Filtering by Tag: Bergman Series

Psychoanalytic Musings on Ingmar Bergman and His Film Persona

by Joyce Klestzick

A cornerstone of psychoanalytic theory and treatment is the interpretation of dreams as a means of learning the repressed feelings and experiences of a patient. Freud’s famous summarization of this notion is that dreams are the royal road to the unconscious. Dreams are a narrative produced by the dreamer and are a communication to the dreamer and then to the analyst of the inner workings of one’s mind if it is brought into a therapy session. Art forms, in general are thought to have their roots in the unconscious of the artist. This includes the production of films and plays.

Persona is a film that particularly lends itself to a consideration of the internal workings of Ingmar Bergman’s mind and to be interpreted as one might interpret a dream. The general mood of the film is melancholic and gray. It has a dreamlike quality made more manifest by it having been shot in black and white. The characters and scenes blend into one another dispelling boundaries and merging minds and bodies effectively creating the amorphousness typical of dreams.  In fact at times it is unclear in the film what is actually taking place and what may be dreamwork. 

The fog-like and shapeless visual experience of Persona is essential to the theme of the film. On its most manifest level, which in itself is vague, it is the story of two women secluded in a beach house and the experience they have of each other, one talking, one silent. More deeply it depicts the profound pain and inevitable retreat of a woman who has found herself living a life that feels inauthentic and ludicrous and the impact her silence has on a younger woman who finds herself talking, talking, talking to fill the time and space left by the silence of her charge. In many ways this situation is a reiteration of a traditional psychoanalytic therapy session where the blankness of the therapist, that is, the silence of the therapist, enables and indeed encourages a patient to talk without self-censorship or fear of judgment as a means of knowing herself. Free association. Alma’s free association, if you will, uncovers fears and guilt and questions she has not spoken of, or even knew herself before this interlude with Elisabet. She begins to struggle with her own boundaries as she projects her self-doubt and need to merge with the idealized figure of Elisabet. Again, this mimics the development of a transference reaction in psychoanalytic terms where the experience of the other is based less on the here and now and more on the inner workings of the patient, Alma.

Persona is the production of Ingmar Bergman and as such it is his psyche that is uncovered here in the uncovering of Alma and the non-speaking, hiding Elisabet. Bergman was raised by an authoritarian father who by today’s standards would be considered abusive.   His mother was experienced as more soft but still distant and unknowable. He describes his early life as a life with much to manage. His parents quarreled openly and at times fiercely, his brother tortured him and his punishments at the hands of his father were ritualistic and humiliating. He speaks frequently of learning early on not to intrude or disturb, a family code of behavior. He was aware that his parents outwardly played the expected role of a pastor’s family but that there was little to no foundation of authenticity. Bergman speaks without remorse or curiosity about the hate he always felt for his older brother though it is clear that this was a rage unable to be expressed belonging more appropriately towards his father. Bergman retreated early on into fantasy as a means of coping with the drama and trauma of his upbringing. Stories and imaginings filled his world and at times seemed more real to him than reality. However, he did ponder notions that he was a liar as opposed to a storyteller and often felt confused about what was him or not him, as though his life was composed of a variety of masks making it unclear which was the real person. Psychologically, the experience of life in this way is often caused by a need to protect and defend at all costs the deeply internal, sweet, insecure, immature though fully authentic true self that has been made to remain undercover for fear of damage or annihilation.  In his autobiography, The Magic Lantern, Bergman shares the questions he still yearns to be answered by his mother at the end of her life: “Who got mother’s love?” 

...Love? I know we don’t use such terms in our family. Father talks about God’s love in church.  But here at home? What was it like for us? How did we cope with that divided heart, that compressed hatred?  
The flowers thrived. The creepers climbed, the new shoots were green. The flowers thrived, but us? Why did everything become so miserable? Was it Bergman paralysis, or was it something else?
Were we given masks instead of face? Were we given hysteria instead of feelings? Were we given shame and guilt instead of love and forgiveness?
Why did my brother become an invalid? Why was my sister crushed into a scream? Why did I live with a never-healing infected sore that went right through my body?...I just want to know why our misery became so terrible behind that brittle social prestige? Why was I incapable of normal human relationships for so long?
Why have we never used the intimate du to Mother or Father? Why did we have to speak to our parents in a distancing grammatical absurdity?

There is no answer forthcoming from his mother. She feels accused and tired. He ends his autobiography with the questions unanswered by her and an entry he found in her diary that she wrote soon after his birth: 

Our son was born on Sunday morning on 14 July. He immediately contracted a high temperature and severe diarrhea. He looks like a tiny skeleton with a big fiery red nose. He stubbornly refuses to open his eyes. I had no milk after a few days because of my illness... I lie here helpless and miserable. Sometimes when I am alone, I cry. If the boy dies, Ma says... I am to take up my profession again... I pray to God with no confidence. One will probably have to manage alone as best one can. 

In his autobiography it is evident that Ingmar Bergman was plagued by the unresolved vicissitudes of his early life. He was lonely and felt unloved and certainly unknown. His relationships with male peers were typically compromised and his many marriages suggest a fear of intimacy and an unfinished search for something to fill the void that remained unsatisfied from his early life. 

The beginning of Persona shows a young boy reaching out to touch the enlarged photo of a beautiful woman. He seems not quite able to touch her and she seems not to respond to his outstretched arm. In an ideal way, it might suggest the closeness and intimacy of the mother’s face for a nursing infant. But this is not the sense one gets in watching the scene. Rather, it portends something not quite right in the mother/child dyad, which is a precursor of the events in the film as well as a likely interpretation of Bergman’s fantasy of the not quite present mother. Alma’s explanation later in the film of Elisabet’s negatively charged maternal experience speaks directly to Bergman’s sense of his mother’s psychic abandonment throughout his life. Alma’s dogged and unrealized demand that Elisabet speak to her so as to soothe her growing distress over her revelations and projections parallels Bergman’s ongoing internal conflict about how to love his mother while hating her for her human failings. Throughout his life he found himself seeking means to soothe his overwrought persona which reiterates the task of his beleaguered true self to self soothe because it was not sufficiently modeled by a mother or father or family system.  

When a child is born it is the primary caregiver’s role to fill all the infant’s needs. As the baby emerges from the sleepy orbit of her mother’s womb, the infant becomes aware of the mother but not distinct from her. This ability to distinguish self from mother is a developmental task that when achieved enables the baby to begin to separate as an individual. If this task is compromised because the child feels unsafe to stand on its own due to insufficient parenting, separation becomes a struggle marked by efforts to remain merged and symbiotic in a less than optimal way. This situation is described by Alma about Elisabet’s smitten son and his unsuccessful attempts to gain his mother’s love. Here again we see a reiteration of Bergman’s unsuccessful efforts to be closer to his mother.

Alma too represents Bergman in Persona. She is young and immature and about to settle into a life that she seems not to have thought through yet finds inevitable. She has some sense that there is more to Elisabet than meets the eye on their first meeting and is unsettled enough to question whether she is the appropriate caregiver. As their time together unfolds Alma unravels as she shares more and hears herself expressing thoughts and feelings that were previously unformed. Her recounting of the sexual interlude on the beach unnerves her for she feels it is an act of infidelity. The sexual sharing of men with another woman and the power and pleasure she felt surprised and frightened her.  She had never felt that before. Why does she share this with Elisabet? It creates an erotic gestalt in the scene and is followed by Alma imagining that she hears Elisabet tell her gently to go to bed. That night she experiences Elisabet in her room and as they look in the mirror together they seem intertwined.  Alma, like Bergman is searching for something to fill the void in her psyche and Elisabet’s silence enables Alma to merge with her in that effort. The rage unleashed in Alma when she reads the letter Elisabet wrote can be understood as a glaring, un welcomed and premature announcement that she and Elisabet are, in fact, two separate people. The unconscious fantasy of oneness is prematurely dashed. I wonder how many of Bergman’s relationships ended because he or they were not able to tolerate the reality of individuality after the glow of courtship and newness wears off a love relationship.  Similarly, the scene with Alma and Elisabet’s non-seeing husband while Elisabet looks on may be understood as another expression of Alma’s merging in a sexualized way. She is Elisabet, Elisabet is her.

The ultimate scene in Persona when the faces of Alma and Elisabet do merge we are met with a sense of surrealism. Who is who? What is real? Is Alma a figment of Elisabet’s imagination or Elisabet a musing of Alma’s self-knowing? Did the merging serve a function? Is it dangerous? How far can we lose ourselves in another? How do we get back to ourselves? How do we embrace individuality? Does it have to be frightening? Why and how do we become who we are? How and where do we meet the needs of our childhood that evade us? How does the search for these needs inform our lives? Who are we and who are we not?  These are the enduring questions of Bergman’s life and art. Persona encapsulates them but does not answer them and this I do not believe was an accident.

Wild Strawberries: The Roar of Silence

by Mervyn Marshall Ÿ

‘Life’ says Kierkegaard, ‘can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.’ Bergman never acknowledged the influence of the Lutheran that was often attributed to his work. Yet it is this momentum forward, a rapid acceleration of life towards the end that causes Isak Borg to reflect on his youth and his family. ‘No form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does… deep into the twilight room of the soul’ wrote Bergman in 1987. Here, in his films, dreams and memories dominate the relationship between his characters and the world. Their senses are exposed, susceptible to heat of the sun, the feel of the earth between fingers, to ‘hearing the grass grow, and the squirrel’s heart beat... and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.’

It is a dream that prompts Isak Borg to take the drive from Stockholm to Lund accompanied by his daughter-in-law. One night he finds himself walking down an abandoned street. A harsh and relentless sunlight blankets the empty streets. There is an unbearable silence that accompanies Isak, so much so that he can hear the beat of his own heart. Silence is loneliness. Unlike solitude, which is to be cherished, loneliness is one of Bergman’s greatest fears. He will forsake many of his characters to loneliness, to anguish and death, such as Eva and Jan Rosenberg in Shame (1968) abandoned in a tiny life boat, adrift at sea, or Karin from Through a Glass Darkly (1961) whose violation at the hands of the Spider-faced god leads to her total mental collapse. However for Isak Borg, a character created out of the fusion of the turmoil Bergman found in his own inner life and the icy posterior of the director’s father, the dream serves as a warning, a chance of self-redemption through reflection. To dream of oneself is to dream of death and Isak is entitled to a premonition as his body spills from the coffin and latches onto him whilst the eyeless figure that crumbles to the ground and disintegrates alludes to the ignorance and stubbornness of his will. Isak is performed by a former titan of Swedish cinema, Victor Sjöström, then 78, in a role that came first with apprehension and later, celebration. Bergman declared that ‘Wild Strawberries was no longer my film; it was Victor Sjöström’s!’ This sequence pays tribute to his mentor through the ghostly, driverless carriage that crashes in the street. A reference to Sjöström’s 1922 film The Phantom Carriage, a Dickensian folktale of death and regret. Bergman’s relationship with his father dominates so much of his canon and a bitter feud between the two informed much of the relationship between Isak and his son, Evald, in Wild Strawberries. Upon seeing the film, his father, Erik Bergman, wrote to Sjöström, stating that, ‘I will always remember with gratitude the friendly, encouraging words you spoke to me about Ingmar when he was still very young, and I stood before you in doubt and uncertainty.’

Along the journey, Isak decides to make a brief interlude at the house where spent the summers of his youth. He spies a patch of wild strawberries and at a touch, he is transported into the past. The howl of the wind against the trees and the song of summer birds prompt the involuntary memory of the soul for Bergman just as madeleine cake did for Proust. Isak is taken to a memory, or rather, to the essence of a memory, a feeling of a memory not retrieved but revealed. Before him appears Sara, the love of his youth who would eventually marry his brother and have six children. Sitting amongst the grass, picking a basket of strawberries, she is approached by Isak’s brother. Nature encompasses the two figures, giving way to the earthy and loose sensuality of their body language. With this framing Bergman evokes Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, his camera tracks inwards, inviting the comparisons of voyeurism. After all, what is the man who searches through memories both cherished and pale, but a voyeur?

Eventually Isak is brought back from the past by another ghost, or rather the reincarnation of his childhood love in a modern form. This Sara, both played by Bibi Andersson, reinvigorates Isak by flattering him with attention and flirtation, soon she and her companions are joining them to Lund. The ancient car driven by Isak has a metallic, tomblike physicality to it that contrasts with the spacious freedom of the Swedish countryside. No more is this deliverance into nature felt than the lunch break at Isak’s family home, which takes place just after the bitter married couple have been ejected from the car. One of Europe’s largest inland lakes sprawls out as a backdrop and the conversation between the companions relaxes over cigars and port. Turning, eventually to a psalm written by Johan Olof Wallin:

Where is the friend I seek at break of day?
When night falls I still have not found Him.
My burning heat shows me His traces
I see His traces whenever flowers bloom
His love is mingled with every air.

Bergman struggled with his faith throughout his life and work, but at this moment, as momentum slows in the hazy afternoon, within the expanse and serenity of his country’s natural landscape he equates all beauty to the work of God.

Back on the road Isak falls into the belly of consciousness and finds himself enduring a series of painful humiliations; physically, professionally and finally sexually in an extended nightmare. Bergman codes the natural world with meaning: a flock of birds becomes a recurring audience for Isak’s humiliations. Once again we find ourselves in the patch of wild strawberries with Sara, this time alone. She presents Isak with a mirror and forces him to examine the ageing features that look back at him. Allegedly, Bergman conceived the idea for this sequence whilst at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival with Smiles of a Summer Night. After sitting down for his portrait to be drawn by a Russian artist he noticed that 'there were two Bergmans: one, as it were, direct, and one in the mirror. The first had a childish, almost foolish expression on his face. The image in the mirror was of an old man, a ghost with a weary look.' We then bear witness to the life that was beyond Isak. Sara, child in hand, takes refuge from the night, leaving Isak with the empty cradle and the mocking of chattering birds. The twilight casts a sinister shadow over what was previously serene and tranquil. Nighttime and darkness are another source of recurring anxiety for Bergman. Famously, the tortured artist, Johan Borg (Max Von Sydow) in Hour of the Wolf states: The old ones called it "the hour of the wolf". It is the hour when the most people die, and the most are born. At this time, nightmares come to us. And when we awake, we are afraid.

Isak is then disgraced as a doctor as he repeatedly fails a series of simple tasks whilst his traveling companions look on in detached silence. This sequence demonstrates Bergman’s crippling lack of confidence in himself as an artist, something else that would preoccupy much of his work. Here, Isak’s judgment and ability is undermined repeatedly, bringing him to question his relevance and self-worth. First, he is unable to work the microscope, thus being rendered obsolete by technology. Secondly he cannot read or recall the first line of duty taken by doctors, as Bergman questions his role as an artist. Finally he declares a patient dead before they erupt into a violent and terrible laughter. This is most degrading, if Isak cannot recognise the signs of life, how is Bergman to find meaning and truth in his art? Finally, Isak is forced to confront a memory of his wife’s infidelity and subsequent bitter tirade against his character. At this point, as Isak is abandoned by the woman he shared his life, that terrible silence of loneliness returns to blanket the forest. Once again, Isak observes the scene from the position of the detached voyeur. The deep black that encompasses him as the scene unfolds evokes the framing of Edvard Munch’s Jealousy. The scene was originally meant to contain hundreds of snakes, however the night before the shoot they escaped from the terrarium that was holding them and then had to be recovered by the various handlers.

Awaking from this nightmare, Isak takes timid steps towards redemption by opening up to his daughter-in-law, Marianne. She explains the reason for temporarily separating from her husband was because of his reaction to her pregnancy. The flashback that ensues is one of the director’s most personal sequences, a violent collision of familial conflict and existential fatalism under the howling turmoil of a storm. Evald, in fear of becoming his father, rejects the idea of bringing a child into this world. The raging current that encapsulates the two serves only to emphasise Evald’s hostility against the world. The world, as if in response to Evald’s reluctance to take up his natural duty as a parent, turns to chaos and violence. This completes Isak’s awakening, he can now, tentatively with reservation take steps towards reconciling with his son.

As with all road movies, of which Wild Strawberries is surely one of the first, it is not the destination but the journey, in which the importance lies. The ceremony in which Isak is to receive his service award is brief, formal and shrouded in an uninviting darkness. It is not until the day’s events are at a close that Isak can find redemption, his invitation to break down formalities with his housekeeper are ironically, cheekily spurned, of course. However as he drifts once again into sleep, a light generates from his head suggesting the redemption of his spirit. The film ends in memory, a phenomenon of old age, where childhood memories swell up through the soul and into the mind’s eye, clearer than the passing day. Where ‘time and space do not exist. Upon an insignificant background of real life events, the imagination spins and weaves new patterns; a blend of memories, experiences, pure inventions, absurdities and improvisations.’ Where the birds sing, and the innocent love of youth brings us to the serene, warming comfort of our parents… and only then can we welcome with open arms ‘that roar which lies on the other side of silence.’