Download as PDF Download PDF


The Face of Higher Values    


For all the modernist interventions at work in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, it is perhaps the scene – where one of the characters, the nurse Alma, opens her actress patient’s letter– that encapsulates the necessity of the film, and opens it up into a broader fascination Bergman has with the problem not only of identity, but also culpable identity. Now often the problem of identity is one thing, a determined shoring up of self to create a coherent enough being to get through life, but what about culpable identity, where one feeds off others for the evolution of that persona? In the book Ingmar Bergman Interviews, Britt Hamdi asks the director: “As a private person, as a man, you have led many lives. Do you yourself feel that the women surrounding Bergman have been numerous?” Bergman replies succinctly: “No, few. But crucial.” These have included five marriages and relationships with his actresses Harriet Andersson, Bibi Andersson (Alma here) and Liv Ullmann (Elisabet the actress). He has also often fed off these relationships to make his films: how often has a filmmaker made a work starring both his ex and his present lover, and about their identities dissolving? This suggests not the casual sexual life of the womanizer, with the man aggrandized and the woman flattered, but the man creatively sustained and the women flattened. Is the moment where Bergman reduces Andersson and Ullmann’s face to one in Persona a metaphor for this flattening effect? “Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann didn’t know that I did this, that I put them together into one face, and I wanted to give them a surprise, so we made this composite in the laboratory and we got it back to the island where we were and then I asked them to come to the editing room.” “When they saw those two faces together on the Movieola,  Bibi said, “What a terrible picture of you, Liv” and Liv said “No, it’s not me, it’s you.”” This has a certain frisson no matter who the actors happen to be, but when one is your former lover and the other your present one?

This isn’t the place to speculate on Bergman’s personal life, but it is an anecdote that captures well an element of culpable identity that he often explores in his work, where characters seem, in the process of exploring their own creative possibilities, in danger of exploiting the lives of others. This is in many ways a variation of an Emmanuel Levinas problematic. Levinas, alongside Simone Weil, Martin Buber and, more recently and in different ways, Maurice Blanchot and Jacques Derrida, is concerned with the problem of being from the perspective of the other, from the position where one’s own existence in the world isn’t necessarily augmentative to those of others, but always potentially detrimental to them. While for many thinkers this would be couched only in terms of extreme or selfish behaviour, for someone like Levinas it is at the basis of being. How to refuse that basic selfishness, he wonders. In Entre nous he says, “The suffering of compassion, suffering because the other suffers, is only one aspect of a relationship that is much more complex and much more complete at the same time: that of responsibility for the other even when he or she commits crimes…it is the essence of the human conscience.” “All men are responsible for one another, and ‘I more than anyone else’”. The philosopher also talks in Entre nous of justice: “I have tried to make this deduction: justice itself is born of charity”, and says elsewhere, it is “in this relation to the other I, in which the I is torn from its primordiality, that constitutes the non-gnoseological event necessary to reflection itself understood as knowledge, and consequently necessary to the egological reduction itself.”

Now how we might wonder could the I not be torn from its primordiality, and Bergman talks of being fascinated by an idea from Arthur Koestler where the writer reckons that the human brain is basically a cancerous monkey brain: “that it has  a completely crazy construction that has no relationship to any other creature in the world.” Two ways in which this complex, useless brain can go is in the direction of charity, as Levinas would describe it where the other is more important than I, or in the aesthetic direction where the I dissolves but is not replaced by the selflessness of the other, but by the selfishness of art that expresses an I much greater than the self. When Bergman is asked by critic John Simon whether he reads criticism to tell him things about himself, he replies, “no, not me, but things I see.”  This is the I as aesthetic self, where it would be unfair to talk of egocentricity in such an instance; it is closer to an aesthetic-centricity.

Is this basically the difference between the two leading characters in Persona; one an actress; the other a nurse, and that Elisabet’s values lie in art and Alma’s in life, however we might choose to define such terms? When Alma confesses early in the film to Elizabet she does so as someone speaking personally to another whom she assumes will respect the nature of her openness, only to find later as she opens the letter this is exactly what Elisabet has not done.  It isn’t even just that Elisabet has exposed her to Elisabet’s husband, it is the manner in which she has done so, as if she were listening to Alma with an awareness of how she might use this conversation in various ways later. It is as though Elisabet’s letter to her husband is one of a number of ways in which Alma’s confession might be useful, as if she draws on human vulnerability to enrich her own work as an actress. Thus when Alma sobs in front of Elisabet and talks of a lost love and her more recent partner, Elisabet seems to have been listening attentively, but there is attentiveness as compassion which perhaps Alma believes Elisabet is offering, and there is attentiveness as curiosity, which is maybe closer to what Elisabet actually provides. This is curiosity without compassion not because the person listening does not care, but the care for their own artistic integrity is more important than their capacity to share feelings with others.

It is a common problematic in Bergman’s work. Whether it happens to be the pianist mother in Autumn Sonata, the father in Through a Glass Darkly or Elisabet here, there is an aesthetic vampirism that seems greater than fellow-feeling, evidenced in Persona of course in the moment where in a dream Alma offers her open vein to Elisabet, and later in the film where it looks Elisabet will bite into that arm. Yet this is not only a problem of monstrous egotism; it is more one caught between the egological, as Levinas would call it, and the selfless, as if the artist is always squirreling away experience to the detriment not so much of living, as of loving, of giving oneself to another. It is the case that often Bergman’s creative figures are hugely egotistical, and ambitious beyond the needs of their art, where fame and glory are important, but that doesn’t really alter the nature of the problem we want to explore here: the compassionately selfless and the aesthetically selfish. If Alma might initially come across as the more humane figure, is it not because she presents herself as without an aesthetic gift or understanding, and as someone for whom love is more important than anything else in the world?

At one moment she speaks to the doctor about being unqualified for the task of looking after Elisabet. Maybe someone older and more experienced in life would be better suited. But perhaps it isn’t life experience she requires, but an aesthetic understanding; an awareness that to open up one’s soul to an artist (Alma means soul in Spanish and Italian) is not only to confess, but also to be exposed: exposed to the possibility that your life is raw material for the creative mind. When Bergman says his relationships have been few but crucial, does he offer the comment as an artist or as a man: can they even be easily separated?

Perhaps not, but what might be useful to separate is Bergman’s fascination with the face in relation to aesthetics, and Levinas’s equal obsession in relation to ethics.  “For me cinematography is first and foremost close-ups. People’s faces.” “…to see a human face with the camera and with the zoom to come closer…is the most fascinating thing that exists.” And if Persona’s poster predicates itself on the face, Bergman would go on to make a film with face in the title twice: Face to Face. Levinas says “the Face is definitely not a plastic form like a portrait: the relation to the Face is both the relation to the absolutely weak – to what is absolutely exposed, what is bare and destitute…”  “To be in relation to the other face to face – is to be unable to kill. This is also the situation of discourse.”  “A bad conscience which comes to me from the face of the other who, in his mortality, uproots me from the solid ground where, as a simple individual, I stand and persevere naively.”

Where Levinas offers up the face as ethical problematic; Bergman explores the issue aesthetically. If Levinas expresses also the problem of culpable identity, evident in a comment like one’s “fear for all the violence and murder my existing – despite its intentional and conscious innocence – can bring about”, it is not as it is in Bergman a creative problem. The hateful self Bergman talks of is not an a priori figure but a figure that art constitutes. This can take many forms and one that in an interview with Michiko Kakutani concerns Bergman’s interest in other people.  As one friend says: “If I would tell him I have a cancer and was going to die, he would be extremely sorry, but also extremely curious. He is interested in the unhappiness of his friends. He dwells on it – he can get material.” If this is one form of vampirism then we also have the exposure of the actors themselves. “…we who are directors”, Bergman says, “must never forget that we are behind the camera,  that the actor is in front of the camera.”  “He is nude; his soul is nude.”

The question worth exploring here is how does Bergman give ethics to his aesthetic, how does he accept the culpability of the self but never assume that such a self is entitled to what we might call not so much a moral high ground but an aesthetic one, the sort of aesthetic loftiness that leaves others irrelevant next to the creative work. It as though out of the ethical and the aesthetic there must be a higher aim, but what might that be? In this instance, and for no more than our own immediate purpose, it is epistemology, a search for knowledge that is greater that the individual and also greater than the art produced. When Bergman quizzes a friend about their unhappiness, is this for no better reason than that he has run short of material, or is it that it can deepen the material he already has? This is surely an important distinction if we think of how a filmmaker might explore or exploit a given event. If someone were to make a film just after 9/11 because it is in the news and everybody will see it, this is exploitation; if there is in the event some aspect that the director feels needs to be explored, and that cannot be contained by the event and its media representation, this is surely exploration. This doesn’t mean the artist escapes culpability, but he doesn’t arrive at the exploitative. One may believe in this formulation that Bergman is a culpable filmmaker, but not an exploitative one.

But what is Elisabet here – exploitative or culpable? In the letter she sends to her husband she says at one moment it is “fun studying” Alma, but in the scene earlier where Alma speaks so tearfully to Elisabet there is nothing to suggest that fun would be the word to describe the feeling she was having at the time. After Alma reads this part of the letter in the car, the camera cuts from the words on the page to Alma looking in front of her: a shock to the system that realises that what a person offers is not always what they feel, or perhaps, again, that what one feels, in the moment, is not what they express when they tell a third party. In this moment Alma feels quite understandably exploited, as if Elisabet has gone beyond the inevitable culpability of the artist unavoidably fascinated by the unhappiness Alma expresses, towards the glee of someone with yet more useful material for her own work. Does Elisabet prove to be a hateful self, and leaves Alma more vulnerable than she needs to be? The nakedness of Alma’s soul has not been respected; it has been exploited. After Alma reads further, she gets out of the car and stands reflecting (and quite literally reflected) by the side of a pond, a reflection that at least she can claim as her own, where much of the film will explore the dissolution of self into that of another, evident in the scene where the two faces dissolve.

Now Bergman has often been fascinated by the degree to which one characters exposes and destroys another, and the danger to the individual’s personality as a consequence. Whether it is the scene in Winter Light where the priest insistently insults his lover as she sits in front of him, Erland Josephson’s character standing behind Liv Ullmann’s in Cries and Whispers and commenting on her facial lines, Ullmann again tearing into her mother in Autumn Sonata, these are all direct attacks on another’s personality. As indeed is the moment where the doctor talks here to Elisabet early in the film. In the scene where Alma reads the letter this is perhaps even worse for its indirectness. Elisabet listened with apparent sympathy to Alma, only to offer the stories up as semi-entertainment in a letter to her husband. If the other examples we give are all of direct critique, from person to person, this is closer to indirect critique: transformative actions that change the flavour of an original moment into a personalised one as Elisabet tests out her latest piece of actorly research. There is the suggestion perhaps in Bergman’s work that this transformativeness is potentially more damaging than a direct attack, since at least the person attacked can deal with the situation in the moment of insult, and in a situation of privacy, but the transformative critique, the comment made after the event or the aesthetic transformation of it, can leave the person in a state of retrospective vulnerability: all the more vulnerable because of the gap, and because it is no longer an event between two people, but opened up between three, four, possibly the entire public domain.

At the beginning of Persona, Bergman gives us a number of shocking images, including those of old people lying dead on a slab and a hand nailed down. Later in the film he will also show us detailed footage of the burning monk protesting against the Vietnam war shown on the television Elisabet watches.  These are horrific images, but if Bergman is resistant to symbolism and yet we might be tempted to view the images as symbolic, this resides in the general psychological nature of Bergman’s violence. He may say in interviews that “in a way I don’t know anything about messages or symbols or things like that”, but this hardly seems a justifiable dismissal given The Seventh Seal and its chess game of death. However in much of his work the violence is “symbolic violence”, a term offered by Henry A. Giroux to differentiate it from what he sees as ritualistic and hyper-real violence. The former is often found in action films; the latter in pastiche: the difference between Die Hard and Pulp Fiction. Symbolic violence, though, “does not become an end in itself; it serves to reference a broader logic and set of insights.”

Yet maybe even here we can differentiate between substitutionally symbolic violence, and representational symbolic violence. An example of substitutionally symbolic violence would be where someone might kick a chair when they want to smack someone, and a film will perhaps cut away from a person being murdered to an image that symbolises that moment less graphically. But Bergman’s symbolic violence is often strongly actualised but at the same time literally insignificant next to its metaphorical overtones. Whether it happens to be the hand nailed to the cross here, or the dead animals in The Passion of Anna, these are images of secondary violence because the horror that interests Bergman most is the psychological violence between human beings. Thus just as there are filmmakers concerned chiefly by violence as actualised but barely psychologised, as we find in many a blockbuster action film, so there are filmmaker like Scorsese, and to a different degree Polanski and Peckinpah, who are interested in the literal nature of the violent as an end in-itself but which also reflects the psychological. Bergman, though, is an exceptional example of the filmmaker where the violence becomes abstract next to the concreteness of the mental aggression between characters.

This symbolic violence as some might define it is chiefly psychological violence expressed through the importance of the face, and we draw similarities between Bergman and Levinas for the simple reason that they are both fascinated by the visage, and more complexly because the importance of the face in their work says much about the problem of violence not as an issue of survival, but of identity. In many films of violence, the survivalist aspect is stronger than the identificatory issue. Even if in many of Peckinpah’s films the questions of identity is so called into question that characters will lose their lives defending an ethos (Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) we would not remotely call such violence symbolic, or even psychological. The violence is categorical; the identity passes through the violent. In Bergman films, the violence passes through the identity. Now this is partly of course to do with the importance of the face, and though American cinema is a cinema where the metonomy of the face takes precedence over other parts of the body, it is the face as the most dramatically expressive part of the whole. It is the part of the body that unites its other parts in the motivation of an action. When for example in chase sequences in The French Connection or The Bourne Identity the camera cuts between various actions and various body parts, it returns to the face to help us understand the purpose of the characters’ actions. Without any close-ups to the face, we might be wondering how they are reacting to certain events. There will be frustration on Popeye Doyle’s face as he struggles to get his man; assuredness on Bourne’s as he finds a way of negotiating a narrow street, and our own emotional reactions will be reflected in the faces of the actors.  The face is a reflection of the coordination of the body’s actions, but usually its relation to action and violence is very different from the Bergmanesque that incorporates the problem Levinas so often and readily addresses.

For example if we think of the problem of central conflict in most mainstream films the idea is that the self is a given that can be in conflict with other given selves. As Raul Ruiz says in The Poetics of Cinema, “out of all this arise stories which feed on instances of will, in which wanting to do something (active will) and wanting someone (passionate will) are often confused. Wanting and loving are part of a single web of action and decision, confrontation and choice.” A categorical self wills and loves, but as Ruiz says, “how you love does not matter.” The ethos of willing and loving is rudimentary. It is in such instances the face becomes merely the aspect that reflects the single-mindedness of one’s choices, and one chooses a very good film (The French Connection) and a very competent one (The Bourne Identity) to avoid easy judgements on central conflict and the conventional use of the face.

However in these examples the face doesn’t become culpable. When Levinas asks whether man is individuated by matter or individuated by form, he replies by saying “I support individuation by responsibility for the other.”  This is a method that inverts central conflict theory by making the other more important than me, and in turn I would be more important in the eyes of the other. The face is also inverted. It no longer becomes a question of a ‘motivated’ face, but an ethical face, a visage constantly aware of an otherness it contains rather than confronts. “Having to answer for one’s right to be, not appealing to the abstractness of some anonymous law, some juridical entity,” Levinas says, “but in the fear for the other”.

In Bergman’s films there is often the fear of and the fear for the other: a sense that when a character tears strips off someone else, or explores their own thoughts and feelings, they are never theirs alone, but also those of the person they are criticizing or appealing to. When the priest in Winter Light attacks his lover this isn’t self-righteousness but self-criticism at one remove. He despises himself in the process of despising her as he can’t easily separate self from other. If she is so hopeless a creature, what is he in having been with her?  Clearly Bergman’s work is not that of compassion in the sense that Levinas speaks of it, but the problem of the self and other is at least constantly problematised as it returns the issue of the face not to its motivational forces, but its internalised chaos. It finds a position on the face between the compassion Levinas seeks and the motivation mainstream cinema offers. If violence cannot but appear to have a symbolic dimension, it is because no external force can be stronger than the internal crisis, otherwise the work would lose its tension, the tension between a self that wants to express and a self that wants to love.

Now when Alma expresses she does so in a confessional but not at all in a creative manner. When she lies next to Elisabet and talks of how much she was in love with one man and her relationship now with another, she does so with not only an assumption that Elisabet will listen, even if she worries that she might be boring her, but that it remains within the confines of life and not material for a creative opportunity. She acts in the good faith of the person who believes in reality as an end initself, and not of the artist for whom experience is awaiting transformation. However while it is hardly fair to indict Elisabet for her aesthetic vampirism, it is surely reasonable to question her behaviour in the letter to her husband. Yet this is a private letter (no matter if it hasn’t been sealed) Elisabet sends to her husband, that has been looked at by Alma before she can know what it contains. If an artist is allowed to glean from experience the reality of people’s lives; the notion of someone opening another’s letter out of curiosity is seen as an incursion on someone’s privacy. One may ask then what is it that makes the former acceptable and the latter not, and is it simply a problem of ethics, or does aesthetics contain a wider alibi? Perhaps the problem both with the letter written and the letter opened is that what we have is idle gossip in the first instance and idle curiosity in the latter. Each gesture lacks an ethical or aesthetic ideal. If it is reasonable for Alma to speak about her feelings to Elisabet, and reasonable for Elisabet to channel that into a creative function, then this is within the realm of social values and aesthetic values, but the other actions are neither confessional nor creative. They serve no higher function.

It as though much of Bergman’s work has tried to find a place within the confessional and the aesthetic that aspires to some higher ideal. When Bergman is reminded of an earlier comment he made, that “I’d prostitute my talents if it would further my cause, steal if there was no other way out, kill my friends or anyone else if it would help my art”, he claimed this was the insecure Bergman, someone who “is unsure of himself, worried about his position.”  It is a low comment, again serving no higher function, and what counts in Bergman’s work, so often, is the capacity to turn lower functions into higher ones, to transform the reality he works with into a value that justifies the utilising of the real.

Yet at the same time one may ask could this not be done within a realist aesthetic, where Persona more than most Bergman films works with indiscernible worlds, worlds where we cannot readily differentiate dream from non-dream, the film world from a comment on that world? As Martyn Auty says, in Movies of the Sixties, “Alma can never be sure if Elisabet visited her room at night during their stay in the summer house”, and “Bergman reveals within the film the action of the movie projector and interrupts the narrative mid-flow with a false breakdown (torn sprocket holes and burnt frames)”. However, the self-reflexivity of the film and the collapsing of the diegesis into indiscernible worlds are instances of a problem with being consistent with what we have so far explored. When Bergman was asked in an interview how he sees himself he replied: “Not as some uniform, clearly defined phenomenon. Rather as something in continuous motion. But that’s probably a very common feeling with artists.”  How does one aesthetically contain within this feeling the broadest ethical problem except through finding a form with which to contain it whilst at the same time questioning that containment? In the scene where it seems that Alma and Elisabet’s husband are making love in the background while Elisabet looks out to the camera in the foreground, Bergman finds a form for compressed feeling that would open up the problem he so often explored of the dissolving self, but here he also adds to it the dissolution of the diegesis, and the collapse of the very film we are watching. It is as if the wake of his own well-documented bout of ill-health the previous year, he wanted to document the notion of collapse in as many different ways within the one film, but always working out of the problem of the aesthetic and returning to his preoccupation with the face.

In a Freudian reading of the film in Kino Eye, Daniel C. Shaw insistently sees Elisabet as the monster and Alma as the victim of this monstrousness, but surely the chief distinction between them is the aesthetic impulse in Elisabet and the confessional impulse in Alma. Now this doesn’t at all make them morally equivalent, with Elisabet’s behaviour excused because of her status as an artist, but it is to insist that the nature of their problem is different, and one should acknowledge this difference. If we are to insist Elisabet is villainous, she falls into the sub-category of the aesthetically so, someone for whom art is at the same time augmenting and damaging her own and other souls.  When, as we’ve noted, Alma says she is not sure whether she is the right person to look after Elisabet, she says, she “needs someone older and more experienced”, someone with more knowledge of life. But it is not the lack of life experience that is the problem, but that she is naive in the face of aesthetic culpability. Elisabet seems someone rather like Bergman himself when he offers the statement about sacrificing everything to his art – though without the compensating awareness that such thoughts come out of insecurity.

But of course as we’ve explored in relation to the letter that Elisabet sends, she is not someone for whom the aesthetic culpability serves art; sometimes it is no more than ethical weakness at work. One could do worse than to look through Bergman’s oeuvre where artistic ability and moral culpability are so often presented, and differentiate between the attempt at higher aesthetic values out of one’s treatment of others, and the lower ethical weaknesses where a person’s failings are not contained by any greater virtue. Levinas may be a philosopher who utilises the face to explore the problem of making the other more important than ourselves, but in Bergman the face is used in a slightly different manner. It often suggests that the value lies not in prioritising the other over ourselves, but aesthetic principle over ourselves and others, and whether this done in good or bad faith. Out of the higher value perhaps an equal respect for self and other can come, but Elisabet is not quite one of those artists, as she seems to leave a husband, a child, and now a potentially broken nurse, all irrelevant next to the pursuit of art.

Bergman may explore the question of aesthetics, but accepts that contained within it is an ethical exploration of what one is allowed to express in relation to other human beings. If Levinas talks of an eclipse of the self for the other, is the artist not also someone for whom the self is constantly in danger of eclipsing the other selves one utilises for one’s own art? But to what degree is that process empathic or vampiric; capable of giving new blood to the possibilities in being, or draining it from those who already exist? If in a scene where Alma threatens to throw boiling water over Elisabet it is Alma who is metaphorically going for the jugular, but we can see in the scene a very healthy vein in her neck that might serve well as a metaphor for Elisabet’s own lowly desires.


©Tony McKibbin