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DVD Review: Bergman Island

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An odd thing occurred to me while watching The Criterion Collection’s new release, Bergman Island. It was a feeling that this documentary was really a DVD extra rather than a feature. Then, lo and behold, whilst researching the disk online I found out that I was correct. This film was indeed an extra feature on the company’s latest re-release of another Bergman film, The Seventh Seal. And that includes its own extra feature — a half hour video essay on Bergman’s filmic canon by film historian Peter Cowie.

Having said that, Bergman Island is not a bad documentary, but it breaks no new ground; neither cinematically, in the way, say, a documentary like The Kid Stays In the Picture does, nor in revealing anything about Bergman unseen before — not his life, his views, nor his home. This is because Bergman did many interviews in his career, and many with Marie Nyrerod, this film’s director.

Additionally, this film has a further problem, and that is a slapdash feel to it. The interview tends to range all over the place, and this is due to the fact that the 83 minute film is really a condensation of three one hour-long films that Nyrerod did with Bergman on his life and twin careers in theater and film. This cut, however, almost totally scraps the theater hour and focuses mostly on the personal hour, with about a third of it devoted to the films.

What is left of the film goes over many of the subjects well trod in other interviews: Bergman’s obsessions with sex and death, or his claim that guilt is somehow ostentatious, etc. While there is something honest but self-serving about hearing Bergman claim, "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. I haven’t put an ounce of effort into my families. I never have," one wishes that Nyrerod would have come back with a good follow-up to such a claim. Instead, she lets Bergman off the hook.

The best interviews are conducted eye-to-eye, but Nyrerod seems so awed to be in Bergman’s presence that the old man runs roughshod over her, and consequently the whole film suffers from a lack of structural discipline and intellectual rigor. What would have worked better, filmically, is actually asking penetrating questions about the films and then tying them to the man’s personal life. But, in this, Nyrerod seems almost in congenital genuflection to Bergman. She never seems interested in actually holding Bergman accountable for his views nor actions. Not that she needed to be Torquemada, but she need not have been a lapdog either. As for the DVD? I wish Criterion had included all three hours in the DVD package, thus differentiating it from the special features disk on the re-release of The Seventh Seal. One hopes they would have been more linear, coherent, and incisive. Then, again, if the individual hours were edited to the same degree as the shorter film, then perhaps including only it was the reason the company released it as so.

Having stated all this about the ‘feature’ presentation in the package, let me now give kudos to the company for including Cowie’s incisive video essay (composed of photographs and film clips) on Bergman’s career. Cowie has done a number of commentaries on other Criterion titles and is a mostly hit or miss commentarian, but this essay is superb. Cowie does not hit every single film in the Bergman canon, but he gets all of the important films, and gives short but pointed insights into them. The fact that the essay is only about a half hour long is a help because it would have been quite easy for Cowie to veer off into a pet peeve or obsession. Instead, the essay plays out as a pitch perfect primer into all things Bergmanian — or, at least all things cinematically Bergmanian. The only other extra in the package is an insert essay by Nyrerod, but it’s not really an essay, merely a brief encomium. The actual film is shown in a 1.77:1 aspect ratio.

The thing about the film that is curious is, given Bergman’s penchant for wildly bizarre opinions on the films of others (he rips on the work of Michelangelo Antonioni, whose aesthetic he shares much with, while praising the treacly schlock of Steven Spielberg, or he rips on the great films of Orson Welles and the dull, imitative tripe of Jean-Luc Godard with the same distaste, as if they were in the same league with each other), little is done in terms of opining about the art of film, save his own. He’s simply not a born raconteur, the way a Werner Herzog is, so one wishes Nyrerod would have put more effort into bringing Bergman into areas he was uncomfortable with. Hagiography simply is not that entertaining. Also, while it might seem cool to show Bergman strolling about his home on Fårö island in the Baltic Sea, it means little since rarely is the island and its geography shown to have been an influence on the man’s films. Given the preponderance of the island’s physical presence in the films Bergman released in the 1960s, certainly the equal of the Italian countrysides Antonioni used, it’s curious that Nyrerod makes almost nothing of this in her film, save to have the director mouth the banality that he finds the island "magical."

Overall, this is a DVD that the true Bergmaniac may find superfluous; indeed, if he has updated his DVD library with the latest version of The Seventh Seal this will literally be true. But even without having done that, there’s little this DVD has to offer. Its real value is as an introduction to the works of Bergman, many titles of which are also available from Criterion. As such, and to this audience, I recommend this DVD, and even more so the extra than the feature. I said it was an odd thing.

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