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The Private World of Ingmar Bergman
For 40 years, Ingmar Bergman lived, worked and found inspiration on the windswept Swedish island of Fårö. Here, for the first time, a view into his deeply personal realm.
When Ingmar Bergman turned 62, in 1980, his children gathered on Fårö, the remote Baltic island he called home, to perform a play they had written about God and the Devil betting on who would win his soul. His nine offspring (by six women) took on assorted roles, playing their mothers, Bergman himself at various ages, God, the Devil and Death. Rounding out the cast of characters were God’s angels and Bergman’s mistresses, portrayed by his brood’s friends and girlfriends. Death walked around in a black cloak and didn’t say much, while the others read poems they had written. But the question of where Bergman would spend eternity was never settled; instead, the troupe erupted into a dazzling song-and-dance number, making for a decidedly un-Bergman-like finale. “My father loved it,” says his youngest daughter, Linn Ullmann, now 43, recalling the spectacle in the garden at Dämba, an old limestone farmhouse Bergman owned on Fårö. “In fact, we had to do an encore the next day so he could film the whole thing with his handheld camera.”
For Bergman, of course, Fårö provided more than the setting for his home movies. It was his haven, his creative wellspring and a central character in a number of his films. Here he wrote his scripts, filmed several of his groundbreaking works and screened movies twice a day in a converted barn. Unforgiving and elemental, with its rocky beaches and weather-beaten forests of gnarled pine, Fårö epitomized Bergman’s unsparing and unsettled internal world. There’s a sensuality in its hardness that reveals itself only if you look closely: Fårö does its best not to charm you.
When Bergman saw it for the first time, in 1960, while scouting locations, he thought, “This is your landscape, Bergman,” as he recalls in his autobiography. Six years later, after returning to make Persona with Liv Ullmann, he built Hammars, a house on the edge of the sea near the spot where they’d shot the film and fallen in love. From that moment, the windswept island became the stage on which Bergman’s artistic and domestic lives intertwined.
Bergman died on Fårö in 2007 and in his will, written in the Nineties, instructed his heirs to strike the set—to sell off his houses, his cinema and their contents to the highest bidder. “About this I want no emotional hullabaloo,” wrote the director of some of the most psychologically intimate, emotionally harrowing movies ever made. Before the sale, the family agreed to allow his private rooms and favorite vistas to be photographed for publication for the first time, exclusively in W, and several of those closest to him offered to speak about Bergman’s secluded life.
“My father and Fårö was a great love story,” says Linn on an overcast afternoon in July, pointing out the imposing trees he refused to cut back because he wanted to witness the effects of wind and time on them. And yet, rather than celebrate the panorama outside, Bergman contained and framed it, lining his rooms with small windows that allowed only glimpses of forest and sea. Bergman’s hand is everywhere in evidence at Hammars, his single-story gray-brown wooden house whose stone wall appears to have been chiseled from the untamed landscape. Inside, the overall effect is of respectable, ordered domesticity—from the modest modern Swedish furnishings and wood paneling to the carefully cataloged shelves in the library. (Family members were required to record in a notebook the titles of the books they borrowed.)
To the restless Bergman, order and punctuality were paramount virtues. “When you’re as chaotic as I am, you need a very firm structure in your life,” he told close friend Hanns Rodell, a regular summer guest at Dämba. “Because this is a way of keeping me sane.” He loved to open the grandfather clock in the living room to show his children its inner workings. “Life here was very regimented,” recalls Linn, an acclaimed novelist. “The sound of this house was that clock.”
The house also served as a kind of diary. Bergman often wrote on the walls and furniture, scribbling the dates and times of radio programs he wanted to listen to or phone calls he was to make. On the back of his workroom door, he and Liv made drawings daily about their feelings for each other. Red hearts and faces meant good days; black O’s, sometimes a string of them, signaled darker times. At the end of one line, Liv drew a simple heart, with the words “Liv leaves.” The pair lived together (though never married) for three years with their daughter, Linn, and made two films here, but Bergman’s jealous rages proved stifling. (In his memoir, Bergman writes of Liv’s departure, “One protagonist had moved on, and I was left on the set.”)
Though the next year, Bergman married Ingrid von Rosen—his fifth and final wife—he never removed his and Liv’s love diary. “So that it wouldn’t bleach in the sun and with the years, Ingmar sometimes went and freshened it up,” recalls Liv, whose creative alliance with Bergman lasted 40 years. “He would never change the door. And it meant a lot to me that it was in his workroom and about our life together.”
Unlike Bergman’s previous wives and partners, Ingrid was not involved in the arts and dedicated herself to managing his life. “She was incredible because she lived for all that Ingmar needed and wanted and dreamed about,” says his fourth wife and longtime musical collaborator, Käbi Laretei, who regularly stayed at Dämba during the summer months. The no-nonsense Ingrid not only had his dinner ready every night at six, arranged his phone calls, typed his manuscripts and paid out the alimony checks, she kept the peace in the family—all of the families—even when it meant hosting her husband’s children, ex-wives and mistresses.
Ingrid had left her own four children when she married Bergman, but during the summers, her daughter Maria often came to stay with them on Fårö, as did Linn and her older half brother, Daniel Bergman, his son by Laretei. It was at the breakfast table one morning that Linn, then about five or six, first learned that she had half siblings. “Why are you calling my daddy ‘Daddy’?” she asked Daniel, who was then about 10. “My father’s explanation,” she recalls, “was that our mothers were such fine ladies that they didn’t bother to explain that there had been other women. They left that to him. My father found it amusing. There was very little that was ‘oh so traumatic’ or ‘oh so terrible.’ Things quickly became anecdotes and stories.” (Maria von Rosen, meanwhile, was 22 before Bergman revealed to her that he, and not Ingrid’s ex-husband, was her father.)
Bergman and Ingrid spent April through October on Fårö, which they reached by private plane from Stockholm, where they wintered. Life on the island revolved around his rigid schedule: breakfast at 7 a.m., a walk in the woods, work in the morning, lunch at 1 p.m. sharp, back to work. Then came the “silent hour,” from 4 to 5 p.m., when the children had to keep quiet while he napped, which was followed by dinner preparations, when they’d be sent outdoors to collect the wild strawberries that grew around Skrivstugan, Bergman’s isolated writer’s hut near the beach seen in Persona.
The centerpieces of the day were the movies they’d watch together, first in his workroom and then, beginning in 1975, in his private screening room, a once derelict barn he’d converted briefly into a film studio to make Scenes From a Marriage, his searing 1973 film about the disintegration of a seemingly perfect union. The cinema, a 10-minute drive from Hammars, stood next to the Dämba house, also used for Scenes, and was the site Bergman chose for the world premiere of his film of The Magic Flute (1975).
The cinema was sacred ground. Screenings began promptly at 3 p.m. (for which the silent hour was scrapped), and at 8 p.m. Bergman would sit in one of the 15 tufted chairs, prop his feet on his footstool and raise his index finger to signal to the projectionist that it was time to run the film. Afterward, he and his guests would sit on the bench outside and discuss what they’d seen. Linn once watched a four-hour German epic about lumber. Visitors, even family, she recalls, had to prove themselves worthy to be invited to join his cinema group. Though Bergman rarely showed his own movies, he once screened the psychologically complex Persona for her. “Some people don’t get it. Do you?” he asked the 11-year-old. “Yes, I get it,” she replied.
It was at Ingrid’s urging that Bergman brought all of his children together for the first time, for his 60th birthday, on Fårö in 1978, and the gathering quickly became a tradition. “He was so nervous that until the last moment, he said he wanted to cancel it,” recalls Laretei. “Many of them hadn’t met before.” By then, four of his children, all with second wife Ellen Lundström, a former dancer, had careers in the arts: Eva and Jan were theater directors, and Anna and Mats both actors who later appeared in Fanny and Alexander, as did Laretei. (Bergman wanted Liv Ullmann to play the mother and Linn the eldest sister, but Liv turned him down.) Though an absentee father for much of their lives, Bergman began to have more contact. Still, he didn’t go in for socializing, and even though Laretei shared his birthday and celebrated with a dinner for all his visitors every year at Dämba, Bergman and Ingrid would stop by later in the evening, after it was over.
The only place he would gather his brood was in his screening room. “Ingmar didn’t like spontaneous meetings with his children,” recalls Rodell, who was also Laretei’s accompanist, “but at the cinema, there was always something to talk about, and you met in some kind of structure. He liked that. Everyone lived in their own house, a little bit apart from one another, and then we met at specific hours.” As Rodell’s partner, Benny Marcel, another close friend of Bergman’s, saw it, “getting quality time with their father wasn’t easy. So on a fantastic afternoon when the sun was shining, they had to sit in a dark cinema to meet with him.”
But when they did get time with him, he was accessible, relating easily to their own children, for whom he’d concoct frightening tales about the so-called witch’s hut that stood in the forest next to his house. “It’s good for kids to be scared by stories,” he’d say. He once organized a special screening “just for the boys” when Linn’s then 10-year-old son and two other boys were visiting Fårö. The film was Pearl Harbor, and Bergman insisted on fast-forwarding past the sex scenes to focus on the action.
For a filmmaker whose subject was “the soul’s battlefield,” as Woody Allen once put it, Bergman had surprisingly populist tastes. He relished long gossipy telephone chats and was as likely to watch Fellini’s Amarcord as The Godfather, Pulp Fiction or the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera. Screening Jurassic Park one day, he marveled at Hollywood ingenuity. “Those Americans know how to put on the pants!” he said.
They also knew how to make the television shows he liked. Bergman was a fan of the Muppets, particularly the out-of-control drummer, Animal, and rarely missed an episode of Sex and the City. “The women are beautiful, and they talk dirty,” he told Linn. “Do you talk that way with your girlfriends?”
The ways of women, of course, fascinated Bergman, who in more than 50 films probed the female psyche to a degree matched by few of his peers. He often used Liv as an alter ego, and his mother, notes Linn, “is a character in nearly all his films.” Despite having left many of his wives and mistresses for new loves, he was “fantastic at keeping up a good relationship” after the romance ended, says Laretei, a concert pianist who inspired the character played by actress Ingrid Bergman (no relation) in Autumn Sonata (1978). “The great charm he had was that he was really, truly interested in you when you talked to him.”
For his 70th birthday Bergman invited several of his exes to Fårö; his guest list included Liv, Laretei and former leading lady Bibi Andersson. According to Linn, who was there, “These are women who know how to go out onstage and be fabulous. And they are fabulous. There was no bad acting. My father hated bad acting.”
Their collaborations with Bergman connected them. “He liked to surround himself with very strong women,” she adds. “Yes, he was a genius, but he couldn’t have done it without the women. He was their muse, but they were his, too.”
After Ingrid died, Bergman began making regular visits to Fårö’s church. (A black X over the year 1995 marks her passing on his workroom door.) The son of a strict Lutheran minister, he was a self-professed agnostic who had long grappled with his doubt onscreen. But he wanted to believe he would see Ingrid again and, at Hammars, added the monastic, wood-paneled “Ingrid Room,” furnished with a simple cot, where he would watch the sunrise. On Saturdays he would go to church to listen to the bells. One evening, however, the bell ringer failed to show on time. Furious after waiting five minutes, Bergman charged up the steep belfry to ring the bells himself and then chewed out the minister for the lapse. When the church was later scouting for the vicar’s replacement, the departing one advised his employers to write in the ad, “New minister needed. Ingmar Bergman will be the bell ringer.”
Without Ingrid to anchor him, “work became his savior,” notes Ingrid Dahlberg, a longtime colleague who runs the Ingmar Bergman Foundation, created by the director in 2002 to house his personal archives, including his manuscripts. He penned two screenplays, both directed by Liv Ullmann: Private Confessions (1996), about his parents’ troubled marriage, and Faithless (2000), about the devastating effects of an affair, drawn from his own life and shot in part on Fårö. He also returned to directing after a 20-year absence, reuniting Liv and his best friend, Erland Josephson, in the austere Saraband (2003). The pair reprised the roles they played in Scenes From a Marriage. The sequel picks up on the divorced couple 30 years later, when the wife, Marianne, visits her former husband, Johan, at his summer home to see what has come of his life. Bergman hung the Saraband poster, showing the two stars, across from his bed.
By then he had emptied his Stockholm apartment and moved full-time to Fårö, which he’d depicted in two documentaries on the island and its people without saying much about his own life there. Still, locals had come to regard him as a Fårögubbe, an old Fårö guy, someone who didn’t leave the island. Which he didn’t. Tourists trying to find him would be pointed in the wrong direction. Since his cataracts now made driving to his cinema difficult, Bergman talked of traveling there by railcar on tracks he would install and even of building a new cinema next to his house.
The demons he wrestled with in his work still visited him, though he did his best to keep them at bay. “Talk to them, because they hate to be confronted,” he’d advise. “Turn on the light and say, ‘Thank you very much for your performance; that was very good. I appreciate you coming here.’” When dark thoughts awakened him at night, he jotted them down on his bedside table. Seen together, his notes read as a kind of haiku of his fears. “Such terrible dreams these nights, no reconciliation,” “erotic, fiasco, the conflict,” “I’m successful at my career and I’m still sleepless,” “I sense Ingrid’s presence,” “afraid, afraid, afraid.”
Bergman died two weeks after his 89th birthday. He was buried in the secluded plot he had chosen in the local church cemetery and had arranged for Ingrid’s remains to be moved next to his. He had planned his funeral down to the red flowers on his pine casket and was pleased that the minister he’d picked to lead his service was a woman with cascading auburn hair. “To his dying day,” says Linn, “he was charmed by women.”
Negotiations on the sale of Bergman’s Fårö properties began this past May. In September, following the deadline for bids to be sent to Christie’s Great Estates division, Bergman’s heirs were still considering a number of offers and were un-decided about whether to sell the property as one package, valued at about $4 million, or in separate parcels. One hope, advanced by Linn and a group led by Liv, Bergman’s foundation, and assorted local and state cultural agencies, was that it might be purchased for use as a retreat for artists and scholars. (Though at press time they had yet to fund this idea, there were some promising leads.) Bergman also stipulated that his children could take just one of his personal items each, not to exceed $740 in value. The rest—including his writing desk, his night table, his grandfather clock and the magic lantern from his childhood that inspired him to make movies—were to be sold at auction by Bukowskis in Stockholm on September 28. (He had sold the rights to his films during his lifetime.)
A few weeks before he died, Bergman left Hammars for Dämba one last time. He was wheelchair-bound by then and in frail health, so it took some effort to lift him up the stairs to the music room, where Laretei, elegantly turned out, was waiting to play his favorite Brahms waltzes on one of the two grand pianos
he’d installed for her years earlier. They had grown closer following Ingrid’s death, after Bergman called her out of the blue one night to say, “I don’t want to disturb you, but will you play for me?” Their “Sunday evenings at Dämba,” as he called them, soon became a weekly event. “Sometimes we’d close the door and talk about our life together, and our conversations became more and more frank and honest,” recalls Laretei, who was then 84. On this night, however, they were joined by Linn; her husband, writer Niels Fredrik Dahl; Rodell; and Marcel. After Laretei had finished playing, she looked over and saw that Bergman was asleep. He’d drifted in and out, he told her. “He said it was the best sleep he’d had for months,” she says, “because he was in the music.”
“Thank you,” he added. “Now it’s time for Bergman to go home.”