Just One View: ‘Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words’ (2015)


I’ve never seen ‘Casablanca’. I feel like a fake. I think that I’d seen bits, with my grandmother, when I was little and I’ve seen little bits within the great Herbert Ross/Woody Allen film ‘Play It Again, Sam‘ but watching the film as one movie is something that I’ve never done. My excuse? Sometimes you fall into a feedback loop: because you know for sure that you will watch a film; you don’t have to watch it now; so, you never watch it because it’s always something that you kick down the road. Saying that, I don’t think that I’ve seen many Ingrid Bergman films at all. I love Hitchcock but I realised that I’ve only seen maybe ten of his many films (being shocked by the magnificence of his ‘The Birds’ has lit a fire under me to get my act together and seriously mow my way through his oeuvre too.). Ingrid Bergman’s made a couple of movies with the fat genius and I’ve never seen them either. So, I’d had no great love for Ingrid Bergman’s work going in but I’d read somewhere that this was an excellent documentary.

The advert above gives the viewer the spine of the film. Bergman loved to document her life and that of her family. The reason probably rooting from the fact that her German mother passed away when she was very little and her father passed away later as well, when Bergman was twelve. From an early age, her father – an amateur photographer – would often film and photograph his daughter so for her to be in front of a camera was the most natural thing in the world but, having lost her parents, she herself probably wanted to document life, as she knew too well that it could be yanked away at any moment.

The film is built on the body of diaries, photographs and 16mm film that she’d accrued and kept safe. Bergman moved from Sweden to the United States, to Italy, to France, to the United Kingdom but she still managed to keep everything. Everything. The Bergman museum still has the passport that she had as a little girl, for example. What’s remarkable is not only the footage but how it is used. I’ve never seen the Andy Warhol movies of just filming someone for an extended time so that the ‘living photograph’ will eventually start to allow the personality to shine through. Here, whereas you normally get ‘bitty’ home movie footage in documentaries like this, there’s an almost palpable sense of getting to know these people. That must come from both the filming and from the impeccable editing. The director, Stig Björkman, is perhaps most well known for his extended interview books, with the likes of Lars von Trier; Woody Allen and Ingmar Bergman and he shows the same aptitude for picking exactly the right material. Bergman says in the film that, while with her first husband, she’d mainly film him than having him looking at her. Hence, one feels that she knew the value of keeping the camera on her family. Saying that, out of all of the film available, there’s still much of Bergman herself too.

Much of the footage is married with a score by Michael Nyman yet it’s never intrusive; it works with the 16mm rather than tries to overshadow it. A film that gets Michael Nyman on board to provide its soundtrack might understandably naturally want to lean heavily on such a strong suit but Björkman always resists that easy option.

Before Bergman went to leave Sweden for the United States, to take up David O. Selznick’s offer of employment, she made a film in Germany called ‘The Four Companions’ in 1938. She mentions in her diary, voiced throughout by Alicia Vikander, that her German co-stars were worried about what was happening in Germany at the time and you get some 16mm, in colour and in black and white, of 1938 Germany. One sees youth marching in their Nazi uniforms; fully grown men marching; a Nazi encampment; and a shop with a sign on the front denoting that it was run by Jewish people. It is chilling.

Bergman spent ten years in the United States, making films and being very happy with life. Her husband was involved in medical studies and looking after their daughter while Bergman was away making films. After a time, though, she evidently started to get artistically itchy feet. Bergman saw Roberto Rossellini’s ‘Rome, Open City’ and ‘Paisà’ and wrote him a letter that, while downplaying her language skills (she could speak English, Swedish, German, French and later learned Italian), asked if she could work with him. Rossellini’s aesthetic involved working with non-actors and improvised dialogue – a far cry from Hollywood’s usual modus operandi and Hitchcockian tight control and storyboarding – but Rossellini employed Bergman; later marrying her.

From 2017, it’s astonishing to understand how much of a scandal this caused. Although, we see her first husband and her daughter, Pia, in a courtroom, it doesn’t make explicit that the husband sued Bergman for desertion, while Bergman’s films in Italy flopped (perhaps due to the bad publicity) and she was deemed a hot potato for years. Yet, it’s also interesting to see how contemporary her story could be from a vantage point of so many decades later. The amount of filming and documentation of Bergman’s life: how far away would that be from the Twitter/Instagram generation now? Not too far. Also, due to this controversy, she and her family was assailed by the ‘paparazzi’. It was so extreme for Bergman that, like how a media outlet might today ask for feedback from its audience and conduct a poll, there’s film of Ed Sullivan asking his audience whether he should have Bergman on as a guest on his show. We don’t see Bergman as a guest and I later found that although both the public and Sullivan were receptive to the idea (as Bergman came back to make American films) she didn’t appear (whether that was due to the TV company taking a stand or due to other factors, I don’t know.). So, you get a whiplash effect of being confronted by information that makes it seem like a million years ago but also, simultaneously, it seemed strangely contemporary as well.

Another documentary to watch might be the mighty three and a half hour look at the making of the Ingmar Bergman 1978 film ‘Autumn Sonata’. When Ingrid Bergman headed the 1973 Cannes jury, she bumped into Ingmar and asked if he might consider casting her in a film one day, hence the film, eventually. Much of this documentary gives the impression that Ingrid was a fantastic person to know and with which to work. Her daughter, Isabella Rossellini, tells of how Ingrid always thought that she was easy to work with too but, having watched this documentary concerning the making of ‘Autumn Sonata’ she turned around, shocked, and said: “Oh, I’m really difficult!”.

Still, that might have been the exception. Sigourney Weaver appears, due to her first paying role as an actor being in a play directed by John Gielgud and starring Ingrid – pre-dating her appearance outside the cinema, in long shot, in ‘Annie Hall’ – and she highlighted how down-to-Earth and easy Bergman was to work with. It’s not in the film but David O. Selznick also underlined his huge admiration for Bergman’s work ethic, leaving aside her brilliance as a performer.

There’s a lot more to this exceptional, moving, invigorating documentary. It’s a Swedish film. I don’t know how highly rated and loved Bergman was/is in Sweden (my guess is she’s perceived warmly although it wasn’t always such. Playing Joan of Arc, back on the stage in Sweden, post the controversy regarding her hooking up with Roberto Rossellini, evidently didn’t go down too well) but this great work can only have enhanced her standing. It’s a rounded portrait. Her first daughter, Pia, betrays some melancholy over the years when she couldn’t see her mother but when Isabella Rossellini was laid low for 18 months with scoliosis , her mother didn’t work; she stayed around to take care and be close to her. A wonderful two hours and I look forward to seeing her films having got such a sense of her as a person. I’ll even stop disgracing myself and will watch ‘Casablanca’. I think.

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