Remembering Director Ingmar Bergman The Swedish film director, widely regarded as one of the great masters of modern cinema, has died at the age of 89. Fellow director Woody Allen described Bergman as "probably the greatest film artist ... since the invention of the motion picture camera."
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Remembering Director Ingmar Bergman

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

Academy Award-winning filmmaker Ingmar Bergman died today at the age of 89. He was an icon of art-house cinema, who wrote and directed "The Seventh Seal," "Smiles of a Summer Night," and "Fanny and Alexander."

In more than 50 films, Bergman explored difficult subjects like isolation, madness and the long, dark, gloomy Swedish nights. If you're a fan of Ingmar Bergman's films, what did you like about his work? We'd also like to hear from you. If you have questions about his film or his life, our number in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-talk. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. And you can comment on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Joining us now is Adam Bernstein. He is the deputy obituary editor for the Washington Post and he joins us from the studios of the Washington Post here in Washington. Welcome.

Mr. ADAM BERNSTEIN (Deputy Obituary Editor, The Washington Post): Well, thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be here.

ROBERTS: You wrote the obituary in the Post today. How do you sum up some of the common themes in Bergman's films?

Mr. BERNSTEIN: Well, you pointed out a few of them already. They're very dreamlike, disturbingly, psychological films. People are isolated. They're undergoing a crisis in what is often the nuclear age in his films, but the films also shift to the 19th century at times. He often used - his films were often set in a long-ago time, 14th century, but it might as well be the present in terms of the fears and violence besetting people. So those are a lot of the themes that occurred throughout his whole career.

ROBERTS: Another thing he's given a lot of credit for is portraying women as conflicted and complicated people as opposed to, sort of, cardboard cutouts…

Mr. BERNSTEIN: Right.

ROBERTS: …as stereotypes.

Mr. BERNSTEIN: It's basically himself. He said he projected a lot, or nearly everything in all of his films were based on his own fears and things that he experienced in his life, but also what he saw in his parent's marriage. His parents had a very unhappy marriage. He said his mother just stayed for the sake of the children. His father was a minister, who came to him frequently and locked him in the closet.

And so he took a lot of the emotional turmoil that he experienced as a young man and often revisited it when a piece of music and essay he wrote, somebody he met, somehow reminded him of his own past. And it just happened to be a lot of the characters, most of them I was thinking about this, that with very rare exception, most of the films that he did centered on the - on women, but it really was himself. He talked about the people being exactly like himself - creatures of instinct, of rather poor intellectual capacity, who at best only think while they're talking. And mostly, they're a body with a little hollow for the soul. This is how he describes himself.

ROBERTS: Well, you say it just happens to be that these characters are women. But don't you think he was kind of in love with women? I mean, he had five wives, granted that it…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BERNSTEIN: That's true.

ROBERTS: …clearly, he definitely had sort of a thing for the female.

Mr. BERSTEIN: Well, that's true. He was - he had numerous affairs as he pointed out. I think he's married at least five times. He had affairs with a lot of his leading ladies. He chose some of the most beautiful women ever to appear in - on screen. But all the emotional undercurrent was really himself, and I think he liked putting it in the voice of his female characters. I never came across exactly why he did that. But he - but he was drawn to women emotionally, I think, more than he was to men.

ROBERTS: You are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's hear from Jeffrey(ph) in Cincinnati. Jeffrey, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JEFFREY (Caller): Thank you for taking my call. And I wanted to say I know he's best known for his dark movies, but I think his version of the "Magic Flute" is one of the most delightful opera adaptations I have ever seen and is really what turned me on onto opera at a fairly young age.

ROBERTS: Oh, that…

Mr. BERSTEIN: I would agree with you. I think that's one of the most delightful films he ever made. He gave - he was given, I think, a bum wrap just being this gloomy Swede. And what really elevates a lot of his movies, including "Magic Flute," was the very naturalistic performances, the sex, the humor.

There's a wonderful scene - I don't know if the caller is still on here but - there's a wonderful scene in the "Magic Flute" where Bergman inter-splices the action on stage with shots of his own daughter in the audience, his beautiful little daughter who's laughing as she sees people kissing and scheming on stage. And it worked so well. And it's also goes to his visceral charisma as a filmmaker, his way of experimenting with films. So it's not just the performance. It's also reminding you that you're watching a performance.

ROBERTS: We're talking about Ingmar Bergman, who died at 89. You can call us at 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. My guest is Adam Bernstein of the Washington Post.

You just talked about the "Magic Flute" as being delightful, not the most common adjective associated for Bergman.

Mr. BERSTEIN: That's true.

ROBERTS: (Unintelligible) like angsty(ph) or troubled or intense.

Mr. BERNSTEIN: The way I was thinking about it is that he really does excite the imagination. He's really a terrific storyteller above all. And I think that's what a lot of other filmmakers, who saw him as an inspiration, found so rewarding in watching one of his films.

I should also, you know what, the first film really that grabbed a lot of attention was in fact the - was "Smiles of a Summer Night," which was remade into the musical, "Little Night Music," and Woody Allen, who is this, probably his greatest champion here in America, remade as "A Midsummer Night's" sex comedy. And it really is an un-Bergman-like film, where it's about the sexual couplings of these people in the sort of turn of this last century, and a lot of there are jealousies. But it stays pretty light, and then - except for just the very ending. And it's just - it's a beautifully made picture.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Jackie(ph) in Tucson. Jackie, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION. Jackie, are you there?

JACKIE (Caller): Yes, yes. I'm sorry. I'm here. Yes. I wanted to - I want to relay a quick story. I was taking a course on death and dying, a psychology course, and I utilized "The Seventh Seal," various scenes from the movie, and consulted somebody about the significance of "The Seventh Seal" on the Bible. And my professor told me to shut off my presentation. He said it was too heavy for the classroom. He cut me off at about three or like seven minutes. He cut me off for about three minutes.

But the question I wanted to ask is do you think that Ingmar Bergman and even with today's movies and today's film, do you still think that he is little bit too much for American audiences?

Mr. BERNSTEIN: I think he was too much for many American audiences even in his heyday. My favorite story that - I didn't put it in my story, but one story I came across is that his film, the - it was the "Wild Strawberries" was nominated for an Academy Award for screenplay and lost to "Pillow Talk" in 1959, which sort of tells you what they…

ROBERTS: Doris Day, Rock Hudson movie.

Mr. BERNSTEIN: …what most people were thinking exactly. And actually, bear with - I think it may have actually been - may have not been "Wild Strawberries." It may have been "The Seventh Seal." But nevertheless, both very deep dark stories about the human soul, and, of course, they lost to "Pillow Talk."

It's - the film has won three Academy. He won three Academy Awards during his career. So there was an audience. There were people who did appreciate it. There were filmmakers who appreciated it more than a mass audience. His films were usually art-house films or what are called art-house films.

ROBERTS: But still, do you think there are more people who pretend to have seen Ingmar Bergman's film than have actually seen them?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BERNSTEIN: I heard from a lot of people today who were real Ingmar Bergman aficionados, and they know their stuff. If you get something wrong, you're going to hear from them. And I think there's a strong - nobody's going to pretend so much nowadays because somebody is going to call one on it. And I think they really do - people do know their films.

ROBERTS: Adam Bernstein is the deputy obituary editor for the Washington Post. Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. BERNSTEIN: It's my pleasure.

ROBERTS: His obituary of Ingmar Bergman appears in today's Washington Post. And if you need some crib notes on how to pretend to have seen some Ingmar Bergman's films, this obit is a very good place to start.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts.

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