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.
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.
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.
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.
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.