Postscriptum: The Incompleat Ingmar

Where do you go after seeing most of Ingmar Bergman’s films and TV productions, over a span of almost four years? Do you go back to the beginning and start again? There are definitely quite a few of these that I’ll want to rewatch, but no, I don’t want the rest of my life to be on a permanent Bergman loop. Do I seek out the remaining films (seven, apparently) and watch those as well, for the sake of completeness? Some of the films not included on Criterion’s set are from the early years, and while those films are not uninteresting, for many of them I found the main interest to be the glimpse they provide at a Bergmann who hasn’t quite found his groove yet – and lesser Bergmann can leave you with a sense of “Why didn’t I watch Smiles of a Summer Night or The Seventh Seal or Persona or Fanny and Alexander instead?”

So how about watching some films about Bergman instead?

When it comes to material about Bergman, too, completionism is the path to madness. How many interviews, making-ofs, documentaries, parodies and meditations on the director are there? How many of them are worth watching? We did see some of the extras included in the Criterion set along the way, many of them closely linked to one of his works, a certain period of his creative life – or even one of his relationships. (Liv Ullmann obviously pops up a lot.) The final material we watched that Criterion had included was The Making of Fanny and Alexander, a feature-length film that is perhaps less of a documentary than it is Bergman’s video journal of creating the film.

A feature-length making-of doesn’t exactly sound like most people’s idea of fun, but Bergman’s take on the genre is very enjoyable. It has a dry, ironic humour throughout, and it gives a sense of what this shoot must have been like, for the director as well as for his actors. It’s not particularly critical of the process or of anyone involved in it, especially Bergman himself, but neither does it come across as prettifying the creative process or glorifying the director himself. It is clearly a document that presents a selective, highly subjective perspective on the work, but it never comes across as trying to do anything more than that. The Making of Fanny and Alexander is basically Bergman’s “What I did on my movie shoot”, though done with skill and wit and an affection for the film they’re making that Fanny and Alexander more than warrants.

But how do Bergman and his career look from a different perspective? In 2018, the documentarian Jane Magnusson released her film Bergman: A Year in a Life – and, in keeping with her subject and works of his like Scenes from a Marriage and the aforementioned Fanny and Alexander, a longer, four-part version for TV, called Bergman – A Life in Four Acts. She’s collected an impressive number of talking heads to talk about their views of, and experiences, with Ingmar Bergman, including international stars ranging from Barbra Streisand to Holly Hunter, Swedish acting royalty including Liv Ullmann and Pernilla August, as well as academics, film critics and other journalists.

Magnusson’s documentary comes across as oddly schizophrenic: it veers from Bergman adoration (though often with a hint of irony that keeps it from falling into adulation) to highlighting all the ways in which the iconic director was a self-serving shit who tortured his cast and crew and who had a cruel chokehold on the development of Swedish cinema and theatre, especially in the last decade or so of his life. The conflictedness I get: there are more than enough stories, even from people who clearly loved and still love the man, that show him to be petty and vindictive when he didn’t get what he wanted. What made it more difficult for me is that A Life in Four Acts rarely ever tries to reconcile these conflicting versions of Bergman, not even to end up accepting that the man was contradictory. As a result, Magnusson’s documentary comes across as being interested in strong statements – Bergman as genius, as Svengali, as petty dictator – without much curiosity in examining these versions more closely, or even much interest in giving the audience material to make up their own mind. Instead, in between Bergman-as-genius we repeatedly get fifteen minutes dedicated to all the ways in which Bergman was horrible, underlined by snippets from interviews or off-screen footage, in ways that, due to being stripped of context, come across as leading at best and disingenuous at worst. Here’s Bergman snapping at his collaborators. Here’s Bergman saying something sexist. Here’s Bergman glowering at a crew member after the voiceover has told us what a terror he could be. Magnusson uses the Khuleshov effect – we interpret the black-and-white still of Bergman that the camera slowly zooms in on according to what her voiceover last told us about him – in ways that, in the end, say more about Magnusson’s aims in any given scene than about Bergman himself. Bergman was the best. He was the worst. Repeat for four hours.

There are things to enjoy about Bergman – A Life in Four Acts, in particular striking off-screen photography and footage of the director and the interviews with people who worked closely with the man, for better or for worse. Magnusson’s commentary, and her shaping of our perception of Bergman: these can come across as blatantly manipulative, especially in how Magnusson uses the genre of the documentary, whereas the more obviously subjective impressions by others don’t hide that they are subjective, and therefore their often contradictory nature is a feature, not a bug: these are people still trying to figure out how they felt and still feel about a director that they worked with, that may have given them some of the best material to use their craft on as well as some of the worst experiences in their professional lives. Magnusson’s sometimes heavy-handed shaping of the material, and her voiceover guiding us throughout, do her impressive amount and range of footage a disservice more often than not.

In the end, what was I trying to get out of sifting through this post-Criterion box set material? Was I trying to get a better understanding of Bergman, and as a result a better understanding of his films? I don’t think so. Whether Bergman was a Nazi sympathiser as an adolescent or not wouldn’t tell me anything about The Seventh Seal or Persona or Fanny and Alexander. Hearing how smart, strong, talented women fell for him with breathtaking speed and intensity won’t make All These Women funnier or After the Rehearsal less navel-gazing. Perhaps it was a different impulse altogether: after watching the vast majority of Bergman’s oeuvre, whether or not I enjoyed the individual films, there’s a part of me that wasn’t quite ready to leave the world that Bergman’s film create, these characters and stories. I joked about going back to the beginning and watching them all again, now that I know the director’s works better, but I’d be lying if I said that part of me didn’t want to do exactly that – though probably skipping some of the films along the way. Watching a four-hour documentary was a good way of understanding that I’ve had enough Bergman for a while. I’m ready for new things.

After all, a fourteen-film tour of the cinema of Federico Fellini shouldn’t take me quite as long, right?

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