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Persona© AB Svensk Filmindustri

Why Mia Hansen-Løve is making a movie about Bergman Island

The secret history of the remote Swedish island where Bergman filmed and lived – and which has even inspired an unlikely Greta Gerwig-starring new film

Celebrating the mammoth retrospective at the British Film Institute this spring, we explore the world of cult auteur Ingmar Bergman – from his groundbreaking depictions of mental health to his collaborations with his number 1 muse Liv Ullmann. 

Ingmar Bergman was shooting Persona one chilly day in 1965 when he had an epiphany. The Swedish filmmaker and his crew were on Faro Island, an isolated spot located two ferry trips from mainland Sweden. In front of Bergman was his former flame, Bibi Andersson, and his new lover, Liv Ullmann; the pair were fleshing out his script about existential despair and eternal loneliness and all kinds of depressing emotions mirrored by the harsh, surrounding landscape.

To some, the situation sounds wretched. But Bergman, a man as idiosyncratic as his films, finally felt at home. So much so, the director informed Sven Nykvist, his cinematographer, that Faro Island – a physical embodiment of the damaged mental state of the women in Persona – would be where he’d live for the rest of his life. No man is an island? Tell that to the director of Cries and Whispers.

True to his word, Bergman moved to Faro Island in 1967. The filmmaker had already set foot on its limestone grounds for 1962’s Through a Glass Darkly, but it was Persona that sealed the deal. Which is, admittedly, a bit odd. Imagine discovering that Stanley Kubrick permanently rented a room at the Overlook Hotel in order to relive The Shining. Bergman, however, embraced the island lifestyle and it was still his home when he died in 2007. By then, cinephiles had already renamed it Bergman Island in his honour.


So what makes Bergman Island so special? 

First of all, it’s Bergman’s movies and his legacy. A visit to Faro Island is like snapping a selfie on Abbey Road’s zebra crossing or doing a backflip where the Spice Girls shot “Wannabe”. It’s iconic. The stark, unforgiving setting defines Through a Glass Darkly and Persona, and tourists get the chance to glimpse the environment in colour. Likewise, other Bergman films, including Shame, Hour of the Wolf, The Passion of Anna and the heavily autobiographical Scenes from a Marriage, take advantage of the barely populated landscape and its haunting, almost sci-fi quality.

But what I particularly adore about the aforementioned movies is the soundscape. A simple scene, perhaps even a wordless one, can be elevated by the backdrop of the Baltic Sea relentlessly crashing against the rocks. It’s a noise, both meditative and violent, that evokes the location’s dual personality. For instance, Through a Glass Darkly depicts a woman’s desire to recuperate on the island; in the short-term, it works, but then a storm approaches and she succumbs to madness. Similarly, in Persona, the area promises to be a healing spot, but the geographical loneliness proves overwhelming. Darren Aronofsky’s mother! may resort to CGI to fabricate such a segregated environment, but Bergman could do so on his front doorstep – literally, with regards to the barn he converted into a studio for Scenes from a Marriage.

“Imagine discovering that Stanley Kubrick permanently rented a room at the Overlook Hotel in order to relive The Shining...”


That said, you might watch the psychological horror of Hour of the Wolf and wonder: how could anyone possibly live on Faro Island, let alone pen Fanny and Alexander there? Luckily, Marie Nyreröd’s 2004 documentary, Bergman Island, answers several burning questions, and by the end of its three-hour running time you’re part of the Faro Fan Club – especially if you’re an aspiring writer whose only joy in life is nabbing a spot in Starbucks next to a plug socket.

“The demons don’t like fresh air,” Bergman tells Nyreröd. “What they like best is if you stay in bed with cold feet.” It’s why, the director explains, he walks for 45 minutes every day after breakfast. “Then I sit down, always at a fixed time, and write for three hours.” Afterwards, he eats lunch, reads a book, and watches a movie in his private cinema at 3pm. In what could be mistaken for a line in Phantom Thread, he adds, “It’s absolutely vital to have these strict routines, because if I started interfering with them, nothing would get done.”


We have a modern conception of directors as jetsetters who oscillate between general meetings in LA and faking smiles on international red carpets. But Bergman kept to himself, finding inspiration in his own island-sized writing room. His house, which he designed himself, included a spot by a fireplace where he could sit, think, sip wine, and observe the sea through a window.

In the TV version of Scenes from a Marriage, each episode concludes with Bergman reading aloud the following words: “And while you look at this footage of Faro, here are the credits.” The island’s residents – there were fewer than 600 when he died – returned his affection by lying about his address to nosey visitors. Sometimes Bergman would go for days without speaking to another human. The area has no police force, bank or post office. It’s even a plot point in Persona that Alma takes a lengthy car ride to post, and sneakily read, Elisabet’s private letters.

Clearly, the disciplined environment fuelled Bergman’s creativity, and it’s a surprise more artists don’t follow his lead. After all, in the writing of this paragraph alone, I’ve already checked Twitter twice and accidentally liked a stranger’s Instagram post. Yet Faro Island has its own barriers, not least the lack of resources or, in some cases, running water. Ullmann, in 2001, was quizzed about her marriage to Bergman. “Five years on that miserable dark island,” she recalled. “I thought I was dragged down.”


Despite Faro Island’s scenic qualities, it’s been the setting of surprisingly few non-Bergman films. Andrei Tarkovsky tried, and failed, to secure permission to shoot there for 1986’s The Sacrifice. Even Ullmann’s 2002 drama Faithless, one of the notable exceptions, credits its screenplay solely to Bergman.

Nevertheless, that’s set to change. An early contender for the best movie of 2019 already has a name, and it’s Bergman Island. Mia Hansen-Løve wrote the script in 2016 on a visit to Bergman’s neighbourhood, possibly accompanied by her husband, Olivier Assayas, and it’s scheduled to shoot this summer at the very same spot with a cast led by Greta Gerwig, John Turturro and Mia Wasikowska.

As for the plot of Bergman Island, it’s a doozy. A filmmaking couple visit Faro Island to write their respective screenplays but, as the official synopsis promises, “the lines between reality and fiction start to blur against the island’s wild landscape.” Assayas’ new movie, incidentally, is called Non-Fiction. Bergman, no doubt, would be delighted with the association.


I’m a total sceptic when it comes to the afterlife, but I like to imagine that Bergman’s spirit will be present throughout Hansen-Løve’s movie. I don’t mean that Gerwig will be playing chess with the Grim Reaper or that her face will merge Persona-style with Wasikowska’s (though I’d love to see that, too). It’s just that, Bergman truly felt haunted by ghosts on the island. “I never experienced bright light as anything friendly but as something frightening,” he admits in Bergman Island. It’s why in films like Wild Strawberries, he says, the spirits appear in daylight. It’s an observation that occurred to me when rewatching Through a Glass Darkly – when Karin falls ill, she despairs, “The light is so strong!”

Bergman made two documentaries about Faro in 1969 and 1979. In the latter, Faro Document 1979, he laments the island’s dwindling population and the lack of help from authorities. “Hopefully, the next Faro Document will be completed in 1989,” he concludes. “It will be interesting to see if we’re still around.” For the most part, Bergman still spent his winters in Stockholm. But in 2004, he sold his city apartment and became a full-time islander. He didn’t leave Faro during his final years, and he’s still there now – his body is buried at a graveyard next to the remains of his fifth wife, Ingrid von Rosen.   

Later in Bergman Island, the director admits, “Not a day has gone by in my life when I haven't thought about death.” I mean, same, but a filmography that includes The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries is a cry for help. Still, the island eased Bergman’s mourning process when von Rosen, his wife of 22 years, died in 1995. “I feel Ingrid’s presence, especially here on Faro, acutely,” he informs Nyreröd, “In actual death, maybe Ingrid is waiting for me, and she’ll come to see me.”

The filmmaker notoriously romanced the female stars of his movies, but he also worshipped the ground they walked on. His relationships before Ingrid rarely lasted more than a few years; his love affair with Faro was eternal. Bergman may be gone, but the films, and the island, are forever.

Ingmar Bergman season is on January through March at the BFI.