Film Review: Searching for Ingmar Bergman

An accomplished director pens a love letter to one of cinema’s greatest.
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This may not especially qualify as news, but apparently Ingmar Bergman was not exactly a barrel of laughs.

That’s the simplest takeaway from Searching for Ingmar Bergman, in which Margarethe von Trotta—the director of Rosenstrasse, and a gifted filmmaker in her own right—tries to get a better understanding of the artist she’s loved since she first saw The Seventh Seal more than 50 years ago.

And what she learns isn’t particularly surprising. Or heartwarming.

Although Bergman was solicitous of his performers, particularly his actresses, he was partly able to do that by focusing all his petty rages on minor members of the crew. Although he adored women, and needed their approval—“Now I know you love me,” he would say, as soon as the latest wife became pregnant—he would almost always leave within a few years. Childhood he found fascinating. His own children…not so much.

But no one ever claimed that the best art was made by the easiest people. And while Bergman could be difficult to get along with, he also engendered great devotion from his casts, who worked with him repeatedly. And if his moods could sometimes be black and bleak, well, those were the energies that fueled his films.

Although this year marks the late artist’s centennial, this isn’t a deep dive into Bergman’s life and times—for that, you’d almost need one of those lengthy “Genius” miniseries on the Nat Geo channel. But it lightly sketches the parameters of his life—growing up with a stern and censorious pastor for a father, struggling with his own questions of faith and meaning, finding post-war success with a series of dazzling films.

And it touches on the disappointments, too. A charge of tax evasion that—even when withdrawn—left Bergman so outraged and humiliated that he left his native Sweden for years. Emotional mood swings—including at least one breakdown—and occasional threats to leave cinema entirely.

Von Trotta remains an enormous Bergman admirer—the film begins with her describing, from memory, the opening shots of The Seventh Seal—and she finds other fans too, including the great actress Liv Ullmann, for so long the director’s muse. Particularly enthused are other great directors, like Olivier Assayas, who posit Bergman as the influence on French cinema.

Less excited, sadly, are the director’s own grown children—like Daniel, himself a film director, who coldly remembers an even colder man who seemed happiest relating to people through a camera lens and had little difficulty banishing them from his life.

Of course, in the end, the work is the thing, and Searching for Ingmar Bergman collects much of it, with significant clips not only from early classics like Wild Strawberries and Sawdust and Tinsel but later, lesser-known, even more experimental productions like From the Life of the Marionettes. It also pays significant attention to his theatre work—a medium Bergman cherished working in and which was often overlooked in considerations of his career.

And we get some insight into his work with actors. Especially interesting is the on-the-set footage demonstrating his willingness to extensively block a scene—walk there, sit down before you say that line, move your hand this way, get up after this bit of dialogue—in a way that many modern directors would shy away from and some actors would find intolerable.

Still, you often wish von Trotta had dug deeper. Although Bergman’s memory piece Fanny and Alexander is excerpted often, we don’t learn nearly enough about the director’s own childhood. And we hear next to nothing about the astonishing look of his films, in which—thanks chiefly to the genius of cinematographer Sven Nykvist—black and grey seascapes crash like divine warnings and people shine with the light of freshly polished silver.

In the end, perhaps, von Trotta’s search for Bergman never quite finds him. But did he ever quite find himself? All he knew was that he was an artist—which is why, when once in a deep depression and urged to commit to serious therapy, he politely declined. After all, how could he ever really be happy, if it meant he was no longer sad enough to make films?