Review: SEARCHING FOR INGMAR BERGMAN, a True Documentary Find

Director Margarette von Trotta discusses Ingmar Bergman with Liv Ullmann, Olivier Assayas, and many more.

Featured Critic; St. Louis, MO
Review: SEARCHING FOR INGMAR BERGMAN, a True Documentary Find

Margarette von Trotta found Ingmar Bergman a long time ago.  She recollects as much in her new documentary about the iconoclast Swedish filmmaker, Searching for Ingmar Bergman, an excellent, excellent effort which she goes ahead and stars in.  She was a young lady, living in late-1950s Paris, when her Nouvelle Vague-obsessed cohorts dragged her to a screening of Bergman’s first internationally acclaimed masterpiece, The Seventh Seal.  

Like many, this radical discovery was her introduction to the man who’d globally impact cinema; an impact felt to this day.  Von Trotta went on to become an actress and an award-winning filmmaker; an essential personality in the New German Cinema movement.  Her career has been rich, her love of cinema even richer; her soul ever-curious.  She may’ve found Bergman’s films years ago, but she nonetheless must come to know… who is the man, the mind, the truth of the master behind them?  For this, the search continues.

Von Trotta doesn’t set out to solve the question of Bergman so much as get at who he was.  Expected topics such as his notorious struggles with religious faith and his gradual letting go of it surprisingly aren’t covered so much as his working methods are, as well as his personal life, and yes, his spirit.  Insomuch, von Trotta wisely allows Searching for Ingmar Bergman to play as a series of discussions; a deceptively brilliantly structured series of insights and chats with those who knew Bergman well and those who understand him. 

In this, von Trotta and her co-directors Felix Moeller and Bettina Böhler (Christian Petzold’s frequent editor; also the editor of this film) manage a lighter, even airy tone that, while accurate in many ways to the man they’re uncovering, flies in the face of the heavy-laden and somber reputation of his work, and, by extension, his name.

Though not the first documentary about Ingmar Bergman, this is the best.  Direct, even bluntly honest at times, Searching for Ingmar Bergman is an approachable, even inviting examination.  While not without its share of both likely and unlikely “talking heads”, participants, von Trotta is conversational with them rather than a detached Interviewer.  She begins with arguably the biggest catch possible, the great Liv Ullmann. 

Out of the gate, we have a touching moment in which the women, while looking at old photos, linger on a picture of Ullmann presenting von Trotta with the Golden Lion at the 1981 Venice Film Festival for her film The German Sisters (aka Marianne & Juliane).  Von Trotta tells of how Ullmann represented Bergman to her, with his spirit there over her during the prestigious victory at Venice.  Sure enough, Bergman named The German Sisters among his ten favorite films.  Although it’s not atypical for any given documentarian’s decision to insert him or herself into their film to prove an eye-rolling one, von Trotta’s onscreen participation is legitimate.  

The son of a priest in a difficult yet affluent childhood, Bergman went on to exert an extremely controlled and exceptionally personal direction in his art making.  As Bergman himself puts it in a vintage on-camera interview clip, “I have always felt lonely in the world out there.  That is why I escaped into filmmaking even though the feeling of community is an illusion.” 

In her chats with fellow directors such as Stig Björkman, Ruben Östlund and Mia Hansen-Løve, his compelling mastery of his craft, be it visual or in writing, is fascinatingly unpacked by those who’ve spent no shortage of time considering it.  French filmmaker Olivier Assayas is wide-eyed and enthusiastic when he talks about Bergman’s emergence during a time when psychoanalysis was just starting to be seen as a way of understanding cinema.  He speaks of how Bergman’s penchant for exploring his own issues via his work in his time and place makes him “perhaps one of the most fascinating film directors ever.”

He is, as non-Bergman actor Jean-Claude Carrière puts it, “ of those who opened up cinema after the war.”   We come to understand how, in the emerging World Cinema age of rapidly heightening subjective storytelling, Bergman first and foremost directs audiences’ focus via his famed direction of actors.  Actors tend to adore Bergman, so much so that they return to work with him even in the wake of disastrous personal relationships with him. 

Liv Ullmann says that she made eleven films with him, many of which were after their own time together as a couple.  Whatever the case for other Bergman actresses (also featured in the documentary are Rita Russek [From the Life of Marionettes], Gunnel Lindblom [Winter Light], and Julia Dufvenius [Saraband]; not featured are Bibi Anderson, Harriet Andersson and key actor Max von Sydow), it’s difficult to disagree with Spanish director Carlos Saura when he gets at the much of the enduring spirit of Bergman’s cinema:  “Everyone is in love with Bergman’s actresses,” he plainly states.

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Of course, with a figure such as Ingmar Bergman, it cannot be all complements and awe.  One of Bergman’s many, many children, his grown son Daniel Bergman (a filmmaker in his own right), speaks extensively of his strained relationship with his father, including a time they collaborated for a film project and ended up butting heads.  Daniel Bergman expresses no love lost for his father, but does so (repeatedly) in the most matter of fact of ways, even as he remains fascinated by “Ingmar” (as he refers to him).  

His extensive shortcomings as a glaringly absentee presence in the lives of his offspring was not lost on Ingmar Bergman himself.  He’s recalled elsewhere, “In a quarrel with one of my sons, I said, ‘I know I’ve been a lousy father’.  He said, ‘A father? You haven’t been a father at all!’”  The man, ever a child himself, was incapable of giving himself over to his own children.  If there is a central tragedy in the fabric of Searching for Ingmar Bergman, this is surely it.  “I could always live in my art but never in my life.”, Bergman once said.

Just as he mandated a reality in which the children in Fanny and Alexander magically transport from one large truck to another to escape their abusive religious father, Bergman spent his life and career attempting to manipulate and control reality.   At best, he could do so on screen and on stage via his myopic film and theater work.  At worst, he did so via his disconnected relationships with his numerous wives and children.  It is made clear that in never letting go of his childhood- the very source of his creativity- he strove to live and actualize a childish and childlike grip on reality.  A dream (sometimes nightmare) reality of in which he is unmistakably at the center.  How can there be room for God in a realm such as this?

Searching for Ingmar Bergman glides along so effortlessly, that its narrative chronology -- the strained backbone of so many other such documentaries -- is refreshingly unapparent for much of its ninety-nine minute running time.  Yes, it begins with The Seventh Seal, and quickly touches upon certain touchstones such as Summer with Monika and Wild Strawberries.  But Bergman’s Oscar winner, Through a Glass Darkly, is barely included, and his “comedy” and winner of the 1956 Palme d’Or, Smiles of a Summer Night, isn’t included at all.  

In stark contrast, who would’ve suspected that this most definitive of documentaries on Ingmar Bergman would linger the longest on two of the director’s aggressively least popular works, 1977’s The Serpent’s Egg, and, from a few years later, From the Life of Marionettes.  These grotesque and violent films (both physically and emotionally) were make during Bergman’s tax exile to Germany… perhaps this otherwise odd focus is von Trotta’s own nationalism coming through?  In any case, this thickly dark period of turmoil turns out to be a particularly deep well in terms of Bergman’s own grappling, misgivings, frustrations, and anger.  He’s deliberately funneled it all onto the screen.  

Bergman has confessed that “I am living permanently in my dream, from which I make brief forays into reality.”  Reeling it in a bit, he also said, “Film is a distributor of dreamers and of dreams.  And it brings to life people’s dreams, wishes and most secret longings.  Film will always be with us.  There’s no better medium.”  But immediately and maybe even crucially, this quote is followed by a silent half-beat, and then the most uncertain of sideways glances.  It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, but one that nonetheless speaks possible volumes on the man’s chronic questioning of whatever was important or should’ve been important in his life.  Even film.

Could the doubt be, then, that like the women he so adored and so related with, the flickering in-and-out nature of cinema is something he felt to be finite?  Theater, his other, less-acknowledged lifelong artistic passion, was, to him, a more permanent fixture.  A stage, perhaps, was something to be committed to, a structure that is there in the community and truly always with us.  Inversely, cinema can and will take you anywhere.  Yet sadly, whether one is making a film or watching one, they all must end.  And when they end, their light is simply gone from the room, the screen itself has become lifelessly blank.  An oasis.  An illusion.  “The theater is like a faithful wife,” he famously once said. “The film is the great adventure – the costly, exacting mistress.”  In the winter light of this documentary, this quote is all the more telling.

Like Margarette von Trotta and her co-directing team, cinephiles will be searching for Ingmar Bergman for the rest of their days.  In the meantime, they should search out Searching for Ingmar Bergman, a proper look into the man and his methods on the occasion of his centennial year.

The film recently screened at the Toronto International Film Festival and is scheduled to open in select U.S. theaters on November 2, 2018. 

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documentaryfilmmakingIngmar BergmanLiv UllmannMargarette von TrottaOlivier AssayasSearching for Ingmar Bergman

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