Born in Uppsala, Sweden to a Lutheran minister, Bergman grew up surrounded by religious imagery and discussion. Bergman attended the Stockholm University and became interested in theater, and later in cinema. His films usually deal with existential questions about mortality, loneliness, and faith; they are also usually direct and not overtly stylized. Persona, one of Bergman's most famous films, is unusual among Bergman's work for being both existentialist and avant-garde.
As a director, Bergman favors intuition over intellect, and chooses to be unaggressive in dealing with actors. Bergman sees himself as having a great responsibility towards his actors, whom he views as collaborators in a psychologically vulnerable position; he states that a director must be both honest and supportive to allow others their best work.
Bergman usually writes his own scripts, thinking about them for months or years before starting the actual process of writing, which he views as somewhat tedious. Some of his earlier films are based on plays or written with other authors, usually as a matter of convenience. Some of his earlier films were also carefully structured, but Bergman states that in his later works, when his characters sometimes start wanting to do things different from what he had intended he lets them, calling the results "disastrous" when he doesn't. Bergman increasingly lets his actors improvise their dialogue; in his latest films he has written just the ideas behind the dialogue, keeping in mind the general direction he thinks it should take.
Bergman developed a personal "repertory company" of Swedish actors whom he repeatedly cast in his films, including Max von Sydow, Bibi Andersson, Harriet Andersson, Gunnar Björnstrand, Erland Josephson, and the late Ingrid Thulin. Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann was the last to join this group (in the 1966 film Persona), and ultimately became most closely associated with Bergman, both artistically and personally.
Bergman began working with Sven Nykvist, his cinematographer, since 1953; the two of them have sufficient rapport to allow Bergman not to worry about the composition of a shot until the day before it is filmed. On the morning of the shoot, he speaks to Nykvist briefly about the mood and composition he hopes for, and then leaves him to work without interruption or comment until they discuss the next day's work.
When viewing daily rushes, Bergman stresses the importance of being critical but unemotional, claiming that he asks himself not if the work is great or terrible, but if it is sufficient or if it needs to be reshot.
Bergman encourages young directors not to direct any film that does not have a "message," but to wait until one comes along that does, yet admits himself that he is not always sure of the message of some of his films. By Bergman's own accounts, he has never had a problem with funding; he cites two reasons for it: 1, that he does not live in the United States, which he views as obsessed with box-office earnings; and 2, that his films tend to be low-budget affairs. (Cries and Whispers, for instance, was finished for about $450,000; while Scenes from a Marriage--a six-episode television feature--cost only $200,000.) Bergman left Sweden for Munich when accused of tax evasion; though he was later cleared of the charges, he remained in Munich and did not film again in Sweden until 1982. In 1982 he directed Fanny and Alexander; he reported that the film would be his last, and that afterwards he would focus on directing theater. Since then he has directed a number of television specials and written several additional scripts, though he does continue to work in theater.
When asked about his movies, he says he holds Persona and Cries and Whispers highest in regard. In these films, he says, he managed to push the medium to its limit. He has denouced the critical classification of three of his films (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light and Persona) as a trilogy: he had no intention of connecting them, and he cannot see any common motives in them.