INTERVIEW: Searching for Ingmar Bergman Director Margarethe von Trotta

Susan Kouguell interviews Searching for Ingmar Bergman director Margarethe von Trotta about the challenges of exploring the inner life of a film icon.
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“'Searching for Ingmar Bergman' was an active but inward process. The film might appear to be an external quest, as it travels from Sweden, to Germany, Spain, and France. But the protagonists, and particularly his sons, his actresses, like Liv Ullmann, Gunnel Lindblom, Julia Dufvenius, and filmmakers of the next generation like Ruben Östlund, Olivier Assayas, and Mia Hansen-Løve, express themselves in such a very moving and intimate way that in those encounters I found what I was looking for—a world of personal experience that resonates with the films.”
— Margarethe von Trotta

 Director Margarethe von Trotta

Director Margarethe von Trotta

About Searching for Ingmar Bergman

Internationally renowned director Margarethe von Trotta examines Ingmar Bergman’s life and work with a circle of his closest collaborators as well as a new generation of filmmakers. This documentary presents key components of his legacy, as it retraces themes that recurred in his life and art and journeys to the places that were central to Bergman’s creative achievements.

About Margarethe von Trotta

Born in Berlin, Margarethe von Trotta is considered one of the leaders of the New German Cinema movement. After studying Germanic and Romance languages in Munich and Paris (where she encountered the Nouvelle Vague and the films of Ingmar Bergman), von Trotta pursued a career in acting, working closely with Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Volker Schlöndorff. Starting with her first independent directorial effort, The Second Awakening of Christa Klages (1978), von Trotta’s filmography lists numerous critically-acclaimed titles, including: Marianne & Juliane (1981), which won the Golden Lion in Venice; Rosa Luxemburg (1986) and Love and Fear (1988) both of which were nominated for the Palme d'Or in Cannes; L‘africana (1990), which was nominated for the Golden Lion in Venice; Rosenstrasse (2003), which earned actor Katja Riemann the Coppa Volpi Award in Venice; and Hannah Arendt (2012), which won the German Film Award. Her first feature documentary Searching for Ingmar Bergman (2018) celebrated its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival and premiered in the U.S. at the 56th New York Film Festival.

The Interview

I had the great pleasure to speak with Ms. von Trotta at the Quad Cinema in Manhattan, which will be celebrating her work with a retrospective: "Margarethe von Trotta: The Political is Personal" November 2-8.

We began our discussion with talking about the theme of the retrospective—the political is personal—in her narrative films, including the powerful sibling relationship in Marianne & Juliane and how this work, as well as many of her other films, remain relevant and poignant today.

KOUGUELL: For many years I’ve taught your work in my cinema studies and screenwriting classes. The Promise (Das Versprechen) was thought-provoking to my students as a hybrid film, incorporating documentary footage within the fictional love story that was inspired by a compilation of interviews you did with people about their experiences during this time period.

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VON TROTTA: There was very strong black and white documentary material for the construction of the Berlin wall, which I put in the beginning of The Promise but I could not find strong material when the wall came down. In the early 60s there were no video cameras, there was only 16mm, film and the camera people had to be very aware of what images they wanted to film; that one scene, that one image gives a whole sense of the time. In 1989, when the Berlin Wall was opened for the first night, people went there with video cameras and filmed, but I couldn’t find one image that gave the sense of the importance of that moment. So, I had to make my own.

KOUGUELL: That was interesting in terms of the idea of memory and imposing one’s own story on that historical moment.

VON TROTTA: And that was much more expensive, too. One thousand extras on the bridge coming from the East to the West; that was the most expensive scene I did.

 Liv Ullmann (L) von Trotta (R)

Liv Ullmann (L) von Trotta (R)

KOUGUELL: You were approached by the Ingmar Bergman Foundation of Stockholm to direct Searching for Ingmar Bergman.

VON TROTTA: One of the producers who is half-Swedish, was planning for Bergman’s 100th birthday, and she asked me to make the film since I knew Bergman personally during his time in Munich. I said in the beginning, ‘No, I can’t do that; I’m such an admirer of his, I’m so fond of him, he was such a genius, I couldn��t dare do this.’ The Bergman Foundation knew my films and asked me to make it in a very personal way; a research of one filmmaker about another filmmaker. They asked me to mainly speak about his time in Munich because nobody knows so much about this period of his life. That was the most personal side of the film.

KOUGUELL: Tell me about working with your son, Feliz Moeller, on this film.

VON TROTTA: My son is a documentary filmmaker (Forbidden Films (2014), Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Suess (2008) two films about the Nazi time about Nazi filmmakers, and Sympathisanten: Unser Deutscher Herbst(2018). He started as an historian and then he became a documentary filmmaker. When I said to him, I have never done a documentary, he said he would help me. That gave me more courage to do the film. He looked for all the documentary material, which I put in the film, and I did the interviews.

I was used to making narrative feature films, and I knew exactly what to do. I wrote my own scripts, I knew the scenes, the actors, how to direct it, and how to do it in advance. But in a documentary, you make it in the editing room. It becomes a film in the editing room. That was totally new for me.

KOUGUELL: So, there wasn’t much pre-planning for this film.

VON TROTTA: No there wasn't it. When the Bergman Foundation asked me to make a very personal film, I knew immediately I wanted the scene at the seaside where I was sitting where Max Von Sydow was sitting, looking at the black sky. I knew immediately I had to start with this image.

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Our conversation shifted to a personal note about my great, great aunt Therese Giehse, the late German actress whom von Trotta knew, and the connection I felt to von Trotta’s narrative films, which often have included the incorporation of actual historical events and weaving in the personal and the political lives of her characters.

VON TROTTA: Giehse was a big figure, and very courageous in her political meanings of her work. And her work with Bertolt Brecht.

KOUGUELL: You, Giehse, and Bergman shared a personal common experience—relocating to a foreign country and not necessarily by choice. Giehse was exiled from Germany during World War II.

VON TROTTA: I was stateless until my first marriage. Bergman felt stateless when he left Sweden accused of tax evasion, he felt so humiliated. Humiliation for him was always a main theme for him in his films. No one pushed him to go away from Sweden, it was his free choice.

KOUGUELL: In Searching for Ingmar Bergman, there were fascinating revelations when you visited the places of his childhood combined with the analysis of his films, and how he and his work connected with spirituality and faith, and his father who was a priest.

VON TROTTA: Before I made this documentary, I was interested in Bergman’s films as a filmmaker. I wasn’t curious about his life and his women, for me it was just about how he made his films. Then knowing that I was going to make this documentary, I read his autobiography “The Magic Lantern” and there I discovered the main points of his life. I discovered about his nurturing in his childhood. He wrote so much more about his childhood, his mother, his father, his grandmother, and much less about his wives and his children. I had the feeling he wanted to stay as a child, during his whole life.

 Film Director Ingmar Bergman together with wife Kabi Laretei and son Daniel. Picture from the book "Lennart Nilsson - his best pictures".

Film Director Ingmar Bergman together with wife Kabi Laretei and son Daniel. Picture from the book "Lennart Nilsson - his best pictures".

KOUGUELL: We see that very poignantly when you interviewed his son.

VON TROTTA: Yes, and he said, exactly that was it. When Bergman’s last wife died, he wrote in his autobiography: ‘Finally I have to go out of my children’s room, out of my playroom.” His wife also helped him stay (as) a child; she did everything for him.

KOUGUELL: Looking back at the journey of making this documentary, did it influence you as a filmmaker?

VON TROTTA: Influence? I don’t know, I’ll have to see in the films I will do. The main things which are influences you don't even feel it at the time, it comes out when you are doing a film. I like it when it stays unconscious, that you get influences unconsciously, take them in and they come out without knowing that you have it as a treasure.

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