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In a career spanning 60 years and more than 40 films, Ingmar Bergman, who died on Monday aged 89, established himself as one of the greatest European filmmakers of all time. No writer-director has made a more eloquent case for cinema as the home of tragic drama in the modern age.

Bergman’s parallel career as a theatre director made him familiar with stage tragedy from Shakespeare to Strindberg. For his films he took the essence of that tradition – the flaws of character that combine with fate’s machinery to bring about human downfall – and modernised it for the age of agnosticism, psychoanalysis and fear of planetary doomsday.

In Wild Strawberries, Through A Glass Darkly and Persona, themes of religious loss merge with the keener intimism of private grief or neurosis. In The Silence and The Shame there are hints of apocalyptic warfare, enlarging the landscapes in which individuals struggle or suffer.

In his interviews and written memoirs, Bergman never disguised the personal origins of his screen dramas. He was born in 1918 in Uppsala, Sweden, and his upbringing was stern Lutheran – his father was a pastor – and marked by punishments that seem quintessentially Bergmanesque. (His most vivid memory was of being locked for hours in a dark closet.)

His early love of stagecraft and make-believe was fostered by a toy theatre he made at the age of nine. At 10 he owned his first projector: an aunt’s gift to his elder brother, who traded it with the envious Ingmar for half the younger boy’s toy soldiers. The excitement of these childhood film shows is depicted in his great Fanny and Alexander.

Bergman began producing plays at the University of Stockholm, where he studied art and literature. After graduating, he became a trainee director at a Stockholm theatre. Already he was writing plays, stories and novels, mostly unperformed and unpublished.

His first film job came in 1941, when he began working as a “script doctor”, revising others’ screenplays. In 1944 he wrote his first original script for a film, Alf Sjoberg’s Frenzy, and the next year made his directing debut with Crisis.

Bergman’s early films were tormented in tone but realistic in style, influenced by the downbeat modernism of American film noir. His first film recognisable as Bergmanesque in style and theme was Prison (1949), rife with questionings about life and death.

Metaphysical motifs continued to infiltrate his early naturalism, even in three 1950s comedies with determinedly sunny titles: Summer Interlude, Summer with Monika and Smiles of a Summer Night. But first in Sawdust and Tinsel, next in The Seventh Seal, the Bergman of anguished symbolism broke through. The Seventh Seal, though far from his best film, may be Bergman’s best known: its chess-playing figure of Death and plague-torn medieval setting sum up the popular image of the tortured Swede.

His strength as a filmmaker began to define itself with Wild Strawberries (1957) and The Face (1958). It was fully focused by the 1960s and early 1970s, notably in Through A Glass Darkly, The Silence, Persona and Cries and Whispers. Bergman was at his best refracting a harshly luminous worldview through a central character or pair of characters.

From the old professor in Wild Strawberries, played by the veteran Swedish filmmaker Victor Sjostrom, who had been the young Bergman’s mentor, to the haunted nurse and patient of Persona (mirror images of each other’s pain), Bergman saw his heroes and heroines as media through which life could be filtered and inflected. Harnessed to character, the vast Bergman questions – God’s existence, the shadow-line between madness and sanity, the symbiosis of love and hate in human passion, the meaning of art – were given human particularity and emotional immediacy.

Much of this was achieved by Bergman’s remarkable repertory troupe of actors, some regular collaborators from theatre, others screen “discoveries”. For stars such as Liv Ullmann and Max Von Sydow, working for Bergman led to international careers. Though the director’s star-making talent was never geared to glamorising his players, he used the camera to amplify the truths of face and voice into a radiance that was powerful and appealing.

Critics and filmgoers have overstated the tormented aspects of Bergman’s work while undervaluing its elements of joy or comedy. Much of The Shame, his 1968 war parable, is pure black comedy. Hour of the Wolf, made the same year, is a mischievous Gothic fantasy that incorporates a loving tribute to Mozart’s Magic Flute (which Bergman later filmed). Fanny and Alexander (1982) is in part a picture-book growing-up tale out of Dickens by Hans Christian Andersen; in part a glowing, all-colour family idyll. This, his last film for the large screen, was the perfect climax to his career.

Bergman was married five times and fathered eight children. His first four marriages ended in divorce. His last and longest was to Ingrid von Rosen, who died in 1995.

There was a late directing coda in Saraband (2003), a sequel to Scenes from a Marriage written for television but widely shown in cinemas. Before that he wrote original screenplays for three acclaimed films directed by others (though the directors were all approved by Bergman). Bille August guided Best Intentions (1992) to a Cannes Golden Palm. Bergman’s son Daniel directed Sunday’s Children (1992). Ullmann directed Faithless (2000).

Away from feature filmmaking, Bergman continued with his stage work. Many of his best-known productions for Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theatre – Strindberg’s Miss Julie and A Dream Play, Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, Shakespeare’s Hamlet – travelled abroad or were recast for foreign audiences. Bergman brought the same values to classic theatre texts as to his own screenplays. Character was ruthlessly analysed, all false decoration thrown out.

The wonder was that Bergman’s scarifying honesty never left audiences with feelings of dismay or despair. Even at its most gloomy, Bergman’s work could suggest a sage, wry detachment. When he published his autobiography, it was the portrait of a man at peace with his torments and his sometimes violent manifestations of artistic temperament. In his mixture of wit and passion, rage and wisdom, Bergman the filmmaker created what may prove the most lasting body of dramatic work to emerge from the 20th century.

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