“Theater was my wife. Film my mistress”. This is how Ingmar Bergman felt about his work. And his work was his life. Mistresses he had a lot, and family wasn’t as important for the workaholic who is considered by many as one of the greatest and most influential filmmakers ever. This is one of the most important conclusions to be drawn from the documentaries Bergman: A Year in a Life (2018) and Searching for Ingmar Bergman (2018), that were part of the Bergmania programme at the Noordelijk Film Festival in Leeuwarden this year.
Like many great artists, Bergman wasn’t exactly ‘Joe Average’ and had quite some peculiarities in his character resulting in an obsessive approach to his work. He suffered from a strong fear of dying, high pressure to perform explaining his ulcer, eating disorder (he almost only ate yoghurt and biscuits), and the many affairs he had with his actresses. Bergman: A Year in a Life focuses on the year 1957. He was 39 when he had perhaps his most productive and challenging year as a theatre- and filmmaker. He made The Seventh Seal, reflecting his fear of death and Wild Strawberries, also obsessing with dying reflected in lead Victor Sjöstrom, whose films were one of Bergman’s great inspirations in his early years as a filmmaker. Arguably Bergman’s greatest achievement in the same year was the production of the five-hour-theatre piece Peer Gynt, considered to be impossible to put on stage in such a short time.
One of the most interesting parts of the documentary is an interview with Ingmar’s older brother Dag. This interview was supposed to be broadcast on television when Ingmar was still alive, but he forbade it since he was in dispute with his brother at the time. Dag shed an interesting light on the notion of Bergman’s work being almost entirely autobiographical. His father was a very dominant priest, reflected in Fanny and Alexander (1982). According to Dag, it wasn’t Ingmar but rather himself that was portrayed in the boy protagonist. He fell victim to his father’s dominance instead of Ingmar, who was more reflected in the younger sister, according to the four-year-older brother. Ingmar always made it appear to be him who suffered his father’s strict and dominant upbringing.
Searching for Ingmar Bergman, directed by the German filmmaker, Margaretha von Trotta, focuses more on Bergman as a family man. Or better, his lack thereof. He had six children but always claimed that he loved or missed his actors and especially actresses more than his children. Despite all his antisocial antics, many who were close to him speak highly of Bergman, his affection and love for his work, and people involved with his work. Liv Ullman, who starred in many of his films and who he had a relationship with doesn’t even want to talk bad about him. She knew he wasn’t flawless but loved him nevertheless and claims that Bergman himself always felt and behaved like a child. He refused therapy since he believed that his character flaws also drove his creativity. She also praised him for his empathy towards women and his deep understanding of the female psyche, reflected in films like Persona (1966) and Cries and Whispers (1972).
Alongside the two documentaries, a handful of Bergman’s films were screened at the festival. Besides the more obvious masterpieces like Fanny and Alexander the lesser known Shame (1968) and A Lesson in Love (1954) were shown. Films in which Bergman studies the relationship between man and woman and how, in the case of Shame, war affects it.
Perhaps a coincidence but a lot of films this year treated relationships and love in many ways, shapes, and forms. The very cynical, but recognizable A Horrible Woman (2017) shows how a carefree young man slowly becomes unhappy and frustrated with his new girlfriend, who seems perfect at first until she moves in with him. She claims more and more space constraining his freedom and individuality. She draws up an activity schedule, redecorates, and makes him sell his cd collection. When he carefully tries to say something, the tension rises and things escalate into psychological terror. The Danish filmmaker, Christian Tafdrup, overdoes it a bit in some situations but many male viewers may find this to be uncomfortably relatable to a certain extent making it a film that is both funny, tense, and one of the best of the festival.
Toby MacDonald’s endearing and Cyrano de Bergerac-like Old Boys (2018) teaches audiences how to court an intellectual young French girl when you’re stuck at an English boarding school as an awkward but imaginative boy. Cannes’ Un Certain Regard winner Gräns (2018), from Swedish director, Ali Abbasi, explores love between two trolls in a human world. This results in a very weird sex scene, peculiar offspring kept in a fridge but is also a beautiful reflection on identity, gender, and on how we regard strangers. Henrik Martin Dahlsbakken’s An Affair (2018) shows the consequences of a scandalous love affair between a 42-year old female teacher falling for a 16-year old student as was already mentioned by Paul Caspers in his article about the Nordic Film Days in Lübeck, published earlier this week.
Noteworthy is the Finnish Euthanizer (2017) about a man who euthanizes pet animals as a side job. The festival’s organization felt it necessary to warn the audience about its content. And yes, if you are a pet lover you may not want to walk into this but who dared learned that the gruff protagonist, in fact, loves animals and tends to lecture the pet owners for not looking after them well enough. The film reminds one of Matteo Garrone’s Dogman (2018), since it also involves a nasty confrontation with criminals. All in all, not a comfortable viewing but definitely an interesting one.
Finland is also responsible for the hilarious highlight of the festival and winner of the audience award in Heavy Trip (2018). A film about a metal band, or as they like to call it: symphonic post-apocalyptic-reindeer-grinding-Christ-abusing extreme war pagan Fennoscandian metal. Some local friends have been in a metal band called Impaled Rektum for some 12 years already but never had a gig. The lead singer, Turo, wants to impress the local flower girl and tells her that they are booked for a Norwegian festival. Soon they become local heroes and their career is forced into public vomiting, stealing a corpse, kidnapping a drummer from a mental institution, and taking a promo photo using a speed camera. This heartfelt film proves to be somewhat predictable in plot but definitely surprises in bold slapstick situations and got the audience laughing out loud on countless occasions. A potential cult favourite and a great rock comedy in the tradition of This is Spinal Tap (1984).