How Woody Allen Discovered Ingmar Bergman, and How You Can Too

An Ingmar Bergman retrospective begins next month here in Los Angeles, and as I mark my calendar, I reflect on what turned me on to his films in the first place. Who can approach Bergman now without first running a cultural gauntlet of knowing references, gushing appreciations, and contrarian broadsides? What young cinephile could resist the temptation to inflate an opinion about The Seventh Seal, or Wild Strawberries, or Persona after seeing them for the first time — or indeed, before? We could all benefit from someone to show us the way into the “Swedish master’s” loaded, time-consuming filmography, and as this BBC interview by film critic Mark Kermode reveals (watch Part 1 above, and Part 2 here), Woody Allen could well be it.

Allen holds a surprisingly plausible claim to the title of Bergman’s number-one fan, or at least his most prominent one. How to square his dedication to these solemn Swedish meditations on mortality, emotional isolation, and the impossibility of faith with his creation of beloved light comedies like Bananas, Sleeper, and Annie Hall? But watch Allen’s filmography in full, especially pictures like Love and Death, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Shadows and Fog, and the answer comes into view. Mortality, emotional isolation, the impossibility of faith — Bergman’s preoccupations are Allen’s, but Allen grapples with the unanswerable questions by making jokes about them. What Allen describes as a “thematic connection” to Bergman ultimately becomes a much more complicated entanglement: his hiring of Bergman’s cinematographer Sven Nykvist to shoot Another Woman, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Celebrity, for instance, suggests something beyond simple influence.

In conversation with Kermode, Allen remembers joining the vanguard of New York Bergman enthusiasm after seeing Summer with Monika and The Naked Night, films that, to his mind, displayed an obviously higher level of craft than anything else playing in town. The days when discovering Bergman really meant discovering Bergman have long passed, but it will never be too late to feel the same excitement Allen did about Bergman’s ability to express internal conflicts — “inner states of anxiety,” Allen calls them — so richly and dramatically on film. The Woody Allen-approved points of entry for the Bergman novice: The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, and Cries and Whispers “for sure.” And maybe The Magician. H/T @opedr

Related content:

Ingmar Bergman Visits Dick Cavett, 1971

Ingmar Bergman’s Soap Commercials Wash Away the Existential Despair

Meetin’ WA: Jean-Luc Godard Meets Woody Allen

Also don’t miss Hubert Dreyfus’ course on Existentialism & Film (iTunes) in our collection of 400 Free Courses Online.

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.

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