While most of Hollywood seemed to be afraid of its own shadow during the 1950s because of the blacklist, international filmmakers such as Japan's Akira Kurosawa, Italy's Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti and Federico Fellini, and French New Wave pioneers Louis Malle, Claude Chabrol, Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard were pushing the boundaries of film as an art form in both tone and content.
But it was Sweden's Ingmar Bergman who is often credited as the filmmaker who truly opened the doors for foreign cinema in the United States during the Eisenhower decade.
"The critics loved him," says film historian Chris Horak, curator of the Hollywood Entertainment Museum. "You read the reviews, and they are just unbelievable. And academia loved him. When I first started out in film studies in the early '70s, every other book was about Bergman."
In the dozen films Bergman made between 1953 and 1963, he tackled such heady, taboo subjects as the death of God, alienation, isolation and female sexuality. These films were generally dark, thought-provoking, visually stimulating and often mentally exhausting, forcing audiences to confront their innermost demons and anxieties. And the acting was as raw and emotionally naked as the films themselves, drawing on the talents of actors such as Max Von Sydow, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Harriet Andersson, Ingrid Thulin and Bibi Andersson, to name just a few.
Rounding out Bergman's singular vision was the seminal black-and-white cinematography of Sven Nykvist.
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is celebrating this 10-year period in Bergman's career with the two-week retrospective "Through a Lens Darkly: The Classic Films of Ingmar Bergman." The tribute opens Friday with his 1957 allegory "The Seventh Seal," about a knight on his way home from the Crusades who is forced to play chess with Death, and the 1960 best foreign language film Oscar winner, "The Virgin Spring," considered one of Bergman's bleakest examinations of good versus evil.
Other films in the series include one of his lightest films, the 1955 romantic roundelay "Smiles of a Summer Night," which became the basis for the 1973 Stephen Sondheim classic musical "A Little Night Music"; 1953's "Sawdust and Tinsel," a drama of sexual frustration set in a traveling circus that's often considered the first "real" Bergman film; the haunting "Wild Strawberries," a 1957 road drama about an 80-year-old medical professor (legendary director-actor Victor Sjostrom) who revisits his past while driving to accept an honorary degree; and the director's death-of-God trilogy, the 1961 Oscar winner "Through a Glass Darkly" and 1963's "Winter Light" and "The Silence."
The subjects Bergman confronted from 1953 to '63, says Horak, "were all issues preoccupying intellects in the 1950s. In that sense I find them very much a part of their time, but what bring them out of that is the fact that they are incredible films just as films."
Being the son of a minister, says Horak, led Bergman to his obsession with these topics during this time in his life.
"Coming from this strict kind of Calvinistic religious background, he had even more angst about the fact that God may not be who he thought he was. That seemed to really preoccupy him in this period. Later he moves away from that and is much more interested in human relationships."
Although he quit directing features with 1982's "Fanny and Alexander," Bergman, now 86, continued to write scripts for film and TV and directed plays at the Swedish Royal Dramatic Theater. Occasionally he has directed television movies, his last being 2003's "Saraband."
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'Through a Lens Darkly: The Classic Films of Ingmar Bergman'
Where: Leo S. Bing Theater, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd.
When: 7:30 p.m. Fridays
Ends: April 23
Price: $6 to $9
Contact: (323) 857-6010 or www.lacma.org
Friday: "The Seventh Seal," "The Virgin Spring"
Saturday: "Smiles of a Summer Night," "Secrets
April 15: "Summer With Monika," "Sawdust and Tinsel"
April 16: "Wild Strawberries," "The Magician"
April 22: "Through a Glass Darkly," "Winter Light"
April 23: "The Silence," "Brink of Life"