Many directors of course utilise what we’ll call external suspense to generate tension in their work, but few directors are more effective than Ingmar Bergman at creating internal suspense, the Sartrean problem of hell being the intimacy of other people. In Bergman’s The Passion of Anna, there is an externally suspenseful story he only half attends to, where someone is slaughtering animals on the small island the leading characters are living on, but as usual with Bergman what interests the director isn’t the world at large and the macrocosmic, but the world shrunken: the microcosmic.
If so often Bergman in films like The Silence, Persona and Shame has been referred to as a symbolic filmmaker, it is at least partly because he focuses so narrowly on an aspect of the world that we must assume he is talking of bigger things. But rather than assuming this takes him in the direction of the symbolic, we are proposing that he is a master of the microcosmic, and the significance of Bergman’s work resides in part in this distinction. The symbolic we should remember often stands for something else, and in cinematic terms resembles the metaphorical: where an image represents categorically through an abstract meaning. This covers anything from a cut to a fire as lovers clearly make love off screen, to an animal being killed while a character is being murdered. But Bergman’s approach is often to focus on the specifics of intimacy to the apparent detriment of the wider reality, as though the wider problems are not so much a reflection of the specific, but the specific a microcosm of the wider problems.
But is this not simply a play on words? We think not, for the former would suggest that the human problem was merely a way of playing out the broader social problems, while Bergman seems to be a filmmaker who knows that the broader problems come out of the emotionally specific: it reminds us of Wittgenstein’s claim that you can solve all the problems in the world and you will still be left with the couple. What we’re proposing is that the symbolic would indicate the social was a greater problem than the personal; where Bergman, taking into account both Wittgenstein and Sartre, is interested in the personal and what it happens to say about the social: hence the microcosmic over the symbolic.
In The Passion of Anna, Bergman zeroes in on four characters, paying especial attention to Max Von Sydow’s Andreas. Living on an isolated island in an isolated cottage, here is a man for whom human contact isn’t a social occasion but a threatening event. One afternoon a woman turns up and asks if she can use his phone, and Andreas overhears her crying down the line. Anna (Liv Ullmann) is clearly a woman of dubious stability, and if overhearing her sobs on the phone isn’t enough of a warning, she forgets a letter that Andreas reads where her mental imbalance proves undeniable. Does he back away? No, instead he accepts a dinner invitation some time after he returns the letter to the couple, Elis (Erland Josephson) and his wife, Eva (Bibi Andersson) Anna is staying with, and while the voice over tells us the meal was a social success, one may wonder at what stage will the event become the beginning of a personal nightmare.
If hell is other people, then a social situation can only be a precursor to the emotional chaos that will soon be revealed. Formally Bergman proposes the problem of the social and the personal through what he is often credited with being the master of: the close up. During the brief dinner sequence Bergman cuts between the characters with great emphasis not on the situation but on the self. When David Bordwell writes intriguingly about the complexity of dinner sequences in Figures Traced in Light, in films like Hou Hsaio-hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai and Hong Sang-soo’s Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, in each instance the social aspect of the scene is more important than the personal aspect of the self: the long take approach to meals makes sense. When Bordwell talks about how the filmmaker can avoid some of the difficulties by instead of the long take, concentrating more on the characters’ faces in what he calls ‘singles’ rather than the full mise-en-scene that includes the dinner table itself, this needn’t be an issue of eschewing technical difficulties, more an interest in formal problematics: what approach reveals the density of the problem? In Hou and Hong the personal comes out of the social – both are fine directors of creating the necessary distance to observe personal motivation at one remove – indeed much of the inexplicability in their work comes from this distance, whether it be the fights that break out in Hou’s Goodbye, South Goodbye, or the writer in The Day the Pig Fell Into the Well, creating a situation at a restaurant early in the film.
Bergman’s formal proximity to his characters is the opposite of distant, and indeed a number of writers including philosopher Gilles Deleuze have talked about not only the close ups in Bergman’s films, but the obliteration of the face, that the close ups are so close that a face disappears, loses its distinctness. This can take the form of the famous two shot of the faces dissolving into each other in Persona, the tight close ups during the dinner scene already mentioned here, or the two shots where Elis and Andreas talk: this is the two shot so tightly framed, and the characters oddly positioned – one face on; the other in profile – that the inexplicable comes not from distance but from immediacy. This is the self dissolving not in the social space, but in a personal space that is constantly in danger of being encroached upon.
Thus though the film is called The Passion of Anna, it could equally have been named the ‘Disintegration of Andreas’. The problem seems to reside chiefly in the emotional collision course between a woman who talks obsessively about her emotions and the truth (evident in the dinner party sequence; her emotional breakdown on the phone that Andreas overhears, and Ullmann’s defence of her characters’ perspective in the to-camera footage) and a man for whom the emotions are shut out. When Bergman gives each of the four leading actors a scene to explain their characters’ emotions, Von Sydow stands tall in the frame in profile offering his characters’ motivation in a way physically consistent with Andreas’s own body language, while Liv Ullmann looks directly at the camera, defending her character’s emotional life.
Now what Bergman seems to explore is the naivety of Andreas and Anna: they seem unwilling to acknowledge that hell is other people (no matter Andreas’s wariness), and want from another person heaven rather than hell. Early in the film, not long after the dinner party scene, Elis shows Andreas a picture of Anna and her husband, and mentions how much and obsessively Anna loved her philandering spouse, a gifted scientist. As the pair of them have a morning whisky, so Bergman sets up the dangerous relationship months before it takes place. This is back story as warning signal but ambivalently so. Bergman is not a filmmaker afraid of cinematic conventions, and indeed has always talked up the importance of craft, attacking other filmmakers like Antonioni and Welles, for example, (in The Bergman Interviews) for never having mastered it. Whether it is central conflict between characters, or back stories revealed, what is important, though, is how Bergman uses these conventions. The back story here is offered cynically and troublesomely, with Elis throwing in the detail that his wife Eva was one of Anna’s husbands’ lovers while the central conflicts aren’t externally motivated but psychologically formulated – if other people are hell and constantly infringing upon our sense of self, then the information they reveal might not be very reliable, and also may say more about their desire for conflict than their desire to reveal. Is this the case with Elis as he details Anna’s past? In conventional movie terms this might seem too much too soon – they hardly know each other – but in the Bergmanesque world of multiple motivation and fractured psyches, we would do better musing over what might lie within Elis’s revelation. Bergman has mastered convention, but for his own claustrophobic ends.
Some time afterwards, after we see Andreas and Eva spending a night together while her husband is away, Andreas and Anna set up life together with Bergman presenting it elliptically. Bergman generates interior suspense through one’s awareness that this is a couple of passion and fragility, of a character ‘immaturely’ pessimistic (in Andreas’s case), ‘immaturely’ optimistic in Anna’s. Where Elis and his wife have settled into a compromised marriage, full of subdued self-realization, Andreas and Anna set up house without confronting many of the realities of the relationships’s long term sustainability, and their own un-evolved emotional needs. Much of the film’s internal suspense comes from this, through the combination of Wittgenstein and Sartre obervations above.
This isn’t especially to pedestal Elis and Eva’s relationship: not at all. As one critic, David Shipman, says, Elis is a “cynical architect” and his wife is “rootless”, and “far more disturbed than at first appears”. Yet what is interesting about Erland Josephson and Bibi Andersson’s comments about their characters in the film is their astuteness towards the figures they play. This has nothing to do with the quality of the actors, and this is strictly no more than a documentary device within a clearly fictional film. No, what is interesting is how they have a handle on their characters partly because the characters possess a handle on themselves. However, with Ullmann’s wide-eyed frontal, naivety and Von Sydow’s lumbering fret, they bring to their roles all the suspense of characters coming into contact with another character who does not quite believe that hell is other people, who don’t quite believe that all the problems of the world can be solved but one would still be left with the couple.
From this perspective the maniac on the loose is a minor problem. Once again – as with our insistence that Elis and Eva make a ‘better’ couple than Andreas and Anna – we talk about the ‘minor’ problem provocatively to push through a comprehension of Bergman’s internal suspense. When we propose Elis and his wife are healthier than Andreas and Anna we do so to indicate how much more tension is likely to be generated through Andreas and Anna than between the more self-aware Elis and Eva. By the same reckoning the violence surrounding the film is somehow not Bergmanesque enough to demand direct attention. In an interview on the DVD Bergman says that everybody has a holiness in himself, that God isn’t outside but inside, and we might add that this is essentially Bergman’s interest: to what degree can we be true or false to this internal spirit, and by extension is it perhaps better to be aware of its absence than to insist on its existence when it may not be there. It is this really that ties together our two points: the internal suspense and the awareness that the cynical and unhappy but moderately self-aware couple are the more successful of the two, and consequently only of mild interest to Bergman.
For what matters to Bergman is the most pressing question: the idea that the purpose of art is to engage people in their internal relationship with themselves, not with external religion but inner instinct; with their soul. This cannot be done with external narrative suspense it would seem, and Bergman’s purpose is to strip characters down to fundamentals. Near the end of the film Bergman shows Andreas going after Anna with an axe, and in the closing shot of the film, the zoom lens shows Andreas isolated against the landscape clearly breaking down as Bergman offers us a zoom that steadily disintegrates Andreas’s very image. Usually of course critics have talked about the close up obliterating the face, but here it is the zoom lens deteriorating the whole body. Yet whether it is the face or the body, what counts is that the internal suspense gives way not to narrative resolution, but personal irresolution, and irresolution that demands we investigate the self in all its manifestations. If the thread of external violence interests Bergman at all, it is as an allusive presence that may make us wonder about the violence that lurks within others, as well as the internal violence that Andreas himself needs to unleash. This is why we talk of the film not in symbolic terms but microcosmic ones, as Bergman uses the leading characters not at all for their abstract qualities, but for their very immediate ones, and how perhaps these immediate problems find their correlative in broader social problems like the murders taking place on the island. Has the killer, whoever it might be, failed to find the holiness within him or herself; the internal suspense of hell not only being other people, but also potentially in one’s own soul as well?