The great Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman was known for idolizing women in his career: the majority of his films are centered on the needs and wants of women. He launched internationally-acclaimed careers for most of the actresses he worked with.
Without Bergman, Liv Ullmann, Harriet Andersson, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin and Gunnel Lindblom wouldn’t have gotten the plum roles that immortalized them and best exploited their individual talents. It is fitting then, that the final tribute to the legendary filmmaker, the 2006 documentary Bergman Island, shot on the Baltic isle of Faro, mainly in Bergman’s home, was directed by a woman, Marie Nyerod.
A capable documentarian who actually becomes obscured by the shadow of Bergman and his island, Nyerod lovingly photographs the director and the land. The theatrical release of Bergman Island was initially conceived as three separate films touching on each of the director’s favorite subjects, divided into three distinct chapters: “Bergman and the Cinema”, “Bergman and the Theater” (which also looks at his television works), and “Bergman and Faro Island”.
For the 2006 theatrical release, however, the three films were re-edited to run a brisk 83-minutes, and Nyerod guides the old master gently, reverently through his paces as he recounts, with the help of archival material and powerful anecdotes from his childhood, the facts from his private life that would shape his artistic output for the rest of his days.
From his infamous relationships with his female co-stars (who also, in many ways, shaped the man and his creative process) to his close ties to other important collaborators such as cinematographer Sven Nykvist and actor-director Victor Sjostrom, Bergman’s candor and clarity when discussing these formative events is beautiful. His account of his first meeting with Sjostrom, his boss at the time, is acted out with Bergman playing Sjostrom and a delighted Nyerod standing in for the young (admittedly brash) Bergman, is the stuff cineastes dream of—honest and funny.
Bergman, looking directly at the camera, says that Sjostrom gave him his first, formative lesson on how to behave in filmmaking and how to treat co-workers. For a second, his face is filled with humility, regret and pride. It is such a tremendously moving moment that begs the question “did Bergman impart this wisdom to anyone in his own personal life?”
Filmed a mere year before the director’s death, the documentary brings out a reflective, candid side of a man that was sometimes seen as being controlling and authoritarian when it came to his oeuvre. What Nyerod brings to the table is a deep observational empathy, which sheds new light on a complicated man and his relationships with women.
Opening with a crisp blue-green shot of the Baltic Sea, the images from Nyerod’s camera immediately recall Bergman’s films that were shot on Faro—Through a Glass Darkly, Persona, Hour of the Wolf, and Shame highlighted a stark, almost ominous natural beauty; a menacing energy. Even when Bergman used color on the island, in The Passion of Anna, there was still a feeling of dread and isolation that permeated the film.
Nyerod succeeds in capturing a different perspective, showing the island as vibrant, almost tropical and then seconds later foggy and mystical, almost medieval. She shows the magic of the place, the life, the joy of the land. Again, this fresh look at the actual geography of Bergman’s life offers an alternate viewpoint: while he escaped to Faro to avoid the spotlight, it isn’t a place of desolation and despair that is so often depicted in his raw films. For the director, the island was also a paradise.
“When I’m on Faro, I’m never lonely,” says Bergman, shown amidst flickering, warm sun and bright light. “The demons don’t like fresh air”, the director says. “What they like best is if you stay in bed with cold feet.”
The viewer’s first glimpse into Bergman’s private world is of his office. Slowly panning across his desktop, Nyerod shows personal effects such as his glasses, cherished family photos, and other artifacts (his three Oscars – each for Best Foreign Language Film—are on display later in the film). Espousing the joys of self-discipline and adhering to “strict routines”, Bergman is also a bit of a contradiction, talking about how “satisfying” spending long stretches of time not speaking to people at all can be, while clearly enjoying his time with Nyerod, offering new insights into his classic works, for what would amount to one of the last times.
Nearly 90-years-old when filming the documentary, Bergman is still spry, clever and provocative while driving Nyerod to the spots where such films as Persona were filmed. He explains the dangers of lying to the press, and snubbing Hollywood royalty as well as why theater is his true love.
There is much intimacy on display throughout Bergman Island, particularly in a lingering close-up of the director’s hands as he lovingly shows off his father’s confirmation watch and tarnished gold wedding band. Frankly discussing his family, as photographs of his mother as a young woman are displayed, Bergman poignantly articulates the effects of her parenting on his career. He talks of the emotional cruelty and aloofness she enacted on him—even as a toddler—like it happened only the day before, as though the wound were still fresh.
One gets the sense that his filmic exploration of women – often times his female characters are portrayed as elusive, withholding or fatally-flawed—is a kind of attempt on his part at figuring out his mother and her motivations and attempting to move into a place of both healing and forgiveness. “Mother was actually a great doer and organizer,” Bergman recounts as pictures of his very traditional, religious-infected childhood are shown, “All the special occasions were directed by mother.”
Photo courtesy of Criterion Collection
Bergman was certainly not the first male director to be so influenced by women and to place them at the forefront of his work, but the origin of this fascination with the opposite gender (for both gay and straight men alike), this need to honor, discover and examine our intrinsic connection to women is quite simple: all men are influenced by women, directors and writers alike. It was essential for this riveting coda to Bergman’s life to be directed by a woman.
Also included in Criterion’s rather sparse package is film scholar Peter Cowie’s video essay Bergman 101, a brief 30-minute look at the director’s canon. Cowie talks about the roles of “dominant, strong-willed” women in Bergman’s life (his mother, his five wives, his many lovers, actresses and his muses all figure into the discussion), and about the recurring motifs (mirrors, dreams, isolation, the battle of the sexes, emotional cruelty) that are so important in understanding the director and his films. Yet the feature feels rushed, despite Cowie’s erudite, authoritative take on the director’s life.
What would be truly amazing to see included with something like this is a an accompanying disc of interviews featuring the above-mentioned, often-discussed women of Bergman’s life, interviewed as he is by Nyerod on Bergman Island, because to fully understand this complex man, to get the whole story, you have to hear their stories as well.