Interview with Director Margarethe von Trotta about her documentary film Searching for Ingmar Bergman

01 Nov 2018

German film actor and director Margarethe von Trotta is most known for such films as Marianne and Juliane, Rosa Luxemburg and Hannah Arendt. Her latest film, Searching for Ingmar Bergman, is a thoughtful and poetic documentary about the famed Swedish film and theater director Ingmar Bergman. Von Trotta's luminous exploration features interviews many familiar faces from the Bergman universe - actors, directors and writers, all either connected directly to Bergman's work, or heavily influenced by it. But far more importantly, the film is a deeply personal take, filtering Bergman's art through Von Trotta's own artistic perspective. The film opens commercially in New York City on November 2, after having been shown recently at the New York Film Festival. Theater journalist Stan Schwartz had the great pleasure of sitting down with Von Trotta for a chat about her film and the Swedish master. Here are some edited excerpts from their conversation.

How did your film come about?

It was my producers who urged me to do it. I said no, I can't do it - he's such a genius, I cannot touch him, I am not on that level to speak about him. I was afraid. But they insisted, and I went to the Bergman Foundation in Stockholm - they know me and my work - and I said everything has already been written and said that can be written and said about him. And they said, make it as personal as you can.  

So what was the process like, making it?

In the beginning, I only admired him, and he was my master and I only saw his genius and this amazing and immense body of work. But during the process of making the film, he became familiar to me in a way. I saw him much more as if I was looking in the mirror - and he has so many scenes in his film with mirrors! I look at him and see myself. Not because I have suddenly become a genius like him, but because I have felt what he felt: depression, fear, all these inner and hidden characteristics. I saw him behind the films, as a person and as a human being.

When I was growing up, there was this cliché that he and his work was so intellectual, and I always found that to be completely wrong, and it was a label he himself hated too.

That is absolutely right. He is not intellectual at all. He was intelligent, but not intellectual - that's a big difference. And he was much too emotional and inner-directed and looked into his soul - and intellectuals do not do that.

What is it about Ingmar's work and his spirit that you clearly carry around with you all the time and which influences your art?

I think it is subconscious. It's something that's in me, but I don't think about it all the time.  Here's a proof of it: when I wrote my script about Hildegarde von Bingen [the 2009 film Vision], it's a medieval story that starts very darkly because people believe they are going to die in the night the year 999 turns into 1000 [for the new Millennium], and I wrote "A very dark sky and a black bird in the sky"...

That's just like The Seventh Seal...

Yes but I didn't know! I put it in because I thought it was my own invention! I was writing my film in 2008 but I hadn't seen Seventh Seal since the early 1960’s! And then I went to Fårö a year after Bergman's death -- they invited me to show Marianne and Juliane and to speak about Bergman, and I saw Seventh Seal again -- and I saw this first scene again and I thought "Oh my God!” they will think that I copied it! So I immediately wrote a different scene for the beginning of my film!  But there's the proof that I really went inside myself...

...and there was Bergman in there without you realizing it at first! So when you saw Seventh Seal for the first time when you were 18 -- what was it about it that spoke to you so strongly?

It was the first real art film. With my mother in Germany, we went to opera, concerts, exhibitions.  We were very culturally-minded. We were poor but loved culture and art. But film was never part of that. There was no great German film culture in the 1950’s. The so-called New German Cinema [didn't start until] 1965. So for me, cinema was just entertainment but nothing to get serious about. Then I saw Seventh Seal and it was a total revelation. Like an initiation.

My own initiation, as it were, my first Bergman film was when I was 15 and it wasGycklarnas afton (Evening of the Clowns/Sawdust and Tinsel) and I was hooked ever since...

Yes, that was also amazing. He made that before Seventh Seal. So strong and all about humiliation. All the characters are shown in a moment of deep humiliation and that was for him a main theme. And therefore, he left Sweden for Germany because he felt so humiliated because of the tax scandal.

The police actually interrupted a rehearsal at The Royal Dramatic Theater of Dance of Death I think it was and arrested him right there at the theater...

Yes for him, that space was sacred. No one had the right to enter his rehearsals. So he was so shocked and humiliated that he had to go away. So he came to Munich.  

He certainly had a way of taking less than happy aspects of his real life and working them through in his art...

That was his salvation. He was often in danger, psychologically speaking, and putting [those feelings] into his work was absolutely his salvation. I had the same feeling once in my life. I thought I was crazy and I went to a psychoanalyst and she listened to me and after 10 sessions, she said "Do that in your films. It is better you put that in your films than you come to speak to me!".

The tax scandal was in 1976 and yet, I recall his 1969 TV film Riten (The Rite) -- this Kafka-esque bureaucratic nightmare in a way prefigures the tax scandal. It was prophetic in a way.

I never thought about it like that but yes, that is true.

What would you say to a young person who said that Bergman's work in today's world is old-fashioned and therefore irrelevant?

I would say that human beings have not changed that much, they think they have, but inside, they have the same problems and suffering as always. It is part of being human, and therefore, Bergman's work will always be valuable.


Stan Schwartz is a freelance theater journalist living in New York with a particular interest in Swedish theater. He has published in such outlets as The New York Times, Time Out New York, The New York Sun, and in Sweden, Dagens Nyheter and Expressen.

Photo by: Börres Weiffenbach

Last updated 01 Nov 2018, 5.20 PM