Bergman – A Year in a Life (4 stars)

Bergman – A Year in a Life

Fascinating, wide-ranging documentary addressing the life and legacy of the influential director

1957 was an extraordinary year for Ingmar Bergman. He released The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, directed a television film and four plays, including a landmark, five-hour production of Peer Gynt. The pressure of the 'insanely high expectations' he placed upon himself left him with stomach ulcers and sleepless nights.

Jane Magnusson chooses that year as a jumping-off point for a fascinating, wide-ranging documentary that zigzags through time as it addresses the life and legacy of one of the most influential directors in the film cannon. Magnusson's great strength is the way she strives to counter Bergman's tendency towards self-mythologising. A 1980s television interview with his older brother Dag is shown for the first time and reveals that Dag rather than Ingmar suffered the lion's share of the abuse at the hands of their authoritarian father; it's just one illustration of the way Bergman never allowed the truth to detract from his image as a tortured artist.

Magnusson claims that Bergman's true nature is revealed through his work. She traces his obsession with death and spiritual crisis, charts a tangled love life and identifies the recurring theme in his films of an artist who has sacrificed everything, especially family and loved ones, for the pursuit of their art.

Sprinkled with extensive interview footage (including a genial encounter between Bergman and Dick Cavett), the documentary makes good use of unfamiliar archive material and boasts fresh interviews with family and close colleagues, including Liv Ullmann, Elliott Gould and Lena Endre. We could have lived without the adulatory comments from famous fans (including Barbra Streisand and John Landis) that tend towards the fatuous. Otherwise, this is a perfect primer who anyone new to Bergman, while it boasts enough fresh material to make it worthwhile for those seeking deeper insights.

Selected release from Fri 25 Jan.

Bergman: A Year in a Life

  • 4 stars
  • 2018
  • Sweden / Norway
  • 1h 57min
  • Directed by: Jane Magnusson

Documentary about a pivotal year in the life of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, looking at how his nature was revealed in his work. Despite some fatuous adulatory comments from famous fans, it’s a fascinating and wide-ranging film with enough fresh material to appeal to those looking to dig into Bergman’s work and life.


1. Flowerbed Productions6 Apr 2019, 8:41pm Report

Bergman the man, not the artist is under scrutiny here in this package which includes the feature length documentary I saw recently at the cinema and the twice-as-long four part TV version which of course, having not lived in Sweden, I hadn’t seen until now. My cinema experience of the shorter version left me thinking. The home experience of watching the four hour version left me feeling doubtful....not about the man Bergman, but about the filmmaker Magnusson for shaping things, objectively no doubt, but only with data and materials which suit the theme. A monotonously discordant theme at that.

Bear with me....I own thirty Bergman movies on bluray/DVD as well as feature length documentaries galore on Ingmar including Bergman Island, Liv and Ingmar, Ingmar Bergman Makes A Movie, hours of rehearsal and on-set footage including the Autumn Sonata fly-on-the-wall footage (which is longer than the movie itself), masses of archived interviews with the man himself as well as his team and loved ones; I also own his two core writings in hardback, ‘Images’ (which we all know now is a mischievous re-invention of his life) and ‘The Magic Lantern’; I also have a now-very-valuable copy of ‘The Ingmar Bergman Archives’ published by Taschen which is the weight and size of a small table, 600 pages long and as in-depth as you can possibly be. It took me over a year to read every word of that, with each page being a foot and a half wide, crammed with small printed information. So I am not just a casual watcher, nor a so many others I’m sure. What a casual watcher or newbie WOULD think of this particular documentary is surely guaranteed (‘Bergman was a b*****d’).

I was already aware of his astonishing and somewhat indecently serialistic love life, his unsettling admiration for Hitler and the Nazi movement (until 1946, which in hindsight appears shocking but we are rarely reminded by the media that such idolatry was shared by entire nations at one time let alone one Swedish film director), his appalling lack of responsibility or presence as a father.....etc.etc. The documentary ploughs deeper into all these areas and more. Compelling though it is, I have questions for the filmmaker Jane Magnusson here....

What would Bergman’s lover and on-screen muse Harriet Andersson have to say? (she has plenty to say in interviews I already have of her but she declined to appear in this, I wonder why).

Where is his trusty, long-serving leading man Max Von Sydow? Interesting that neither of these took part in this bruising dressing-down.

Liv of the most significant companions of his life, willingly takes part but why is it that she (whose involvement with his films spans over thirty years, loved him so evidently, bore him a daughter and even lived with him on a remote island for four years) only talks to camera for about twenty seconds? Her tearful recollection (typical of her sincerity and warmth) appears almost delusional against the barrage of negativity from the less important interviewees elsewhere.

How come Bergman’s closest ally at the camera for thirty years, Sven Nikvist, only speaks for a matter of seconds? Likewise the great actor and lifelong friend Erland Josephson. I have long durations of footage of him talking about, as well as with, Ingmar. They are MORE than fine as friends and Erland has nothing but the deepest respect and understanding for Ingmar. And yet all we get here is a short innocuous comment from Erland and later on a revelation by someone else of how Ingmar treated Erland very unfairly. News to me! Liv, Erland, Sven, Max, Harriet....these are all big big BIG players in Ingmar’s LIFE. Their opportunity to speak in this documentary is far too brief or even entirely absent. That’s a huge cost to me. Yet a huge gain to someone het up on making a splash with a certain perspective.

My other beef is that the recollections of his temper and ill feeling towards people is punctuated with montages of him shouting abruptly, swearing, banging a table with his fist, telling people to hurry up, etc. These instances are not new to anyone who has seen his behaviour on set before via the lengthy fly-on-the-wall documentaries of the past. However the connotation of what is said then what is shown immediately after to back it up, fuels the viewer with the impression that we are seeing him behave like the egomaniac we are being told he was. If you rewind the footage though, see the expressions on faces, the body language, Ingmar’s face itself....many of these instances (considered by the editor to be ‘evidence’) are him actually ‘feigning’ being annoyed, he’s having fun, or simply exhilarated with the work. Like a playful adult startling a child (which we even see him do at one point, come to think of it!). That was often his way. Yes he was short-tempered at times. Wouldn’t you be if time was precious, the workload was heavy, the subject matter even heavier and the stomach ulcers causing grief throughout?

Just thought of other omissions. Where is John Donner? Where is Peter Cowie? Are there no archival interviews of Gunnar Bjornstrand or Ingrid Thulin that could have been used? Did none of these people fit the tone of the piece?

Apart from all that, it’s all glossily produced and admirably put together but not without minor flaws (Streisand’s comments in English at one point being subtitled in English, footage being repeated inexplicably as if the editor had forgot it had been already used, intrusive music which subconsciously enhances your mood or attitude....something Ingmar used VERY sparingly...would’ve been better with no music at all!).

I will keep this. But if I ever watch it again I will have the salt beside me ready to take a big pinch. Newcomers to Bergman. Please note.

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