Persona (1966), dir. Ingmar Bergman

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Wild Strawberries (1957), dir. Ingmar Bergman

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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.

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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.

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

The Seventh Seal (1957), dir. Ingmar Bergman

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The Seventh Seal’s effect on popular culture is vast; Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) takes its image of Death from The Seventh Seal. The Seventh Seal is easy shorthand for arthouse: in (500) Days of Summer (2009), Tom watches an abstract French film, closing with a game of chess with Cupid upon the beach. Muppets Most Wanted (2014) suggests The Seventh Seal as a possible existential sequel featuring the Swedish Chef.

Upon release, as Bergman describes in Images: My Life in Film, The Seventh Seal “swept like a forest fire across the world” (1990:242). As Garry Giddins writes, its release in New York’s Paris Theater by Janus Films was “transformative”, catapulting cinema “to the front line of a cultural advance guard” alongside “modern jazz, abstract painting, Beat writing [and] theater of the absurd”; Kurosawa and Bergman proved “cinema was a global pursuit of infinite promise”. The transformative effect is perhaps best encapsulated by Diner (1982), Barry Levinson’s portrait of young life in 1959 Baltimore. Billy and Eddie sit in an empty cinema, falling asleep.

“What am I watching? The movie just started and I don’t know what’s going on.”

“It’s symbolic.”

Svensk Filmindustri initially turned Bergman’s screenplay down, an elaboration of a one-act piece, Wood Painting, developed in Bergman’s drama school and performed as a radio play. With the success of Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) at Cannes, Bergman was afforded greater power, shooting over 36 days between July and August 1956, largely confined to Råsunda Film Studios. As Bergman reflects, The Seventh Seal is “one of the few films really close to my heart.” (1990:235)

The Seventh Seal reveals another time. Antonious Block (Max von Sydow) returns from the Crusades, dealing with its aftermath. Writing in Cahiers du cinema in 1958, Jean-Luc Godard praised Bergman as a “film-maker of the instant”, using his heroes to reflect and meditate with a “dislocation of time”. As divinely sanctioned holy war, the Crusades open questions not only to the power of the Holy Roman Empire and papacy, but faith, penance and the bloodshed of forcefully converting the Islamic world to Christianity; The Seventh Seal is rife with questions to its idealism, honour and chivalry.

Following the morning routines of waking up, we witness entirely different subsistence from the modern Sweden of Summer with Monika (1953), centuries before industrialisation. Goats are farmed from the land; pigs and stew are cooked and boiled. In the troupe of travelling players, Bergman drew upon the 13th century manuscript of the Carmina Burana, medieval songs sung by homeless scholars, monks, priests and jesters who travelled “through the downfall of civilization and culture” (1990:231). Men and women follow rituals of love and courtship to get by; actor and juggler Jof (Nils Poppe) lives alongside wife Mia (Bibi Andersson) and son Mikael. Normality goes on through domestic disputes. Rituals conceal manipulation: Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) might seem himself as righteous and only committing good deeds, saving a young servant girl, but threatens her with the fact he could have raped her, taking her on as housekeeper with a sense of ownership.

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The travelling jester and players offer theatricality

As the impact of the plague hits, we sense the economic impact: merchants must deal with unsold stock; silver bracelets are traded on the black market. Omens of the Last Day seem all around. Unrelenting mortality might seem quaint: from our comfort, we can acknowledge how silly it might seem to hold onto this notion of the Last Day. But we must understand the perspectives and events forming these beliefs. Bergman draws upon comedy and humour in extreme contrast to darkness, finding a sense of humanity: in the depths of despair, people find life, drinking at the bar, Jof dancing on top of the table like a bear, eating wild strawberries at a picnic through seasons. As Giddins writes, to 1950s audiences, Bergman drew a “correlation between his vision of the Middle Ages and the midcentury fear of atomic devastation” in a cinematic climate dominated by “apocalypses, holocausts, plagues, eschatology, and resurrection” in B-movies, adventure films and biblical epics.

Bergman questioned religion and institutions from his earliest works: in Summer Interlude (1951), Marie feels anger and contempt at God for the death of her lover. But The Seventh Seal is the pinnacle of Bergman’s religious exploration in its notoriety. The Seventh Seal draws upon a passage from Revelation 8:12, recited in the opening monologue, speaking of seven angels and seven trumpets: “when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour”. As Bergman reflects in Images: My Life in Film, he was “still very much in a quandary over religious faith”, placing his “two opposing beliefs side by side” to create a “virtual cease-fire” between his “childhood piety” and “harsh rationalism” (1990:235).

Made in a secular Sweden and set in the Middle Ages, the world of The Seventh Seal is founded in religion. Upon horseback, crusaders recite verses about the Lord singing up high. Jof has a vision of the Virgin Mary in gleeful surprise, wiping his eyes in disbelief. Waking up Mia, smiling, she doesn’t believe him; they debate on different realms of reality, between truth and psychology. With Mia, Jof conceives a song of Jesus and rejoice in Heaven, turning to religion for his creative works. As Bergman writes in Images: My Life in Film, Jof and Mia represent a “holiness” that remains even when you “peel off the layers of various theologies” (1990:236).

The players’ song acts as a medieval morality play; Bergman uses a similar approach, using art and film to critically confront the values of religious faith. Some actors question their profession. Assembled together for the All Saints Festival in Elsinore, their comedic banter feeds an industry built by priests and the sickness of the Black Death; even in the darkest days, they must find ways to make a living. Handling a skull, one actor bemoans frightening “decent people out of their wits” with “nonsense”. Raval cannot see sanctity in the dead, stealing from corpses to save his own skin, as though God cannot hear him.

Our understanding of the medieval period rely upon tangible records: tapestries, documents, drawings and churches, before modernity offered digital approaches to discerning history and records of the past. These records are shaped through faith, wall paintings and murals as frightening reminders of death, enshrining characters like Jöns the squire in paint, dancing with girls and laughing at God, but without its context that surviving the passing decades and centuries. The existence of Jöns must be left to historical conjecture. The theatrical arrival of supplicants, whipping until they bleed, is prefigured by an elaborate church mural, constantly witnessed in the background. Marching with smoke and an effigy, they interrupt the joyous performance of travelling players with solemnness. They chant, bemoaning humanity as condemned and asking all to be wary, prepared for God’s punishment as they confront their “final hour”. In a long shot, Bergman follows mass crowds reacting in prayer to the carrying of the cross.

God’s name becomes used to justify women’s oppression: condemned as witches and guilty of spreading the plague. As a woman cries out in pain, her body motionless, Block seeks to provide comfort. Bathed in fluid, she feels a spiritual connection that protects her, trusting the fire won’t hurt her. But in her eyes and slow, weak voice, we see rigid fear; amid the nothingness, Block struggles to see God, allowing her to feel such pain. In close-up, we see the physical process of death: her body loses life as Bergman focuses upon the physicality. Wood and her body combusts, as we feel emptiness. As a man watches on, he reflects that “our fear and hers are the same”. Bergman’s fear of death had become “something unbearable” through his teens and twenties (1990:238); through his sickness and the production of The Seventh Seal, Bergman confronted his own feelings towards faith and death. As he reflects in Images: My Life in Film (1990:241):

Suddenly I realized, that is how it is. […] First you are, then you are not. This I find deeply satisfying. […] Everything is of this world. Everything exists and happens inside us, and we flow into and out of one another. It’s perfectly fine like that.

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A young woman condemned as a witch struggles to face the physical process of death

In the iconic opening, Death announces his presence as Block kneels upon the beach with his sword. Death, not Jesus, has “long walked” at Block’s side. Playing chess, spoken of in paintings and sung of by travelling performers, his presence is a symbolic contradiction: sitting upon a beach, whilst suggesting a metaphysical dimension beyond everyday perception. But Block often plays chess alone, only his horse for company.

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Antonious Block plays chess with himself upon the beach

Through the crosshatch, Block’s confession provides the film’s most powerful scene as he speaks to Death, feeling disgust, fear and emptiness. Block wants guarantees in his pursuit of knowledge, becoming a voice for Bergman’s insecurities and anxieties as he confronts his own shadow. A crucifix of Jesus looks down upon the confession, lifeless and empty. Like with Rodrigues in Silence (2016), we must ask ourselves what that silence actually is. Block gazes upon the assumptions of faith and sees life as “preposterous nothingness”, unable to accept a God who hides “in a cloud of half-promises and unseen miracles”, yet finds himself unable to kill God within his heart.

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Block speaks to Death in confession

As they run through the forest, actions and conflicts become territorial, Lisa, manager Skat and blacksmith Plog throwing insults and innuendo. As Skat pleads, Death cuts the tree down with comedic playfulness. Bergman wanted to create an image of Death with the “features of a white clown”, acting as an “amalgamation of a clown mask and a skull”. (1990:236) Unlike Faust, there are no acquittals nor loopholes out of this; he must accept he will no longer care for his family and children and must accept fate, as much as Skat is unable to accept his performance his cancelled. As the tree falls, a squirrel rises upon the stump. The circle of life continues on, across all creatures.

Bergman creates a world defined by natural landscapes. The opening presents a cloudy sky and dramatic score, composed by Erik Nordgren: horses stand upon the beach beside Block as the sea grows more violent. Avoiding dialogue, we focus upon the sunset and the waves, the body rolling against the immensity of nature. Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer divides the frame into three parts, between land, the blackness of the sea and the sky above. In the forest, as Raval dies, Fischer creates distance, framing his death in long shot rather than in close-up as the sun begins to dawn. As Godard praised of Bergman, “he alone has not openly rejected those devices beloved of the avant-gardists of the thirties”, but embraces an aesthetic where his “lakes, forests, grass, clouds” are not “mere showing-off or technical trickery”, but “integrated into the psychology of the characters” to achieve a “precise feeling”.

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Sun dawns on the forest upon Raval’s death

During the film’s stunning final scene, set against a storm, Bergman offers some comfort: Block is reunited with wife Karin (Inga Landgré), embracing as they bid each other farewell into the eternal abyss. Setting the table for breakfast and praying for mercy, Bergman forms a tableau of a last supper like Luis Buñuel does in Viridiana (1961). As the camera slowly moves into Karin’s face, we see her tears. Our characters must bid welcome to Death, breaking the fourth wall as they introduce their identities in monologues, each with their own distinct responses. Bergman engulfs the screen in blackness, fading in the sounds of nature rising anew; a horse upon the beach in the morning light. Bergman and Fischer took advantage of an approaching storm, placing the camera back in place and improvising a scene with “a few grips and a couple of tourists”. In silhouette, Death invites them to dance, moving away from the dawn. Jof departs upon his horse, walking away with his back to us.

Summer with Monika (1953), dir. Ingmar Bergman

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Adapted from the 1951 novel by Per Anders Fogelström, who collaborated with Bergman on the adaptation, Summer with Monika acts as a portrait of working class life in Stockholm, as young Harry (Lars Ekborg) works days away in Forsbergs stacking glasses; Monika (Harriet Andersson) works as a shop girl in a grocers. Harry is constantly denigrated, considered a “sack of potatoes”. Harry seeks a small act of revenge in defiance, hesitant to push a glass until it finally falls to the ground. In the pub, we see the men around him are twice his age, without anyone to relate to. Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer, a frequent collaborator of Bergman’s, perfectly encapsulates Stockholm during this period, presenting the intersection of the city with modernity as trams pass by; Fischer pays close attention to frames and silhouettes.

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Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer focuses closely upon frames and silhouettes

Harry and Monika never want to slave away in the world of work, seeking to escape norms set upon them by society. Oversleeping one morning upon his father’s boat, Monika convinces Harry to quit work and find time to themselves. But roles quickly become domestic: Harry must put bread on the table as they search the archipelago for something to eat. The concepts of the teenager and separation between childhood and the working world of adulthood are constructs: as the documentary Teenage (2013) explores, the notion of the teenager was formed through the changes within society and status of the post-war period; each generation has their own unique relationship with youth.

Their dream of travelling the world has a source: in the Garbio cinema, they watch a Hepburn film, Song of Love (1947). Monika is led to tears; Harry is disinterested. Song of Love fosters values of love and escapism and a good life that Monika attempts to emulate, dooming it to fail. Films directing our gaze back at the screen itself offers a unique approach to our own relationship with cinema: the cinematic screens within Donnie Darko (2001), Maniac (2012) and La La Land (2016) offer self-reflexivity, allowing us to see who are characters are and their values. Cinema extends beyond its escapist tendency into a confrontation to who we are and what we hold onto. Monika stares into high street windows, wanting to wear the clothes glamourised by women, to buy a dress and be fashionable. She performs her sexuality based on films themselves, describing Harry as “just like someone in a film”. Bergman embraces a female perspective, subverting the male perspective of the original novel. As Laura Hubner writes, Harriet Andersson represents “the arrival of a new kind of female star” with a “natural beauty that shuns Hollywood glamour”, whilst harkening back to “Bergman’s early male heroes who rebel against society”.

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Monika’s dream emerges from the cinema itself

The pair’s intense sexual desire follows the rush of the early stages of a young relationship. Monika is in charge of her sexuality, having slept with other men before. As she smokes cigarettes, she connotes sheer sexuality. Perhaps the best-known example of teenage melodrama and rebellion from the same period is Rebel Without a Cause (1955), depicting a fragmented parental relationship and concerns around gang violence. Harry and Monika never feel content with home lives; family life seems to just be reading magazines. Around their parents, they have to monitor how they express physical intimacy, putting their clothes back on. Even on the boat, moored to the coastline, they cannot escape family entirely; it’s Harry’s father’s boat. The boat is never the dream imagined: space is cramped, somewhat subduing the freedom of sexuality where they have space to get undressed together. Without responsibility, there’s infinite freedom as an endless summer against a seemingly endless landscape. But all summers end one day; time seeming stretchless and endless must pass.

Summer with Monika was shot on a small budget, filming over three weeks in July on Ornö Island, reshooting and dubbing scenes afterwards; Bergman promised producers it would be “the world’s cheapest film”; production lasted until October. As a couple left to themselves, Harry and Monika have a space to have sex in peace and go skinny-dipping on the island. As Bergman commented in a self-interview, “I haven’t heard that nude swimming has become obligatory in Swedish filmmaking. But I think it should be.” But they cannot escape creature comforts, or even other people: Monika brews coffee; Harry shaves with his razor. Unsatisfied by cooking mushrooms, Monika searches out a garden of fruit but steals meat, getting in trouble. A fellow tourist sets their boat on fire; Harry must prove his masculinity and defend against him, getting in a fight framed in close-up by Fischer. Nature has power beyond them, with Fischer emphasising the landscape and the island’s constant storms. Harry and Monika become reduced to ants as Fischer emphasises the landscape around them.

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Landscapes of the archipelago stretch on beyond Harry and Monika

As much as they try to sing songs and read books, they cannot escape responsibility, talking to each other about their issues in life and feelings of loneliness as they drink away. Harry and Monika vow to be monogamous as they move into their next stage of life: remain together, raise kids, study to be an engineer. They speak from youth, whilst attempting to factor in and deal with mature responsibility. Summer with Monika bears comparison to Summer Interlude (1951), a ballet dancer’s recollection upon youth from adulthood, recalling a sense of innocence and dreams of adulthood upon a romance on the archipelago that ends in tragedy. As Hubner writes, Monika follows the “seasonal cycle” of Bergman’s 1950s films with “renewed dynamism”, through their meeting, romance, disillusionment and maturity.

Bergman was in part working from his own experience: Bergman and Andersson had had a brief relationship. But in its initial US release, Monika’s vision of teenage youth and romance was distorted and devalued, released as an exploitation film re-edited by Kroger Babb, Monika, the Story of a Bad Girl, emphasising the film’s lewd sexuality and inserting footage from a nudist resort on Long Island. In Los Angeles, the film was confiscated as pornography, its distributor fined and sentenced to three months in prison.

But Monika is continually affected by male ownership over her sexuality. At work, colleague Lelle constantly torments her as a sexual target; she’s sexually assaulted, placing his hand up her skirt, groping her breasts and pushing her around. Harry’s boss considers her a slut, not someone to get involved with. On the island, Harry and Monika find a mirror to their relationship, as older couples dance away the evening at a resort. Summer with Monika is a cyclical narrative, as Harry and Monika begin to look more and more like their parents: chaotic, loveless, abusive, even as fighting authority seemed their deepest desire. As Hubner writes, Monika “has no alternative other than to become financially dependent on a man […] or to repeat the poverty cycle like her mother”.

As Monika becomes pregnant, Harry and Monika appeal to the courts for a licence to marry despite being underage, dressing smart. Looking after a baby is immensely difficult, contending with work, the economy and the constant need for new clothes. Harry and Monika find it difficult to keep up their old sense of life, forced back into industrial jobs, accepting reality as it is. Their relationship quickly becomes abusive: Monika attempts to oscillate their relationship between arguments and intimacy, but Harry punches her. Monika abandons her child, but the strain on her isn’t difficult to see. As Monika smokes her cigarette into the camera in direct gaze with the audience, we feel her pain. In the final scene, Bergman flashes back to the beach, recalling the past with a sense of its passage and acceptance as Marie did in Summer Interlude.

Summer with Monika may not be the first film one thinks of when approaching Bergman’s career. Bergman had been working in film for over a decade, honing his craft working in theatre, careers he kept simultaneous. Summer with Monika never had a chance to be taken seriously outside of Sweden, but the success of later works allowed for reappraisal as Bergman’s name became more prominent. Monika is an essential work, acting as a powerful portrait of the inevitability of change and the impermanence of young relationships.