Celebrations of Ingrid Bergman’s 100th birthday (August 29, 1915) have been taking place all year, as fans and film professionals honor the iconic Swedish actress, winner of 3 Academy Awards, 4 Golden Globes, 1 Tony and 2 Emmys. But perhaps the greatest celebration of Bergman’s amazing career and life is the documentary Ingrid Bergman in Her Own Words, directed and written by Stig Björkman and Dominika Daubenbüchel. Björkman offers a fresh and intriguing perspective of Bergman: the person and the actress.
The documentary is a fascinating account of Bergman’s life, cobbled together using Bergman’s own 8 and 16 mm family film clips, Bergman interviews, pointed snippets from Bergman’s childhood diary entries, letters to best friends (the voice-over narration read by Alicia Vikander), and vibrant commentary by her four children Pia Lindstrom, Isabella, Ingrid and Roberto Rossellini. Bergman was a pack rat who saved, letters, photographs, and other personal memorabilia.
Her diary and letters are a treasure trove of her evolving thoughts, impressions and personal growth over the years. Her letters, and the interviews about her relationships with her husbands, her agent, her close friend Ruth Selznick (wife of David O. Selznick), and her own self-described identity as a bird of passage, who flew to new ground where she forged another milestone in her life marked “change” as the only permanence she would cling to.
The amazing and juicy tidbits Bergman wrote in letters and diaries, and the film clips that she, herself, took, chronicle her life and the times in which she lived. The material makes for a thrilling historical glimpses into the aura of film studios (Hollywoodland’s golden times), the hypocritical social folkways of the times (the culture’s response to her affair and marriage to director Roberto Rossellini), her film directors (Hitchcock), her travels through European cities a few years before WWII, and much more. The director includes Bergman’s pre-WWII footage of marching Nazi Youthregiments, and Storm Troopers doing maneuvers. Prewar anti-semitic slices of life in Berlin–prescient warnings–Bergman captured in footage and photograph: a glimpse of the horrors to yet to come.
In every country she lived (Sweden, the U.S., Italy, France and England), Bergman carried her most prized possessions with her. These mementos represented her very being. To leave them behind or destroy them would have meant obliterating a part of herself and her past. Considering that she had to pack them up each time she moved on, whether to a new city or new partner, this was no small feat. It is clear that the artifacts symbolized her heart’s love and held profound meaning for her. The public is fortunate that they are archived at Weslyan University, and many are revealed in this documentary.
Putting the pieces together from these slivers of history, the director traces her life voyage as Bergman attempts to put down roots for herself and her family. Her personal films reveal the human woman and her interconnected, loving, down-to-earth persona as friend, wife, mother, and general ambassador of good will. The clips also exhibit that when the roots deepened, she changed her garden landscape and pulled them up to transplant herself. The director includes her perspective that whenever she became stifled or felt she was not progressing within, she had to release herself to the universe and embrace another adventure, another world that she would create at will.
Using Bergman’s own metaphor, “bird of passage,” she became inspired to move on, not wanting to remain settled or stationary. The documentary material reveals how much Bergman enjoyed her freedom. Thus, although her children often rued her departure because she was so much fun to be around, she never took them with her. She understood the instability, insecurity and upheaval caused by her need for continual movement, and likewise comprehended that her children required a solid foundation. They needed to finish their schooling and be embraced by the comfort of familiar surroundings. During her travels and transformations, the children were raised by her former husbands and their wives or family members. In leaving her families and moving on, there was sorrow, and whenever she could she would see them and bring them to visit in the next city where she remained for a time.
This candid and very open view offered by her adoring adult children, and her archived material reveal what was paramount in Bergman’s life. As a young girl, she wanted to be a great actress; she made this dream real and in the pursuit of this goal she remade herself in her personal and professional life. She was a maverick, an autonomous and independent woman ahead of her time.
Stig Björkman discloses that the colorful, charming and beautiful creative spirit was as flexible and strong as a reed in the storm. Hence, she took on the creative challenge to be brilliant at her craft: that was the force that flooded her veins and propelled her to flight and transformation. It propelled her into Swedish films and then to Hollywood. It propelled her away from her first husband into the arms of director Roberto Rossellini and into a hiatus of filmmaking, scandal and media vilification. It propelled her away from Rossellini back to a declining and morphing studio system that embraced her and forgave. It propelled her onto the stage and to TV. It propelled her into the arms of her third husband, a stage producer.
Throughout her life existed the compulsion to be a great actress. Next to Katherine Hepburn, Bergman is the most awarded actress in the film industry, and one of the most celebrated. Acting, she realized, stirred her to the finest joys in her life. In establishing her career, she lay her own self-evolved identity apart from anyone else. In the craft, there could be boundless creativity. In the process, there were no tethers to rein her in. Because of acting, Ingrid Bergman was her own woman. Because of her prodigious talents she possessed her own soul.
The director wisely reveals the maverick Bergman through her own 8 and 16 mm films, with only passing reference to her movie persona. By the end of the documentary, we understand that Bergman was an iconic woman for all time, in her ambition, her recreations of her own identity and especially for her courage in breaking through the restrictions of cultural hypocrisy and double standards.
The documentary is an homage to the film industry and the personal life of one of its enduring actresses. The editing is a bit uneven and a few sections could have been tightened, even though a fine musical selection adds to the film’s poignancy when relating her early years. Nevertheless, the director avidly selects and shapes Bergman’s mementos in a presentation that clarifies a salient theme. It is a reminder to us that, like Bergman, we must do exploits. It is a call to be one’s own person, regardless of social hypocrisy or the social pressures to conform to an image that is not our own.
If Ingrid Bergman had lived longer, surely she would have supported women’s power constructs in the entertainment and media industry. Included in one of her last TV interviews, she comments on ageism and the illogic of it. Sadly, the industry has not budged from her time to ours; roles for “older” women (in their 30s, as Maggie Gylenhall implied recently) are in short supply. Bergman spoke out and though her comments may have been only noted by a few men, she encourages that women must raise their voices continually. By using Bergman’s “own words,” the director cleverly emphasizes the power of voice. It is her power of voice and her example that challenge us from beyond the grave. In this Stig Björkman has done a masterful job.
This review first appeared on Blogcritics @ http://blogcritics.org/new-york-film-festival-review-ingrid-bergman-in-her-own-words/