Persona pt1: Behind the Mask

From his hospital bed, sick with pneumonia and acute antibiotic poisoning, Ingmar Bergman started writing the screenplay for Persona, in order to search out a new path in his career.

Liv Ullman as actress Elisabet and Bibi Andersson as the nurse Alma, in Persona.
From his hospital bed, sick with pneumonia and acute antibiotic poisoning, Ingmar Bergman started writing the screenplay for Persona, in order to search out a new path in his career.

Burned out and in poor shape, in 1965 Bergman was admitted to the hospital Sophiahemmet in Stockholm. During his stay there, he started questioning the role of art in general, and his own work. Those thoughts led him to start working on a new screenplay, “mainly to keep my hand in the creative process”. That screenplay was later named Persona.

Persona is the story of nurse Alma and actress Elisabet. Elisabet has turned silent and apathetic and Alma takes care of her, bringing her food trays and opens the window curtains. And as the nurse talks and her patient remains silent, their identities begin to merge. As the film unfolds, the reason for Elisabet´s illness surfaces, and Alma becomes more and more frustrated and angry with her patient´s silence.

Norwegian actress Liv Ullman got her first major breakthrough with Persona.

Persona has often been regarded as a new beginning in Bergman´s career. One that he very much sought out. “What is it that I want from this, yes, to start from the beginning. Not to contrive not to incite not to cause a fuss but to start from the beginning with my new if I have one”, is among the first notes in the screenplay.

persona-ingmar-bergman-02

The film was named Persona, from the Latin name of face masks worn by actors in antiquity. “It’s an amusing title, a good name, an apt name. The film will be about people’s masks and attitudes”, Bergman said in a press conference. Persona is a term also used in psychology. “Persona is the mask or appearance one presents to the world, people may choose to wear a social mask or persona to make themselves appear more socially desirable”, according to Carl Jung who first wrote about persona in psychological terms.

Persona was photographed by legendary film photographer Sven Nykvist, who worked with Bergman on many films. It’s in black and white, with many long, intensive close-up shots that helped develop Nykvist´s signature style.

It’s an amusing title, a good name, an apt name. The film will be about people’s masks and attitudes.

Ingmar Bergman
Photographer Sven Nykvist was faced with challenges shooting Persona. The close-up of an old film projector with carbon rods that meet together was not an easy shot to achieve. He worked on this sequence in his spare time, “the studio manager was annoyed because I was using up so much raw film outside the regular budget even before shooting had begun”.

Persona received both praise and also negative reviews, but no other Bergman film has generated more critical or academic attention and is easily his most written about film. Ingmar Bergman himself has said this about the film; “Persona saved my life – that is no exaggeration. If I had not found the strength to make the film, I would probably have been all washed up. One significant point: for the first time I did not care in the least whether the result would be a commercial success”.

Persona saved my life – that is no exaggeration.

Ingmar Bergman