Ingmar Bergman's Film Techniques

By Peter Forsythe
Ingmar Bergman is known for his classic films of existential dread and dreamlike cinematography.

Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish filmmaker responsible for such landmark films as "The Seventh Seal" and "Wild Strawberries," was perhaps best known, according to "Time" magazine, as Woody Allen's favorite director. However, Bergman is largely credited with bringing high-art film styles to a wider audience in the 1950s, '60s and beyond. Key to his films was a pervasive, distinctive style, with film techniques grounded in stylistic movements of the period as well as innovative devices used to communicate his existential themes.

Neo-Realism

Between 1944 and 1953, the early Bergman films ("Torment," "Crisis" and "Summer Interlude") reflect the techniques and style of Italian neo-realist filmmakers, such as Roberto Rossellini and Michelangelo Antonioni. While there is a broad, dynamic definition for this genre of filmmaking, it's most easily characterized by such elements as on-location shooting (as opposed to a set) and the use of real people instead of professional actors. For Bergman, "recollection" was an important stylistic device of this period, wherein depictions of characters' pasts have direct influence on the film's narrative.

German Expressionism

Later in his career, Bergman adopted stylistic techniques which were more directly expressive of his subjects' tumultuous psyche. He appropriated elements of German Expressionist style to communicate, as Woody Allen put it, "erotic sadomasochistic undertones" with "poetic black-and-white photography." This 'metaphysical' period from 1956 to1964 produced the films Bergman is best known for today ("The Seventh Seal" among them). Bergman portrayed existential dread through images of barren landscapes and, in the case of "Wild Strawberries," a clock with no hands. In an essay for the "New York Times," Stephen Holden argues Bergman, more than any of his peers, was most closely in touch with the "intellectual currents of his day," notably Sartre and Freud.

Cinematography

Stephen Holden described the look of many Bergman films as emanating "chilly winter light... from a sun low on the horizon," providing a sense of "time rushing by and of dark shadows gathering." This technique was thematically in touch with the content of his films', especially their religious dread. As Holden notes, "looking for the Sun" in a Bergman film "is tantamount to searching for God." Bergman also allowed his lens to wander, something Woody Allen described as an "original, hypnotic camera style" that lent a "dreamlike" quality to his narratives.

Shot Composition

Durring Bergman's metaphysical period, a style the Ingmar Bergman Foundation came to call his defining technique began to take shape: "the uncompromising use of the close-up." This shot framing features a singular subject under close scrutiny dominating the entire screen. The close-up is often used for characters' faces or objects of thematic importance. Woody Allen argued this preponderance of use had never been done in cinema before. In an interview with "Time" magazine, Allen said, "He'd put the camera on one person's face close and leave it there, and just leave it there and leave it there. It was the opposite of what you learned to do in film school, but it was enormously effective and entertaining."

About the Author

Peter Forsythe has been writing about arts and entertainment since 2001. His work has been published in "The Oklahoma Daily," "The Norman Transcript," "The Edmond Sun" and "The Scene" magazine. In 2007 Forsythe received the C. Clay Withrow Award for screenwriting from the Film and Video Studies program at the University of Oklahoma. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism.