Bergman: A Year in A Life

1957 is the miraculously productive year in question, when Swedish director Ingmar Bergman released The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, made a couple of TV dramas and director two epochal stage productions, including a seminal Peer Gynt.

This documentary tries to examine that year, but in reality jumps around all over the place, back to his childhood and forward to his later legacy. Every now and then, the director will remember she’s supposed to stick to 57 and returns to her thesis, but it doesn’t matter – there’s lots of fascinating stuff here.

Bergman appears to have been a Nazi sympathiser, an adulterer, a serial shagger, a terrible father, an irascible genius who  would think nothing of making an actor sick to get a more miserable performance out of him. He only ate Swedish yoghurt and dry Marie biscuits. He had an eating disorder and was in constant anguish from stomach ulcers and rarely slept without nightmares about death.

Yet somehow we still revere him. In the age of MeToo hindsight, it all looks a bit dodgy, though to be fair none of his lovers and muses here accuse of him of anything too terrible. There’s some revealing footage of his older brother Dag telling us about the young Ingmar, from a doc that Bergman junior suppressed during his lifetime so as to preserve his own creation myth.

It’s an illuminating film, a decent primer on Bergman that can turn you on to his essential films (the films of 57 plus a box set of Persona, Cries and Whispers, Smiles of Summer Night, Summer with Monika, Fanny and Alexander should do it for starters) and it’s a thoughtful look at how directors get revered to the point of power-crazed. 

There are good guests, too, including Barbra Streisand as well as Liv Ullman, `Pernilla August, Lena Endre and several actors including ones who suffered Bergman’s vicious wrath and vengefulness. I must say, though, that such docs, even when they’re not hagiographies, often serve as slices of ancient history and this one, while taking us into Bergman’s psyche as much as it can, fails to explain his genius nor quite why we should watch these films nowadays or why they are anything more than artefacts from a bygone age of film. That, we will have to do ourselves.