Bergman fell in love with the first play he ever saw, as a little boy, and he remained faithful to his first love. Many of his most memorable movies have theatrical settings or are built around performers. Fanny and Alexander is about a family of thespians. The heroine of Smiles of the Summer Night (my personal favorite among Bergman’s pictures), played by the exquisite Eva Dahlbeck, is an famous actress whom we first see rendering, with impressive skill, a scene from an 18th-century comedy of manners. The Naked Night and The Serpent’s Egg feature circus performers; The Magician is about a mesmerist. In Summer Interlude, Maj-Britt Nilsson plays a novice ballerina who buries herself in her work when her lover is drowned, and a dancer is the protagonist in one of the three linked stories that make up Three Strange Loves. Persona’s Liv Ullmann is an actress who stops speaking during a performance and can’t or won’t start again. The couple whose crumbling marriage is linked metaphorically to the possible end of the world in Shame (perhaps Bergman’s least-known masterpiece) are musicians in a local orchestra, and Ingrid Bergman — no relation — plays a world-famous concert pianist in Autumn Sonata. Moreover, Bergman quotes his favorite playwrights over and over again, none more fervently than his countryman August Strindberg, whose poisoned sexual relationships echo through Bergman’s most bitter depictions of marriage (Shame, Scenes from a Marriage) but who pops up in less obvious ways, too. Strindberg’s A Dream Play is referred to repeatedly in Fanny and Alexander (it’s even quoted directly), and Persona, which is mostly a two-hander for Ullmann and Bibi Andersson, derives from a Strindberg one-act called The Stronger in which two women, one of them silent, struggle for power.
If you put aside the infinite variety of pleasures afforded by his Magic Flute, Bergman’s greatest gift to movies was his work with actors. As I reflect back on his movies in the wake of his death, most of the moments I call up are indelible acting moments. Think of the way Dahlbeck, ever so gently, her voice ringed with regret, leaning toward the heartsick young lover (Björn Bjelvenstam), suggests that he might try to laugh at the follies of the grown-ups around the dinner table. Or the counterpoint, in Shame, when Ullmann, forced to sleep with an official to keep herself and her husband (von Sydow) out of jail as collaborators, comes across von Sydow weeping on the stairs and, her face hollowed out, tells him to go ahead and cry if he thinks it will help. Think of Allan Edwall delivering the dying actor/director’s Christmas speech to his company in Fanny and Alexander, or the face of the old man in Wild Strawberries (played by another great Swedish filmmaker, Victor Sjöström) as, Scrooge-like, he watches the mistakes of his youth played out before his eyes. Some of the early Bergmans, which his fans don’t know as well, contain some of the finest example of naturalistic acting by young actors in the post-World War II era — between Nine-Christine Jonsson and Bengt Eklund as the sailor who saves her from drowning and goes home with her in Port of Call, between Harriet Andersson and Lars Ekborg as the couple in Monika who tumble from romance into workaday despair when they marry and have a baby, between Britt-Nilsson and Birger Malmsten in the idyllic early scenes of Summer Interlude, in one of which he tells her he feels as if they were inside a soap bubble. (It bursts when he dies and her emotional life almost ends.)