Ingmar Bergman’s 1950s Soap Commercials Wash Away the Existential Despair

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 by Slate film crit­ic Dana Stevens here. (Note the video requires a flash play­er.)

Note: This post first appeared on our site in 2011. It’s one of our favorites. So we’re bring­ing it back.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Mir­rors of Ing­mar Bergman, Nar­rat­ed with the Poet­ry of Sylvia Plath

Ing­mar Bergman Vis­its The Dick Cavett Show, 1971

Fellini’s Fan­tas­tic TV Com­mer­cials

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