Remembering Bergman

Jane Magnusson’s Bergman – A Year in a Lifefocuses on a specific year in the career of one of cinema’s leading auteurs. In 1957 Bergman directed two of his most celebrated works: The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries. Alongside these two cinematic works he would also direct four plays, that defines 1957 as a high point in his creative productivity. For A Year in a Life, Magnusson looks beyond the voice of the works to pursue an exploration of the complex personality, erratic behaviour and turbulent private life of the artist himself. 

In conversation with ASFF, Magnusson discusses Bergman’s self-reflective honesty, how he was a filmmaker thematically out of touch with Swedish society, and how his intimidating presence stirs up an anxiety in other filmmakers.

ASFF: From before to after, how has this documentary altered or influenced your perspective of Bergman?
You are going to think I’m a Bergman freak, in some ways I am, but I came out with another project a few years ago called Trespassing Bergman. That was just about the artist Ingmar Bergman, and I thought at that time it was very closed, and that the works spoke louder than the person. Having done that project, I was interested in who the man behind these amazing films was, but I was also quite tired at the time of Bergman, so I thought: Never mind, I’ll do other things. Then when this opportunity came along, I thought I’d like to figure out who the guy behind the films is, so I started looking into that.

People often think I must hate him now that I have found out all this dirt on him, but I actually don’t. I find the films and he to even more interesting because I never had to dig to find the dirt – he’s the first person to declare it. I never have to say that he was a terrible father, or he was a negligent husband, or he was a Nazi because he’s very open with all these shortcomings himself, which I think makes him incredibly interesting and endearing. The most powerful artists aren’t really exposing their faults, they’d rather be megalomaniacs and talk about all of their greatness. But Bergman never does that; he never talks about his greatness. He says there are two films he has made that he kind of likes: Personaand Cries and Whispers. I think that’s charming in a way and of course he knew his greatness, but he was constantly nervous as well. So that’s a long answer to your question, but I like him more now than I did when I started.

ASFF: When you consider how forthcoming Bergman was about his own shortcomings, and then look to him as a filmmaker, he never positioned himself superior to his characters. There is a humility to Bergman the storyteller. How do you respond to this?
JM: He made so many films and some of them are really bad, and some of them are masterpieces. But it is when he is dealing with his personal issues, when he is close to his home base that the films then become really great, even though he might have Liv Ullmann or Gunnel Lindblom playing himself. I think you’re right, he’s not positioning himself as some difficult to understand intellectual, he’s making films about himself and that’s when they are good. He never went out of his way to try to impress people with his intellect, he just made honest films about what it’s like to be Ingmar Bergman, and then maybe sometimes put a skirt on with a woman playing him. He’s completely unpretentious, but he has been misunderstood as being a very pretentious person. 

ASFF: It is interesting that in the production notes you mention that Martin Scorsese admitted he still does not understand Bergman’s films. This intellectual approach could mean there is a broader lack of an understanding of the Swedish auteur.
The funny thing is for my prior Bergman project, we interviewed a lot of international superstar directors, and Scorsese was one of them. They all seemed to be nervous to talk about Bergman, and I remember Ang Lee calling me up the night before I interviewed him: “Can I cancel? I am not a Bergman expert, please, what are the questions going to be?” At the end of every interview people would just relax and say: “Thank God it’s over, did I pass?” 

It was not a test, and these are established superstars of film. Then here in Sweden when I did this project and I spoke with people who worked with Bergman, nobody was nervous because he’s just this guy who made films, who was kind of goofy, and although he could be horribly mean, in Sweden people aren’t afraid to talk about him. There are a lot of weird scholars here too who try to control how we talk about Bergman, in that there is a certain way, which I think is too bad because it is just going to stop people from talking about him at all. 

So what I have tried to do with this film is to lighten up the discourse around Bergman, to say that it’s fine to talk about him, and you can’t ever be wrong. I mean you can be wrong in mispronouncing a title, or a year when a film came out, but what you think of a Bergman film, how could that be wrong? It’s everyone’s own opinion.

ASFF: Whilst we have discussed the human side of Bergman over the intellectual, aside from film as a form of entertainment, can his films help us to understand ourselves and our world more fully?
Yes, but I also think the themes that he’s talking about are entertaining because if it’s not entertaining, I shut them off. But for me entertainment isn’t laughing my head off, it’s enjoying what I’m watching, and so I think Bergman will help more people than not to understand themselves. He’s incredibly popular in countries that are still quite religious. In South America he has a huge following, and that also made him a little more passé in Sweden because when he was at the height of his career, he was talking about themes of religion and faith that in the 1960s and 1970s were out of fashion here. We are so secularised in Sweden, and so here he perhaps doesn’t help people to understand themselves so much. 

Autumn Sonatais very interesting and has helped me tremendously, and the same with Persona. For me the films where all the leads are women are great. Even if I don’t particularly identify with the characters, it is just wonderful to see women in every millimetre of the film because that is still so unusual, and he was doing this so early on. Even with Summer With Monikaand Sawdust and Tinsel, the women are really strong, and in PersonaThe SilenceCries and Whispers and Autumn Sonata, they are all just women and it is still something we hardly see. Okay,Ocean’s 8came along right and we have Bridesmaids, but we still don’t have any serious films where it’s all just women. 

Bergman – A Year in a Life is released by the BFI in select UK cinemas on 25 January. 

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