How Margarethe von Trotta Searched for Ingmar Bergman
Margarethe von Trotta's 'Searching for Bergman' decodes the legend of the Swedish director.
This year marks Ingmar Bergman's centenary. Over the span of six decades, the Swedish director made 45 feature films and influenced countless budding cinephiles. Chief among them is Margarethe von Trotta, whose first exposure to cinema was Bergman's The Seventh Seal. She would not only become one of Bergman's greatest admirers, but also his contemporary.
"Bergman’s films have been my constant companions," von Trotta narrates in her new documentary, Searching for Bergman. "But when I was asked to make a film about him, I hesitated. Until I remembered that one of my films had been important to him as well."
Indeed, when Bergman was asked by the Göteborg Film Festival to name his eleven favorite films of all time, he included von Trotta's Marianne & Juliane. Von Trotta was the only woman on Bergman's list, which spanned Tarkovsky to Billy Wilder to Kurosawa.
Von Trotta begins Searching for Bergman with a deconstruction of a pivotal scene in The Seventh Seal. What follows is a deconstruction of the man, as an artist and as a human. Von Trotta meets with Bergman's son, his frequent collaborators, such as Liv Ullmann and Gunnel Lindblom, and contemporary auteurs who were deeply influenced by him, such as Olivier Assayas and Ruben Östlund. Along the way, we learn of his personal struggles, including a tragic irony: He neglected his children, despite drawing obvious artistic inspiration from his own childhood for his films. We learn that he ferocious temper and a penchant for infidelity. We learn that he religiously watched The Phantom Carriage (1921) once a year for his entire life. We learn that, unsurprisingly, he was a control freak; he even curated his own funeral guest list.
In one interview shown in the film, Bergman says, "I’m only trying to speak the truth about the human condition."
"I had this deep wish [to make films]. I didn't speak about it, because it would have been ridiculous for a woman to say, 'Oh, I would like to do that.'"
No Film School sat down with von Trotta to discuss how Bergman subconsciously influenced her development as a director, the challenges of making her first documentary, and how she hoped her film would provoke a new curiosity in Bergman's filmography.
No Film School: One of my favorite parts of the film was actually the first scene, where you're setting up The Seventh Seal shot for shot. It reminded me of the experience of being in film school, but it also spoke to the way you were moved by that film. When you first saw the film in the early '60s, how did it inform your conception of cinema?
Margarethe von Trotta: In Germany in the '50s, there were not so much to see, or to discover, because German cinema was really flat. It was only sort of entertaining melodramas, but not real art. And so I went to concerts, or to art exhibitions, or to the theater. But cinema was not part of this world of art for me.
Then, I came to Paris, and I met these students who were totally enthusiastic about the Nouvelle Vague [The New Wave], and about all you can do with cinema. They wanted me to love cinema as much as they did.
It was a sort of destiny for me that my first film was not one of Truffaut or of Hitchcock, but of Bergman. The Seventh Seal. And so for me, that was an opening of my mind to cinema. [I realized] cinema is form of art where you could put all the other arts into it. It was music and theater. It was psychology. It was everything. So, in one work, you could find all other art. That was the main revelation for me. It was soul-opening.
Immediately, I had this deep wish [to make films]. I didn't speak about it, because it would have been ridiculous for a woman to say, "Oh, I would like to do that." No, it was not possible in that time, because there were no woman directors. Just Leni Riefenstahl in Germany.
NFS: How did your passion for Bergman's films develop throughout your career?
von Trotta: It was more unconscious. When I started my first film, that was 17 years after I saw The Seventh Seal. When I started to make films, I didn't say to myself, "Now, you have to do a film like Bergman." That was my subconscious treasure. Mainly, I made my films with my own experience, with my own time, with my own surroundings. I made films with this idea to speak about women and of myself—my feelings about a woman's life.
I was influenced by him, but I never copied him. Everything you read and that you are impressed by becomes a sort of unconscious lake. And from this lake, things emerge, and you don't even know that they are there. That is, I think, the right way of being influenced. Not take things from films. You know? To make a patchwork of films.
"Bergman was perhaps more interested in faces and inner progression than only the film craft."
NFS: Is there any specific conversation happening between the two bodies of work—yours and Bergman's?
von Trotta: In Marianne and Juliane, there are moments where say, "Oh, that's like Bergman." I think people see more of my connection to him in my films that perhaps I see it myself.
NFS: At one point in the film, you have a clip of Bergman describing the job of the director as somebody who—
von Trotta: —who has no time to think, yeah.
NFS: I love that.
von Trotta: That's very true.
NFS: You found that to be true in your career?
von Trotta: Yeah. The moment you start to make a film, you have no time anymore. It's so breathtaking, what everybody wants of you and what you have to decide. You must make decisions and not think about them. You [do the thinking] beforehand, when you write your script.
NFS: Did you learn anything from Bergman's craft or process that contributed to your development as a director?
von Trotta: You learn from life. You learn from films. You learn from your friends. [Once in a while,] there's one scene that I am very fond of when I see it, and then I put in my diary.
NFS: When you were thinking about the ways in which you wanted to evoke the persona of Bergman, so to speak...There was obviously this part of him that was a little more complex as a human. We hear from his son, who speaks to this element. How did you think about representing Bergman's character in full?
von Trotta: That came up during the interviews. I couldn't know what people would say to me beforehand. It's not like when you're writing a script...you are the director. With this, I was not the director. I couldn't tell somebody, "Yes, please, say that." I didn't know what was coming, so I had to be very attentive and very open to receiving. And then afterward, in the cutting room, you find how to put it all together.
Everybody told me in the beginning, "Well, see, a documentary film is made in the editing room." But you have to be very awake and very curious every moment you are filming. You never know what you will have as material in the end. You might find a certain character, or a certain order, or a certain meaning. It's only in the end that you can say, "That is what I was searching for."
NFS: I take it you were very involved in the editing process?
von Trotta: Yeah, sure. You are always sitting in the editing room. But [with this film], my son, who is a documentarian, and also my editor...they were much more important than a normal editor. Normally I'm sitting there and say, "Let's see like this." But in documentary, it's already all done, in a certain way. I learned with Fassbinder that you don't film everything. You have your film more or less in mind, yeah? And then in the editing room, you put it together.
But with a documentary, you have nothing. You can only be curious about what will happen. And then comes the moment you put it all together and it becomes a whole.
"I hoped to create a new curiosity for Bergman's work."
NFS: What was a challenge that you encountered in the editing process, that you maybe didn't foresee going into the film?
von Trotta: I was never sure what [my subjects] would say to me. And then, I had to find documentary material [of Bergman] to put in the film, so that it made sense with what people are saying [about him] onscreen.
The other problem was that I didn't want to introduce sequences from Bergman films you had already seen a lot of times. I wanted to find other moments in his films—moments that are surprising, even if you saw the film, perhaps, in the past. I wanted you to think, "Oh, my God, I forgot about this scene."
For example, when you see a scene from Cries and Whispers, it is always the chess game. And therefore, I avoided showing that. I hoped to create a new curiosity for his work.
NFS: What kind of curiosity do you think younger audiences and people in film school today have about Bergman?
von Trotta: I hope they have a curiosity at all. When you hear the name Ingmar Bergman, there must be something that comes up in your mind. Most people will think of these dark films; problematic films. Perhaps young people want to avoid being in a depressive mood. [Watching Bergman's films] can be very challenging. They make you see what you are feeling in your life.
But maybe you are already depressed, and then you get less depressed when you watch his films, because you see another human being who is also depressed. And so it's a sort of consolation.
NFS: Do you think that he has a specific legacy on the craft of filmmaking?
von Trotta: He was very personal, and he was perhaps more interested in faces and inner progression than only the film craft. He was very conscious of what he wanted to see in one shot. And he had a wonderful collaborator in Sven Nykvist, the cameraman. They become a real couple. And they influenced each other.
NFS: Is there anything that surprised you that you learned about Bergman or his life throughout the process of making this film?
von Trotta: I learned a lot about his life. I didn't want to know so much before, because I was just interested in his films. But before I started the film, I read his biography and discovered a lot of things I didn't know about him. I discovered that his films [mirrored] the atmosphere of his own life. You can see where he was in the very moment he did the film—if he was depressed, or if he was happy. His films are like a diary.
NFS: You have taught film at university, correct?
von Trotta: I sometimes taught two weeks in film school. But I'm not a good professor, no. I'm too impatient.
NFS: Well, during your time interacting with film students, was there anything in particular that struck you about film education?
von Trotta: They always ask me, "What shall I do to make a film?" And I always said, "You have to find out more about yourself. Look into yourself, and then it will come naturally."
NFS: You've said before that you don't like being siloed as a female director. Is that a comment that you stand by?
von Trotta: Yes. I'm a woman, so it's natural that I have a certain look or a certain feeling of being a woman.
I don't like that "female films" are a second category of filmmaking. I want to get to a point where I can say, "I'm a filmmaker," as Fassbinder or anybody else is a filmmaker. I don't want people to say, "Oh, that's a woman's film."
But to get there, you have to have [female-directed films] be not be so rare.