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Tuesday, when I heard the news that Ingmar Bergman had died on Faro, the island in the Baltic Sea where he filmed many of his classic films, I put aside what I was doing. In a fit of something like filial piety for one of the idols of my youth, I watched the documentary directed by Vilgot Sjöman Ingmar Bergman gör en film (Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie" is the title of its release in English, currently available only as a bonus disc of Criterion's edition of "silence of God" trilogy--Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence). The film (movie) was "Nattvardsgäs" (Winter Light) a harsh portrayal of three hours in the life of a Swedish Lutheran minister (played by Gunnar Björnstrand) who has lost his faith and is unable to persuade a fisherman (played by Max von Sydow) not to kill himself.
Bergman did not allow Sjöman (I am Curious Blue/Yellow) to film him writing the script in longhand, but sat for detailed interviews by Sjöman before, during, and after production of the film. In the interviews, Sjöman comes across as very earnest and relatively probing. Bergman comes across as serious about trying to answer the inquiries, as articulate, and as having a considerably more developed sense of humor (though laughing less than in the 1998 interviews by Jörn Donner [producer of "Fanny and Alexander"], "Ingmar Bergman on Life and Work," included on the Criterion Wild Strawberries edition.
Having read more than a few Bergman interviews (albeit long ago) and having four books on Bergman including Bergman on Bergman and Images: My Life in Film by the master himself, I found the 1961 interviews less than enthralling (slow and visually static). Discussion before and after the first reviews came out are interesting: Bergman told the critic-turned-filmmaker that he had learned never to respond to those producing either positive or negative criticisms of his work.
What is mesmerizing to someone interested in the process of crafting films is not listening to Bergman expostulate but watching the work. Thus, for me, the great parts of the five-part (144-minute) documentary are watching the blocking of a scene involving Björnstrand and Ingrid Thulin, and an extended look at the editing of one sequence from "Winter Light." There is no comment from Bergman (after some interview footage about establishing rhythm that is not specific to the segment) and only a little from Sjöman. First, the scene from three different vantage points (a middle shot of the four actors, closeups of Björnstrand and von Sydow) are displayed, then a rough cut, a subsequent cut, and the final cut. The final version cuts back and forth between the actors less than the previous one, an intercutting Sjöman liked. (I guess this is evidence that the observer did not have much effect on the observed here!).
Being much interested in late about the extent to which the cinematographer (rather than the director or the screenwriter) is the real auteur of films, I was interested to hear from Sven Nykvist (who shot many Bergman-directed films, though not the most-loved 1950s ones) explain how the shadowless winter light was photographed, and to see that Bergman looked into the camera before shots and discussed lenses with Nykvist.
Although Bergman told Sjöman that the actors were the "Alpha and Omega" of film-making, the documentary shows him personally involved in every aspect (well, communicated to someone else rather than directly to the carpenters, but with the editing and photographing and location picking). The look of the Mizoguchi Kenji masterpieces of the early 1950s may be the work of cinematographer Miyagawa Kazuo, but the look of Bergman films was not left to Nykvist (or, presumably, his predecessor, Gunnar Fischer). In a 1968 interview (Bergman on Bergman, p. 35) Bergman said: "The cameraman and I come to an agreement about what is to be included in the image. We also go through everything to do with lighting and atmosphere in advance.... The light in the images is something I hardly think can ever be attributed to just one of us. Perhaps I can put it like this: the impulse comes from me, and the enormously careful, subtle, and technically clever execution is all Sven Nykvist's work." This statement is in accord with what the documentary shows. (I don't think it was staged: it seems spontaneous and a part of the blocking for scenes that don't seem particularly complex to me, but to which Bergman and his associated devoted detailed attention. In the interviews, Bergman knew that he was performing.)
I don't think that one needs to be an admirer or "Winter Light" to find the documentary interesting--or even to have seen "Winter Light." Having an interest in the craft of film-making is essential, however. I wish that Sjöman had learned more about rhythm before cutting the interview footage, though I can understand not wanting to cut into what Bergman told him.
© 2007, Stephen O. Murray
I am even more than usually grateful to Sue (Millinocket) for squeezing this into the database. The disc with this documentary is available by itself from Netflix (and I assume other renters), but may only be purchsed as part of the Criterion "Silence of God" set.
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