In 1951 the Swedish film industry went on strike to protest high taxes in the entertainment sector, and Ingmar Bergman, who at 33 had already directed a handful of movies and had also overseen the Gothenburg city theater for three years, signed on to do a series of commercials for Bris soap, in part to support his already teeming brood (two ex-wives and five children, with a sixth on the way). The commercials are playful, fascinating, and utterly Bergmanesque—in the best possible way.
What I don’t mean by “Bergmanesque” is that they’re brooding or depressing or austere—as Bergman’s popular image would dictate. No, they are loose and original and supremely confident in the form of cinema. Bergman has had the misfortune to be identified with a couple of not overly representative movies—Persona (1966) and above all, The Seventh Seal (1957)—and his true nature as a restless and protean prober of human nature somehow got a little lost in the mix. Bergman was nothing if not a relentlessly theatrical director, and few were more confident in exploring the limits of narrative in the medium. The parodies don’t quite suffice to encapsulate the director of the masterpieces Fanny and Alexander or Scenes from a Marriage.
Dana Stevens of Slate does a good job of pointing out some of Bergman’s trademark tropes in the video at the bottom of this page. She helpfully notes that the only limitation imposed on Bergman by the soap company was that one of two clunky phrases about soap and bacteria had to be included at some point. There are eight of the Bris commercials, they are all black-and-white, and the visual quality leaves something to be desired by the standards of 2013, but to Bergman’s credit, they are all wildly different and memorable and convey some succinct point about the nature of cinema as well as delivering the promised virtues of the soap.
One of the advertisements makes fun of the 3-D trend that Bergman had elsewhere disparaged; one of them is essentially a rebus (and is, apparently, so titled), which presents the same lengthy mix of images twice in succession; two of them feature an unmistakable battle between “good” Bris and “evil” bakterier, or bacteria (the first of those is certainly reminiscent of The Seventh Seal, as Stevens points out). Two of them feature characters from the distant, courtly past dressed in foppish wigs and ... giving off the general visual appearance of hankering after a snootful of snuff, or the like. One of the ads is “meta” insofar as we see a spokeswoman tout the soap’s advantages reflected in a camera lens, after which director and actress engage in a lengthy bit of what is apparently romantic dialogue. There’s a vitality of editing and montage here; a few of the ads use Georges Meliès-type effects, and the phrase “magic lantern show,” already strongly associated with Bergman (his autobiography, for instance), may waft into your head at various junctures.
To a surprising extent, the commercials showcase “Bergman in microcosm,” if such a thing is even thinkable, and they also may have provided a necessary experimental interlude just four scant years before his breakthrough, Smiles of a Summer Night, made him an international superstar.
Viewers will also learn that the traditional Swedish way of signaling the end of a narrative—“The End”—is, amusingly, “Slut.”
“Jabón Bris 1”
“Prinsessan och svinaherden”
Report by Slate‘s Dana Stevens on the commercials: