Bergman: A Year in a Life Review
Bergman: A Year in a Life (2018) | Dir. Jane Magnusson | Cast: Elliott Gould, Ingmar Bergman, Lena Endre, Thorsten Flinck | Writer: N/A
Cut down from a four-part TV series to feature length documentary, Jane Magnusson's Bergman: A Year in a Life chooses the year 1957 as the focus for her subject, and with good reason. 1957 is an important year for the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. He has just released what would become his most distinctive and celebrated feature, The Seventh Seal, he makes his next Cannes award winning film, Wild Strawberries that year, he is in demand for the relatively new medium of television features, and he is acclaimed for several ambitious and ground-breaking theatre productions. Already a major figure in Sweden in 1957, for the first time in his career Bergman has complete artistic control over his projects and is about to make a significant mark on international cinema. And yet, all is not well in the Bergman camp.
The idea of delving into Bergman's rather more troubled personal circumstances is also a valid proposition. The film goes back to examine a troubled childhood that would lead to deep-rooted complexes, insecurities and fears, his subsequent relationships with women marked by infidelity, jealousy and violent rages. The choice of the year 1957 moreover allows the focus to be directed towards how Bergman's personal life and his creative impulse - a passion that also derives very much from childhood experience - come together and interrelate. Bergman at this stage in his career has found a way to reflect on his own issues and turn them into great art. Everything is there in the films and his efforts to translate his ideas onto celluloid genuinely extend the range of the medium and perhaps even our understanding of human nature in the process.
The availability and wealth of material that Magnusson has at her disposal is impressive and, despite having to cut a great deal that is available in the longer 4-hour TV series, it's assembled into a coherent narrative, illustrating Bergman's own reflections on his work with how they are presented in his films, noting contradictions and discrepancies between what Bergman claims and what others close to him remember of the reality. That's an interesting look into the creative process, and as far as Bergman is concerned it all feeds into the myth. A Year in a Life however is by no means a hagiography and it doesn't gloss over Bergman's flaws as a human being.
The film considers Bergman's not-so-brief flirtation with Nazism as a youth in Germany in the 1930s and it makes no bones about his failings as a father and a husband, although it has to be said that Bergman was honest about his mistakes and failings in these areas as well. The film also covers how Bergman turned into a complete monster dominating the Swedish film and theatre scene after his return from exile in Germany in the 1970s, crushing any young talents who might be seen as a potential threat. And yet, if anything, all of these self-confessed flaws and contradictions only seem to add to the mythology surrounding Bergman. It seems that almost everyone who is interviewed for the film, who knew the man, married him, suffered his wrath, had their careers destroyed by him, is willing to forgive or at least excuse him for his behaviour.
There's only one reason why that kind of behaviour can be overlooked or excused and that is if they are a great artist whose talent and influence on his medium is significant. Bergman's greatness, his originality, his fearlessness, his willingness to acknowledge his flaws and use them to create some of the greatest films ever made, and his ability to also push others to be better is evident throughout Bergman: A Year in a Life. Made a decade after his death in 2007 and on the centenary of his birth, Jane Magnusson's film is a timely and comprehensive reassessment of an important filmmaker and it amply demonstrates why Bergman's reputation is likely to endure.
Bergman: A Year in a Life is released by BFI on DVD and Blu-ray, and available for streaming via iTunes. The Blu-ray release is available as a limited edition three-disc set that contains the film and extra features on Disc 1, with the original four hour-long episodes of the series Bergman: A Life in Four Acts on Disc 2 and Disc 3. As a documentary feature assembled from many film and video sources, the quality of the image is variable, but film-clips and interviews look pristine in High Definition. There's a little bit of jerkiness occasionally evident, perhaps on account of the conversion method used, but it's only really noticeable in the end titles of the TV series.
The TV series A Life in Four Acts contains the original Swedish voice-over narration, whereas the film A Year in a Life was narrated for international release in English. DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 stereo options are available for the soundtrack. Optional English subtitles are available for all features and extras.
The four-part series Bergman: A Life in Four Acts is a very worthwhile inclusion, expanding on the material in the film and laying it out in a clearer manner. Interviews reduced to soundbites in the film version are expanded and contribute to the overall narrative better. Act 1 - 1957, Bergman's Crazy Year will be largely familiar as it is the basis for the feature version, drawing from the other three 'Acts', but there are further details and revelations made in the other episodes. The director's childhood, family upbringing and the focus on women in his early film work is covered in Act 2 - Bergman Begins; Act 3 - Bergmania covers his meteoric success and sudden downfall in 1976 when he was investigated by the Swedish tax authorities; a repentant nation welcomes their cultural colossus back to make his magnum opus Fanny and Alexander in Act 4 - The Power and the Glory, only to find that they have created a monster who tyrannises the national film and theatre world.
Disc 1 of the Blu-ray set contains a 62-min audio-only Interview with Bergman from 1982 at an event in tribute to Alf Sjöberg, and there's a good Q&A interview (17 min) with director Jane Magnusson about gathering and selecting material for A Year in a Life and how the project developed. A curious 11-min animated feature directed by Magnusson Vox Lipoma is irreverent or in poor taste, depending on your point of view, making fun of Bergman's facial lump and his notorious mistreatment of women. Amusingly, Bergman is voiced by Thorsten Flinck, a promising theatre actor and director whose career Bergman more or less destroyed. The UK trailer is also included. A 22-page booklet includes writing by Jane Magnusson, Geoff Andrew and full credits for the film, TV series and extra features.