Centenary Salute: Margarethe von Trotta goes 'Searching for Ingmar Bergman'

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There’s a certain symmetry and logic in the fact that Margarethe von Trotta makes her documentary debut with a love offering called Searching for Ingmar Bergman (from Oscilloscope Laboratories).

In 1960, as the French New Wave started washing over world cinema, the then-18-year-old aspiring actress left her native Germany and headed for the center of that creative storm. One rainy day, while working for film collectives and assisting on scripts, she took shelter in a Paris movie house and saw the arrival film of a Swedish director. When she left the art theatre, she knew what she wanted to do for a living.

The Seventh Seal is what sealed the deal. “As I sat there watching it,” she recalls, “up came this very strong wish to become, for once in my life, what he was. That feeling never left me, and 17 years later the dream of directing came true. When it did, I was still asking myself if I’d been right in my decision to become a director after seeing Bergman and had I really done justice to the film I’d just made. So, this documentary is more than an investigation of Bergman. It is also a confrontation with myself.”

To mark The Great Man’s centenary, the Bergman Foundation in Stockholm approached von Trotta about giving her perspective on his work. “They knew me and my films, and they knew that Bergman liked my films, so they said, ‘Do the documentary in a very personal way, and speak of your time with him in Munich.”

At one point in his career, Bergman fled Sweden over a tax brouhaha and started filming The Serpent’s Egg andFrom the Life of the Marionettes in Munich, where von Trotta was making great cinematic strides. She acted in the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Volker Schlöndorff, married the latter and became his assistant director, co-writer and, with The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, co-director. She made her solo directing debut in 1977 doing The Second Awakening of Christa Klages. Her third feature, 1981’s Marianne & Juliane, cinched her place as New German Cinema’s most prominent female filmmaker; it also won Bergman’s heart.

“The only time Bergman agreed to be president of a film festival jury, he insisted on picking his own jury members, and he chose me to be one of them. We screened in a huge golf hotel in November. Nobody plays golf in November, so we had the place to ourselves. One day, he said to me, ‘I liked Marianne & Juliane so much. I was in a very depressed state when I saw it, and I was feeling I didn’t want to do films anymore. But your film gave me the courage to go on. Then, he did Fanny and Alexander.”

Bergman’s own childhood was what was on display in Fanny and Alexander, von Trotta feels. “He was always more interested in his own childhood, and that was what he was directing when he directed child actors. I understood that when I read his autobiography. He writes for page and page and page about his childhood, about his mother, about his father, about his grandmother, about himself as a child. Then, when we come up to his wives and his own children, he doesn’t have much to say.”

Bergman had nine children—seven legitimate ones with three wives. Daniel, his son, provides one of the strongest and most insightful interviews in von Trotta’s picture.

“There’s a moment in my film where I say to Daniel, ‘I’ve a feeling he couldn’t relate to other childhoods because he was the child. He wanted to remain the child.’ Daniel said, ‘Exactly.’ After his last wife died, he wrote in his diary, ‘Now, I have finally come out of my children’s room.’ She was a caring person—not an actress, for once!—and, with her, he could remain the child. When she died, he felt this childhood was over.”

The challenge of a personal documentary was something von Trotta was reluctant to take on, for several reasons. “I was very anxious about this project,” she admits. “I thought, ‘What can I add? It’s already all done, all said, all filmed, all written.’”

Then there was the added pressure of doing something cinematic she had never done before. After making 32 films as an actress, 26 as a director and 22 as a writer, she was faced with her first documentary. “I told them, ‘I can’t do it. I don’t know the first thing about documentaries.’” Happily, she did know who to turn to: her son, Felix Moeller, and she now shares co-writing/co-directing credit with him. She calls him a “documentarist” and points out like any proud mom that he “has done several films already that have been shown in New York—Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Suess and Forbidden Films. He was there, and he gave me confidence in myself.”

Searching for Ingmar Bergman is something von Trotta does quite personally. Contrary to how other documentarians work, she physically jumps into her own filmby playing the leading role of interrogator on camera. Professional interviewers can learn from how she poses questions. She converses. “It’s an exchange,” she says.

Not only does she return to the scene of her “Eureka!” moment with The Seventh Seal—that little Parisian movie palace where she first laid eyes on Bergman’s art—she susses out and shoots location footage at that murky cove where The Knight (Max von Sydow) and Death (Bengt Ekerot) played their classic game of chess.

Fangirl-Turned-Filmmaker doesn’t stop there, either. She gives the Bergman family tree a sound shaking, and out come some incredibly candid, honest, warts-and-all observations about the Swedish master filmmaker. He would have approved.

All told, Bergman amassed 70 credits as a film director and 77 as a screenwriter.  “There are a few of his pictures at the beginning that I couldn’t get copies of,” von Trotta is reluctant to admit, “but I made a point of re-seeing the vast majority that were available. I saw them to see what I could take out of them for my film.”

A dozen or so whiz by in clip form in the documentary. Not making the cut: Smiles of a Summer Night, a lighthearted romantic comedy that was somewhat jarring to the dourness of the whole Bergman canon. (It inspired Stephen Sondheim to do an all-waltz score, which Hal Prince brought to stage and screen as A Little Night Music.)

Three of the four Swedish films to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film are his (1960’s The Virgin Spring, 1961’s Through a Glass Darkly and 1983’s Fanny and Alexander), and Bergman himself received nine Oscar nominations—but no cigar. In 1974, a shame-faced Motion Picture Academy divvied up an honorary—the Irving G. Thalberg Award—and it was collected by his main muse, the mother of his daughter Linn Ullmann and the most accessible keeper of the flame, Liv Ullmann.

Other Bergman loves and leading ladies aren’t represented in the documentary. Gunnel Lindblom (Wild Strawberries) did manage, with care and a cane, to make a poignant cameo, but, according to von Trotta, “Harriet Andersson [Summer with Monika] no longer wants to be in front of a camera anymore, and Bibi [Andersson] has Alzheimer’s. Ingrid Thulin [Winter Light] is dead. Of all of them, the only one who was still very much alive and intelligent and willing to speak about him is Liv.

Most conspicuously missing in the male division: Max von Sydow, who racked up 11 Bergman films. He is 89 and has a young French wife. “So many old men get young wives, and they become very important. His forbade him to do anything Bergman.”

Also missing in von Trotta’s film action: Bergman’s Foremost American Evangelist, Woody Allen (see Interiors, which is dripping in homage) and another equally fervent disciple, Martin Scorsese. “I didn’t approach them at all. The producers wanted me to, but they’re people who’ve spoken about Bergman many times. You can go to YouTube and see. I wanted new people who had never done interviews on him.”

Did von Trotta find the elusive Bergman in all her Searching? She shakes her head. “I found some of him, but you truly can’t find the real man in a film—unless it’s in one of his films,” she says, allowing that the demons that drove him in private life were present in his work. “More or less, you could feel them in his films. You sense he’s there hovering, lurking, in his films, but in reality I didn’t find that. I felt him more when I saw his films again and read more about him and heard more about his life.”

There’s an unexpected upshot to von Trotta’s valentine to Bergman. While Searching for Ingmar Bergman is grinding away in one part of the Quad Cinema, her first New York retrospective will be unreeling in another Nov. 2-8. Lightly sprinkled with the efforts of Schlöndorff and Fassbinder, Margarethe von Trotta: The Political Is Personal is trotting out her Rosa Luxemburg, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, Sheer Madness (akaFriends and Husbands), The Second Awakening of Christa Klages, Marianne & Juliane (aka The German Sisters)and Sisters, or The Balance of Happiness.