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Just four years before his death, legendary filmmaker Ingmar Bergman sat down with Swedish documentarian Marie Nyreröd in his home on Fårö Island to discuss his films, his fears, his regrets, and his ongoing artistic passion. This resulted in the most breathtakingly candid series of interviews that the famously reclusive director ever took part in, later edited into the feature-length film Bergman Island. In-depth, revealing, and packed with choice anecdotes about Bergman’s films, as well as his personal life, Nyreröd’s film is an unforgettable final glimpse of a man who transformed cinema.
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This man is Ingmar Bergman, just a few years before his death in 2007. As a film-maker he explored all aspects of the human condition. And in the fascinating documentary BERGMAN ISLAND he reveals many of the ways in which that exploration was autobiographical, driven by his family history, his personal failings, and his ever-present demons.
When we meet Bergman, we discover that he starts his day with breakfast then a walk on the island. He sits down at the same time each day and writes for three hours. It's a routine he maintains in order to avoid giving into the demons or slipping into depression. His housekeeper comes in at 3pm. Some days he doesn't talk to another human being.
But he's been working again. Directing "Saraband," the belated follow-up to his internationally acclaimed "Scenes From a Marriage." In his talks with documentarian Marie Nyreröd, we also learn some interesting facts about the autobiographical nature of many of the most dramatic scenes in those highly personal movies. He also opens up about the cruelty he has inflicted on others and the "family laziness" that led him to abandon nine children born to five different wives.
Bergman's recollections span everything from his childhood to his later years. We hear about physical abuse from dad and a trip to the shrink with mom (who was concerned about his "girlish" need for hugs and caresses). We gain insights into his days at film school, as a stage director and a pioneer in TV direction, and discover the inspiration for several famous scenes (playing chess with Death in "The Seventh Seal," for instance). We relive with him his early successes--at Cannes and in Hollywood. These successes gave Bergman carte blanche to write and direct his own movies from an early point in his career. Looking back, he has some regret that this autonomy also made him miss finding a great collaborator or having a critic who would really give him an unvarnished opinion about his work.
All in all, this a fascinating documentary about the creative and personal life of a man who came of age in the pre-TV (and pre-Prozac) era and who created many of the most penetrating and psychologically astute tales that shaped world cinema. You don't have to have seen all of Bergman's movies to appreciate this film, but it is sure to inspire you to catch up on some you may have missed. Highly recommended.
What is left of the film goes over many of the subjects well trod in other interviews: Bergman's obsessions with sex and death, or his claim that guilt is somehow ostentatious, etc. While there is something honest but self-serving about hearing Bergman claim `I had a bad conscience until I discovered that having a bad conscience about something so gravely serious as leaving your children is an affectation, a way of achieving a little suffering that can't for a moment be equal to the suffering you've caused. I haven't put an ounce of effort into my families. I never have,' one wishes that Nyrerod would have come back with a good follow up to such a claim. Instead, she lets Bergman off the hook. The best interviews are conducted eye-to-eye, but Nyrerod seems so awed to be in Bergman's presence that the old man runs roughshod over her, and consequently the whole film suffers from a lack of structural discipline and intellectual rigor. What would have worked better, filmically, is actually asking penetrating questions about the films and then tying them to the man's personal life. But, in this, Nyrerod seems almost in congenital genuflection to Bergman. She never seems interested in actually holding Bergman accountable for his views nor actions. Not that she needed to be Torquemada, but she need not have been a lapdog either. As for the DVD? I wish Criterion had included all three hours in the DVD package- thus differentiating it from the Special Features disk on the re-release of The Seventh Seal. One hopes they would have been more linear, coherent and incisive. Then, again, if the individual hours were edited to the same degree as the shorter film then, perhaps including only it was the reason the company released it as so.
Having stated all this about the `feature' presentation in the package, let me now give kudos to the company for including Cowie's incisive video essay (composed of photographs and film clips) on Bergman's career. Cowie has done a number of commentaries on other Criterion titles and is a mostly hit or miss commentarian. But, this essay is superb. Cowie does not hit every single film in the Bergman canon, but he gets all of the important films, and gives short but pointed insights into them. The fact that the essay is only about a half hour long is a help because it would have been quite easy for Cowie to veer off into a pet peeve or obsession. Instead, the essay plays out as a pitch perfect primer into all things Bergmanian- or, at least all things cinematically Bergmanian. The only other `extra' in the package is an insert essay by Nyrerod, but it's not really an essay, merely a brief encomium. The actual film is shown in a 1.77:1 aspect ratio.
The thing about the film that is curious is, given Bergman's penchant for wildly bizarre opinions on the films of others (he rips on the work of Michelangelo Antonioni- whose aesthetic he shares much with, while praising the treacly schlock of Steven Spielberg, or he rips on the great films of Orson Welles and the dull, imitative tripe of Jean-Luc Godard with the same distaste, as if they were in the same league with each other), little is done in terms of opining about the art of film, save his own. He's simply not a born raconteur, the way a Werner Herzog is, so one wishes Nyrerod would have put more effort into bringing Bergman into areas he was uncomfortable with. Hagiography simply is not that entertaining. Also, while it might seem cool to show Bergman strolling about his home on Fårö island, in the Baltic Sea, it means little since rarely is the island and its geography shown to have been an influence on the man's films. Given the preponderance of the island's physical presence in the films Bergman released in the 1960s- certainly the equal of the Italian countrysides Antonioni used, it's curious that Nyrerod makes almost nothing of this in her film, save to have the director mouth the banality that he finds the island `magical.'
Overall, this is a DVD that the true Bergmaniac may find superfluous- indeed, if he has updated his DVD library with the latest version of The Seventh Seal this will literally be true; but even without having done that, there's little this DVD has to offer. Its real value is as an introduction to the works of Bergman; many titles of which are also available from Criterion. As such, and to this audience, I recommend this DVD, and even more so the `extra' than the `feature.' I said it was an odd thing.
Through three brilliant sections, Bergman confesses himself before the camera. He reveals unknown aspects, livings and anecdotes that surrounded and nurtured his huge and transcendental artistic legacy.
A crucial testimonial of his immortal greatness and supreme conviction as artist and also as human being, including his own particular demons.
Unmissable for those hard fans of the big cinema and new young directors.