Friday, July 23, 2004

The American Film Institute Theater’s current retrospective, “The Films of Ingmar Bergman,” booked at both the Kennedy Center and the AFI Silver Theatre, catches up with the great Swedish filmmaker’s work from the middle and late 1960s.

Following free showings this afternoon of “The Seventh Seal” and “The Devil’s Eye” in the auditorium of the East Building, the National Gallery of Art’s share of the tribute, called “Ingmar Bergman: Early Work,” will backtrack to the early 1950s and late 1940s for a month.

Some admirers may prefer to linger in the late 1950s, the period of Mr. Bergman’s decisive emergence as a prestige writer-director. Though I wouldn’t rush to discard earlier VHS or videodisc editions, the Criterion Collection has reissued “Smiles of a Summer Night,” “The Seventh Seal” and “Wild Strawberries” in DVD formats that may be hard to resist as long as the copies aren’t defective.

The movies themselves were shot in consecutive summers: “Smiles” in 1955, “Seal” in 1956, “Strawberries” in 1957. Their respective Swedish premieres occurred during Christmas week of 1955, February of 1957 and Christmas week of 1957.

They reached American art houses a year or two later, arriving with prestige festival recommendations: back-to-back special jury prizes at Cannes for “Smiles” and “Seal” and the grand prize at Berlin for “Strawberries.”

It’s difficult to believe the Swedish or European archives have been sifted thoroughly for supplementary material, but there is an extended interview with Mr. Bergman at 80 on the “Wild Strawberries” disc.

He also appears, evidently at about the same time and definitely in the same place, his home on the Baltic island of Faro, in a brief, fondly revealing introduction to “Smiles,” recalling how the movie had been entered at Cannes without his knowledge.

The discovery, courtesy of a morning newspaper, prompted him to borrow money from then-consort Bibi Andersson to enjoy the aftermath of a triumphant showing.

Despite his gratitude for the film’s success at Cannes, Mr. Bergman also finds grounds for regret. He thinks it a mixed blessing that the breakthrough of “Smiles” protected him thereafter from front-office second-guessing.

He claims he would have welcomed the sort of script advice he once received from a producer named Lorens Marmstedt.

Now that he mentions it, friendly advice might have improved the structural and dramatic defects that haunt “Wild Strawberries,” which ironically secured Mr. Bergman’s first Oscar nomination, for original screenplay of 1959.

It became a famous also-ran, along with “North by Northwest” and “The 400 Blows,” when the category was won by “Pillow Talk.”

My initial enthusiasm for Bergman movies was generated by high-school-age viewings of “Summer Interlude” (known as “Illicit Interlude” at that time), “Smiles of a Summer Night” and especially “The Seventh Seal,” which seemed the last word in artful allegory.

After I saw “Strawberries,” my excitement cooled a bit. I was left with the unwelcome impression that Swedes must be the most compulsively tactless people on the face of the earth.

Ostensibly, an elderly physician named Isak Borg takes us into his confidence while traveling from Stockholm to Lund to receive an honorary degree.

His dream life is booby-trapped with sinister imagery and his waking life with groundless suggestions that he has been a cold, forbidding personality.

This libel never corresponds to the venerably touching presence of Victor Sjostrom, the great Swedish director and actor, then 78, who played his final movie role as Borg.

Everything about the leading man suggests that Mr. Bergman needed to revamp his script to correspond to a prodigiously soulful, sympathetic camera subject.

“Wild Strawberries” is a movie whose blueprint is acutely out of whack with its sentimental drift and essence.

Savory period settings may have rescued Ingmar Bergman at a pivotal point of his career. Although he never got around to that remake of “The Merry Widow” with Barbra Streisand in the 1970s, he had revived the operetta on the stage in Malmo a year before, starting with “Smiles of a Summer Night.”

It could have been a salubrious influence. It’s a pity no one asks specifically in the interviews.

Mr. Bergman already had isolated Gunnar Bjornstrand and Eva Dahlbeck as a distinctive team in a trio of contemporary romantic comedies.

Their amusing mismatch of deluded snob and knowing, forgiving Valkyrie acquired both sparkle and pathos when adapted to the turn-of-the-century drawing-room and boudoir comedy of “Smiles of a Summer Night,” further enhanced by shuffling the romantic deck on six additional amorous characters.

A Bergman theater piece, a one-act production called “Painting on Wood,” was the starting point for “The Seventh Seal.”

Future DVD editions might make a better effort to clarify the lineage, perhaps with a restaging of the play. On a tight budget, Mr. Bergman finessed a medieval setting that alternates ominous and redemptive aspects brilliantly.

The specific reality is persuasively antique, superstitious, perilous. It also seems to reflect a troubled conscience about Sweden’s dubious role in World War II, along with apprehensions about how the country might respond to future crises of belief and loyalty.

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