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Famed Filmmaker Ingmar Bergman Leaves Iconic Legacy

July 30, 2007 at 6:40 PM EDT
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SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour Correspondent: It is one of the most unforgettable scenes in the history of film, from director Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal,” made in Sweden in 1957.

MAX VON SYDOW, “Antonius Block”: Have you tricked me?

BENGT EKEROT, “Death”: That’s right, I’m afraid I have. And now I say, “Check.” What are you grinning at?

MAX VON SYDOW: Don’t worry about that. Save your king instead.

SPENCER MICHELS: A game of chess between a knight — played by actor Max von Sydow — and the figure of Death, set amid a medieval plague.

BENGT EKEROT: I realize you’re very busy right now, but you must take time out for this unless you want to lose. Are you taking that couple through the forest tonight, the actors Jof and Mia, and their little boy?

MAX VON SYDOW: Why do you ask that?

BENGT EKEROT: No reason.

SPENCER MICHELS: Bergman’s films dealt with many-layered emotions and grand themes: love and evil; desire and pain; the relationship between God and man.

Ernest Ingmar Bergman was born in Sweden in 1918, the child of a Lutheran clergyman and a mother whom Bergman would describe as alternately very warm and very cold. After a brief stint at university, Bergman soon left schooling for work in the theater and film. Over the ensuing half-century — and through nearly 60 works — Bergman established himself as one of the masters of cinema, winning multiple Academy Awards and dozens of other prizes.

Among his most famous films was “Wild Strawberries,” which premiered in 1957. It was a study of old age and mortality. In this scene, the movie’s protagonist, Dr. Isak Borg, is haunted by the first of many nightmares that force him to confront his fears of impending death.

One of his later and more-acclaimed films was the Oscar-winning “Fanny and Alexander,” 1982, a study of family life in all its manic dysfunction.

Ingmar Bergman celebrated his 89th birthday just weeks ago. He died today at his home on an island off the Swedish coast.

Bergman's body of work

JIM LEHRER: More on Ingmar Bergman from film critic and movie historian Richard Schickel of Time magazine.

Dick Schickel, welcome.

RICHARD SCHICKEL, Time Magazine: Really nice to be here, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: And I really do know how to pronounce his first name. Dick, how would you describe the importance of Ingmar Bergman to the making of movies?

RICHARD SCHICKEL: Well, I think Woody Allen said it extremely well. He said, some people like "The Seventh Seal," some people like "Wild Strawberries," you know, we all have our favorites. Mine happens to be "The Silence." But it's a body of work. And it's a unique body of work in the sense that he, almost alone of the great masters of cinema, was in total control of the writing, the direction, the entire production of his film. There was no interference with him.

And so what you see is an enormous -- 60-odd works -- an enormous projection of all the concerns of an individual great artist, of an individual as he confronted life in his times. I mean, very few directors get to do that in the movies. And so, as I say, it's a body of work. We're not playing a 10 best Ingmar Bergman list.

What makes a Berman movie

JIM LEHRER: Sure. But is there a characteristic style that you would say that Bergman had that nobody else had? You say they're not the top 10 list, but when you see a Bergman movie, you know it's a Bergman movie?

RICHARD SCHICKEL: Well, yes, you do, although I think his best work -- we often think, because of the imagery of "The Seventh Seal," which was so unique and so remarkable, and at the time that it arrived in the United States, just mind-bending.

But the characteristic Ingmar Bergman movie is kind of a chamber piece. It's a couple of people, two or three people, "Scenes from a Marriage," really just two people, arguing through all of their lives about the state of their marriage. They're chamber pieces. They're very small; they're very intense.

And they are not -- you know, "The Seventh Seal," or "Wild Strawberries," with his dream sequences, they're very intense, and very sober, and not spacious. It's not a cinema of vast spaces and of great, what shall I say, great spectacle. Its spectacle is a man and a woman talking; that's the spectacle he is most interested in.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Dick, there were some people among the simple-minded of us, particularly when it came to "The Seventh Seal" and some his earlier ones, people just would go to the movie and say, "That's a terrific movie. Now, will please somebody tell me what it was about?"

RICHARD SCHICKEL: I think that's true. But, you know, we often -- with real art, it doesn't reveal itself often on the first viewing. You know, it takes a little time to get used to it, to get used to the conventions that that artist is using, the themes he's exploring.

I think that Bergman was uniquely a film artist who rewards repeated viewing. You know, you see more -- sometimes you see less -- in his films as you go back to them. So, in that sense, he's like a painter whom you keep revisiting in a gallery or a writer you keep re-reading as life goes on. And it reveals itself in different lights as life goes on.

"The silence of God" in film

JIM LEHRER: What about as a technician in the movie business? Did he bring anything special or new to that, whether it be sound or pictures or use of anything from a technological...

RICHARD SCHICKEL: I don't really think so, in the sense that a lot of the more spectacular things of the kind that you played earlier in the show, those are things that people had done in the movies before.

I think the great thing about Bergman -- I suppose if he had an early theme, it was the silence of God, the mystery of the universe, the fact that it was just a great, black void out there. And this, for a young guy who had been brought up in a strict Lutheran tradition in Sweden, was a terrible loss.

Later on, I think that his great theme was the failure of people to fully communicate with one another, you know, the "Scenes from a Marriage," which is typical of a lot of his movies. They're just failing to speak to one another openly and with candor. And I think that is an important theme. And that's a theme that went on.

You know, I like a lot of Bergman's very late work, which he didn't direct, oddly enough. "Faithless," a movie Liv Ullmann directed for him, is a brilliant and excoriating movie. I loved his film about his own parents and their lives together, and before he was born, an attempt to examine their marriage and their life together.

He was a cranky, old bird, and he lived out there on the island pretty much isolated. And yet he was working -- I mean the last movie he made, "Saraband," was just a couple of years back, and it's quite a good movie. It's an extension of "Scenes from a Marriage."

So, I mean, to go on doing your work until you're almost 90 years old is in itself a great achievement, and the fact that the work is so rich and so varied -- I think I mentioned before loving "The Silence." Well, that is his most surreal film. It's a real experiment in surrealism, and I think it's just a beautifully wrought work. That's my favorite.

But the point is, it does take up the subject of love and loss. And, you know, a lonely, little boy wandering through this vast hotel, and the two women who are perhaps the same woman. That's one interpretation of that movie. It's a wonderful work and very deep, and a movie that you can go back to time and time again.

And, I guess, isn't that the test of art in any context, film or otherwise? It's that, you know, you keep being drawn back, sometimes a little bit against your will. You say, "Oh, gee, this is going to be a tough couple of hours coming up here." But you have to do that. To me, it is the body of work, the vastness though. I mean, it includes something as light as "Smiles of a Summer Night."

JIM LEHRER: I remember that.

RICHARD SCHICKEL: Oh, yes. It was charming film.

JIM LEHRER: Almost a simple film, a simple film in a way.

RICHARD SCHICKEL: Well, it's a kind of Mozartian piece...

JIM LEHRER: Yes, right, OK.

RICHARD SCHICKEL: But, of course, he did "The Magic Flute," which is a Mozartian piece, too, in the same lifetime. So you have to remember that he was a theatrical director. He probably directed more plays in Stockholm than he did films. He was a very active man.

And the other thing is, he loved actors. He was very tender with actors. And he would say, you know, they're out there, and they're very naked, and I have to do everything I can to make them comfortable, to make them easy. And so you have Max von Sydows, and the Liv Ullmanns, and the Ingrid Thulins, I mean, who just did work of such power and psychological intensity before his cameras.

JIM LEHRER: OK, Dick Schickel, thank you very much.

RICHARD SCHICKEL: Thank you, Jim.