When I first saw The Seventh Seal (1957) and The Virgin Spring (1960) I think what impressed me most was how much I believed that I was seeing the Middle Ages much like it actually was. This is not a popular era for setting films, but it proved ideal for Ingmar Bergman's mix of bleakness and hope. In The Seventh Seal, a knight returning home from the crusades (Max von Sydow in his late 20s) encounters a land devasted by the Plague, and the figure of Death in human form. The knight hopes to delay his fate by challenging Death to a game of chess. Although we rather guess the outcome, we are also buoyed by the comparatively joyful future life of a young couple, Jof and Mia, and their baby boy, traveling with a group of itinerant performers.
I have long loved the simplicity of the plot of The Virgin Spring, which was based on an ancient Swedish ballad. Bergman set the movie in a period during which Christianity was being adopted in Sweden, but pagan beliefs still had strong roots, and although the movie somewhat involves the triumph of Christianity, it comes as a result of acts of violence precipitated by a horrifying vulgarization of a pagan ritual. A few years earlier, Cecil B. DeMille used all of Hollywood's special effects magic to portray the parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments, but it doesn't have a percent of the emotional impact of a little trickle of water at the end of The Virgin Spring.
I was fortunate to move to New York City in 1975, when the city still had a bunch of revivial houses — movie theaters that showed daily double features of foreign and American classic films. My favorites were the Elgin Theater on 8th Avenue (now the Joyce Theater), the Bleeker Street Cinema (now a video store), and the Carnegie Hall Cinema (now the site of Zankel Hall). These theaters would publish monthly schedules of the fifty or so movies they'd be showing over the month, and I would plan out my weeks. That's how I eventually saw pretty much all of Bergman's films going back to the early 1950s.
In seeing a wider panorama of Bergman's work, I became most enchanted with those films Bergman made during the 1960s, and particularly the "chamber films" that revolved around just a few characters and were often filmed on the island of Faro, where Bergman lived. These included Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1962), The Silence (1963), Hour of the Wolf (1968), Shame (1968), and especially Persona (1966).
Although some people attempt to describe the plot of Persona so that it seems rather rational, I'd recommend resisting the temptation to reject the movie outright just because you can't find a definitive literal explanation of what exactly is going on. The film involves an actress (Liv Ullmann) who has stopped speaking, and her nurse (Bibi Andersson) who doesn't shut up, and whether they are parts of the same person, or assimilate each other's personalities, or come to grips with their own failings through the odd communications they have — these are subjects that might better be interpreted viscerally rather than intellectually. Persona never lets you forget that it's actually a movie: it begins and ends with an arc lamp in an old-fashioned film projector, and at one point the on-screen conflicts cause the film to become jammed in the projector and burn. (People seeing it for the first time in theaters would actually start to get upset.) Apart from being notoriously baffling, Persona is wonderful to look at, with gorgeous black&white cinematography by Sven Nykvist (who died last September), and intensely magical scenes during the summer Swedish nights, sun still pouring into open windows.
Bergman wasn't all alienation and death: In 1975 he made a delightful movie of Mozart's The Magic Flute that at first seems almost like a film of a stage production: During the overture, Bergman shows us the faces of the audience, and when the opera begins, the curtain creaks and the props are clumsy. Yet, gradually the trappings of the stage disappear, a technique also used by Laurence Olivier in his film of Henry V. Another bonus is the fun of hearing Mozart sung in Swedish!
The characteristic of Bergman's films that has always affected me the most, however, involved the way he shot faces. His camera came in close on his character's faces, holding for a long time, and letting us see more of their inner lifes — and, of course, Bergman's own — than their mere words could possibly express.