We journey to Fårö, a remote island in the Baltic Sea, in search of Sweden’s enigmatic master.
There’s a festive mood in Stockholm this evening. The summer solstice – known locally as Midsummer, one of Sweden’s biggest national holidays – has just passed and people are in high spirits. On the way to Bromma airport to catch my connecting flight, the taxi driver strikes up some champagne small talk before asking what has brought me here. After explaining that I’m Fårö bound, his expression changes. “Ah, you’ve come to meet the demon director.”
The first thing that strikes you about Fårö is its remoteness. Two flights, a 90-minute drive and a short ferry ride make it an impractical destination, but irrespective of its proximity to the mainland this is a place that feels lost in time. Signs of civilisation are sparse. The single-track road that circuits the island is eerily quiet, save a scattering of mottled grey sheep. All around, open fields specked with white rock and brightly coloured wild flowers yield to dense pine forests that conceal metre-high anthills and seemingly abandoned log cabins. It’s easy to see how Bergman fell under Fårö’s spell – it is an enchanting place.
Upon my arrival at a quaint guesthouse called Gåsemora (the closest thing to a hotel on the island), the taxi driver’s words continues to percolate. A representative from the Swedish Film Institute is here to meet me, and she too suggests that there were more than a few skeletons in Bergman’s closet.
Dämba Cinema, Bergman’s private 15-seat screening room, is the first port of call on my pilgrimage. Bergman’s eldest daughter, Lena, greets me and begins recalling how her father would watch a film in this modest barn, converted in 1967, every day at three o’clock sharp. He would often invite relatives and friends, scolding any tardy guests. I settle into one of the plush green armchairs (Bergman’s front-row seat remains strictly reserved), to watch Shame, one of six Bergman films shot on Fårö following his arrival on the island in 1960 while location scouting for Through a Glass Darkly. A crushingly austere portrait of war and moral panic, Shame depicts Fårö not as a place of virginal tranquillity but as a harsh, soulless land. Is this how Bergman truly saw it?
Exiting through the projection room, I glimpse a sign which hints at Bergman’s mischievous sense of humour. ‘SE FILMEN – OM DU TÖRS!’ ‘See this film – if you dare!
The official opening of Bergman Week in Fårö’s small church is a solemn occasion. Musician Andreas Kleerup performs a handful of ballads with a string duet, including the haunting ‘Thank God for Sending Demons’. In the grounds, Bergman’s headstone is inscribed with the name of his last wife, Ingrid, who was buried in Stockholm in 1995 but relocated to Fårö following the death of her husband in 2007. Bergman may not have been an advocate of monogamy – he fathered nine children by six different women – but it’s comforting to know he’s at peace alongside the woman he claimed to have loved longer than any other.
A barbecue at a ramshackle diner provides the opportunity to meet some of the locals who knew Bergman. They’re a disarming but illusive bunch, spinning campfire yarns while smudging key dates and details. You start to wonder whether they’re being intentionally ambiguous, as if to keep Bergman cocooned in his own self-spun legend. How well did they really know him? Was their neighbourliness reciprocated throughout his 40 years here? There don’t appear to be any straight answers. Truth and fiction are becoming hard to separate.
The strength of Bergman’s bond with Fårö is most evident at the Bergman Center. A looped sound bite from Fårö Document, Bergman’s 1970 documentary about the island, echoes through the corridors. “Ever since my early childhood I have felt rootless wherever I’ve been. It is only since I came to Fårö that I have felt at home in the world.”
How much did this island influence Bergman and how much has his celebrity impacted it? Tourist-tailored shrines like the Wild Strawberries Café stand as testament to the latter, but the people here – even those cashing in on Bergman’s legacy – are fiercely protective of him.
I’m invited to Bergman’s private residence, Hammars. Passing through the razor-wired security gate triggers an ominous Dantean verse that booms out from a loudspeaker, warning trespassers to stay away. The exterior is cold and compound-like. More razor wire fringes the near-windowless outer walls, while fallen pine cones litter the unkempt driveway.
Inside, I’m instructed to change into slippers before entering the living room. Bergman built this residence in the 1970s, and it has been kept just as he left it. Not even the sheets on his deathbed have been changed. Today it stands as a time capsule of ’70s decor – cream carpet, orange-brown upholstery, pine panel walls and ceilings. Down a long corridor sits Bergman’s office, a sanitised white space offering serene dramatic views of the Baltic Sea. I’m reliably told that Bergman would sit here and watch the world go by for hours at a time, the majesty and tranquillity of nature soothing his well-documented neuroses.
The entire east wing of the house is dedicated to Bergman’s personal libraries, containing an impressive VHS archive and collections of his early notebooks, manuscripts, letters and other personal documents. The names Buñuel, Tarkovsky and Truffaut sit cosily alongside Spielberg, Stallone and Schwarzenegger. Copies of The Blues Brothers and Singin’ in the Rain appear to have watched multiple times.
Moving through the house, it’s impossible not to notice patterns on the walls, floors and furniture. The immaculately furnished house is covered in infantile graffiti, hand-scrawled memos that range from playful to indecipherable – the words ‘Warning: Slippery as Hell’ mark the bathroom floor, while a bedside dresser doubles as a spontaneous journal of Bergman’s nightmares. Amid the frantically scribbled ink stains there is one constant, a cartoon devil motif that became the director’s signature – a lasting symbol of his tormented genius. Before coming to Fårö, Bergman was a restless spirit, and although he never quite conquered his demons, he found precious solitude here.
Published 6 Jan 2018
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