It’s something of a treat to be a Bergman acolyte and then be sent a box set of four of his very best films on DVD, particularly when you hadn’t yet upgraded them to this format. However, such obsequiousness requires caution because one can be blinded to any of the shortcomings that placing someone on a pedestal can cause. Therefore, it was slightly disappointing to find there was no accompanying booklet or any other box-set-only items here. We are not over-spoiled by the extras either, something that would have done more justice to this sumptuous collection. Sure, there are interesting notes by Philip Strick which give more background knowledge into each film, and the original trailers are of interest, but we don’t have any Bergman documentaries, closer analysis, or anything that attempts a common thread. It’s much more difficult to fault the films themselves though. With his latest masterwork Saraband (updating his early 70s TV series Scenes from a Marriage) almost certainly bringing the curtain down on Bergman’s career at 87 (he’s also packed up and left the Stockholm theatre), it’s an appropriate time to look back on these illustrious years. This short collection, certainly not the only definitive guide to Bergman’s works, gives a credible introduction to his oeuvre, spanning a 20-year period.
The late 1950s was not only the period Bergman came to worldwide prominence but it was a very prolific time for him; two of the films here were released in 1957. The Seventh Seal is probably his most famous and arguably his best, though critical debate and revision has ensured that many of his other films can claim such status. It is a film that is evenly balanced between the director’s early piety and his newfound rationalism. Without this it surely wouldn’t have been the masterpiece we now know. A medieval knight, who has returned home to his village from the crusades, confronts the plague. The grim reaper tells him his time has come but the knight challenges Death to a game of Chess which he knows he will eventually lose, but he also tricks his opponent. Death is portrayed to be as philosophical as the knight, suffering with him, which almost perversely makes the film one of optimism.
Wild Strawberries (1957), on the other hand, is a classic film about nostalgia and regret told in a dreamlike fashion, but begins with a nightmare sequence. A distinguished Professor, Victor Sjostrom’s journey to collect his honorary doctorate becomes an alternative road movie, encountering many different characters along the way. However, the melodramatic and patriarchal elements are still there as he’s accompanied by his daughter-in-law who resents him because his son (her husband) has inherited many of his egotistical traits. He also visits his aged mother, thus spanning generations of his family in one trip. Ultimately the film, like the Seventh Seal, is optimistic as it is an attempt to find inner peace, something which does not come naturally to him.
Persona (1966) is one of the most intriguing films of Bergman’s career because it fully explores notions of identity and mental illness. A nurse who is caring for a sick actress comes to realise that her personality is being submerged with her patient. Naturally, the film is exploring notions of identity, but it is also one of the most formally surreal and contemporary pieces Bergman has done. Where is the family? Where is the divine presence? It is a film that certainly stands alone in the Bergman canon, and one can find the poetic elements of Tarkovsky, the cine-modern of Godard and the neo- surrealism of Resnais subtly interjected here. The theme of mental illness and family melodrama meet head on in Autumn Sonata (1978) – along with Bergman’s Cries and Whispers(1972), one of the bleakest portrayals of middle class family life. This film is set in the late 19th century while the latter is set in the present. Where the story ultimately differs from Cries and Whispers most is that the protagonist is prepared to express their emotional torture as a way of release and retribution that can inspire ultimate redemption in the accused. In Cries and Whispers, guilt is met with aversion. Any Bergman admirer who owns one or two DVDs in this collection may be tempted into buying the complete set, if there were new extras. To argue the case for the distributor’s though, perhaps their intention was never to try and seduce people with marketing ploys, and this collection can therefore be viewed as a best-of box set for Bergman neophytes.