PECKING ORDER: Michael Pattison gets the bird on Bergman’s island
On 26 June, I rode a bicycle for the first time in over a decade. On 27 June, I came flying off it. The accident occurred on Fårö, the small island just north of Gotland, Sweden, in the Baltic Sea. For four decades, Fårö was home to Ingmar Bergman, who moved there with Liv Ullmann and their daughter in 1967. I was there for four nights, attending the eleventh edition of Bergman Week, the annual film festival dedicated to the director’s career. In three days, I saw six shorts and a silent feature—the latter in Bergman’s personal cinema.
Fårö is a remote island. The quickest route from London entails two planes, three buses, a train, a ferry and, if you’re arriving in the evening (by which point the local bus timetable has finished), a taxi. At around 70 square miles, the island is twice the size of Manhattan. Its sparse population (around 500 permanent year-round residents) and open landscape combine to make it seem larger than it is. Bergman Week’s screening venues are too far apart to walk. Besides the distance, there are no footpaths. Short of a car, cycling is a necessity.
The island’s isolation is heightened by the fact it has no banks, post offices, medical services or police, and has severely limited internet options: no wifi here, no wifi there. On the one hand, this facilitates a distraction-free environment in which a writer may up her output to double or even triple the norm, while on the other it turns the daily basics of freelance journalism—pitching, responding, filing, enquiring, researching—into a dispiriting palaver. Arriving direct from Edinburgh, I was on the one hand able to write three separate reports for as many outlets from that city’s film festival much quicker than I would have at home; I also read two and a half books, and watched two DVDs I’d brought with me. On the other hand, there was the 3-mile cycle ride from my accommodation to the Bergman Centre, Bergman Week’s headquarters and the nearest location with internet access, whenever I wanted to file a dispatch.
Just west of the Bergman Center—where the main road that runs diagonally across Fårö, from Broa ferry port in the southwest to Skär in the northeast, meets a narrower offshoot that heads northwest to Lauter—is the island’s church. Parts of the church date back to the 15th century, but it underwent significant rebuilding and expansion in the 19th century. The date adorning the entrance gates is 1850. Bergman’s grave is situated in the northwest corner of the cemetery behind the church. It is shared by Ingrid von Rosen, Bergman’s fifth and final wife, to whom he was married from 1971 till her death in 1995. Each year, the church hosts the opening ceremony of Bergman Week.
Bergman’s films have often been characterised as chilly, contemplative, intellectual, philosophical, talky, ruminative, autobiographical and self-searching. They seem, now more than ever, to belong to an irretrievable age when an artist’s output could be prolific and sustained, could span mediums and genres, and could retain the kind of distinct authorial signature deserving of its own adjective. Like Fellini and maybe one or two other names, Bergman might still be a go-to director for any developing cinephile, but I rarely think of him or his films today in the same way I did during adolescence—when films like The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries (both 1957) provided the comfort of discovery when no other teenagers seemed to have an active interest in anything.
I suspect this extends to others. Asked how Bergman is received in the UK as I was being driven back to the ferry port to embark upon my return leg at the end of my stay, I didn’t really know what to say. Perhaps more than any of his contemporaries, Bergman is taken for granted by critics—or is, in an even worse fate, deemed old fashioned. In truth, it’s become incredibly hip not to take oneself too seriously as an artist, evinced today by the vast number who prefer not to talk about their work directly, prefer not to commit to specifics, lest their work be pinned to something as dangerous as a historical moment or a political idea. Bergman’s highbrow navel-gazing has no shortage of unqualified heirs. Very few of them offer a body of work that’s so hefty and versatile while also unapologetically persistent with stylistic repetition and recurrent themes.
Nostalgia’s too easy. Bergman’s films are representative today of an imaginative but self-absorbed class of filmmakers, whose works shimmered almost by accident with the momentous currents of their time. The devastation of the second world war, the great revolutionary shifts of the sixties, the communisation of Eastern Europe: such upheavals are felt, indirectly or not, in many of the old auteurs’ works. Intimate and intense, Bergman’s films also betray a political lethargy, an inward turn that, consciously or otherwise, positioned itself in opposition to a vertically integrated cinema and thus felt justified, perhaps, in pursuing a more personalised remit that was nevertheless prone to reactionary or evasive qualities. Such lethargy is more popularly referred to as ‘intellectual cynicism’, or variants thereof. Tellingly, critics rarely use ‘cynicism’ pejoratively: Michael Haneke, the most obvious inheritor of the petty bourgeois auteur mantle, has enjoyed a career because of such labels. We get the idols we deserve.
Bergman isolated his talents and interests willingly. His three homes on Fårö speak of a retreat from ordinary life. Head south from the island’s church, where the roads begin to narrow, and you come to Hammars, an area visible from Bergman’s grave and the site on which he (and/or others) built his first home in 1965. The house itself is not visible, nor easily accessible, surrounded as it is by foliage. A second home was built a few hundred metres into the woods south of Hammars, and, further south still, is Dämba, home to the director’s renovated 1854 property, situated between a beautiful lake and the Baltic Sea.
Bergman converted a barn at Dämba into his private cinema. It was here where, every year between May and October, he famously watched two films every day. Bergman’s eldest daughter Lena reckons her father clocked up 8,000 hours watching films there. The cinema comprises fifteen seats, arranged in three rows of five. Bergman’s position of choice was the rightmost seat in the front row. Audiences can sit in any of the other fourteen. I watched the second half of Mauritz Stiller’s digitally projected Erotikon (1920) from the centre seat in the back row. In the first half I fell asleep.
Before arriving proper at Dämba I had in fact cycled past it, with time to kill, toward Ryssnäs on the southernmost peninsula of Fårö. Towards the end of the 20th century, Ryssnäs was briefly used as a training site for Sweden’s coast artillery. Since 2009 it has been a nature reserve of just over a square mile in size. Although dominated by pine forest, it also contains alvar—treeless areas of bare rock—and tracts of limestone.
On Ryssnäs’s eastern shoreline, one finds Engelska kyrkogärden, ‘The English Cemetery’, which dates back to the Crimean War. During the Crimean War, the Anglo-French navy established a base at the harbour of Fårösund, the northernmost village of Gotland just over the water from Fårö. At the end of August 1854, a cholera epidemic broke out at Fårösund, and two sick bays were formed at Ryssnäs to treat afflicted sailors. The English purchased a small piece of the land to use as a cemetery. Today, the cemetery is marked by a perimeter of chains and a small hut. Twenty sailors are buried there.
The night before, I had walked to Biografen (“the cinema”) in Sudersand, in which Bergman and his cinematographer Sven Nykvist checked their daily rushes when filming on Fårö in the sixties. Bergman first discovered Fårö in 1960, when he was persuaded by his budget-minded location manager to consider it instead of the Orkneys, which had been his first choice. Through a Glass Darkly was shot the same year, and won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1962. In the Sudersand cinema I saw a programme of six shorts, all of which had previously been unveiled at the Göteborg International Film Festival earlier this year. All of the films were at least good, and two of them were very good.
Lovisa Sirén’s programme opener Pussy Have the Power builds upon its provocative title with a freestyle rap whose lyrics include, for example, “take a shower in your pussy juice”. Sitting at the back of this semi-sacred setting, behind a largely middle-aged and middle-class audience, I couldn’t help but giggle. The film’s title is the name of a song being produced by an all-girl techno-rap group whose feminist unity is threatened with the introduction of a lad pal who can’t help but throw in his two cents.
Frictions form when the group’s producer objects to a guy’s input: “It’s against our principles.” Another replies, “What are our principles?” Limited to the creative but stress-inducing space of a music studio, the film is an effective riff on the hazards and difficulties of feminist struggle when the go-to cultural comparator might be Khia’s frank imperative: “my neck, my back / lick my pussy and my crack.”
Caroline Ingvarsson’s The Dogwalker (Hundvakten) is both a hilarious and touching look at Lars-Gunnar Persson, a former stage actor whose job is to look after dogs. “The neighbours complained, you know, the bloody bastards,” he tells us at the start, bemused as to how his smoking habits could upset, never mind impinge upon, others. In fact, Persson finds just enough fault in things—career pursuits, emotional commitments, and so on—to justify his long chain of life choices, though as the film unfolds, tinges of regret about his solitude loom ever-larger.
In the film’s final moments, Lars-Gunnar retires to bed, accompanied by his unquestioningly loyal canine companion, to the non-diegetic sound of Swedish singer Alice Boman’s mournfully fragile, delicately chipper voice. Its resigned tone is bittersweet, settling—as resignation often does—somewhere between contentment and remorse. So it is. In the right hands, alluringly self-deprecating and instinctively cynical personalities like Persson’s make for fine documentary material, and The Dogwalker was easily among the best five films of the 103 I watched in June.
Laughs were also heard throughout Johannes Stjärne Nilsson’s Rain (Regn), in which an unnamed woman played by an ever-winning Sally Phillips wakes up one morning with the rain falling down upon her—and, as the day progresses, upon her only. Breakfast, her morning makeup routine, her commute, her computer station at work, dinner-for-one later that night: all of these and more are ruined by a torrential downpour, which she braves with half-embarrassed shrugs. What might otherwise have been twee is kept refreshingly ambiguous and resiliently funny by the central casting choice.
Phillips is a veteran, though, compared to Anosha Mohammed Mosa, the young star who drives Amanda Kernell’s Paradise (Paradiset). Tasked with looking after her ill brother when their illegal immigrant father is arrested, Adira (Mosa) navigates a strangely mundane Swedish countryside with the skill and flair of a Samurai. With thick eyebrows, bewitching eyes and a stealthy intelligence that belies her age, Mosa kills every moment, lending toughness and vulnerability when both count the most: running to her brother’s rescue when a group of curious fellow youngsters surround him with water pistols, Adira clenches both fists with fighting intent—one thumb outside the knuckles, one thumb in.
The other two shorts were animated. Åsa Sandzén’s Still Born is an obviously personal memoir about a miscarriage, to which this critic had no real objections other than its closing slot—following The Dogwalker, it sobered the room to a fault—though that’s no fault of the film’s. Like Sandzén’s film, Carolina Bröback’s Seat 26D employs animation to distancing effect, de-familiarising everyday imagery in recounting the 27 December 1991 Gottöra crash, in which a Scandinavian Airlines Flight from Stockholm Arlanda Airport had to make an emergency crash landing after ice was sucked into the aircraft’s engines upon takeoff, causing explosions and a double engine failure. Like similarly-toned (if not similarly-themed) feature Waltz With Bashir (2007), the film ends with archive footage of the landed jet—which split into three parts upon landing, though rather miraculously there were no fatalities. The footage’s unmatched verisimilitude conquers the preceding animation with a revelatory power. The narrator remarks, “…it really had happened.”
The night before, I had flown for the first time on a propeller plane, making the 35-minute connection from Stockholm Bromma to Visby, on Gotland. Appreciably bumpier than the ultra-smooth, almost-silent Norwegian 787 Dreamliner on which I had earlier flown from Gatwick to Stockholm Arlanda, this second journey might have worried even a seldom-disturbed flyer such as myself had I watched Seat 26D beforehand. As it happened, though, my own accident was to occur on the ground, three days later, while cycling toward Langhammars, Fårö’s northernmost peninsula.
Langhammars is reached on bike by turning right between Friggars and Mölnor as you head west, towards the ferry port, along Fårö’s main road. Here, the road narrows, as it does on the way to Hammars and Dämba, and the traffic—scarcely present to begin with—quietens to such a degree that you can hear your heightened solitude: the clicks of the rotating wheels, the gears shifting, the whirl of the chain, the incurably lonely cry of an audibly empathetic wood pigeon, casting upon your own predicament its faint echoes of support.
Aware of and comforted by such isolation—though weary with saddle-sore and tender thighs following the previous day’s excursions south to Dämba, Ryssnäs and beyond—I was buoyed on my way to Langhammars by the open plains either side of the road, by the crisp, breezy air and by the promise of seeing the rauk: monolithic stone structures formed by natural erosion, which are unique to this part of the world and which date back to the Ice Age.
Bergman shot Through a Glass Darkly in Langhammars. Whatever else drew him to this bleakly picturesque spot—if something other than its picturesque bleakness—its eerie qualities were confirmed just as I was nearing the beach on which the protagonists flee war at the end of Shame (1968). Not just eerie qualities: the stuff of actual horror. It’s difficult to describe and chronologise the simultaneous sensations felt during that small eternity in which a previously unthinkable, only-in-the-movies scenario invades your world, so I’ll try to keep it simple.
They came from above. As I was to learn hours later, Bergman Week coincides with nesting season, and the seabirds up by Langhammars didn’t take kindly to my ignorant procession through their territory. It’s impossible to say now whether I heard their cries—as intimate as a human voice may be heard from someone in very close proximity to one’s ear—or saw their shadows first. Perhaps it was both occurring at once that kicked my consciousness into gear: the larger than usual shadow below me of a creature I could hear with unprecedented clarity. I felt a rush of wind—the kind you feel and perhaps even hear if you swipe a tennis racquet through the air—by my neck, by my head. The shadows, the screams. All of this, all at once, as I continued cycling towards the beach in rapidly increasing awareness that there were creatures who had taken an unwelcome interest in me. I felt something resembling a peck on my head…
I panicked, I swerved. Hand-eye-leg coordination abandoned me. I hit the deck suddenly with a thuddingly terrible skid, letting out audible, disbelieving curses. Once down, instinctively shielding my head the way one should if attacked by actual people, I tried to quickly grasp the situation—still disbelieving, still cursing, and shaking instantly from shock, embarrassment and a thoroughly deflated enthusiasm for anything ‘open-air’. In retrospect, the birds seemed to lose interest as soon as I was off the bike, but at the time it was too much to digest. There were many of them, and though I don’t remember ever daring to look up, they didn’t seem to be acting in unison, or with an agenda, but were rather feeding off each other’s animal frenzy.
Stupidly, ludicrously, I was more upset than anything by the tear in my trousers at one knee. More legitimately, concern shifted to the bag containing my laptop, which had sprung out from the basket adorning the front of the bicycle. Dread set in when I got the (rented) bike itself upright and realised that the handlebars had twisted at a right angle to the front wheel. All of this was worked through involuntarily, each moment compounded by a pathetic, targetless fury at the world: at the fact I was even riding a bicycle to begin with, at the fact I only had my trusty laptop with me because I had to travel miles for the nearest internet connection, at the fact that the uncomplicated joy I had just felt at being so far north in the world had been replaced so ferociously with a disastrously southward outlook.
In the half-hour or so that followed, I didn’t really know what to do. Opting against continuing to Langhammars—the prospect of returning through the same territory would have marred any sense of achievement—I tended to my bloody knee in as amateurish way I could, contemplated cycling instead along by the rauks on the northwest coast, and began to do just this before succumbing to a ridiculous feeling of overeager enthusiasm for a unique experience. Fatigued at the thought of continuing, I admitted defeat. Cycling back the way I’d come—the original itinerary had entailed a circular route—I longed for homelier comforts: pizza, conversation, bed.
I lived. The laptop works fine. The biggest casualties were my trousers, which have since been rescued from premature death and made into shorts. I have christened them my ‘Langhammars’—though perhaps ‘Shorthammars’ is more fitting. The image below was taken on a self-timer, at the border of the Langhammars nature reserve, half an hour before the drama began.
1st July, 2014
all Fårö photographs by the author
Neil Young’s Postcard From Fårö – July 2013