Persona (1966), dir. Ingmar Bergman

persona

By the mid-1960s, Ingmar Bergman had other responsibilities, heading Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theater. As he wrote in Images: My Life in Film, the theater was in “an advanced state of disintegration”, without a repertoire or contracts. (1990:44) He was lost. But Bergman found Persona the film that “saved my life”, proving he wasn’t “all washed up”. Shooting over two months in summer 1965 in the Filmstaden studio and Fårö, Persona’s experimentalism might suggest an atypical work, but Persona has the pathos and character that define Bergman, exploring the interior of the soul. As Alma (Bibi Andersson) reads aloud about anxiety, Bergman focuses close attention upon Fårö’s landscape of rocks. Equally, Alma’s admiration of religious belief carries shades of Bergman’s exploration of loss of faith. Through Elisabet (Liv Ullmann), fears of pregnancy and stillbirth equally mirror Marianne and Evald’s nihilistic conflict over her pregnancy in Wild Strawberries (1957).

Persona’s chilling early scenes in hospital reflect Bergman’s state as he wrote the screenplay. Wanting to develop a project entitled The Cannibals with Andersson and Ullmann, Bergman was confined to the Sophiahemmet royal hospital with pneumonia and penicillin poisoning. Over 14 days, Bergman wrote the screenplay for Persona from hospital. Early scenes are largely silent, framing clinical shots of bodies in a morgue in abstract close-ups; immobile vessels of bodies become another part of nature itself. A young boy rises, eyes opening; he puts on glasses, reading a storybook in bed. He moves his hand out to a screen, reaching out to us. In hospital, Alma and Elisabet develop a caring mutual relationship. But the hospital is also a place of routines, meticulously applying make-up and peeling potatoes, in constant search of something to do. The future and marriage stand off in the undetermined.

persona_boy
The young boy reaches his hand in the morgue out to us

Alma and Elisabet find escape, moving to a house by the sea with company where they have freedom to read books. They become adoptive sisters; Alma has never had the opportunity. Although some might perceive a queer element, Bergman largely frames their relationship as explicitly sisterly. Alma speaks of past relationships, powerfully recounting a sexual encounter: a boy fucked her and her friend on the beach, leading to her impregnation and abortion. Her description is never fetishising nor titillating: she recalls each action with detachment, as he moved against her body and came. Particularly for American audiences, these scenes would have been shocking: in the last days of the Production Code, Hollywood still attempted to cling onto morality around sexuality. Alma speaks of an abortion as no big deal, never maligned because of it. Bergman asked Andersson to rerecord her performance in the mixing studio, allowing for greater intimacy than in the original scene.

persona_bed
Alma (Bibi Andersson) and Elisabet (Liv Ullmann) develop a sisterly relationship

Bergman creates a ghostly environment within the house, rain hitting the window; both women walking through the night in white nightdresses amid the sound of foghorns. But their relationship is quickly tested; Elisabet writes personal information about Alma in a letter, details she trusted her to tell no one about. Andersson and Ullmann’s visceral performances carry the weight of the film, truly sensing discomfort as their relationship falls apart. Cinematographer Sven Nykvist pans through trees and the beach in a rush, Elisabet running away from Alma as she attempts a needed apology. The final scene is of loss: Elisabet packs her bags, walking by the ocean in the opposite direction to Alma in the prior scene, waiting for the bus with her luggage. It is a resolution of simplicity, but nonetheless effective.

Persona is equally about our and Bergman’s relationship with cinema. The working titles, Cinematography and A Piece of Cinema, emphasised this connection more explicitly. In the opening, we witness the physical process, self-reflexively looking at filmstrips, white lights, sprockets, scratches and the countdown as the reel begins. Bergman intersperses shock cuts to a wide selection of images: frames from a cartoon, a clip of skeleton costumes framed by a white border, an erect penis (censored from initial US and UK releases), guts spilling out a slaughtered animal, a tarantula walking across the white screen, an impaled hand with a nail akin to Jesus’ crucifixion. In less than a minute, Bergman encompasses almost every genre: animation, farcical silent pantomime, pornography, documentary, monster movies and religious parables. Bergman establishes images of its landscapes: trees covered in snow; a close-up of a gate. Through the boy, offering circularity as he reaches his hand out in both the opening and closing, Elisabet’s face as an actress, moving in and out of focus, Bergman, as Thomas Elsaesser writes, presents cinema as “the father figure that demands renunciation of the primary love object, to enable the boy’s selfhood and identity”, separating body and image. As Elsaesser writes, Bergman follows Brechtian distance and “modernist self-reflexivity”, approaching film as a mirror alongside the techniques of the French and Italian New Waves.

Persona’s editing is decidedly experimental. In the opening credits, not only are colours inverted, framing black text against a white background, but Bergman follows a rhythm between fractions of a second, prefiguring film with images of a monk on fire, a lake of water, character faces, a policeman’s chase and so on. Midway through, Bergman uses a technique similar to the reveal of editor Yelizaveta Svilova assembling frames in Man with a Movie Camera (1929), before revealing the film fully cut together. In a moment of crisis, the frame splits, unable to process elevated drama, fracturing not only friendship but the physical film, an element lessened by subsequent digital releases and screenings. As editor Ulla Ryghe recalls of the premiere at the Spegeln cinema on 18th October 1966, film cans were marked with red labels as projectionists feared the film was burning up. In their confrontation, Bergman draws a parallel, juxtaposing faces against each other whilst moving across time, takes and performances.

As an actress, Elisabet is a product of cinema. We’re introduced to Elisabet as star, performing a role in a production of Sophocles’ Electra: she smiles, lights behind her and bathed in make-up. Bergman never tells us much about her, rarely elaborating on her background or co-stars, instead communicating her identity through images. Persona explores the economy of images and its relationship with the eyes. Old performances are transmitted on television as Alma watches, immersed, with the indignity of the passage of time, captured as cinematic beauty for eternity; Elisabet judges herself against the standard set by a film years ago.

persona_actress
Elisabet is a product of the cinema

The insular hospital becomes penetrated by television: Elisabet watches coverage of a burning monk in protest against Vietnam. In an incredible wide shot, she backs away from the television, unable to comprehend what she is witnessing, broadcast across the world. Around the same time, a similar scene plays in Night of the Living Dead (1968): the seclusion of the house anticipates the threat through continual coverage of chaos outside. As theorists like Marshall McLuhan began to question the media we consume, Bergman questioned the world we formulate in images. As Bergman wrote, his films “cannot melt, transform, or forget”, but he “shall never rid myself of those images”. American cinema’s reaction to contemporary events was slow, struggling to find relevancy before New Hollywood began to emerge. But within the elevated production of Swedish cinema – writing screenplays quickly, turning around filming and editing in a few months – Bergman responded to the chaos around Vietnam succinctly and effectively.

Later, Bergman plays a similar scene, cutting as he zooms closer and closer into the small details of a photograph of a boy in the Warsaw ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland surrounded by SS, his fate predicated within an image itself. The image alone might reveal little, but surrounding context tells us this boy is likely dead. On the beach, Alma shoots her camera out at us, capturing an image of the audience watching the film, as though we are another rock in the landscape. In the reunion with Mr Vogler (Gunnar Björnstrand) towards the conclusion, Bergman invokes sight, an essential element to the process of watching. Touching his face and removing his tinted glasses, Vogler might be blinded, but is still able to sense the physical world.

persona_photograph
The photograph of the boy in the Warsaw ghetto highlights our relationship with documented conflict

As he wrote in his essay The Snakeskin, Bergman felt creativity as a “sort of hunger”; his cinema “communicated dreams, sensual experiences, fantasies, outbursts of madness, neuroses, the convulsions of faith, and downright lies” in a “rage”. Bergman began to question why he made films or staged plays. Laying in hospital, he had “driven all my engines at top speed”, shaking his “old body until it fell apart.” (1990:51) Persona is Bergman’s reckoning with his career, leaving open many masterpieces to come.

Chinese Roulette (1976), dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder

chineseroulette_poster

Chinese Roulette is about skeletons in the closet: Ariane and Gerhard are parents to the most uncomfortable family. Underestimated and undervalued, their daughter Angela is constrained to crutches, yet holds power over the entire family, engineering her own game as she asks housekeeper Kast (Brigitte Mira) to move the table together at dinner. Looked after by mute governess and caretaker Traunitz, Fassbinder communicates immediate creepiness through Angela, reinforced by her large collection of dolls. Angela has no outlet to speak, not even those around her; often, her only outlet is in sign language to Traunitz. Older brother Gabriel (Volker Spengler) spouts pretentious intellectualism, an uncomfortable combination of teenager and adult mothered after as days go by, brewing coffee for guests. Like Angela, Gabriel seeks out the truth, but truth is often elusive. As housekeeper, Kast stands alone, enraptured within routines: mincing meat and preparing food, drinking large gulps of wine. Kast seems suffocated within housework, evoking the same endless role as Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975).

Where Fassbinder used Fox and His Friends (1975) to explore class difference and vapid human interaction within underground gay subculture, Chinese Roulette becomes an exploration of infidelity within the heterosexual (or bisexual) world. Ariane and Gerhard embody mid-70s attitudes, with increasing economic freedom to travel the world and in relationship formation. Both seek escape: in the opening, they depart at the airport in Munich, flying to Oslo. In the woods, Gerhard finds sexual escape with French mistress Irene (Anna Karina). Shot from above, Fassbinder presents the trees around as though freedom is infinite, fucking and undressing on the soil itself. But Ariane also has another sexual partner in business partner Kolbe. Their arrangement in the grand country house facilitates non-monogamy, switching partners. As he does in Fox and His Friends, Fassbinder beautifully communicates a visceral sexual gaze; each character finds attraction in the other. Fassbinder plays with female embrace and a bond between Ariane and Irene, finding beauty and chemistry; Gerhard and Kolbe cannot accept anything but a cordial game of chess.

As a young girl experiencing early stages of puberty, Angela feels a lack of sexual fulfilment, telling Gabriel no man will ever be sexually interested in her. Just as her existence as a disabled girl is stigmatised, so is sexuality. Angela exhibits underlying guilt and trauma for her existence, feeling responsible for her parents’ collapsing marriage and infidelity. She has a mischievous side, fully comprehending the state of affairs but assumed to be ignorant. She intentionally walks in on each parent with respective partners lying naked and awake as the morning rises, leaving with a wry smile. Acclaimed cinematographer Michael Ballhaus makes strong use of the frame, aware of angles and windows within the room itself. As she leaves, sexuality becomes more intense with perhaps the most ferocious hickey in cinema history.

Each partner must reconcile feelings towards non-monogamy, aware both men have slept with both women, and vice versa. The morning after, discussing sexual experiences and partners becomes an easy route towards jealousy. Over their quiet game of chess, Gerhard and Kolbe discuss the elephant in the room. Fassbinder frequently used techniques of melodrama; Chinese Roulette is no exception. Fassbinder follows a conceit that makes for easy melodrama, but approaches a pureness of character and identity. In the confounding closing text, Fassbinder underlines the film as an indictment of the institution of marriage and heteronormativity itself. A bisexual director with many partners over the years, often his own collaborators, Fassbinder never played by the societal rules placed on relationships. But Fassbinder’s approach to marriage cannot be taken as broad brush; each relationship and partner has their own set-ups, attitudes and values. No marriage or relationship is the same. Some fall apart; some stay together; some embrace non-monogamy. Chinese Roulette does not reflect every marital relationship.

Fassbinder extends beyond sexuality to explore norms around gender. Gabriel’s gaze has a sexual component; in the petrol station, Gabriel lies eyes upon male attendants. In their book, Gabriel plagiarises their work as writer, creating pieces making little linear sense. Gabriel sees their work within a literary tradition of philosophy of Nietzsche and Goethe; Angela also names Wilde, adding a queer element. In an extract read aloud, they speak of the son of God walking the earth, and His connection to the sun god; Gabriel embodies man and woman, crossing lines of gender. Fassbinder played with gender throughout his films; Volker Spengler plays trans woman Elvira in In a Year of 13 Moons (1978). Gabriel sees themselves as an angel walking upon Earth, made obvious by their surname and crosses appearing throughout the film.

Chinese Roulette has no end of games from a deck of cards to chess atop a glass board; sexuality is itself a game. A parlour game played after dinner, Chinese Roulette offers a medium for truth to emerge. The climax to an 80-minute film, the game is the only part that ever drags, but is essential to resolution. Fassbinder presents a Germany struggling to reconcile its recent fascist past, even as the country was split in two. Fassbinder communicates the same discomfort to the war as in Basil’s disastrous mocking of tourists in The Germans episode of Fawlty Towers (1975-79). Angele decries Kast’s role in the war, a silent outsider. Would she have been in the Gestapo, or working at Bergen-Belsen? Fassbinder moves between shocked reactions on each face, struggling to understand the power of what has just been spoken, creating perfect tension. Through the viewfinder on her gun, Ariane becomes a newfound threat, both to Angele and towards Traunitz, one of the few people to ever understand her. But fascism is itself slipping into everyday lexicon: in the car, she decries a bad driver as a “fascist”.

Fassbinder builds the film’s power through both location and music, creating confinement. Each room is a separate realm, embodying different people and identities. Through divisions, hearsay and speculation run rampant; we hear only half the conversation. Gerhard and Kolbe play chess in one room; Ariane and Irene discuss matters in the other, crossing between realms and panning out, creating visual representation of their conflicted relationship. Rooms stretch out as spaces of emptiness. In the opening, Angela and Traunitz sit together, playing a record of a classical piece, Gustav Mahler’s Uns Bleibt Ein Erdenrest, Traunitz sitting upon the window ledge. Aware of pace, Fassbinder stretches shots out, immersed within a world of women. Moving into the hallway, the music stops, interrupted by the presence of men. Fassbinder uses a similar technique later on: Gabriel walks between corridors, unsure what he will find as Kraftwerk’s Radioactivity seeps out, its delightful, sinister synths penetrating the soundtrack. Traunitz is reduced to a child, hobbling along with Angela’s crutches as the transistor radio plays.

Michael Ballhaus utilises the house’s tacky furniture and décor to create a strong visual aesthetic: clear acrylic cabinets are everywhere, enshrining bottles of wine and a hi-fi in cages; a birdcage is equally a part of the house. Ballhaus uses these elements to reflected and fracture faces across surfaces, lens flares moving across candles at the dinner table. But other scenes suffer, lighting and audio recording not perfectly thought out. The opening titles are an embarrassment, red text scrolling across the screen through a car window. Where Chinese Roulette suffers most is staging. Fassbinder’s output seems largely unmatched; although offering a massive canon of characters and scenarios, it leads to scenes played without enough dramatic gravitas. Through dropped plates and mugs of coffee and visceral arguments, although performances are commendable, we never feel the true, melodramatic power, without proper staging to emphasise these situations to their core. But this is a reasonable price to pay.

Wild Strawberries (1957), dir. Ingmar Bergman

wildstrawberries

Ingmar Bergman owes a debt to The Phantom Carriage (1921), most notably in The Seventh Seal (1957). As Bergman reflects in Images: My Life in Film, he first saw The Phantom Carriage aged fifteen, still watching it “at least once every summer” (1990:24). The casting of director Victor Sjöström as Isak Borg came at the suggestion of producer Carl Anders Dymling, something Bergman “thought long and hard” about. In a sense, Bergman used Wild Strawberries to repay the debt of his influence. As Peter Cowie writes, Sjöström was 78, a widower and in poor health, often forgetting his lines and needing a strong supply of whiskey; Sjöström passed away three years after the film’s release.

Old age has many representations in film. Up (2009) beautifully confronts the life of a widower and the icons of his childhood; Beginners (2010) reminds us it is never too early to come out; in Nebraska (2013), Woody hangs onto false hopes and dreams. But rarely are we allowed to look at protagonists complexly from their perspective, filtered through their interactions with sons, daughters and grandkids. Isak Borg represents another generation, a remnant of the Victorian era – the end of the 1870s – as a new era comes of age; his elderly mother hangs onto life in her mid-90s. With fifteen great grandkids, she swims in cards, without inheritance, but holds a tangible connection to the past in her collection of toys and dolls. As a professor, Borg lives within his own mind: at his desk, he writes words on paper, reflects with his cigar, reminded of the past by images surrounding him. Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer places great attention to framing Borg’s head in side and silhouette. In one incredible shot, Borg watches the sun: for as much time as Borg has left, as long as the sun still rises, there is still life.

Salvador Dalí might be best known to cinema for his work with Luis Buñuel on Un Chien Andalou (1929), though Dalí’s name is littered throughout cinema from his work with Walt Disney on Destino (2003) and with Hitchcock on Spellbound (1945). But in an incredible surrealist scene, Bergman and Fischer draw up visions evoking Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory (1931). We delve within Borg’s mind as he imagines a town square with a clockface with no hands, the silhouette of a man and a passing coffin in a phantom carriage, carrying his twisted face and body. But as Mark Le Fanu writes, Bergman wasn’t Freudian, but “too much of an artist to subscribe to any single ideology of the unconscious”. Borg must confront his own legacy: Wild Strawberries acts as a road movie, travelling to Lund to collect a prestigious award, but with stops along the way. The pageantry of the award ceremony is enough to become disillusioned, as though the meaning of our lives can be placed within awards themselves.

wildstrawberries_time
Bergman uses a sense of Dalí-esque surrealism

Bergman drew from his own relationship with his family. As he reflects in Images: My Life in Film, “I had created a figure who, on the outside, looked like my father but was me, through and through”, in all his failings (1990:20). Sjöström invested the film with “his pain, his misanthropy, his brutality, sorrow, fear, loneliness, coldness, warmth, harshness, and ennui”, occupying Bergman’s soul and making it “all his own” (1990:24). Bergman confronted his family throughout his films: in his short Karin’s Face (1984), Bergman draws a montage of photographs of his own mother, allowing us to reflect on who she was as a person and the influence she had on Bergman.

Through Borg, Bergman draws a connection between present and past. Wild Strawberries approaches flashbacks similarly to Manchester by the Sea (2016): separation between time becoming blurred, flowing in and out of each other, as fully realised and immersive as the present moment. Within memory, there are no boundaries. As he reflects in Ingmar Bergman on Life and Work (1998), all creativity is rooted in childhood, achieving a “dialogue”. Writing in Images: My Life and Film, Bergman was “forever living in my childhood, wandering through quiet Uppsala streets, standing in front of the summer cottage and listening to the enormous double-trunk birch tree” (1990:22).

Bergman utilised memory equally well in Summer Interlude (1951), as a ballet dancer recalls an encounter in her younger years. Like in The Go-Between (1971), we search our own pasts and memories to reconcile our youth and childhood. Embodied spaces provide a window into the past; Borg becomes reminded by locations, from grand staircases to fields of grass and flowers. Bergman focuses upon nature, from clouds to trees. As Fischer frames scenes through windows, he creates a literal window into the past to look through. Visiting his grandmother’s house in Uppsala in 1956, Bergman was inspired to create a sense of a man “opening a door and walking into his childhood”, before “walking round the corner of the street and coming into some other period of his life”. Borg’s youth is idyllic, kissing in the garden. Bergman uses the motif of wild strawberries throughout his films, appearing in both Summer with Monika (1953) and The Seventh Seal, symbolising a sense of life. At the assembled group at the table for name day, including Uncle Aron and the twin girls in pigtails, there’s something quaint: they bless the Lord, with fancy tableware, rituals, moustaches and a cone-shaped hearing aid.

Accompanied by daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), Borg encounters Sara (Bibi Andersson) on the road, travelling to Italy with her male lovers, Viktor (Björn Bjelfvenstam) and Anders (Folke Sundquist). With a pipe and her open sexuality, Sara embodies a late 1950s coolness. One of the party comments “I can’t imagine a worse thing than getting old!”; Borg accepts it. He can’t either: his inescapable, present position, but over the course of the film Borg begins to find himself comfortable in his age. Spending time at the table together, playing the guitar and remembering good times over a glass of wine, a sense of youth emerges. As he writes in Images: My Life in Film, Bergman was struggling to deal with the “negative chaos of human relationships”, not only in his separation from his third wife, his crumbling relationship with Bibi Andersson and feud with his parents (1990:17).

Like all Bergman films, Wild Strawberries touches upon theological themes. In his age, Borg might seem like a fountain of wisdom, but Borg is just as lost as the next generation. Wild Strawberries’ contemporary setting makes it more accessible than the medieval theological debates of The Seventh Seal, grounded with a comedic edge. Bergman interjects the film with comedy: in his relationship with his housekeeper Agda, serving him coffee and an egg for breakfast, Borg bounces off her with retorts like and old married couple. Viktor, Anders and Sara squabble over the existence of God, with the same childish edge as the territorial fights for the woman Harry loves in Summer with Monika. Viktor merely wants Sara to show some interest in him. Borg watches these debates, but can give no answer. Faith has no time; the resonance it has (or lacks) with each generation is individual and personal. Marianne’s argument with her husband Evald over her unborn son in a car hit by rain encapsulates a sense of existential nihilism. Evald cannot see any value in life in a meaningless world; giving birth to life is an act of savagery and a loss of control, with intensity beyond Borg’s own youth. The birth of a child offers the film circularity between generations, but Evald cannot accept this unending cycle.

wildstrawberries_rain
In the car, Evald debates Marianne’s right to motherhood