Farewell, Bergman

Five years ago I produced my first DVD of a film by Ingmar Bergman. The film was Wild Strawberries, and I remember the thrill of working on a film that I knew was beloved by so many. Since then I have produced DVDs of many Bergman films, including Scenes from a Marriage and Fanny and Alexander. Currently I am working on an edition of Sawdust and Tinsel.

Through these projects I have been privileged to come into contact with many of Bergman’s longtime friends, lovers, and collaborators. Yet the master himself remained elusive. Several times I attempted to get an interview with him to no avail. Still, as I circled around his entourage and heard their stories, and watched and read countless interviews that the filmmaker had given over the years, I felt like I came to know him.

A few moments stand out over the years. There was the time my fellow producer Abbey Lustgarten and I went to Stockholm with our colleague Peter Cowie. Abbey and I were told by filmmaker Vilgot Sjöman, with whom we had worked on a DVD release of his I Am Curious films, that Bergman kept an apartment in Stockholm and lived there when he was not on his beloved island of Faro. We discovered that the apartment was in a building above a supermarket in a residential neighborhood and decided that we needed to make a pilgrimage. With visions of a grand Park Avenue penthouse in our heads we set out. We came upon the unassuming brick building and thought surely we must be in the wrong place. We entered the lobby, where there was nary a doorman or security guard in sight, and walked up to the intercom. I still treasure the photo Abbey took of my finger about to press the buzzer unassumingly marked “I. Bergman.” We rang, but sadly no one was at home.

Another cherished memory involves Liv Ullmann, who spoke to me so eloquently about Bergman that she brought tears to my eyes. She conveyed such respect for the man who had been her mentor and partner, as well as the father of her child. Even when she jokingly said that Ingmar was “such a man” and that he knew nothing about going grocery shopping or taking care of daily needs, there was not a hint of animosity in her voice. The other interviews I conducted, with people ranging from veteran Bergman actor and close friend Erland Josephson to longtime production coordinator Kartinka Farago, told much the same story. Everyone was in awe of Bergman’s artistry while also sharing a deep sense of love for the man himself. And nobody seemed to be able to quite describe his methods. He did little more than support them and allow them to do their best work, it seemed.

Somewhere along the way we got word from our licensor Svensk Filmindustri that Ingmar had seen our DVD releases and was very pleased with the work we had been doing. We decided to ask for his signature and approval of our editions so that we could give them our “director approved” designation. I remember the joy around the office when we received the fax with his signature, complete with his trademark drawing of an impish little devil.

Looking back now, I don’t think I really learned about Bergman through the interviews I conducted with his actors and crew, or even through his autobiography or the interviews he gave over the years. Truly, I feel like I knew him through watching his films. I can’t think of another filmmaker who managed to be both so personal and so universal at the same time. It’s all there in his films: his struggles to understand the existence and nature of God, his attempts to revisit his own childhood, and his constant examination of the relationships between men and women. He was relentless in his exploration of these themes and never took the easy way out. I may feel a close connection to him through the work I’ve done at Criterion over the years, but I imagine anyone who watches his films feels exactly the same way.

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