He Is an Island

The locations for many of Ingmar Bergman’s most dramatically spare films have existed for so long in moviegoers’ minds as stark black-and-white dream states that to walk through them in living, vibrant color is truly transformative. Imagine the harsh, pebbled beaches of Persona’s summer escape (shot on the same spot where Bergman eventually built his own house) suddenly buffeted by crystal blue waves. Or the setting for Shame’s detached, ash gray apocalypse made verdant by expanses of lush farmland pasture. To be amid the splendor of Fårö, the Swedish island where Bergman lived for decades and is now buried, sheds new light (often literally) on the works of this most forbidding and visually influential of film artists. Additionally, being there for the fifth annual Bergmanveckan, or Bergman Week, the first since his death in July 2007, has made me reassess my notions of what defines a film festival. Rather than the usual community of film journalists and programmers fighting each other over screenings and proffering instantaneous responses to films once the lights came up, I was surrounded by what seemed like an equal number of local islanders and Bergman devotees who had traveled from far and wide, all of whom were enjoying being outside as much as in the darkened spaces of the theaters. Indeed, Bergman Week is as much about the setting as the artist.

Wandering Fårö’s wildly varied terrain and braving its erratic weather, one can feel and see the source of Bergman’s inspiration behind every tree, reverberating among its rocky, barren cliffs. Located on the northernmost tip of Gotland, the smaller island of Fårö, accessible only by ferry, is a remarkably wondrous place in the summer, its east side defined by acres of farmland, its west by magnificent seaside rock formations surrounded by the chilly blue depths of the Baltic Sea. Bergman first came to Fårö, reluctantly, while scouting locations for Through a Glass Darkly in 1960; he was instantly smitten, although the resulting film exploits the island for its remoteness rather than its enchantment, depicting its stony beaches as more of an interior, psychological topography than the rejuvenating landscape that appears in vibrant summertime. Eventually, Fårö would become the location for some of Bergman’s greatest films, not only the aforementioned Persona and Shame but also The Passion of Anna and some of Scenes from a Marriage, as well as the headquarters for his company, Cinematograph, founded in the late 1960s. Taking up permanent residence there during Midsummer’s Eve 1967 (although continuing to live in Stockholm off-season until recent years), Bergman became an island fixture, and his pure relationship with the locals, borne out of mutual respect, has proven a fascinating counterpoint to the somewhat complicated one he had with the Swedish film industry for decades. Whereas everywhere else he could only be Bergman the feared film master, on Fårö he felt he could be Bergman the quiet neighbor.

Naturally, then, the man was at first ambivalent, and even hostile, to the idea of a film festival celebrating him on his little island paradise. The festival’s independent programmers and organizers (a group of six women, headed by Jannike Åhlund, who receive aid from Fårö and neighboring Gotland, as well as the Göteborg International Film Festival) enjoy regaling first-time visitors with tales of how Bergman, despite his initial hesitancy, would casually show up at screenings and discussions, once even getting into a spirited argument with guest speaker Harriet Andersson during a Q&A session. Yet now with Bergman’s passing, all focus has shifted away from his possible presence to his definitive absence and, further, how to deal with his legacy. This has manifested in matters as practical as what to do with his house (the cause of much debate during the week at Fårö, and even the subject of a panel discussion, which ended up as more of a town meeting: his nine children have shown an interest in selling it, while many, including some of the festival’s organizers and those involved in the Ingmar Bergman Foundation, want to see the Swedish state declare it a landmark) and as nebulous as how to properly memorialize him in a festival setting. It was a fascinating, expansive week, bustling with screenings of films new and old, from Bergman and others; lectures by eminent film scholars; bus tours of Bergman’s on-screen haunts; live music events—all of it poignant while never overly sentimental, just as Bergman would have preferred.

The lectures set the scene, running the gamut from birth to death: formidable Swedish film scholar Birgitta Steene (whose most recent contribution to Criterion was her essay on August Strindberg for our release of Alf Sjöberg’s Miss Julie) on the representation of children in Bergman’s films and the University of Amsterdam’s Egil Törnqvist on Bergman’s favorite film, Victor Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage, and how it influenced his similarly death-tinged films The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries together painted a clear picture of Bergman’s existential quandaries. The latter presentation also tied in with the festival’s closing-night event, The Phantom Carriage accompanied by a live performance of a splendid new score by Matti Bye, so appropriately rich and evocative of the film on-screen that one often forgot the presence of the ensemble.

Paying tribute to Bergman by showing the work of his idol seemed the perfect way to cap a week in which so many other filmmakers showed up to idolize Bergman. Jan Troell (The Emigrants) and Margarethe von Trotta (The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum) were lively and articulate guest speakers—less eulogists than appreciative visitors—and their robust conversations, accompanied by presentations of their own films (Troell’s newest, the lovingly detailed and empathetic turn-of-the-century period piece Maria Larsson’s Everlasting Moment, and von Trotta’s most acclaimed, The German Sisters, which Bergman named as one of his favorite films), were reminders that Bergman’s legacy will live on in films by those he influenced. But perhaps most inspiring were the showings of Bergman’s rarely screened documentaries, Fårö Document 1969 and Fårö Document 1979 (he had planned on making another in 1989, but it never came to fruition), presented in the converted barn where Bergman used to watch dailies and attended by many Fårö locals, who were not only paying tribute to their neighbor but watching images of themselves or their ancestors up on the screen. The documentaries are gorgeous, straddling the line between the ethnographic and the deeply personal, with Bergman lovingly detailing the daily ins and outs of the island, the population and season changes, and how its land is cultivated—all with the merest sliver of editorializing. Bergman lets the images speak for themselves, and no sequence better captures the sense of remoteness, survival, and casual beauty than the extended, wordless one of a fisherman cleaning, cooking, and eating the day’s catch one winter night; when Bergman ends the scene by suddenly cutting to witness the man from outside his large, dark house, his window the only illumination, I could nearly feel a winter chill rush through me. It’s appropriately elemental filmmaking, and perhaps the week’s cinematic highlight.

Between walking across sun-dappled farmland and craggy stretches of seaside beach and revisiting Bergman’s classic films (lesser-known titles like Summer Interlude, Waiting Women, and The Touch were shown alongside expected fare like Smiles of a Summer Night and The Seventh Seal), it was easy to get lost in the memory of the artist rather than to consider his vital, ongoing legacy. The people I met during my week on Fårö who have the best game plan for how to enrich and extend that legacy are the folks at the Ingmar Bergman Foundation. Set up in 2002 by the Swedish Film Institute, the Royal Dramatic Theatre (whose former president Ingrid Dahlberg is the foundation’s CEO), Sveriges Television, and Svensk Filmindustri, the foundation began because Bergman, who it is said never threw away a single piece of paper, donated his archive to the SFI—forty-five large boxes filled with manuscripts, notebooks, letters, plot summaries, and sketches. While his more private material will not be made available for fifty years, most of the donated papers will be accessible for researchers in Stockholm.

In 2003, as Bergman was preparing to direct his final film, Saraband, he said in an interview, “Now I’ve left the theater, filming, and television behind me. I’m just going to make one more film this summer. Then I’m going to be a true Fårö-fella forever, and I’m going to live there all-year-round. I can’t wait to get there.” Now buried at the island’s old church, Bergman will always be remembered as a “true Fårö-fella forever,” and by situating this annual celebration on the island he loved, the programmers of Bergmanveckan have forever made Fårö-fellas of all us Bergman lovers.


You have no items in your shopping cart