Feature Film, 1966

Persona

As a nurse talks and her patient remains silent, their identities begin to merge.

“Persona is bound to trouble, perplex and frustrate most filmgoers. Or so one would suppose.”
Susan Sontag

About the film

In January 1963 Ingmar Bergman was appointed head of the Royal Dramatic Theatre. It was to prove a very demanding job indeed: with the entire company in need of reorganisation, he found himself in an 'insoluble and incomprehensibly chaotic situation.' Against his better judgement, he did not cut back on his film work and ended up paying the price: double pneumonia and acute penicillin poisoning. In the spring of 1965 he was admitted to Sophiahemmet, the royal hospital, where he began to write the screenplay for Persona, 'mainly to keep my hand in the creative process.'

In poor shape, both physical and psychological, he started to question the role of art in general, and his own work in particular.

Bergman writing in Images: My Life in Film:

'It was not a case of developing an aversion to my professional life. Although I am a neurotic person, my relation to my profession has always been astonishingly non-neurotic. I have always had the ability to attach my demons to my chariot. And they have been forced to make themselves useful. At the same time they have still managed to keep on tormenting and embarrassing my private life. The owner of the flea circus, as you might be aware, has a habit of letting his artists suck his blood.'

During the same period Bergman was awarded the Erasmus Prize (which he shared with Charlie Chaplin). Prevented by illness from attending the ceremony, he wrote an essay that was read out in Amsterdam by the head of SF, Kenne Fant. Entitled The Snakeskin, the essay summarised Bergman's broodings during his stay in hospital and his feelings about art. In many ways, Persona became an illustration of this essay (or vice-versa, perhaps), to the extent that The Snakeskin was published as the preface to the American version of the screenplay.

Photo: Jens Gustafsson © Stiftelsen Ingmar Bergman

The first notes for what was to become Persona were written on 12 April 1965:

Dejection and sorrow and tears – which change to powerful outburts of joy. Sensitivity in the hands. The broad forehead, severity, eyes survey the [unreadable] childishness.

What is it that I want from this, yes, to start from the beginning. Not to contrive not to incite not to cause a fuss but to start from the beginning with my new – if I have one.

So she has been an actress – –is that acceptable, perhaps And then she fell silent. Nothing unusual about that.

These early notes constitute a unique summary of the film. Persona has often been regarded as a watershed in Bergman's career, a new start, just as he had prescribed for himself. The subsequent writing appears to have been swift. A few pages further on in his workbook we find words that are highly relevant to the film: 'Talk to each other', 'Eroticism', 'Testimony', 'Facial studies', etc. One of the key scenes is already in place: 'What's the point of being an artist. Nurse Alma makes a passionate defence of this, but is forced to eat her words.'

At this point, there are already also some self-mocking notes in the margin of the screenplay: 'One up, one down, that's basically it.'

The two women in Persona have sometimes been regarded as one and the same person (rather like the sisters in The Silence and Cries and Whispers). This analysis does have some validity, as Bergman himself implies: 'Could one make this into an inner happening? I mean, suggest, that it is a composition for different voices in the same soul's concerto grosso?'

Bergman has often made use of musical metaphors when describing Persona. At a later date he would referred to it as a sonata for the instruments Andersson and Ullmann. Asked whether the sonata should be in a major or minor key, he replied that it should be neither, 'the way it is in modern music.'

Photo: Jens Gustafsson © Stiftelsen Ingmar Bergman


Keeping his hand in the creative process' started to pay off, and it became clear that a film might be forthcoming, after all. Having thought about casting, Bergman decided that the principal roles should go to Bibi Andersson and the highly-praised young Norwegian actress, Liv Ullmann. He had never actually seen her act, but he had been at the home of Gunnel Lindblom looking at slides taken during the shooting of Pan, in which Andersson and Ullmann both took part. Struck by how similar they were, this initial impulse eventually led Bergman to Persona.

Later he would be asked how he could be so sure that Liv Ullmann would cope with such a demanding role when he had only met her once, and then on the street: 'I wasn't. I just thought so.' He received a visit in hospital from Kenne Fant, and together they left Sophiahemmet on a visit to the Thielska Gallery on Stockholm's Djurgården. 'Now listen, Kenne, do you think you could put some people aside for me until the end of July. And we could sign up Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson, and you could put up the money and maybe debet what it costs to my next film, if there is one?'

Reasonably enough, Kenne Fant wondered what the film would be about, to which Bergman replied: 'Well, it's about one person who talks and one who doesn't, and they compare hands and get all mingled up in one another.' 'Oh, really,' said Kenne. I said: 'It'll be a very small film, so it needn't cost much.' Kenne put up the money wholeheartedly. And that's something I'll never forget.'

Photo: Sven Nykvist © AB Svensk Filmindustri

Fant's willingness to finance such a risky project should, however, be seen in the context of The Silence, which two years earlier had been SF's greatest ever box office success. This may go some way towards explaining his ready generosity.

The finished screenplay is not dissimilar to the random jottings in Bergman's workbook, yet although it may appear somewhat improvised, it was 'painstakingly planned.' Nonetheless, it is prefaced by the reservation that much of the film will be determined once shooting is underway.


Sources of inspiration 

Of the much fêted opening scenes in the film, Bergman has said that he wanted to make a poem in images. Writing in Images:

'I reflected on what was important, and began with the projector and my desire to set it in motion. But when the projector was running, nothing came out of it but old ideas, the spider, God's lamb, all that dull stuff. My life then consisted of dead people, brick walls, and a few dismal trees out in the park.'

The first of these images came to him early on in the creative process. In his workbook he wrote that he imagined a white, washed-out strip of film: 'It runs through the projector and gradually there are words on the sound tape (which perhaps runs beside the film strip itself). Gradually the precise word I'm looking for comes into focus. Then a face you can barely make out dissolves in all that whiteness. That's Alma's face. Mrs. Vogler's face.'

Photo: Sven Nykvist © AB Svensk Filmindustri

The words in this early draft are basically the same as those of the finished screenplay: 'I imagine the transparent ribbon of film rushing through the projector. Washed clean of signs and pictures, it produces a flickering reflected light from the screen.'

Bergman has often, especially during the 1960s and 70s, been accused of being unworldly. In Sweden in particular, his unwillingness to get involved in the debate surrounding the Vietnam War was widely regarded as a kind of implicit support for the USA. Persona, however, gives the first glimpse of a political reality outside Bergman's own universe. The film contains two images which invoke a strong reaction in Elisabet Vogler: a Second World War photograph of a young boy in the Warsaw Ghetto, and television pictures of one of the Vietnamese monks who set fire to themselves in protest against the war. In his workbook Bergman wrote:

'My art cannot melt, transform, or forget: the boy in the photo with his hands in the air or the man who set himself on fire to bear witness to his faith. I am unable to grasp the large catastrophes. They leave my heart untouched. At most I can read about such atrocitites with a kind of greed – a pornography of horror. But I shall never rid myself of those images. Images that turn my art into a bag of tricks, into something indifferent, meaningless.'
 

Many have seen August Strindberg's one-act play The Stronger, in which one character speaks and another remains silent, as an important source of inspiration. Yet once again, as with Wild Strawberries almost a decade previously, the influence of same writer's A Dream Play can clearly be discerned. (Bergman produced the play for television in 1963 and later for the stage in 19701977 and 1986). The free structure of Strindberg's play, in which 'time and space do not exist', has often been cited as a precursor of the dream-like form of Persona.


Shooting the film 

A few days before shooting began a press conference was held with all the pomp and circumstance which was 'only normally reserved for royalty or heads of state', according to one reporter.

Having assured himself that everyone could hear properly, Bergman went up to a blackboard and wrote: PERSONA. 'Does anyone know what this is?' No answer was forthcoming from the press. 'You see',  Bergman went on, 'the film might not have a name at all. First of all I suggested to Kenne Fant (at SF) the title Cinematography?' but that made Kenne sad. 'Terrible name', thought Kenne. So I came up with this title, 'Persona'. 'Any name's better than cinematography', said Kenne, and approved my proposal. Bergman then went on to explain that 'Persona' is the Latin name for the face masks worn by actors in antiquity. 'It's an amusing title, a good name, an apt name. The film will be about people's masks and attitudes.' Bergman also mentioned that the film would be shot in standard format in black and white, 'which I think is the most beautiful.'

Most of the shooting took place on Fårö but began with some work in the studio, Filmstaden, starting on 19 July 1965. 'The first days were nightmarish. All I felt was: 'I can't manage this!' and one day after another went by, and all the time we got only bad results, bloody awful results. And Bibi was angry and Liv was nervous, and I was paralyzed with fatigue.' When they arrived at Fårö, the atmosphere was much improved and work proceeded more smoothly.

Photo: Bo Arne Vibenius © AB Svensk Filmindustri

Sven Nykvist was faced with new challenges. The close-up in the opening sequences of an old film projector with carbon rods that meet together was not an easy shot to achieve. While Nykvist was shooting Mai Zetterling's Loving Couples he worked on this sequence in his spare time: 'the studio manager was annoyed because I was using up so much raw film outside the regular budget even before shooting had begun.'

Working together on The Virgin Spring Nykvist and Bergman had arrived at the conclusion that medium shots were 'boring and unnecessary', but few films are so pictorially radical as Persona: a few wide-angle long shots, hardly any medium shots and most of all long, intensive close-ups. It was probably Persona that firmly established the 'Nykvist style', summed up rather facetiously as 'two faces and a teacup'.

Photo: Bo Arne Vibenius © AB Svensk Filmindustri

Bibi Andersson had acted in most of Bergman's films since Smiles of a Summer Night, with the notable exception of the 'trilogy' (Through a Glass DarklyWinter Light and The Silence). The roles she had played were important yet relatively minor. Persona was to be her tour de force. On one occasion Bergman said of Andersson that she needed to believe in something before she could act it. This might sound like a limitation, yet in Bergman's eyes it was a sign of integrity. One example of this in Persona is Alma's famous monologue about a sexual adventure she once had on a beach with another woman and two young boys. During the shooting Bergman wanted to scrap the scene, perhaps because he thought it was too explicit. But Andersson insisted that they keep it in. Remenicing in an interview in American Film: 

'I said, 'Let me shoot it, but let me just alter certain words no woman would ay. It's written by a man, and I can feel it's a man. Let me change certain things.' He said, 'You do what you want with it. We'll shoot it, and then we'll go and see it together.''

Shooting the scene was embarrassing, yet Bergman was pleased with the result. There was just one thing, though: 'something's wrong with the sound', he claimed. He asked Andersson to speak the monologue again alone in the mixing studio. The sound would be synchronised afterwards. The sound problem was probably just a ruse: originally she had spoken in a high, girlish voice and been satisfied with that, but when she subsequently dubbed the scene alone she used a much lower tone, something she only dared to do when nobody was watching or listening. Later she expressed the view that the intimate quality of the scene was largely down to this re-take.

For Liv Ullmann, a few years younger than Andersson, this was her first Bergman film. Many more were to follow: she played leading roles in nine films up to and including Autumn Sonata. The largely silent role of Elisabet also marked the start of a highly successful international career.

The most famous image from the film is that of an extraordinary face, half Ullmann's and half Andersson's. According to Bergman, 'In most people one side of the face is more attractive than the other, their so-called good side.' The two images that Nykvist spliced together 'showed their respective bad sides.' When the film came back from the laboratory he asked both the actresses to come to the editing room. 'Bibi exclaims in surprise: 'But Liv, you look so strange!' And Liv says: 'No, it's you Bibi, you look very strange!'

The film's unit manager, and the photographer of a number of remarkable stills from the shoot, was Bo Arne Vibenius. Some years later he directed a film that was banned in Sweden: Thriller: a Cruel Picture, recently revealed as an important source of inspiration for Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill.

The original score was by the composer Lars Johan Werle, best known for his operas including Dreaming About Thérèse (Drömmen om Thérèse, 1964) and The Journey (Resan, 1970). His previous film scores included the music for Alf Sjöberg's The Island. He had also composed the music for Sjöberg's Royal Dramatic Theatre production of Euripides' Hippolytus, where he first met Bergman, then head of the theatre. Bergman's brief was precise: he knew exactly what he wanted. These limitations on his artistic freedom did not trouble Werle, who was extremely positive about working with Bergman and did not feel unduly restricted by his demands.


Epilogue 

Shooting came to an end on 15 September 1965. The next day, Bergman wrote in his diary that now the filming was over, Bibi was off to America, Sven to Zurich and Liv to Oslo, he was left alone, depressed and self-pitying. 'On Monday the endless saga at the Royal Dramatic Theatre begins again. How will I put up with it?' A few months later he resigned his post as head of the theatre.

Persona was premièred at the Spegeln cinema on 18 October 1966. The editor Ulla Ryghe has described how the famous scene where the film burns up, often interpreted as if the actual celluloid cannot stand the friction between the two main characters, caused a number of problems at the initial screenings. After a number of projectionists had stopped the film, the film cans themselves had to be marked with red labels assuring them that the actual film does not catch fire, even though it appears that way.

The Stockholm press was largely respectful and appreciative, yet almost unanimously perplexed by a film, the content of which, symbolic or otherwise, was shrouded in mystery. Dagens Nyheter's Mauritz Edström wrote a long review (most of the reviews were unusually long) under the heading 'Bergman's victory over silence' (most probably a reference to the earlier film The Silence, at the same time as conveying a view that many critics have subsequently repeated):

'Ingmar Bergman's new film 'Persona', as I see it, is a reminder of our proximity to the ultimate borderline, where language breaks down, images are rent asunder and reality dissolves. It touches me as a personal confession, a howl of despair or a cry against darkness and silence [...] A defiant cry, an attempt to ward off the threat that lies in this despair.'

Edström's words bear an uncanny similarity to those of the director himself. He could hardly have known that on 24 July – just before he started to write Persona – Bergman had written in his workbook almost exactly the same thing: 'Even if prayer is just a cry into an empty space, we should not desist from that cry.'

The editor of Dagens Nyheter, Olof Lagercrantz, who both panned Bergman (his review of Smiles of a Summer Night is legendary), and praised him in equal measure, wrote a cutting yet amusing reflection in response to the film under the heading "Person(a)cult": 'The halo has been pressed down to the level of the sweat band of the world famous director's beret. The head of SF, Kenne Fant, can once again proclaim with a tremor of idealism in his voice that it it is a great honour to lose money on a film like 'Persona'. He said the same thing about the box-office hit 'The Silence'.'

France was the country where Bergman reaped his first major successes at the end of the 1950s. Yet during the 60s his star had been on the wane. Persona helped to restore his reputation: Les cahiers du cinéma called Persona his most beautiful film, and one daily newspaper declared that sixty years after its birth, the cinema had now found its most promising form. Reactions in America were mixed: Susan Sontag's famous essay in the magazine (albeit British) Sight & Sound is an example of praise, whereas the short notice in Films in Review is the opposite: 'a film about lesbians and lesbianism'.

Bergman insisted that all marketing material for the film, including stills, should feature the perforated edge of the film strip in order to emphasise the markedly filmic quality of the work.

Photo: Sven Nykvist © AB Svensk Filmindustri

If Wild Strawberries is Bergman's most plagiarised film, and The Seventh Seal his most parodied, then Persona is certainly the most written about. No other individual Bergman film has generated such extensive critical and academic attention. One of the latest works on the subject is an anthology in the Cambridge Film Handbooks series edited by Lloyd Michaels, entitled simply Ingmar Bergman's Persona. Widely regarded as his most important film, this view of Persona is shared by Bergman himself. Writing in Images

At some time or other, I said that Persona saved my life – that is no exaggeration. If I had not found the strength to make the film, I would probably have been all washed up. One significant point: for the first time I did not care in the least whether the result would be a commercial success. The gospel according to which one must be comprehensible at all costs, one that had been dinned to me ever since I worked as the lowliest manuscripts slave at Svensk Filmindustri, could finally go to hell (which is where it belongs!)

Today, I feel that in Persona – and later in Cries and Whispers – I had gone as far as I could go. And that in these two instance, when working in total freedom, I touched wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover.

Sources

  • The Ingmar Bergman Archives.
  • Ingmar Bergman, Images: My Life in Film.
  • "Dialogue on Film: Bibi Andersson.", American Film, March 1977.
  • Maaret Koskinen, Spel och speglingar: en studie i Ingmar Bergmans filmiska estetik, (Stockholm: Univ., cop. 1993).
  • Ingmar Bergman's Persona, red. Lloyd Michaels, (Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
  • Olof Lagercrantz, "Person(a)kult", Dagens Nyheter, 23 October 1966.
  • ”"Möte med mästaren”", Stockholms-Tidningen, 16 July 1965.
  • "Werle-musik i 'Persona': ’Anvisningar hämmar ej'", Svenska Dagbladet, 21 October 1965.
  • Susan Sontag, "Persona", Sight and Sound, Autumn 1967.

Collaborators

  • Ingmar Bergman, Director and screenplay
  • Sven Nykvist, Director of Photography
  • Ulla Ryghe, Film Editor
  • Kerstin Berg, Script Supervisor
  • Bibi Lindström, Art Director
  • Max Goldstein, Costume Designer
  • Börje Lundh, Make-up Supervisor
  • Tina Johannsson, Make-up Supervisor
  • Karl-Arne Bergman, Property Master
  • Lars Johan Werle, Music Composer
  • Johann Sebastian Bach, Music Composer
  • Evald Andersson, Sound Effects
  • Per-Olof Pettersson, Production Mixer
  • Lars-Owe Carlberg, Production Manager
  • Bo A. Vibenius, Unit Manager
  • Lars Johnsson, First Assistant Cameraman
  • Anders Bodin, Camera Operator
  • Lennart Engholm, Boom Operator
  • Lenn Hjortzberg , Assistant Director
  • Olle Jakobsson, Re-recording Mixer
  • Bibi Andersson, Nurse Alma
  • Liv Ullmann, Elisabet Vogler
  • Margaretha Krook, The doctor
  • Gunnar Björnstrand, Mr. Vogler
  • Jörgen Lindström, The boy, Elisabeth's son