by Rachel Igel
Growing up in New York, the only child of European parents, I was no stranger to the films of Ingmar Bergman. My mother and father took me to see Bergman’s The Magician when I was 10 years old. I loved movies, but this was something different. The actors were speaking a foreign language and I didn’t entirely understand what the movie was about. But it stayed with me. As a teenager, I decided to seek out the films of this odd Swedish director.
My parents were wonderful people. Both were physicians who had grown up in Vienna, at the time of their youth the most vibrant city in Europe. They were great lovers of the arts and introduced me to them at an early age. But there was also a terrible darkness in my parents’ lives. They were Holocaust survivors. Though both were optimists, they had been forced to confront the depths of depravity of which human beings were capable. My youth was colored by this knowledge and only movies provided me an escape.
I was lucky to live in New York, which had many wonderful theatres that showed all kinds of films. One of the best of these was the Thalia, on the Upper West Side. I’ll never forget seeing a triple bill of Berg-man’s trilogy: Through a Glass, Darkly; Winter Light; and the truly amazing The Silence. But nothing in these films prepared me for the experience of seeing Persona for the first time––at the age of 17. When I walked out of the theatre, everything looked different to me. I had never seen anything like Persona before––and I haven’t since. There are many films that I love, and many that have affected me deeply, but Persona made me want to spend my life in film. It made me realize that film could be art, and opened up to me the mysteries of the human psyche.
Lest we forget that we are watching a film, Bergman reminds us in this startling way that what we are seeing is the creation of the filmmaker. He deconstructs the artifice and slams home to us that we are being manipulated.
In Persona, an actress, Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), suffers a nervous breakdown during a performance of Electra and becomes mute. She and her nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson), go away together to an island where Alma begins to reveal to Elisabet details of her life that she has never told anyone before. At first confessing to Elisabet as if to a psychoanalyst, Alma begins to feel used and manipulated by the actress and begins to wonder who is the nurse and who is the patient. The personalities of the two women begin to merge, and Alma becomes increasingly unable to maintain her hold on reality. Is Elisabet a compassionate companion, or is the artist in Elisabet using Alma, cannibalizing her deepest feelings and emotions merely as fodder for her art?
Persona is Bergman’s meditation on identity, the nature of art, loneliness and the inability of man to ever truly communicate with another. The film begins and ends with the arc lamp of a projector, and in the middle of a particularly harrowing scene, the film “breaks”––a frame burns and the off-screen projectionist tries to put the film back into focus. Lest we forget that we are watching a film, Bergman reminds us in this startling way that what we are seeing is the creation of the filmmaker. He deconstructs the artifice and slams home to us that we are being manipulated…just as Elisabet is manipulating Alma…or is she?
In the opening sequence, one of the most audacious montages in the history of film, a (dead?) boy grasps at a blurry image of a woman’s face. Film flows through a gate; a nail pierces a hand. We see a spider, faces of the dead, an erect penis, a bloody sheep’s head. What does it all mean? Persona is the Latin word for mask, referring to the masks used by actors in classical drama. It can also mean the characters in a play. Carl Jung used the word to describe the façade that we present to the world, as distinct from our true, inner selves.
The great cinematographer Sven Nykvist literally paints with light in Persona. The scene where Alma graphically describes to Elisabet a sexual encounter she had on a beach is visually stunning. Andersson’s and Ullmann’s acting is so brilliant (Ullmann utters only one word in the film) and the atmosphere created in the scene so vivid that for years I actually thought that the scene on the beach is in the film. It isn’t. But as described by Alma, it’s as if it was. There are moments in the film that seem to emerge straight out of Bergman’s unconscious, and the scenes on the island have the feel of a dream.
The power of Persona was summed up perfectly by Bergman himself in his book Images: My Life in Film: “I feel that with Persona––and later, Cries and Whispers––I had gone as far as I could go. And that in these two instances, when working in total freedom, I touched wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover.”
Amen. Rest in peace, Ingmar.