November 13, 2019

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Through a lens darkly

Documentary uses unique approach to examine Bergman's life and work

Director Margarethe Von Trotta's search for what made filmmaker Ingmar Bergman tick begins at the famous rocky beach from Bergman's The Seventh Seal.

WEIFFENBACH / OSCILLOSCOPE LABORATORIES

Director Margarethe Von Trotta's search for what made filmmaker Ingmar Bergman tick begins at the famous rocky beach from Bergman's The Seventh Seal.

This idiosyncratic documentary approach to the late Ingmar Bergman starts on a rocky beach under dark skies, a landscape that will immediately resonate with fans of the great Swedish director. This is the austere setting of The Seventh Seal, and filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta (Two German Sisters), a force in New German Cinema, traces her own interest in film to seeing that work in Paris in the early 1960s.

Von Trotta’s method here is personal and a little wayward. This is not a systematic analysis of Bergman’s art, nor a comprehensive overview of his life. It’s called Searching for Ingmar Bergman, after all, not Finding Ingmar Bergman.

The film follows its own interesting directions, mixing up footage from Bergman’s films and archival material with thoughtful interviews with Bergman collaborators (including Liv Ullmann and Katinka Farago) and younger filmmakers who have come under his influence (including Olivier Assayas and Mia Hansen-Love). The results are both meandering and intense, and they suggest a passionate regard for Bergman’s work without being slavishly hagiographic.

Bergman, who died in 2007 at age 89, is often held up as the exemplar of towering male genius, the patriarch of auteur cinema. It’s intriguing, then, to see him through a female lens. (It also makes for a nice contrast to Peter Bogdanovich’s recent cinematic tribute to Buster Keaton, which seemed to suggest that all film fans are guys.)

Ullmann, who worked with Bergman on 11 films and also had a child with him, speaks about his empathetic explorations of women’s inner lives and his sharp eye for imbalances in power.

Bergman was preoccupied throughout his life by the tensions that came from a rigid upbringing as the son of a Lutheran pastor and his own guilt and desire in an increasingly progressive and secular Sweden.

He tunnelled down into issues of suffering, despair and loss of faith, combining literary weightiness with technical cinematic experimentation. As Assayas suggests, Bergman was "a man of both the written word and the visual image."

He was also known for intense collaborations with a core group of actors, including Ullmann, Bibi Andersson, Gunnel Lindblom and Max von Sydow, and we see how he worked with them through interviews and revealing footage of rehearsals.

Von Trotta isn’t afraid to be critical. She brings up — briefly — Bergman’s brief adolescent interest in fascism, and she’s also clear about his failings as a husband and father.

Bergman tenderly explored the emotional lives of children in his films, including the masterwork Fanny and Alexander, but remained supremely uninterested in his own children.

"He said to the ladies when they were pregnant, ‘Now I know you love me,’" his son, Daniel Bergman, suggests. "And then he left them."

As Daniel Bergman relates, his father finally gathered together his nine children (by six mothers) to mark his 60th birthday, many of them meeting each other for the first time, a setup that sounds a bit, well, Bergmanesque.

Still, as the film suggests, Bergman could turn his own failures into excoriating and self-aware investigations into male entitlement and cruelty, a lesson not always picked up by his fans. (We’re looking at you, Woody Allen.)

Some hardcore cineastes might be disappointed by the doc’s haphazard approach. Von Trotta includes footage from minor films like Sawdust and Tinsel and The Serpent’s Egg, for example, while ignoring some iconic major works.

But this cinematic wandering also yields unexpected and odd little stories. Take this reminiscence from a Bergman grandson who talks about watching Michael Bay’s popcorny war movie Pearl Harbor with his grandfather in a special screening room: evidently, Ingmar avidly watched the action scenes while impatiently skipping through the love story. That’s the kind of fun fact that might not come out in a more conventional bio.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

Read full biography

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