Bergman: A Year in a Life




A rare and troubling insight into an artist's life not confined to a single year.


Bergman A Year in the Life
Ingmar Bergman with Liv Ullmann


Since Ingmar Bergman is unquestionably one of the great names of cinema, it is not really surprising that 2018, the year that marks the centenary of his birth, should have seen the emergence of two documentary features about him. One, Searching for Ingmar Bergman, was made by the German filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta and others, but it is Jane Magnusson's award-winning film that is now being released here by the BFI. From its title, you might suppose that this film had the narrower focus since it chooses to emphasise the year 1957. To regard that as a landmark year in Bergman's life is fair enough: it saw the premieres of both The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, the two films in which he emerged as a major and mature artist and which consequently made him world famous. Furthermore, in that same madly productive year he gave us So Close to Life (technically a work for television), staged four major stage works in Sweden and contributed to radio with two productions, one of which was a version of Bridget Boland's play The Prisoner, that piece so much admired by Alec Guinness.


However, despite looking afresh at the events of 1957, Bergman: A Year in a Life treats them as a loose framework and looks both back and forward using mint-condition film extracts, related location footage and interviews old and new. Because of that, it might seem that the two documentaries are after all essentially similar in character (Liv Ullmann and Gunnel Lindblom appear in both; Bergman's older brother Dag is seen in this work while Bergman's son, Daniel, contributes tellingly to Searching for Ingmar Bergman). Furthermore, both films include in their interview footage comments from other directors. Von Trotta has the likes of Olivier Assayas, Carlos Saura and Mia Hansen-Løve while Magnusson comes up with Roy Andersson, Lars von Trier and Zhang Yimou among others. Yet it is Magnusson who plays a trump card here by featuring so many comments direct to camera by Bergman himself including frank comments made in old age.


Ultimately, though, the two films are utterly distinct. Von Trotta offers a sympathetic tribute to a master centred on his films and enhanced by the understanding of his methods that she possesses due to being a filmmaker herself. Surprisingly, Magnusson's work uses Bergman's films less for their own sake than as a key to unlock aspects of his complex personality (he himself describes The Seventh Seal as a work born of his own fear of death, his tumultuous love-life fuelled many of his more intimate dramas and even what appears to be openly autobiographical can leave us asking questions - his screenplay for Torment shows a central figure, a schoolboy, often taken to be based on himself yet actually closer to the very different experiences of his brother, while we are asked here to consider if the figure representing Bergman in Fanny and Alexander is the former and not the latter).


Essentially then this memorable and disturbing film, weak only late on when the structure becomes too loose, is a character study in depth. From Bergman's Nazi sympathies in his youth via his lack of interest in his children to his appalling treatment of colleagues in his later years, Magnusson has created a film about   somebody who is often repellant despite the fact that Liv Ullmann's tearful recollections of her life with Bergman the private man strikes another note entirely. If Magnusson's quest for truth shows Bergman as a monster, he also emerges in old age as pitiable in his loneliness - and against all that her film does endorse the view that he was the greatest artist that Sweden ever produced.       




Featuring  Liv Ullmann, Gunnel Lindblom, Elliott Gould, Dag Bergman, Lena Endre, Dick Cavett, Lars von Trier, Roy Andersson, Zhang Yimou, Jan Troell, Mikael Persbrandt, Pernilla August, Barbra Streisand, Tommy Berggren, Suzanne Osten, Holly Hunter, Birgitta Pettersson. Narrator: Jane Magnusson. 


Dir Jane Magnusson, Pro Cecilia Nessen, Fredrik Heinig and Mattias Nohrborg, Ph Emil Klang, Ed Hanna Lejonqvist, Music Jonas Beckman and Lars Kumlin.


BRF - B-Reel Films/SVT/SF Studios/Gotlands Filmfond/Nordsvensk Filmunderhållning-BFI Distribution.
117 mins. Sweden/Norway. 2018. Rel: 25 January 2019. Cert. 15.