Limestone monoliths, called raukar in Swedish, on the Fårö coast

Travel after the pandemic #5: Fårö, Sweden

Island’s ‘persona’ a perfect fit for Ingmar Bergman

Just as the more devout Leonard Cohen fans like to travel to the Greek island Hydra to see where the Canadian had a home (see our Travel after the pandemic #1), so admirers of the films of Ingmar Bergman may make a similar pilgrimage to his beloved Fårö, the Swedish island where he lived and worked for more than 40 years, shooting some of his great works.

Fårö is not easy to reach. Fly to Stockholm then take a 40-minute flight or three-hour ferry to Visby, Gotland. In Visby, rent a car and drive to Fårösund on the northern tip of Gotland, which takes about an hour. There, you can board the free ferry that crosses to Fårö, where there is plenty of accommodation though it gets busy in summer.

A good place to start from is the Bergman Center, dedicated to the world-renowned and legendary Swedish film director and writer, offering seminars, films, shows, a creative workshop, cafe and tours such as the “Bergman Safari”. Guides will take you in the footsteps of the auteur, visiting film locations.

Every year in week 26 the centre arranges Bergman Week, which this year is scheduled for June 29-July 3. It will be the 17th consecutive year that the celebration has taken place on Fårö. The theme for the 2021 edition is “Remaking Bergman”, when invited guests, panelists and lecturers will discuss the wave of remakes of his films that is expected to follow in the wake of the anticipated HBO series “Scenes from a Marriage”, the first regular remake of an Ingmar Bergman film.

The Swede wrote and directed this 1973 Swedish six-part television miniseries about a marriage falling apart, starring Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson. The series was then condensed to a cinema-friendly, three-hour film in 1974 for its American release. Bergman based the saga on his own experiences, including his longtime relationship with muse and partner Ullmann, to whom he was married from 1965 to 1970. HBO’s remake directed by Hagai Levi, an Israeli, is due for release this year. Will Fårö-bound fans approve of this American adaptation?

The Bergman Center is advising that all necessary precautions will be taken for the celebratory week considering the COVID-19 pandemic, and current restrictions will be followed. Parts of the program will take place outdoors in the surroundings of the island or in customised tents next to the centre. A limited part of the program will be accessible digitally.

The centre has a permanent exhibition, “Ingmar Bergman’s Filmic Landscape”, that takes visitors on what is described as “a journey through Bergman’s rare and special connection with Fårö, spanning over 40 years of his life and work on the island”.

Fårö’s Bergman Center

It was in the mid-1960s that Bergman first arrived on Fårö, in the Baltic Sea due south of Stockholm. Only 113 square kilometres, it looks as though it snapped off the northern tip of the adjacent and larger Gotland island and is poised to float off to sea. Bergman was scouting locations for his bleak existentialist “Through a Glass Darkly”.

He loved the place immediately and felt he had found his real home. The craggy, stormy ambience fit perfectly with his vision, which often deals with death, illness, faith, betrayal, bleakness and insanity. Fårö has strange seasons, grey light in the day and northern light in the middle of the night, and barren winters with no colours. It is isolated and at that time non-Swedish citizens were barred because it had a top-secret Swedish military base.

The land is flat and verdant. It is windswept, raw and elemental, rocky along the western edge, soft and sandy on the eastern coastline, with black-and-white cows grazing in lush meadows along the Baltic Sea. There are dense weather-beaten forests of gnarled and stooped pine. The famous shore of Langhammars has a rocky beach punctuated with massive stone monoliths that date back several ice ages. The mystical beach served as a backdrop for the tale of a young woman’s descent into schizophrenia in “Through a Glass Darkly”.

In an epiphany, Bergman told his cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, that he would soon buy a house on the island and make more films there. Someday, he would move permanently to Fårö. And he wished to die there.

The promises were kept. When filming “Persona” he discovered an area of land to purchase and build a house on. He stayed there as often as his Stockholm duties would allow until 2003, when he sold his apartment in the capital and moved permanently to Fårö.

Including “Through a Glass Darkly” he shot six of his austere and harrowing films on the island, among them “Persona”, “The Passion of Anna” and “Shame”, plus the mini-series “Scenes from a Marriage” and two documentaries on the island itself, “Fårö Document” and “Fårö Document 1979”.

The island became almost a character in his world-renowned films. The barren, stony landscape framed by the Baltic Sea has often been regarded as a metaphor for some of his characters’ inner emotional states.

Visitors can find Bergman’s home and, some kilometres away, the old barn converted to his private screening room, equipped for 16mm and 35mm showings and with a projectionist on call. He drove there in his red truck nearly every day for two films, at 3pm and 8pm. The island has no cinema.

Three of his groundbreaking films won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film: “The Virgin Spring”, “Through a Glass Darkly” and “Fanny and Alexander”.  When enthusiasts went to the island to find Bergman, residents would protect his privacy by pretending they didn’t know where he lived. He had a sign on his gate, “Beware of Killer Dog”, but he only had a tiny dog.

Living alone at the end, after five marriages, he died in his Fårö bed in July 2007 at age 89 and is buried in the graveyard of the island’s only church. Islanders kept the secret of his funeral from the press until the grave was dug the night before. Bergman, often angrily skeptical of God, apparently worshipped and is buried in a private spot at Fårö Church far from other graves. His resting place is shared with his last wife, the non-actress Ingrid Bergman. She had died before him but her body was exhumed and brought there.

The director imagined his home continuing after his death as an extension and expansion of his own artistic pursuits, a meeting place for people who work with music, film, photography, theatre and literature. The Bergman Estate on Fårö consists of four houses and a cinema, and invites artists, scholars, non-fiction writers and journalists from around the world to come and work. The next regular call for applicants is scheduled for October 1, 2021.

Bergman’s house has been preserved in its original state down to the notes on his bedside table. A Norwegian millionaire bought Bergman’s furniture and possessions at a Stockholm auction and returned them to Fårö as a donation. The environment aims to nurture contemplative and creative work – in the same way as it inspired Bergman’s own artistic pursuits over 40 years.

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