He has long been placed within the cinema’s pantheon, a revered, lionized filmmaker, his name dropped every time Woody Allen does an interview because Woody Allen, more than anything else, wants to be compared to Ingmar Bergman.
What filmmaker wouldn’t? Not Margarethe von Trotta. The German actress-turned-director (“The German Sisters”) works a little too hard at making that connection in “Searching for Ingmar Bergman,” a fine overview of the Swedish filmmaker built upon his movies, interviews with those who worked with him and filmmakers influenced by him.
The director von Trotta occasionally pulls Bergman so close to herself that she takes attention away from her ostensible subject.
She begins by visiting the beach where “The Seventh Seal” was shot, reciting details she remembers from the movie and analyzing those details as she strolls through the gravel and clips from the film play out.
She treasures a film festival program in which Bergman named her most famous film as one of 11 he regards as “important,” including her “German Sisters” with “Rashomon,” “La Strada” and “Sunset Boulevard” in his personal all-time “best list.” OK.
And when she interviews Bergman leading lady, muse and ex-wife Liv Ullmann, she burns screen time with pictures of when they first met — “You remember? This was back in ’81 in Venice when I got the Golden Lion!”
But get past von Trotta’s early egotism and “Searching” provides a solid overview of the Swedish master’s career, films, life and ambitions.
Bergman greatly appreciated having his films adapted for the stage, because “one thing he always wished was that they really regard him highly as a writer,” fellow filmmaker Stig Bjorkman remembers. He takes von Trotta around Bergman’s Stockholm and shows her an apartment Bergman took because the famed Swedish playwright August Stringberg once lived there.
“Theater is my life,” he said. “Film is my mistress.”
As a boy, he admired Hitler, and “strong, brutal men” turned up in many of his films over the years.
When he directed children, one of his actors notes, he didn’t treat them like his children but as a peer — a child himself. His own children? Neglected, ignored.
Another actress, Rita Russek, hints that he was coming on to her and remembers seeing him as “phobic…brooding…a poor sod.”
He fell in love with many a leading lady, married and/or impregnated several.
“He said to the ladies when they were pregnant, ‘Now I know you love me,” his son, filmmaker Daniel Bergman recalls. “And then he left them.”
We see archived TV interviews from the ’60s and ’70s, with Bergman confessing the heart of his technique and his main obsession as a director — “Film is a distributor of dreams.”
There’s behind the scenes footage of his working on “Fanny and Alexander,” and being rather jolly about it as he does. Then future producer Katinka Farago recalls the dread that faced her as she was assigned to work for him as a script girl. “Nobody wanted that job,” she says. “He threw script girls and assistant cameramen out the door every day. He had a method, ‘Never argue with an actor.’ So he took it out on other people on the set.”
“He never thought that he was good enough,” she adds.
He worshiped the Swedish silent era director Victor Sjöström — “Every summer, I see ‘The Phantom Carriage’ in my cinema,'” he told one actor. “He must have seen it 50 times.” He immortalized Sjöström by casting him in “The Wild Strawberries.”
But he was jealous of Bo Widerberg, the first Swedish New Wave director. And Swedish directors who came after him, like Ruben Östlund (“The Square,” “Force Majeure”) tried to ignore him.
“He had to die before we (his generation of Swedish filmmakers) started to watch his films.”
Screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere (“The Unbearable Lightness of Being”) notes the man’s upbringing — he was the son of a Lutheran pastor — and sees Bergman’s films as “preoccupied with religious guilt.”
Critic-filmmaker Olivier Assayas (“Clouds of Sils Maria) sees Bergman as the forerunner of auteur cinema, a pioneer in “modern, free filmmaking” whose main work was “exploring the unconscious” as he “searches for the light” in his leading ladies.
Spanish director Carlos Saura (“Carmen”) speaks, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, of what “must have been a rigorous process” in selecting “actresses and lovers,” as beautiful and talented as they all were.
The most revealing interview is with Bergman’s filmmaking son Daniel, a man who confesses no real sentimental attachment to either of his parents, just as they showed none to him. He shows von Trotta around Bergman’s study, noting the autographed books from the pianist Käbi Laretei, who consulted on his “Autumn Sonata” and became his lover and then wife and Daniel’s mother.
“They were both narcissists and they were fond of their art history,” the son acridly observes. He later collaborated with his father on the autobiographical “Sunday’s Children.”
“You should never trust Ingmar’s stories,” Daniel says, and von Trotta comforts him by telling Daniel, “He was much closer to his own childhood than to his own children.”
We see photos of a vast brood of children Bergman cared little for, who didn’t know each other until later in life.
He’s sounding more like Woody Allen’s role model all the time, isn’t he?
von Trotta is most interested in Bergman’s furious tax exile in the mid to late 70s, police raiding his set, TV denunciations of his homeland and exile in America, followed by “banishment” in Munich, where his dark (even by Bergman standards) “The Serpent’s Egg” and “From the Life of Marionettes” were filmed.
If you didn’t know “Scenes from a Marriage” was inspired by TV’s “Dallas,” that he was no “film snob,” his grandson is here to recall hanging out with him on Farö, the island where he spent his last years, sitting in the screening room watching “Pearl Harbor” with a guy who was never really “a grandpa.”
Once she gets out of her own way, von Trotta provides a generally breezy overview, appreciation and dissection of one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived.
“Searching for Ingmar Bergman,” with interviews in English, and German, French, Swedish and Spanish with English subtitles, touches on most of what was important about Bergman and why his films still matter to cineastes and aspiring filmmakers, even if the memory of these often self-consciously “arty” works has faded in a culture that is always most interested in the new and the now.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, nudity
Cast: Liv Ullmann, Ruben Östlund, Olivier Assayas, Stig Bjorkman, Margarethe von Trotta
Credits:Directed byFelix Moeller, Margarethe von Trotta, Bettina Böhler. An Oscilloscope Laboratories release.
Running time: 1:39