As I sat in the dark, surrounded by four projectors displaying synched clips from Ingmar Bergman’s oeuvre, I felt both overwhelmed and relaxed, viscerally excited and deeply contemplative. In 15 minutes the installation managed to have the same effect as a good Bergman film. Created for the Deutsche Kinemathek in Berlin, but now on display in the newly renovated Bergman Center on the Swedish island of Fårö, “Lanterna Magica” intends to distill Bergman’s style and its development into 15 minutes of screen time spread over four simultaneously projected screens. But it actually forces the viewer to confront Bergman’s legacy and examine its relevance.
For the past 10 years, Fårö has hosted a week each summer to do just that, by celebrating the life, legacy and work of its most famous inhabitant. The director not only built his home on a remote spot on the island; he used it as the filming location of some of his most renowned works, including “Through a Glass Darkly,” “Persona” and “The Silence.” Bergman Week, organized by the Bergman Center Foundation, presents the chance to celebrate and explore Bergman’s body of work, influence and continuing relevance in contemporary cinema.
The program features special screenings of Bergman’s movies and exhibitions dedicated to his cinematic achievements as well as discussions and lectures from Bergman collaborators, authors and artists who feel a connection with the director’s oeuvre. The highest profile guests at this year’s festival — Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig and Sally Potter — presented their newest films, took part in discussions about their careers and Bergman’s influence on their work and selected favorite Bergman features that they introduced.
Before the screening of his black-and-white summer release “Frances Ha,” Baumbach somewhat jokingly stated that he consider this film to be the one least inspired by Bergman. But afterwards he clarified.
“I regretted saying that,” he stated during the post-screening discussion. “For one, I realized that Sophie’s [the character portrayed by Mickey Sumner] glasses feel like Bergman glasses. When I saw ‘Scenes from a Marriage,’ I became obsessed with Liv Ullman’s glasses. I tried to buy the actual glasses to have Laura Linney wear them in ‘Squid and the Whale.’ The ones we used weren’t quite the same, but Sophie’s glasses definitely look like Bergman glasses.”
Apart from the affinity for similar eyewear, another key connection the filmmakers share — which Baumbach failed to note during the festival — is an elusive approach to comedy. In his appearance on comedian Marc Maron’s podcast “WTF,” Baumbach discussed how the things he intends as jokes often don’t register as such for audiences. Although Bergman has the reputation as the most serious of serious auteurs there are clear moments of intended comedy that rarely get discussed, whether it’s Death himself sawing down a tree in “The Seventh Seal” or the campy theatrics of the demons that haunt Max Von Sydow in “The Hour of the Wolf.”
Both Baumbach and Gerwig brought this up in the post screening discussions: The comedy is there when you look for it. As for what makes Bergman funny, Gerwig attributed it to the editing: “There’s a sprightliness and tenseness in the cutting in Bergman’s films,” she said during the Q&A. “They feel cut like comedies.”
Although “Frances Ha” is generally lighthearted, that same tension certainly exists, especially during the protagonist’s misjudged trip to Paris. Those scenes are as tense as they are funny — and the editing, as much as the performances and the writing, bring that effect to the viewer.
Another crucial connection: Bergman famously incorporated autobiography into fiction films, the most celebrated example being “Fanny and Alexander,” in which aspects of his childhood were used for fiction. The same can be said about Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale,” and Baumbach explained as much when asked about Bergman’s influence on his work in the discussion. “When I saw Bergman movies, they immersed me, but they also made me think about my own childhood,” he said. “Thinking about my childhood inspired me to turn those memories into my own stories to film.”
The question of autobiography also came up in the discussion with Sally Potter in regards to her latest film “Ginger & Rosa,” about the collapse of a friendship between two adolescent girls growing up in the shadow of the fear of the atomic bomb. Since Ginger seems to share some of the director’s background — growing up in the sixties as a burgeoning artist — Potter constantly gets asked about the film as autobiography and echoes Baumbach’s sentiment.
“All writing is autobiographical,” she said. “But the genre is fiction, which frees me to do what I want. The past is a research bank and experiences become material to work with.” Potter also screened and introduced “Persona,” which she saw for the first time in her late teens, and it’s hard not to see parallels between it and “Ginger & Rosa.” On a surface level, they both deal with a connection between two women, leading to a split in their relationship. “Ginger & Rosa” tells its story in a more traditional way and can’t be said to have what Potter described as Bergman’s “austerity of aesthetic.”
But, like “Persona,” Potter’s film is successful in telling the story of the girls’ connection and eventual disconnection through its visuals, from the moment of their birth to their adolescence through to the eventual breakup of their friendship.
The festival also premiered the documentary “Trespassing Bergman,” from directors Hynek Pallas and Jane Magnusson, which looks at Bergman’s career through interviews with other filmmakers and actors. The film is adapted from a series broadcast on Swedish television last year, in which some of the directors in Bergman’s personal VHS collection were invited to visit his home. These ranged from Michael Haneke to John Landis, but the feature version of the series abandons this unique perspective in favor of a more traditional “greatest hits” look at Bergman’s work and life. However, in its most successful parts, it both deepens Bergman’s myth and deconstructs it.
The directors’ interviewees express sentiments ranging from awe (Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu describes visiting Bergman’s house as it were a pilgrimage to Mecca) to more realistic perspectives on his flaws (Lars Von Trier spends a lot of his screen time musing about how he likes to imagine Bergman isolated on Fårö masturbating, an idea that grows weirdly credible when Tomas Alfredson discovers a VHS copy of the 1974 softcore film “Emmanuelle” on Bergman’s shelves.)
Bergman week offers its guests more than just the chance to watch Bergman films on his home island and in his private movie theater. It presents a new way of looking at the director, whose work can often seem imposing or obtuse. Seeing Bergman’s films in relation to others indebted to him provides a fresh context both to the legendary filmmaker and to the ones who follow in his footsteps.
More specifically, when viewing Bergman as an influence on “Frances Ha,” his work becomes funnier, lighter and more genuinely entertaining than it may initially seem. Bergman Week makes it impossible to examine the current filmmaking landscape without seeing Bergman’s influence on it. At the height of his career, Bergman had complete creative freedom. Even if current microbudget filmmakers, or others striving towards creating personal cinematic art, don’t have Bergman’s reach or funds, they retain his immense sense of authorial vision. Bergman’s interest in the psyche and inner demons of his characters is also clear recent American movies like Jeff Nichols’ “Take Shelter” (basically “The Hour of the Wolf” with a happier ending) and Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy could easily be titled “Scenes From a Marriage” if Bergman hadn’t staked a claim to it first.
Bergman Week also showed that the director’s continuing impact extends to artists working in media other than film: This year’s program included a theatrical production of his TV film “The Rite” produced by theater group Demon Theater, which focuses exclusively on staging works by Bergman, and the aforementioned “Laterna Magica” instillation. Above all else, Bergman Week makes one thing clear: Far from being a dated relic of European art films of the sixties, Bergman remains as relevant today as ever.