Ingrid Bergman Blogathon – A Tale of Two Bergmans: Autumn Sonata (1978)


This is my, sadly late, contribution to the Ingrid Bergman Blogathon hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema.

When I saw this announced I knew there was only one selection I could really make. Granted my recent Blogathon contributions about Images by Ingmar Bergman, and Interviews: Liv Ullmann, combined with my recent acquisition of the Autumn Sonata Criterion edition made it a natural choice.

However, this is a film I loved since I first saw it, and one of the rare Bergman films I saw in the theatre first. This was thanks to a retrospective the Film Forum had a while back.

So with the new Blu, the supplements, and all the other sources I could cull from, it really did open up a world of new insights into the making of this wonderful, heart-wrenching film.

Images: My Life in Film by Ingmar Bergman

Images: My Life in Film (1995, All Rights Reserved)

As I stated previously, Bergman’s book Images is perhaps a better source for his notions of his work as he had the benefit of hindsight and didn’t have as close an emotional attachment to the material, and whatever emotional scars production may have left faded over time.

It’s always fascinating to get into the creative process. Bergman shares much of his for this film. He states “Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann were necessary for Autumn Sonata.” As the idea was born first that he wanted to work with Ingrid, then as this idea occurred to him it seemed it was the perfect vehicle. And it was.

Much as Stephen King describes the construction of The Langoliers, Bergman speaks of how easily the story seemed to flow from him: “Autumn Sonata was conceived in one night, in a matter of hours, after a period of total writer’s block.”

Autumn Sonata (1978, All Rights Reserved)

It came about in manner not dissimilar to Robert Rodriguez’ theory about obfuscating what film is in fact a director’s second. With regards to Autumn Sonata Bergman stated:

I wanted to have something up my sleeve in case The Serpent’s Egg flopped with a somersault.

The title of the film makes sense as per the dictionary definition of sonata:

noun, Music.

a composition for one or two instruments, typically in three or four movements in contrasted forms and keys.

Bergman similarly wanted to limit the number of characters in the drama:

“Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann in the two roles, and no one else. Eventually there may be room for a third character.”

In terms of major speaking roles he succeeded in this aim. In production many of the alluded to flashbacks do occur giving bodies, if not voices to those characters.

Bergman speaks of how he feels ultimately the film was a failure due to the fact that “A French critic cleverly wrote that ‘with Autumn Sonata Bergman does Bergman.’ It is witty but unfortunate. For me, that is.” He felt this was accurate going on to further state that:

“I also feel that Tarkovsky started to make Tarkovsky films and Fellini began to make Fellini films. Yet Kurosawa never made a Kurosawa film.”

“Has Bergman begun to make Bergman films? I find that Autumn Sonata is an annoying example.”

“Had I had the strength to do what I intended at the beginning, it would not have turned out that way.”

Autumn Sonata (1978, All Rights Reserved)

On the results Bergman states the following:

“It is impossible to discern how a film evolved and why it ended up as it did.”

“Why did I choose this story, and why was it so complete? It was more finished in the outline than the execution.”

“The daughter finally gives birth to the mother. Through this reversal they unite for a few brief moments in perfect symbiosis.”

“The idea that Helena gives birth to her mother is a difficult one to convey and one which, I’m sad to say, I abandoned.”

In that quartet of statements we see the struggle of creation. It is a bit of a wonder that Bergman simultaneously complains of the film being too Bergman but complains of this inability to create a symbiosis of character in this film. A symbiosis which would undoubtedly cause instant comparison to Persona.

In one way it reminds me on the latter chapters of Hitchcock’s Notebooks where later in his career Hitch seemed to be getting overwrought and unable to clearly to convey to his leads who the characters were. Here the result is clearly one of superior quality, and one of the Best in Bergman’s career in my estimation, but the statement does represent a kind of disconnect. Had he attempted and succeeded in having the daughter birth the mother it would’ve been even more Bergman than the French critic initially cited, yet somehow more successful. Certainly it points to that uncertainty in his feeling that it had failed for unknown reasons.

Autumn Sonata (1978, All Rights Reserved)

Ingmar made it clear he felt he hung Liv out to try in order to better manage Ingrid. I don’t necessarily agree with these statements but here were his impressions:

“I was difficult to work with these two actresses together. When I look at the film today, I see that I left Liv to shift for herself when I ought to have been more supportive.”

“In a few scenes she sometimes goes astray”

What made Ingmar need to dedicate so much additional attention to Ingrid. His own words on the matter are as follows:

“The idea was rekindled when “at the screening of Cries and Whispers she had snuck a note in my pocket which she reminded me of my promise that we would work together.” One of the things they first discussed was bringing “Hjalmar Bergman’s novel The Boss, Mrs. Ingeborg to film.”

The ideal to Bergman: “Three acts in three kinds of lighting: One evening light, one night light, and one morning light. No cumbersome sets, two farces, and three kinds of lighting.

“Therein lies an emotion that I was not able to realize and carry through to its conclusion.” “That is an unerring symptom of creative exhaustion, exceedingly dangerous because it doesn’t hurt.”

Autumn Sonata developed as it did and Ingmar said of Ingrid: “I did not have what one would call difficulties in my working relationship with Ingrid Bergman” but a “kind of a language barrier, but in a profound sense.” Meaning that after the table read, and through the first few days of production he “Discovered that she had rehearsed her entire part in front of the mirror, complete with intonations and self-conscious gestures.” The language barrier comment makes more sense as you continue to read “It was clear that she had a different approach to her profession han the rest of us. She was still living in the 1940s” and had “Different approach due to generational acting style preference.” While it didn’t click with Bergman he didn’t discount it entirely calling it an “inspired system of working, albeit a strange one.”

Autumn Sonata (1978, All Rights Reserved)

Late in the writing he pondered her prior working habits. “She still must have been somehow receptive to suggestions from two or three of her former directors.” “In Hitchcock’s films, for instance, she is always magnificent. She detested the man.” Of Hitchcock Bergman said:

“I believe that with her he never hesitated to be disrespectful and arrogant, which evidently was precisely the best method to make her listen.”

This lead to Bergman feeling that he “was forced to use tactics I normally rejected, the first and foremost being aggression.”

Later in interviews shed some light on the on-set relationship saying Ingmar confronted Ingrid. When he showed her dailies at her request. She was in agreement about her dated, inaccurate approach to the film, she asked for and got reshoots and things were somewhat better from there. However, considering all these facts Ingrid saying “‘If you don’t tell me how you want me to do in this scene, I’ll slap you!’” makes more sense. He wanted to work with actors to interpret text interestingly not dictate. It is a funny and insightful line because most directors at some point wish they could hear that exact thing rather than being fearful of stepping on toes.

Autumn Sonata (1978)

Still he said that Ingrid was ultimately “generous, grand, and highly talented.” And was made aware that she was fighting cancer after their first on-set heart-to-heart where they reached a somewhat better understanding of one another.

It is really interesting that this collaboration occurred. However, based on her track record of seeking Hollywood on her own terms, contacting Rossellini and wanting to work with him, and then dropping Bergman a note; it seems she liked a challenge and to be a bit uncomfortable, as each of these stages of her career brought her much different environments and working conditions than she was heretofore used to.

The fact of the matter is that Brando and Dean brought actors to the fore anew as creators. This was after Ingrid made a name for herself, and while she challenged herself with new directors she did not evolve but rather refined her own method, so it’s natural that there was some friction.

Autumn Sonata by Ingmar Bergman

Autumn Sonata

After having prepared the aforementioned notes the next thing I wanted to do was to read the screenplay anew. This would mark a third reading for me. All from a photocopy I ran off of a paperback I happened to find.

The script runs for a total of 21 scenes on 83 pages. The first is labeled as a Prologue. The added characters which are embodied and speaking are Viktor (Erland Josephson), a parson, representative of his father, based on his biography and other films and Helena (Lena Nyman).

Some of the themes touched upon are rather familiar such as the cultural references, the existential themes, a dead child, the topic of abortion; discussions of childishness and the nature of adulthood, travel, culinarian are a bit unique to the proceedings but not unlike how Bergman handles subjects. It’s also further interesting in hindsight to note that struggling with adulthood is not just for Millennials, and it never has been.

Autumn Sonata (1978, All Rights Reserved)

As for Bergman doing Bergman, it occurred to me while reading that many of his motifs are there but in many ways better than they were ever realized. In some ways its reminiscent on my thoughts on Madonna’s MDNA album, which were that it reminded me of everything she ever did but was wholly new.

As opposed to Ibsen’s Ghosts who were the central characters, the ghosts here a literal literary ones and are characters mentioned in passing or musicians. Examples include, but are not limited to; Agnes, Leonardo, Paul, Schneiderhahn, Starker, Janos, Nurse, Master Harold, Samuel Parkenhurst, Varvisio, Chopin, Adam Kretzinsky, Maria van Eyck, Father, Schmeiss, Stefan, Grandmother, Grandpa, Paul.

Some dialogue changes are lamentable, like the wonderful image of “Cloudberries on the Bog” being lost but ultimately Bergman was the end arbiter of his script on film, and likely the closest thing to a cinematic playwright as we ever so. Therefore, I typically trust his judgment.

Autumn Sonata (1978, All Rights Reserved)

The script is a testament to how the visual dictates the focus of the narrative, simply by its omission in the text most of the time. You are given the images you need in the end product. Furthermore, the reveal of one of the characters (Helena) being present is itself a plot point underscoring that the script is character driven as characters literally are the plot.

It’s a document that allows the actors to play subtextually, and is even contains metatextual moments with Viktor describing his wife to the audience. Furthermore, it allows characters soliloquies a technique usually reserved for the stage.

Eva’s soliloquy on Erik’s drowning. She then speaks of him as a near- literal ghost, talked about intriguingly as present. This allows her to transition to religion. Bergman was always described as one seeking to creat a map of the soul, and going into this realm and everywhere in between is why. It’s also interesting that in this story there is more faith found in Eva than in the parson.

Autumn Sonata (1978, All Rights Reserved)

It paints Charlotte as a woman who relates all things to music because reality is hard, and getting outside her own head and life is even harder. She has spent years seeking the secrets of the preludes, but those of life elude her and do not demand nearly as much of her attention. She practices an art of interpreting others as a means to express oneself. But her dedication to, and ability to mother has always been suspect at best.

There are passive-aggressive moments and the heights and depths of volume with persistent intensity. All indicated through the dialogue and rarely with parenthetical directions,

In technical terms the first lengthy parenthetical action/discription on Page 43. Now based on what I’ve seen Bergman’s scripts are a bit unorthodox anyway, especially as compared to standard Hollywood formatting. Sometimes you’ll see scripts dumbed down to an easier to read interface similar to stage plays. There usually is no indication of the visuals or the blocking. Bergman knew these things but divulged them when the time came. The screenplay is and has been an ever-evolving blueprint for a film and Bergman had his own way of fashioning his.

Autumn Sonata (1978, All Rights Reserved)

The ending of the script is insistent and offers a glimmer of hope. However, clearly can be no facile reconciliation. Nor may there be one at all. All endings besides the one offered would be false. It is a tale wherein mother and daughter have become estranged and the daughter still holds on the adolescent tendency to blame one’s parents for all their faults, and a mother who shares a certain burden of guilt never having felt entirely at ease in her role at home.

Autumn Sonata (1978)

Autumn Sonata (1978, All Rights Reserved)

As mentioned above the cast members in flashback nor some of the visuals are mentioned in the script. Most notably a photo of Erik, a photo of Leonardo Charlotte delivers a soliloquy to, and a scene where slides are being projected.

Bergman/Nyqvist’s affinity for using mirrors and reflections also shows up in the end product; as well as the emphasis on having the camera on the person listening at times for an extended period, of having both framed is brilliant, and allows Ingrid Bergman to shine and carry the film every bit as much when she’s listening as she does when speaking.

Clearly the indication of the emotions that will be conveyed by the disparate playing of the sonatas can’t really come across in the script, and Bergman did fake it very well indeed, as she claimed she could. Both list to one another play captivatingly.

Autumn Sonata (1978, All Rights Reserved)

This is as good a time as any to mention that there is a brilliant three-and-a-half hour documentary on the making of the film. While watching the process is fascinating there is only so much that can be gleaned, a bit of it will be indicated later. But some changes are never examined like the fact that Ingrid rehearsed phone calls to her agent in Swedish and then in the film they were in English. It was a great touch but that was one change I was looking forward to seeing happen.

In visual terms, the success of Autumn Sonata at the end truly hinges in Ingrid Bergman’s expression as Charlotte is seen reacting to Eva’s letter. The pain is clear, and if there is any reconciliation even possible is left nebulous at best.

Ingrid Bergman Interview at NFT

Ingrid Bergman (2015, Criterion)

In a revealing interview at the National Film Theatre in London Ingrid sat down to discuss her career, and her at that time most recent film, Autumn Sonata. She touched on her desire to change, as evidenced by the phases of her career. The fact that she was independent was something that contrarian, and likely contributed to her gaining fans and losing them when she was turned on during the height of the Red Scare, and she stayed off the American screen until she made Anastasia.

This maverick streak was there from the start as she played under only one contract during her whole career, a four-year one with David O. Selznick following the success of Intermezzo. She was always a freelancer after that, which made her shift to working in the Italian cinema with Rossellini easier to accomplish logistically.

Bergman’s involvement with Rossellini professionally and personally made him possessive and she was not allowed to work with anyone else when they were together until Jean Renoir spoke to him. Owing to Rosselini’s respect for Renoir he allowed the two to collaborate.

Autumn Sonata (1978, All Rights Reserved)

When speaking of Bergman she talked of how they got to know one another, and how he joked that they were “brother and sister.” She spoke of her determination to work with him that it was “written in fire over my forehead.” Considering she wrote Rossellini out of the blue it was sure to happen even though it was a project that faced many delays.

As an actress who had worked in German, English, French, and Italian in the years since her last Swedish film (in her homeland) she stated it wasn’t hard to get back into and it was a “great relief after so many years. I can’t believe it was so easy to learn the dialogue.”

As an actress who learned English to play her first American role, it should surprise no one that she had piano instruction again for the first time since she was 13 to be able to convincingly fake her piano playing for Autumn Sonata.

Autumn Sonata (1978, All Rights Reserved)

With regards to the film she felt quite a bit of connection. Saying that a lot of it was her life, leaving her home and her children, be it for work or relationships dissolving. “That just makes me very sad because I’ve done it many times,” she stated.

She also admitted to arguing with Ingmar over certain points but didn’t frame these stories with bias. She thought certain lines and facts of the story were hard to swallow, complaining that the time Charlotte and Eva spent apart was “inhuman.” Bergman usually won out stating “We’re not telling your story it’s Charlotte’s.”

Interview with Bergman

Bergman Island (2004, Sveriges Television)

This feature includes the full (and I believe unedited) interview footage with Bergman on Farö Island which was filmed for the documentary Bergman Island.

Here Bergman again related much of the story, with no major details changing, just more information. Much of which Ullmann corroborates at a later date.

Bergman discusses having a fear headache based on the performance he believed he was getting. He was finding he couldn’t direct her. When they sat and talked he found out about Ingrid’s cancer, she took the notes well and professionally, and in hoping to merely reach a sort of compromise he saw she agreed and came around.

He felt at that point her sensitivities opened up to the truer nature of the character. My feeling is her defensiveness my have been built up due in part to her health issues, a hiatus from work, and dealing with a new director with a different vision. Maybe the tendency to lean on old habits proved too strong. Thankfully for her, Ingmar, and the film she came through it.

Interview with Liv Ullmann

Liv Ullmann (2015, Criterion)

Having recently read a book of her interviews I was wondering what Liv could offer her. Being a newer interview, and after the deaths of both Ingmar and Ingrid added an emotional tenor to the matter but also some new information.

The first aspect of which was that she really was in on the ground floor. As parents together, former lover, and now collaborator, Ullmann knew this project existed before Bergman realized this was the perfect vehicle for Ingrid. The realization that it had to be her came a bit later.

Ullmann, as could be expected, gives great insight into the script and characters by her and Ingrid; two fiercely independent women. They both identified with playing women who needed to give of her own creativity, and could relate to the fact that society would tell them they could not do so. While I understand their quibbles with how audiences may interpret these characters, I believe that not every character is not a referendum on a gender or a race or group.

Autumn Sonata (1978, All Rights Reserved)

She learned in this film how vulnerable emotionally a director who writes is, and she didn’t really appreciate it then. Ingmar was unused to this questioning, and was one to not allow changes in wording. She doesn’t feel Ingmar and Ingrid ever real communication that they creating from themselves.

In Ingmar’s defense Liv does state she doesn’t like too many questions being asked, nor the director telling her too much. Her ability to create on her own, and play against dialogue allowed her the freedom to make Autumn Sonata work as well as it does.

Ullmann related how Bergman had a tradition of screening a film of his choosing for all cast and crew on Wednesday night. One day Ingrid had had enough, and was tired and left five minutes in. It was something that wasn’t done. Liv envied that but would never dream of doing so herself.

Autumn Sonata (1978, All Rights Reserved)

Liv credited Ingrid for in the end she never actually said no. She questioned things but eventually did do as she was asked. Perhaps the prime example of that is the fact that Ingrid wanted to slap Eva for what she was saying to her mother and it caused a big fight on set. Eventually she performed the scene as scripted. Liv was astounded at the results that through her choked back tears and rage she expressed “the anger of every woman who was forced to apologize” for choosing to create and have a family. The subtextual truth comes out.

What I came away with from the interview is that subtext wins over time, and the commentary is made without dialogue but through these actions and interactions.

Conclusion: The Booklet

Autumn Sonata (2015, Criterion Collection)

The Criterion Collection’s final nugget of wisdom on this film is the booklet (and bless them for still making them) is Farran Smith Nehme’s insightful essay on the film.

She rightly underscores that not only does the film scratch something off Ingrid’s proverbial bucket list, but it’s also Bergman’s final film created expressly for cinema. All his films afterward usually debuted on TV and then went to cinemas in either edited or unedited forms.

While its “built on exposition” and not metaphysical it still is Bergman with its touches and I think it’s an essay that helps frame the brilliance and surreal nature of having Ingrid Bergman in an Ingmar Bergman film one that feels not only intensely personal to those involved. Whether or not these fine actresses were allowed to say what they wanted to say about their own lives they expressed truths that could connect to all on either side of the parent-child relationship. As flawed, improbable, monstrous or sympathetic you find these figures they are written and played by wonderous artists that allow you to identify with them regardless of the facts of their case. It’s compelling to watch, and one thing Bergman was inarguably right about is that it had to be Liv and Ingrid. No question about it.

Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge – Interviews: Liv Ullmann


This post is part of the Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge. This particular title pertains to the blogathon by being a collection of interviews that serve as a biographical account of sorts as they are collected over a number of years, there are some personal questions, and Ullmann is speaks at various times of her life with evolving perspectives.

Interviews: Liv Ullmann

Liv Ullmann (2006, University of Mississippi Press)

I’ve written about Liv Ullmann here before. Naturally, having written about the films of Ingmar Bergman in the form of a list, and most recently a specific scene she was in that Bergman directed. I also posted a piece called Liv Ullmann: Between Stage and Screen here. This was something I wrote as a reaction to a speaking engagement she had in 2009 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was held in conjunction with her directing a show there and touched on her career as an actress in both media. Following the engagement I got this book, as I have a tendency to do; it ended up in a pile of books for a while. A similar practice applies to movies as well. I’m trying to use Goodreads and Letterboxd to deal with both issues.

But I digress…

I’ve not made a habit of reading interviews exhaustively. However, it’s fascinating in this case because they are legitimate interviews that take a number of projects and topics into considerations and not as much of the junket/talk show nature is in there. Having them span years you can see certain progression, changes in perspective and priorities, and different career phases. The time when her career began, and the type of films she was usually involved in, I’m sure contributed to the meatiness of these interviews. Plus, she doesn’t give the short shrift to any answers.

The 1970s: The Bergman Years

Persona (1966, Svensk Filmindustri)

If we’re being literal Ullmann’s “Bergman Years” began in 1966 with the release of Persona. However, these interviews begin in 1972. It was a different time and cinematic era, therefore, she only came over to the US and started doing interviews around the release of The Emigrants (Dir. Jan Troell), which garnered her a Golden Globe Award and her first Academy Award nomination.

Therefore, many of these interviews concern films like Persona, Cries and Whispers, Scenes from a Marriage, Troell’s epics The Emigrants and The New Land; Face to Face, Autumn Sonata; and her brief, mostly unsuccessful, in box office terms, but fun forays into Hollywood and the Broadway stage.

One can trace the growth of Ullmann as a person and her mastery over he instrument through these years. Always emotionally attuned she gives tremendous insights into her philosophy on life, art, the place of her craft, and the world in general.

The 1980s: UNICEF Ambassadorship and Broadening Horizons

Liv Ullman (U.N.)

When asked to visit refugee camps, and eventually asked to be a UNICEF ambassador; Liv Ullmann admits to a personal epiphany. In a prescient way she talks of the power of the media, and the positive change celebrities can affect by using the media. This is even more true today. She fascinatingly comes to terms with her acting as a profession, something she does for income, but sees this ambassadorship as her new, truer calling.

The 1990s: Sitting in the Director’s Chair

Liv Ullmann

Whether in Hollywood or abroad, the difficulty female actors face landing roles for the same time window of time as their male counterparts is a reality many have to deal with in an inarguably sexist industry. However, Ullmann seems to have found a new direction that personally satisfied her and coincided fortuitously with her entering an age range where actresses struggle to even see scripts much less good ones. Her transition to directing is well-documented, and openly explored.

Her first two films were quite personal yet also included departures. Ullmann is typically seen as a modern woman, emotionally open, intelligent and confidently independent found period pieces to tell her first tales. The first film Sofie is a story of a 19th century Jewish family (Ullmann herself is Christian but has always had Jewish friends and affection for the culture) who pressure their daughter to marry the man of their choosing. Her second feature is a cinematic adaptation of a classic Norwegian saga Kristin Lavransdatter. Also, clearly a temporal departure.

The 2000s: Bringing Bergman Back to the Silver Screen

Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman

Even with only a handful of screen directing credits Ullmann herself has already seen phases. First, were her personally befitting period-pieces, and then after Bergman’s initial retirement from film (one he really only broke for Saraband, which Ullmann participated in) she tackled two Bergman adaptations Private Confessions, as a lengthy TV project and edited feature project based on a novel Bergman wrote, and Faithless, an original Bergman screenplay she piloted solo on his insistence.

Conclusion: All the World’s a Stage

Liv Ullmann (Chicago Film Festival)

Whether it’s been as a legendary screen luminary and muse, activist and force for change, or emerging director; Liv Ullmann has never seemed to back down from a challenge starting from the moment she started Persona not 100% sure what she was getting into and how she was going to pull it off. These interviews cut-off about a decade ago and it shows.

In researching this piece I learned that Ullmann has made her debut directing in the English language with her own adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie starring Colin Farrell and Jessica Chastain. This doesn’t quite surprise me that much as I read some of her thoughts on Strindberg, and her saying she does not see language as an obstacle to directing.

Miss Julie (2014, Columbia TriStar)

Also, considering that Bergman was her closest collaborator who himself had a fascinating theatrical mash-up of Ibsen, Stringberg, and himself it’s not as surprising.

All the works I touched upon hardly scratch the surface as there is much to find in this book for fans. She talks of her evolving relationship with Ingmar personally and professionally, marriage in general, her relationship with her daughter, aging, fame, social issues, gender inequality, her theatrical works, coming to Hollywood as a newbie, interesting insights in to the film industry and specific films in general; and more.

Sure, as with any interview collection that at times features a few talks from the same year there will be some redundancies, certain titles will come up more than other ones, certain information will be redundant or slightly contradictory; but with minimal editorializing, and many Q & A transcriptions it really is speaking for herself and allowing us a window into her heart, mind, soul, and art. Fans and film enthusiasts should be willing to take a glimpse.

“…And scene!” Blogathon: Persona (1966) The Repeated Scene

Introduction: Fanny, Alexander and the Magic Lantern

Fanny and Alexander (1983, Svensk Filmindustri)

When dealing with a film that Bergman chronicles as being highly personal I feel it is only right that I give it the same treatment when I discuss it here.

There are times when I cannot help but inextricably tie my discovery of a filmmaker, or the genesis of my admiration for them, to the strength of my connection to their work. Which is to say Hitchcock and Bergman, for example, whom I gravitated to without prodding, and of my own volition, hold a more special place in my heart and mind than directors whose greatness I recognize but only found their work after hearing tell of how worthwhile an investment of my time it was and very consciously decided to watch them.

Specifically regarding Bergman, the story of my first viewing is that I decided to take the plunge when I was visiting family in Brazil. I saw a region 0 DVD of Fanny and Alexander on sale and even though to be able to see it I’d really do two translations (hearing Swedish audio, reading Portuguese subtitles and transposing it to English mentally); I went for it anyway.

Fanny and Alexander (1982)

I almost instantly loved the film a great deal and it fast became one of my favorites. I then proceeded to watch whatever Bergman I could from my teenage years through the present. DVDs were upgraded to Blu-rays at times; new-to-me titles acquired blind; repertory screenings at the Film Forum taken in when I was lucky enough to see them; his swan song was viewed the weekend it was released, dominating much of my annual BAM Awards; and then with his passing an honorary award with his name was created, and has a backstory of its own.

Fanny and Alexander (which I also got the box-set for and then viewed all versions, loving the TV version more than the original) was the impetus not only for my admiration but the best example of how I always inherently, nearly by osmosis, attributed to his films the axiom that the emotional truth of them was far more significant than the literal truth of the nearly fictitious “one true, correct meaning.” For it was without noticing really that I virtually never considered the wild conundrum, the paradox really, that exists in the telling of Fanny and Alexander until I revisited it and saw alternate versions.

Thus, when I made it around to Persona, which I believe I first saw as a VHS rental before getting a DVD,  it was one I instantly knew I wanted to come back and dissect. Even though I got the Repeated Scene, and it may not even be my favorite part of the film, I always came back to it.

Persona (1966, Svensk Filmidustri)

When I began my journey with Bergman, much like Alexander watching the images produced by the magic lantern, I was transfixed, as if by a wholly new experience unlike any I’d seen. Through Bergman’s eye the Repeated Scene in Persona was perhaps the most hypnotically dazzling. So here goes …

The Scene

Persona (1966)

For those who have seen the film but would like a refresher here is a YouTube link that works (for now) Those who have not seen it are advised to read carefully and selectively and see it as soon as they can:


The Text

Persona and Shame

Stepping back from the audiovisual image to the script we can look at a few different things.

My need to be current on Bergman has extended a bit beyond films. Be they plays, screenplays, even his novels, I’ve read quite a bit of his work also. Some I took out from the library or photocopied, some I felt impelled to get like the recently republished Persona and Shame screenplays in a single volume.

A few things that become readily apparent when reading the screenplays are:

  • The edit is the final process so certain things are altered or augmented by the editing process. Specific to Persona the doubling, the very repetition of the scene, was a construct of the editing room rather than the initial design. It doesn’t make it any less a calculated decision just one that came to the film when it was deemed necessary. It’s the same reason famed editor Walter Murch would line up stills of the first frame of each scene in grids, not just to get a different look at the project as a whole (in abstract), but it also provided the occasional new idea.
  • As for the text itself, it’s instigated by an action and it gains added weight and significance by the visual treatment of the scene. For as talky as Bergman can appear and be he worked in theatre sufficiently to know very well the delineation and the framing, lighting, and editing were always pivotal as well as the dialogue painting images where the camera could not.

Bergman’s thoughts on the dialogue itself as well as the genesis for his creation of the film will be covered in the next section. What matters here are the basics:

An actress Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann) at the height of her fame and power consciously stops speaking but is just short of a breakdown and nothing is deemed physically or psychologically wrong with her. She and her nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson), retreat to a country estate while she recovers. As Alma talks to her and observes her they clearly make an impression on one another such that the line that separates one from the other is blurred.

Persona (1966, Svensk Filmindustri)

Also interesting to note, is that this film had a change of shooting locale from Stockholm to Fårö Island that remedied many of the issues Bergman and company perceived when they saw the need for reshoots.

In examining the photo of Elisabet’s son that was Alma concocts a story about who this child in the ripped up photograph is clearly her son, so why is it ripped up? Alma speculates, to put it bluntly and concisely, that he was: the abortion that never happened. However, after the seeming coup de grâce of this judgment Alma reaffirms that she is she and coming up with something. She isn’t Elisabet only she can be.

Then the cycle starts anew. Alma repeats the story from a different point-of-view, in the camera’s view. However, where the tale was not quite complete here it is with Alma struggling against Elisabet invading her mind and soul. The story becomes Elisabet’s and Elisabet becomes Alma.

Persona (1966, Svensk Filmindustri)

The first half of the sequence culminates in the (in)famous double-image of the “bad” side of each of their faces spliced together in one frame.

The transformation is not as literal as it would be in a genre film but for the intents and purposes of this story its just as true and for either character to move on whether recovered or depleted a fracturing needs to occur to get them apart from one another.

Ingmar Bergman’s Perspective in Images: My Life in Film (1995)

Images: My Life in Film (1995, All Rights Reserved)

Many directors bristle at symbolism being imposed on their work or film theorists. And, at times, the bristling is more about that old chestnut of the “one, true version.” When it is quite clear that certain directors like Kubrick invited audiences engaging and refused to define the film for its audience. Therefore, Bergman’s background he gives on the making of the film give you the genesis, what was happening with him and how it shaped him and the story.

It should be noted that right before this he was burning the candle at both ends frequently writing and directing films for Svensk Filmindustri and was then appointed director of the Royal Dramatic Theatre. It was a lot but he thought he could handle it and ultimately chalked it up as so: “That experience was like a blowtorch, forcing a kind of accelerated ripening and maturing.”

After writing, shooting and promoting All These Women, and directing Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler for the stage, his health was waning: fever lead to double pneumonia and acute penicillin poisoning. As he was admitted to Sophiasammet Royal Hospital to recuperate the idea for Persona struck him and he began to work on it “mainly to keep my hand in the creative process.” And in doing so it was a bit freeing in a few different ways.

Persona (1966, Svensk Filmindustri)

With an unmade project canceled, his wondering about the place of theatre in the art world, and himself as an artist; he found a vehicle to express these doubts and pains and channeled it mostly through Elisabet Vogler’s personage. This is an emotional state he accurately encapsulated in what he wrote when he accepted the Dutch Erasmus Prize, an essay entitled “The Snakeskin,” which served as the foreword for the published edition of Persona. That state is rounded out and linked to the film more thoroughly in the book.

What is perhaps most fascinating is that I had not read this book, whole or in part before researching this (only the “Snakeskin” portion in Persona); so there was much information to discover, and it’s always interesting to glean insights into an artist’s creative process, but more illuminating that that is the fact that much of this story and truth is translated to the screen without overt underlining. It’s there, you feel it, and it either affects you or it does not but it’s there for you to see. Bergman’s art is not unlike his philosophy on why he is an artist:

“This, and only this, is my truth. I don’t ask that it be true for anybody else, and as solace for eternity it’s obviously rather slim pickings, but as a foundation for artistic activity for a few more years it is in fact enough, at least for me.”


Persona (1966, Svensk Filmindustri)

In his notes Bergman has not only poetics about his creative crisis and things that are implied by the film like “The conception of time is suspended,” and most importantly “Something simply happens without anyone asking how it happens.” Yet there is also the key to the emotional heart of the film, which is right there in the film itself:

Then I felt every inflection of my voice, every word in my mouth, was a lie, a play whose sole purpose was to cover the emptiness and boredom. There was only one way I could avoid a state of despair and a breakdown. To be silent. And to reach behind the silence for clarity or at least to try to collect resources that might still be available to me.
Here, in the diary of Mrs. Vogler, lies the foundation of Persona.

It’s interesting to note here that Bergman, as he himself notes has named a character Vogler before such as in “The Magician —with another silent Vogler in the center — is a playful approach to the question.” The name would then pop up in later films. The usage of silence, one of the quintessential traits of cinema that separates it from the stage, is also strongly present in this title as well as others by Bergman including the appropriately titles The Silence which features hardly any spoken dialogue.

Persona (1966, Svensk Filmindustri)

About the Repeated Scene specifically he writes in his book:

“…Suddenly they exchange personalities.”

“They sit across from each other, they speak to each other with inflections of voice and gestures, they insult, they torment, they hurt one another, they laugh and play. It is a mirror scene.
The confrontation is a monologue that has been doubled. The monologue comes, so to speak, from two directions, first from Elisabet Vogler, then from Alma.”

“We then agreed to keep half their faces in complete darkness — there wouldn’t even be any leveling light.”

Leveling light here refers to fill light, which is any light that would be aimed at the darker side of an actor’s face to lessen the contrast ratio. In keeping the highlight normal and the fill side very underexposed there is an inherent additional disquiet added to the viewership of the scene combine that with the editing tactics, then the unconventional treatment of the dual dialogue, including some jump cuts, and there is a crescendo to climax that is fairly universal even if the beats are more subsumed and the conflicts more internalized than in a standard, conventionally structured and told film. Upon seeing rushes of the scene edited Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann reacted as follows:

Bibi exclaims in surprise: “But Liv, you look so strange!” And Liv says: “No, it’s you, Bibi, you look very strange!” Spontaneously they denied their own less-than-good facial half.

The trick had worked and fooled the actresses themselves into seeing each other’s faces on the film. The film from that point was already speaking to people through its images alone. Yet despite the unconventional approaches, even on the written page, Bergman warns about those as well saying that “The screenplay for Persona does not look like a regular scenario.” And that it “May look like an improvisation,” but it is quite clear that there is a meticulous level of plotting that is only elevated by the inspired choice made in the edit.

Persona (1966, Svensk Filmindustri)

Even though Bergman saw his return to his position at the theatre as a temporary setback (“When I returned to the Royal Dramatic Theatre in the fall, it was like going back to the slave galley.”) there is no doubt that Persona was a personal triumph due to the very personal, even if abstracted, look at himself that revitalized virtually everything in his life as evidenced by the statement “I said that Persona saved my life — that is no exaggeration.” Persona also marked an artistic revolution for Bergman, a change in his whole approach wherein he realized “The gospel according to which one must be comprehensible at all costs, one that had been dinned into me ever since I worked as the lowliest manuscript slave at Svensk Filmidustri, could finally go to hell (which is where it belongs!).”

Liv Ullmann’s perspective in Liv Ullmann: Interviews (2006)

Liv Ullmann (2006, University of Mississippi Press)


What Ullmann added in interviews through the years does speak more to the scene itself, and as one of its participants she gives tremendous insight into the making of it, as well as her process as an actress. Also, how she was cast became a legendary story as she is a Norwegian-born actress and Bergman had only worked with Swedish actors at the time. It is the kind of stuff legends are made of but not as fantastical as people make it out to be.

“He had seen one picture I’d been in. And it wasn’t like he picked me up off the street, because I’d been an actress for many years in Norway. But he did take a terrible chance because I was very young — I was twenty-five — and I was to play a woman at the height of her career and having neurosis, which I knew nothing about. So he decided to use me on intuition, and I did the whole part completely by intuition, because I only understood what it was about many years later.”

About production specifically:

“That was very strange because he did that with two cameras. There was one on Bibi when she told my story. It was supposed to be cut up, using the best from each. But when he saw it as a whole, he didn’t know what to pick. So we used them both. Many people have tried to analyze why he does this. The real reason is that he felt that both told something there which he felt was important. He felt he couldn’t tell which was most important so he had both. “

That above reaction reinforces Bergman’s feelings and vision. Closer to the time she made it she revealed:

“The way I prepared was to read the script many times, to try and block it into sections. I would try to think, ‘This is the section where this is happening to her, and now he goes a little deeper in this section.’
“That is the way I very often work. I divide the manuscript into sections which always makes you know where you are shooting.”

Later on she elaborated even further:

“A lot of things I seriously didn’t understand. I just had to do it on feeling, on instinct. I couldn’t ask him because I felt so grateful he was giving me this, that I must pretend. When I see it now, I understand it so much better. I understand the character. But in a way I think it doesn’t matter because deep down we can experience even if we don’t really understand. I think you can instinctively play a character without intellectually or by experience being at that level. So many more people would appreciate him if they would dare to go in and think he’s really simple that he’s going to their emotions, not worry about the symbols.”

So with all these vantage points where does that leave us?

Conclusion: The Film Tears

Persona (1966, Svensk Filmindustri)

One of the structural totem poles in Persona is an image of a film strip burning and breaking. It marks a rupture in the reality as its being presented, and it reveals to us, as a reminder the eyes through which this story is being seen (Elisabet’s son played by Jörgen Lindström).


Faithless (2000, Fireworks Pictures)

When the film tears for us as viewers what are we left with? Is all theorizing to be tossed out the window? An interview Ullmann gives later on in her career when she took on Faithless as a director, based on Bergman’s screenplay:

Both women are called Marianne, so you can make all sorts of fantastic connections. Every viewer should have the freedom to do that.
Everyone also has the freedom to make connections with Elisabeth Vogler, I didn’t know very much, but I just knew I was playing Ingmar. That’s why I said that Max von Sydow could have played the part. I thought at the time “I will just watch Ingmar and I will try to act like him. In the current film, the character is called Bergman like the character he made into a woman and I played as Elisabeth Vogler in Persona. You can have great fun with this.

Which actually is not discordant with her assertions that “The real reason is that he felt that both told something there which he felt was important. He felt he couldn’t tell which was most important so he had both,” and that “So many more people would appreciate him if they would dare to go in and think he’s really simple that he’s going to their emotions, not worry about the symbols.”

If the film guts you it’ll pay to dig and pick apart these images and examine the interplay of the characters, the questions about reality, dreams, psyche, life, death, and sexuality. If it doesn’t move you an intellectual examination may not make it any better for you, and what would your motivation be to go in search of answers anyway?

When seeing the Repeated Scene in Persona you will think any of three things: a noble attempt at an experiment that fell short, a brilliant gamble that pays off in spades or a wasteful piece of sophistry. Many of the scenes in the film can be seen along this spectrum. It just bears noting to modern audiences that while his style, at-times starkness, look, and human dramas have become clichéd through the reverence of film students and arthouse filmmakers through the years, but many of the things he was doing were new and unique when he did them.

Persona (1966, Svensk Filmindustri)

When the film tears for you as a viewer as Persona ends Bergman seeks for you to have been moved, to have thought and to have examined just as he moved, thought on, and examined his own life in its making. All else is fun, as Ullmann says, but there is no wrong. In this film Bergman rebelled against the tyranny of coherence and singular meaning and came out a victor, and we are all better for it; for now we have been moved.



Liv Ullmann Between Stage and Screen

This piece is a throwback. It was published it previously, but owing to the fact that the observations of the engagement are always relevant and fit into Thankful for World Cinema theme. Although the event was one night only the information and resources are still valid.

On December 7th, 2009 the Brooklyn Academy of Music had a very special speaking engagement at their Harvey Theater location. Liv Ullmann, star of many of Ingmar Bergman‘s most enduring and legendary works was the guest of honor of this very special speaking engagement. The event was held on the very stage where Ullmann directed a sold-out and for the most part critically acclaimed revival of A Streetcar Named Desire starring Cate Blanchett.

A majority of the evening was focused on this new adaptation there were some very valuable general insights to be gleaned on art, film, theatre and acting that were not show-specific.

She was introduced by a representative of the Royal Norwegian Consulate General who said, to paraphrase, that she has “striking emotional range and Norwegian identity with an international appeal that transcends borders.” This was quite an astute and concise encapsulation of her brilliance and of her appeal.

Autumn Sonata

Ullmann’s brilliance and appeal made themselves ever more apparent both as a person and as an artist when she graced the stage. She did have a great deal to say about acting and directing in the 90 minutes total in which she was on stage.

The first fascinating comment she made was how she wanted, in her US theatrical debut as a director, to put a new spin on Blanche DuBois because in Elia Kazan’s classic film the incarnation of Blanche played by Vivien Leigh is a shattered woman at the end of the film and how there is a deeper psychology to the character and a more profound and ambiguous ending to be explored.

Liv discussed Cate Blanchett and on a few occasions expressed admiration of her skill and then talked a little bit about her directing approach specifically and said two things that were quite interesting one was “I would never tell Cate what her face should look like that’s her creation” and similarly she’d never say “That keep that, that’s perfect!” whether it be an inflection on a line or a look. It’s gone and the only way to have it possibly come back it to just not mention it and let it go as she puts it “It will come back when great actors open up and trust each other.”

Persona (1966)

Moderator James Lopate made a great connection between some of the scenes that Stella and Blanche share and Bergman in which the two woman scene was often the most powerful. Liv talked about the connection that women could share and how she and Bibi Andersson were best friends before Persona and that connection could certainly help their scene-work.

When it came to working with Bergman she told a well-documented but funny story about working with Ingmar Bergman and Ingrid Bergman on the set of Autumn Sonata. It was one of the climactic arguments in the film and the camera had been facing Liv all day and her character had been spilling her guts blaming her mother for her problems, on which Liv humorously commented saying “Get over it, you know?” but then the camera was going to turn around and face Ingrid and she didn’t want to say what was scripted, which is not how Ingmar worked. It lead to quite a ruckus, Ingmar and Ingrid took the argument outside the soundstage and came back and Ingrid read the scripted line but her eyes still showed the fury she felt. Having seen this film a few times you can see the anger in her eyes and it probably helped the line reading.

She commented that there is often tension or anger between actors and directors but she doesn’t necessarily look at it as a bad thing. In fact, Bergman himself gave Liv advice on dealing with a bad director which she relayed so it’s obvious she didn’t see him as bad just as a perfectionist, which most knew.

Cries and Whispers (1972)

Ms. Ullmann then got back to being asked about the show and had some other great insights into directing due to her perspective being an actress. Contrary to a lot of theatre works where there is a premium on movement and using the stage she at times of great significance to the story prefers to, if not keep her actors still, confine their movement. “Let them create. Keep them in one place,” she continues “Keep her in one place so everyone can see what’s happening right there in her face.” This is perfectly consistent with her previous comment of not directing facial expression.

Similarly, she told Blanchett and the aspiring actors at the event that when on stage and a line prompts one player to turn upstage in response she advises her actors to not turn too quickly but instead “Give your close-up to the audience for two to three seconds then turn.” The close-up is hereby turned into a theatrical term where an actor is facing the audience instead of their scene partner and it is a brilliant parallel which I hadn’t heard before and it most certainly holds true it is the closest thing the theatre offers because the actor is revealing their character in a way only the audience is witness to.

She is a natural performer who on the stage of the show she is directing on more than one occasion walked around and demonstrated things of which she spoke. The last great tidbit about directing she gave was about storytelling and not in the narrative sense. She told of how certain bits of blocking the show, or prop decisions were made almost unconsciously after a story was told or a conversation was had. She mentioned that José Quintero, one of her favorite directors to work with, was very fond of telling stories as a rule and inevitably that is how he affected the work and it sort of inspired how she goes about giving backstory to actors, especially when it is meant as a note. She never fills in the blanks but merely says, as she did to Blanchett, “Something happened yesterday.” This allows them to have a thought process, to create something of their own but will also inform their action with the correct emotion because at the point this note is given the scene is already understood.

Shame (1968)

Miss Ullmann’s wisdom seems endless. Available at BAM was a book of her interviews. She has however authored her own books on acting and life called Choices and Changing respectively and two more suitable titles can hardly be thought of for such a craft for they are the essence of it.

When discussing the character of Blanche DuBois Ms. Ullmann made the point that “Loneliness doesn’t function for Blanche,” meaning she can’t deal with it. “For me loneliness functions.” I think that is likely true of most artists for to create, and to make a true creation a certain degree of loneliness needs to exist. As her new vision of A Streetcar Named Desire closed on December 20th (2009) one can only hope and wonder what she turns her creative energies to next whether back to stage or screen, in front of camera or behind it, either way it should prove to be very exciting.