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Between Worlds: Be Aware of the Medium!

The Use and Function of Written Texts, Theatre, Cinema, Still Photography, Radio and Television in Ingmar Bergman’s film Persona

 

There are no Cinema Studies without learning about modernism, which is probably the most admired era in the life of European cinema, and Ingmar Bergman was among the most prominent representatives of it. This peculiar time of film-making and Bergman itself cannot be missed out when one is trying to prove that cinema indeed is the seventh art and the creator of the film is the genius, the auteur. As Brigitte Steene1 also reflects upon the phenomena, throughout the globe books, dissertations and courses aim at unveiling Bergman’s talent to students, or repeatedly remind us of his broad scope of creativity ranging from theatre through film to opera. Bergman was truly a creative mind who had no obstacles to cross borders and/or incorporate different media into one. Therefore, it is completely understandable that Maaret Koskinen also draws attention to this in her introduction of the book Ingmar Bergman Revisited2, and writes that the Swedish director’s life and work should be discussed in the framework of intermediality3, which can be defined in different ways as we learnt from Pethő4 and Elleström5. The definition I find useful when discussing Bergman’s work in the context of intermediality presented by Pethő, namely thinking about intermediality ‘as a system or a network of interrelations, a system of media convergence and transformation’6. The reason I prefer this particular understanding of the term intermediality is that it contains the main information that is intermediality happens when two or more media are blended, and the elements of the definition are not too detailed. Even though Elleström’s attempt to specify medium is comprehensive, I do understand medium as traditional dictionaries, namely ‘as a channel for the mediation of information and entertainment’7. Since the journey I would like to embark on entails the exploration of Bergman’s Persona released in 1966, these two notions – information and entertainment – might be considered important elements. Its release date and production year 1965, and in fact the entire decade are significant when it comes to analysing Persona from an intermedial perspective. While reading a various cinema scholars’ painstakingly written texts on either Bergman or his films, or on Persona in particular, I had the feeling that something was missing. The Cinema Studies context with the dominance of the aesthetic values and description was taken as the vantage point, and the Media Studies one was barely brought up. Art forms such as photography, theatre or even film focusing on kinematography are mentioned and examined rigorously, and mass media such as radio and television might be included in the analyses reflecting on the historical and cultural perspectives, but I could not read anywhere about the significance of the Vietnam War (1955–1970) in media history, for instance, that is to say it was the first televised war – and the news was soon to become entertainment, and the term infotainment (information and entertainment) was coined. That being said, my aim is not to exclusively concentrate on mass media in Persona, but to discuss the use and function of media such as written texts, still photography, theatre, cinema, radio and television when elaborating on the different types of communication – and worlds. Firstly, on the interpersonal level letters and other written texts can be found, and this is where the relationship between the two main characters Alma and Elisabet is broadly emphasised. Secondly, taking a step further we can reach a less intimate level. Theatre, cinema and still photography are positioned here, and the spectatorship receives more attention. Eventually, the last grains of intimacy disappear too, the presence of radio and television draws our attention, and the entire world is watching and listening to the same. Liv Ullmann stresses that Persona is a greatly personal film for Bergman8, and this can hardly be denied, however, this celebrated piece is not only a film about a person in pain, but about a world in pain. If we agree with Koskinen, who says that ‘one should not in no way underestimate Bergman’s astute sense of using mass media for his own purposes’9, it is likely that the Swedish director also had an idea of the power of mass media concerning the flow of information on topics such as wars and protests.

On the interpersonal level, Persona showcases the development of an intimate relationship between two women, who seem to come from two different worlds at first sight, but through their conversations – about written texts, mainly letters, and verbal images – we come to realise that they are not that dissimilar after all. Even if Elisabet, the actress who decided not to talk meanwhile being treated in a hospital and later in her doctor’s summerhouse, communicates only non-verbally in face-to-face situations with her nurse Alma and chiefly listens to her, they still take part in actual conversations. Bergman surely had this view based on the quote from his diary cited by Koskinen: ‘Listen and you shall hear. It is your hearing that gives you your images, projections, imaginings.’10 Astrid Söderbergh Widding, who discusses religious motif in Bergman’s films and devotes a section to faces and words, even argues that Elisabet ‘in her way communicates more, even at times in a perverted way, than her loquacious nurse Alma’11. And Elisabet patiently listens to Alma when she reads letters and books or tells her secrets, and the latter once expresses her gratitude that someone finally pays attention to what she has to say, because it has never happened before. Why is the fact that Alma talks a lot so important in terms of intermediality? One might wonder. During the night when Alma gets drunk a form of adaptation occurs, i.e. ekphrasis which ‘is a verbal representation of visual representation—typically a poetic description of a work of visual art12. Here Alma describes ‘a sexual encounter that she and a friend experienced with two teenage boys one hot summer day on a beach’13. Regarding this scene and another scene in the film Silence (Tysdnaden, Ingmar Bergman, 1963), Koskinen writes about the ‘unseen, “invisible” images created […] by words alone14. This also applies to Alma’s monologue heard at the end of the film when she tells a story from Elisabet’s life – exactly ‘when the two women who had seemed to merge their persona go their separate ways’15, claims Orr. The merge of Alma’s and Elisabet’s persona inspired a lot of scholars, for instance Orr, who disputes it within the context of the influence of Hollywood on Bergman. However, I might dare to say that Alma, Elisabet and the young boy at the beginning of the film comprise one single person; they only represent one side of that person. This is partially proven by Bergman himself quoted by Linda Haverty Rugg, who is discussing self-projection in Ingmar Bergman’s work: ‘One day I found that one of them [Alma and Elisabet] was mute like me, the other voluble, officious and caring, also like me.’16  The boy can also be Bergman, since in the film Ingmar Bergman and the Movie by Marie Nyreröd, Bergman shares the memory of exchanging his tin soldiers to a magic lantern projector his brother originally received as a Christmas present. In Persona the boy is watching a screen, which implies that all the viewers are going to see a film. The other reason why I truly believe that the boy is the third side of the persona is that there is a resemblance – regarding both appearance and movements – between him and Alma. Both of them have short hair, have trouble sleeping and the interior is fairly similar in both scenes, in addition to that, they both wear glasses when reading and have an admiration for Elisabet. Moreover, Alma mentions the word childish twice: first she describes her thoughts as childish on the meaning of life, and then Elisabet’s on motherhood. The latter is heard the end game of the ‘play’ between Alma and Elisabet. Their seemingly harmonic relationship takes a turn when Alma reads Elisabet’s letter addressed to her doctor. ‘The letters and diaries can be seen as a device somewhere in between Bergman’s narrative voiceover — occurring at rare but essential points in his films — and a full integration of his words in the actors’ dialogue’17, argues Holmberg and Rossholm. This is completely true in regard to Persona, in which two letters play substantial role in it. Besides Elisabet’s letter, which is not written by hand but a typewriter, which indicates neutrality in a sense that both personas, either Alma or Elisabet, could have written it – even though we can see Elisabet sitting at the machine. The other one is a hand-written letter by Elisabet’s husband and read out loud by Alma. The letter illustrates the troubled, but loving relationship between Elisabet and her husband, and Alma stops at one point when it becomes slightly too intimate. This, of course, can happen, because she does not feel entitled to read the letter, or because it is too hurtful to hear the truth, in other words it shows ‘fragility of the now’18, as Swedish critic Leif Zern quoted by Ohlin puts it. As we go further into the film plot, it becomes more and more obvious that both Alma and Elisabet is haunted by the past in one way or another. The former talks out in front Elisabet, admitting her false to her other persona, and the latter sinks into silence and tries to hide her feelings even from herself. Besides letters, Mikhail Lermontov’s novel A Hero of Our Time and a book on mushrooms needs to be commented on. Whereas the Russian novel consisting of five short stories is a ‘portrait, but not of one man’19, and the stories tell a lot about vices, the latter implicitly refers to all kinds of poison, not only the ones the different types of mushrooms might contain. These written texts can reflect Alma and Elisabet’s poisonous relationship, and, more universally, the immoral actions of human kind.

Books in general presupposes a greater audience, similarly to theatre and cinema, so now I would like to turn to the world that surrounds Alma and Elisabet, where the horizon expands and which other people may enter. Theatre, cinema (moving images) and still photography are also key elements in Persona; they allow us to scrutinise the two women’s relationship with each other and their surroundings. According to Orr, due to the more and more experience Bergman was gained in working in theatre, the more ‘the very culture of performing becomes an indispensable plot-line for his narrative films’20. In Persona Elisabet is an actress whose last role on stage was Electra, however, in the film the doctor says, ‘Silence too is a role’21. Alma also accuses of Elisabet of playing a role, and using her. I agree with Orr, when he argues that Elisabet is taking revenge, just like Electra does22, nonetheless, after Alma reads the ominous letter, she starts retaliating. First a small piece of glass on the ground, and then her anger and frustration are expressed verbally, too. Of course, the question evokes here as well. Who punishes whom if they all comprise one character? Might the other self be hungry for revenge? Although Bergman himself says that ‘two women exchange masks and eventually share one’23, which expands his other statement on being both characters. He can be both characters, but his inner selves can live a slightly separate life and can perform in front of each other. There is something theatrical in the film, and this feeling is enhanced by the shots when the actors look into the camera, but within the cinematic context they look at each other and ‘act’ in front of others. Rugg additionally covers the topic of film about film regarding Persona.24 When scrutinising the short excerpts at the beginning of the film, some of which later are partially shown again, one possibly conclude that nearly all of them depicts death. Some of them are more explicitly than the others. The moving images showing the animated character washing its hands and right away two hands imitating the act of washing hands are all about becoming clean, and also a reminder for the ritual when the body of a dead person is washed. After doing something ‘dirty’, which in this context can actually mean killing people or being responsible for other people’s death, people might wash their hands, and in that sense the dead are probably not washed. The act of killing is part of Electra’s story, and it can also remind us of the Holocaust, which cannot be eschewed regarding Persona because of the photo Elisabet finds in her book. Ohlin deals with this mysterious photo of a group of Jewish people – chiefly of women and children – surrounded by soldiers, he conducts an investigation and discusses Persona in the context of Holocaust. His detailed analysis deserves attention owing to the fact that he touches upon several issues, he connects it to Elisabet’s son, the photo of which viewers can also see and which she tears, and to the little boy at the beginning the film. His remarks on the music are also relevant and valid, and this part of a sentence that is ‘part of the job of living in the present will involve dealing with such images’25 summarises the meaning of human existence, because humans always need to face the consequences – whether this includes dealing with a smaller issue or a severe one such as a mother torturing her son or genocides. Ohlin briefly studies the scene, already mentioned above regarding ekprhasis, in which Alma talks about Elisabet’s attitude towards motherhood and her son. Ohlin finds it disturbing, which might be true, but it is still a necessity in the film. It forces Elisabet to stop playing a(nother) role and to cope with the consequences of her actions as anyone else.

I now leave behind the realm of theatre, cinema and still photography, which are highly regarded as highbrow art forms, unlike radio and television. With these two forms of mass media, it is possible to explore the third level of communication in the film. Alma and Elisabet’s relationship can be investigated in another angle once again. In his text Ohlin links the release date of Persona, that is 1966, to the beginning of the postmodernist era in cinema.26 I am, on the other hand, not interested in the innovative aspect of Persona, which is certainly worthwhile to be theorized, but the increasing popularity of mass media can be on our agenda as well when Persona is the subject of our research. Bergman’s film was released in the mid-1960s, during the time when the first war was televised and radio was still on its peak. What is more, it is a highly accepted fact among media scholars that Adolf Hitler could raise to power due to the use of radio.27 Although in the film the Holocaust is referred to with showing a photo only and radio is used to broadcast a radio soap operas and classical music, so not the news, the idea of reaching to a wider public is there. In Persona the radio as a physical entity is located in Elisabet’s hospital room and in Alma’s room in the summerhouse. It is only turned on in the hospital, and this is the time when Alma talks about her love for the theatre and cinema, her admiration for artists, hence for Elisabet as well, and the importance of the arts. It might be an exaggeration to say that her monologue might imply the increasing number of people who listens to radio and watches TV and the decreasing number of people who visit the cinemas. Being familiar with Stefan Johansson’s text on Berman’s relationship to the opera, and the story of how Johansson asked Bergman in the late 1980s to stand up against the potential cuts of the serious programmes at Radio Drama section of the Swedish Radio in favour of soup operas, for instance28, the act when Alma decides to change the radio channel as radio soap is on to rather listen classical music is significant. Elisabet’s facial expressions tell even more when she is listening to the music and staring contemplatively at the radio. Compared to radio, the presence of television is more emphasized; Bergman takes advantage of both the sound and the visual element of it. In contrast with the other scene, Elisabet is alone in her room when she gets scared when watching TV. Ohlin talks about ‘radical discontinuity between word and image’, and he claims there is no relationship between the news report on the troop movement and the Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức’s self-immolation.29 I disagree with his claim, because Vietnam as a place is a connection between them, and because he also relates this to the photo of a group of Jewish people surrounded by soldiers discussed above. Furthermore, he elaborates on how much impact past has on the present.30 It is a crucial fact that WWII was not televised, soldiers made photos, and the Sonderkommandos, the unit of Jewish male camp prisoners, also documented the life in the camp and left behind some evidence. However, the Vietnam war was televised, and TV showed the horror of it that everybody who turned on the TV could see it. The monk might be mute as the young boy on the photo and committed to his action, as Ohlin describes it31, but we can see him ‘in action’, his way of resistance. But we could not see those in the concentration camps who were sent to the crematorium. We are witnessing the horror that is still happening even though the whole world might be watching and listening, while during the WWII the terrible events could remain hidden during the years of war more easily. Elisabet screams after because of what she sees and hears, for her watching the images of horror is not entertainment yet. Resistance can take place in various forms and can have impact on smaller and larger communities, it can even affect the perception of people. As Ohlin says ‘there is a world out there’ 32, where people unlike Elisabet does not play a role. While watching television started as a community event, neither Alma nor anyone else shares the experience with Elisabet, but sooner or later she will have access to these memories as well. Of course, if they are really one person from the very beginning, no need for Alma to be in the room. As for the small boy, he follows all the events from the outside, so when he is staring at the screen, either a cinema or television screen, he sees everything – as the viewers all do.

Viewers in fact are not able to forget that they are watching a film. The moving images of the reels at the beginning of Persona, of the disruption in the middle and of the film set at the end of the film and the narrator’s voice accentuate the frame of the medium. The co-existence of other media such as written texts, theatre, cinema, still photography, radio and television mediated in the film is also underscored. All of them contribute to the plot, either entailing a turning point, or providing deeper understanding of events happened or happening and of the characters’ soul and motivation. By analysing them from a journey trough worlds manifests itself: from an intimate environment to the globalised world. Intermediality is undeniably a key factor in Persona, and it offers a great framework to do research on the film. Based on Bergman’s film it can be really said that intermediality is equal with remediation. For instance, the radio and television episode lasts only a shorter period of time, but intermediality occurs on many levels. The radio remediates the music, which is then remediated by the film, and the news is broadcasted on TV that is remediated by the film. Remembering the excerpts from the film Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie (1963) by Vilgot Sjöman, in which it is shown how much power Bergman had over his films and how meticulous he was when directing, the reason for using other media at one particular point in Persona cannot be a coincidence. Looking back at the 1960s one might conclude those years were the years of turbulence, but one thing was certain. Ingmar Bergman was an acclaimed and celebrated director, a brand as Balio contextualises him33. He definitely was a brand, is one today and will be in the future, too. The head of the Ingmar Bergman Foundation said during the first class that there is a chance that Bergman would be remembered as an author instead of a film-maker in the future, which might be one of the consequences of the enormous amount of documents he left behind, but that will not stop scholars to look for more and more answers regarding his films, theatre plays, diaries, etc. However, everyone should take Leif Furhammar’s statement34 to the heart and try not to identify any decade of the history of Swedish cinema with Ingmar Bergman; his work should be discussed more in the context of Swedish cinema instead.

1. Brigitte Steene, “A Professional Assessment: The Power of the Shadows or How We Study Ingmar Bergman”, in Ingmar Bergman Revisited. Performance, Cinema and the Arts, ed. Maaret Koskinen (London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2008), 213.

2. Maaret Koskinen, “Introduction”, in Ingmar Bergman Revisited. Performance, Cinema and the Arts, ed. Maaret Koskinen (London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2008), 1.

3. While taking Cinema Studies in Hungary seven years ago, he was still mostly discussed in the framework of modernism and auteur theory.

4. Ágnes Pethő. “Intermediality in Film: A Historiography of Methodologies,” Media and Film Studies 2, (2010): 19–55.

5. Lars Elleström, “The Modalities of Media: A Model for Understanding Intermedial Relations”, in Media Borders, Multimodality and Intermediality, ed. Lars Elleström (Houndmills Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 11–48.

6. Pethő, 57.

7. Elleström, 11–48.

8. Liv Ullmann, “Prologue: A Personal Assessment”, in Ingmar Bergman Revisited. Performance, Cinema and the Arts, ed. Maaret Koskinen (London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2008), 10.

9. Maaret Koskinen. “From Erotic Icon to Clan Chief: The Auteur as Star”, in Stellar Encounters: Stardom in Popular European Cinema, ed. by Tytti Soila (New Barnet: John Libbey Publishing Ltd, 2009), 88.

10. Maaret Koskinen, “Out of the Past: Saraband and the Ingmar Bergman Archive”, in Ingmar Bergman Revisited. Performance, Cinema and the Arts, ed. Maaret Koskinen (London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2008), 33.

11. Astrid Söderbergh Widding, “What Should We Believe?: Religious Motifs in Ingmar Bergman’s Films”, in Ingmar Bergman Revisited. Performance, Cinema and the Arts, ed. Maaret Koskinen (London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2008), 205.

12. W.J.T Mitchell, “There are No Visual Media”, in MediaArtHistories, ed. Oliver Grau (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2007), 402.

13. Maaret Koskinen, Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence: Pictures in the typewriter, writings on the screen (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010), 98.

14. Ibid., 98.

15. John Orr, “Bergman, Nietzsche and Hollywood”, in Ingmar Bergman Revisited. Performance, Cinema and the Arts, ed. Maaret Koskinen (London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2008), 159.

16. Linda Haverty Rugg, “Self-Projection and Still Photography in the Work of Ingmar Bergman”, in Ingmar Bergman Revisited. Performance, Cinema and the Arts, ed. Maaret Koskinen (London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2008), 109.

17. Jan Holmberg and Anna Sofia Rossholm, “Screened Writing. Notes on Bergman’s Hand,” Word and Image 31, (2015) 4: 465, accessed March 10, 2017, doi: 10.1080/02666286.2015.1053040.

18. Peter Ohlin, “The Holocaust in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona: The Instability of Imagery,” Scandinavian Studies 77, no. 2 (2005): 242.

19.  Eldritch Press, “A Hero of Our Time,” accessed March 18, 2017. http://www.eldritchpress.org/myl/hero.htm..

20. Orr, 148.

21. Paisley Livingston, “On Ingmar Bergman and Philosophy: The Kaila Connection”, in Ingmar Bergman Revisited. Performance, Cinema and the Arts, ed. Maaret Koskinen (London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2008), 134.

22.  Orr,

23. Rugg, 115.

24. Ibid., 113.

25. Ohlin, 254.

26. Ohlin, 268.

27. Today it is repeatedly echoed that social media has that kind power. Think about the Arab Spring or Donald Trump’s Twitter account!

28. Stefan Johansson, “Ingmar Bergman at the Royal Opera”, in Ingmar Bergman Revisited. Performance, Cinema and the Arts, ed. Maaret Koskinen (London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2008), 61.

29. Ohlin, 264-265.

30. Ohlin, 243.

31. Ibid., 265.

32. Ibid., 253.

33. Tino Balio, The Foreign Film Renaissance on American Screens 1946-1973 (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2010).

34. Steene, 228.

Bibliography

Films

Ingmar Bergman and the Movie (Marie Nyreröd, 2004)

Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie (Ingmar Bergman gör en film, Vilgot Sjöman, 1963)

Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966)

Silence (Tysdnaden, Ingmar Bergman, 1963)

Written Sources

Balio, Tino. The Foreign Film Renaissance on American Screens 1946-1973. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2010.

Eldritch Press. “A Hero of Our Time.” Accessed March 18, 2017. http://www.eldritchpress.org/myl/hero.htm.

Elleström, Lars. “The Modalities of Media: A Model for Understanding Intermedial Relations”. In Media Borders, Multimodality and Intermediality, edited by Lars Elleström. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan 2010, 11–48.

Holmberg, Jan and Anna Sofia Rossholm, “Screened Writing. Notes on Bergman’s Hand.” Word and Image 31 (2015) 4: 459–472. Accessed 10 March, 2017. doi: 10.1080/02666286.2015.1053040

Johansson, Stefan. “Ingmar Bergman at the Royal Opera”. In Ingmar Bergman Revisited. Performance, Cinema and the Arts, edited by Maaret Koskinen. London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2008, 51–63.

Koskinen, Maaret, “Introduction”. In Ingmar Bergman Revisited. Performance, Cinema and the Arts, edited by Maaret Koskinen. London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2008, 1–7.

Koskinen, Maaret, “Out of the Past: Saraband and the Ingmar Bergman Archive”. In Ingmar Bergman Revisited. Performance, Cinema and the Arts, edited by Maaret Koskinen. London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2008, 19–34.

Koskinen, Maaret. “From Erotic Icon to Clan Chief: The Auteur as Star”, 81-89. In Stellar Encounters: Stardom in Popular European Cinema, edited by Tytti Soila. New Barnet: John Libbey Publishing Ltd, 2009.

Koskinen, Maaret. Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence: Pictures in the typewriter, writings on the screen. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010.

Livingston, Paisley. “On Ingmar Bergman and Philosophy: The Kaila Connection”. In Ingmar Bergman Revisited. Performance, Cinema and the Arts, edited by Maaret Koskinen. London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2008, 120–139.

Mitchell, W.J.T. “There are No Visual Media”. In MediaArtHistories, edited by Oliver Grau. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2007, 395-406.

Ohlin, Peter. “The Holocaust in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona: The Instability of Imagery.” Scandinavian Studies 77, no. 2 (2005): 241–274.

Orr, John. “Bergman, Nietzsche and Hollywood”. In Ingmar Bergman Revisited. Performance, Cinema and the Arts, edited by Maaret Koskinen. London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2008, 143–160.

Pethő, Ágnes. ”Intermediality in Film: A Historiography of Methodologies”.  Film and Media Studies 2, (2010): 39–72.

Rugg, Linda Haverty. “Self-Projection and Still Photography in the Work of Ingmar Bergman”. In Ingmar Bergman Revisited. Performance, Cinema and the Arts, edited by Maaret Koskinen. London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2008, 107–119.

Söderbergh Widding, Astrid. “What Should We Believe?: Religious Motifs in Ingmar Bergman’s Films”. In Ingmar Bergman Revisited. Performance, Cinema and the Arts, edited by Maaret Koskinen. London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2008, 194–209.

Steene, Brigitte. “A Professional Assessment: The Power of the Shadows or How We Study Ingmar Bergman”. In Ingmar Bergman Revisited. Performance, Cinema and the Arts, edited by Maaret Koskinen. London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2008, 213–232.

Ullmann, Liv. “Prologue: A Personal Assessment”. In Ingmar Bergman Revisited. Performance, Cinema and the Arts, edited by Maaret Koskinen. London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2008, 8–15.

Barbara Majsa

Barbara is a journalist, editor and film critic. She usually does interviews with film-makers, artists, designers, and writes about cinema, design and books.