Ingmar Bergman, who died Sunday, was one of the last of the great world filmmakers who came to fame around the mid century and changed the face of movies. But he ended his career as he had begun it, in the theater rather than on screen. He was trained as a stage director in Stockholm before entering film (initially as a script doctor and a screenwriter), and he never deserted the stage. When he retired from movies in his 60s (twice — first with Fanny and Alexander in 1983, which he declared to be his swan song, and then again unofficially with After the Rehearsal, which was released worldwide after being shown on Swedish TV), he devoted his attention to mounting productions, in Swedish, of Shakespeare and classics of the modern theater.
Of course, he was a consummate moviemaker whose greatest images play on in our memories: the point-of-view shot from the old man’s coffin in Wild Strawberries, the chess game with Death in The Seventh Seal, the merging faces of the two women in Persona, the water choked with bodies in his apocalyptic war film Shame. But unlike the other masters who emerged in the ’40s, like Akira Kurosawa and Orson Welles and John Huston, or in the ’50s, like Satyajit Ray and François Truffaut and Kon Ichikawa — unlike even Robert Altman, who interrupted his film career to direct plays, and some of whose best movies began as plays he himself staged — Bergman really thought in theatrical terms more than cinematic ones. When Altman turned Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean or Secret Honor into a movie, it felt oddly as if it had just been waiting for someone to recognize its essential film essence. But Bergman’s movies often feel like plays on film, though none of them, with the singular exception of his sublime 1975 version of The Magic Flute, actually began as plays. They usually consist of dramatic texts (written by Bergman), significantly dialogue-heavy, delivered by actors in his stock company — Bibi Andersson, Max von Sydow, Harriet Andersson, Liv Ullmann, Gunnar Björnstrand, and others — who have clearly approached them as theatrical ensembles approach new productions, beginning with table talk about the psychology of the characters and then moving into a protracted rehearsal period. Part of what, I think, American audiences responded to when they watched Bergman pictures in the ’50s and ’60s, in the golden age of the foreign-film arthouse, was the thing that made them unique — not the metaphysical, God-is-a-spider stuff (Through a Glass Darkly hasn’t aged well, and Bergman was never much of a philosopher) so much as the theatrical intensity of the interaction among Bergman’s actors.
Bergman fell in love with the first play he ever saw, as a little boy, and he remained faithful to his first love. Many of his most memorable movies have theatrical settings or are built around performers. Fanny and Alexander is about a family of thespians. The heroine of Smiles of the Summer Night (my personal favorite among Bergman’s pictures), played by the exquisite Eva Dahlbeck, is an famous actress whom we first see rendering, with impressive skill, a scene from an 18th-century comedy of manners. The Naked Night and The Serpent’s Egg feature circus performers; The Magician is about a mesmerist. In Summer Interlude, Maj-Britt Nilsson plays a novice ballerina who buries herself in her work when her lover is drowned, and a dancer is the protagonist in one of the three linked stories that make up Three Strange Loves. Persona’s Liv Ullmann is an actress who stops speaking during a performance and can’t or won’t start again. The couple whose crumbling marriage is linked metaphorically to the possible end of the world in Shame (perhaps Bergman’s least-known masterpiece) are musicians in a local orchestra, and Ingrid Bergman — no relation — plays a world-famous concert pianist in Autumn Sonata. Moreover, Bergman quotes his favorite playwrights over and over again, none more fervently than his countryman August Strindberg, whose poisoned sexual relationships echo through Bergman’s most bitter depictions of marriage (Shame, Scenes from a Marriage) but who pops up in less obvious ways, too. Strindberg’s A Dream Play is referred to repeatedly in Fanny and Alexander (it’s even quoted directly), and Persona, which is mostly a two-hander for Ullmann and Bibi Andersson, derives from a Strindberg one-act called The Stronger in which two women, one of them silent, struggle for power.