Margarethe von Trotta remembers the first time she saw it. It was the early Sixties, and this young German woman — still several years from establishing herself as an actor, and a little over a decade away before The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975) would induct her into the ranks of Das Neue Kino directors — was visiting Paris. She’d heard about this film that Cahiers-crowd cinegeeks had been crowing over, something about a knight who’d lost his faith, a chess game and Death. So von Trotta found a theater that was playing it. The sight of the man on the rocks, the lapping of the waves, a bird hovering in the sky, the Grim Reaper in his black robes — these images marked her. Many decades later, walking along that same shore with a cameraman in tow, the filmmaker can vividly remember the impact that Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal left on her psyche. It was the moment, she says, that she felt a movie could be recognized as a work of art.
She’s not the first person to feel this way after seeing one of the Swedish-cinema godhead’s ruminations on the human condition, and she won’t be the last. In fact, the second best thing about Searching for Ingmar Bergman, von Trotta’s documentary (co-directed by Felix Moeller and Bettina Böhler) about the man, is that she’s gathered a fraternity of fellow Bergmaniacs in an effort to exchange information and excavate first-hand impressions. Everyone from longtime collaborators like Liv Ullman to fellow arthouse giants (Carlos Saura, Jean-Claude Carriere), current Swedish auteurs to French cineastes, former assistants to family members recall the director’s personal quirks and professional habits. Olivier Assayas declares that, because of Bergman’s emphasis on actresses, his influence on France’s own contributions to world cinema is incalculable. Daniel Bergman, his son, recalls his sister asking why Ingmar said he missed performers but not his children. (“Because I don’t,” Dad replied.) A grandkid talks about the director of Persona insisting on screening Pearl Harbor in his local moviehouse on the island of Fårö; quickly souring on Michael Bay’s epic, he then proceeded to start it over and only show the action scenes.
It’s an unsentimental piecemeal portrait of a giant, told with clips and testimonies and the occasional archival interview/BTS footage. But it’s mostly an assemblage of posthumous impressions about the man and his work, a puzzle being slowly filled in from the edges inward. (The verb in the title is not superfluous. If this movie resembles anything, it’s Citizen Kane — structure-wise, if not remotely aesthetically.) It’s also not a timeline or a history lesson, which is arguably the best thing about this look back: This is a movie that’s not interested in being particularly objective or definitive. That’s not the goal. There are already numerous other looks back at Bergman, ones that offer a chronological cradle-to-grave tour of his life. Von Trotta’s subjective take on Why Bergman Matters — note the present tense — merely wants to offer a sample platter of feelings, remembrances and anecdotes. Some are fond. Other skew toward forgiveness. What you’re left with ultimately, however, is one filmmaker’s love affair with another’s work, acting as a prism for other beams of light to shine through. See it.