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Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman passes away

Ingmar Bergman, whose film Fanny and Alexander won an Oscar for best foreign film was widely regarded as one of the great masters of modern cinema.

entertainment Updated: Jul 31, 2007 13:09 IST

Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman, widely regarded as one of the great masters of modern cinema, died on Monday, the president of the director's foundation said. He was 89. Reaction from London, Paris and Copenhagen - where a Bergman acolyte, director Bille August, compared him to Akira Kurosawa and Federico Fellini - underscored the international influence of the man who directed Fanny and Alexander and Scenes From a Marriage.

Woody Allen, who once called Bergman "the greatest film artist" since the motion picture camera was invented, expressed his sorrow on Monday.

"He was a friend and certainly the finest film director of my lifetime," the Web version of Swedish daily Aftonbladet quoted Allen as saying.

Bergman died at his home on the Baltic islet of Faro, north of the tourist island of Gotland, Sweden, his daughter Eva Bergman, one of his nine children, told TT news agency. A cause of death was not immediately available.

Bergman, whose 1982 film Fanny and Alexander won an Oscar for best foreign film, made about 60 movies before retiring from film making in 2003.

In his films, Bergman's vision encompassed all the extremes of his beloved Sweden: the claustrophobic gloom of unending winter nights, the gentle merriment of glowing summer evenings and the bleak magnificence of the island where he spent his last years. Bergman approached difficult subjects such as plague and madness with inventive technique and carefully honed writing, becoming one of the towering figures of serious film making.

"He was one of the world's biggest personalities. There were (Japanese film director Akira) Kurosawa, (Italy's Federico) Fellini and then Bergman. Now he is also gone," August, an Academy Award winner, told The Associated Press. "It is a great loss. I am in shock."

In the 1990s, August was considered Scandinavia's heir after Bergman. "That is nonsense. There can only be one Ingmar Bergman." French cinema specialist Laurent Delmas said France's national cinema school required aspiring students to analyze a 5-minute extract from a Bergman film as part of last year's entrance exams. "There is not a serious French director out there who has not watched Bergman and taken elements - consciously or unconsciously - from him," Delmas said. "They watched Bergman not to ape him but because there were blown away by the essential subjects of his films - death, relationships - by his stories and the way he filmed them."

Cannes Film Festival director Gilles Jacob called Bergman the "last of the greats, because he proved that cinema can be as profound as literature."

Bergman first gained international attention with 1955's Smiles of a Summer Night, a romantic comedy that inspired the Stephen Sondheim musical A Little Night Music. His last work was Saraband, a made-for-television movie that aired on Swedish public television in December 2003.

Nearly a million Swedes - or one in nine - watched the family drama, which was based on the two main characters from his previous TV series, Scenes From a Marriage.

The show starred Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson - two of Bergman's favorite actors - who reprised their roles from

Scenes From a Marriage

, which was edited and released as a feature film in 1974.

Ullmann, a Norwegian actress and director with an international career, may be best known for her roles in nine Bergman films. She and the director also had a five-year affair, and a daughter.

Swedish actor Max von Sydow, another performer closely associated with Bergman, appeared in 1957's The Seventh Seal, which riveted critics and audiences. An allegorical tale of the medieval Black Plague years, it contains one of cinema's most famous scenes - a knight playing chess with the shrouded figure of Death. "I was terribly scared of death," Bergman said of his state of mind when making the film, which was nominated for an Academy Award in the best picture category.

The film distilled the essence of Bergman's work - high seriousness, flashes of unexpected humour and striking images. Though best known internationally for his films, Bergman was also a prominent stage director.

He worked at several playhouses in Sweden from the mid-1940s, including the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm which he headed from 1963 to 1966. He staged many plays by the Swedish author August Strindberg, whom he cited as an inspiration.

The influence of Strindberg's gruelling and precise psychological dissections could be seen in the production that brought Bergman an even-wider audience: 1973's Scenes From a Marriage. First produced as a six-part series for television, then released in a theater version, it is an intense detailing of the disintegration of a marriage.

Bergman showed his lighter side in the following year's The Magic Flute, again first produced for TV. It is a fairly straight production of the Mozart opera, enlivened by touches such as repeatedly showing the face of a young girl watching the opera and comically clumsy props and costumes.

Bergman remained active later in life with stage productions and occasional TV shows. He said he still felt a need to direct, although he had no plans to make another feature film. In the fall of 2002, Bergman, at age 84, started production on Saraband, a 120-minute television movie based on the two main characters in Scenes From a Marriage.

In a rare news conference, the reclusive director said he wrote the story after realizing he was "pregnant with a play." "At first I felt sick, very sick. It was strange. Like Abraham and Sarah, who suddenly realized she was pregnant," he said, referring to biblical characters. "It was lots of fun, suddenly to feel this urge returning."

The son of a Lutheran clergyman and a housewife, Ernst Ingmar Bergman was born in Uppsala on July 14, 1918, and grew up with a brother and sister in a household of severe discipline that he described in painful detail in the autobiography The Magic Lantern.

The title comes from his childhood, when his brother got a "magic lantern" - a precursor of the slide-projector - for Christmas. Ingmar was consumed with jealousy, and he managed to acquire the object of his desire by trading it for a hundred tin soldiers.

The apparatus was a spot of joy in an often-cruel young life. Bergman recounted the horror of being locked in a closet and the humiliation of being made to wear a skirt as punishment for wetting his pants.

He broke with his parents at 19 and remained aloof from them, but later in life sought to understand them. The story of their lives was told in the television film Sunday's Child, directed by his own son Daniel.

The director said he had coped with the authoritarian environment of his childhood by living in a world of fantasies. When he first saw a movie he was greatly moved.

"Sixty years have passed, nothing has changed, it's still the same fever," he wrote of his passion for film in the 1987 autobiography.

But he said the escape into another world went so far that it took him years to tell reality from fantasy, and Bergman repeatedly described his life as a constant fight against demons, also reflected in his work.

The demons sometimes drove him to great art - as in Cries and Whispers, the deathbed drama that climaxes when the dying woman cries "I am dead, but I can't leave you." The film was nominated for an Academy Award in the best picture category in 1973. Sometimes the demons drove him over the top, as in Hour of the Wolf, where a nightmare-plagued artist meets real-life demons on a lonely island.

First Published: Jul 31, 2007 12:19 IST