The early part of 1951 was a dire period for Ingmar Bergman, certainly the most professionally uncertain period of his life prior to his tussle with the Swedish government over taxes in the 1970s, and the self-imposed exile from his home country that followed. And even then, he was Ingmar Bergman, International Treasure, and well able to keep working, even under lessened conditions. In '51, he was a 32-year-old who had quite impressed the Swedish critics, had a couple decent hits, and seen none of his films reach a substantial international audience. It was a terrible time for the Swedish film industry to go on strike in protest of what were considered to be exorbitant taxes, which is exactly what happened in the first half of the year. Coupled with the hit that Bergman's finances had taken two years earlier, when he lost his position as director of the Gothenburg City Theatre, he was desperate for an influx of cash to support three households, between his two ex-wives and the five children those marriages had produced, and his new third marriage.

Fortune smiled in the form of an offer from Unilever to create a television ad campaign for its new antibacterial soap, Bris ("Breeze", not the Jewish ritual, though it would make sense for Bergman to make a series of commercials involving mangled genitals). And not just any ad campaign, but the most lavish, big-budget ad campaign in Sweden's history. Bergman accepted the offer instantly, noting in his autobiography: "I have always found it difficult to feel resentment when industry comes rushing toward culture, check in hand. My whole cinematic career has been sponsored by private capital. I have never been able to live on my beautiful eyes alone! As an employer, capitalism is brutally honest and rather generous – when it deems it beneficial." But he also admitted that a huge part of the appeal was that Unilever was giving him complete artistic control over the nine spots - the first time in his career that he had absolutely nobody to answer to.

The result is a delightful set of fanciful little visual and storytelling experiments (three per year across 1951, '52, and '53), exploring the director's favorite themes and new ideas that would in some cases return in his later features, all shot with Gunnar Fischer as cinematographer to add rich visual lushness. It would be an extreme exaggeration to say that these are "essential" Bergman - they are the very definition of curios - but it would be just as much of a mistake to write them off as detritus. They're an interesting window into where his artistic mind was at, fun to watch on their own, and in one of them we even find the beginning of one of Bergman's most crucial collaborations. Below, I take them one at a time.

(The films pop up and disappear from various streaming sites: the most stable at the time of this writing seems to be the collection here, which I believe preserves them in reverse-order of production. If you can find a version with English subtitles, you're one up on me - I never had more than a few scraps of Swedish, mostly forgotten, but the visual language of advertising is such that it's not too hard to follow the gist of what's going on).

"Tvålen Bris" ["Bris Soap"]
A motley collection of pretty girls, a handsome man, and a charmingly baffled old man (John Botvid) take center stage as the camera whips from one medium close-up to another, giving each of them a chance to talk up the soap. This little testimonials are presented behind crude theatrical drops, reminding us of Bergman's ongoing interesting in finding visual equivalents to the affect of live theater; it has a certain charming "let's put on a show!" vibe, like all of these people love Bris soap so darn much that they have gotten themselves whipped up in the sheer joy of staging it for us. There's also a fun visual joke when the woman standing at a basin, apparently just another tableau, turns out to have been separated from us as though we're inside her mirror. Surprisingly light and fun and invested in the joy of enthusiastic people, even when their enthusiasm is solely a matter of hawking a product.

"Tennisflickan" ["Tennis Girl"]
In which the skin of a girl playing tennis is the site of an age-old battle between the forces of evil and good, bacteria and anti-bacterial soap. Goofy as all hell, though I appreciate the re-use of the theatrical proscenium from "Tvålen Bris" as the frame for the fanciful skin pore set and the pantomime-like figures fighting for dominance; it gives it the feeling of some sort of Medieval mystery play, in which brutally simple metaphors are enacted for our amusement and edification. It suggests the fascination with pre-modern iconography that Bergman would later tease out to such legendary effect in 1957's The Seventh Seal (and it's worth noting that he wrote that film's theatrical precursor not very long after this). Definitely not worth making too much of it, though, I think.

"Gustavianskt" ["Gustavian"]
In the court of King Gustav III (Åke Jensen) we watch the fawning nobles gather around as the king primps himself with the best beauty products that the 18th Century could provide, though a narrator (Doris Svedlund) points out that we now all have access to better cleaning products than the king could ever imagine, thanks to Bris antibacterial soap. Along the way, we find that the opulent pageantry we're looking at is a movie being projected in the recording booth where she's narrating. The twist is more playful than intellectual - while it speaks to Bergman's fascination with the gap between what movies depict and what is real and true that had first cropped up in the film Prison, and would persist after this, it doesn't have time to go very deep into that. I am more impressed with the pageant-like treatment of the court, capturing something playfully mocking about the fatuousness on display, while revealing a characteristic fascination with how people move through environments. And there's a great mirror shot that ties into all that, while letting Bergman and Fischer show off.

"Uppfinnaren" ["The Inventor"]
I... really loved this. A man (Georg Adelly) has a dream about inventing a new antibacterial soap, only to be informed by his wife (Emy Hagman, drily sipping tea in bed, an image that seemed much funnier to me than it has any reason to) that Bris has already beaten him to the punch. It's another midway twist, but bolder and more exciting than the one in "Gustavianskt": this time, it feels like a tiny potted history of cinema itself, starting as a playful recreation of a Méliès-style short - even including missing frames, to better create the illusion of age, and library music that rudely changes direction right in the middle, when the scene cuts. Then there's a quick flash of '20s-style animation, showing soap knocking out bacteria, before the film dissolves into a domestic bedroom and we find that the whole thing was a symbolic dream, something Bergman had been getting more and more interested in of late. A much less heavy symbolic dream than the ones in Prison or the later Wild Strawberries, but then, looming, grim Freudian imagery isn't the sort of thing that sells soap. Anyway, the static, tableau-like framing of most of the couple's conversation feels of a piece with Bergman's recent shift to staging actors in long takes that favor the actors, making this feel not just like his tribute to Méliès but his summary of where cinema has gone in the intervening half-century.

"Trolleriet" ["Magic"]
Another Méliès-style short, made with considerably more technical panache to less inventive ends. A woman (Berit Gustafsson) demonstrates a magic trick to the man (Lennart Lindberg) she's with, creating a tiny magician (Carl-Gustaf Lindstedt), who creates his own magic trick, creating a little pantomime battle between a caged bacterium and a heroic boxer made of Bris Soap. Cute and fun and all, but the pantomime fight is less imaginative than the one in "Tennisflickan", and the miniature magician optical effect is by no stretch of the imagination news as of 1951. The least-interesting of the nine ads, and it's not really even close.

Right on cue, here's the most interesting short, playing a dense metanarrative game that, even without benefit of knowing what they're saying in Swedish (this is the one commercial where I'm confident I've missed something important), is fascinatingly self-aware about TV commercials as constructed fakery designed to push blunt sales messages. First, we see a surgical operation going wrong, as melancholic music burbles on the soundtrack. An offscreen voice yells "cut" and the doctors walk off-set; for this has been a television shoot all along, and now it's time to film a Bris commercial in the same space. The image then cuts to the camera being set up for that shoot, with the spokeswoman (Barbro Larsson) taking her position and reciting her copy: she's off-screen to the left, but we see her reflected in the lens of the on-screen camera staring right at us, as a man (Lindberg) watches her with a smile. He then crosses over and the camera (the one shooting the ad) pans left, to bring her back into frame; they banter a bit (about Bris, no less), obviously flirting, before walking offscreen. Then another cut brings Botvid onscreen, seemingly playing the same mystified figure we saw in "Tvålen Bris".

Two cuts, each creating a rupture that divides the ad into three completely unrelated units, all of them drawing upon our knowledge that this is all constructed, playing with our awareness that this is an ongoing campaign with, at this point, recurring actors. Larsson's direct address of the ad copy, breaching the fourth wall while also somehow preserving it, makes the business of a TV commercial seem weirdly phony and hostile. A very strange little meta-narrative, one that I cannot imagine worked all that well to actually sell soap; however far we are into the production of these ads at this point, Bergman was getting sassy.

"Tredimensionellt" ["Three-Dimensional"]
If "Operation" was sassy and fascinating, this is sassy and just plain goddamn weird. Bergman had no patience at all for the new trend of 3-D movies, and took the time to make his displeasure known in this oddball little piss-take. A woman in a bathroom (Marion Sundh) sticks her leg forward, to the exaggerated amazement of the whole audience, except an unimpressed old man (Botvid, quickly becoming my favorite Bergman collaborator of all time) who doesn't have his glasses on. Later, she'll accidentally douse the rest of the audience with her shower head. The movie ends with her pratfalling in a stuttering, low-framerate spin, before she tumbles out of the screen and into the audience. As jab at the way that audiences will eat up the most inane crap if its spectacular and there's the potential for naked lady, it's pointed and honestly pretty funny; even if the magic of 3-D allows the woman to present the old man with a bar of Bris, I have no clue what in hell's name this has to do with selling a product, but it's delightful to see someone as serious as Bergman with an axe to grind so sourly, and snottily, and to play with the medium in such a silly way. Maybe the most purely fun of these.

"Rebusen" ["The Rebus"]
If Bergman had already directed Persona, it would be difficult to avoid thinking of this as anything but self-parody of its jarring opening montage. A collection of images and words flash by, presenting with a cinematic rebus-style puzzle to try and decode, as we attempt to figure out the logic behind the seemingly meaningless chain of images. Eventually, Larsson shows up to help guide us to the message, which turns out to be one of Bris's slogans (this one related to its ability to prevent unpleasant smells). The most playful of all the ads - it is, after all, a literal game - and also the most aggressive; I'd be startled to encounter something this strange as a television commercial today, let alone in 1953.

"Prinsessan och svinaherden" ["The Princess and the Swineherd"]
Of all nine commercials, this is the one with the greatest extrinsic interest: the role of the princess is played by a still-teenaged Bibi Andersson, soon to become one of Bergman's foremost collaborators. I would love to say that you can tell from her screen presence that she had great things in front of her, but honestly, this one is mostly focused on Botvid and Curt "Minimal" Åström, as the doddering king and his aide trying to determine whether the princess's offer of a hundred kisses in exchange for one bar of Bris is a good deal (the determination is that it is). Portrayed as a simple theatrical play for children, with fancy costumes and a crude-looking painted backdrop hanging awkwardly close to the actors, it captures something fun and charming about low-rent but earnest theatrical staging that makes it feel like the sunnier counterpart to Sawdust and Tinsel, the 1953 film where Bergman's love of the theater made its most extremely prominent and sustained appearance in his early filmography. But in truth, it feels a bit like a weaker retread of "Tennisflickan" and "Gustavianskt" mashed together.