Ingmar Bergman’s Surprising Commercials for Soap
An improbable foray into the world of advertising.
In our own time, and for some years past, it’s been common for renowned film directors to venture into the world of advertising, in an exchange that’s equally profitable for both parties. On the one hand, the directors can finance their own personal projects, perhaps more oriented to their own artistic trajectories. On the other hand, the advertising industry receives an injection of creativity and courage in a world whose dynamics are usually counted in known quantities and proven successes. Directors arrive to advertising with a vision that’s not only different but often eccentric and refreshing.
One of the first cases of a filmmaker who found himself in the ranks of advertising was just such a case. No less than Ingmar Bergman needs only to be imagined given the peculiar task of selling soap through television commercials.
According to Mike Springer at Open Culture, Bergman was a little cornered and opted for this alternative to filmmaking when the Swedish film industry went on strike. It was 1951, and the director was only 33 years old, though he’d already appeared as director in the credits of almost a dozen films. He’d also been married and divorced twice, had five children, and a third wife was expecting. He had plenty of reasons not to sit still, and enough creative resources to face any adversity.
Moreover, fortune came knocking on his door. The soap company had sought the young director out to take charge of a movie theater advertising campaign for a new product, an anti-bacterial soap known in Sweden as Bris. Bergman was granted full creative freedom and an unlimited budget, which would not only “save himself and his family” in difficult times (as Bergman himself recalled the moment), but which would also let him undertake the project as an exercise for his own cinematographic purposes.
The results won’t disappoint. Bergman directed nine commercials, and through each of them, he drew an arc of madness and absurdity. Each seems to move further and further from the creative possibilities of soap, but in the hands of the Swedish director, and his favorite photographer, Gunnar Fischer, they end up much broader than might be imagined.
If, as they say, we are simply who we are, in the case of an artist, the formula of identity finds a very precise expression in a so-called “style.” It’s a mark which often runs through an artist’s creative work giving it cohesion and unity, like the physical similarities of family members shared over generations.
Will we find here the existential density, the directorial precision, or the love for symbolic detail which characterize so many of Bergman’s major films? Perhaps not in their entirety, but as works of art, they bear a strange relationship to all of the above. They’re something like the amusements you’ll find in the arts of the 18th century, the pranks of a restless mind which even when “obligated” to work within the rigid confines of the advertising industry, found a way to be true to its own creative purposes.
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