@Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Wed 6 Feb 2019
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of Ingmar Bergman in the history of cinema. The word iconic simply doesn’t do him justice. Not only is he recognised as one of the all-time greats of the medium, his name has become a semiotic shorthand as the definition of a certain type of arthouse film-making; both celebrated and parodied in equal measure. With 2018 marking his centenary, his legacy is ripe for assessment.
Jane Magnusson’s documentary Bergman: A Year in a Life focuses on 1957, an impossibly verdant year of creativity for Bergman. It saw the release of two of his most enduring films, The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, as well as radio plays, TV movies, and lavish stage productions of Molière‘s The Misanthrope, and Ibsen‘s Peer Gynt. Magnusson uses 1957 to contextualise Bergman’s life and career overall. She depicts it as the year he began to make films containing no voice other than his own; an artistic decision that proved the springboard to his becoming the titan and tyrant of Swedish culture. The methods are familiar: talking heads, film clips and archive footage of the man himself, at work and in his own words; yet the sources are first rate. The interviews are always candid, and the interviewees close collaborators like Liv Ullmann, Gunnel Lindblom, Lena Endre, and Lena Olin.
While Bergman’s work deserves to be celebrated in this way, A Year in a Life is no hagiography. Magnusson doesn’t balk at depicting him as yet another man whose perceived greatness is a licence to behave badly. His compulsive infidelity, youthful allegiance to Nazi ideals (not uncommon in Sweden during the period), propensity for violence towards women, and his utter disinterest in his children are all addressed. It’s relentlessly fascinating, even if it feels like the film occasionally stretches to present his art as justification for his abysmal behaviour. It also fails to get past the varnish of his self-mythologising to the real man, warts and all. The depiction of Bergman as a rather hermetic figure who painted his life story through his films and characters as his own unreliable narrator, is one he took pains to cultivate himself. Nevertheless, it’s a rigorous and exhaustive examination of an astonishing career.
It’s difficult to say if Bergman: A Year in a Life will entice casual viewers who aren’t ardent cinephiles. Magnusson doesn’t assume a huge amount of prior knowledge about her subject, but the documentary lacks the propulsive narrative of something like Senna which attracted an impressive amount of non-racing fans. What it does have is a fascinating take on the obsessive drive to create; to the exclusion of family, friends and often, health. For films fans it’s ambrosia, and would form an ideal double bill in both subject and themes with Les Blank‘s Werner Herzog doc, Burden of Dreams.