Ingmar Bergman Volume 2 is the latest in BFI’s currently ongoing four-set series of the Swedish auteur’s work, which have filled a massive gap on the British Blu-Ray home video market. This set also marks the point when Ingmar Bergman started coming into his own as a filmmaker, even though there are some truly awful films included alongside two of his very best. It compiles the vast majority of his ’50s works, but it is missing Sawdust and Tinsel (which already had a Criterion release over here) and a few lesser regarded films.
The set most notably includes The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, which are two of his best and widely seen films. For those so inclined, The Seventh Seal also got a separate UHD/Blu-Ray set this week, and Wild Strawberries will have a standalone Blu-Ray release early next year but The Magician will be dropped from the disc. However, the set also includes some outright stinkers, like his “comedies” A Lesson in Love, Waiting Women and the stunningly overrated Smiles of a Summer Night. Bergman did a lot of comedies early on, but he had a horrendous sense of humour and they border on the unwatchable at times.
The first film of note is Summer Interlude, which is considered by many (including Bergman) to be the film where his style and themes really started to become apparent. Bergman in 1971 said “I had always felt technically crippled—insecure with the crew, the cameras, the sound equipment—everything. Sometimes a film succeeded, but I never got what I wanted to get. But in Summer Interlude, I suddenly felt that I knew my profession.” It’s a fairly hokey melodrama to some extent, but the summer setting shines, and the themes of a loss of innocence that coincides with a loss of faith in God is on show. The couple who are the centre of the film go out to pick wild strawberries. The black and white photography is also far more accomplished than his previous films, and contains some strong compositions.
Bergman’s first international hit, Summer with Monika, is the next film in the set worth mentioning. Funnily enough, it was successful in the States because in pure exploitation movie fashion it was slashed to 62 minutes, the film’s nudity was over-emphasized, and the result was a drive-in hit for years and years in the US—even after Janus Films released the full uncut Swedish version stateside. It’s very funny to even think this film was deemed salacious, because it’s so tame, but that’s Eisenhower’s America for you. Sadly, it seems that cut is lost to time, but you are stuck with Bergman’s best film pre-The Seventh Seal. It’s one of his most accessible with its tale of two young people who run away together, which of course ends up horribly wrong.
A Lesson in Love is a garbage comedy from Bergman, but it does have one interesting aspect: Harriett Andersson’s character Nix openly talks about wanting to have gender reassignment surgery, which for 1954 is pretty out there. This was made around the time that Christine Jorgensen underwent the procedure in nearby Denmark and made headlines around the world (Ed Wood’s masterpiece Glen or Glenda was intended as a cheap cash-in on the headlines around Jorgensen, but is still a shockingly progressive film.)
The Seventh Seal is next, and what is there to say? Pretty much anybody with a passing interest in cinema has seen it at this point. It’s a complete classic, featuring some of the most iconic moments in all of cinema—including, of course, the chess match with Death. It’s been parodied by everybody from Woody Allento Bill & Ted. It’s the first time that Bergman played around with surrealism, and marked the director as a force to be reckoned with. I do occasionally find the atheistic message within the film a little too obvious and heavy-handed, but it needed to be said at the time. It also marked the beginning of Bergman’s long collaboration with Max von Sydow, which would result in many of Bergman’s best films.
The next film, and probably the best of the bunch, is Wild Strawberries—to think Bergman made both that and The Seventh Seal in the same year (1957) is truly bewildering. It’s the simple tale of an old professor, Dr. Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström), who out of his own choice but also because of people just don’t like the coldness he gives out to world, is forced to look back at his life while he travels to accept a honorary doctorate. He is accompanied by his pregnant daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), who is planning to leave her husband Evald, who is of course Borg’s son. It’s a careful balancing act of being deeply existentialist but with just the smallest ounce of sentimentality. In the end it’s about a film about realising you are not above anybody else and learning to be a better person, even if it’s near the end. It’s probably Bergman’s warmest film, and his most accessible for a newcomer to his work, as it lacks the coldness that his work sometimes had, especially in the ’60s. It was reportedly Stanley Kubrick’s favourite Bergman film, which is interesting due to the accusations of coldness often levelled at some of Kubrick’s films.
The final film is The Magician, which is slightly disappointing, especially coming after two such classics. It’s an interesting story about a travelling magician/conman and his associates who are accused of practicing “quackery” and “pseudoscience” by the local authorities of a small town in 19th century Sweden. It’s a film full of interesting ideas and a great, almost entirely silent performance by von Sydow. The film didn’t completely grab me, which was a shame because The Magician was one of the Bergman films I hadn’t seen, so I was most excited about it. I will give it another shot down the line. I respect that Bergman was open enough to entertain the notion of something, for the lack of a better term, known as “magic” being a possibility, despite his obvious atheism.
The extras on the set are light, but you get the 29-minute 2007 featurette The Women and Bergman, a new audio commentary by film critic Kat Ellinger on The Seventh Seal, the 1986 Bergman short film Karin’s Face (which is about his mother), and theatrical trailers from Summer with Monika and The Seventh Seal. The release is finished off with a lengthy booklet featuring new essays from David Jenkins, Ellen Cheshire, Leigh Singer, Kieron McCormack, Philip Kemp, Jessica Kiang, Geoff Andrew and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.