infidelity, in a bold and honest manner that makes them feel so much more real and and modern than their English language equivalents. They are worth watching for that reason alone.

As I have said, there are two ways to view this first Bergman boxset. One way is to view it as a collection of slightly lesser works from one of the greatest directors in cinema; the other, more preferable view, is to see it as a fantastic collection of small, intimate films with a keen interest in both the light and dark side of human relationships that exhibit a potent emotional power. Bergman may have still been finding his feet, but his baby steps captured here are still leaps and bounds ahead of many other directors, which makes this BFI boxset a cinephile’s dream. And just think, this is only the beginning… 

  

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