ot so long ago, the name of Ingmar Bergman was nearly synonymous with cinema as an art form. In the decade separating Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) from Persona (1966), the Swedish director channeled his idiosyncratic doubts and obsessions into a series of increasingly anguished masterworks that seemed to his devotees, cast adrift amid the catastrophes and transformations of the postwar era, to capture their own dislocation and radical uncertainty.
That decade forms the heart of a singular and prolific career spanning more than half a century, from Torment (1944) to Sarabande (2003). This year sees the centenary of his birth, and to mark the occasion New York City’s Film Forum showed more than 40 films—yet still fell short of his entire filmography, not to speak of his numerous plays, novels, and theatrical and operatic productions.
Bergman’s films could be mythic allegories such as The Seventh Seal (1957), with its chess-playing personification of death, or mercilessly realistic studies of domestic discord such as his 1973 TV serial Scenes from a Marriage. What united them was not just a set of persistent obsessions—God, art, death, failure, self-deception—but the fierce urgency with which those themes were explored. Scenes from a Marriage has been credited with doubling the divorce rate in Sweden for the year after its release. This is the kind of story that, if not true, would have to be invented: Bergman had a bewitching capacity to make his dreams and terrors the viewer’s own.
Yet this artist who captured the anxieties of his time was in many ways the remnant of another era. The genres on which he drew, from the medieval morality play of The Seventh Seal to the drawing-room tragedy of Cries and Whispers (1972), were closer to Wagner or Strindberg than to the films of his contemporaries. The critic Pauline Kael, a former admirer, was not altogether wrong when she derided Cries and Whispers as “a 19th-century European masterwork in a 20th-century art form.”
What most befuddled critics about Bergman’s films, however, was not their form but their substance. It was evident that his movies of the early sixties were the work of a man losing his faith, but less clear what kind of faith. His religious struggles, played out in these films, radiated an acute moral suffering that critics were hard-pressed to understand. Lacking an appropriate analogue, they reached for what lay closest to hand. The Bergman vogue in the United States coincided with a French-existentialism craze, and to this day even sophisticated admirers use existentialist clichés to describe him. When he died in 2007, Time’s Richard Corliss eulogized his “indelible allegories of postwar man adrift without God.”
In this they misread Bergman significantly. He was not consumed by the preoccupations of postwar existentialism (authenticity, absurdity, the dizziness of freedom) but rather by the concerns of the stringent, austere Lutheranism in which he was raised: sin, grace, and judgment. The characters of his films are not so much adrift as trapped, and God for him was less a comfort lost than a terror precariously escaped. Precariously, and incompletely: For decades after declaring himself an atheist, Bergman could still write, in the present tense, that “I have struggled all my life with a tormented and joyless relationship with God.” This God, who continued to haunt his films despite Bergman’s attempts to banish Him, appears in them not as a savior or friend but as a harsh and unforgiving judge.
Bergman’s films, together with his interviews and memoirs, are what we might expect from someone standing before such a judge: a relentless, searching attempt to lay himself bare for scrutiny. Put more simply, they are a confession. Certainly Bergman—four times divorced, an often indifferent father, a solipsistic lover to a series of much younger actresses—had much to confess, and critics were quick to note the pitilessness with which he exposed himself on screen and page. But he was equally unhappy with his confessor. With each film, he seemed ever more certain that God, too, was wicked and deceitful.
If, as admirers like Corliss have often lamented, Bergman’s reputation will never again be what it was at the height of his fame, it is in part because this moral struggle—his agonized confrontation with a judging God—has become almost unintelligible to most of us. Even when he was without question the most prestigious filmmaker in the world, it was thought best to observe his turmoil from a safe distance, through the comforting and condescending lens of exoticism. To Americans, he was an exemplar of the dour Scandinavian temperament, and to his rapidly secularizing fellow Swedes, the ghost of a past they were anxious to put behind them. Today they largely have. What remains of Bergman, indelibly, are the records of his struggles, their pain and grace undiminished after half a century, even as the passions that gave them birth recede rapidly into obscurity.
That Bergman was any sort of moralist was less than evident from the films that launched him to international fame. Indeed, the suggestion would have provoked stares of disbelief from his first American viewers. They thought he was a pornographer. 1953’s Summer with Monika was first marketed in the United States as a miserably re-edited skin flick, largely on the strength of the great actress Harriet Andersson (20 years old, and Bergman’s lover) cavorting naked across a beach.
His precipitous ascent to his place of honor began in 1956, when Smiles of a Summer Night won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes. It won him admirers from Paris, where Jean-Luc Godard decreed him a defining figure of modern cinema, to New York, where the critic Andrew Sarris later recalled belonging to a “cabal” of critics called “Bergmaniacs.” To Pauline Kael, Smiles of a Summer Night was simply “a nearly perfect work.” It was also, on the surface, a work strikingly remote in character from Bergman’s dour later reputation: a piece of “boudoir farce” transubstantiated into “lyric poetry” (as Kael put it), which surveyed the follies and self-deceptions of its characters with a penetrating, rueful generosity.
This playfulness and resignation belied the stunning ambition of Bergman’s artistic goals. Smiles of a Summer Night and the films that immediately followed it struggle to bind together the contradictions of human experience and discern a redeeming, coherent meaning behind the inevitability of falsehood and decay. Look closer at the plague-ridden medieval landscape of The Seventh Seal (1957) and you see people clowning, dancing, and fornicating with rough exuberance, joyfully indifferent to the omnipresence of death. The comedy and vitality of such moments neither negates, nor is obliterated by, the darkness surrounding them, but lends it depth and luster, like strands of gold woven into black fabric.
Religious imagery, subtly present in Bergman’s earlier work, assumes a new centrality in these films. Above all, they are haunted by the Christian sacrament of Communion, the Eucharist. To Lutheranism, as to the Catholic Church, the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist truly become the body and blood of Jesus; in consuming them, believers are made whole, reunited both with God and with one another. In The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries (1957), this rite is transposed into the natural and the profane. It lingers behind a supper of berries and milk in a field, or a lunch overlooking the sea, transforming nature, and quotidian human companionship, into symbols of numinous peace and fullness.
Yet these two films, which marked the zenith of Bergman’s professional reputation, were also the signs of a deepening crisis. This crisis was at once religious and personal. Isak Borg, the cold 60-something professor at the heart of Wild Strawberries, was Bergman himself. He was only 37 and already famous but, like Borg, “cut off from all human relations…a loner [and] a failure.” In a nightmare, Isak endures a classroom examination that is also a trial, conducted by an examiner who is both judge and prosecutor.
In The Seventh Seal, the judgment Bergman passes on himself in Wild Strawberries is passed also on God. He wrote of his religious feelings while making the film: “I still held on to some of the withered remains of my…honest, childish piety, lying peacefully alongside a harsh and rational perception of reality.” This double vision is split into two figures, the ascetic knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) and his worldly squire Jöns (Gunnar Bjornstrand). To Jöns, God is a bunch of “ghost stories,” “tales people tell each other.” To the Knight, He is an excruciating mystery, si-lent but inescapable: “Why should He hide himself in a mist of half-spoken promises and unseen miracles?…Why does He live on in this painful and humiliating way even though I curse Him and want to tear Him out of my heart?”
How were viewers to respond to this unsettling self-exposure? To the humane and sophisticated English critic Robin Wood, Bergman’s “complete exposure of himself to reality” made him “a great modern hero.” Yet where Wood saw heroism, Bergman himself saw fraud and self-deceit: Even his disarming claim that Isak Borg was a self-portrait, he later wrote, was “simple and facile,” just another of his “clever evasions.” True self-revelation was more elusive than his admirers supposed. For its elusiveness, both God’s silence and Bergman’s doubt were to blame. Together they ultimately undermined even the grand reconciliation, the communion, he had precariously achieved in the films of this period.
In the older Lutheran tradition, as in the medieval Christendom of The Seventh Seal, Communion had to be preceded by confession to a priest, whom medieval theology held to stand in persona Christi, “in the role of Christ.” But the Knight in The Seventh Seal, Bergman’s alter ego, finds he has nothing to confess but his indifference: “I want to talk to you as openly as I can, but my heart is empty.…The emptiness is a mirror turned toward my own face. I see myself in it, and I am filled with fear and disgust.” When at last he looks up, through the screen of the confessional, he sees on the other side not the priest but the inscrutable face of Death: Where God’s representative should be is only the personification of nothingness.
If all Bergman’s agonizing brought him no closer to self-revelation, then he was as hidden from himself as God was. The illusionist Andreas Vogler (Max von Sydow) in 1958’s The Magician combines them into a single figure. Vogler’s masklike face, with its suffering expression and thick fake beard, is the face of Christ the man of sorrows. Like God, he is silent. But under this mask, Vogler is a charlatan. Powerless to help people, he is able only to trap his antagonist in a web of illusions, and when at last he speaks, his voice is wheedling and pathetic. He embodies both God’s fraudulence and Bergman’s own. In The Magician, the already tenuous assurances of art and religion alike collapse, simultaneously and irrevocably. The films that emerge from their wreckage will be very different.
the silence of god
In his screenplay notes for the trilogy of films following The Virgin Spring (1960), Bergman wrote that “these three films deal with reduction. Through a Glass Darkly —conquered certainty. Winter Light —penetrated certainty. The Silence —God’s silence—the negative imprint.” The reduction and silence were metaphysical, but also quite concrete: Bergman’s inimitable later style, forged in this trilogy, was a product not of expansion but of rigorous subtraction.
In these films Bergman pared his large casts down to what he called “chamber music,” often four or five characters confined to an island or hotel. He cut dialogue away ruthlessly until, in The Silence, large swathes unfold without a word. His earlier visual dynamism gave way, in his collaborations with the great cinematographer Sven Nykvist, to compositions of a painterly stillness. And the rich orchestral scores that had amplified the passions of his previous films were reduced, in Through a Glass Darkly, to the sound of a lone cello playing Bach. By 1963, with Winter Light and The Silence, even that much was gone. Like God’s, the orchestra’s silence in these films is more than a mere absence; it presses down on the viewer with a claustrophobic weight.
In this silence, motifs that lingered obsessively around the peripheries of Bergman’s earlier films assume a dreadful prominence. The ticking of clocks, a pervasive reminder of mortality, fills the space vacated by the absent orchestra. Faces turn hardened and opaque—they become masks. Bergman’s films had always been full of masks, symbols of concealment and solitude, like Vogler’s fake beard or the imperturbable white face of Death. But in his later work, our masks, the roles we play for others, become universal and inescapable. They imprison and isolate us: As the monstrous bishop Vergérus tells his wife in Fanny and Alexander (1982), “I have only one mask, and it is branded into my flesh.”
Yet we dare not remove these masks, for nothing else holds us together. Behind them we are irreparably fractured—split in two. The films of the fifties were full of allegorically opposed characters, like the Knight and Jöns in The Seventh Seal. But with the contrasting sisters in the Silence, it becomes evident that these opposed figures are actually the warring halves of one divided self. One sister is sensual, vital, furious; the other cerebral, embittered, and dying, and their scathing condemnations of each other take on the character of a single soul tearing itself apart in judgment. The central symbol of this divided self, omnipresent in The Silence, is the mirror.
These masked and mirrored selves populate a world in which God has fallen irrevocably silent. But while silent, he has not simply vanished. Rather, He has been transfigured horribly. In Through a Glass Darkly (1961), He appears to the schizophrenic Karin as a great spider, mute and stone-faced, who attempts to violate her, as if in a ghastly parody of the Annunciation. This Spider-God, encountered by a madwoman, will reappear to the eminently sane pastor Tomas in Winter Light, and flash cryptically across the screen at the beginning of 1966’s Persona. It represents, as Wood wrote, “the true Bergman vision.”
out of step
The realization of this vision—so grim and uncompromising—went hand-in-hand with the decline of Bergman’s critical reputation. Andrew Sarris later wrote that Through a Glass Darkly was where he “got off the Bergman bandwagon,” and he was far from alone. In France, Bergman was supplanted by new heroes, such as Jean-Luc Godard, while in Sweden he met with a mounting antagonism that would culminate in 1976 with his prosecution for tax evasion and ensuing self-exile. In the United States, even as The Virgin Spring and Through a Glass Darkly won back-to-back Academy Awards, critics were coming to see him (in Susan Sontag’s dissenting summary) as “prodigal…facile…prone to embarrassing displays of intellectual bad taste.” This fall from favor was probably inevitable: Bergman was deeply out of step with the dominant artistic trends of the sixties.
Just how out of step is already evident in the climactic scene of The Seventh Seal, which many of his later detractors admired. In this scene, Death, long deferred, arrives for the Knight and his companions. As he stands quietly in the doorway, each character greets him differently, presenting between them an allegorical catalogue of possible responses to death. The Knight prays in agonized doubt (“You who are somewhere, who must be somewhere, have mercy upon us”) while Jöns hurls nihilistic defiance: “You will find no one to listen to Your cries or be touched by Your sufferings.” But the last word is given to the peasant girl, seemingly mute, who has travelled with them through much of the film. While the other characters speak, the camera remains trained on her face, gazing at Death with something like rapture. Finally she kneels in front of him, whispering her first and only words: “It is finished.”
This short scene shows how different Bergman’s understanding of the cinema was from that shared by most of his critics. The mute character who speaks at the decisive moment is a classic theatrical device, descended (by way of Strindberg) from Aeschylus’s Libation Bearers. Bergman was also a playwright and prolific theater director; his films and memoirs abound in images of theater, opera, and ballet, as well as learned asides on the novels of Thomas Mann and the music of Stravinsky and Bach. He was, in other words, a belated exemplar of the 19th-century bourgeois culture (and cult) of the arts, and his films—symbol-laden and densely allusive—took for granted both that culture’s canon of masterworks and the exalted moral and intellectual role it assigned to the artist.
Note, however, the word “belated”: By the time he was born in 1918, the old bourgeois Europe had begun its decades-long self-immolation, and those latecomers who still identified with the old tradition and its exalted understanding of the artist’s role had to reckon with art’s failure to prevent the catastrophe. Characteristically, they emerged from the reckoning deeply ambivalent, both loving and distrusting the art to which they devoted their lives.
This is one reason that the mid-20th century is the great period of self-reflexive art—art that (as one literary critic has put it) has its “own possibility as essential theme.” Bergman’s Persona is among the supreme cinematic examples of this genre, and his endless examination of the selfishness and failure of his artist heroes is more than a personal obsession; it expresses a generational skepticism about the possibilities and dangers of art itself. This skepticism adds a particular poignancy to his crisis of faith: The cult of art was largely the creation of disappointed Christian apostates like Bergman, who sought in beauty the salvation they could no longer find in religion. By his lifetime, it was too late for such an alternative. Instead he lost his faith in the saving power of God and art alike.
In Europe and America in the sixties, though for different reasons, meditating on this loss looked increasingly like self-indulgence. To a younger generation of French and Swedish artists, it was perfectly obvious where salvation was to be found. It was found in politics. Art’s purpose was to look outward, to be politically committed (engagé). In this environment, the relentlessly inward-looking Bergman seemed like a navel-gazing anachronism (just as so much engagé art from the sixties does today.) His answer to this predicament was Shame (1968), in which Europe is engulfed by an apocalyptic, Vietnam-like civil war. It did not mollify his critics, who declared Shame “dangerous” and “reactionary.” Perhaps they suspected that the partisan guerrillas he depicts in the film—who force two musicians to record a propaganda video at gunpoint—were portraits of themselves.
In the United States, by contrast, Bergman fell afoul of both Andrew Sarris’s aestheticized auteurism and Pauline Kael’s populism. To Sarris, the mark of great filmmaking was “the tension between a director and his material,” and Bergman, “free to write his own scripts,” had declined because “his technique never equaled his sensibility.” Kael, settling into her role as champion of “trash” and scourge of arthouse pretension (“the educated person who became interested in cinema as an art form through Bergman or Fellini or Resnais is alien to me”), contrived to find Bergman pretentiously middlebrow when she understood him (“he has not developed philosophically beyond…the archaic ogres of childhood and religion”) and meaninglessly obscurantist when she didn’t (“so disordered [that he] required exegesis.”)
In hindsight, Kael’s criticisms of Bergman seem the more prophetic, if only because they foreshadow the triumph of the quintessentially American project in which she was an unwitting protagonist: the struggle to free art from the tyranny of ideas. Today that cause has not only won the field; it has converged with the ideology of engagé art, giving birth to a thousand think-pieces on the politics of Hollywood comic-book blockbusters. In this respect as in many others, the sixties, during which Bergman already felt himself to be a dinosaur, have never really gone away.
the phantom limb
If Bergman’s artistic self-doubt looked obsolete in the 1960s, his religious preoccupations were seen as positively—to use Kael’s word—archaic. The mute girl’s only words in The Seventh Seal—Det är fullbordat, “it is finished”—are the last words of Jesus in the gospel of John. Traditionally, they are read as an expression of triumph, and her face, as she greets Death, trembles with something like exultation. Jöns casts scorn on the attitude she embodies, yet he does so in terms no less intimate than hers. His words, “You will find no one to listen to Your cries or be touched by Your sufferings,” seem to be addressed to the doubting Knight. But as the capitalization of the English screenplay suggests, they are directed instead to God—more precisely, to the crucified Jesus, whose torment on the cross effects no redemption and whose cry of dereliction (“My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?”) will go unanswered.
This scene, like so much in Bergman, carries what Susan Sontag called an “almost defiling charge of personal agony,” and indeed it was the alarmingly personal quality of his wrangling with the deity that discomfited critics. To expostulate airily on the need for authenticity in a godless world was still a respectable occupation. To rage at God with the bitterness of a rejected lover was not. It showed bad taste.
Thus Kael spoke for many of her peers when, in a review of Shame, she compared Bergman to “a Catholic girl [I knew] in college who was losing her faith and who spent a semester extracting the last dregs of drama from her spiritual crisis by going around asking everybody, ‘If you don’t believe in God, what basis do you have for going on living?’” Bergman, Kael said, “pulled that same dumb stunt for a much longer period.” Throughout her increasingly impatient responses to his later films runs a current of exasperation, as if the question of God’s malevolence or nonexistence were merely an adolescent preoccupation. Why couldn’t Bergman just put away childish things and join the author of I Lost It at the Movies and Deeper into Movies among the adults?
But even Bergman’s most persistent admirers shared Kael’s discomfort with his religious fixations. Wood confessed himself “relieved when Bergman at last dumped ‘God,’” a sentiment echoed by Bergman’s American champion John Simon in a 1972 interview: “There was a period in your life and work when the question of God was all-important, but not anymore, surely?” There is a plaintive note to Simon’s surely?, and Bergman hastens to reassure him: “No, it’s passed. Things are difficult enough without God. They were much more difficult when I had to put God into it. But now it’s finished, definitely, and I’m happy about it.”
Maybe it was finished. But what was finished, exactly? A partial answer can be found in the opening of 1963’s Winter Light, one of Bergman’s most uningratiating films. The grisly crucifix between unadorned stone walls; the plodding chorales haphazardly sung; the dry-voiced pastor distributing wafers and wine to a dwindling and listless congregation—all present a picture, at once bleakly vacant and lovingly detailed, of the austere, decaying Swedish Lutheranism that had formed and crushed him. Winter Light pitilessly tracks the process of its decay, both in a small fishing village and in the heart of its protagonist, a pastor named Tomas. Their collective fall into indifference, a suicide, monologues of lacerating cruelty—all are portrayed with perfect, dead neutrality. When at the center of the film Tomas recites that cry from the cross—“my God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”—there is not the slightest modulation of voice or facial expression to tell us whether the words still have meaning for him, or are merely the vestigial repetition of a habit whose purpose has already been forgotten.
“As long as there was a God in my world,” Bergman wrote a few years later, “my humility was not humble enough. My love remained nonetheless far less than the love of Christ…and my piety was forever poisoned by grave doubts.” With Winter Light he felt he had at last put the Almighty to rest and could feel “piety toward life, humility before my meaningless fate, and love” for those around him. He now believed that “a human being carries his or her own holiness, which lies within the realm of the earth.” Yet this affirmation is conspicuously absent from his films of the 1960s: He could not give it convincing aesthetic shape. These films suggest, to the contrary, that each human being carries his or her own damnation, and that God’s departure, far from making him (and us) whole, leaves behind a felt absence like a phantom limb. This absence bears the same shape as the ambivalent figure of his childhood faith: The God in whom he ceased to believe, and whose negative image haunts his later films, was the God of Martin Luther.
To Luther, as to Christianity in general, there is an infinite gap between God the Creator—perfect, timeless, unchanging—and His mutable, transient creation. This gap is both ontological and moral: If God is the source of all being, without which nothing exists, He is also the moral order of the cosmos, absolutely good and absolutely just, who therefore makes demands on flawed human beings that they are powerless to meet. God is many things in Christianity, but always a judge.
In the medieval tradition against which Luther rebelled, people faced this judge supported by a rich array of advocates: the saints, the Church, those loved ones who pray for them. To the young Luther, terrified by the thought of God’s justice, all such mediating figures were powerless. Like the Knight in The Seventh Seal, he was cast naked and solitary before a high and inscrutable deity. The position of Isak in the nightmare of Wild Strawberries—alone, on trial for all his sins and failures before a judge who is also his prosecutor—is, for Luther, the position in which every person stands.
Human beings cannot justify themselves before such a judge; on their own merits, they would all be damned. Instead of mediation, there is in Luther’s thought a series of stark and paradoxical oppositions, corresponding to the chasm between the sinful creature and its just Creator: law and gospel, works and grace, God’s judgment and His love. Even the self is divided: The Christian, Luther says, is “at once righteous and a sinner.” In the sacrament of confession, one acknowledges this doubleness so as to be made whole: Confession splits the confessor, like the two sisters of The Silence, into the self that accuses and the self that is accused. By seeing the truth about yourself, by exposing your darkness to the light, you can atone—which means both to be reconciled to God and to be made “at one.”
Yet confession by itself, paradoxically, accomplishes nothing: Only an infinite force can close an infinite distance, uniting humanity with God, self with self. This infinite force is God’s grace. The event through which this grace is made manifest in the world is the Atonement, in which God, as the crucified Jesus, takes upon Himself the punishment for human sins.
The idea of the Atonement is rooted in an ancient and widespread intuition: that the cosmic order is broken by human evil and can be restored through suffering. The primal means of this restoration for many religions is sacrifice. In the ancient Israelite cult, the high priest sacrificed a lamb to atone for the sins of the people. In the theology of the Western Church, Jesus is both the sacrificing priest and the sacrificial lamb—the Agnus Dei, “Lamb of God.” His freely accepted sacrifice, which mends world and soul alike, is God’s supreme act of love, by which He satisfies the demands of His own law in humanity’s stead.
How was one to make sense of that sacrifice in modern Sweden, where (Bergman felt) “everybody has forgotten love but, inside, everybody remembers the law”? In Cries and Whispers (1972), Bergman retells the story of this event—the Passion. At the film’s center is the preternaturally pure Agnes (agnus, “lamb”). Agnes suffers like the crucified Jesus, her agonizing death from cancer and subsequent dreamlike return corresponding to the Crucifixion and Resurrection. But Agnes’s “resurrection” is momentary and insubstantial, and her sacrifice ineffectual: The selfish, unhappy lives of those around her, which for a moment show hope of being purified and renewed by her death, continue unchanged. There is no one to listen to her cries or be touched by her sufferings.
If these sufferings mend nothing—if there is no atonement—then God himself, callously untouched, can only appear a tyrannical deceiver, mute and predatory, binding people in an order they can neither abide nor escape: a spider. And if there is no atonement, then confession is impotent, for it can never reconcile the halves of the divided self. True self-revelation, the removal of the mask, then becomes impossible: The breaking of the mask can happen only with the breaking of the person. There is a single word that means both “mask” and “person”—the title of Bergman’s fractured and enigmatic 1966 masterwork, Persona.
the spider’s web
Persona appears at first glance to be the story of two women. The actress Elizabeth Vogler (Liv Ullmann) has fallen silent during a performance of Sophocles’s Electra and now refuses to speak; the nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson) is assigned to care for her. The first half of the film seems like a realistic narrative, throughout which Elizabeth and Alma grow ever more intimate, one mute, the other endlessly talkative. In its second half, their intimacy curdles into hatred, and narrative continuity collapses into nightmarish fragmentation. The two women are twined (and twinned) ever more closely together, wounding and feeding off each other, until they begin to merge: Alma impersonates Elizabeth, narrates her thoughts, and at last—in one of his most famous and uncanny images—Bergman fuses the halves of their separate faces into a single, repulsive whole.
Beneath this narrative surface, the viewer senses that the women, like the sisters in The Silence, are aspects of the same person. The almost erotic force driving them together is the urge to integrate the halves of the divided self. Behind it lies another urge: The “hopeless dream” Elizabeth seeks in her silence—“not seeming to be,” her doctor surmises, “but being”—is also the state theologians ascribe to God. She seeks both reunion with herself—confession and atonement—and communion, the union with God. In both searches, she must fail cruelly, and that cruelty and failure are at once God’s and the artist’s.
God’s failure is revealed in the most striking feature of Persona—the series of disjointed and enigmatic images with which it begins and ends, some flashing by almost too quickly to be seen. Three successive images are of particular importance: a spider, a lamb being slaughtered, and a nail being pounded into a human hand. Bergman’s earlier work reveals how the first image relates to the other two: The spider is the God of Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light, whose nature—mute, uncomprehending, and predatory—reveals the sacrifice of the lamb, the events of the Crucifixion, to be devoid of redemptive meaning. No salvation is possible, and Elizabeth can never reach the peace she desires.
The artist’s failure—Bergman’s failure—is a reflection of God’s. One of the pivotal scenes in Persona, as in The Seventh Seal, is a confession. Here Alma speaks not to a priest but to the artist, Elizabeth, spilling out her most passionate and shameful recollections. But Elizabeth’s attention is also a trap, and their closeness begins its collapse into hatred when Alma discovers that her silent, sympathetic listener has been making a study of her, cannibalizing her confessions. Critics took this scene to depict the parasitism of artists, who exploit the suffering of others for material. But Elizabeth is Alma: The artist is the one who suffers. Like Bergman, she turns her own shame and passion to art, and in doing so degrades and distorts them. The artist’s confession is always a betrayal, for it becomes false and self-serving in the very act of being given aesthetic form.
The self must therefore remain masked and divided, as indeed it does at the end of Persona. The alternative is suggested by the artist Johann Borg, collapsing into madness, in Hour of the Wolf (1967): “The mirror has been shattered. But what do the shards reflect?” This vision of the self also dictates a vision of the world, as Susan Sontag noted in an essay on Persona: “If the maintenance of personality requires the safeguarding of the integrity of masks, and the truth about a person is always the cracking of the mask, then the truth about life as a whole is the shattering of the total façade behind which lies an absolute cruelty.”
This cruelty has a particular shape. The most important of Persona’s fragmentary images are those that bracket it symmetrically like a picture frame: at the beginning, a projector lamp firing up and a reel of film starting to spool past it; and at the end, the reel finishing and the lamp dying down. This framing device reminds us vividly that Persona is a created artifact. Halfway through the film it reintrudes—the reel of film seems to break and catch fire—after which normal chronology collapses completely. We cease to experience Persona as narrative, and it starts to seem more like a dream or an abstract form, like a piece of music.
Sontag thought Persona’s musical form was a theme and variations. But its real form is suggested by Bergman himself, who years earlier wrote of wanting, and failing, “to make films the way [the Hungarian composer Béla] Bartók writes music.” In Persona he succeeded. In fact, the film’s score strikingly resembles a particular piece by Bartók—the slow third movement of Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta (1936). This piece is a palindrome, converging relentlessly on a single point of symmetry. So, of a kind, is Persona.
Its point of symmetry occurs very near the center of the film, dividing the seeming realism of Persona’s first half from the disjointed nightmare of its second. At this point of symmetry, two things happen. First, Elizabeth enters Alma’s room. They stand side by side, facing a mirror, looking uncannily similar, then turn as if in embrace, heads crossing each other’s bodies to form an X: They intersect.
Then, without pause, we are looking straight at a camera: It is a new scene, Alma and Elizabeth are at the beach, and Elizabeth is taking a photograph. She appears to be shooting some object we cannot see. In reality, her camera is pointed directly at the director’s, mirroring it. Through both cameras she looks at us, and we at her. A symmetry is established, not just between Alma and Elizabeth, but between them and the viewer; the doubling within the film corresponds to the doubling between film and reality, and the screen is a mirror in which we see ourselves reflected in them, even as they are reflected in us. Such a series of elaborate symmetries, all converging on a single point, resembles something we have seen before. It resembles a spider’s web.
This web, the true form of Persona, is also, for Bergman, the true form of the world. God and the artist hide in their worlds like a spider in its web, hidden but not gone. The peculiar horror of these worlds is that, while purposeless, they are not absurd. The moral cosmos of Persona does not lie beyond good and evil: In it, evil, far from vanishing, has become all-pervasive, for while God’s grace has departed, His judgment has not.
Bergman’s oeuvre could have arisen only at a moment in which Christianity’s narrative of salvation had ceased to be believed but its demands had lingered on, in which its judgments had outlived its hopes. They were judgments by which Bergman—hating them, incapable of meeting them, and incapable of believing he could be helped to meet them—nevertheless felt himself bound. If his films seem now like part of a vanished past, it is because those judgments and hopes alike have become increasingly remote, even to many who call themselves Christians. What does Bergman’s anguish mean in a world in which God makes no demands and belief has dwindled to a gesture of easy affirmation?