Bergman on Fårö: A Testament — Part Two

When Ingmar Bergman decided in 1967 to build a house on remote Fårö Island, he cast his fate with the nets of the local fishermen. Whether he was seeking a part-time refuge from the roiling world of cinema and the Royal Dramatic Theater, or whether he understood how much his own life soon would become intertwined with the local people, is still grist for speculation. What is clear in the two feature length documentaries that he made about the island’s residents is how deeply he admired their tenacious struggle to prosper in a challenging climate. In 1967, and again a decade later in 1979, he produced Fårö Documents, two closely observed feature-length films about their work and lives. Much like Michael Apted’s ongoing Up series, Bergman planned to track the life journey of Fårö’s people every 10 years — but a planned third film was never made.

Michael Koresky wrote of the stylistic simplicity and integrity of Bergman’s portraits by the filmmaker’s

surveying spaces with a lack of overt editorializing, letting the people speak for themselves or, more frequently, just go about their business, which Bergman captures with an intense focus — farmers slaughtering pigs in harrowing real time; neighbors working together to thatch a roof; and, in my favorite moment, a lonely fisherman cleaning, cooking, and eating his freshly caught dinner: simple, effortless, wordless.

So close was the director’s bond with and acceptance by his fellow islanders that they protected him, guiding cinematic pilgrims away from his home, respecting his desire for privacy. Even the details of Bergman’s funeral went off according to his last wishes, as implemented by his neighbors. In a NY Times article writer Danielle Pergamnet quotes Thomas Soderlund, an innkeeper of Fårö:

People kept the secret from the press until the grave was dug the night before. These were his instructions. He directed his own funeral.

And Mr. Soderland even supplied the wood that was used to make Bergman’s coffin.

Almost a year after Bergman’s death, the islanders began hosting an annual weeklong cinematic tribute to their friend, named Bergmanvecken (Bergman Week). It is held in the same barn that Bergman had converted into a screening room — an evocation of a not too distant past when crew members assembled to view their dailies together, communally, in large screen projection — rather than as is the current norm — each person alone in his hotel room, hunched over a laptop, pixellated images transmitted low-rez via internet.

Of the many books on Bergman’s life and work, there is one that is singular in its scope and visual intimacy, The Ingmar Bergman Archives, published by Benedikt Taschen, a compendious work begun with the director’s co-operation and with unprecedented access to his photos and papers. It is a window into the mind of one of the century’s most private and involuted filmmakers, as well as a rich record of behind the scenes portraits of his dedicated collaborators.—Ingmar Bergman Archives link

It is impossible to offer more than a sketch of the range and depth of Bergman’s work in any documentary film, but there is a short one that attempts to illuminate its highlights and serve at least as a simple lit candle into the dark caverns of his work. Like the Fårö documentary from last week’s essay here, it is from the BBC4 program Arena and  is titled Encountering Bergman. Its three narrator/guides are critic Melvyn Bragg, who years before had conducted an English language interview with Bergman; French director Olivier Assayas, inheritor of Truffaut’s humanist mantle and director of the recent bio-feature Carlos; and Swedish journalist Marie Nyreröd who spoke with Bergman in a series of documentaries made in and around his island home.

Bragg’s discussion of his own religious struggle after seeing The Seventh Seal, as well as Assayas’s intoxication with the sexuality of Summer with Monika, bear witness to the two polarities that run through many of Bergman’s films.

The second segment follows Victor Sjöström’s aged professor on a literal and metaphoric journey of self-discovery. The old man’s surreal dream, walking up to a smashed coffin that has fallen off a horse-drawn hearse and seeing himself in the coffin, was my own youthful introduction to Bergman as a “purveyor of gloom, despair and Northern angst.” 

Wild Strawberries was the first “foreign film” I saw, a high schooler whose own struggle with fading religious faith soon reached runaway proportions with the release of The Virgin Spring. Winter Light, made a few years later, was Bergman’s testament to his own crisis in the faith of his clergyman father — a film he was compelled to make even though he correctly anticipated its bleak reception by audiences and critics alike.

The trilogy of 1960s “chamber films” on the loss of faith (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, The Silence) are available in a Criterion Collection box set. A bonus is a fourth disc, Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie, a five-part documentary, complete here for the first time, on the production of Winter Light--- from script, production, editing, answer print, premiere, to critical reception. It is a detailed, incisive look into the filmmaking process itself with Bergman as an articulate spokesman. Even if you know the films well, this documentary affords new perspectives on Bergman's methods.—A Film Trilogy by Ingmar Bergman link

This section of the BBC documentary ends with a look at Persona, the most well-known of Bergman’s Fårö Island films.

Part Three is largely an exploration of Bergman’s expanding portrayal of actress Liv Ullmann as the embodiment of his dramatic focus and cinematic thought. He made ten films with her as star; along the way, they became partners and lovers. The stylistic tropes of his earlier films seem to fall away as he continues to work with her, reaching a dramatic rawness and simplicity in the six-part Scenes from a Marriage. Assayas observes that the director now finds a “superior form of artistic freedom” in the stripped down vocabulary of medium shot and close-up, with dark or near blank walls constituting his increasingly spare visual field. The pervasive presence of the hard-scrabble geography of Fårö Island in the earlier work of the 60s seems to recede here when it is pitted against the craggy coastline of the human face in extremis as he examines the couple in this penetrating archeology of a marriage.

The final section opens with a brief English language interview excerpt from a South Bank Show of 1978, the one referred to earlier by Melvyn Bragg. He draws out a playful, joking Bergman. Saraband (2003), Bergman's last feature as a director, re-unites Erland Josephson and Ullmann as the divorced but reconciled couple from Scenes from a Marriage. To see these same actors from the earlier film now juxtaposed with this film made over 25 years later, constitutes a deeply emotional experience, an irrefutable record of our own lives passing in front of us, with all its might-have-beens.

The documentary ends with Bergman again alone on Fårö, with shots of him walking the beach during the filming of Persona, intercut with interlocking shots made in his last years.

Nyreröd reflects on the importance of music for Bergman; we see several sections from a very early Bergman film To Joy, a parable of the artist (much like Karin in Saraband) seeking the collaborative experience of playing in an orchestra, rather than the trauma of a diva/soloist’s career, always exposed to the judgment of others. This theme of the exposed loner within the greater community pervades Bergman's films.

There is another Criterion Collection box set — five early Bergman films, earlier even than Summer with Monika, his first international success.—Eclipse Series 1: Early Bergman link

These films afford an in depth look at the still emerging auteur as screenwriter and dramatist working within the strictures of the Swedish commercial cinema, years before his themes of existential crisis came to center stage, years before he became the prophet of alienation.

One can’t help but speculate if the solitary artist of Fårö played his own cinematic instrument so magnificently because he felt protected by the ever-present support and collaboration of an orchestra of colleagues. There is a gentle irony that this lone figure of cinema history found himself fulfilled only in the reassuring reality of a tight community of fellow artists at his side, friends who would support him against indifference or hostility to his work, a worry that he articulates at the end of the five-part Criterion documentary. Bergman was an artist who sought the isolation that gave clarity to his vision, but who also depended on the abiding love of colleagues and fellow artists. Such is the conundrum of making movies.

NEXT WEEK: A look at Robert Bresson's book of aphorisms, "Notes on the Cinematographer," and a brief interview with the minimalist master.


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