When Ingmar Bergman died in July 2007—on the same day as Michelangelo Antonioni—an unexpected controversy arose. Among the obligatory eulogizing obituaries, celebrating his towering achievements and itemizing the admiration for his work by directors ranging from Woody Allen to David Lynch and Robert Altman to Lars von Trier, there were also dissenting voices (most prominently, Jonathan Rosenbaum in a New York Times op-ed) claiming he was overrated, lacked stylistic originality, and merely inflicted personal psychodramas on awestruck audiences. One might imagine this gainsaying simply reflected the longevity of Bergman’s career and a certain iconoclastic impatience with some of the more predictable hyperbole and praise heaped on the departed. But in fact it was a repeat performance: controversy over Bergman goes back a long way, and in New York was sparked by no less a film than Persona, his 1966 masterpiece. While Susan Sontag wrote an enthusiastic and, as it turned out, seminal article on Persona, another critical heavyweight, Andrew Sarris, wrote a dismissive review, taking time out to attack Bergman as a filmmaker generally, arguing that he had no talent for the medium (“His technique never equaled his sensibility”) and that he should have remained a theater director. Sontag anticipated much of the criticism of not only Persona when she wrote: “Some of the paltriness of the critics’ reaction may be more a response to the signature that Persona carries than to the film itself.” Evidently, by this point in his career, Bergman’s name had acquired a fixed set of, often contradictory, associations: “lavishly inventive” as well as “facile,” “sensual” along with “melodramatic.” But as Sontag hinted, Persona was something else altogether, taking the filmmaker’s stylistic and thematic repertoire to an entirely new level. Here, for the first time, was an unapologetically avant-garde work by Bergman that also dared to veer between vampire horror flick and hospital soap opera, all the while posing ontological questions about the reality status of cinema itself. Since that debate, writing about Persona has been for film critics and scholars what climbing Everest is for mountaineers: the ultimate professional challenge. Besides Citizen Kane, it is probably the most written-about film in the canon. Raymond Bellour and Jacques Aumont, Robin Wood and Roger Ebert, Paisley Livingston and P. Adams Sitney, along with Sontag and Sarris, have all written with gravity and great insight about Persona, not counting several books and collections entirely devoted to the film. In what follows, I shall not undertake yet another all-out assault on the mountain that is Persona but concentrate on what makes this film such an exemplary work of European modernism, as well as one of the creative peaks of world cinema.
Persona is instantly recognizable thanks to two shots that have become its emblems: a boy touching a woman’s face on a giant screen and two women looking at each other (and us) across an imaginary mirror. Defining images for the film, they also stand for an idea of the cinema—in fact, for two distinct but complementary metaphors of what cinema is: a portal, a window, a passage you can enter or (almost) touch, and a mirror, a reflection, a prism that gives you back only what you project onto it. Persona is also cinema about cinema—a point that Bergman makes clear with his six-minute prologue montage sequence—which is one of the reasons it is such an irresistible challenge for writers.
The first of these shots is from the prologue. A young boy with thick glasses, lying on what looks like a hospital bed, closes the book he is reading, sits up, and reaches out toward the camera, before a reverse shot reveals this to be a translucent surface, on which appears the face of a woman. The close-up of the woman’s face projected onto the surface and tentatively touched by the boy visualizes the cinema as a window that both fuses and separates, that invites touch but keeps us (like the boy) isolated in uncertain anticipation. As it becomes larger and larger, this face is both too close to be recognized and too blurry to be grasped. Representing the archetypal maternal imago, it is at once immediately tactile and irredeemably virtual: the boy’s longing for his mother, for direct contact and physical fusion, must remain unfulfilled, for what could bridge the gap between the two planes of psychic reality? The cinema itself is here the father figure that demands renunciation of the primary love object, to enable the boy’s eventual selfhood and identity, just as the cinema demands the separation of the body from the image for there to be spectatorship. This parallel is underlined by the boy’s initial gesture toward the invisible fourth wall, thereby obliging the spectator to feel directly implicated in his longing and to experience the separation right from the start: we will always remain “virtual” to him, meaning that he, like indeed every character in the film, exists only to the degree that we are prepared to grant him “reality,” through the act of activating our empathy, our human touch, the intelligence of our bodies.
If the cinema is a tactile window in the first iconic image, in the second, another look into the camera/screen, it is imaged as a mirror: Elisabet (Liv Ullmann) and her nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson), face each other in the middle of the night in front of what may be the bathroom cabinet, where the two of them discover—or merely imagine?—an uncanny resemblance. As the scene unfolds and the lightly clad actresses move as if to kiss, their faces overlap, seem almost to be superimposed—anticipating a later shot where a split-screen image of the two women combines their faces, and making us wonder not only who but what is this face looking so intently at us.
From the 1960s to the mid-1970s, film theory, influenced by Bertolt Brecht’s distanciation effect and modernist self-reflexivity in literature and the visual arts, often focused on a film’s “mirror construction.” In this, theory tried to catch up with the practice of European art cinema. Reference to other films and self-reference to the fact that you were watching a film became essential elements in the stylistic arsenal of New Wave directors in France and elsewhere—Godard’s Contempt and Fellini’s 8½, both from 1963, being Persona’s precedents. If Hollywood made sure you could enter the world of a film through a metaphoric window or door, the mirror construction was meant to block this passage, rendering the relationship of spectator to screen more complicated (and complicit), especially when it came to deciding what was “out there” and “for real” and what was “inside” and “subjective,” or even merely a dream or a hallucination. Persona is almost a textbook case, relishing these confusions; we can never be quite certain if what we see has actually happened, and if so, why and to what (narrative) purpose. Sontag, for instance, suggests that Elisabet and Alma may in fact be one person: “It’s correct to speak of Persona in terms of the fortunes of two characters named Elizabeth and Alma who are engaged in a desperate duel of identities. But it is equally pertinent to treat Persona as relating the duel between two mythical parts of a single self: the corrupted person who acts (Elizabeth) and the ingenuous soul (Alma) who founders in contact with corruption.”
But Bergman does not keep the spectator merely guessing or at a (Brechtian) distance. On the contrary, Persona has an almost hypnotic pull; it draws the spectator in and never lets go, partly because, as demonstrated in the two iconic shots, the screen can be a window before it turns into a mirror. The film continually shifts between these modes, but ultimately it is the mirror that is its major structuring motif, both bringing us into the cinematic space as alternately copresent with the characters and cut off from them and defining the relation between the emotionally remote and psychically traumatized actress Elisabet and the younger, seemingly cheerful and good-natured Alma. Having suffered a nervous breakdown onstage, in the middle of a performance of Elektra, that leaves her unable (or unwilling) to speak, Elisabet is placed in the care of a warmhearted but practically minded chatterbox, at first in a rehabilitation clinic and then, just the two of them, in a country cottage on a remote island. The ensuing rapprochement between the women gives rise to moments of intimacy and the promise of mutual trust, but also leads to mounting tensions and open conflict, with the fluctuating relations depicted as a temporary blurring of their identities in the mirror shot described above.
This scene is so memorable because it relates profoundly to the inner movement and dramatic development not only of these characters’ journey of self-discovery but of the film itself, its narrative doublings and reversals—form and function perfectly coalescing in images of exquisite harmony and delicacy, which nonetheless leave room for extraordinary violence, both emotional and physical. The more unsettling, therefore, that the following morning Elisabet denies the very occurrence of the encounter. Yet this, too, has an inner logic, in that it corresponds to the two movements in Alma’s character and sensibility: the outgoing emotion, the desire that brings the vision into being and makes it materialize on the screen, and the self-doubting, mirrorlike apprehension that dissolves it again. In such scenes, Bergman brings out fundamental tensions between emotion, intellect, and perception—our separate ways of apprehending the world—if we allow ourselves to follow the characters’ actions and are willing to open ourselves to the conflicting emotional signals emitted by their often unexpectedly violent interactions. In this respect, Elisabet and Alma are stand-ins for those of us spectators who first have to sort out our complicated feelings after an intense film experience before we know what to make of it.
A look at Bergman’s filmography shows that several titles reflect the importance for him of the mirror and the face: The Face (1958, released in the U.S. as The Magician), Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Face to Face (1976), Karin’s Face (1984). But what are the effects of looking into the eyes of a face that is larger-than-life, or of being in the presence of two women’s faces, often in close-up, for some eighty minutes? Watching Persona is a draining and harrowing experience, which may explain why writers have sought explanatory assistance from phenomenology, psychoanalysis, and even the neurosciences, often with intriguing results.
I recall a paper at a Bergman conference that cited the latest research on mirror neurons—those that fire in mimetic, or empathetic, response when humans and animals observe an action performed by another member of the species—in a reading of Persona. This brought into focus for me a feature of the film that had always struck me as especially notable, as well as disturbing, namely the link Bergman makes between hands and the face, that is, the touch and the mirror (to a person’s soul). Once more, the emblematic shot of the boy touching the screen/face seems to say it all. Yet these connections are everywhere in Persona: hands reaching out to caress or slap faces, or covering their own faces; even the photo of the Warsaw ghetto boy with his hands raised is scrutinized by the camera for hands and faces. More generally, these movements are a surprisingly frequent motif in Bergman. One thinks of a scene in The Virgin Spring (1960) where an elderly woman caresses the face of the suffering girl, or a similar one in The Seventh Seal (1957). We find a woman touching another woman in Cries and Whispers (1972), in Autumn Sonata (1978), and in Fanny and Alexander (1982), where a hand approaching a face is brusquely rejected. A man and a woman touch each other’s faces tenderly in Summer with Monica (1953), and violently in The Passion of Anna (1969), and, of course, in The Touch (1971), we have to keep the title in mind all the time. On a biographical point, it shows that Bergman belonged to a generation where physical chastisement of children was still the norm—Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon is something of a Bergman pastiche in this respect—but from a neurological perspective, the motif confirms that few gestures elicit as much empathetic mimicry as a hand touching a face.
Even if he would have probably dismissed such scientific findings as irrelevant to his films, there is little doubt that, for Bergman, extraordinary powers are stored and enclosed in the face. Yet such powers also underline its vulnerability and precarious status: between the openly visible and the smoothly impenetrable, between the lighting up of a spiritual essence and the merely material “surface” for deceit and disguise. In Persona, the face goes through all these permutations. Already in the prologue, the lightly contoured visage on the screen is contrasted with the darkly silhouetted face of an old woman lying on a table in a morgue. During the second half of the film, when Alma is desperate to differentiate herself as much as possible from Elisabet, she washes her face under a running tap as if to wash away with the nosebleed also the now dreaded likeness itself. After another nocturnal encounter, this time with Elisabet’s husband—perhaps a figment of her imagination—Alma decides to leave, shouting: “I’m not like you. I don’t feel the same way you do . . . I’m not Elisabet Vogler: you are Elisabet Vogler.” Following the scene of Alma’s passionate embrace of Elisabet’s husband—revealing just how far she will go to identify with Elisabet—this desperate outburst not only protests too much but amounts to a self-contradiction, made manifest in the composite image of the two women’s merged faces we see.
Early on in the film, Bergman plays another variation on the theme of the face in the way he juxtaposes the two women when they go to bed. Elisabet’s face, motionless and turned toward the camera, grows slowly darker and darker—an apt expression of her essentially reflective nature—while Alma, restless, switching the light on and off, comes across as temperamental and impulsive, qualities underlined by a soliloquy where just as important as what she says are her actions: rubbing on night cream, once more defining her across face and touch but where her insecurities and doubts are made to contradict, but also complement, her more resolute and self-assured daytime manner.
Something like a craving of the face for the charge and discharge of the touch is thus in Persona associated with Alma’s personality and her inner demons. It is contrasted with the mask (as makeup) that Elisabet wears when she is onstage and suddenly falls silent, but also with her often supercilious, ironic expression toward Alma, which she puts on like a mask. The very title Persona, of course, refers to this mask, so that one might think the film would proceed to a mutual unmasking, where fragile, unworthy, inauthentic selves are peeled away. And in a sense, this is the case, as both women are in turn stripped emotionally bare and have moments where they lose their composure, i.e., lose “face.” Opposite the mute and thus “closed” Elisabet, the seemingly carefree Alma several times “opens up” in the course of the film, sometimes verbally, at others more physically. But her fresh and open face never has the rigidity of the mask, which is what Elisabet’s enforced or self-imposed silence amounts to. Yet despite this drama of open and closed expressions, of tearing at each other’s protective surface, Persona is less about what is “behind” the mask and perhaps more concerned with what can and must pass through the mask, since besides questioning the ethics of stripping the soul naked of all pretence, Bergman also shows us both women’s wily and ingenious self-fashioning during their encounters with each other.
In addition to this maintenance of the mask, there is the film’s modernist self-reflexivity, which insists on our constantly remembering that we are watching a performance. Persona opens with scenes that bring the projector into the picture, and it ends with the camera and the crew appearing in the shot. In the prologue, an old-style carbon arc light movie projector is being lit, as if the images we are about to see are being shown from the impersonal perspective of a machine. Toward the end, the big Mitchell camera is cantilevered into the frame as it films Elisabet lying on her back; and as Alma is leaving, suitcase and all, the boy returns, once more touching the blurred screen image, as if to cue the celluloid strip to jump out of the sprockets of the projector, whose arc lights gradually dim, leaving us literally in the dark.
Yet these scenes are not merely self-reflexive, or nods to Godard’s and Fellini’s films about filmmaking mentioned earlier. Bergman here establishes a series of intriguing equivalences between mask and screen, skin and film strip. This has already been suggested in a scene where Alma’s face cracks like glass and then burns up, a combustible film strip getting torn in the projector gate, consumed by flames like the monk protesting in Vietnam on Elisabet’s television early on. A mere trick, one might think, but also a strong hint that the violence in the film and on the screen may be only a visible metaphor for the invisible violence of the screen, indicative of the aggression inherent in the voyeuristic interest we project onto the action as spectators, to which the director responds with a certain sadism of his own, by suddenly reminding us of the nonhuman materiality of his film.
If it were told from a Hollywood perspective, Persona would be the story of Elisabet, nursed back to health by Alma while each of the women gradually “absorbs” part of the other’s personality. But there is no equivalence, no lasting exchange, and their only common ground seems to be that they are both women. Set against their gender are, for instance, their very distinct backgrounds: Elisabet and Alma differ in marital and social status, in class and celebrity, as well as in temperament and moral outlook. Brought together by chance, the two are locked in a fierce power struggle. At first, it appears that “life” is all on the side of Alma, the “healthy” young woman whose optimism seems infectious. But as the film progresses, the balance of power between them shifts several times.
This is the psychological situation, and it seems that, in the end, they battle each other to a draw, with Alma perhaps coming out a bit on top, because she still has a life to live, whereas we sense that, however much she may recover, Elisabet has little to look forward to, either from her husband (whose brief visit to the island—if this, too, is not a hallucination on Alma’s part—shows him so metaphorically, or even literally, blind that he cannot tell his wife from her nurse) or with her son, whom she emotionally abandoned early on (and who reappears, metaphorically, in the photo of the Jewish boy from the Warsaw ghetto). If we are to believe the sentiments Alma infers from Elisabet’s tacit agreement, in the scene where Alma fills in (for us) the background to Elisabet’s professional and marital life, Elisabet did not want to have the boy but was too cowardly to abort. This in contrast to Alma, who did have the strength to take such a decision when she knew she was not ready to have a child. Motherhood and the maternal are often the key characteristics of women in Bergman’s world, starting with his early Brink of Life (1958), which features a live birth. There is thus something quite archaic or primal also at work in the women’s confrontation in Persona: the power of being able to give birth or refusing to do so, the labor of parturition and the pain of having an abortion being put in the balance and weighed accordingly.
Along with the women’s psychology and gender, a literary side, too, enters the constellation, because Persona brings together two romantic archetypes: the double and the vampire. These two mythological figures are recurring motifs in Bergman’s imaginative universe (1963’s The Silence, 1968’s The Hour of the Wolf and Shame), and surprisingly often, they are female, in contrast to their literary (and cinematic) equivalents. Given the initial near-death situation of Elisabet, it seems clear who here is the vampire, sucking out Alma’s young blood and life force.
But as with the vampire in romantic literature, a political reading suggests itself as well. What used to be a metaphor for the (postrevolutionary) aristocracy retaining its deadly grip on a rising bourgeoisie now traces, in the confrontation between Elisabet and Alma, the outlines of another class struggle: this time between the well-to-do middle class and the menial working class. In this scenario, no longer the aphasia of a sick person, Elisabet’s silence becomes a weapon, the haughty refusal to trade in the currency of common and shared humanity. It makes the babble of Alma stand for the voice of the people, needing to speak regardless, so as not to choke and suffocate in the face of injustice, prejudice, and discrimination. But such is the (Hegelian) dialectic of “master” and “slave” also in this case that dependency can shift and find itself upended, which in Persona is demonstrated by the cinematic dynamics of speech and space.
In the scene onstage precipitating Elisabet’s nervous breakdown, when she suddenly stops midgesture, one expects a cause to be revealed, possibly by a point-of-view shot or a reaction shot. Instead, her action remains unmotivated and unexplained, a diva’s caprice. Yet the way Bergman formally organizes the scene gives us the necessary clues to its function and meaning. The disposition of figure and space, of character movement and camera movement, conveys the urgency of her choice and the claustrophobia in her mind more immediately and convincingly than any of the verbal explanations given by the doctor. We first see Elektra/Elisabet with her back to the camera, addressing an audience in a theater. Gradually, she turns around, approaches the camera, until her face is in close-up and she is looking almost straight at us. Meaning lies not in the verbal commentary (which merely fills in context) but in her physical movement. The shot begins with Elisabet facing the theater audience and ends with her facing us, the cinema audience. Both audiences are “virtual” (as in the iconic shot with the boy), since the theater auditorium appears to be empty. Signaled in her turn from one audience to the other is that she has literally come to a turning point in her life. The transition from an outer void (the world of appearances and make-believe) to facing up to an inner void happens entirely in the fluid motion that joins these two virtual spaces.
This movement from an outer to an inner world is reinforced, and given a concrete spatial embodiment, by the position of the camera. Elisabet is onstage (as a diva, she is also public property), and as she turns toward backstage (where the camera is), she enters a more intimate and immediate, but also a more turbulent and ungrounded, reality (Bergman makes similar use of the backstage metaphor in 1953’s Sawdust and Tinsel and 1955’s Smiles of a Summer Night). Yet what is most striking in this scene is the near complete absence of perspective and depth, which becomes a guiding principle also in the subsequent action.
For most of the film, in fact, the women are almost uncomfortably close to the camera; the background is often indistinct or blurred, with their faces seen as if from behind glass. Composed of flat visual planes with clear outlines, yet without a feeling of roundness and wholeness, Persona conveys an overwhelming sense of at once claustrophobia and transparency, of suffocation and an almost hallucinatory clarity. Such deliberate one-dimensionality in the image, coupled with strong bodily responses, transmits the women’s predicament of being trapped directly to the spectator, making sensation a form of perception. Achieved by Bergman’s refusal to let the illusion of ordinary space develop, it substitutes instead a properly “cinematic” space—without, however, destroying that sense of psychological realism, so necessary to any involvement in the interpersonal drama unfolding.
The presence of this flat cinematic space extends to the outdoor scenes, where the low horizon of the island setting, the pebbly beach and rocky outcrops are shot in a noticeably multiperspectival, cubist manner. This essentially abstract way of rendering physical space contrasts with the few scenes where there are suddenly edge, frame, and perspective. For example, when Alma tells of her sexual adventure with the boys on the beach, Bergman gives the room an extraordinary depth, with the two women as focal points, clearly distinguished and surrounded by pools of light that both illuminate (Alma) and isolate (Elisabet). Against the impersonal, flat, and evenly lit space of the other scenes, this one has an immediate, but deceptive, quality of warmth and intimacy. The function is twofold: Firstly, it clearly separates the two women, removing Elisabet from Alma’s experience while giving to Alma an emotional freedom outside of their ambivalent relationship. Secondly, the deep focus, providing, as it does, plenitude to the image and extending the visual space, perfectly corresponds to the sentiment that Alma tries to express. At the same time, it associates a thematic value, making evident the immensely erotic charge and liberating power Bergman wants to convey through Alma’s tale, the sensual reality of a warm, expansive day on the beach, the sexual abandon, the physical intimacy, the strangely innocent fulfillment of this impersonal commingling of bodies stirred by passion and lust. It is from all and any of this that Elisabet exiles herself with her silence and self-control, inadvertently restoring to Alma the full power and presence that come from speech and language in the cinema. The scene is evidence of Bergman’s extraordinary prowess as a writer, a craftsman of words that here are temporarily (and, one imagines, vicariously) lent to the body and voice of a great actress.
Persona is a chamber play, and in recent years, many of Bergman’s films have been extraordinarily successful all over the world when staged as plays: Persona in Mexico City (2008), Autumn Sonata in Tel Aviv (2007) and Moscow (2012), Through a Glass Darkly in New York (2011), not to mention Scenes from a Marriage, performed widely. But the care Bergman devotes to his cinematic spaces gives the lie to the notion that he remained, for all the auteurist accolades he received, a man of the theater, and that Persona, too, is just Strindberg resurrected, set on an island instead of a stage.
Another charge made against Persona when it was released was that it examines the relation of the two women in a social vacuum. I’ve taken some pains to refute this, too, by showing the complex thematic echoes of class and status that are embedded in the themes of silence and space. But even more telling, it seems to me, are the many ways in which Persona actually infuses urgency and energy into the somewhat clichéd metaphor of the social vacuum. On the one hand, Elisabet’s silence creates a void that Alma is compelled to fill with her words, at the risk of being annihilated by that formidable silence. On the other hand, Elisabet finds in her self-inflicted silence a release from the extroverted existence imposed upon her by her profession. Away from the role that smothered her own self under layers of makeup, she tries to discover an inner dimension, a new intimacy as the hoped-for fruit of solitude. To this, Alma brings the necessary—devastating—correction that there may not be a self beneath the mask.
By yet another dialectical turn, which makes the void less of a black hole and more of a white surface, Alma finds in Elisabet’s silence the screen upon which she can project all the roles she has always wanted to play. She becomes an extrovert to a degree that seems to surprise even herself, though only to discover in the process that, by playing these roles, she has stripped herself of all her outward assurance and certainty. By dramatizing her own existence in front of her silent spectator, Alma becomes an actress, performing before an audience. Here, too, a metacinematic reference becomes evident, if only by the fact that Alma is of course played by a professional actress, Bibi Andersson. As David Thomson once dryly noted: “Bergman’s films are about actors and artists playing actors and artists.”
But a further, more philosophical point also emerges: silence and volubility are merely the two extremes of the same (modernist) theme, so often broached in Bergman’s films (Through a Glass Darkly, 1962’s Winter Light): the Silence of God, eliciting a complementary-compensatory, even hysterical, need for contact and communication. Persona bears out the convergence, but also the clash, of these extremes: of silence countered by words and words met by silence. Perhaps the women, each recognizing her contradictory, if not false, position in the mirror of its opposite, actually gain the insight that, in a world without transcendence, human beings have only each other. This very drama of self-knowledge through the other should give the film an inherent dynamic toward a more conciliatory resolution. It would be the Hollywood ending, but Bergman’s sense of honesty obliges him to withhold it.
Bergman, self-confessed charlatan and conjurer, lover of the magic lantern and lifelong devotee to masters of Swedish silent cinema, is remarkably honest with his characters, but also with his audience. If the prologue of Persona recapitulates, as it were, the pleasures and terrors of cinema experienced by Bergman as a child, the metacinema reference to camera and celluloid toward the end freely admits to the artifice, but also to the self-deception and self-indulgence, that moviemaking entails. In this respect, he was perhaps ahead of both his admirers and his critics, as if the controversies and challenges that Persona continues to provoke were preprogrammed into its very conception: not only the iconic images that are worth a thousand words but also the silences that launched a thousand commentaries.
Thomas Elsaesser is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Media and Culture at the University of Amsterdam. His recent publications include European Cinema: Face to Face with Hollywood (2005), Film Theory: An Introduction Through the Senses (2010, with Malte Hagener), The Persistence of Hollywood (2012), and German Cinema—Terror and Trauma: Cultural Memory Since 1945 (2013).