50 Years Ago This Week – Ingmar Bergman’s Persona

Fifty years ago this week Ingmar Berman’s Persona opened in the U. S.  One of the landmarks in the history of film, it is about the convergence of personalities between an actress (Liv Ullmann), mute and withdrawn after falling silent in the middle of a performance, and the nurse (Bibi Andersson) charged with her care.  Not a film that can (or should) be summarized in a short essay, for openers you can read about it here (Ebert’s Great Movie Essay) and here (see especially the contribution by Susan Sontag) and here (from the Criterion Collection).  And if you haven’t seen it, well, you should.

In addition to its well-deserved place on the canon (it ranked number #12 in the most recent “greatest films of all time” Sight and Sound poll, if you are into that sort of thing; it ranked as high as #5 in the 1972 poll, the first time it was eligible), Persona is also notable because it arrived at a critical juncture in Bergman’s career—and in movie history, landing on American shores in 1967, the same year that would see the emergence of the New Hollywood.

Bergman had twenty years of directing under his belt when he made Persona.  His output to that point can be divided into four phases: some early, watchable efforts in the late forties, when he was more or less learning his craft, were followed by a set of strong dramas in the first half of the 1950s (our favorites among these include Summer Interlude, Waiting Women, Sawdust and Tinsel, and A Lesson in Love).  In the second half of that decade, Bergman became an international sensation with films that included Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, and The Magician (insert awestruck dropped jaw here); in the early 1960s he followed the rather severe Virgin Spring (winner of the Academy Award for best foreign film) with his “godless trilogy” of Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence.

But The Silence opened in 1963, and over the next few years Bergman star faded a bit, if subtly.  In the context of emerging cinematic movements that were increasingly raw, ragged and personal, his precise, existential films risked relegating him to the status of “your Dad’s Art House hero,” a distant titan who made great films to be revered, but not necessarily loved.  The mid-sixties were also a time of personal crisis for Bergman, hospitalized with some combination of pneumonia and exhaustion, and facing, as he wrote “an extremely difficult period in his life.”  Regarding Persona, he later reflected, “If I had not found the strength to make that film, I probably would have been all washed up.”

Fortunately for him (and for us), he did make that film, and, pushing 50, entered one of the most accomplished and creative periods of his extraordinary career.  Highlights over these next handful of years include Shame (a stunning achievement, under-appreciated at the time but overwhelmingly powerful and with a bracing contemporary relevance), The Rite, The Passion of Anna (another triumph, and as daring, new and experimental as any then-hipster might have attempted), Cries and Whispers, and the astonishing long-form Scenes from a Marriage.  

Bergman’s renaissance, starting with Persona, was also another catalyst of, and inspiration for, the emerging New Hollywood.  The list here is long, and the influence pervasive and general, but note for example a very hot Elliot Gould dropping everything to star in The Touch (with Bibi Andersson and Max von Sydow), and Robert Altman’s comment that Persona “was largely responsible for [his films] Images and 3 Women.”  And of course there is Woody Allen, who within a three year period transitioned from hilarious Bergman parody (Love and Death) to straight-up homage (Interiors), reflecting an influence that would be seen in many of his films over the following forty years. 

 

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Ulmann