It was more or less inevitable that the centenary of Ingmar Bergman (he was born on July 14, 1918) would be commemorated with a reverent film portrait of the legendary Swedish director’s life and work. But here’s where we’ve been lucky: The year has given us not one but two world-class, eye-and-mind-opening Bergman documentaries. The most haunting of the two, “Bergman — A Year in a Life” (which I reviewed at Cannes), has yet to be released in the U.S. But anyone with a passion for Bergman should make a point of seeking out Margarethe von Trotta’s “Searching for Ingmar Bergman,” which opens this week. It’s an investigation in the form of a highly personalized meditation.
It’s also a documentary that bubbles over with anecdote and insight (did you know that “Dallas,” the TV series, was an influence on “Scenes from a Marriage”?). Von Trotta, a directorial legend in her own right, opens “Searching for Ingmar Bergman” in a stunning way, with images of herself strolling along the overcast nook of stony beach where Max von Sydow’s knight first woke up in “The Seventh Seal” to encounter that cloaked chess player known as Death. “This is where it all began for me,” says von Trotta, a seemingly simple statement that’s encoded with meaning. “The Seventh Seal,” released in 1957, was the first Bergman film she ever saw — and, in fact, it was the first Bergman film that a lot of people saw. It remains his most mythological work: a magical vision of medieval squalor that speaks to modern sensibilities, to our anguished tangle of fear and longing and fractured faith.
Von Trotta cuts back and forth between black-and-white images of the beach in “The Seventh Seal” and the way that beach looks today (not too different: It’s as iconic a setting as the harbor view of the Golden Gate Bridge in “Vertigo”). She brings out the shiver of awe you can still feel about a movie like “The Seventh Seal” — that Bergman was adding a dimension to cinema. Other filmmakers, one could argue, had done that before, from Carl Dreyer to Kurosawa to the Italian neorealists. But Bergman expanded the meaning of the canvas itself.
The French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, interviewed by von Trotta, calls Bergman “one of the phantoms who shaped the youth of our generation, who shaped the New Wave. Even if the New Wave took the opposite approach to him.” That’s a crucial insight, since even though Truffaut wrote admiringly of “The Seventh Seal,” Bergman is not conventionally cited as a primal influence on the French directors (Truffaut, Godard, etc.) who blew open the world of filmmaking; their public muses were the classic Hollywood directors they elevated into auteurs. Yet it was Bergman, with his rapt psychodramatic darkness, his obsession with filmmaking as an excavation of the human spirit, who blew open their world.
Von Trotta puts her passion for Bergman front and center, but she also leaves you with the impression, at once playful and slightly ominous, of what a charismatic and impossible man he was. One of Bergman’s sons, the film director Daniel Bergman, now in his mid-50s, speaks with level-headed affection about his father’s consuming “narcissism,” and claims that the reason Bergman had so many children with different women is that he regarded each pregnancy as proof that he was loved; with that established, he could then proceed to go off and ignore each child. It was Ingmar who was really the child. He envisioned directing, for all its headaches, as the natural extension of a child’s playroom, a cocoon of make-believe that he never wanted to leave, and so he rarely did. Maybe that’s why just about every lead actor (and actress) in a Bergman film is playing some version of himself.
“Searching for Ingmar Bergman” gathers funny and revealing stories about Bergman, like how he screened Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor” in his personal theater (he was no film snob) but wound up ordering the projectionist to show only the action sequences and skip the love story (so maybe he was). Or how he would sit in a strategically angled booth at his favorite restaurant in Stockholm, near the theater where he staged most of his plays, waiting for the people he worked with to come through the door so that he could keep tabs on who was sleeping with whom. It’s fascinating to learn that Bergman lived in the same nexus of downtown Stockholm from his childhood right up through his adult fame (at least until he moved to Fårö, his austere island retreat). When we see the church at the center of the city where his father was pastor, it speaks volumes — not about the strict religious upbringing that formed Ingmar, but about how bourgeois he was. A photograph of his father in the gilded pulpit makes him look less like the dour religious scold Bergman always spoke of than like an artist-deity, a God-like figure of all-powerful vision.
Von Trotta follows her instincts, letting her search for Bergman’s essence take her where it will. She shows a clip of herself winning the Golden Lion at Venice in 1981 for “The German Sisters,” a movie cited by Bergman in 1994 as one of the 11 films that were most important to him. The others tell a fascinating story, adding up to a patchwork of the Bergman aesthetic, from the historical woodland violence of “Rashomon” to the baroque cruelty of “Sunset Boulevard” to the close-up facial expressiveness of “The Passion of Joan of Arc” to the harlequin romance of “The Circus.” Von Trotta sits around with Liv Ullmann, who still sounds awestruck when she recalls first meeting Bergman on a Stockholm street in the early 1960s. And she interviews directors like Olivier Assayas and Ruben Östlund, who capture how Bergman loomed over the ’70s, as well as his fellow Swede Stig Björkman, who explains how Bergman, even as he was lionized around the world, was overshadowed in his home country by Bo Widerberg, who led a Swedish new wave of far more naturalistic technique, provoking Bergman’s jealousy.
Bergman became unlikely tabloid fodder when he was arrested in 1976 for tax evasion, and the film looks at how this mishap tore a hole in his identity. He entered a psych ward, threatening suicide (he was placed on heavy medication), yet what was really damaged was Bergman’s pride. He left Sweden in a morose huff and went to live in Germany, and since von Trotta is German, it’s no surprise that she spends a lot of time on this chapter of the Bergman saga, shedding new light on the period when he was a self-styled refugee in Munich, pouring his feelings of alienation and violence into the two films he made there in the late ’70s: the dawn-of-the-Nazi-era thriller “The Serpent’s Egg” (which, I’m sorry, is terrible) and the searing sex drama “From the Life of the Marionettes” (far from a great film, but so revealing of Bergman’s demons that it’s kind of mesmerizing).
He had many marriages and affairs and relationships, but through it all there was a way in which Bergman replaced the very idea of family with his communal utopia of artistic collaborators (a utopia ruled by him, of course). Katinka Faragó, his script assistant for 30 years, says that Bergman had a method, which was never to quarrel with his actors; he wanted to create a zone of safety for them, to protect them like a father. (He took out his anger on the crew instead. And treated his own children like strangers.) Faragó also tells a story about how she would watch rushes early in the morning and then go up to Bergman’s dressing room, where he would hold her hand for 20 minutes, not saying much of anything, until he worked up the nerve to go down and start directing. Von Trotta relates a story just like that: When Bergman visited her and her husband, the director Volker Schlöndorff, in the early ‘80s, the three sat around a table while he held their hands, never letting go as they spoke. That may be the most revealing nugget in the entire movie — that after all the dread and the drama, Ingmar Bergman had a feeling he couldn’t hide. He wanted to hold your hand.