Last year, I had a bit of an adventure as an extra on a movie set. And not just any movie set, either. I ended up as an extra in a bar scene in Steve McQueen’s newest film, the Chicago-set (and filmed!) Widows. For as many films as I see every year, I’m rarely on set, so being in the room while McQueen directed his actors and established a scene was quite a treat indeed.
There’s a similar sort of “peek behind the curtain” giddiness in Searching for Ingmar Bergman, a new documentary that sends filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta (The German Sisters (or Marianne & Juliane as it was released in the US), Hannah Arendt) down all kinds of cinematic rabbit holes as she tries to uncover the man behind the lens and better understand his lasting impact on cinema. After nearly two hours of conversations with the actresses from his films, the filmmakers whom he inspired and even his children, she may not be any closer to pinning down exactly what made Bergman and his work so iconic, but it’s an incredibly enjoyable journey regardless.
Bergman’s early career came into its own just at the height of French New Wave (or “nouvelle vague”), and though steeped in his own Swedish roots, he came to embody—alongside his French contemporaries—the belief that cinema just might be the perfect art form, able to capture the human experience and reflect it back to the audience. It was his willingness to go there, in a time when filmmakers might otherwise be constrained by polite society (or even the censorship of their own governments), that created memorable, influential films like Persona, Wild Strawberries and Fanny & Alexander.
Von Trotta builds a film that’s a bit like a motorbike with sidecar; she’s off an an adventure, and we’re invited to hop in and sit shotgun for it all. Even her interviews, which play at first like standard, run-of-the-mill talking heads quickly become conversations, as she simply can’t resist responding and engaging on a topic that so clearly fascinates her. Some of the most geek-out-worthy moments (at least for this cinephile) come when she’s chatting with the likes of Olivier Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria, Personal Shopper), Mia Hansen Løve (Father of my Children, Things to Come) and Ruben Östlund (Force Majeure, The Square). These are some of the most interesting European filmmakers working today, and they delight in talking about someone as influential as Bergman as von Trotta does. (At one point, Östlund can’t help himself and breaks out his iPhone to start filming von Trotta right back. So meta!)
Every artist has his or her demons, of course, and the conversations with Bergman’s children prove poignant in their own way. His youngest son, himself a filmmaker, talks openly about the distance between him and his father, that the elder Bergman never quite seemed to connect with his own children the way he did with his actors, that getting whichever current lover pregnant started off as an expression of power but ultimately became a commitment he didn’t want to be burdened with. He was too busy adapting his work for the stage or sorting out his next script, pursuits he apparently found much more fulfilling than being a partner or father.
Von Trotta’s journey takes her around Europe, retracing Bergman’s steps through Stockholm, Paris, and more as he developed as an artist and discovered his own influences in new social circles and political environments. The latter were not always in his favor, as towards the end of his life, he became an disillusioned with his homeland, closing down production there and retreating to Germany. Exploring it all alongside von Trotta, at one point stopping in to speak with a historian about this tempestuous time in his life, makes for a riveting lesson in an artist’s constant struggle to balance their vision with their livelihood.
If you’ve already seen everything in Bergman’s filmography, Searching for Ingmar Bergman will serve as a practically magical walk through the man’s life, loves, inspirations and legacy. If you’ve not seen his work or aren’t as familiar with it as you should be, the film may just be more meaningful, as it delights in artists appreciating artists and the very essence of human nature, at its best and worst, that drives one to create.
Searching for Ingmar Bergman is now playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center; as part of a Bergman retrospective, you can also see Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal. Learn more here.
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