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In Ingmar Bergman’s own paradise

Marking Ingmar Bergman's 100th birth anniversary with a visit to Fr, the tiny Baltic island where he lived

Ingmar Bergman was buried in simple Fårö tradition in the churchyard in Gotland. Photo: Alamy
Ingmar Bergman was buried in simple Fårö tradition in the churchyard in Gotland. Photo: Alamy

You wouldn’t call Fårö pretty.

Not by conventional standards at least. If anything, this tiny Baltic island is stark. There are no manicured hedges or boulevards. The pines are stunted. Thorny juniper bushes emerge from the limestone. And the stone monoliths on the edge of the island are otherworldly.

Stark. Thorny. Otherworldly. Much like the films of Ingmar Bergman and the human emotions he chose to lay bare. Yet, Fårö is beautiful. It has a raw appeal that makes you want to return to it.

My introduction to Fårö is courtesy a journalist from the neighbouring island of Gotland who graciously offers to drive me to “Bergman country". Fårö is a 90-minute drive from the nearest airport at Visby on Gotland. There is no bridge linking the two masses of land that float in the middle of the Baltic Sea. The only way to reach Fårö is by the local ferry. Perhaps that is the way the locals prefer it, and how Bergman liked it too. In many ways, the 7-minute ferry ride sets the stage for the landscape ahead, much like the long shots during the end credits of Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage. Near the jetty lie the ruins of a stone mill. The stacked limestone compound walls are a distinctive feature of the island. In summer, bright flowers sprout from the rocky land. Sheep graze and horses trot freely on farms. And a restless wind whistles across the island from the deep blue sea.

Perhaps it was the unpretentiousness of the landscape that attracted Bergman when he landed on Fårö on a cold, rainy April day in 1960, scouting for a location for his film Through A Glass Darkly. He never quite left, returning to the island time and again, and eventually making it his home and his final resting place.

A view of the Bergman Center in Fårö. Photo: Rupali Mehra

“I remember when I got out of the car and looked around, I experienced something very special. A strange sense of having coming home," Bergman said of the island in an interview to Marie Nyreröd for her documentary on the film-maker.

Fårö offered the film-maker the solitude, privacy and landscape he needed for his creative pursuits. And the people there understood that. Many on the island did not personally know him as a friend, but often saw him at the local store.

“Bergman was a very courteous man," says a local. “Every evening, he would go to the store to pick up the paper, and would greet people he passed by."

“He was punctual to the clock, but he was a crazy driver! He drove in the middle of the road, and you would not want to be driving in front of him," the woman accompanying him adds jokingly.

Jannike Åhlund, the chairman of the Bergman Center Foundation on Fårö, says there was mutual respect between the people of Fårö and Bergman. “During filming, he employed the local people in the production work as much as he could, including carpenters, stone masons, electricians, drivers. Arne Carlsson started out as Bergman’s driver, and became his No.2 cinematographer," she says. In turn, Fårö’s residents looked out for Bergman. “When tourists came looking for Bergman’s home, the locals would point them in the opposite direction," Åhlund says.

It is easy to lose your way on Fårö. Just 500 people live on the 113 sq. km island. Summer tourism is the biggest occupation after farming and sheep-rearing, and the annual Bergman Week, held in the last week of June, is a huge draw.

Bergman filmed at Langhammars for ‘Through A Glass Darkly’. Photo: iStock
Bergman filmed at Langhammars for ‘Through A Glass Darkly’. Photo: iStock

During the festival, as I go through the pages of Bergman On Bergman, a voice behind me says, “You are reading my book." It belongs to Stig Björkman, the writer and film-maker whose interviews with Bergman feature in the book.

Bergman Week attracts directors, actors and fans from far beyond the borders of Sweden. This year, director Margarethe von Trotta was a speaker, along with actor-director Mia Hansen-Løve, who is filming Bergman Island on Fårö. The film, scheduled for release in 2019, stars Mia Wasikowska, Owen Wilson and Vicky Krieps. “The Bergman festival has been good for Fårö. It has put this tiny island on the world map," says Åhlund, who has been associated with the festival since its conception in 2004.

Bergman, it is believed, wanted his estate on Fårö to be a centre for artists and writers for inspiration, contemplation, and to push the boundaries of their work, like he did with every film. He was reluctant to have an annual festival, at least initially, and stayed away the year it was inaugurated. “The one time he did come to Bergman Week to listen to someone speak was when Harriet Andersson was here. Nobody knew he was sitting among the audience. But when Harriet started to speak, and he had a counterview, he coughed and interjected, saying ‘no, no, it was not that way’. Then the two continued the dialogue, much to the delight of the audience," says Björkman.

For Bergman, Fårö kept him grounded. “Originally, it was a romantic idea—the sense of being on an island, of the sea. One of these stupid notions one gets if one has never lived by the sea. After all, I come from Dalarna. But over the years Fårö has come to be indispensable for me. Out there everything assumes its proper proportions.... And this gives me a sense of security," he is quoted as saying in Bergman On Bergman.

Bergman built his home in Fårö in 1965, and moved in along with his then partner Liv Ullmann and their daughter Linn. In 1969, the film-maker made his first documentary on life in Fårö, quite simply called Fårödokument. Ten years later, he captured its people on lens once again in Fårödokument 1979.

But it was through his commercial films that Fårö gained prominence. Through A Glass Darkly, his first film shot on the island, opens with the four protagonists at the pebble beach near Hammars, close to where Bergman lived and wrote many of his film and theatre scripts. The director also uses this shore for the dramatic chase scene between Bibi Andersson and Ullmann in Persona. For the film, which was largely shot indoors, Bergman built a summer house at Hammars that is still standing. “Given his nature to control every aspect of his film, Bergman preferred to shoot indoors, where he could control the light, sound and actors. But the actors really liked to shoot outdoors on Fårö and felt they were more at ease. So you will see a lot of outdoor scenes in films like The Passion Of Anna and Shame," says Åhlund.

Among the locations is the Langhammars, with its sea stack field dating back to the Ice Age. The road to Langhammars narrows, eventually turning into a rough track that leads to one of the more surreal landscapes I have seen. Shaped by the will of the waves and the wind for centuries, the rocks here—known as raukar—have acquired unique formations. Against the backdrop of the blue Baltic, the raukar appear like giant human heads standing testimony to time and guarding the island.

Bergman’s headstone. Photo: iStock

Bergman took daily walks on Fårö till the very end. He was not born there, but he wanted to be laid to rest there and had everything planned. “When we were talking about it, he put his thumb to mine and made me promise that I would bury him as he wanted, in Fårö tradition and in simplicity and silence, just as though he was a regular lad of Fårö," says Agneta Söderdahl, a priest who conducted his final rites.

Today, 14 July, marks Bergman’s 100th birth anniversary. The film-maker rests in one of the four corners of Fårö’s church compound, besides his last wife Ingrid von Rosen Bergman. The church offers a spectacular view of the seashore and is mostly quiet, but for the summer, when busloads come to visit his grave.

How would Bergman have reacted? “He liked silence," says Söderdahl. “But he also understood this was going to happen."

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