Bergman: A Year in a Life Review

1957 was a busy year for the acclaimed Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman. In this twelve month period, he somehow managed to release two of his most celebrated works (The Seventh Seal and The Wild Strawberries), as well as produce four plays and a TV film. Not only that, but he also had his messy private life to deal with, especially his numerous adulterous relationships.

A lot of directors have problematic personal lives, but what makes Bergman so interesting is just how little he seemed to actually care for his relationships or his family, even admitting that he can't remember the birth dates of his own children. Bergman, in an interview, states that "All  I have is my work". His complete disregard for everything else in his life is fascinating, believable and deeply disturbing.

But maybe his failure to have a satisfactory personal life affected him more than he cared to admit. One of the interviewees in this very detailed documentary tells us that Bergman suffered "constant and persistent angst", frequently having unbearable stomach pains and suffering ill health during 1957, making it even more startling that it was still, arguably, the most successful year of his career. His sicknesses could have been brought on by his constant mental suffering. Then again, it could've also been caused by his bizarre refusal to ever eat vegetables, a fact that was revealed by another interviewee. He only consumed yogurt and biscuits, and the people who worked with him were so intimidated that only the bravest of his crew members would dare to pinch one of his biscuits.

If this sounds like I'm throwing a lot of random facts about Bergman at you, it's because the documentary does that as well. While the documentary is very intriguing from beginning to end and includes interesting anecdotes from those who worked with or knew Bergman, the title - Bergman: A Year in a Life - is rather misleading. The documentary often lacks focus, jumping to different time periods of Bergman's career rather than delving into 1957 in rich detail. All of the information is very useful to know but the documentary doesn't have one central idea or conclusion. To the documentary's credit, however, Bergman was very complex and it would be difficult to just explore one aspect of his unique character.

For Bergman, making movies was his form of therapy. The Seventh Seal was made as an attempt to rid Bergman of the fear of death. Characters often represented Bergman, such as in Fanny and Alexander, in which the onlooker character represents Bergman witnessing the abuse his real brother faced at the hands of their strict father. The director of this documentary, Jane Magnusson (who is also the narrator), even manages to provide footage of Ingmar's brother, Dag. The sibling rivalry between them both is evident, with Dag begrudgingly telling the interviewer that Bergman was always the favourite child. It seems to be something that he'll never get over.

Magnusson clearly loves Bergman's work, referring to him as a master of his craft. Indeed, few directors could make films as personal, psychological and human as Bergman. He understood human desires, needs and fears better than any director, and presented them in the most beautiful ways. But it's admirable that Magnusson doesn't shy away from his troublesome personal life, no matter how much she admires his work. The documentary addresses that he was a former Nazi, had severe commitment issues and kept having children even though he showed very little interest in the ones he already had. The documentary has a satisfactory balance of depicting Ingmar's astonishing accomplishments but also his unresolved issues.

If Bergman: A Year in a Life taught me anything, it's that Bergman's films were even more autobiographical than I initially realised. I look back at The Seventh Seal and remember the character of Jons claiming that "Love is the blackest of all plagues, but you don't even die of it and usually it passes". This couldn't be a clearer representation of Ingmar's polarising treatment of the women in his life. As always with documentaries about famous people, you wonder if the filmmaker would've made such rich work without the troubles and anxieties he faced throughout his life. A man both admirable and loathsome, Bergman was an enigma as much as he was an artist.


This documentary may lack focus and have a misleading title, but Bergman: A Year in a Life provides captivating and insightful information about a director who was tormented by his own mind.


out of 10


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