Yesterday, Ingmar Bergman finally confronted the great antagonist of his epic moviemaking career. The writer-director who created indelible images of mortality came face to face with Death.
At the age of 89, he died at his Faro Island home off the coast of Sweden.
Perhaps, like Max von Sydow's knight in The Seventh Seal, he cried out to a god "who must be somewhere." But one prefers to see him as the artist-juggler sees the knight in the haunting climax of that movie, dancing "away from the dawn" with a string of fellow travelers "while the rain washes their faces and clears the salt of the tears from their cheeks."
Mr. Bergman's movies faced death and transcended it. Even his darkest images are so fraught with power and feeling that they pay tribute to the artist's life.
A medieval knight plays chess with Death in The Seventh Seal. An aging professor dreams of his own funeral winding through a town under a clock with no hands in Wild Strawberries. In the delicious erotic farce Smiles of a Summer Night, a husband grasps the veil of his young wife who has just run away with his son as if it were a shroud for the lost prime of his life.
His characters may have been Western men and women caught in the tragedy and existential slapstick of shattered traditions and belief systems, but he compensated for the loss of religious epiphanies with his own cinematic catharses.
Bibi Andersson's extraordinary sexual monologue in Persona brought new insight into confession as an erotic act. The servant in Cries and Whispers comforting a woman on her mountainous breast evoked Madonna-like love, distorted sexuality and the basic, animal urge to do something, anything to heal the dead.
Mr. Bergman delivered experience with the white heat of revelation - and exotic or supernatural adventure with the detail and nuance of experience (as he did in The Seventh Seal and, in a different way, decades later, in The Magic Flute). He was often mistaken for a philosopher, but what made his films hypnotic and even, at times, seductively entertaining was not his intellect, but the touch, mind and blood of a poet. Around the world, men and women who came of age in the mid-1950s found themselves sparked into filmmaking when they saw his movies.
Mike Hodges, the British director of Get Carter and Croupier, yesterday remembered seeing The Seventh Seal in 1956 at age 24 and thinking, "I never had seen anything like it in the cinema, really. It was a lot to absorb, and it was so mysterious that I remember literally spending the whole night talking about it ... trying to comprehend what it was trying to say. It was so extraordinarily impressive, even if you never came to any conclusions; just the process that Bergman generated was incredibly illuminating."
Philip Kaufman, the American director of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, had the same experience: "One of the reasons I started making films was seeing The Seventh Seal. ... The lighting, the abstraction, the atmosphere of that movie was so different than anything I had ever seen. I couldn't stop talking to my friends about this new form of filmmaking. It's probably why I left law school."
When a friend of Sam Peckinpah's told him, "There is nobody better than you are," Mr. Peckinpah responded, "No. There's still that damn Swede."
"That damn Swede" had been making movies for almost a decade before he penetrated international audiences. The son of a strict Lutheran pastor, he fell in love with the theater at an early age and wrote plays and directed them even while serving as a script doctor and then screenwriter. His first produced screenplay, Torment (1944), still makes other films about teen rebellion look and sound like campfire tales. Like many Bergman films to follow, it conjured an emotional conflagration from a handful of conflicted characters.
Mr. Bergman soon won the chance to direct movies himself. But it took a half-dozen years for him to find his footing as a film director. He did it most spectacularly with Monika, starring the uninhibited and skillful Harriet Andersson as a sensual wench who woos and marries a bourgeois youth. This movie was as sexy and fresh as it was sorrowful: It caught a restless teenager's urge to escape her constricted life as well as the romantic disillusionment of her husband. French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard called Mr. Bergman's prolonged closeup of Monika staring down the camera before bedding another man "the saddest shot in the history of the cinema." Her audacious expression is confounding: a portrait of a woman without shackles - or scruples.
Monika caught the eye of American distributor Cyrus Harvey, who had co-founded Janus Films in March 1956. "I was in Paris," Mr. Harvey said yesterday, "and I went to an obscure theater in Montmartre and made my way through the lines of the ladies of the night and saw this fabulous movie. I called Stockholm and took a trip there, and we became the distributor for all Bergman films for 12 years."