by Jeremy Meckler
In our Netflix-spawned documentary era, in which nearly any issue-based documentary will be watched (albeit at home) by thousands of relatively eager viewers, it’s refreshing to see such an exhaustive and personal look into a subject that could have been approached from so many lazier angles. Ingrid Bergman is without a doubt one of the biggest movie stars Hollywood has ever seen, a transcendent talent whose credits run from Casablanca to Notorious, who worked with directors from Victor Fleming to Roberto Rossellini (whom she would later marry) to her Swedish countryman, Ingmar Bergman. She was a household name internationally for forty years and is tied with Meryl Streep for the second most academy awards of all time (they both trail Katharine Hepburn). What’s more, her rags to riches story has all the drama of a Hollywood epic—she was orphaned at 13, in the years before World War II, moved to Hollywood just before the war broke out in Europe, and then, after becoming a super star, was essentially driven out of Hollywood by American moralists in 1950. We should be grateful to director Stig Björkman for treating Ingrid Bergman’s story with the respect and reverence it deserves, and really allowing her to tell it herself.
Director: Stig Björkman
Producer: Stina Gardell
Writers: Stig Björkman, Dominika Daubenbüchel, Stina Gardell
Cinematographer: Eva Dahlgren, Malin Korkeasalo
Editor: Dominika Daubenbüchel
Music: Eva Dahlgren, Michael Nyman
Cast: Pia Lindström, Roberto Rossellini, Isotta Rossellini, Isabella Rossellini, Alicia Vikander, Ingrid Bergman
Premiere: May 19, 2015 – Cannes
US Theatrical Release: November 13, 2015
US Distributor: Rialto Pictures
Björkman does this with a little help from Bergman’s four children—including a screen force herself, Isabella Rossellini, who demonstrates a comfort in front of the camera that most documentary subjects lack—but mostly through the wealth of ephemera she left behind. Ingrid Bergman, it seems, was seldom without a camera of her own, either taking photographs or home movies, and Björkman stitches those together with voiceover taken from Bergman’s letters and diaries. Gaps are filled in with interviews with her kids, all told with surprising openness and candor. The result, an incredibly personal version of this publicly consumed story. The tight, personal scope makes this the story of a human rather than an icon.
This is far from our first time seeing this approach—think for instance of Ken Burns’s documentaries which rely heavily on historical letters and diaries for their voiceover content. But while Burns’s use of voiceover makes his films feel exhaustively researched, dry, and academic, Björkman’s voiceovers (performed by Ingrid Bergman sound-alike Alicia Vikander, primarily in Swedish and French) make this film feel steeped in the personal life of its subject. Ken Burns’s films tend to feel like reading a history book, but this one feels like secretly reading a purloined diary. And for a figure as universally beloved (and briefly universally reviled) as Ingrid Bergman, that is a feat.
The film traces Bergman’s career from her roots in Sweden through her years in Hollywood. In a letter back home in her first year in Hollywood she tells a friend about meeting a producer who told her she could never make it as an actress because she was too tall. These kind of personal moments peppered through the film make it more fascinating, even for those familiar with the broader strokes of Bergman’s career. For those less familiar, it is still engaging, particularly as it pieces together the golden age of Hollywood and the puritanical morality that it enforced.
Bergman had seen Rome, Open City (1945) and Paisan (1946) and written a fan letter to their director, Roberto Rossellini. One thing led to another, and soon she was flying to Italy to star in Stromboli where she would fall in love with Rossellini, leaving her husband and daughter behind in America. In 1950 this was an unthinkable decision for a woman to make in the vice-grip of American morality and she was absolutely hated for it. (A US Senator even went so far as to say, “out of Ingrid Bergman’s ashes will grow a better Hollywood.”) Her distraught letters and the interviews with her eldest daughter, Pia Lindstrom, go further to portray that atmosphere of hatred than any didactic voiceover ever could. Her letters show a righteous sorrow, essentially telling the Hollywood press to mind their own business, while Pia’s memories (she was 12 at the time) are mostly of being dumbfounded that such a thing was possible.
The documentary hits most of the usual points you would expect in such a film—they discuss, for instance, how Bergman loved acting so much that her life wouldn’t be complete without it. But where the film is its most interesting, and intimate, is where her children act as amateur psychoanalysts, tying her love of cinema and acting and her deep romantic loves back to her father. As they all repeat in separate interviews, Ingrid Bergman’s father Justus adored her. Her mother died when Ingrid was two, but her father loved her so completely, and always wanted to photograph and film her. When he died, her affection for cameras and acting only increased. As Isabella Rossellini says, her mother could only love through the camera—she fell in love with Victor Fleming during the shooting of Jekyll and Hyde ? and promptly out of love with him after the shoot was over. She fell in love with Roberto Rossellini through his camera as well, so maybe there’s some truth to her children’s journeyman psychological evaluation.
Whatever the cause, Ingrid Bergman’s fascination with cameras also led to this film’s most fascinating aspect—the footage of her life assiduously shot and catalogued throughout her whole chaotic career. What’s perhaps most interesting about these home movies is the way it complicates the authorial voice of the film. Is it Björkman’s film or Bergman’s? Yes, he is responsible for piecing the whole thing together but most of the content—in the letters and diaries used for voiceover and the home movies and photographs used as visuals—was created by Bergman herself. The answer is probably somewhere in between, and the chance to see a film partially directed by Ingrid Bergman 33 years after her death is remarkable.