Ingmar Bergman Volume 1: The Only One You Need

Ingmar Bergman Volume 1 is one of four recent blu-ray box sets from the BFI.  Volumes 3 & 4 aren't out yet, but they've been announced and we know what's on them.  As you can guess, they're collections of his most famous and influential films, and if you already have Criterion's massive Ingmar Bergman's Cinema box set, you don't need any of the later sets, unless you're in it for every single exclusive special feature.  Every film in those is featured there, and they all seem to be using the same 2017 2k restorations by Svenska Filminstitutet, to the point that the transfers are virtually indistinguishable.  If you haven't got the Criterion box, these make for a perfectly reasonable UK alternative... although the BFI sets are missing some films and a bunch of extras Criterion has... unless a Volume 5 gets announced in future.  But for now, they're essentially redundant.  But not Volume 1.  Volume 1 is special, since it introduces four Ingmar Bergman films to blu-ray that aren't in the Criterion box or available anywhere else.  So it's a must.

Now this set has eight films all told, five of which were already featured on my previous Early Bergman post, which I've now updated to include the new BFI blus.  They are: Torment, Crisis, Port Of Call, Thirst and To Joy.  The other three have only previously been available on DVD from Tartan, all of which I also have, so let's see how they compare below.
We begin with 1948's Music In Darkness, one of the (semi) rare films Bergman directed but did not write himself.  It's based on a novel by Dagmar Edqvist, who also wrote the screenplay, about a soldier who goes blind in a somewhat silly scene, rescuing a puppy that somehow wandered onto a firing range.  Bergman regular Birger Malmsten - who in fact is in seven of the eight films in this set - plays the lead who finds life can get even bleaker than you might expect when he finds out how society treats the sightless.  His fiance leaves him, everyone takes advantage of him, even children steal money from him.  Through his love of music, he pushes on and even attempts a new relationship with a servant girl he once looked down on.
There's a lot of Bergman in this early work, from the boldly unsentimental story points to some creative visuals including a somewhat abstract dream sequence, though it leans a little more towards the romantic side, which is probably inherent in the source novel.  Everyone talks about the nude scene, which I guess was a big deal in the 40s; but now a small, early appearance by the great Gunnar Björnstrand as a fellow musician is much more noteworthy.  Sure this stuff is melodrama, but that's always elevated in Bergman's hands.
2006 UK Tartan DVD top; 2021 UK BFI BD bottom.
Tartan's release is pretty nice - strong picture, progressive image.  It's a little boxy at 1.30:1, something BFI corrects to 1.38, but for a DVD, it's pretty nice.  Of course, BFI's new HD scan from the 35mm duplicating negative is even better.  You're not going to discover new detail, per se, but it's sharper and now the grain is clear, giving us a properly filmic image, which also has slightly deeper blacks.  And while both discs present the original Swedish mono with removable English subtitles, BFI bumps it up to lossless LPCM.
Eva also came out in 1948.  But where Bergman wrote Music In Darkness, but didn't write it, this one he wrote but didn't direct.  That duty is handled by Gustaf Molander, best known for launching Ingrid Bergman's career with 1939's Intermezzo.  Birger is back as another former soldier, and boy, if you thought they put his character through the wringer last time...!  This guy's life is nothing but tragedy, built on the foundation of a lifetime of guilt he carries for the death of a young girl he accidentally killed as a young child.  As an adult, his uncle dies, and his only solace is the love he finds in the titular Eva.  That seems pretty ideal at first, but a swanky Eva Dahlbeck and her sleazy boyfriend Stig Olin are luring him into betraying her, and possibly committing murder!
This film's a little all over the place.  We follow our lead through two time-lines at first, his past as a young boy and his present, returning home from the army.  And the plot has us skipping to various locations and isolated casts of characters.  Wanda Rothgardt puts in a funny turn as Birger's aunt as they stay with his uncle during his final hours on his deathbed, and the section with Dahlbeck suddenly feels like a Tennessee Williams play took over the set.  Oh, and did I mention that at one point they move to a small island, but it's during the war, so dead German soldiers keep washing up on shore?  This one's more fun than Music, but still manages to be a rather compelling and serious-minded meditation on mortality.
2005 UK Tartan DVD top; 2021 UK BFI BD bottom.
So the situation's slightly different in this Tartan/ BFI comparison.  This time, Tartan's disc is still pretty decent, non-interlaced and all, but it has a slightly shifting AR, from about 1.34-1.37, and it has much greyer black levels, giving it a softer, gauzier look.  That effectively makes it feel more like an Nth generation dupe.  So BFI's blu, this time taken from an original 35mm interpositive, feels is an even more satisfying step up.  And it's another well encoded 2k scan.

Again, both discs feature the original Swedish mono, in LPCM on the blu, with optional English subtitles.
We go from bleak to bleaker to bleakest with this trilogy of films.  1949's Prison is both written and directed by Bergman, and it opens with an old man pitching an idea to a filmmaker to make a movie where the devil is some kind of understanding, sympathetic character as the world has become a sort of Hell on Earth.  This film's not really about that, except in a metaphorical way.  Instead of following the old man's idea, our director instead seeks inspiration from the story of a young woman who's trapped in a life of abusive sex work.  Things get so tragic, he winds up discovering for himself that the man was right, and we're all trapped in our own Hellish prisons anyway.
Bergman gets visually inventive with lots of prison bar imagery and an extended dream sequence.  With one of the major characters being a working filmmaker, there are lots of fun glimpses into the workings of a film studio, and when our young lovers hole up in an attic to watch a silent film on a dusty projector, we cut to the entire, original silent comedy created by Bergman for this piece.  You've seen it in a lot of Bergman documentaries and such; well, here's where it originated.  Birger Malmsten and Stig Olin are back, and acclaimed director Hasse Ekman cameos as the old man, but it's the young ingenue Doris Svedlund who steals the show.  Overall, this one's a bit of a mishmash, but a fascinating one.
2006 UK Tartan DVD top; 2021 UK BFI BD bottom.
This time, curiously, BFI's blu is framed at 1.33, and Tartan's blu is closer to 1.30, making them both slightly boxier than you might expect, with BFI actually zooming in a teensy bit tighter than Tartan.  Tartan's image is slightly vertically squeezed, too, which BFI fixes.  And after Tartan's milkier black levels on Eva, they're back to a good, deep level here, so it actually holds up rather well.  Of course BFI's blu, taken from an original 35mm interpositive, is still better.  But it's a smaller gap than some of the others.  But let's not get carried away - there are limits to SD, so this DVD can't help but be softer with grain only hinted at by random, smudgy clumps.  But when you're not looking at zoomed in screenshots, the difference is mostly just that the blu is a little sharper and more nuanced.

And of course, both discs provide the original Swedish mono with optional English subs, but only the blu is lossless.
There aren't many special features to speak of.  The Tartan discs are all barebones apart from a couple trailers for Bergman's more famous films and inserts with notes by Philip Strick.  BFI, meanwhile, as essentially come up with two extras.  One is a vintage audio interview with Bergman, which plays as an audio commentary on Torment, which I discuss more on that film's page.  And the other is a brief but thoughtful video essay by Leigh Singer, which serves as a nice introduction to Bergman's early films.  It also includes a 96-page book with essays on all eight films and additional notes on the transfers and extras.  It's all attractively packaged in a sturdy slip box and limited to 5,000 copies.  While it can be a bit annoying to double-dip on some of the films that are nearly identically presented in Criterion's box, the four exclusive films, plus the new bonus content, is more than worth the price for the full set.  And then we can give our wallets a break as BFI continues with the rest of their series.

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