As much as we’re diehard devotees to the work of Ingmar Bergman, occasionally the sombre reverence in which he’s held can make the prospect of participating in the critical narrative that surrounds his astonishing filmography feel about as much fun as, well, playing chess with Death. But “Trespassing Bergman,” the documentary from Jane Magnusson and Hynek Pallas that showed at the Göteborg International Film Festival last week, is anything but stuffy: while its initial premise (inviting a select group of filmmakers to visit Bergman’s house on the remote Swedish island of Fårö) might seem couched in that quasi-mystical reverence that shrouds Bergman’s posthumous reputation, the film quickly manages to blow those cobwebs away and instead turns into a fleet-footed, fascinating, and occasionally very funny look at the director’s influence. It doesn’t hurt that it includes interview footage from a vast range of high-profile directors and actors, including Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, Lars Von Trier, Ang Lee, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Ridley Scott, Zhang Yimou, Takeshi Kitano, Laura Dern, Wes Anderson, Isabella Rosselini, Thomas Vinterberg, Holly Hunter, Claire Denis, John Landis, Robert De Niro, Michael Haneke, Alexander Payne and Swedes Tomas Alfredson, Harriet Anderson and Daniel Espinosa.
To start with, a handful of these personalities (Landis, Denis, Inarritu, Haneke, Alfredson and Espinosa) are shown arriving at and then exploring Bergman’s secluded, securely monitored home on Faro (the other interviews are all recorded elsewhere). Their reactions seesaw between the holy, as though they’re touching a piece of the one true cross, and the irreverent, the humorous, the personal—viz Daniel Espinosa’s joyful and amazed discovery, not just of “Die Hard” in amongst Bergman’s massive VHS collection (he watched 1–3 films a day for the majority of his life), but that it’s a rental tape that Bergman never returned. It’s that balance that the film walks so well, building to a really affectionate, lively portrait of an elusive man and his work, which is somehow the stronger for Bergman’s own absence: it’s as if shining the individual beams of these various opinions and impressions gives us a more detailed, more affecting picture than if he were really there.
Elsewhere the film cuts into and out of clips from his movies, alternating a whistle-stop greatest hits tour through Bergman’s filmography, with often slightly deconstructed talking-head footage from some of the industry’s current leading lights. Even these sections are edited for maximum entertainment value, with moments where one filmmaker extols, with great respect and personal passion, the virtues of, say, “The Seventh Seal” (one of several Bergman touchstones to get a slightly revisionist treatment here) drily counterpointed immediately by someone else’s more iconoclastic take.
Which, of course, brings us to Von Trier, who really does deserve a new paragraph. From the first moment he appears, and talks at length about how sure he is that Bergman spent a large portion of his time on Fårö furiously masturbating, he earns his provocateur reputation at every point. But he’s also very funny and absolutely brimming over with awe for Bergman’s filmmaking: in fact we discover later, after a particularly virulent “Fuck Bergman!” tirade, that a good portion of his rage comes from the fact that while he had repeatedly petitioned to be invited out to Fårö to meet the great man, he’d never received a reply. Bergman had instead initiated a relationship with Thomas Vinterberg who, Von Trier alleges, had only ever seen one Bergman film, “the worst one,” “Fanny and Alexander.” In fact the rambunctious, adversarial nature of Von Trier’s rottweiler-style affection for Bergman is among the film’s most touching elements: here’s one of the great iconoclasts coming up against one of the great icons, and, ultimately, falling to his knees like everyone else. “He means the world to me,” says Von Trier simply, “that stupid shit.”
Not everything hangs together quite so well. The lineup the filmmakers have assembled is so stellar that it occasionally feels like they’ve too much material (indeed the Fårö footage is edited down from a multi-episode TV show), and we only get a very brief sliver from some of the participants—Vinterberg himself, for example, is relegated to a single anecdote over the closing credits. And yet Robert de Niro, who hasn't much to add specifically about Bergman, and who makes rather generalized points about the director/actor relationship instead, gets two or three segments, as though Hynek and Magnusson can’t quite believe their luck to have got him. And we were a little disappointed that there wasn’t more of the going-through-the-video-collection footage (we need a feature-length “Lars Von Trier Explores Ingmar Bergman’s VHS Library” stat), although Haneke does get to be super-Hanekian when he discovers a taped-off-the-TV version of his own “The Piano Teacher.”
But overall the film is a cinephiliac blast, a giddy mix of anecdote and appreciation that will, we warn you, have the side effect of making it burningly important that you rewatch every single Bergman film pronto. And perhaps there’s no better praise we can lavish, because for all the Swedish Master is regularly held up as the greatest filmmaker of all time, his reputation can feel formidable, and the work itself, especially for a neophyte, can seem put away behind glass; museum pieces, to be admired but not handled, not tussled with, not touched. But in “Trespassing Bergman” we are reminded of how he got his peerless reputation: by creating living, breathing films that have the timeless power to engage on an intensely personal level, and it is many of our favorite filmmakers, genre and arthouse, doing the reminding. In fact, we were wrong earlier, “Trespassing Bergman” doesn’t merely deal in affection for Bergman, it’s about love, that peculiarly pure and inspirational love that can exist between a master and his students. Perfectly encapsulated in a final candid snapshot of Ang Lee fervently, joyfully embracing Bergman on an earlier visit to Fårö, “Trespassing Bergman” makes us realize that the man himself may be gone, but his legacy is vitally alive: in every one of these filmmakers and thousands more, and in that irresistible current of intense connection that exists only between the heart of the viewer, and the mind of a genius. [B+]