In the category of culture-driven documentaries that focus on film history, a particularly enjoyable subset of that subset is the kind made by noteworthy artists themselves. There’s Martin Scorsese waxing luxuriously on Italian cinema (“My Voyage to Italy”), Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow fanboy-interviewing Brian DePalma for “DePalma,” and now, German filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta (“Hannah Arendt”) taking us on a personal tour of her lifelong admiration for Sweden’s hallowed grandmaster in the playfully inquisitive “Searching for Ingmar Bergman.”
Von Trotta’s connection to Bergman started when she was a young, New Wave-enamored film lover who responded deeply to his 1957 chess-with-Death masterpiece “The Seventh Seal”; she even opens her valentine of a documentary visiting its famed rocky beach setting, narrating the impact of its establishing shots.
When she blossomed as an artist herself as part of West Germany’s own exciting crush of post-war filmmaking talent alongside Rainer Werner Fassbinder (for whom she acted) and then-husband Volker Schlöndorff (they made “The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum” together), von Trotta found herself personally acquainted with Bergman after he decamped to Munich in the mid-’70s following a tax evasion charge.
Bergman even became a fan of her work, including her 1981 feature “Marianne and Juliane” in a list of his favorite movies commissioned by a film festival, the program book for which von Trotta thumbs through for the camera like a kid still in awe of being recognized by so key an influence. (Hey, you would, too, if your movie kept company in a film legend’s consciousness with “Rashomon” and “The Passion of Joan of Arc.”)
It’s von Trotta’s onscreen enthusiasm, too, as she interviews key Bergman collaborators (notable leading ladies Liv Ullmann, Gunnel Lindblom), family (sons Daniel and Ingmar, Jr.), contemporaries (Carlos Saura, Jean-Claude Carrière), and next-generation admirers (Olivier Assayas, Ruben Ostlund, Mia Hansen-Løve), that gives “Searching” its gently thrumming cineaste heart.
Between the excerpts and analyses, the remembrances, and the honesty that swings from brutal to touching but that is nearly always illuminating, you’ll surely be dipping into the gloom-meister’s oeuvre afterward. (Or maybe shelling out for Criterion’s 39-film Bergman box set, available starting November 20 if you’re likely to be in mourning over the streaming service FilmStruck going away.)
Bergman’s abiding gift over a career that spanned sixty years — and included successes from “Wild Strawberries” and “Winter Light” through “Scenes from a Marriage” and “Fanny & Alexander” — was a penetrative inventory of the soul as it’s plagued by doubt, loneliness, the existence of God, the vicissitudes of love, and the facing of mortality.
But to hear those closest to him tell it, Bergman was at heart a wide-eyed child in thrall to the creative process, consumed by the innocence of curiosity and experimentation that keeps all artists in a state of turmoil and evolution. It’s what Ullmann says could turn his being introduced to her, alongside actress/former flame Bibi Andersson on a beach, into the likeness-driven experimental hallmark “Persona,” a life-defining work.
But at the same time, that ever-nurtured connection to his inner child made Bergman view his own offspring (nine in all, with six women, including Ullmann) as competitors to his creativity. Daniel Bergman, who would direct his father’s screenplay “Sunday’s Children,” jovially notes how dad preferred his own childhood to his own children. In the presence of his kids, we learn, he would openly miss the company of his actors.
Elsewhere, his longstanding script supervisor-turned-producer Katinka Farago describes the Bergman who worried he was never good enough, while Assayas succinctly captures how he was a game-changer regarding the psychological, subconscious, and female-centric.
The most amusing anecdote comes from Bergman’s grandson, who recounts a movie night of “Pearl Harbor” in the home theater in which granddad insisted the projectionist skip anything that wasn’t an action scene. It’s like backhanded proof that with any kind of film, whether an existential drama or slick Hollywood package, Bergman preferred intensity over everything else.
That von Trotta’s documentary isn’t simply hagiographic keeps it refreshing, although the emphasis on Bergman’s later years, whether lesser works like “The Serpent’s Egg” or his stage directing, also prevents it from potentially satisfying any need to see most of his undisputed classics gone over in detail.
But with so many documentaries on Bergman already in existence, that von Trotta has made her own uniquely inviting tour of his triumphs, anguishes, and longstanding themes — in essence a roomy portrait of the artist as an engaged, fallible searcher — is its own gift of sorts, from one acolyte of cinema to another.