Ingmar Bergman was, by most lights, the Western world's greatest living filmmaker.
If we're never going to see his like again in movies, it seems in our era something of a miracle that we ever saw his like at all.
Bergman, whose films appeared at the beginning of the American "art theater" revolution in the late 1950s, died at 89 on Monday on the island of Faro off the coast of Sweden.
Critic David Thomson once said that Bergman and his contemporaries saw "no reason to abandon [their] faith in a select audience, prepared and trained for a diligent intellectual and emotional involvement with the cinema."
"For many people," Thomson succinctly concluded, "Bergman has been the man who showed the way to a cinema of the inner life."
What once startled everyone about Bergman were the obvious and unashamed ties to theater, opera and literature -- to August Strindberg (whose plays he was directing in the '40s), to fairy tales (he began as a child with his own puppet theater), to Franz Kafka, Isak Dinesen and such lesser-known figures as E.T.A. Hoffmann.
Characteristically, he was often happy to deny many if not all literary influences, saying "my literary baggage is rather light."
But his films had the purity of the greatest novels because, in his best years, Bergman never functioned in an ordinary commercial system. He was financed with little question by Svensk Filmindustri. He and his stock company -- whose greatest figures, Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann, became English-language film fixtures -- could make their films in Sweden "with our old equipment and little money" and in loose, free circumstances where "we can suddenly drop everything for the love of four cranes floating above the treetops."
So said Bergman in the introduction to "Four Screenplays by Ingmar Bergman," one of the transformative books in the history of movies.
Not surprisingly, its title and its very cover were imitated by Woody Allen in his first screenplay collection, "Four Films of Woody Allen."
For a cinematic figure thought to be so pure and even cloistered, Bergman had immense influence on his raunchy commercial colleagues an ocean away.
His greatest actor, von Sydow, became the star of movies such as "The Exorcist" and "Hawaii." His greatest actress, Ullmann -- with whom he lived for several years and had a child -- came to America to make movies with Peter Finch and Gene Kelly. His sublime cinematographer Sven Nykvist (who died last year at 84) was much beloved by everyone he worked with, whether they were Nora Ephron and Allen or Robert Downey Jr. and Leonardo DiCaprio.
The funniest scene in "Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey" is a parody of the chess scene with death in Bergman's "The Seventh Seal."
Nor was the film culture traffic only one way. Elliott Gould, of all people, made a Bergman movie called "The Touch," and David Carradine made "The Serpent's Egg" with him (where, Bergman reported in "Images: My Life in Film," Carradine caroused a lot at night and fell asleep a lot during the day).
Bergman, in almost every interview, gave abundant evidence of loving American films and being schooled in them -- not just the awe-inspiring vistas and archetypal dramas of John Ford, either, but the crass wisecracks in Bob Hope comedies, too.
Nevertheless, his films, seen now, are different in kind from almost everything made in the English language, even those films worshipful of Bergman.
He was one of the greatest directors of women that films ever had, as countless Bergman films continually reveal (notably "Persona," "Brink of Life" and "Cries and Whispers"). At the same time, no other film director has ever had as profound and rich -- and even harsh -- a sense of the things that can go wrong with men and women. (He married five times, amid other long-term relationships. It sometimes seems in his films as if every one of his marital anguishes is in there somewhere).
His treks through what Gerard Manley Hopkins called the "inscape" can only be approached through parody. Anything like outright emulation of films such as "Cries and Whispers," "Through a Glass Darkly," "The Magician" and "The Silence" would be absurd. They exist in a world entirely off to themselves -- symbolic, personal, strange and more profoundly familiar than those of filmmakers who speak our language, eat our junk foods and listen to our music.
Because he was an artist, not an industrial functionary, he never entirely retired from films. He was writing them almost until the end (his last was "Saraband," which, tragically, never opened here).
At the end of his introduction to "Four Screenplays by Ingmar Bergman," the Bergman whose father was a Lutheran minister compared himself to the anonymous artisans who built Europe's great cathedrals.
"I want to be one of the artists in the cathedral on the great plain. I want to make a dragon's head, an angel, a devil -- or perhaps a saint -- out of stone. It does not matter which; it is the sense of satisfaction that counts."
He wound up making them all -- dragons' heads, angels, devils and saints. If not exactly made of stone, they too are built to last.
Born: Uppsala, Sweden, on July 14, 1918
Achievements: Directed more than 50 movies, wrote scripts for another dozen, and was responsible for 168 works for the stage, television and radio.
Best-known films: "The Seventh Seal" (1957), "Wild Strawberries" (1957)
Academy Awards (all for Best Foreign Language Film): "The Virgin Spring" (1960); "Through a Glass Darkly" (1961); and "Fannie and Alexander" (1982)
- News staff and wire service reports