Ingmar Bergman is usually remembered for the intensely serious nature of his films. Death, anguish, the absence of God--his themes can be pretty gloomy. So it might come as a surprise to learn that Bergman once directed a series of rather silly soap commercials.
The year was 1951. Bergman was 33 years old. The Swedish film industry, his main source of income, had just gone on strike to protest high government taxes on entertainment. With two ex-wives, five children, a new wife and a sixth child on the way, Bergman needed to find another way to make money.
A solution presented itself when he was asked to create a series of commercials for a new anti-bacterial soap called Bris ("Breeze," in English). Bergman threw himself into the project. He later recalled:
Originally, I accepted the Bris commercials in order to save the lives of my self and my families. But that was really secondary. The primary reason I wanted to make the commercials was that I was given free rein with money and I could do exactly what I wanted with the product's message. Anyhow, I have always found it difficult to feel resentment when industry comes rushing toward culture, check in hand.
Bergman enlisted his favorite cinematographer at that time, Gunnar Fischer, and together they made nine miniature films, each a little more than one minute long, to be screened in movie theaters over the next three years. Bergman used the opportunity to experiment with visual and narrative form.
Many of the stylistic devices and motifs that would eventually figure into his masterpieces can be spotted in the commercials: mirrors, doubles, the telescoping in or out of a story-within-a-story. You don't need to understand Swedish to recognize the mark of the master.
In the window above we feature Episode 1, "Bris Soap," which is perhaps the most basic of the commercials. They become progressively more imaginative as the series moves along:
- Episode 2, Tennis Girl: An innocent game of tennis sets the stage for an epic battle between good (Bris soap) and evil (bacteria). Can you guess which side wins?
- Episode 3, Gustavian: Bad hygiene in the 17th century court of King Gustav III. Plenty of foppishness, but no Bris.
- Episode 4, Operation: "Perhaps the most intriguing of the commercials," writes Swedish film scholar Fredrik Gustafsson. "In this one Bergman is deconstructing the whole business of filmmaking, using all the tricks of his disposal to trick and treat us."
- Episode 5, The Magic Show: Another battle between good and evil, this time in miniature.
- Episode 6, The Inventor: A man heroically invents anti-bacterial soap, only to awaken and realize it was all a dream. (And anyway, the makers of Bris had already done it.)
- Episode 7, The Rebus: Bergman uses montage to create a game of "rebus," a heraldic riddle (non verbis, sed rebus: "not by words but by things"), to piece together the slogan, "Bris kills the bacteria--no bacteria, no smell."
- Episode 8, Three-Dimensional: Bergman thought 3-D films were "ridiculously stupid," and in this episode he takes a few playful jabs.
- Episode 9, The Princess and the Swineherd: In this reinvention of Hans Christian Anderson's "The Swineherd," a 15-year-old Bibi Andersson, who went on to star in many of Bergman's greatest films, makes her screen debut as a beautiful princess who promises a swineherd 100 kisses in exchange for a bar of soap. Not a bad deal for the swineherd.
To learn more about Bergman's soap commercials you can watch a 2009 report (below) by Slate film critic Dana Stevens: