Bergman – A Year in a Life (2018)

I suppose it’s always disappointing when your heroes are criticised, but Jane Magnusson’s documentary about film director Ingmar Bergman seems unusually pointed, particularly in the context of this year’s global centenary celebrations.

The film is structured around 1957, a significant year in a career of significant years.  It started with the release of The Seventh Seal to huge international acclaim and concluded with the release of Wild Strawberries, another masterpiece.  In between he filmed Brink of Life (which would be released the following year), made a TV movie, a radio play and directed several theatre plays including a 5-hour version of Peer Gynt.  I recall being amazed by Bergman’s productivity when leafing through the amazing archives book published by Taschen, but 1957 was unusual even by Bergman’s standards.

Wild Strawberries
Bergman on the set of Wild Strawberries with Victor Sjöström

The documentary starts by reminding us of Bergman’s importance and his genius before settling into its structure.  Purportedly a chronicle of the year in question, these incidents are interspersed with tales from his earlier life and a more general consideration of his character.  It’s a mixture of Magnusson’s voice-over, snippets from interviews with people who worked with him, and clips from his movies.

Bergman: A Year in a Life isn’t an analysis of his films, although it uses plenty of footage to illustrate how Bergman explored his own character and experiences.  Instead, it’s an unflinching portrait of the man depicted through his own films and writings and through interviews with others.
It notes, perhaps a little too literally, that his best films are really about him.

It’s well known that Bergman was an unreliable witness of his own life.  His recollections and autobiographies including The Magic Lantern (quoted extensively here) are contradictory and exaggerated.  Footage in his films that appear to be about his life, or about the lives of his parents (Fanny and Alexander, of course, but also The Best IntentionsSunday’s Child and Faithless) turn out to be merely echoes or interpretations of the truth, a poetic truth perhaps, or a dishonest one?

There’s a revelatory interview with Bergman’s older brother Dag from the 1980s that Bergman requested not to be broadcast on Swedish TV (and is shown in this documentary for the first time).  Dag is critical and he insists that some of the incidents that Ingmar attributes to his own childhood happened to Dag instead.  For example, it was Dag not Ingmar who was constantly being beaten by his father Eric; Ingmar was the golden child.  Interestingly, the documentary speculates that perhaps Ingmar is Fanny rather than Alexander, a witness to the physical abuse rather than a direct victim.

Bergman Seventh Seal
Bergman in discussion with Bengt Ekerot who plays Death in The Seventh Seal

The film makes extensive use of on-set footage.  There’s a small amount of footage of Bergman at work in 1957, including filming The Seventh Seal in a desultory ‘forest’ where he tries to keep a concrete apartment building out of shot.  We also see clips from Bergman’s own documentaries of the making of Winter Light and Fanny & Alexander and other archive footage from the filming of Saraband and The Magic Flute.  These films were made much later than 1957, but they allow Magnusson more choice when illustrating her character study with select footage of Bergman being irritable, impatient and angry.

Bergman’s personal life and behaviour was far from admirable, particularly in his personal relationships with women.  By 1957 he had had several relationships and marriages, six children in whom he had little interest, and could be cruel and tyrannical.  It seems that while he was an incredible director and wrote particularly insightful and sensitive roles for women, he failed badly as a father and in his relationships.

This documentary doesn’t flinch from exploring and exposing these characteristics.  It admires his drive and productivity, his nervous energy and total immersion in his work, but it spends much more time focusing on his darker nature.

We learn how Bergman vocally admired Hitler during the war – this apparently was not uncommon in Sweden at the time – and thought the concentration camp footage that emerged was faked for propaganda.  It was only in 1946 that he realised his huge error of judgement and vowed never to get involved in politics again.

We discover that he violently assaulted his wife; there’s a confession in an unpublished first draft of The Magic Lantern.  He explored his shame and guilt around this incident in both From The Life of the Marionettes and Faithless.

We find that Bergman was a fearsome man, prone to tantrums.  He lived on nervous energy, suffering excruciating stomach ulcers and living on a diet of yoghurt and biscuits. Bergman wielded increasing power in Swedish film and theatre, and could be a tyrant, allegedly making or breaking careers.

Bergman was revered and feared on set

There are plenty of interviews that corroborate these characteristics, but not much from his closer long-term collaborators.  Bergman had his own repertory film and theatre group.  He worked with the same actors and technicians time and time again, even after some achieved international fame.  Many are now dead, including Sven Nykvist, Gunnar Björnstrand and most recently his closest and longest friend Erland Josephson.  But others such as Bibi Andersson, Harriet Andersson and Max von Sydow are still alive and might have added some balance.

We do get to hear from Liv Ulmann who has warm memories; Ullmann had lead roles in ten of his films and for a time they were lovers.  In 1957 it seems Bergman was juggling affairs with four different women and there’s an amusing sequence when Ullmann ties herself in knots trying to recall who of these women followed whom.  This behaviour suggests a man with little consideration for the women in his life.  However, Ullman tearfully recalls that he was the most loving ordinary man you could possibly live with.

The film’s narrative jumps to 1995, where he clashed with the lead actor of his stage production of The Misanthrope.  This is depicted as Bergman willfully destroying the actors career in a huge battle of egos, but from the context it seems likely that Bergman was raging against his increasing frailty of old age and incapacity.

This is an interesting and well made documentary that reveals a lot about the famous director.  I can’t help thinking that it disproportionately focuses on the negative aspects of his character, despite its hagiographic closing section.  Maybe this is a useful counterbalance to the very positive centenary celebrations this year.

In the end, this fascinating two-hour documentary shows us Bergman as a driven, complicated and unflinchingly truthful man despite his myth making and whose films were a way for him to understand his personal demons and neuroses.

2018-10-14 15.38.34.jpg
Director Jane Magnusson in conversation with the BFI’s Geoff Andrew the film’s premiere on 14th October 2018

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