wed 24/07/2024

theartsdesk in Fårö: Bergman's Swedish Dream Island | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk in Fårö: Bergman's Swedish Dream Island

theartsdesk in Fårö: Bergman's Swedish Dream Island

The midsummer sun beats down on the great director's place of nightmares and catharsis

Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman on Fårö

Fifty years ago this April, a city-loving film-maker already internationally famous for such masterpieces as The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries took the ferry from Gotland to the windswept, still snowy island of Fårö (the nearest  we can get in terms of pronounciation might be "Four-er").

While resisting Svenska Film's attempts to deflect him from filming his latest project, Through a Glass Darkly, on Orkney, Ingmar Bergman saw Fårö and - to shed the ironic parentheses he insists upon in his marvellous autobiography The Magic Lantern - he fell in love. Not only did he make his next five films including Persona there, but he also built a home on Fårö away from the hurly-burly and lived there for the rest of his life. Now every week in late June, a lucky group of visitors to Bergman Week gets to understand why.

This was the tenth such week, which means they've been going since before Bergman's death at the age of 89 in July 2007. One celebrity visitor during the great man's lifetime was Ang Lee: Bergman apparently told him The Ice Storm was a "total masterpiece" but seems to have thought differently about it off the record. For 2010, there was a whole clutch of distinguished special guests. As part of a group of eight international journalists - Indian, Chinese, Russian, German, American and English - I missed several of them: we arrived too late to catch Bergman's set designer Anna Asp and more than a glimpse of the beautiful Lena Endre, star of Liv Ullmann's film about Bergman's extra-marital affair Faithless, and left before the advent of Ariane Mnouchkine, legendary leader of the Théâtre du Soleil.

LivUllmanPLWe were there, however, to witness the emotional return of Ullmann herself (pictured right by Peter Assar Monsan for Bergman Week). She hadn't been back since the funeral, and in conversation with Jannike Ahlund shed a few emotional tears. Asked what the whole experience, from Persona to living with and later visiting Bergman at his Hammars home, meant to her, she said, "It's still now - it's not over, it's part of who I am. Some things are fading and others are starting to live and be real." Like everyone who knew and sometimes suffered at his hands, she's at pains to point out what fun he could be during filming, recalling his playfulness during Faithless when he hid in the bed where Lena Endre's character discovers her lover.

Actually we irreverent eight had a running gag about "Ingmar - but he was such a playful guy". Well, he was, as anyone who knows the films in the round will know. But he could also be, in his own words, a complete shit. It doesn't sound like huge fun as Liv described it being his companion at Hammars. She wasn't allowed to see other people, to make friends on the island. And visiting Hammars, as only the privileged few are allowed to do, reinforced that essentially this is still a bachelor's home: all those women who lived there, his last wife Ingrid the longest of all, seem not to have made much of a feminine dent on a collector's hermitage. It's like one giant shed-retreat, with rooms devoted to videos - towards the end of his life Bergman rejected DVDs - books and records.

Faro_2010_196-1That we could still see it all is another little miracle. Last year the entire contents of Hammars were put up for auction. The Ingmar Bergman Foundation, one of three seemingly harmonious institutions guarding the interests of the master, had hoped to pick up the few items they could afford, only to be outbid: it was clear that one man wanted everything. He got it, but Norwegian multi-millionaire Hans Gude Gudesen then returned everything to Hammars. It's a living, breathing home, as simple as the Sibelius house I visited earlier this year in Finland. A long, low ranch that, like Topsy, just growed, its wide windows give more of a view of pines than they do of the sea, which is how IB wanted it: trees were always the most important symbols of nature for him. But in the study, where the main desk is below a small, high window with no chance of a distraction from the day's work, there's also a bay with a bigger outlook (pictured above) where you can see the sea.

It's fascinating, of course, to see what's in the library and the video collection, though obviously many of the items were unwatched or unread gifts. I was tickled to see Anger Management alongside All About Eve, The Asphalt Jungle and Ansiktet (The Face or The Magician, one of Bergman's underrated masterpieces and perhaps my personal favourite). A first edition piano score of Rubinstein's opera The Demon is among the scores in the library; Bergman's own personal demons pop out in a devilish injunction to switch off a light and the astonishing bedside table on which he jotted down many of his dreams and nightmares while he could still remember them (pictured below right).

Faro_2010_200-1The whole place still lets fresh artistic air in by inviting visiting creative artists who need a quiet place to think and work. Heading the scheme is the delightful Linn Ullmann, Liv's daughter and putative favourite of Bergman's nine children. Her deservedly acclaimed novel A Blessed Child, which I'm beginning to read, starts with transfigured autobiography: "Isak was 84 years old and lived by himself in a white limestone house on Hammarsö, an island off the east coast of Sweden." Swap limestone for wood, and you have a snapshot of Ingmar at Hammars.

The links become even clearer when the novelist tells us that his appearance "suggested the beginnings of a rauk, one of those four-hundred-million-year-old island outcrops in the sea , so characteristic of Hammerso". And indeed, those spellbinding rauks are certainly characteristic of Fårö. It was their appearance which first excited Bergman with the prospect of filming Through a Glass Darkly here, though in fact the final exchange between father and son, originally filmed on the beach at Langhammars (pictured below), had to be remade in the specially built house since the rauks took the eye too much away from the human beings.

Faro_2010_230-1Linn met and greeted us at what was for me the most awe-inspiring slice of Bergmania we encountered: the barn near Hammars at Dämba which was first converted into the interiors for Scenes from a Marriage - the nearby farmhouse with windmill was used for the outside shots-  and then a private cinema and cutting room. There what I firmly believe to be the greatest operatic film ever made, The Magic Flute, was premiered. Linn was there - Bergman had even wanted her to be the face of the little girl who sits rapt during the Overture, but her mother was firm that she had school to go to. She recalled how more casual screenings would take place at three pm in the afternoon. Everyone would gather and some would sit on the wooden bench outside the cinema before the showing - anything from classic silents, Swedish and otherwise, to the latest Hollywood film.

Imagine if you can the awe of a Bergman fan at being admitted into this holiest of holies and treated to a whole series of private screenings. There are only 15 extremely comfortable seats, and the master's is the one with the cushion on it (second from the left, pictured below). And just to prove that this was no museum, Pia Lundberg of the Swedish Film Institute had lined up for us four films so fresh off the press, as it were, that we can't even tell you what they were yet. Suffice it to say that two were excellent, two starred the latest Skarsgård to make a splash, charismatic young Bill - only one of them, by the way, making the first category - and that if the luminous Alicia Vikander doesn't walk off with a clutch of awards, I'd be very surprised. By the way, the one film to meet with the most success in terms of festival selection so far we all unanimously thought a stinker.

Faro_2010_155-1Bergman films were being screened, in fact, at the slightly larger theatre at Sudersand. We were there, it seems, for the final performances: the barn is up for sale and will probably become yet another Swedish holiday home. It was hot and bothersome there in the afternoon, so I skipped seeing a comic masterpiece, Smiles of a Summer Night, on our first full evening and went for a walk to see the oak at Ava beneath which Linnaeus sat during a specimen-collecting expedition along the south coast, before capturing my own smiles of midsummer along the beach back to Sudersand.

What I did see in the Sudersand Cinema was the second instalment of Stig Björkman's impressionistic films selecting behind-the-scenes footage from Bergman movies. ...but Film is My Mistress I have to say I liked less than the charming first, not least because this time we were given very truncated scenes from the films in question (though the incredible, ultimately fruitful on-set tension between Bergmans Ingmar and the dying Ingrid in Autumn Sonata made for compelling viewing). It was, on the other hand, a real privilege to see the second of Bergman's films about the island and the islanders he loved and respected so much, the second Fårö Document of 1979, with its painstaking lengthy sequences of sheep-shearing and pig-slaughter. Chastening to think that since the documentary was made, the two schools have closed down, only a handful of farmers remain and the fishermen, already coping back then with a depleted Baltic, have given up. The statistics say it all: around 500 islanders and 11,000 summer visitors.

Ingmar_Bergman__Sven_NykvistNot that the visitors are ever, at least in late June, overwhelming; there's only a handful of places to stay if you don't have a summer home, and the journalists were walled up two each in brand new, rather odd but thankfully mosquito-proof little capsules on the Sudersand campsite where Bergman, his cinematographer Sven Nykvist (pictured left with Bergman during the filming of Through a Glass Darkly) and the cast also stayed before he became a resident.

Our assiduous if completely relaxed hosts made sure we saw as much of Fårö as possible. Not for nothing is Kutens Bensin, a creperie filled with Fifties memorabilia and a stage for happening music events, a major attraction on the island. Its remarkable owner, who loves what he's built up, describes it on the wacky website as a "joint venture between the impossible and the unbelievable". His daughter, who lived in France for many years and studied with a cordon bleu chef, served us up with some of the best baking and sandwiches I've ever tasted for our lunches between screenings at Dämba; but there's no substitute for having a crepe at the place itself.

Faro_2010_210-1And then, last but not least, there was the Big Coach Tour of Bergman's Fårö, starting from the Bergman Centre in the former school near the island's only church. It was a necessary evil - I hate sitting on coaches with the tour guide narrating - because many of the key beaches are reachable only through private property (though it seems that, after the demise of Bergmanland with its barbed wire fences, keep-out signs and terrible dachshund guardian, there are few no-go areas and anyone can camp a night or two on a private beach according to Swedish law). Our "film safari", led by a nice lady from Gotland Film, took us first to the territory of Through a Glass Darkly and Persona, with DVDs set up in the backs of vans on site so we could compare Harriet, Gunnar and Max arriving by boat and Liv and Bibi running along the beach with our own experience (the wall behind which the house of Through a Glass Darkly was built, with Fårö Church in the distance, pictured above right).

Only in Bergman Week would you "have a chance to act on location in a Bergman film when we reconstruct a scene from Shame". And who was reluctantly pulled from the crowd to play a second Max von Sydow towing his remaining worldly goods in a cart in front of an equally unfortunate female playing the Liv Ullmann role? You guessed it. My attempts at conveying utter exhaustion, even though I was beginning to feel it under the relentless sun after a full day, did not transmit to screen.

BussLanghammarsPLSo much for the horror. The pay-off came as the coach (pictured left by Peter Assar Monsan) drove us north to munch on lamb burgers and wander off among the rauks of Langhammars, casting their long shadows in the late evening light. Whether or not it's true that the rocks and stones, with their fossilised remains of coral reef, really detached from Africa millennia ago, there's no stranger place on earth. And you may be glad to know that all eight journalists are already thinking of ways - shepherding, gardening, conferencing - of returning next year to Prospero Bergman's enchanted island.

All colour images by David Nice except where otherwise stated

It's still now - it's not over, it's part of who I am. Some things are fading and others are starting to live and be real

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