Now on DVD: The Start of Some­thing Bergman

In Di­rec­tor’s Early Works, Grim Ev­i­dence of Ge­nius

The Washington Post Sunday - - Arts - By Tim Page

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.

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