The BFI are releasing 4 boxsets covering the filmography of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. Their first boxset is a collection of his earliest work, featuring 6 feature films Bergman directed and 2 more that he wrote for other directors. Ingmar Bergman was a director of immense skill, but never someone who made big movies. His films tended to be small dramas, deep in existential angst and turmoil. While none of the films in this specific boxset are classics, they represent the beginnings of Bergman’s unique form of cinema and thematically heavy drama.
The boxset begins with Torment, a film directed by Alf Sjöberg and Bergman’s first script to be filmed. It was a joint winner of the Grand Prix at the 1946 Cannes Film Festival, an award now called the Palme d’Or. It’s a decent melodrama, but a rather inauspicious debut for Bergman as a writer. What can be glimpsed however is the childhood fear of authority figures, something Bergman would return to in his later films, most notably in Fanny and Alexander.
The next film in the boxset is Crisis, Bergman’s directorial debut. Like Torment, it is fine but nothing special. Bergman’s second and third features, It Rains on Our Love and A Ship Bound for India, are absent from this set, but they are not particularly noteworthy. Though It Rains on Our Love is better than some of the films which are here. One thing worth mentioning is that many of the films in this boxset, including Crisis, are quite taboo for 1940s cinema, with many examples of nudity, nods to sex, and open discussions about abortion, which would not have been allowed in films made under the Hays Code used in Hollywood at the time.
Next in the boxset comes three separate dramas centered on romances: Eva, Music in Darkness, and Port of Call. Something interesting about the early works of Bergman is that they are not metaphorical and abstract in the way Bergman would become famous for. Most are just straightforward dramas, and tend to focus on a young couple going through difficulty. Eva is about a man who witnesses a lot of death and despair as his relationship with the titular character grows. Music in Darkness follows a man who goes blind and the girl who loves him. Port of Call is also about a couple and is executed in a style reminiscent of Italian neorealism, giving it grit and harshness. In fact, this 1940s period is the one of the few times when Bergman’s cinema really focused on working class characters.
The film Prison is possibly the film on this boxset which most emulates what we might consider to be Bergman’s later style. Unlike the rest of this boxset, which are all films with simple stories, Prison is openly allegorical and abstract. It deals with weighty ideas about what cinema means, the manifestation of evil in our lives, and the way ambition over-estimates ability. It also has some beautiful shots. Prison is still a fairly crude work, but it’s easy to see Bergman’s potential just from watching this.
After the financial failure of Prison, Bergman returned to the romantic dramas of before. Thirst is a film about a couple in an unhappy marriage, though it’s really a series of short films, with extensive flashbacks and subplots. It’s a bit different in structure, but not really original.
Finally the boxset ends with To Joy, easily the best film here. Like before, it has a romance doomed by tragedy, opening with a man whose wife is killed in a car accident, and then telling us their life and romance from the beginning. To Joy is more detailed and better executed as a tragic romance than Bergman’s earlier efforts, and it begins to sow the seeds of many things considered Bergman. The central characters are artistic and struggle with personal pressures, rather than things outside their control as in Bergman’s previous films. Here we see Bergman moving to internal strife as the central element of his characters.
Across this boxset we can see Bergman growing into the director who would become famous for films like Persona, The Seventh Seal, and Wild Strawberries. The films here mostly constitute a phase of his career which focused on young couples, which would later culminate in the 1953 film Summer with Monika, which is often considered a classic. None of Bergman’s best-known collaborators appear in this boxset, but actor Birger Malmsten has a starring role in 5 of the films here. While this boxset will likely only have appeal to Bergman completionists, films like Prison and To Joy are really solid and worth seeing for even casual Bergman films. The 2K restorations look excellent and the more atmospheric films really benefit. For those curious to see the origins of Bergman’s work, this is a must-have boxset.
Films in the boxset:
- Torment (Dir. Alf Sjöberg | Scr. Ingmar Bergman, 1944)
- Crisis (1946)
- Eva (Dir. Gustaf Molander | Scr. Ingmar Bergman, 1948)
- Music in Darkness (1948)
- Port of Call (1948)
- Prison (1949)
- Thirst (1949)
- To Joy (1950)