If you ever wondered how a film-maker’s life might affect his career, consider this: Ingmar Bergman’s father was a hospital chaplain. When Bergman was a child the hospital staff locked him in the morgue with the body of a young woman whose eyes had not yet been closed. And to judge by his stories of his angry, violent father, this was one of the more relaxing moments of the young Bergman’s life.
But Marie Nyrerod’s film — edited together from three separate short documentaries that she made in the last years of Bergman’s life — is by no means depressing. Bergman, who is the only interviewee in the film, is a candid, charming, even mischievous presence, commenting on the format and production of the film and occasionally unable to stop himself from directing it. It was shot almost entirely at Bergman’s beautiful home on the island of Fårö, where he lived and worked for many years, and is full both of clips from his films and from the 16mm footage that he often shot on set.
This is certainly not an unauthorised portrait — Bergman is too self-aware, too self-editing for that — but then there are few subjects who would be as self-lacerating either: he’s fluent and witty when he talks about film-making but his eloquence dries up when asked about his five marriages, and the children he abandoned on the way. In one visibly uncomfortable sequence he admits that “I haven’t put an ounce of effort into my families” but explains that “bad conscience is pure vanity”: it’s a pretence that you are feeling even a fraction of the pain that you have caused to other people.
But perhaps his behaviour is unsurprising from a man who says that “I besieged my mother with caresses, and she pushed me away”: a man whose work constantly questions the limits of love, and the possibility of purpose. What is surprising, from a man whose work so doubted the possibility of God, is that, eight years after the death of his last wife Ingrid von Rosen, he says that he is confident of seeing her again; that death is not so final an ending as The Seventh Seal suggests.
Bergman is not sentimentalised here; he was selfish, demanding, often cruel. But however much an artist’s behaviour informs their work, there is so much to lose out on if we can’t see the art for the life. Was Bergman’s behaviour unforgivable? He certainly never forgave himself. But his work is unforgettable: beautiful, bitter and bracing, like a winter’s walk along the shore. At 3pm every day in his last years — the time when his housekeeper arrived — Bergman would walk to his cinema and screen a film to watch alone (I like the detail of the housekeeper: he’s still using film to avoid domestic details). We know from other interviews how varied his taste was (you can see a list of his favourites here) but each year on his birthday he would gather his family together and watch the same film: Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus, because, as he says in Bergman’s Island, “it makes children of us all”. The pleasure, and the warning, of Nyrerod’s film is that we never stop being those children, and that it’s up to each of us to choose how that affects both our lives and our work.
Here’s Woody Allen speaking about his hero Ingmar Bergman: