In 1948, Hollywood producer David O Selznick approached a 30-year-old Swede with five directorial credits to his name, just one of them (the atypically melodramatic Music In Darkness) a hit. Selznick proposed that Ernst Ingmar Bergman, or plain Ingmar Bergman as he was known, come and work for him. The young Swede declined, unwilling to produce a “work of art that the public can sit and suck aesthetically.” He wanted to instead “scorch their indifference, to startle them out of their complacency.”
Bold, savage words from a fledgling artist who was yet to find his own voice, those early films – of which debut Crisis, Port Of Call and Music In Darkness are included in this prodigious 30-film box set – flickering with influences and styles: German expressionism, Carl Dreyer, Italian neo-realism, French poetic realism, August Strindberg, Henrik Ibsen and the Swedish psychodramas of his mentor Victor Sjöström.
Unlike today, however, directors back then were afforded the time to learn their craft, to try and to err. Bergman’s first set of movies might have been uneven but they also contained moments of startling clarity, sequences of rare, potentially ruinous daring. Indeed, the themes that would occupy him, devour him, for six decades to come were already present if not quite correct, his protagonists obsessing over their fabricated, fracturing relationships as the grim spectre of Death huddles in each darkened corner. Here, too, is the signature sexual frankness (all part of the naked truth that Bergman spent a career trying to expose) as well as an unflinching confrontation of its spin-off issues.
In Port Of Call, for example, the lead seeks an abortion after being impregnated by a sailor; in Prison, Bergman’s sixth feature, a young woman is forced into prostitution and eventually suicide. And while the director is there to empathise and soothe, to caress every crimp in his female characters’ tortured psyches – watch any footage of Bergman shooting and you’ll see he always sits just out of shot, often stroking his actresses’ hands as he whispers encouragement – you may find yourself asking, “Where is God?” And you’d be right to, for Bergman is asking the exact same question.
The second son of Erik, an austere Lutheran pastor, and Karin, the daughter of a railway tycoon, Bergman the writer/director was shaped by his afflicted childhood. It was as a young boy that he developed the odious sense of guilt and crushing fear of public humiliation that would be so pronounced in so many of his films, Ingmar’s imperishable demons first given life by his father’s regular beatings and his mother’s rejection of his (Oedipal) affections. Grandma wasn’t much help, either: she used to lock him in a cupboard. Forced to escape into his imagination, Bergman found solace in movies, magic lanterns and marionettes.
Knowing the biography isn’t essential to savouring the films, picking at universal themes as they do. But it does add layers of meaning. In Bergman’s religious upbringing lies his obsession with faith, a subtext that would rise to the surface in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s (The Seventh Seal, The Virgin Spring, Through A Glass Darkly, Winter Light, The Silence) as he journeyed from “childhood piety... to newfound harsh rationalism.” In his string of failed marriages and doomed love affairs are the rancid fruit of his career-spanning relationship dramas (Three Strange Loves, To Joy, Waiting Women, A Lesson In Love, Smiles Of A Summer Night, Summer Interlude, Summer With Monika, Scenes From A Marriage, Saraband). And in his ceaseless work as a writer/director of both films and plays resides his obsession, especially marked in the ‘60s, with the artist’s place in society (The Magician, All These Women, Persona, The Rite).
All of these films can be found in this collection as can half a dozen more, of which special mention must go to warm road-movie Wild Strawberries, Chekhovian chamber drama Cries And Whispers and shattering mother-daughter meltdown Autumn Sonata, described by Time Out as “a routine masterpiece”. Of the 30 movies gathered in total, 28 have been released previously by Metro Tartan, along with the same incisive film notes by recently departed critic and historian Philip Strick (or, in a couple of cases, the equally astute Geoff Andrew). The bonus titles are minor but fascinating affairs. Fårödokument 1979 is a follow-up to the annoyingly absent Fårödokument 1969, its lyrical images chronicling the rugged, beloved island that is home to Bergman and 672 others. Dreams, meanwhile, follows two interweaving plot strands as a fashion photographer and her young model are similarly wounded by middle-aged men. As with each of Bergman’s pictures, they offer bewitching insights into his anguished mindset.
Of course, these 30 titles are not the whole story. MGM own the DVD rights to Hour Of The Wolf, Shame, The Passion Of Anna and The Serpent’s Egg, while one of Bergman’s greatest masterpieces, Fanny And Alexander, is available from Artificial Eye (though only in its truncated theatrical cut; the Criterion Edition supplies the sumptuous five-hour TV version). Many other titles are not yet available on DVD at all, ensnared by tangled rights issues. For now, though, this grand, vitalising boxset will more than suffice, its imperious contents demonstrating how one of cinema’s greatest practitioners perfected his art as he relentlessly probed the human condition for 62 years. Sublime.