Eva (Liv Ullmann), wife of the village pastor, invites her mother Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman) for a visit to her village. She has not seen her for over seven years. Her mother is a world-renowned pianist, somewhat eccentric, aging, and has survived several husbands. Eva is not as talented as the mother (despite the fact that she has written two books, and has a passing ability at playing the piano). Eva's main concern is to be the mistress of her home, wife, mother and loving sister. It is gradually learned through her dialogue with her mother that her life has had a large number of unfortunate setbacks: a husband (Halvar Björk) she respects, but does not really have affection for, their son drowned when only 4 years old, and Charlotte never appears to have loved Eva as a mother normally loves a daughter. As part of her day-to-day life, Eva takes care of her disabled and paralyzed sister Helena (Lena Nyman), whom she has taken out of the hospital into her own home; she appears to be the only person who can understand her sister's limited speech ability.
The presence of her younger paralyzed daughter in Eva's house is shocking to the aging mother. She makes a gift of her own wrist watch to her younger paralyzed daughter, and listens to Eva playing Prelude No. 2 in A minor by Chopin. She immediately re-performs the same prelude after Eva finishes in her own preferred interpretation of the music. Before going to bed, Charlotte decides to make a gift of her own car to her daughter. She plans to take a flight home, and buy a new car for herself, as a measure of her altruism. At night, Charlotte wakes up from a nightmare: it seems that Eva is choking her. She gets up, goes into the living room and sees Eva there also awake and not sleeping.
Mother and daughter begin an impassioned rediscovery and clarification of their past relationship. Eva's husband overhears this unexpectedly heightened exchange, but wisely decides not to participate and interfere. Hearing this impassioned exchange, her disabled younger sister painfully forces herself out of her bed and starts crawling up to the stairs to where Eva and Charlotte are arguing. Upon reaching the landing she starts shouting, "Mama, come!"
In the morning Charlotte prepares for her departure. Eva goes to the grave of her departed son, and her husband ineffectively tries to soothe her ailing sister. Charlotte asks for a friend to escort her away by train. While speaking to her friend on the train, she begins to question the unfortunate fate of her disabled and paralyzed daughter, asking the unanswerable questions: "Why couldn't she die? ...." Her older daughter sends her mother a letter starting with the words: "I realize that I wronged you." The mother reads the letter in which her daughter, in its conclusion, leaves open the possibility of a future reconciliation as the film ends.Ingrid Bergman as Charlotte Andergast
Liv Ullmann as Eva
Lena Nyman as Helena
Halvar Björk as Viktor
Marianne Aminoff as Charlotte's private secretary
Arne Bang-Hansen as Uncle Otto
Gunnar Björnstrand as Paul
Erland Josephson as Josef
Georg Løkkeberg as Leonardo
Mimi Pollak as Piano instructor
Linn Ullmann as Eva as a child
Due to his battle with the Swedish tax authorities at the time, Ingmar Bergman produced Autumn Sonata through his West German company, Personafilm GmbH, with main financing from Lew Grade's British ITC Film, and shot the film in an old film studio outside Oslo in Norway. Although formally a German production (with the German title, Herbstsonate, being the official original title), the dialogue is in Swedish, most of the crew and actors were Swedish, and the world premiere was in Stockholm.
Peter Cowie in the notes to the Criterion DVD edition of the film summarizes the production, stating: "Shot in Norway, with British and American backing, and featuring Swedish dialogue, Autumn Sonata emerged from one of the darkest spells in Ingmar Bergman’s life. In 1976 he had gone into voluntary exile in Munich after being accused of evading tax on the income from certain films... Autumn Sonata... marks the swan song of Ingrid Bergman’s career, fulfilled his long-held desire to make a film with his namesake."
The piano piece played in the film is Chopin's Prelude No. 2 in A minor.
In the Chicago Reader, Dave Kehr opined that Autumn Sonata "makes good chamber music: it's a crafted miniature with Bergman's usual bombast built, for once, into the plot requirements." Conversely, Gary Arnold of The Washington Post felt that its story was "a dubious variation on familiar neurotic themes" in Bergman's work, but also wrote that "one can be impressed by Bergman's instrumentalists while rejecting his composition. [...] "Autumn Sonata" enjoys instant status as an acting showcase."
Retrospective evaluation is favorable. In 2002, Keith Phipps of The A.V. Club wrote, "When it was released in 1978, Ingmar Bergman's Autumn Sonata received positive to indifferent reviews, written off by many as a minor work from a great director. [...] With the burden of high expectations lifted, Autumn Sonata can finally be seen as an austerely beautiful meditation on death and the not-always-realized possibility of reconciliation across generations." The film currently has a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
The film won the 1979 Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It was also nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Ingrid Bergman) and Best Original Screenplay.Tehzeeb (2003) is a Hindi film inspired by Autumn Sonata.
In September 2008 a theatrical version entitled Sonata de otoño was performed in Madrid.
A stage adaptation was performed at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm in 2009 with Marie Göranzon and Maria Bonnevie.
In April 2011, a new theatrical adaptation of Autumn Sonata, based on Bergman's original screenplay, had its World Premiere at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, CT, directed by Robert Woodruff.
In 2017, a Swedish-language opera Höstsonaten was premièred at the Finnish National Opera. The music is composed by Sebastian Fagerlund and the libretto by Gunilla Hemming is based upon Bergman’s screenplay.