Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Ingmar Bergman, the esteemed Swedish theater and film director, died yesterday at his home on the remote Baltic island of Faeroe. He was 89.

Son-in-law Henning Mankell told the Stockholm-based Internet paper Aftonbladet.se that the director’s death was “happy and peaceful.”

Known for allegorical and enigmatic films that won a reputation for agonized and murky content, Mr. Bergman repeatedly called attention to the aspect of his career overlooked outside Scandinavia. “You must never forget that my life has been lived in the theater,” he said in one interview.

Employed as the artistic director of theaters in Helsingborg, Gothenburg and Malmo before he was summoned to the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm, Mr. Bergman became adept on stage and screen while alternating seven-month theater seasons with summer movie productions, typically recruiting film casts from his trusted stage team.

Every year from 1945 to 1975 usually had at least one new Bergman film and a couple of theater productions. For example, during the period in which Mr. Bergman was directing the trio of classic films “Smiles of a Summer Night,” “The Seventh Seal” and “Wild Strawberries” from 1955 to 1957, he also was staging “The Merry Widow,” “Don Juan,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Peer Gynt” and “The Misanthrope.”

Later, he adjusted to the advent of television without apparent complaint or snobbery. He wrote and directed some scripts, notably “Scenes From a Marriage,” as TV events, then calmly trimmed them down for release as theatrical films at home and abroad.

The major movies began to accumulate in the early 1950s with the international distribution of “Summer With Monika” and “Summer Interlude” and culminated with the 1982 costume drama “Fanny and Alexander,” the latter of which evoked both endearing and nightmarish aspects of Swedish domesticity circa 1907 and won four Academy Awards.

Mr. Bergman also was nominated for a best director Oscar three times and best writer five times but received only a lifetime-achievement award in 1971. Three of his films — “The Virgin Spring,” “Through a Glass Darkly” and “Fanny and Alexander” — won best foreign-language Oscar.

Tributes from others in the film industry and even Sweden’s prime minister poured in yesterday. Danish filmmaker Bille August, who directed Mr. Bergman’s script for “The Best Intentions,” called his death “a great loss. I am in shock.” Woody Allen called him “a friend and certainly the finest film director of my lifetime.”

Born in Uppsala, Sweden, on July 14, 1918, Ernst Ingmar Bergman was the son of a Lutheran pastor. One of three children, he vividly recalled his boyhood as strict and alienating, and the faith imposed by his father vanished during his adulthood. Married six times, he fathered eight children and acknowledged liaisons with such leading ladies as Harriet Andersson and Liv Ullmann.

An exceptional director of actresses, Mr. Bergman showcased three generations of haunting performers, beginning with Miss Andersson and Maj-Britt Nilsson, then Bibi Andersson and Miss Ullmann, and finally Lena Olin. He also directed Hollywood star Ingrid Bergman in the 1978 chamber drama “Autumn Sonata” as Miss Ullmann’s domineering mother.

Mr. Bergman’s most reliable male alter egos were Max von Sydow and Gunnar Bjornstrand. They were contrasted most memorably as the knight and the squire, respectively, in “The Seventh Seal,” an allegory about the two returning to Sweden from the Crusades during a plague.

One of the most intriguing sections of his published memoir, “The Magic Lantern,” recalls Mr. Bergman’s infatuation with Nazi influences while spending an idyllic summer at a youth camp in Germany in 1934. A friend made on that occasion later became the fiance of Mr. Bergman’s sister, and plunged both families into sorrow when killed in action during the invasion of Poland.

Late in life, the filmmaker found the detachment needed to dramatize elements of his parents’ troubled marriage. He never did find one adequate to dramatizing how easy it was for the family to feel pro-German in the years before the war or for him to idolize Nazism as an impressionable teenager. The reluctance to confront these memories head-on may explain muddled undercurrents in some of his neurotic melodramas.

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