Notes on Ingmar Bergman’s Stylistic Development and Technique for Staging Dialogue

PEER REVIEWED. Ingmar Bergman is heralded as a model for cinema as personal expression. What rarely comes to the fore is the extent to which he drew on pre-existing schemas for his characters and how he developed staging techniques that would suit his existentialist themes.

The March 1960 cover of Time Magazine cast Ingmar Bergman in the part of a visionary who stares into a brightly lit future while the background suggests darker demons in the woods. Were it not for the tilt of his thumb and forefinger, held up to his eye as if to frame the world, and the headline declaring ‘INGMAR BERGMAN - MOVIE DIRECTOR’, the subscribers might have mistaken him for a philosopher or author. Ingmar Bergman was, in a sense, the face of a new kind of cinema, which emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and included Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, François Truffaut, Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard and, outside of Europe, Akira Kurosawa.

Bergman’s fame benefitted from both a flourishing film culture and a niche audience. Tino Balio has shown how American distributors developed the Ingmar Bergman brand, aimed at an urban, college-educated audience, and how the competitive advantage of European directors generally depended on their treatment of sex (Balio 2010). In particular, it worked to Bergman’s advantage, as the first of his generation to make the cover of Time, that Swedish pictures were associated with soft porn (Balio 2010: 131). The images of nudity in Sommaren med Monika (1953) brought fame to the lead, Harriet Andersson, beyond the art house, in particular with the edited version, Monika – The Story of a Bad Girl, and his films inspired a cycle of Swedish sexploitation and Swedish porn film (see Larsson 2015). Andrew Sarris, an influential American critic, recalls how, in the 1950s, he was part of a group, called the Bergmaniacs, who were as excited by Bergman’s probing of existential angst and the psyche’s operations—a fit successor to the social issues of Italian Neorealism—as they were fazed by the Swede’s actresses (Sarris 2007).

Perhaps less surprisingly, this means that the number of book-length studies of Bergman is in the hundreds. A title search on Library of Congress reveals more than two hundred books, including Bergman’s own, but excluding some non-English publications. Based on the contents of Birgitta Steene’s reference guide, including journal and newspaper articles, in addition to audiovisual formats, a newcomer to Bergman’s art faces bibliographical entries totaling upwards of two thousand (see Steene 2005). What is more, the newcomer to Bergman’s art may also have to give up on some of the ideas associated with the Bergman brand, including a dualistic and simplistic distinction between commerce and high art: Bergman was also a “consummate businessman of art cinema” (Koskinen 2010: 33).

Directors as controlling agents

One of the questions in studying a director’s work is how to balance the study of themes and style with questions relating to industrial constraints and artistic enablers such as influences, resources, collaboration, power and control.

A dominant approach of many auteur studies has been to look for recurrent elements of theme and style. It is a critical practice that first emerged in the 1950s as a means of recognizing the contribution of directors who worked within the constraints of Hollywood studios, including the producer’s choice of cast and script. Although André Bazin, a French critic, was first in attending to Hollywood directors’ personal touch in how they organized their narratives—his analyses of William Wyler and Orson Welles are particularly noteworthy—an even more influential formulation was provided by Andrew Sarris. According to Sarris, the critic should look for a personal touch in terms of style and material; in a refined version, advocated by Peter Wollen, the critic looks for recurrent elements in all films by a given director, in effect looking for constants and variables (Sarris 1999; Wollen 1999). With respect to Ingmar Bergman, Robin Wood was the first to apply the critical toolkit of auteur theory to the Swede. Wood argued in the late 1960s that Bergman’s narratives are structured as journeys and rather than thematic phases we should think of his work as a series of collaborations with one or a small set of actresses (Wood 1969: 7-24).

Looking for recurrent elements of style and theme is often a natural part of any study of a director’s work, but entails the problem of neglecting who actually made which contribution in a collaborative process. A particularly influential study is on the production of Citizen Kane where it turns out that even though Orson Welles hadn’t had any prior experience with filmmaking he was able to make the important decisions in different phases (Carringer 1996). Other scholars have highlighted the creative decision-making of producers such as Philip Selznick with respect to cast and adaptation, and to some extent a film’s visual style by choice of director (Vertrees 1997). Similar studies of production processes and the memos of Hollywood studios have revealed that the creative power of directors of cinematography such as Gregg Toland went beyond lighting and included costumes and art direction (Beach 2015: ch 2). Given the importance of actors for a film’s funding and distribution, it is unsurprising that archive-based studies reveal, for instance, that Robert De Niro acted as a steward in the development of Raging Bull (1980), including the acquisition of adaptation rights, assigning and replacing scriptwriters during developmental phases, and finding a fit in Martin Scorsese as director (Tait 2011).

Philosophically, the notion of a controlling agent in a collaborative process has considerable merit if the end result is going to be coherent work (Livingston 1997). The Nordic model of public funding for film projects is largely based on the notion of the director as a controlling agent; this presumably fosters artistically uncompromising works since the director can guide or even carry out the scriptwriting. With respect to television the question of controlling agency will easily point towards one or a few scriptwriters, so-called show-runners (Redvall 2016). Arguably, power relations and hierarchies between film and television drama are a reflection of the ease with which someone can be replaced: replace a film director during production and expensive re-filming might be necessary; replace a show-runner of a drama series and the coherency of character and dramatic progression is put at risk, whereas this need not be the case if, between episodes, the director is replaced. It is important to note that our view of film as the director’s medium is also shaped by regulative constraints. For historical and political reasons The Director’s Guild of America have not permitted multiple directors to be credited for a major studio production; this rule was finally waived when, with The Ladykillers (2004), for the first time, Joel and Ethan Coen were credited in accordance with three decades of collaborative work as scriptwriters and directors.

For anyone who wishes to identify recurrent elements by sifting through Ingmar Bergman’s oeuvre his immense productivity poses a challenge. If we include made-for-television and documentary, he directed some 59 films over a span of almost six decades, and, on top of this, he was one of the twentieth century’s most prolific directors for the stage; including radio, he directed 171 productions (see Ingmar Bergman Foundation). One of the most recent monographs on Bergman, by Jesse Kalin, solves this challenge by limiting the study to the 27 films that he singularly wrote and directed, presumably the appropriate data for identifying his personal touch. According to Kalin, we should pay particular attention to characters’ experiences of judgment, abandonment and shame since they are, in addition to a few more, shared by Bergman’s narratives, serving as a reservoir of “fundamental kinds of experiences and their interrelationships” (Kalin 2003: 2).  Even if these themes are distinctive to Bergman’s 27 films, they are not uniquely his and this raises the question of why Bergman was able to give them a powerful form. Two sources of influence seem particularly noteworthy: Bergman’s work in theatre and the theories of Eino Kaila, a Finnish psychologist and philosopher.

In a study of Bergman’s influences, Paisley Livingston has argued that the key influence was not continental existentialist philosophers but the relatively unknown Eino Kaila (Livingston 2009: ch 5). For Livingston it is telling that Bergman, with a single exception, never staged the existentialist playwrights of his time, and himself pointed to his reading of Eino Kaila as a foundational experience (in his script for Smultronstället/Wild Strawberries). Kaila advanced the idea that there is a cost to denying the value of something that is unattainable: while the denial spares one from humiliation and low self-esteem, it carries the cost of having to unjustifiably hold irrational beliefs (Livingston 2009: 130).  In his study, Livingston shows how some of Kaila’s examples of acquiring irrational beliefs are reflected in Bergman’s work, including the collapse of dream and reality, religion’s function as wishful thinking, and the emphasis on spontaneous and ritualistic punishment and humiliation (Livingston 2009: 134-42). In light of Kaila’s tenets regarding self-delusion and awakenings in which one finds one’s self, Livingston’s analysis of Persona (1966) is particularly illuminating.

The question of influence is important in light of Bergman’s status as the embodiment of cinema as personal expression, a director who meshes life and art. Bergman scholar Maaret Koskinen has pointed to the way in which Bergman has become a biographical legend, in large part as a result of his self-presentation in biographies and interviews (Koskinen 2002: 312). In her study of his unpublished, rejected literary work from the 1940s and 1950s, Koskinen points to ways in which he constructed a version of himself in a figure named Joakim Naken. This is consistent with the ways in which his American distributors created an Ingmar Bergman brand; Tino Balio notes that his success with American audiences, according to a Variety reporter at the time, relied on his imaginative work as well as techniques of public relations (Balio 2010: 130-31). Koskinen’s study, in particular, merits attention because it suggests that personal expression need not follow naturally from an inner core: it requires deliberate work. Bergman may have been a master of the art of autobiography, adopting narrative techniques such as a crystallised moment, originary moment and the motif of essence when speaking about his work and life (Staiger 2008: 93-95). This need not detract from our appreciation of Bergman’s films but indicates that Bergman needed to hone his craft before being able to cinematize his life.

A prodigy of the theatre from his early 20s, Ingmar Bergman’s long career as a stage director, including radio plays, from 1938 to 2003, highlights another dimension of his art. As a director he was brilliant in getting the most out of his performers and out of plays at which, in some cases, hundreds of directors had already tried their hand. The instances in which he returns to a play warrant attention since this suggests how his interpretation and grasp of a play is an evolving journey. In particular, he returned to Strindberg’s Ghost Sonata (1941, 1954, 1973, 2000), The Pelican (1940, 1945, 2003) and Dream Play (1970, 1986); Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (1964, 1970, 1979) and Peer Gynt (1957, 1991), Moliere’s Dom Juan (1955, 1965, 1983) and Misanthrope (1957, 1973, 1995); Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1940, 1944, 1948); Euripides’ Bacchae (1991, 1996); and Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author (1953, 1967). Bergman’s interest clearly went beyond the Scandinavians, Ibsen and Strindberg, and suggests, perhaps, an interest in solving the directorial problems posed by both modern and classic conceptions of character, as well as plays with tragic or comic possibilities.

Even if we wish to maintain that Bergman’s inner demons or the resonance with Kaila’s theories of human irrationality play a role, we may still need to assume that he is dependent on finding and developing techniques for transforming his views and demons, not unlike his transformations of classic plays. Scholars have looked towards his experience as a stage director and the ways in which it may have acted as a resource. Of particular interest is his relation to August Strindberg, the Swedish playwright. Marilyn Johns Blackwell has studied the ways in which Bergman’s chamber films from the early 1960s draw on character constellations from Strindberg’s chamber plays. She argues that he draws on Strindberg’s contrast between characters who “use words to insulate themselves against an unpleasant truth” and “variations on the ‘Sunday child,’ that individual who is capable of perceiving supernatural phenomena, of divining the truth, and of stripping away the facades of lies and deceits that other characters encase themselves in” (Blackwell 1981: 51). In particular, she notes that:

The Stranger in Brända tomten, The Student in Spöksonaten, and, to a certain extent, Frederick in Pelikanen are such Sunday children and function, as do Karin, Märta, and Johan in [Bergman’s Såsom i en spegel, Nattvärdsgästarne, and Tystnaden], to excoriate layers of lies and falsehoods and intellectual and social pretensions that surround their fellow man. (Blackwell 1981: 51)

She notes that Bergman relies on hands to convey his characters’ nonverbal commitment and withdrawal, and points out that both of them applied an analogy between their limited set of characters and chamber music’s limited set of instruments (Blackwell 1981: 55, 64).

The Strindberg influence may also have come in the form of a template, or what Gerard Genette, the literary theorist, calls a transposition. In a transposition, a work of art is taken as a model or template and then disregarded as elements attain a life of their own in a new work (Genette 1997: 27). This is an accurate description of the relation between Bergman’s Persona (1966) and Strindberg’s Den starkare (The Stronger, 1889) in which two women, only one of them speaking, enter a struggle for power as it turns out that the silent woman has come to control the life of the speaking woman. The speaking part in The Stronger, called Mrs X, accuses the silent part, called Miss Y, of taking over her life the way a worm eats an apple from the inside, leaving only an empty shell. Since Bergman was very familiar with Strindberg’s work and both play and film share an extraordinary and powerful non-speaking part, it is hard to imagine that the similarity is a contingency; more likely The Stronger acted as a template for Persona. Susan Sontag is, to my knowledge, the first critic to identify the likeness between these two works (Sontag 1969: 143-44), but many Bergman scholars have since pursued the link to Strindberg and his career as a stage director (see, for example, Törnqvist 1973; Törnqvist 1995; Johns 1979; Koskinen 2001).

In the focus on the distinctiveness of Bergman’s recurrent themes and his sources of inspiration and influence, we may have lost track of his basic craft as a director in staging performers and separating a scene into a series of shots. Naturally, critics have paid adequate attention to his reliance on close-ups. Thus, Birgitta Steene has likened the way Bergman uses close-ups to reveal interior conflicts during line delivery to Shakespeare’s use of metaphorical and poetic language in soliloquys (Steene 1968: 68). Similarly, with respect to the same close-ups, Diane Borden has argued that “the motion of ‘motion’ picture is retarded in Bergman’s world, generating a stillness in time and an isolation in space" (Borden 1977: 42). Borden likens Bergman’s close-ups to icons in religious art for the same reason.

What I wish to look for in the following, taking into account the six films that Bergman directed in the 1940s on the basis of adapted material or someone else’s script, in addition to the comedies that he committed to before an international breakthrough gave him a free hand in the late 1950s, is how he found ways of departing from a traditional way of building dialogue scenes. Even if Bergman was influenced by Strindberg and Kaila, he would still need to develop his own techniques in order to give his themes a powerful form.

Craft and Style in Building Scenes

Bergman’s cinematic model, as a means of personal expression, is powerful and we easily forget that he had to learn a craft and overcome industrial constraints and language barriers. A consideration of the films he made over a span of six decades suggests that he was still learning his craft in the 1940s while his 1950s films demonstrate an ability to move across genres such as comedies, youth films and historical epics with ease and a command of filmic forms.

One way to see how he developed as a filmmaker is to look for influences from other films in how he composed the dramatic material. En lektion i kärlek (A Lesson of Love, 1954) and Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), in a contemporary and historical setting, respectively, and with Eva Dahlbeck and Gunnar Bjørnstrand in the leading parts, may have been inspired by a Hollywood subgenre but Dahlbeck and Bjørnstrand may rival the likes of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. These are comedies that centre on a kind of remarriage that enabled a story of adultery that was otherwise regulated against in Hollywood (Cavell 1981, see also Orr 2008). With Bergman in charge of both script and direction, he builds scenes that suggest his cynical views of love and how it leads to an uneven distribution of power. In a scene from Smiles of a Summer Night, two women exchange views on their husbands’ infidelities; Charlotte (Margit Carlqvist) moves from anger and disgust at men’s hairiness and vanity and self-loathing to declaring that she continues to love her husband and would do anything for him. Bergman puts Carlqvist in the foreground of a two-shot (figure 1), in a close-up and with her glancing towards the camera, not her listener, in a way that forebodes a frequent set-up for dialogue in his 1960s work (for more detail, see Riis 2017).

Figure 1. Charlotte (Margit Carlqvist), foreground, expresses her love and hate for her husband to Anne (Ulla Jacobsson), in 'Sommarnattens leende'.

Unsurprisingly, in his 1940s work, we find films that are unremarkable and mediocre in his treatment of the material. In Kris (Crisis, 1945), his first film as a director, Bergman appears to lack the skills necessary for a shot-based composition of dialogue scenes, for instance cutting across eye-lines, in a way that puts the spectators close to the action. According to Bergman’s autobiography Crisis was jeopardized by his cinematographer’s lack of experience in lighting interior scenes (quoted in Ingmar Bergman Foundation). Bergman was a successful stage director at this point, having attracted audiences as well as state support to his theatre in Helsingborg, but naturally this does not guarantee a mastery of filmmaking, in part because of his dependency on collaborators. His portrayal of musicians’ romantic difficulties in Till glädje (To Joy, 1950), based on his own original script, is similarly unimpressive. His treatment of an artist’s insecurities lacks the cynical view of human motives that renders, only a few years later, Gycklarnas afton (Sawdust and Tinsel, 1953) such a powerful representation of performers whose love life is intricately mixed with power struggles and regular experiences of humiliation. To Joy is conventional in terms of how he builds his scenes and, unsurprisingly, contemporary critics were not pleased. A critic from the Swedish daily Aftontidningen suggested that Bergman should stop writing his own scripts altogether and Harry Schein, an influential critic, noticed a clichéd dialogue and heavy-handed treatment of scenes that he called tendentious realism (quoted in Ingmar Bergman Foundation).

Interestingly, some of Bergman’s favoured themes are also present in his early films even though they come in a distinctly different form in comparison to his later cinema. A striking difference is that working-class lives populate his 1940s films whereas, later, middle-class professionals and artists make up the vast majority. The problem of a son who suffers from feelings of inferiority and a dominating father’s lack of love is central to Saraband (2003), Bergman's last work as a director, as well as his second, Skepp till Indialand (A Ship to India, 1947), but in this early film, in place of an arts professor and musician, we find sailors. Bergman would use a harbour for Hamnstad (Port of Call, 1948), the next year, featuring a suicidal character, not unlike Marcel Carné’s Hotel du Nord (1938), and was clearly attracted to the drama of working-class lives and miserable social conditions. As a source of inspiration, Bergman points to how he watched French films when nineteen and twenty years of age, and how “most of all I liked Quai des brumes.“ (Simon 1972: 20). A Ship to India, due to its setting and play of light and shadow, is reminiscent of Marcel Carné’s Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows, 1938) as well as Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934).

In Bergman’s own view, as expressed in a lengthy interview with John Simon, he views himself as part of a tradition that encompasses Swedish theatre as well as filmmakers such as Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller, in addition to the French directors of the 1930s, likening his relation to tradition to that of bricks in a building: “We are like stones on a building, all of us. We all depend on the people coming before; I am just a part of this” (Simon 1972: 19). Perhaps his stylistic debt to French filmmakers of the 1930s is revealing of how his themes can fit into different stylistic schemes. About the French films of the 1930s, the influential critic André Bazin once noted that ”even if there wasn't exactly a genre, there was a style, the realist film noir,” a term that recognizes chiaroscuro lighting and bleak realism; equally relevant for our consideration of Bergman is Bazin’s claim that realist film noir had existentialist underpinnings (quoted in Naremore 1998: 17).

Bergman was not only deploying narrative templates and stylistic options that were already in place, he was also an innovator who found new ways of building scenes and employing actors. Borden and Steene’s suggestions about a particular way of letting actors deliver their lines as though they are isolated in time and space — not unlike a soliloquy — is a helpful point of departure. I wish to examine here the extent to which Bergman developed techniques for staging dialogue scenes in a way that takes them beyond a naturalist conception. A naturalist conception entails, here, the idea that characters are in a self-contained world and face each other in a dialogue, neither the camera nor the audience; it further entails the idea of dialogue as an exchange of to-and-fro, almost a battle, with subtexts.

Left: Figure 2. Cecilia (Ingrid Thulin) addresses the bleak prospects of life, in 'Nära livet'. Right: Figure 3. Greta (Inga Landgré) listens to Cecilia’s expression of angst, in 'Nära livet'.

A scene from Nära Livet (Brink of Life, 1958) shows how staging techniques, suited for a naturalist conception of character, can actually impede a scene in which characters speak their minds directly in order to convey their insecurities and vulnerabilities.  Ingrid Thulin plays Cecilia, one of three women at a maternity ward who experience complications as well as marital problems. In a scene towards the end, her sister-in-law (Inga Landgré) comes to visit and Cecilia conveys her disillusionment with marriage, suggesting that we can only try so much, including having babies, to keep our fears at bay. She notes that women like her are too independently minded for a constraining marriage yet too weak to break out for fear of what life in solitude might look like. The dialogue, in other words, changes the nature of the situation since Cecilia speaks her mind and attends to the bleak implications, not the response of her sister-in-law, and Ingrid Thulin conveys an attentional shift by glancing downwards and sideways as she delivers her lines (figure 2). Inga Landgré similarly shifts her glance away from Thulin when responding to the image of marriage as bleak and endured because of one’s fear of loneliness (figure 3). Arguably, Bergman’s camera set-up, a conventional form of shot/reverse shot, guides the spectator in a way that is inadequate to the introverted tone of the dialogue. Thulin delivers her lines a manner that calls for an extended focus on her, as she develops and responds in a moment of introversion, yet the shot/reverse editing suggests a to-and-fro, as though Cecilia is part of naturalist battle with her sister-in-law.

Left: Figure 4. Karin (Harriet Andersson) confides in her brother, Minus (Lars Passgård) how she has visions in which spiders come out of the walls, in 'Såsom i en spegel'. Right: Figure 5. Tomas (Gunnar Bjørnstrand) can confide to his admirer and lover, Märta (Ingrid Thulin), telling her about his failures, in 'Nattvardsgästarna'.

In contrast, in a number of similar scenes from his chamber films, Bergman puts his actors in a two-shot when they deliver lines with an existential theme. Rather than facing each other, characters both glance towards the camera during an intimate and confidential scene. In Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Karin (Harriet Andersson) confides in her brother (Lars Passgård) how she has visions in which spiders come out of the walls; she can relay her experience to him for an extended time, without having to check how he responds (figure 4). Similarly, the pastor (Gunnar Bjørnstrand) in Winter Light (1963) can confide in his admirer and lover (Ingrid Thulin), telling her about his experience of failing to comfort someone seeking his advice; again speaking as though he is in a soliloquy (figure 5). The younger sister (Gunnel Lindblom) in The Silence (1963) can express her deep-seated anger and grievances at her older sister (Ingrid Thulin), while the latter is a passive receiver, at least until the roles are reversed. Once Bergman discovered this kind of frontal staging of two characters, he need not always rely on a two-shot. In Persona (1966), in a close-up, the doctor (Margaretha Krook) can express her disillusionment with life and how suicide is an unattractive alternative (figure 6), while her patient (Liv Ullman) listens silently in a separate shot. Ullman’s spatial position is undefined relative to Krook’s position, yet spatially anchored in the scene by staging her against a wall. What should interest us, in this particular context, is the staging and character motivations that Bergman imaginatively comes up with in order to give actors a space in which they can deliver vulnerable and intimate lines without imposing a to-and-fro movement during the exchange. In Winter Light, Märta addresses the camera while the pastor listens passively, except that he has received the letter that she now enacts as though it was a soliloquy (figure 7). While this is exceptionally original in its conception, other variations alter the distance between characters or who is at the front. In for example The Silence, the elder sister (Ingrid Thulin) can be positioned at the back and much closer than a previous scene, as she confides how she feels humiliated by her sister’s sexual adventures (figure 8).

Left: Figure 6. The Doctor (Margaretha Krook) expresses her disillusionment in life while her patient, Elisabeth listens offscreen, similarly positioned against the wall, in 'Persona'. Right: Figure 7. Märta addresses the camera while Tomas listens to her, in a separate shot, in a different scene, in what is perhaps a flashback or his imagination as he reads the letter, in 'Nattvardsgästarna'.
Figure 8. Ester (Ingrid Thulin), background, confides to her sister, Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) about how she feels humiliated by Anna’s erotic adventures, in 'Tystnaden'.

If we compare these scenes to the scene from Brink of Life (1958), and consider how the latter might have benefitted from a similar staging and camera set-up, given the nature of the dialogue, it becomes clear that Bergman developed this technique in a systematic way. He conceived of the content of lines, character relations and the audience’s position, via the camera, as parts of an integral whole. By themselves, these lines resemble a soliloquy in content, but rather than trying to hide this, he positions the spectator close enough to the speaker in order to influence the spectator to sit quietly and listen, struck by the intimacy with and vulnerability of the speaker. Arguably, it is unnatural to confide in someone and turn away from them, but Bergman leaves little space for the spectator to look for what is unnatural since the speaker’s innermost feelings demands the spectator’s attention.

In searching for Bergman’s stepping-stones towards this technique, two scenes may perhaps be considered precursors, albeit not applied as part of a system. One is the scene from Smiles of a Summer Night, mentioned above where Charlotte (Margit Carlqvist) expresses her hatred and love for her husband, and her own self-loathing, while Anne (Ulla Jacobsson) listens in the back (see, again, figure 1). Another precursor is from The Seventh Seal (1957) in which Max von Sydow delivers the lines of Antonius Block, the knight and crusader, as though he is making a grand speech. Even when he is part of an ordinary interaction, such as a shared meal, he will suddenly reflect upon the situation, appraising its existential meaning and setting his character apart from the rest by the sheer weight of his concerns (figure 9). In neither of these films is this staging technique used systematically for multiple characters at emotional high points, whereas Bergman would later, especially in his chamber films, build scripts and scenes around the aesthetic potential of his technique for staging introverted moments.

Left: Figure 9. The knight and crusader, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) is making a speech in a form that resembles a soliloquy, in 'Det sjunde inseglet'. Right: Figure 10. The naturalist décor in one of August Falck’s performances of a play by August Strindberg, the playwright and Falck’s co-founder of Intima Teater, 1907-1912.

We should consider this a chamber film aesthetic since Bergman builds upon some of the norms of Strindberg’s chamber plays. Strindberg first wrote his chamber plays for a small theatre, Intima Teatern in Stockholm, a small stage with a small number of seats (6 metres by 9 metres in size, with 160 seats). He was influenced by Japanese acting schools as well as placing the art direction somewhere between symbolism and realism; in a letter to one of his actresses, he underlined the need to speak slowly, in legato, while avoiding unnecessary gestures and stage business such as props (Marker and Marker 1996: 200). Some of Strindberg’s instructions in a letter to August Falck, the manager of Intima Teatern, also chime with Ingmar Bergman’s stylistic innovations:

With simplicity one wins the solemn calm and quiet in which the artist can hear his own part. With simple decor the really important points become evident: the personality, the part itself, the speech, the action, and the facial expressions. (quoted in Marker and Marker 1996: 216).

When comparing Bergman’s chamber film techniques for dialogues with the naturalist conception of décor in one of August Falck’s performances of a chamber play at the Intimate Theatre (figure 10), one is not hard pressed to imagine how Strindberg’s instructions about simplicity and solemn calm are better achieved in Bergman’s techniques for staging line delivery.


When Bergman set out as a filmmaker, Hollywood cinema had already found a shot-based way of constructing scenes. This included the use of establishing shots that would make the spectator aware of spatial relations before cutting across eye-lines during an exchange, thus guiding the spectator to look for reactions given off by the speaker or listener, effectively attuning the spectator to the subtext of lines. The drawback, perhaps, to this formula of building a scene is that actors, directors and scriptwriters are invited to think of dialogue and the exchange of verbal information in terms of a battle, a back and forth. If Bergman wanted to his actors to deliver a series of lines in order to develop a thought and express how they feel, the conventional technique would put too much emphasis on the listener.

Bergman’s stylistic innovations allowed him to conceive of characters and dialogue in a non-naturalist manner, moving beyond the model in which one actor’s response feeds into the other’s delivery. There is not only a communicative dimension to his approach, as the spectator is moved closer to a vulnerable speaker; there is also an artistic dimension in which the actor can deliver lines without having a listener in his or her visual field, thus permitting the actor to concentrate on the verbal content of the lines. In effect, performances, lines and staging work as integral parts of a whole that conveys the lines’ meaning for the speaker during a vulnerable moment rather than their implications for on-going character relations.

Interestingly, we may view this as a continuation of Strindberg’s aesthetic norms. The “Bergman close-up” that Diane Borden views as a technique for taking characters out of the narrative progression and inserting them into a realm of spatial and temporal isolation, almost like a religious icon, may be viewed as Bergman’s stylistic development of Strindberg’s aesthetic norms. His style of mise-en-scène enabled him to build climactic scenes without any reliance on conventional reverse-shots and achieve a space for enunciation that constituted, in Strindberg’s words, “the solemn calm and quiet in which the artist can hear his own part.”

The New York Times’ obituary of Bergman (4 August 2007) is titled “Scenes from an Overrated Career.” Aside from the spin on the title of Bergman’s 1973 television series, Scenes From a Marriage, the author argues that Bergman is in a minor league compared to directors such as Robert Bresson and Carl Th. Dreyer. Arguably, this appraisal presupposes the norms of auteurism in which the critic is supposed to look for consistency of theme and style; I have argued here that an equally fruitful approach may look for variations and developments. Once we take Bergman’s productivity into account, asking for too much consistency comes at the risk of repetitiveness and the lack of variations that we can find plenty of in Bergman’s work. The marriage of style and material need not always be as fortuitous as, for example, Persona or Smiles of a Summer Night, but it does not detract from their value that Bergman also directed less successful films.


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Suggested citation

Riis, Johannes (2019), Notes on Ingmar Bergman’s Stylistic Development and Technique for Staging Dialogue. Kosmorama #275 (

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