Flashback to the genius of Ingmar Bergman

In honor of the last year's centenary of Bergman's birth, the Swedish Consulate in Shanghai hosted a gathering to share stories  of the man who had such an impact on filmmaking.

Acclaimed Swedish movie director Ingmar Bergman died more than 11 years ago, but the legacy of his genius carries on in new generations of filmmakers.

He directed 60 film and documentaries. Among the standouts were “The Seventh Seal,” “Wild Strawberries,” “Cries and Whispers” and “Through a Glass Darkly.” He also worked in theater and television.

His movies explored human consciousness, mortality, loneliness, religious faith and repressed sexuality.

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Ingmar Bergman in Stig Bjorkman’s documentary “... But Film is My Mistress,” which captured the extraordinary film director using behind-the-scenes footage from eight of his movies.

In honor of the last year’s centenary of Bergman’s birth, the Swedish Consulate in Shanghai hosted a gathering last Sunday of Bergman’s co-workers and famous Chinese directors like Wang Xiaoshuai. They met to share stories and impressions of the man who had such a profound impact on filmmaking.

“When I was young, Bergman’s movies were like the Bible to me,” said Wang. “I pretended to understand them and, though I didn’t really, I thought they were good. It wasn’t until years later that I came to truly understand why he was such a master.”

Bergman’s work inspired Zhang Yimou, Woody Allen, Federico Fellini and Wes Anderson, among other directors.

Bengt Wanselius, a co-worker of Bergman’s, recalled how his long collaboration with the director began with a phone call.

“I was asked to be a contract photographer at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm in 1984,” he said. “Ingmar Bergman went back to work with theater after he stopped making movies.”

 He went on, “Something happened on the set that upset him. When I bumped into him in the elevator and said hello, he started yelling at me. It made me angry. He was stunned by my reaction and gently apologized. Perhaps he wasn’t used to people standing up to him.”

Bergman did have a reputation of being irritable. Even the director himself admitted that he was ill-tempered as a youth. But rough start aside, his partnership with Wanselius flourished in 20 stage and television productions until Bergman retired from work in 2003.

“He brought out the best in everyone, for sure,” Wanselius said. “Even though he was a strict man, he comforted me when I made terrible mistakes at work. He never said harsh things to me again.”

Bergman had a troubled childhood, scarred by his parents’ unhappy marriage and the strictness of his father, a Lutheran minister. He studied art and literature at Stockholm University College but spent most of his time involved with student theater and never graduated.

Bergman was married five times, had nine children and indulged in romantic liaisons with several leading actresses, including Liv Ullmann.

“Five years before Bergman passed away, he stopped work completely and just stayed on Faroe Island all by himself,” said Stig Bjorkman, writer of “Bergman on Bergman” and “Three Days with Bergman,” and director of several documentaries on the film director.

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In “The Seventh Seal,” a medieval knight challenges Death to a game of chess to try to forestall his own demise.

Always about work

“People asked him if he missed his family,” Bjorkman said. “He answered that the only people he missed were his actors and actresses. He never mentioned his children. Everything was always about work.”

Bergman was always haunted by loneliness and fear, but he turned his demons into inspiration for his works. In the 1957 classic “The Seventh Seal,” the scenes of a knight playing chess with the personification of Death, who has come to take his life, seared themselves into the 1960s generation of young movie-goers.

“I don’t watch my own films very often,” Bergman said in an interview when he was 85. “I become so jittery and ready to cry. If I didn’t have my profession, I think I would be sitting in a nuthouse. But I have been unceasingly at work, and that has been very healthy for me. So I had no need for therapy.’’

 Bergman always kept a little notebook about the scheduling for each scene. Everybody who worked with him agreed that he was probably the most organized and strictest director they had ever worked with.

“Nothing random would happen, and that made me feel safe,” said Wanselius. “No sudden cancellations, no rescheduling. He was the most thoroughly prepared person I’ve ever met.”

He added, “But I think his biggest regret was not being a very good father.”

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The film “Wild Strawberries” (right) explores the philosophical themes of introspection and human existence.

Though stories of family and marriage appeared many times in Bergman’s films, happy ones were rare. His own view of marriage was pessimistic.

“His guilt about his own children and family was expressed in the film ‘Autumn Sonata,’” said Wang. “There’s only one Sweden on earth, and only one Ingmar Bergman making films there. His long career left us many treasures.”

Bergman had a difficult recovery from 2006 hip surgery. He died at age 89 in his sleep on Faroe Island.

Ti Gong

In the 1972 film “Cries and Whispers,” written and directed by Bergman, the relationships of three sisters and a servant are explored as they struggle to come to terms with the terminal cancer of one of the sisters.

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