The REAL Bergman Island

 
In 2009, Criterion announced they were upgrading their old 1999 DVD of Ingmar Bergman's film classic Seventh Seal. They had a new 2k scan of the original 35mm negative, which they were releasing on both blu and DVD; and they had new extras, too. In fact, they made it a 2-disc set because one of the new extras was actually the feature-length Swedish documentary Bergman Island. You know those great little intros to most of Criterion's Bergman DVDs, where he's sitting in a theater, says a few words about the film and then tells the projectionist to start the film? Those were all culled from these sessions. And for anyone who didn't care to upgrade their old discs or just weren't big Seventh Seal fans, they also released it as its own, separate DVD release. I was all for the Seventh Seal upgrade, so that's the version I got (I also got the DVD version because I wasn't buying blu-rays yet in 2009. Whoops! Oh well). Well, the Seventh Seal restoration was great, Bergman Island's a great doc, and it's pretty cool that they gave you the option to pick up the doc together or individually. A great day for Bergman fans, right? What could go wrong?

Update 11/20/18: As part of my coverage of Criterion's epic, 30-disc boxed set of Ingmar Bergman blu-rays, Ingmar Bergman's Cinema, I'm updating my coverage of Bergman Island.  And not only that, I've picked up a copy of that 2009 Seventh Seal blu, too, giving us four versions now to compare.  But, spoiler alert, you'll still want to hang onto that original, old 2005 DVD.
Well, how about if it turns out the Criterion version of Bergman Island (both the one packaged with Seventh Seal and released on its own - they're the same) was cut, missing more than half of its running time? Criterion has a re-edited, 83.22 minute version, which is not just missing half the movie, but the pieces that are there have been edited differently. The original documentary is 173.09 minutes. And no, the footage that's been cut isn't all junk or filler just stretching out the running time. It's as strong as what you see on the Criterion discs. I've seen reviews where people are saying Bergman Island is alright, but feels like a glorified DVD extra as opposed to a compelling documentary on its own right. Well, sure - the version they're watching is missing over 90 minutes! They removed more footage than they left in; of course it feels rushed. But fortunately, the complete, un-dismembered documentary is available on DVD from SVT in Sweden, and has been since 2005.
The complete film, unlike the abridged version, is divided into three 58 minute sections: one on Bergman and his relationship with film, one with his relationship with theater and one with Fårö, the titular island Bergman lived and frequently filmed on. I couldn't blame you if you said, I mostly just care about the film part, so maybe the Criterion cut is better for me. But the Criterion version isn't just one of the three thirds; it's a mix of everything. And even the Swedish version isn't that clear cut. The subjects all bleed together; there's plenty about his films in the Fårö segment, for example. The sections just dictate where the bulk of the focus lies - certainly the bulk of the theater talk is saved for part 2 - but as with Bergman himself, it's really all inextricable. It's one long film; not three television episodes, even if it was divided up that way probably specifically for Swedish television.
Picture quality varies, naturally, as different types of archival footage is included in the doc.
This version doesn't feel like a DVD extra. It gets quite personal, showing us his day to day life and intimate interviews. I'm sure it's all the more poignant when he speaks dying seeing it now, after Criterion introduced this doc to the world, than if you'd caught in back in 2005 when he was still alive. But even then, it certainly felt more substantive than just "oh yeah, it was so great to work with everybody" like your average promotional featurette. Granted, it doesn't romanticize everything to the degree of Liv and Ingmar; but it's just that type of film, choosing instead to delve deeper into his work than his marriage(s). And that's the even bigger reason why this film excels in its uncut form; it's able to be so much more thorough.
1) 2005 SVT DVD; 2) 2009 Criterion DVD; 3) 2009 Criterion blu; 4) 2018 Criterion blu.
So, okay, the Criterions do look a little better than SVT's older DVD. The little upgrades in resolution and color, of course, pale in comparison to seeing the entire film in its complete form, but credit where it's due, Criterion did make it look a little nicer.  That said, though, there;'s virtually no difference between the three Criterion discs, and the HD doesn't really correct any of the SD issues, which I guess are baked into the film itself.  In fact, the edge enhancement actually seems worse on their blus than their DVDs, like somebody made a bad attempt to tamper and "improve" it.  Maybe not, though.  Actually the HD probably just brings out the flaws, which are softer and less resolved on the DVDs.  But the long and short of it is, HD just doesn't help this film.  Whether it's the camera equipment used to shoot this film, or if they just keep using the same old master, I can't say.  After all, the blu-ray versions of Bergman Island are all just extras on Criterion's Seventh Seal releases; they only released it as a stand-alone on DVD.  If they ever released it as a stand-alone blu, I'd expect more, but I doubt that'll come up as an issue anytime soon.  So for the present, with what we've got now, you're honestly just as well off watching a DVD as a blu.

Criterion also added a nice little extra, a roughly 30 minute featurette called Bergman 101, where their resident Bergman scholar Peter Cowie talks you through the great man's film career. This feature is included both on Criterion's Bergman Island solo DVD and in their Seventh Seal packages (2009 and 2018 versions), the latter of which naturally also includes some more Seal-specific extras. The Swedish DVD doesn't have any extras, although it does have English subtitles and menus - surely you didn't think I'd run you through all this if it wasn't English-friendly? Again, though, Bergman 101 is nice, but it doesn't compare to seeing this film in its complete, more than double length form.
Honestly, I'm not one to try to convince people to overspend, but in this case, I think it's more than worth owning the Seventh Seal on blu (in the Cinema box, if you can afford it) and the original uncut Bergman IslandSeventh Seal is an excellent, easily recommendable package without Bergman Island even entering into it, after all. And while I guess the little tweak in picture quality is nice, are you really going to want to sit down to watch the cut in half version just for that? Do yourself a favor and get your hands on the complete film so you can forget all about the truncated version.

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