Margaretha von Trotta’s documentary Searching for Ingmar Bergman arrives in theaters one week after news broke that the streaming service FilmStruck, which hosts a huge selection of Ingmar Bergman’s oeuvre, will be shutting down at the end of November. The film’s title is therefore unintentionally fitting, as the demise of FilmStruck will leave many of us searching for a new place to find the classics of midcentury cinema, of which Bergman is almost indisputably the towering figure. Von Trotta conducts a less literal search—she brings us along on her personal exploration of the late director’s life and work—but preserving Bergman’s legacy in our radically altered era of film production and exhibition isn’t far from her mind.
The documentary opens with von Trotta’s description, seemingly from memory, of the opening series of shots from Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, in which Max von Sydow’s existentially adrift medieval knight awakens with the sunrise on a rocky beach. As she speaks, von Trotta is sitting on that same beach, on the Swedish island of Fårö where Bergman lived for most of his life and shot many of his films. Interspersing her own footage of that beach with clips from The Seventh Seal, she constructs a brief video essay that’s part stylistic analysis and part nostalgic reflection on her first encounter with Bergman’s classic film. This prologue establishes the format for the rest of the documentary, in which von Trotta is an active presence, recounting her history as a Bergman admirer while she converses with scholars, other filmmakers, and his associates to gain insights into his life and methods.
If the first third of Searching for Ingmar Bergman primarily focuses on the importance of Bergman’s work to von Trotta and to cinema, much of the rest of the documentary tries to get at the man, his personality, and his relationships with others. As is familiar from many an artist’s story, Bergman, a brilliant portrayer of characters’ inner lives and of that nebulous thing called “the human condition,” seems to have had trouble relating to the real humans in his life. A revealing interview with his son, Daniel, paints a portrait of an emotionally distant father who made no bones about the fact that he preferred his actors to his children, and his film sets to his home.
A degree of intrinsic interest notwithstanding, these portions of the film that deal with Bergman’s personal life tend to drag. And at parts where an interviewee reveals a flaw in Bergman’s character that would appear to have a direct bearing on his work, von Trotta doesn’t address the problematics of that work as closely as one might like her to. For example, In the mid-‘70s, Bergman was arrested on charges of tax evasion that were later dropped, which left him feeling betrayed by Sweden’s Social Democrats, whom he had long supported. As recounted by von Trotta and her assembled experts, the experience helped inspire The Serpent’s Egg, Bergman’s film about the rise of Nazism. That Bergman would compare his feelings of personal persecution to the Holocaust seems downright ghastly, evidence of a narcissism that affected his art and his outlook on the world. Disappointingly, however, Searching for Ingmar Bergman doesn’t examine this artistic decision very critically, deferring in this case, it would seem, to the judgment of the master filmmaker.
Still, in its more in-depth coverage of particular films, von Trotta’s documentary reminds us of the reasons for Bergman’s continued influence on cinema today. After a long break from filmmaking, the octogenarian director returned in 2003 with Saraband, which catches up with the story of the married couple from his devastating masterpiece Scenes from a Marriage. As von Trotta points out, the elderly Bergman embraced emerging technology for his swan song, shooting the feature on digital video. “Experimental to the end,” she observes, and perhaps there captures what is so important about Bergman, whose affecting dramas were also always cutting-edge art.
Searching for Ingmar Bergman ends—where else?—with a return to the beach at Fårö, the place where Sydow’s knight in The Seventh Seal confronted Death himself. The documentary is at its best in these moments, in which the meaning of Bergman’s work and its lasting impact on von Trotta are combined and explored in fascinating ways. One suspects von Trotta’s search would have been more fruitful if she had maintained this essayistic approach, and eschewed some of her more hagiographic impulses.