Arts

Death becomes him: A documentary observes the centennial of Ingmar Bergman

Ingmar Bergman as seen in the documentary “Bergman Island.”
Criterion Collection
Ingmar Bergman as seen in the documentary “Bergman Island.”

Ingmar Bergman would have been 100 on July 14. It’s been more than a decade since he died in 2007 at 89, and the world could use a refreshing dose of his obsessiveness over the tried-and-true issues of death, sexuality, guilt, cruelty, despair, and faith. Especially death.

“Not a day has gone by in my life when I haven’t thought about death,” he says in Marie Nyreröd’s “Bergman Island” (2004), her breezy, sometimes intimate, and illuminating documentary about the great Swedish director re-released on the Criterion Channel on the centenary of his birth. That should come as no surprise to anyone who has watched his films. Though he married five times and had nine children, was in love with the stage ever since he entered Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theatre, at the age of 10, and for half a century was regarded as one of the greatest auteurs in the world, he could never shake his love/hate affair with the Grim Reaper.

Among the clips included in Nyreröd’s film is the glimpse of Death scraping his scythe along the dining room floor as the titular young Bergman persona in “Fanny and Alexander” (1982) hides under the table. And, of course, the iconic image of Death on the beach in “The Seventh Seal” (1957), accepting the challenge from Max von Sydow’s knight to play a game of chess for his life (spoiler: Death cheats).

Advertisement

Ironically, as Bergman relates, he owed the opportunity to make this masterpiece of existential dread to the breakthrough success of what might be his cheeriest film, the moneymaking “Smiles of a Summer’s Night” (1955), which earned him complete artistic freedom for the rest of his career. Bergman wonders if that was such a good idea, because thereafter he received no critical input from friends or colleagues. He knew if he showed them his latest work he would only get positive reviews.

Ingmar Bergman is shown with Monica Ehrling and Lena Bergman on the set of 1957’s “Wild Strawberries” in the 2004 documentary “Bergman Island.”
Criterion Collection
Ingmar Bergman is shown with Monica Ehrling and Lena Bergman on the set of 1957’s “Wild Strawberries” in the 2004 documentary “Bergman Island.”
Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Nyreröd, however, doesn’t let him off easy. Though the documentary includes little analysis of his oeuvre or his aesthetics, it does delve into darker areas of his life. His masterpiece, “Persona” (1966), is discussed solely in terms of his tabloid-fodder dumping of one of the film’s stars, Bibi Andersson, to start a relationship with the other, Liv Ullmann. Pressed to admit that he felt guilty about this hurtful behavior, not to mention his total neglect of his children, Bergman says, “I had a bad conscience until I discovered that having a bad conscience about something so gravely serious as leaving your children is an affectation, a way of achieving a little suffering that can’t for a moment be equal to the suffering you’ve caused.”

Sounds like his psychotherapist talking.

The title of the film comes from Fårö Island, the starkly beautiful scrap of rock and farmland in the Baltic Sea where Bergman settled down to live the rest of his life in 1967. He takes Nyreröd on a tour of his compound there, showing her his snug but capacious home where he lives alone, and they browse through old photos and film clips while minor key chamber works by Schubert, Bach , Mozart, and Tchaikovsky play on the soundtrack.

It’s a perfect setting to return to the theme of death, about which Bergman seems in later life to have taken a more positive attitude. When his fifth wife, Ingrid Karlebo, died in 1995 after 23 years of marriage, Bergman was devastated by the thought that she had ceased to exist and he would never see her again. But then one night as he paced in the moonlit silence of his home he felt her presence. Death, he concluded, would reunite them.

Advertisement

“Bergman Island” can be seen on the Criterion Channel on Filmstruck.

Go to www.filmstruck.com/us.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.