Now on DVD: The Start of Something Bergman
In Director’s Early Works, Grim Evidence of Genius
The Criterion Collection — founded in 1984 and now boasting more than 350 titles — might be described as some sort of fantastical combination of the honor roll, the Louvre and the Norton Critical Editions for motion pictures. Here you can find the films of Robert Bresson, Francois Truffaut, Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa, as well as any number of individual masterpieces, all with extra features that provide both historical context and additional entertainment. The company has done especially well by the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman — “ Smiles of a Summer Night,” “ The Seventh Seal,” “ Cries and Whispers,” “ Scenes From a Marriage” and “ Fanny and Alexander,” among others, are all available in handsome editions.
Now Criterion has turned its attention to the filmmaker’s journeyman works with a five- DVD set titled, appropriately, “ Early Bergman.”
It is the first in the new series from Criterion called Eclipse, described as a “ selection of lost, forgotten or overshadowed classics in simple, affordable editions.” The presentation is more spartan than we have come to expect from Criterion — there are no extras beyond optional English subtitles — and the set is “ affordable” only by the standards of this company’s wares, often upward of $ 30 a disc. A $ 70 price tag for five DVDs is hardly bargain- basement.
Then again, neither are the films, for these are beautiful transfers and Bergman was pretty much a master from the beginning. Indeed, the earliest film in this set — “ Torment” ( 1944) — was actually directed by Alf Sjoberg, to a Bergman screenplay, but it is the younger man’s sensibility that pervades the drama. As Bergman later recalled, he was “ suddenly able to correspond with the world around me in a language spoken literally from soul to soul, in phrases which escaped the control of the intellect in an almost voluptuous way. With the whole stunted hunger of a child I seized upon my medium and, tirelessly and in a kind of frenzy, I supplied the world with dreams, intellectual excitement, fantasies, fits of lunacy.”
The very names of the films — “ Torment,” “ Crisis” ( 1946), “ Port of Call” ( 1948) and “ Thirst” ( 1949) — summon the stock, if overstated, cliche of Bergman as the gloomy bard of the North, and it is ironic that the last of them, with the uncharacteristic title “ To Joy” ( 1949), should be perhaps the grimmest of the lot. Still, those who know and love the Swedish cinema will find “ To Joy” especially appealing, for it features a central performance by one of the country’s pioneer filmmakers, Victor Sjostrom, who directed Lillian Gish in “ The Scarlet Letter” and “ The Wind” but is now best remembered for his role as the irascible and haunted Professor Isak Borg in Bergman’s “ Wild Strawberries.”
Throughout his career, Bergman would employ the same collaborators repeatedly. Gunnar Fischer would remain his cinematographer of choice through the early ’ 60s. The versatile actor Stig Olin plays major and disparate parts in three of these films; Maj- Britt Nilsson, the original in a dazzling series of recurring Bergman heroines ( the roster would eventually include Harriet Andersson, Ingrid Thulin and Liv Ullmann), is seen in one of his films for the first time in “ To Joy,” while Gunnar Bjornstrand, who would be part of the troupe through “ Fanny and Alexander,” was also there at the genesis, playing a small role in “ Torment.”
“ Early Bergman” is a portrait of the genius as a young man, gathering his forces, trying on ideas, stretching toward maturity. In chrysalis, however, he was already what he would remain — an unapologetically “ high culture” European modernist, from a very specific time and place, deeply influenced by the Lutheran faith ( which he abandoned, but not without a struggle that gave us some wrenching films), by psychoanalysis and existentialism, and by the dreamlike chamber plays of his great countryman August Strindberg. To this rich heritage, he added technical innovations, personal anxieties and obsessions, and an unwavering linear intensity. It is an unsurpassed and probably unsurpassable legacy, and this is where it all began. The Criterion Collection set of five Ingmar Bergman DVDs includes the inaptly titled “To Joy,” with Stig Olin and Maj-Britt Nilsson (above), and “Torment,” with Alf Kjellin and Mai Zetterling (near and far left). Though the films were made early in Bergman’s career, his spare touch and distinctive sensibility are unmistakably present.