Tag: Bibi Andersson

The Magician (1958)

The Magician (1958)

Illusion, faith and rationalism are all explored in Bergman’s fascinating musing on performance

Director: Ingmar Bergman

Cast: Max von Sydow (Albert Emanuel Vogler), Ingrid Thulin (Aman/Manda Vogler), Gunnar Björnstrand (Dr. Vergerus), Naima Wifstrand (Granny Vogler), Bengt Ekerot (Johan Spegel), Bibi Andersson (Sara), Birgitta Pettersson (Sanna), Gertrud Fridh (Ottilia Egerman), Lars Ekborg (Simson), Toivo Pawlo (Police Superintendent Starbeck), Erland Josephson (Consul Egerman), Åke Fridell (Tubal), Sif Ruud (Sofia Garp), Oscar Ljung (Antonsson), Ulla Sjöblom (Henrietta Starbeck), Axel Düberg (Rustan)

He who tells the truth may be the greatest liar. So thinks Mr Aman (Ingrid Thulin), in the carriage carrying him and the rest of Albert Emmanuel Volger’s Magnetic Health Theatre to a performance in a village in nineteenth-century Sweden. It’s fitting for Aman to thinking about it, since he’s actually Vogler’s wife Manda. The mute Vogler (Max von Sydow) claims powers of healing and mesmerism. But perhaps he’s making it up? If we peek behind the curtain, what is the truth?

Peeking behind the curtain is exactly what their clients want to do. The troupe is due to perform before a trio of rationalists, practically falling over themselves to debunk every step Vogler takes. Dr Vergerus (Gunnar Björnstrand) is a chilly health official who only believes what his own hands touch. Consul Egerman (Erland Josephson) wants to prove it’s rubbish to his wife Ottila (Gertrude Fridh), while Police Superintendent Starbeck (Tovio Pawlo) is a swaggering bully who just likes making people feel small. But can the imperious Vogler turn the tables on these would-be myth busters?

Bergman first struck upon the idea for The Magician after observing how much audiences at the theatre wanted to go backstage and meet the actors – and how they were invariably disappointed when they did at how everyday it was. Based on a GK Chesterton play, The Magician is a multi-layered musing on the relationship between performance and viewing, and the conflict between rationalism and faith. At heart it sympathises with the plight of the performer, presenting their work to an unsympathetic, uninterested, unengaged and unimpressed audience.

The theatre troupe look all sorts of glamourous, with the eccentric costumes and their intriguingly unknowable personae. They offer a carnival of the weird and wonderful that fascinates the rationalists, in spite of how much they want to debunk it. But, as they strip down the acts, they find plainer, simpler, less mysterious people below. Despite their eagerness to know how the trick is done, they are disappointed to find out. They barely watch the acts, or listen to the skill of the performers, because they are focused on unpicking the minutia and detail (Bergman having a pop at pretentious critical writing like the material here perhaps?).

Our rationalists are, to a man, an unpleasant, smug and often insufferable bunch. They have a clear world view and anything unscientific doesn’t fit in it: even God is “totally out of date”. Tovio Pawlo’s Starbeck is a crude, jumped-up bully, who feels barely more than a step or two higher up the social pyramid than Vogler. Egerman (a wonderfully nervy and insecure Erland Josephson) is so in awe of facts and statistics he can barely think for himself. Really controlling things is Dr Vergerus, a masterful performance of arrogance and self-satisfaction masquerading as open-minded scientific enquiry from Gunnar Björnstrand.

Far from inquiring, Vergeus’ mind is rigidly closed to anything outside of his world view. People are categorised and little more than objects of curiosity – he even speaks (ominously it turns out) of an eagerness to dissect Vogler. Flashes of the supernatural or inexplicable are met with blank terror which Vergeus swiftly covers with cold impassivity. He has made up his mind well before Vogler arrives. Like the rest of the rationalists, he preaches absolute truth but only on his own terms.

And perhaps he’s right to, in a way. The troupe are liars – but at least they are honest about it. They claim magical skills of healing and love potions (“what the bottle looks like and the colour” is far more important than the contents) which they merrily flog to the credulous. Their magic tricks are dressed up in elaborate costumes and quasi-mystical business. Their promoter Tubal (another impressive, bombastic performance for Bergman from Åke Fridell) shamelessly peddles exaggerated stories of their mastery. They may be a glamourous, but they are also cheap.

And then of course there is Vogler, who has practically dressed himself as a prop. Coated in pale make-up, Fu Manchu facial hair and a flowing black wig, von Sydow presents Vogler as an enigmatic showman. Bergman makes fabulous use of his riveting stare – surely he doesn’t need any flim-flam to hypnotise when he can glare at you like that. There is a sadness to Vogler though: his faith in himself has gone. Encountering a dying actor on the road (a neat cameo from Bengt Ekerot – and a nice call-back to his and von Sydow’s Seventh Seal team-up), Vogler’s face leans forward in fascination, curiosity and a strange longing as the actor faces death, as if he is longing to touch powers beyond once more. Manda is adamant his powers used to be real, but behind the contemptuous and defiant stare it’s unclear if Vogler knows where he is going.

Not that it matters. He’s still got the star quality to leave Mrs Egerman weak at the knees, desperate to seduce him to touch a part of his magic. And the powers are still there – even in their first meeting, Vegeus feels a flash of discomfort as Vogler’s fixed stare causes his mind to drift (a fear he dismisses in seconds). Its only as Bergman’s film strips down the performance qualities of Vogler – his costume, his make-up, his stage persona – and leaves an off-duty actor, that the dark fascination of his clients finally snaps all together into smug, rationalist contempt.

But that’s not before Vogler turns the table on Vergeus with an unsettling confrontation in a locked loft, after a performance seems to have gone disastrously wrong. It’s Vogler’s intimidating “real performance” to prove he and his troupe can still engross and deceive their audiences. This horror-tinged, mesmeric sequence of reflections, shadows, distant sounds and small movements is another reminder of what a master of the cinema of terror Bergman could have been (imagine he had joined von Sydow for The Exorcist!). It’s a superb sequence that almost shakes Vergeus’ faith in his certainty, before becoming another confirmation of how dismissive audiences are when they find out how the trick was done (no matter the impact it had on them at the time).

The Magician isn’t perfect. The middle of the film spends a little too long with the servants in the belly of the house (a Bergman trope of delight for the love of simple, everyday pleasures among the working classes). But its exploration of rationalism and artistry is fascinating. There are masterful performances (in addition to the earlier named, Ingrid Thulin is outstanding). But there is a lingering sense underneath that perhaps Bergman is gently accusing us of being little better than the rationalists, eager to know how cinema works but then talking it down when we find out. Which I suppose means a review of it rather makes his point.

Wild Strawberries (1957)

Wild Strawberries (1957)

An aged doctor reflects on his past regrets and failures, in Bergman’s strangely optimistic masterpiece

Director: Ingmar Bergman

Cast: Victor Sjöström (Professor Isak Borg), Bibi Andersson (Sara/Sara Borg), Ingrid Thulin (Marianne Borg), Gunnar Björnstrand (Evald Borg), Jullan Kindahl (Mrs Agda), Folke Sundquist (Anders), Björn Bjelfvenstam (Viktor), Naima Wifstrand (Isak’s Mother), Gunnel Broström (Berit Alman), Gunnar Sjöberg (Sten Alman/Examiner), Max von Sydow (Henrik Åkerman), Ann-Marie Wiman (Eva Åkerman), Gertrud Fridh (Karin Borg), Åke Fridell (Karin’s lover), Per Sjöstrand (Sigfrid Borg)

Is anything in life more painful than regret? When we look back at our past mistakes, the things we wish had played out differently, the roads not taken, it’s difficult to accept there is nothing we can do about it. It’s the theme of Bergman’s beautiful, strangely optimistic Wild Strawberries (his third consecutive masterpiece, cementing him as one of the most distinctive, visionary directors in the world). Wild Strawberries is filmed with a virtuoso assurance, that still finds a genuine sense of optimism, despite the pain of the past.

It’s about a long, single-day, road trip taken by famed, retired, medic Professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström, Sweden’s legendary father of cinema and Bergman’s idol) and his daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin). Isak is receiving an honorary doctorate in Lund but, after a bad dream, spontaneously decides to drive there. They drop by places with huge personal significance: the country chalet where he loved and lost his cousin Sara (Bibi Andersson) and the home of his mother (Naima Wifstand), who perhaps never really wanted him. Along they way they pick up a trio of young hitchhikers, one of whom, Sara (Bibi Andersson again), reminds him of his lost love. Will Isak come to terms with his regrets and failures?

The Wild Strawberries were collected by Sara on the birthday of her and Isak’s uncle. They are touch points in Isak’s memories, a reminder of the summer when Sara broke off her engagement with him to marry his more fun brother Sigfrid (Per Sjöstrand). Did that moment set Isak on the path of distant, judgmental coolness that defined his whole life? Or was he always bound to become who was, especially since his mother matches him for chilly distance? Is the cycle destined to continue, as Isak’s son Evald (Gunnar Björnstrand, full of cold nihilism) is just as austere as his father?

Bergman‘s radiant memory piece, explores all this without casting judgment. Wild Strawberries profoundly studies the regrets that come with facing your mortality. Isak becomes so lost in his memories, he literally becomes a silent witness in them. Sjöström’s beautifully expressive face lights up with a mixture of powerless pleasure, sadness and longing as he sees Sara once more – its implied the only woman (or indeed person) he has allowed himself to purely love.

What’s striking though, is that Isak’s memory of her – flirting with Sigfrid and then tearfully telling another cousin that Isak is so nice but… – is not a memory he can possibly have. He was never there: it can only be his supposition. It’s the same with the birthday party of his uncle (Bergman fills this with some great comedy, not least two gossipy pre-teens who talk simultaneously), an event he was not present at. Isak clings to these as memories, but they are imaginings. It’s not a card the film plays heavily: but Isak is, essentially, an unreliable narrator showing us his version of the past. It makes you wonder: are we all unreliable narrators of our own memories?

Is Wild Strawberries actually a dream piece? These recollections are daydreams, helping Isak accept his choices, and begin to find peace. The film opens with a striking surreal – and chillingly horror tinged – dream sequence that inspired hundreds of imitators: Isak walks an abandoned street, clocks lack hands, a faceless man collapses into water, a hearse overturns and when Isak investigates his own hand emerges to pull him in. (The unsettling artifice of this sequence is so masterful, it makes you realise Bergman could have become the king of terror if he’s wanted to).

A series of sequences take place halfway between dream and memory. In one he’s challenged by a cold and formal Examiner (a mirror of Isak himself?) with unanswerable questions, diagnosed with guilt and loneliness and then taken to witness his most vivid memory – watching his wife in the throws of passion with another man. The memory changes from reality to dream as Isak’s wife (an unsettling Gertrud Fridh) – who loathes him – sits up and dispassionately recounts their conversation later when she confessed/rubbed-his-face-in her infidelity. These aren’t straight memories.

Isak’s reminiscence creep up on him. It’s started by his daughter-in-law Marianne flatly telling him she can’t stand his aloofness and self-satisfied smugness. He seems unmoved: but does it prompt him to take her to the chalet of his childhood, to try and prove her wrong? Surely it can’t be a complete coincidence he awakes from a dream of Sara, by another Sara (Bibi Andersson brilliantly distinguishes between these two very different women, who both speak to repressed romantic yearnings in Isak) or asks for a lift? My private theory: I think Bergman is implying only Isak sees these two people as identical in appearance, like he plops past-Sara’s face on hitch-hiker-Sara’s body. It’s another walking semi-memory-dream.

Sara is one of several people prompting Isak’s reflection and changing our perceptions. Why did he become a man so detached he barely bats an eyelid when his daughter-in-law rubbishes him? A feuding couple the group pick up after a road accident – whose abuse of each other gets so personal and cruel, Marianne throws them out of the car – could almost be past versions of Isak and his wife. How miserable must his marriage have been? When Isak is feted as a doctor at a small village (a neat Max von Sydow cameo), how much does his sad observation that perhaps he should never have left further trigger his softening character?  As hiker-Sara talks about romance and opportunity, how much does this make Isak think about the staid, loveless respectability of his own life?

Our understanding of Isak is also partly filtered through Marianne’s perception of him. Ingrid Thulin is glorious as a woman whose marriage (to a knock-off prototype of his father) is on the rocks due to her husband’s callous loathing of the world. When she meets Isak’s mother, Thulin’s face radiates understanding of how this woman shaped Isak, who in turn shaped his son. As Isak begins to talk about his past and his fears, it prompts her own willingness to confide in him – something she would never have considered at the film’s start. As Marianne changes her perceptions, so do we.

Wild Strawberries benefits most of all from the wonderfully valedictory performance of Victor Sjöström. Bergman begged his mentor to take the role on, and it produces a cinematic wonder. Sjöström is in every scene and his face fills with such powerful emotion – from distraught regret to wistfulness to confusion to a peaceful radiance – that Bergman allows it to dominate the frame at key points. Its an unforced, gentle and underplayed performance with real emotional force.

Not least because, at heart, this is an optimistic film that tells us its never too late. Sure, we can regret mistakes and lost opportunities: but it shouldn’t close our hearts. Isak learns he has been wrong in closing his heart: there is life, warmth and happiness out there for the taking. It comes together in a final dream/memory, as Isak rediscovers a happy memory of his parents (all the more powerful for how few and far these must be) and Bergman’s camera (shot with majesty by Gunnar Fischer) trains one final time on Sjöström’s face and we understand that he has, at last, come to terms with his life. For a director famed as the master of misery, Wild Strawberries shows he could also frame a story of optimism, growth and understanding, making Wild Strawberries one of his most affecting movies.

Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)

Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)

Sexual and romantic comeuppances abound in Bergman’s landmark comedy of manners

Director: Ingmar Bergman

Cast: Eva Dahlbeck (Desirée Armfeldt), Gunnar Björnstrand (Fredrik Egerman), Ulla Jacobsson (Anne Egerman), Björn Bjelfvenstam (Henrik Egerman), Harriet Andersson (Petra), Margit Carlqvist (Countess Charlotte Malcolm), Jarl Kulle (Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm), Åke Fridell (Frid), Naima Wifstrand (Mrs. Armfeldt), Jullan Kindahl (Beata), Gull Natorp (Malla), Gunnar Nielsen (Niklas), Birgitta Valberg (Actress), Bibi Andersson (Actress)

An Ingmar Bergman comedy? Surely a contradiction in terms, right? Like Da Vinci spraypainting graffiti or Austen writing a jingle. The Swedish master is near synonymous with glacial, Scandi-misery, not material that will be transformed into a Sondheim musical. But yet: Smiles of a Summer Night was the big smash-hit that guaranteed Bergman lifetime artistic independence (he followed it with the one-two punch of The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries that made him untouchable as Sweden’s premiere Artist). A Bergman comedy was never going to be a Ray Cooney farce, and while there are pratfalls and farce here, this film is an exploration of manners with more than hint of Shaw and Wilde, mixed with echoes of filmic greats like Ophüls and Renoir.

Set in turn-of-the-last-century Sweden, the film follows the romantic and sexual entanglements of a series of would-be couples. Fredrik Egerman (Gunnar Björnstrand) is a respected middle-aged solicitor, who hasn’t consummated his two-year marriage with 19-year old Anne (Ulla Jacobssen). This is partly due to her anxiety about sex. But really both of them are in love with someone else. Fredrik with his old mistress, celebrated actress Desirée Armfeldt (Eva Dahlbeck). Anne with Fredrik’s young son Henrik (Björn Bjelfvenstam) who is also in love with her. Henrik is flirting with house maid Petra (Harriet Andersson), who doesn’t seem averse to a relationship with any member of the Egerman family. Desirée is having an affair with Count Malcolm (Jarl Kulle), whose wife Charlotte (Margit Carlqvist) is considering infidelities of her own just to get his attention.

All of these potential couples merge, swop and work out their feelings overnight at the country house of Desirée’s mother (Naima Wifstrand) during one of the longest days of the year, where the sun hardly sets and people traditionally stay up until dawn. There is more than a touch of the theatrical about all of this – particularly with Bergman’s arch, intelligent dialogue – with the country house as a setting beautifully formal and strangely other-wordly. You can sense the theatrical influences here – Bergman had just directed a production of The Merry Widow – with the characters riffing with Wildean wit and insight, in typically Shavian set-ups.

What we get is a high comedy of manners, that’s also coated in a rich, insightful poetry that gives it a great deal of meaning. There is farce here – including a room with a switch that drags a bed from a neighbouring room (with occupant!) into it. There are several funny lines – many from Jarl Kulle’s hilarious heartless count, who doesn’t care who flirts with his wife until someone actually takes him at his word. There are pratfalls – Henrik has a superbly bleak bit of pure farce near the end that tips into erotic joy (“If the world is full of sin, then I want to sin”). The pompous Fredrik is constantly humiliated, from falling in a puddle to being thrown out of Desirée’s apartment in nothing but a borrowed nightshirt and a pair of slippers. There is no end of sexual suggestiveness, from Harriet Andersson’s gorgeously flirtatious maid (“Hurrah for vice!”) to hints about Mrs Armfeldt’s past (“I was given this estate for promising not to write my memoirs”).

Being Bergman though, this is the sort of romantic comedy that ends with a duelling game of Russian roulette and where we learn as much about human nature as we enjoy the scripted bon mots. Namely, that people – especially men – never seem to know what they want. Fredrik spends a huge chunk of the film persuading himself he is deeply in lust with Anne – although its pretty clear that he’s barely interested. Marriage and relationships in this case are gilded cages that lock people into things they barely want. They don’t even lend themselves to communication – the Malcolm’s marriage doesn’t seem to be based on any communication at all.

So, no wonder it needs a bit of Midsummer Night’s Dream style madness to try and sort it all out. Before that short night, the characters all down a particularly intoxicating wine that they are warned will bring down all their restraining impulses (whether that’s true or not, it certainly does). It’s part of a plot by Desirée – a superb Eva Dahlbeck, serene and glamourous, but also a battle-axe force-of-nature who knows exactly what she wants and how to get it – to resolve all complications for the (her) best, carried out in partnership with Caroline, a woman she’s far to savvy to let something petty like sleeping with her husband get in the way of useful friendship.

Contrasted with all these slightly restrained middle-class people who struggle to understand or express their real feelings, or (like the Egermans) seem to feel a slight guilt at sex anyway, we have the more earthy and free Petra, radiantly played by Harriet Andersson. Andersson gives Petra a flirtatiousness that sees her go from unbuttoning her top to attempt to seduce Henrik, to rolling in a bed with Anna. While the upper classes engage in a formal dance, she seizes life and opportunities – and ends up well-matched with the equally down-to-earth chauffeur Frid (an exuberant Åke Fridell), who like her doesn’t muck around when there is a chance to grab a bit of joy.

Not like the Egermans. Fredrik – a beautifully reserved Gunnar Björnstrand – should want Anna, but all the starring at her photos in the world won’t stop him muttering Desirée’s name while he sleeps. Not that it will allow him to try and rekindle his past relationship with her. Anna (a luminous Ulla Jacobsson), nervous about sex or rather nervous about her feelings with Hendrik, channels her feelings into jealous criticisms of his clothing after catching him naively succumbing to Petra’s flirting. Henrik (Björn Bjelfvenstam, very funny in his bemused wetness) is so inept in his romance of either woman, he barely seems to know what he wants.

Perhaps Desirée recognises all this is a bit of prime, Theatrical nonsense and tries to solve it all accordingly. After all her whole life is the theatre – from treading the boards, to singing and dancing while walking late at night with Fredrik. And it was for Bergman – that and film, which is why perhaps the film has echoes of Jean Renoir’s Le Regle de Jue with its country house romantic intrigues and Max Ophüls partner swopping La Ronde. And Smiles of a Summer Night is a beautifully mounted film, shot with a luscious, poetic beauty by Gunnar Fischer.

The whole film is a complex dance – you can see why it was ripe for Sondheim – that also explores profoundly the romantic and gender clashes between men and women. Men who are in a position to take what they want, but have no idea what that is. Women who know far more, but must be smart about how to achieve their goal – or like Petra willing to embrace a wild abandon to live in the moment. It may be a theatrical, drawing-room, sex comedy of sorts: but it’s also a film about humanity and people’s fates, all under the eyes the suggestively supernatural power of a smiling summer night. Perhaps its not such a contradiction of Bergman terms after all.

The Seventh Seal (1957)

Death plays chess in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal

Director: Ingmar Bergman

Cast: Max von Sydow (Antonius Block), Bengt Ekerot (Death), Gunnar Björnstrand (Jöns), Bibi Andersson (Mia), Nils Poppe (Jof), Erik Strandmark (Jonas Skat), Åke Fridell (Plog), Inga Gill (Lisa), Bertil Anderberg (Raval), Gunnel Lindblom (Mute girl), Inga Landgré (Karin)

Is there a more famous arthouse film than The Seventh Seal? Winning the Special Jury Prize at Cannes, the film turned Ingmar Bergman into the doyen of the Arthouse across the world and many of its actors into major figures of world cinema. The film so captured the imagination it became one of those films that falls slightly in and out of fashion, largely because it’s almost impossible to come to it fresh. Its style, images and concepts have been so echoed, parodied and teased ever since that it’s become a corner stone. But it should stay in fashion, because it’s a well-made and intriguing film.

In the fourteenth century, a knight, Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), washes up on the shores of Denmark with his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand). Death (Bengt Ekerot) comes for them, but Block challenges him to a game of chess. If Block wins, Death will leave him be if Death wins Block will go with him. Death accepts, and Block seizes the time this will give him to try and understand more about faith, destiny and man’s place in God’s plans. As the game stops and starts, Block and Jöns travel to Block’s estate, encountering and befriending along the way Jof (Nils Poppe) and Mia (Bibi Andersson) a pair of travelling actors, just trying to make their way in the world.

Bergman’s film is shot in a luscious but very simple black-and-white and juggles profound issues about mankind and faith with an imagination-capturing central concept of man playing chess with death. Bergman based the film on a woodcut from the famous Swedish artist Albertus Pictor (who appears in the film, decorating a church with images of death and plague – themes that run throughout the film) and used it as a jumping off point for a meditations on the inevitable end.

It makes sense then to set the film in the medieval era, where death indeed may well feel like a constant companion. Bergman’s medieval world is a smorgasbord of medieval tropes – some have criticised the historical accuracy of Crusades, plague, flagellants, Pictur, witch trials etc. all happening at the same time, which seems bizarre criticism for a film that features a white faced Death prowling the countryside with a chess board. It works very well though for creating a sense of a parable around the whole film.

Death is a continual in the film. A crowd of flagellants marches through a village at one point, a monk stopping only to harangue the crowd on the fury of God, before a mist descends and seems to pick off most of the crowd, several flagellants disappearing as they walk, leaving a mostly empty field. It’s a visual picture of death, Plague carries off one and all, an active representation of mortality. It leaves a world in which man either contemplates, gets angry or decides to just live day-to-day – reactions that we see in all the film’s characters.

Of course, Block takes the contemplative route, vainly asking what it is all about – what is God’s plan and what meaning does life have? Perfectly using von Sydow’s imperious chill, Bergman makes Block an intellectual straining for understanding, an aesthete who wants to believe his time on earth has all been part of some plan and that he himself has done (or will do) something that matters. Von Sydow is particularly fine in the role, not least in his agonising confessional scene where he slowly but with an increasing world-weariness unburdens his soul to a priest he cannot see – but who we see is of course Death himself.

But that’s just another low blow from Death, a fascinating figure. Played with a benign politeness by Bengt Ekerot, Bergman presents a Death who is cunning, intrudes on world events and doesn’t play fair. He cons Block into telling him a winning chess stratagem, cuts down a tree to claim the soul of the man hiding it and reveals himself to be the leader of a group intent on burning witches. He may be polite but he’s ruthless. No wonder he inspires such fear, and Ekerot may smile but it’s the smile of a man who knows he will win no matter what and everyone will come with him eventually. 

So what is the secret to what life is all about? In Bergman’s medieval world, God seems silent. We see two religious figures: one the haranguing Monk, the other the fallen Priest Ravel – a thief, a liar and a bully. The priest in the Church they visit turns out to be Death. The countryside is vast, unfriendly and bleak. Block’s quest to understand something of what man’s role in creation is seemingly doomed. Perhaps his squire – an excellent Gunnar Björnstrand – already understands what Block needs to learn: there is no grand secret, we must simply enjoy the moments we have been given. His squire is a simple, decent (for his time), unpretentious man with some sense of justice. And maybe that’s the trick.

It certainly seems to be the case with Jof and Mia, the more homespun actors who take pleasure in their family, their lives and the outside and welcome strangers with open arms. Extremely well played by a naïvely sweet Nils Poppe and a radiantly kind Bibi Andersson, these two (with their baby son) are the only people happy. And that happiness even spreads to Block, who starts to forget his concerns with finding a secret to life in the simple happiness of an honest meal, kindly shared. Even Death comments that Block’s interest in the game seems to fade from here.

Block’s struggle to understand why we are here, his straining for some sign and his belief (perhaps) that with this he can escape Death slowly melts under his understanding that life is what is around us and the people we share it with, perhaps not some sort of cryptic puzzle for him to untangle. And that’s Bergman’s message as well perhaps, that among our concerns to understand and control our destiny, the most truth (and pleasure) can be found in not thinking about these things. Jof sees early on a vision of the Holy Mary (we do not see it only his face). His wife laughs it off, but later only Jof can see Death – if one vision is true, why not the other? Is Jof’s innocence and decency perhaps the key?

And that is why perhaps Jof and Mia are the only two to escape Death’s grasp. Block finds his moment of purpose – and the quiet smile von Sydow gives here is perhaps the finest moment of his performance – distracting an unknowning Death to let the family escape in the forest. Death relentlessly comes for the rest of the characters at Block’s estate – to be met with anger, begging, resignation, bitterness and a strange, beatific acceptance from the mute housekeeper, who Bergman slowly tracks in on until her face fills the frame.

Death then takes them all – giving us the film’s final enduring image, a recreation of Pictur’s painting of Death leading the dead souls in a grim dance to eternity across the hills, each of them flowing in a line behind them seen only by Jof. 

What is Bergman’s marvellously assembled – and it is perfectly filmed and edited – film about exactly? Finding peace and acceptance with what is around us and our place in the world perhaps, but it’s such a rich and rewarding film that it unravels other meanings and messages throughout every frame. It deserves to remain in fashion for as long as there are films.