The German New Wave icon discusses her exploration of Swedish master Ingmar Bergman.
Margarethe von Trotta is frequently hailed as a driving force in the New German Cinema Movement. After acting for filmmakers like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, von Trotta abandoned performing to direct with her 1975 film The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum. Since then von Trotta has directed fourteen features. Searching for Ingmar Bergman is the director’s first foray into documentary filmmaking and follows von Trotta on her personal journey through Bergman’s work. Von Trotta not only reflects on her experiences with Bergman and his films, but also interviews major Bergman players like Liv Ullman, as well as filmmakers Olivier Assayas, Mia Hansen-Løve, and Ruben Östlund. Ultimately, it’s a refreshing departure from the usual biographical documentary and offers a peek into the underseen parts of Bergman’s life and career. Following the film’s world premiere at Cannes, I sat down with von Trotta to revel in our shared love of Bergman.
In the film, one of your subjects asks you which Bergman film is your favorite. You mention that you love The Seventh Seal, as it was the first Bergman film you saw, but don’t exactly say which is your favorite. Do you have one? I certainly do.
What is your favorite?
I have two favorites. Scenes from a Marriage and Fanny and Alexander.
The late ones. Those are in his old age. For me, it’s Sawdust and Tinsel. It’s with Harriet Anderson, it’s a wonderful film. And then I like Cries and Whispers very much but you can’t see it in my film because it was too expensive to have excerpts. It’s so expensive to get real film material. So you have to be very careful about what you use because you have a budget and you can’t go over it. For instance, when talking about The Serpent’s Egg I wanted to have excerpts from the film and the Americans asked for $18,000 for one minute of footage. You can imagine, making a poor German documentary, for that it’s impossible. I can’t understand this attitude, because more people are speaking about his films. There were so many people who came to talk to me after the screening who said they wanted to watch some of the films we talked about again or for the first time. The film can do that. Why don’t they understand that? Only money in the moment, but there could be money much further, no?
Did that perhaps influence your decision to include put some focus on Bergman’s lesser-known works? I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of time the film dedicates to discussing Bergman’s work in the theatre and the underseen From the Life of the Marionettes. These works are largely underrepresented in the scholarship on Bergman. Why did you choose to highlight them?
These are not so well known. Since I’m speaking a lot about his time in Munich, because he went away from Sweden, he felt himself outcasted because of this tax issue. He was humiliated that they thought he didn’t pay his taxes. He got really terrible reviews and so he felt humiliated and was even for a time in a clinic. He didn’t want to stay in Sweden anymore, so he went to Munich. He had this opportunity to do theatre in Munich and he was there for seven years. At the time, I was living in Munich also. It’s not very well known. Even Olivier Assayas, who is interviewed in the film, he didn’t know anything about Bergman’s time in Munich. So I concentrated a little bit on that period. In Munich he did The Serpent’s Egg and Marionetten [From the Life of the Marionettes]. Stig Bjorkman in my film says that nobody knows Marionetten, and it’s one of his best. It’s more experimental; it’s a little bit like Persona. That’s something very interesting because Bergman made the film for television, and at this time television wanted you to do everything in color because they wanted people to buy color televisions. You couldn’t do a television film in black and white at this time. So he started the film in color, the scene where she is murdered. Then he switches, very very softly, he switches to black and white and then the rest of the film is in black and white.
I find it interesting that The Seventh Seal is so important for you. I’ve always favored the Bergman films about women.
Yes, it’s astonishing that me, who is only doing films about women choose a film about two men. It was my first and I was really so impressed. I was coming out of a school where there were Protestant nuns educating us and I was also for one year in a sort of convent for Protestants. So these scenes of religion and doubt of God, this was my story too. I not only discovered film as art, but I discovered also my own problems and my own doubts within the film. That’s why I was so impressed.
How soon after deciding to make a film about Bergman did you realize that it would, in fact, be about your own journey through Bergman’s work?
I’m not a journalist, I’m not a film historian, and I’m not a film critic. So I can’t do a film analyzing the work. I spoke to the Bergman Foundation in Stockholm and said, “Look, there are so many films already and so much written about him. What can I add?” I was a little bit anxious and I for a time I didn’t even want to do the film. Then they said, “Do it very personal. You knew him, you have a personal connection to him as a filmmaker and also as a person. Put that in the film, put yourself in the film. A filmmaker speaks about another filmmaker.” So I followed their suggestion and therefore I started in the same place where The Seventh Seal was shot. It was fantastic. It’s all natural, nothing has changed. You could really find the exact stone where Max von Sydow was laying down.
What was it like to film on Fårö? It’s not only significant because Bergman lived and worked there but because it was the shooting location for the Faithless, the film Bergman wrote for Liv Ullman to direct. What was it like to walk those same steps that Bergman walked?
I went there immediately the day I met Daniel, Bergman’s son. He was sitting in the same chair where old Bergman would sit when he was there. There not so much time to understand the atmosphere of the house before. I was immediately with a person with whom I would speak to. I think that was more the impression of Mia Hansen-Løve, who is speaking in the film about her impression of the house because she was alone there. She felt Bergman’s presence much more than I did because I had the son sitting there the entire time. That was Bergman’s presence for me.
Among many things, Bergman was known for his troupe of actors whom he would work with for many films. Max von Sydow, Erland Josefson, and Liv Ullman to name a few – although that relationship was a bit different. You yourself have used Barbara Sukowa as your lead throughout your career. Do you think of that relationship as one that is similar to those Bergman had with his actors?
Yes, except I don’t go to bed with her [laughs]. All his main actresses, except for Ingrid Thulin, because with Harriet Andersson, Bibi Andersson, and Liv Ullman, he always had real relationships with them. I couldn’t do that with Barbara without being a lesbian, I have nothing against lesbians of course, but we are not.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about Bergman from speaking with his collaborators?
It was everything that Daniel was saying about his father. That he wasn’t interested in his own children. I have a son and we’re very very close. To imagine somebody who does not have this connection to his own child was new for me. Then it was the depth of his character and his complexity, the contradictory nature of Bergman. That was a real discovery. I feel even closer to him now than before.
It’s such a surprising revelation. I think of Fanny and Alexander and the way Bergman captures the whimsy and mysticism of the children’s mind is spectacular.
This is because he stayed a child his whole life. He wanted to be a child. He was much closer to his childhood and the child within himself than he was to his adult self. He always put himself in the heart of the film.
Searching for Ingmar Bergman will be released in the US by Oscilloscope later this year.