STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Considered by some to be the greatest film-maker ever, Ingmar Bergman exorcised a traumatic childhood through cinematic masterpieces that explored sexual anxiety, loneliness and the search for meaning in life.
Bergman died on Monday. He was 89.
In a career spanning half a century, in which he produced more than 50 films and 125 theatre productions, Bergman became Scandinavia’s most acclaimed cultural personality.
Films such as “Wild Strawberries”, “Scenes From a Marriage”, and his great classic, “Fanny and Alexander”, elevated him to be one of the masters of cinema though it brought Sweden, his country, a reputation for melancholy.
His private life often thrust him into the limelight. He was married five times to beautiful and talented women and had many liaisons with his leading actresses.
He influenced scores of film-makers, including Woody Allen, who idolised Bergman and paid homage to the Swedish director’s classic “The Seventh Seal” with his early comedy “Love and Death”.
“Above all there’s Ingmar Bergman, who is probably the greatest film artist, all things considered, since the invention of the motion picture camera,” said American Allen in a birthday greeting for Bergman when he turned 70.
Ernst Ingmar Bergman was born in Uppsala on July 14, 1918. His father, a Lutheran minister who became chaplain to the Swedish King, caned and humiliated the sickly boy.
“It was a life-and-death struggle: either the parents were broken or the child was broken,” Bergman later recalled.
Bergman has also talked of a deep love for his mother and his refuge in fantasy and taste for the macabre.
Critics have traced the recurring themes of repression, guilt and punishment to the director’s strict upbringing.
Bergman told Reuters in a rare interview in 2001 that personal demons tormented and inspired him throughout his life.
“The demons are innumerable, appear at the most inconvenient times and create panic and terror,” he said at the time. “But I have learnt that if I can master the negative forces and harness them to my chariot, then they can work to my advantage.
Never was the autobiographical link as clear as in “Fanny and Alexander”, which he proclaimed as his grand finale as a film-maker.
The film, produced in three- and five-hour versions, won four Oscars in 1984, one for best foreign language film. Bergman, shy and indifferent to prizes and gala ceremonies, chose to unplug the phone and sleep through the extravaganza in his Munich flat.
“Fanny and Alexander” is a lavish panorama of an Uppsala upper-class family in the years preceding World War One. The boy Alexander, 10, and his eight-year-old sister Fanny are mentally and physically abused by their stepfather, the local bishop modelled on Bergman’s father.
The shy and weak Alexander uses supernatural powers to take a sinister revenge on his tormentor.
His first script-writing effort, “Frenzy” in 1944, was about a sadistic school teacher. His directing debut two years later was a film titled “Crisis”.
Bergman played with toy theatres as a boy and the stage was always his first love. “I am much more a man of the theatre than a man of the film,” he once said, and all through his career shared his time between stage and screen.
In his later years, he devoted himself to stage work at Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theatre, showing a preference for classic works of theatre.
His international breakthrough in cinema came in 1955 with “Smiles of a Summer Night”, a comedy of manners set in provincial Sweden at the turn of the century.
Full international recognition came with the 1956 film “The Seventh Seal”, set in the plague-ridden Middle Ages, in which a Crusader searching for God and the meaning of life plays chess with Death. It won the jury prize at the 1957 Cannes festival.
In the following 10 years, he made “Wild Strawberries”, “The Silence”, which included a starkly sexual scene that provoked a clash with Swedish film censors, “The Virgin Spring”, and “Through a Glass Darkly”. The last two won Oscars as best foreign language films.
A slim, hawk-nosed man with a penchant for baggy clothing, Bergman was hardly handsome by conventional standards but women were drawn to him.
His four ex-wives, including a dancer, a director and a pianist, continued to speak highly of him as did the actresses with whom he had affairs, among them Norwegian Liv Ullmann, his companion of the late 1960s.
His fifth wife was the elegant Countess Ingrid von Rosen, whom he married in 1971 and who became his business manager. He had nine children, four boys and five girls.
Bergman continued to win acclaim in the early 1970s with “Cries and Whispers”, the television mini-series “Scenes From a Marriage”, and a televised version of Mozart’s “The Magic
In January 1976, Bergman was arrested during a rehearsal at the Royal Dramatic Theatre by plainclothes policemen, who took him away for questioning about alleged tax evasion.
No charges were brought, but the humiliation he felt led to a nervous breakdown. Publicly condemning Swedish bureaucracy, he left his homeland for a long artistic exile in Munich.
He directed three films abroad, one of them, “The Autumn Sonata”, bringing together Liv Ullmann and the late Ingrid Bergman. The Swedish actress was not related.
In 1984, he returned to the Royal Dramatic Theatre with an acclaimed version of “King Lear”. He ended his self-imposed exile the following year and settled down at the national theatre with a string of classics.
His last cinematic production was Saraband, a family drama made for television in 2003 that generated more high praise.
Swedish actor Max von Sydow, who starred in 11 Bergman films, once said he and the director made a pact to haunt one another after death “in all friendliness”, depending on who had the opportunity first.
“I believe that it is hard to fully comprehend the contribution that Ingmar Bergman made to Swedish film and drama,” Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said in a statement. “His works are immortal.”