Von Trotta pays tribute to cinematic mentor in ‘Searching for Ingmar Bergman’

With the centennial of Ingmar Bergman’s birth, director Margarethe von Trotta has been given the opportunity to pay tribute to the director who first inspired her to become a director. In the 30 plus years since beginning her career, the German director has carved out a place for herself as one of the main directors within the New German Cinema movement. But she’ll never forget the moment she discovered Bergman for herself, a director she refers to as her master. In the intimate documentary Searching for Ingmar Bergman, von Trotta explores the brilliance of his cinema and understand the man.

Lesley Coffin: You speak of how personal your connection to his films have been and that he’s essentially the director who inspired you to become a filmmaker. How did this project come to you? Did you pursue the opportunity to make this film?

Margarethe von Trotta: Not at all. I’ve always thought that Bergman was such a master I didn’t feel like I could make something at his level, I thought I wouldn’t be good enough. There was a producer in German, a young woman who’s half Swedish. And she knew that for his hundredth birthday there would be a lot of celebrations of his work and retrospectives. And she was the one to tell me I had to do it, because she knew I’d always called him my master. She asked me and initially I said no and told her to find someone else. But then my son, who makes documentaries, told me I was able to do it and promised to help me.

And I still wasn’t that enthusiastic, and I had to go to the Bergman Film Foundation in Sweden. And I asked them what I could do that didn’t just repeat what others had already done. And they are the ones who told me I should do it in a personal way and to speak of his time in Munich. Because he spent seven years in Munich but it’s a time in his life people don’t know about. I would have feared putting myself in the film would be egotistical, especially putting myself besides Bergman. But they felt it was the right way, especially because he had like me and my work, and felt it was the best way for a filmmaker to make a film about another filmmaker.

Lesley Coffin: Being your first documentary, what was the greatest difference between the two forms for you to adjust to?

Margarethe von Trotta: Well, it was very hard for me because I don’t just direct my own film, I also write all my own scripts. And documentaries are created at the end, during the edit. You don’t know what people will say until after you’ve finished filming, so you have to remain completely open.

Lesley Coffin: You also have a very broad mix of people interviewed, those who worked with him, those who knew his personally, and the admirers. How did you select the interviewees?

Margarethe von Trotta: I wanted to select directors who wouldn’t be as well known. The producers thought I should have people like Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen. But they’ve already spoken of Bergman many, many times. So I wanted to find admirers we hadn’t heard from before. Liv Ullman’s of course spoken of Bergman many, many times. But I felt it was important to include her. She’s the only one of Bergman’s iconic actresses in the film. I feel that as long as she is alive and talks of Bergman, he will be alive.

Lesley Coffin: And it’s interesting to hear her speak because she was one of his actresses and muses, but considering she’s moved into directing herself, he was also her mentor.

Margarethe von Trotta: She is a wonderful director and I consider her a friend. We did a panel and spoke of Bergman like friends in front of the public. Normally, you have moderator asking you questions that you answer, but that was just a conversation.

Lesley Coffin: You mention that your son wanted to help you make this film, and the film addresses Bergman’s own relationship with his children and how absent he was as a father. Did your feelings about Bergman change hearing about that part of his life?

Margarethe von Trotta: When I started the film, I really only knew his films and didn’t know about his life and his nine children. I never wanted to know about that part of his life because I thought it would ruin the films. But now I can appreciate what his personal life brought to those films. There was a revelation to seeing that he wasn’t just a genius but a human with a lot of flaws. But I never wanted to go to far because this is a film about a filmmaker. His son, the man in the film, he’d always refused to speak about his father. But he made an exception with me because I wasn’t trying to make a name by attaching myself to his father, I had already made my own films.

Lesley Coffin: You have had the opportunity to talk about how important Bergman’s work was to you, but you also had the rare of experience of having him as a fan of your work. Did he ever speak to you directly about your work?

Margarethe von Trotta: He did. He told me that my film, Marianne and Juliane, he liked because he was in a depression when he saw the film; he didn’t want to make films anymore. And I gave him the courage to want to continue. And I was so surprised and said, “But you were my master. I became a filmmaker because of you.” And he seemed so surprised to hear me say that and was very modest. And when I told a friend of his wonderful compliment he told me not to take it seriously, he’s a womanizer. And then two or four years later, he was asked to give a list of his favorite films and I saw my film of his list. That’s when I knew that it wasn’t just a compliment, he’d meant it. When I went to his house and saw the room with all his videos, he had all my films there.

Lesley Coffin: In terms of what the film can do for audiences who aren’t as familiar with Bergman’s films, what are your hopes for what the film could do for his cinematic memory?

Margarethe von Trotta: He hasn’t been making films for a long time. And people my age and older remember his films and were very impressed. But nowadays there are fewer people going into film who know his work. My aim is that people get the itch to see his films again and young people the desire to see how he might have influenced the filmmakers who influenced them. And not just see his films as something from the past, but that his films can still tell us something about ourselves.

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