Bergman on Fårö: A Testament—Part One

A map of the island of Fårö looks as if it broke off from the tip of Gotland, itself an island in the Baltic Sea off the southeastern coast of Sweden. Getting to Fårö is a challenge; once there, most of the few roads are single lane, dirt ruts with grass growing between the tire tracks. When director Ingmar Bergman first visited while scouting locations for his 1961 film Through a Glass Darkly, he knew he had found the secluded yet enchanted place where he would spend much of the rest of his life. From the completion of his great valedictory film Sarabande (2003), he would remain on the island until his death four years later on July 30, 2007. In one of those quirks that defy logic yet seem after the fact almost poetic--- fellow director Michelangelo Antonioni died the same day.

The short summers on Fårö are luxuriant, with native flowers, wild strawberries and mushrooms in profusion. This secluded island has become a Swedish tourist destination, an intoxicating getaway. There is no bank, post office, police or doctor. But Bergman built a small cinema from an old barn, where he screened dailies for the many films he shot there: Persona, Shame, The Passion of Anna, Scenes from a Marriage (appropriately shot in an ex-wife’s house.) Tarkovsky filmed his final Bergman-like film Sacrifice on the island as well.

Bergman directed over fifty films, but it is the rugged sea and landscapes of Fårö seen in his mature films that constitute a powerful visual correlative to his character’s existential crises. Bergman loved the gentle autumn light of Fårö but it is most often the unforgiving and deeply overcast winter light that attracted his and cinematographer Sven Nykvist’s eyes.

There is no dearth of biography material on Bergman. He has even written his own memoirs, The Magic Lantern and Images.

But it is the reclusive artist himself who speaks in a series of documentaries made for Swedish television in 2003. The most intimate and poignant of them are one-on-one conversations with Marie Nyreröd that take place in and around Bergman’s comfortable but modest home. It is a privileged window into the living space and thoughts of a cinematic Lion in Winter, a man whose once self-admitted eruptive temper now seems bathed in a reflective, even nostalgic look into his past, in a perspective that is perhaps even more revealing than any into the purely cinematic work.

Nyreröd interviewed Bergman over several days for more than thirty hours. From the material separate films were crafted including one on his stage work for Sweden’s National Theater. But it is through his films that Sweden, in Bergman’s movies, forged a not totally wished-for portrait of national existential angst in the 60s. Visiting many of the sites used as locations in these landmark films, now revealed by Bergman in the warm glow of mid-summer sun, is startling. Shot after shot calls attention to the power of the cinematographer’s and director’s vision in transforming this pastoral landscape into powerful images.

BBC’s Channel 4 program, Arena, re-broadcast the film in 2004 preceded by an English introduction by Nyreröd, and with English subtitles. Bergman spoke proficient English but hearing him speak here in Swedish, you sense the ease of expression that is not always so evident in his English language interviews.

In a moment of metaphoric musing at the end of the first part, Bergman discusses a “folk painting” hanging in his living room, ostensibly of Jonah and the Whale, but for him it is a symbolic portrait of the  respective roles of artist, audience and critic, three linked reflections on a film.

In the opening of the second part Bergman discusses how his architect Kjell Abrahamsson designed the house with specific window views in mind and how Bergman often would lie on a cushioned counter near his fireplace in the dead of night, his own Hour of the Wolf, waiting for the balm of dawn to soothe his troubled soul, even as the grandfather clock ticked nearby. This leads into a montage of clocks and watches excertpted from his films and then into a revelatory story of how he and his older brother had once plotted to strangle their infant sister.

Part Three is a testament to the abiding importance of his grandmother in his young life, how her apartment in Uppsala was so imprinted in his memory that it became a template for the grandmother’s rooms in Fanny and Alexander. Soundscape has always been important in Bergman’s films and a memory of his grandmother’s squeaking galoshes in the silent cinema also becomes significant.

An interlude of interviewer and director visiting the beach location of Persona calls to mind some behind the scenes footage of the film, with shots of Bergman and Nykvist at the camera. A query by Nyreröd about the director’s love affairs with the film’s two stars, Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann, follows. She asks, “What’s that all about?” Bergman stumbles a moment, then says simply, “Answer that if you can.” A long silence follows.

Bergman’s struggle to answer the question about his romantic relationships leads him in the next part of the interview into a penetrating even self-excoriating analysis about his life-long dependence on his relations with women, even to the point of grasping for self-identity in their cinematic incarnations. Though he does not express the feeling here, he has previously said that he feels it is through the character of  the women in his films that secrets about the human condition are revealed. Men’s characters are too often clouded over with an insulating layer of  faux-courage, anger and aggression, hiding and denying the pain of existence.  Bergman does not spare himself from this flaying. “I haven’t put an ounce of effort into my families,” he laments. Married five times, he also fathered nine children.

A hell-bent, comedic ride in his red truck to his cinema barn (Bergman was said by friends to be a reckless driver) prompts a reverie about the filming of the Mozart opera The Magic Flute. (In the overture to the film that Bergman made of the opera, he builds a montage of audience members listening to the orchestra. It is the closest he came to a domestic portrait;  this beautiful sequence features shots of his family and crew members, including Sven Nykvist.) Bergman and Nyreröd examine a textile weaving of The Magic Flute made by local artist Anita Grede. This section ends with a clip from the 1996 film Private Confessions, directed by Liv Ullmann with a script by Bergman. Close friends including Bille August and the director’s son, Daniel, directed several of Bergman’s late scripts after he demurred of directing them himself.

Part Five continues in the intimacy of the screening room with Bergman’s thoughts about man’s relationship to God. It is a desperate search for God and God’s absence that permeates many of Bergman’s middle period films. Sitting here in the dim room, himself now a wizened Prospero, the director considers not a God external to man--- but the god-like aspects within man. It seems he has finally found solace, the irony being that in his self-imposed isolation from his fellow man he has discovered a sense of community. In Private Confessions, the priest Jacob, speaking for Bergman, says, “We shouldn’t talk about God but about the holiness within man [and that] through the musicians, prophets and saints we’ve been enlightened about other worlds.” Bergman admits that he thinks about death every day--- that he always has. “I wrote a film about Death [The Seventh Seal]. It was excellent therapy,” and then concludes by reflecting on the death of his wife, Ingrid, eight years before.

He was with Ingrid for 24 years and he is now convinced he will meet her again in an afterlife. Bergman talks about the demons that still haunt him; he even has a list of them. But there is one demon he does not have—the Demon of Nothingness, the demon that finds no meaning at all in life, the one that prevents self-expression and creativity. “But that has never happened to me, and that’s something for which I am profoundly grateful.” And so are we, for his films have given us insight into our own dark psychic corners, and in this cinematic portrait he has given us, quite simply, himself.

Bergman was buried on his island. A photo of the grave from Oct. 7, 2007 shows the still fresh site.

Next week: A look at some of the continuing themes in Bergman's films through a BBC 4 documentary.

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