While serving as the director of Sweden’s National Theater, Ingmar Bergman found that the job’s logistical and bureaucratic demands drained him artistically and physically, eventually sending him to the hospital with a severe case of pneumonia. “I had driven all my engines at top speed, and the engines had shaken the old body till it fell apart. So now it was necessary for me to write something that would dissipate the feeling of emptiness, of going nowhere.” His remedy was to write Persona, and in its composition Bergman saved himself. The film was a creative and intimate turning point, marking the start of his collaboration with Liv Ullmann and his artistic migration to Fårö, a remote and rocky island between Latvia and Sweden.
In Persona, a famed actress (Ullmann) becomes troubled during a theatrical performance and suddenly falls silent, unwilling or incapable of speech. Her muteness has pathological dimensions; we can also imagine her behavior as a kind of wish fulfillment and psychic flight for Bergman, who had been longing to escape his deadening obligations to the theater. The actress is sent to a remote island in the charge of a nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson), in hopes that she will recover. This backstory is quickly established, for Persona proceeds in dream-like leaps that suggest a fevered memory merged with the stubborn logic of madness. What Bergman loved about the medium of film is made manifest in Persona: “I had an opportunity to communicate with the world around me in a language that literally is spoken from soul to soul in expressions that, almost sensuously, escape the restrictive control of the intellect.” The film’s resolution is a visualization of soul speaking to soul, as the two women stand side by side in a mirror and seem to exchange essences—an ending that transcends logic but that also feels exactly right.
In terms of dramatic trends, we might consider ourselves to be living in the age of passionate friendship, prizing self-development through encountering others. Even a recent resurgence of onscreen romance (from Phantom Thread to To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before) emphasizes the triumph of an individual within or beyond couplehood (Love isn’t a competition but I’m winning, as a pop song says). Perhaps this is why, even today, among Bergman’s substantial catalogue, Persona stands out—not only for its uncanny intrigue (the mysterious etiology of the actress’s aphasia, the curious swap of personalities as resolution) but because the film discovers rebirth in the intimacies of women. Conversation between women is powerful—it can poison, it can cure, it can transmogrify.
When Persona restored the director’s worldly reputation and inner balance, Bergman knew that his next steps would be scrutinized and criticized in light of that film’s breakthroughs. He was spurred to make a trilogy of dramas (Hour Of The Wolf, Shame, The Passion of Anna) linked by cast and limited to the same remote setting, a body of work often referred to as the “Island films.” Each begins with a couple’s retreat to a craggy, windswept isle and proceeds as the couple is hindered in their attempts to escape the world. Using the rough metric of Letterboxd stats, the Island films are now rarely viewed, and each successive chapter of the trilogy attracts fewer eyes; the final segment, The Passion of Anna, is possibly the least seen, though it’s stunningly beautiful and offers perhaps the most wisdom to anyone kicking around the conditions of a committed relationship.
“We were so much alike. What he had not known about himself he began to see in me—as if in a mirror… He saw his own vulnerability and his own anger in me. And when this was reflected back at him he began to be healed. But like a mirror, I was always there as a reminder.”
—Liv Ullmann, Changing
In comparison with Persona, the Island films feel like they represent the priorities of another age, when a romantic commitment within a heterosexual union could be considered a bold declaration of self. And if the films fall into different genres, they nonetheless feel like variations on similar themes. Hour of the Wolf uses horror tropes to depict how an artist’s obsessions can forfeit his emotional links to the world. In Wolf, Bergman personifies his creative impulses as proliferating, abusive demons that isolate him from his partner, Alma. In the film, we also see Alma’s perspective—she wonders if there would’ve been another outcome if she had been able to love Johan “better.” Here we find Bergman the artist in conflict with Bergman the man, and the result suggests that art can be maddening, and that a life consecrated to it will invariably separate two lovers.
Shame, on the other hand, shows a couple disrupted by outside chaos but driven apart by their own ugly responses to evil. A fascist regime overtakes the small island, and the couple’s harmony breaks down as they face the moral kompromat from living under an authoritarian regime. Here was Bergman synthesizing and transposing his thoughts about the Vietnam War to a location and people he knew everything about—the film’s explosive violence stands in stark contrast to the intimate and psychic unraveling that is his template. In Bergman’s estimation, Shame only got good in the second half, when the war genre fell in line with his overall creative mission: watching the darkness jump out from human relations. It’s a grim tale, reflecting the absurdities and compromises of life under totalitarian rule.
Even so, the most sinister film in this series is The Passion of Anna, a naturalistic story about a couple coming together and parting that has broader implications about the nature of romance and human connection, perhaps because it is less allegorical.
Bergman was the ultimate introvert—a man who sought silence and isolation from some mixture of intense sensitivity and an urge for control. As a child, he was shaped by the rigid moral expectations for a pastor’s family. In The Magic Lantern, he recalls, “our upbringing was based on such concepts as sin, confession, punishment, forgiveness and grace….” The Bergman siblings were raised to meet a congregation’s demands for perfection. It was a model enforced by cruel punishments, one of which was being “frozen out”—a silence that starved the offending child of direct address until he “longed for punishment and forgiveness.” To receive the attention he craved, young Bergman cultivated his own persona, “an external person who had very little to do with me. As I didn’t know how to keep my creation and my person apart, the damage had consequences for my life and creativity far into adulthood. Sometimes I have to console myself with the fact that he who has lived a lie loves the truth.” For Bergman, silence and aloneness were paradoxical conditions—both desired and feared, liberating and punitive.
Human beings are social animals—we live in groups, and survival in nearly every sense is predicated upon shared values and priorities. But for Bergman, separation from society freed him from the false self he had created to please others. And deportation to a remote, inhospitable island in his stories appears to be the externalization of his early life dynamics, with Bergman’s actors playing familial stand-ins: the icy parent who keeps distant and the willful child who solicits punishment. In the Island films, it’s Max von Sydow—with the remote mien of a medieval knight and oversized features of a king on a playing card—who seems to act as the director’s proxy, initiating exile with a romantic partner played by Liv Ullmann. In two of these films, von Sydow plays an artist who evacuates to the island to pursue his work, and Ullmann interprets his muse, desperate to accommodate his demands for closeness and distance, which alternate at a biorhythm known only to himself.
Bergman’s quest for isolation has aesthetic as well as emotional implications. One understanding of cinema is that it’s a form of movement—camera, frame, and subjects capture dynamic, kinetic displacement. If the people aren’t moving, the camera should. Aloneness onscreen therefore imparts a challenge both to filmmaker and audience. Stasis of camera or subject puts the viewer in a meditative state, a condition of noticing rather than being led. A position of reaching toward the screen to discover why the subject is a subject.
Aloneness can shape a dramaturgic code, foregrounding performance by training the camera on the most plastic thing on earth—the human face—or conversely, by focusing on a painterly mise en scene to emphasize a subject within a frame, like a place. And though Bergman pinches documentarian techniques for The Passion Of Anna, his dramatic approach is distinct from New Wave practitioners who also took interest in aloneness. His is not a cinema of hands, gestures, and objects like Robert Bresson; nor do Bergman’s jump cuts and voiceover generate Godard’s jarring intimacies. This is not quite the “slow cinema” described by Paul Schrader in Transcendental Cinema. Bergman does not use his camera to address subjects with the warm humanism deployed by Yasujirō Ozu, Wong Kar-Wai, or their aesthetic descendant, Barry Jenkins in medium close-ups. When a character looks into Bergman’s lens, we find the unguardedness of a soul speaking to itself; the de-animation of a face free of a performative mode. Not emptied out, according to Bresson, but in a spell of pure feeling. This is silence and aloneness for Bergman: the freedom he sought for himself is what we see onscreen in his cast.
Bergman often employs a magician’s tricks—using the uncanny to enchant, provoking through wonder and unease—but in The Passion Of Anna, the scenario is initially fairly common: Andreas Winkelman (von Sydow) has removed himself to an island to recover from his divorce, and he abjures himself of company until events lure him into human engagements. In Anna, the characters intrude upon Winkelman in calculated steps. Andreas opens an abandoned car parked off a muddy road, and he finds Eva (Bibi Andersson) inside, lying prone across the seats. We glimpse her from his point of view—upside down, eyes closed, a feline self-possession animating her features—we feel, perhaps irrationally, that she’s hoping to be discovered. Andreas works outside his house, and Anna rounds the corner—as if she’s expected, as if she’s rushing from a casually elegant urban lunch to a meeting with him. She wears a golden corduroy coat cinched at the waist, dark leggings, and low heels that don’t fit the rustic surroundings. She leans on a forearm crutch and advances slowly as she picks her way across the muddy drive. Anna needs to make a phone call. As the mini-skirted fashions (which Bergman regretted) tell us, these are different times and a different culture, and Andreas quickly invites Anna inside to place the call from his house. Already, we feel a frisson of interest; this is an intriguing stranger.
Thanks to the crisp, clinical narration, we’ve already learned that Andreas migrated to this island after a disagreeable divorce. He has separated from his past: we are given no sense of a previous profession or ambition. We’ve seen Andreas repairing broken tiles on his roof to winterize it; we watch him as he steps alongside a local man—a kindred solitary spirit—pulling a cart like a beast of burden. Life on this island is rudimentary, and we are given the sense that Andreas has easily fallen in line with its rhythms, that he takes pleasure in the simplicity of his tasks, that he is happy to flatten his life according to the outside, elemental priorities. The impulse is monastic, and the self-denial relieves him of feeling.
But as Anna settles into Andreas’ study, his private space becomes a space of shared intimacy. Anna picks up the telephone receiver, and though he backs away, Andreas easily overhears Anna as she rages on the line. Without trying, Andreas is drawn into the passion of Anna. When she ends the call, she forgets her purse; inside it, Andreas finds a letter which Bergman doles out to us in brief close-ups and voice over throughout the movie: it’s an omen about Anna’s last marriage and her nature suggesting volatility and darkness.
Later, Andreas ferries her home and befriends her friends, Elis and Eva. At dinner, in contrast with what Andreas has read in the letter, Anna explains the perfect happiness she experienced with her husband and daughter. Her face flushes as she explains their radical honesty. “I think [one] should strive for some form of spiritual perfection.” She and her late husband lived in harmony “due to being truthful towards each other.” In black and white, Liv Ullmann has a limpid stare, a plaintive innocence; in color, she is feverish, obstinate, dogmatic. Her hair glints, her blue eyes deepen to unfathomable pools, her cheeks flush. She is the perfect subject for color, and in Anna the dense film stock reflects Ullmann’s endless facets: finely wrought emotion spoken through shifting golden and reddish tints, through the contrasting blues and greens that Bergman pushes into the frame to resonate with her eyes.
Anna’s openness feels like an invitation, beckoning Andreas into her life. Later, Andreas learns that her husband and her child were killed in a car accident, an explanation perhaps of Anna’s limp, which also feels like a petition for sympathy and an expression of her own neediness. The film works in this way—possible causes are latterly suggested for earlier behaviors, but the separation of consequence and origin make all behaviors feel like a revelation of psychology.
In The Passion of Anna, however, Bergman obscures his identification with the principle characters to a degree—von Sydow does not play an artist; he plays the artist’s subject, sitting for Elis’ (Erland Josephson) portraits. And this distinction is instructive: it makes the movie not a treatise on the dangers of art (as in Wolf) or the perils of Man (Shame) as an artist tries to flee society. Anna is a love story of maturity, after other love stories have happened; a treatise about how people manage to come together and why they part.
In Elis’ studio, Andreas finds Anna’s picture when she was in her early 20s, before the trauma of losing her family. In the film’s first uncanny gesture, Anna’s husband shares a name with the man who becomes her second partner: Andreas. As Elis shows Andreas the photos of young Anna, bold, bright eyed, staring into the distance (the photos look like theater stills or actor’s headshots), Elis admits that his own wife had an affair with the other Andreas for a year—it was open knowledge, although he never learned the reason for their split. Subsequently Eva conspires to seduce this new Andreas while Elis is away. Sensing her behavior, Elis rings Andreas and performs an elaborate verbal charade by asking Andreas to pop around the house to tell Eva he called, and then hangs up. The unspoken message is both that Elis knows about the affair and cares about his wife, but refuses to approach them in anger.
That night in bed, Eva reveals the circumstances that perhaps make her husband accept her infidelity. Once she was pregnant, but the child was killed by a sedative administered to her during her labor. She hasn’t had any children since. Andreas is overcome with love and pity for her. “Have you seen how ugly I am? Look at me, Andreas. Have you ever slept with a more boring lover?” The next morning, as Eva rushes to take the ferry and return to married life, Andreas hands her a puppy he rescued, and in doing so confers the only unconditional love in his life to Eva.
Sometimes it’s not useful to know the biographical origins of a story—it diminishes the work’s allegorical power when anchored in the specificity of individual foibles and concrete experience. And it may not shed light on the brilliance of a work, because the intuitive leaps that make a film powerful tend to transcend reason and are inimitable. However, it is enlightening to comprehend how raw ingredients are transformed by an artist’s alchemy—it gives some suggestion of how the personal can be transposed into the universal.
As in their films, Ullmann and Bergman’s remembrances create a knitted portrait of their lives together, characterizing their artistic accomplishments in ways that underscore their roles in the partnership. Like their characters, when their romance began, they retreated to Faro Island to live in creative dialogue and to raise a daughter. In a Criterion short documentary, Bergman explains how he overcame his fear of animals when Ullmann brought her dachshund, Pet, to live with them. Pet soon became Bergman’s dog; according to Ullmann, he said Pet was “emotion on four legs.” Pet was his companion as Bergman wrote Cries And Whispers. When Ullmann left the relationship, she left Pet with him. All this meaning has been transposed to The Passion of Anna, but in the film, Andreas rescues the dog (as opposed to Pet rescuing Bergman from his fears); and Andreas hands the dog along to someone who needs him. In fiction, we find a mastery of fear and need that perhaps none of us manage in life. Andreas whistles after Eve and the dog are gone with some sadness and some lightness—there is a relief in his empty house. And then he lets out a roar.
From Andreas’ distress, Bergman cuts to dense red blood congealing around the stiff bodies of sheep. The narrator rejoins us to say, “It was becoming clear that there was a madman on the island,” and a sense of impending and pervasive violence reminds us of Bergman’s antipathy toward humans. In his memoir Images, Bergman admits, “My philosophy (even today) is that there exists an evil that cannot be explained—a virulent, terrifying evil—and humans are the only animals to possess it. An evil that is irrational and not bound by law. Cosmic. Causeless. Nothing frightens people more than incomprehensible, unexplainable evil.” Sadism towards animals is a characteristic behavior of serial killers; in Anna, the escalation of violence from the hanging dachshund rescued by Andreas to the slaughtered herd suggest the progression of a pathology for the island’s disturbed inhabitant. The locals scapegoat a solitary man who had an emotional breakdown after he became financially bankrupt. Without much solid evidence, the island residents begin a series of sadistic attacks against him. One suspects that his condition—the fact of living willfully apart—is the damning evidence that sways public opinion. The group does not understand the man; apartness is viewed as a condition that leads to madness and to violence. The parallel mystery of the animal murderer does not accelerate the plot. Rather, it serves as prognostication for life on this lonely island: You start to think Andreas could be the killer or at least the suspect. Then you start to believe Anna is capable of this violence, too.
With Anna, Bergman and cinematographer Sven Nykvist sought to make a black-and-white film in color—the resulting images are startling and unlike anything else the director made before or after. The scenes are desaturated with splashes of violent red or glimmering gold. Ullmann and Anderson have striking coloring, perfect for a monochromatic, tonal world. But in color they are also perfect—Ullmann’s eyes grow progressively red-rimmed as she speaks, Andersson’s flawed skin reflects the damage inside her. Bergman despised how the use of color and modern dress “dated” his film, anchoring the story in a particular era in a way that he didn’t like. And to oppose this modernity he uses color to paint the island in gauzy scenes—frost, soil and frigid morning air, dim romantic evenings, dull days that allow his actors’ faces to pop. A distressed Kodachrome memory.
In a conceit that is both arbitrary and energizing, Bergman asks his actors in The Passion of Anna to comment on their characters. The chief interest of these scenes turns out to be the seamless emotional tones that carry across the “non-fiction” portions into the dramatic story. The actors don’t perform or ingratiate in their answers, and the qualities that make them compelling playing another person are also there as themselves. This transparency yields a master class in effective acting, though it seems to rely less on technique than on an individual’s inherent interest. Ullmann says of her character, “This wish for truth becomes dangerous for [Anna]…She takes refuge in lies and imagination…We see that today in thousands of people.”
In time, Andreas recognizes the absolute dishonesty of Anna’s story of her married life—in fact, Anna’s husband wanted to leave her, and perhaps Anna caused the accident that killed her family. As the events duplicate themselves, Anna taunts Andreas over his flaws, Andreas beats her around the face, and she attempts to drive their car off the road echoing the fatal accident of her first family. Finally, the lovers are exposed to each other: For Anna, a lie is necessary to preserve a relationship and to preserve herself. For Andreas, the ongoing relationship is a lie he can’t preserve, pushing him to a separation that seems to offer freedom but may end up destroying him.
In a long close up on Ullmann’s face, Anna admits her fear and calculation, and Andreas admits his desire to break free. “I can see your face, I know you’re you but I can’t reach you…I fled and now I’m so far away. I want to be warm, tender, and alive. I want to break free.” As Françoise Sagan wrote in Bonjour Tristesse, “Bien sûr on a des chagrins d’amour, mais on a surtout des chagrins de soi-même. Finalement la vie n’est qu’une affaire de solitude.” (Loosely translated: “Of course we suffer love’s injuries, but above all we suffer the griefs of self. In the end, life is but an affair of solitude.”) In other words, hell isn’t other people; it’s the limitations of the self.