By Terence Diggory.

The Critical Audience
Dramatis Personae
Child’s Play
Alma Mater
Sons and Lovers
Fear of Lying
Fear of Dying
The Primary Audience

The Critical Audience

Ingmar Bergman saw the first hints of a new film as “a brightly colored thread sticking out of the dark sack of the unconscious” (1960: xv). Having identified this thread in the completed film, a psychoanalytic critic will want to follow it back into Bergman’s unconscious. On the other hand, a film critic, which is the persona I am assuming for the time being, will want to trace the pattern formed by the various components within the film itself as they attach themselves to that original thread. In Bergman’s words, “the picture sequences [. . .] assume a pattern [. . .] obeying laws born out of and conditioned by my original stimulus” (1960: xvi). Critics of Persona (1966), “long acknowledged as one of the ‘great’ films of the Western tradition” (Blackwell 1986: 133), have been hard pressed to identify what its patterning thread might be, or even whether it has one (Kael 2000: 170-71). I propose that the thread is Bergman’s image of his mother, the face that Bergman said he was always searching for in his films (Singer 2007: 12-13).

To argue for the presence of the mother in Persona is nothing new, but I believe its function as a patterning thread has not been fully grasped. Some have deliberately let the thread slip. For instance, in an early review the French critic and film-maker Marcel Martin linked Persona to the theme of maternity as Bergman’s “essential preoccupation” when depicting women (1967: 75; my translation). However, Martin then buried the topic after dissociating himself from the view, which he suspected was Bergman’s, that a woman is naturally incomplete until she has given birth to a child. Needless to say, in the feminist criticism that arose in the decade following the release of Persona, the grounding of woman’s condition in motherhood was a subject not merely to be avoided, but directly attacked.[1] Biographical criticism provided a kind of defense against this attack by particularizing the image of the mother: Persona is not about motherhood, but about Bergman’s mother, and the psychic wounds her son suffered from his sense of being rejected by her.

But this view exposed the film to the charge, particularly frequent in contemporary Swedish criticism, of irresponsible self-absorption.[2] Who cared how Bergman’s mother had treated him when the mistreatment of the Vietnamese people by American imperialists (an issue briefly glimpsed in Persona) seemed so much more pressing? Sensitivity to this charge can still be detected in Frank Gado’s extensive attempt to interpret Bergman’s films in terms of “a rudimentary personal myth” (1986: xvi). Although Gado goes farther than any other critic in viewing Persona as”emanating from a troubled relationship between a son and mother” (1986: 322), he is quick to generalize “the childhood memory of maternal rejection” (1986: 343) into “the reality of man’s abandonment” (1986: 344), presumably by God, the absent father-figure with whom Bergman seemed to be obsessed in the films that preceded Persona (Gado 1986; 296; see also Phillips 1975).

The Oedipal plot underlying Gado’s analysis reflects a more general expectation that a film will have a plot. The normative status of “narrative film” within film studies interferes with recognition of the full extent of the mother’s role in Persona. If Persona has a plot, Bergman’s manner of presenting it differs radically from traditional narrative technique. Therefore, the questions we might apply in the analysis of a traditional narrative might not apply to Persona or might yield potentially misleading answers. This is the problem that Susan Sontag was addressing when she made her influential pronouncement, “Persona is constructed according to a form that resists being reduced to a story” (2000: 68). However, in her eagerness to assimilate Bergman to the contemporary avant-garde (Resnais, Antonioni, Godard), Sontag reduced Persona to a formal pattern, that of doubling, that is distorting in its own way.

What both the formalist and the narrative approach neglect or underrate is the question of character.[3] This is the question posed by the role of the mother both in Bergman’s life and particularly in the film Persona. It is a question implicit in the term “role” and even more suggestively in the term “persona,” which means both “person” and role or mask (Barr 1987: 130). I would argue that the mother’s persona is the content around which the formal patterns of Bergman’s film take shape, in the process that Robin Wood, in opposition to Sontag, outlines as follows: “the advanced aspects of Persona were determined solely by the content: they are not evidence of a desire for deliberate formal experiment” (Wood 1969: 171). Thus, Marcel Martin, tracing the same pattern of doubling that Sontag emphasized, identifies “maternity” as the content of the pattern (1967: 75).

Dramatis Personae

Karin Bergman, Ingmar’s mother, died in March 1966, six months before the release of Persona.[4] Before her death, Bergman had said little in public about his relation with his mother, no doubt a reflection of the estrangement dating back to his violent departure from his parents’ home when he was 19 (Cowie 1982: 17). By 1971, at the age of 53, he was ready to speak, freed by the death of both parents (his father died in 1970), but also encouraged by the process of coming to terms especially with his mother in his recent films. Both Shame (1968) and The Touch (1971) offer versions of Bergman’s experience of arriving too late at his mother’s deathbed, as he recounts it in his autobiography, The Magic Lantern.[5] Cries and Whispers, filmed in 1971 (released the following year), offers “a portrait of his mother as he got to know her during her last illness,” Bergman told Birgitta Steene (Steene 1979: 102).

That illness began with a heart attack and an extended hospital stay in 1964 (K. Bergman 2003: 506-09), so it provides a context for understanding Persona as well as the later films. Moreover, the idea for Persona originated while Bergman himself was ill, hospitalized for a serious ear infection, accompanying vertigo, and general exhaustion in Stockholm’s Sophiahemmet, on whose grounds Bergman had spent part of his childhood.[6] His father had been hospital chaplain, but even more relevant, his mother had been trained as a nurse, like the character Alma in Persona. For Bergman as a child, sickness had been a means of appealing for his mother’s affection, though her training allowed her to detect when he was pretending sickness, merely playing a role (Bergman 1971: 65; 2007c: 3).

Bergman’s recognition that his mother, too, played roles was a key factor in his reconciliation with her during her final illness and in his portrayal of her indirectly in his films and more directly in statements he began to issue during this period. “As a child I was in love with my mother,” begins his first major statement, published in 1971.[7] The title, “My Mother’s Diaries Reveal Who She Was,” refers to diaries discovered after Karin Bergman’s death. Among their revelations was her involvement in an extramarital affair during the 1920s, a story that Bergman eventually told in Private Confessions.[8] In the 1971 essay, without mentioning an affair, he merely alludes to “secret notes telling, with daring candor, of her innermost, guilt-ridden feelings”(Bergman 1971: 67; trans. Gado 1986: 7).

At this time, the significance of the diaries for Bergman is the evidence they provide of a tension between his mother’s inner feelings and the “impossible role” (omöjliga roll: Bergman 1971: 67) she had to play as a clergyman’s wife under constant surveillance by “the eyes of the congregation and their circle of friends” (Bergman 1971: 65; trans. Gado 1986: 9), who judged her not only by her own behavior but also by that of her children. If the tensions in this role became clear to Bergman only retrospectively, he records another tension in his mother’s behavior that he had sensed even as a child.

Karin Bergman showed her son two different faces: “Her warmth could emerge in flashes, suddenly and, to me, incomprehensibly. Then I would let myself be filled with it, blinded and stunned by it. Just as quickly, the flash of warmth could turn to ice” (Bergman 1971: 19; trans. Gado 1986:13). In contrast to the tension between surface and depth, role and “real” self, implied in the revelation of the diaries, the tension between warmth and cold in the passage just quoted is a clash between two surface sensations. Presented with two faces, the young Bergman had to ask—though not in so many words—“which is the ‘real’ mother?” Or are they both masks?

Fig. 1
Fig. 1

Bergman embodies these questions in a striking image that appears at both the beginning and end of Persona. It is the image of a boy (Jörgen Lindström) reaching out toward the disproportionately large face of a woman projected on, or positioned behind, some sort of transparent screen or window.[9] [Fig. 1] The boy, who first appears at the end of a “poem in images” that precedes the opening titles (Bergman 1973: 198, 202), is not one of the characters who interact in the central drama, but the woman’s face alternates between the faces of the drama’s two main characters, nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson) and the actress Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann). Through his experience of being in a hospital, Bergman identified himself with the boy (Bergman 1972a: 39; 1973: 199), whom the sequence of images places in a morgue-like setting. There was a morgue on the grounds of Sophiahemmet that Bergman could see from his window (Bergman 1972a: 39).

It seems reasonable to conjecture that the woman toward whom the boy reaches stands for Bergman’s mother, whose illness at the time placed her on the verge of death, and whose alternating cold and hot relation to young Ingmar corresponds to the alternation between the two faces in the film. Writing before Bergman had described his mother in “My Mother’s Diaries,” John Simon drew all of the other connections: “surely, the child in the morgue sequence of the film, who reappears at the end, is the author with whom it all begins and ends: with a yearning for warmth, for communion with that woman’s image, that Ewig-Weibliche that twinkles before him, having the dual shape of woman: the cold, brilliant, self-centered glamour of the actress; and the dependable but naïve devotion of the nurse” (1972: 306).

Later, Frank Gado refined “the mystery of Woman” (the Ewig-Weibliche that Simon derives from Goethe) “more particularly” into “a fiction about Mother” (Gado 1986: 341-42). This is still not particular enough, in my view. The capital letter on “Mother,” paired with “Woman,” still universalizes, and Gado’s understanding of “fiction” reduces too easily to a narrative—ultimately, Bergman’s “childhood memory of maternal rejection” (Gado 1986: 343)—that misses the complexity of the original image. The image of the mother as both rejecting and embracing is difficult to unfold as a narrative, yet Persona appears to be designed to meet that challenge.

A key feature of the design is to stage an opposition existing within one person as the opposition between at least two different people, like the opposition between the cold actress and the devoted nurse to which Simon refers. In an early notebook entry for Persona, Bergman asks himself: “Could one make this into an inner happening? I mean, suggest that it is a composition for different voices in the same soul’s concerto grosso?”[10] He explored this possibility in a number of other films. For instance, he described the four women in Cries and Whispers as “the four faces of my mother” (Gervais 1999: 120). The simpler division of two faces employed in Persona has a precedent in The Silence (1963), in which Hubert Cohen finds an expression of Bergman’s “growing belief that his mother’s dual messages were what caused the most psychological damage” (Cohen 1993: 210). In The Silence, a young boy, played by the same actor who plays the boy in the prologue of Persona, negotiates a complex set of allegiances between two women, his sensuous but negligent mother and her sister, who is coldly intellectual yet attentive to the boy.

The reappearance of the boy in Persona invites a comparison with The Silence that Bergman clearly intended. By displacing the boy’s point of view to the margins, outside the “story,” Bergman places himself and the audience of Persona in a different relation to the women characters. The question is no longer “What is my relation to these alternate personae?” (bearing in mind Bergman’s identification with the boy), but rather “What might it be like to be a person who alternates in this way?” This approach toward greater empathy is in keeping with Bergman’s experience when his mother was in the hospital, when they came to understand each other “not as mother and son but as two people who urgently but gropingly seek each other in mutual need of truth and friendship (Bergman 1971: 67; see also Steene 1979: 102).

For Persona as a film, the effort to move into the consciousness of the woman, or women, creates an atmosphere more dreamlike than that of The Silence, as surreal as the latter film sometimes seems. In the same notebook entry that envisions the nascent Persona as a single soul’s concerto grosso, Bergman describes the attendant structure of dream logic: “the time and space factors must be of secondary significance. One second must be able to stretch itself out over a long period of time and contain a handful of lines strewn without any apparent connection.”[11] Such effects necessarily confound any expectations of traditional narrative that a viewer may bring to Persona.

Although he departs from tradition both in the dream-like structure of his films and in his approach to character, Bergman’s departure is itself based on a significant precedent, the drama of August Strindberg, whom Bergman acknowledged as “my great literary experience” (1960: xix). In Fanny and Alexander (1982)—in some sense Bergman’s farewell to film(Bergman 2007c: 61-66)—we hear Helena, the matriarch of a family of the theater, read from Strindberg’s note to A Dream Play (1902): “Everything can happen, everything is possible and probable. Time and place do not exist; on an insignificant basis of reality the imagination spins, weaving new patterns” (Strindberg, Plays 2: 553). As Marilyn Johns Blackwell has pointed out (Gender 41), this description of dream structure leads directly into a description of character, not quoted by Helena but surely very much in Bergman’s mind: “The characters split, double, multiply, evaporate, condense, disperse, assemble. But one consciousness rules over them all, that of the dreamer” (Strindberg 1976: 553).

Although Bergman’s conception of Persona as one soul with several voices may owe something to Strindberg’s dreamer, Strindberg’s depiction of character is not simply a consequence of dream logic, but rather a reflection of his observation of human behavior, already evident In the “split and vacillating” characters of his earlier “naturalistic” play, Miss Julie (1888; “Author’s Preface” in Strindberg 1972: 103). As Strindberg explained in the “Author’s Preface” to that play, “I have also provided a little documentation of character development, by making the weaker repeat words stolen from the stronger, and permitting the characters to borrow ‘ideas,’ or, as the modern phrase is, accept suggestions from each other” (Strindberg 1972: 103). Some of the more mysterious scenes in Persona seem to involve one character speaking the words of another (or a single word, in the case of Elisabet). What Strindberg refers to, according to the psychology of his time, as the power of “suggestion,” appears in Persona as some form of “projection,” in the terms of more recent psychoanalytic theory.

But a major conclusion to be drawn from the comparison of Strindberg and Bergman is that to understand Bergman’s conception of character we need to think primarily in theatrical, rather than psychological, terms. This is not to say that Bergman’s characters are purely artificial constructions, separated from “real” life. Rather, it is to recognize the extent to which “real” life, for Bergman, is permeated by theater, as Fanny and Alexander explicitly demonstrates. In coming to terms with his mother, Bergman realized that one source of the tension between him and her was that they were both so “theatrical” (teatraliska: Bergman 1971: 65).

Theater and life are so closely intertwined in Bergman’s experience that it is impossible to separate Strindberg’s influence from the influence of Bergman’s mother in determining the mother’s role in Persona. Like Bergman, Strindberg, too, “sought throughout his life the image of his mother” (Cowie 1982: 42). His portrayal of women, in his plays, fiction and polemical essays, earned him a reputation for misogyny—a charge repeated by Helena in Fanny and Alexander—but he idealized motherhood, and judged women by the extent to which they approached or fell short of that ideal. The Strindberg play most often compared with Persona is The Stronger (1890), because it depicts a confrontation between two women, one of whom, like Elisabet, remains silent.[12] However, the three plays composed under the title To Damascus (1898, 1901) best display the full range of Strindberg’s attitudes toward women, and explicitly respond to the charge of misogyny.[13]

Unlike The Stronger, Bergman chose to direct To Damascus (1974), combining Parts One and Two (Marker and Marker 1982: 113-31). The conclusion of Part Three offers a motive for silence that says more about Elisabet’s motives than the conventional rivalry over a man that drives The Stronger. The protagonist who is designated merely as The Unknown (Den Okände, somewhat misleadingly translated by Michael Meyer as the Stranger), and who represents Strindberg in this spiritual quest, enters a monastery that requires a vow of silence. Its initiates have rejected “the illusion that something so material as language could clothe something as subtle as thoughts and feelings” (Strindberg 1976: 248).

Prompting The Unknown’s spiritual progress has been his relationship to The Lady (Damen), a complex figure who exemplifies the tendency of characters in a “dream play”—as Strindberg called To Damascus—to “split, double, multiply” (Strindberg 1976: 553). Her grandfather says of her: “She always feels she’s not responsible, isn’t even touched by insults; it’s as though she denied her own existence, or was two women, one sinning, the other absolving” (Strindberg 1976: 68). To portray The Lady in the guise of Ingeborg, the Unknown’s wife, Strindberg drew on aspects of all three of his wives, but as The Lady she is the Unknown’s “idea of a mother” (Strindberg 1976: 33), the mother concealed behind the mask of the woman who bore him but then seemed to reject him (Strindberg 1976: 204).

The concept of the mask is central to Strindberg’s conception of character, again, not only on stage but in “real” life. A paradigmatic expression of the concept appears in Storm (1907), the first of the “chamber plays” that became Bergman’s model for films of intimate atmosphere and minimal action such as Persona (Bergman 1973: 168; Blackwell 1981; Blackwell 1986: 46). The protagonist of Storm, simply called the Gentleman, describes a glimpse into the “abyss which men call the human heart” when “from behind the loveliest eyes [presumably those of his former wife] there suddenly appeared a strange expression like that of a savage beast; it so terrified me that I looked to see if there was another person standing behind her and using her face as a mask” (Strindberg 1972: 399). Whether the mask is suspected of concealing something beautiful or something ugly, as in this instance, the human impulse is to look behind it to see what is “really” there, but at this point the aims of stage and real life diverge. While Strindberg and Bergman after him tell stories of unmasking, they both realize that the creation of character requires putting on a mask. As dramatists, they are sympathetic to the masking impulse, and even employ masks to invite sympathy for their characters.

Child’s Play

After the opening “poem in images,” the “story” of Persona is introduced in such a way that the rejection of a child by its mother, which an audience would be inclined to condemn, is masked as a rejection of role-playing, which invites sympathy. The opening setting is a hospital, where the actress Elisabet Vogler is under psychiatric care. Her doctor (Margaretha Krook) explains to Alma, the nurse assigned to the case, that three months ago Elisabet experienced a momentary inability to perform while on stage, and subsequently rejected performance, both on and offstage, by refusing either to speak or to move.[14]

In a session alone with Elisabet, the doctor reveals her analysis of the situation, in terms that sound more existential than psychological (Barr 1987: 128). According to the doctor, Elisabet is rebelling against the inauthenticity of being with others, the audience whose presence converts any action into the performance of a role, and thus something felt by the actor to be false. By refusing to speak or to move, “then, at least, you’re not lying,” the doctor interprets for Elisabet. “You can shut yourself in, shut out the world. Then you won’t have to play any roles, show any faces, make false gestures.”[15] As a challenge to Elisabet, the doctor suggests that her refusal to play a role is itself a role that she will eventually leave behind, like the roles she has played on stage. To allow time for this process to work itself out, the doctor sends Elisabet off with Alma to stay in the doctor’s summer house by the sea, the primary setting for the rest of the film.[16]

Fig. 2
Fig. 2

In the published filmscript (Bergman 1972b: 41), though not in the completed film, the doctor’s analysis includes the significant suggestion that assuming”the role of mother” finally precipitated Elisabet’s attempt to break with all roles. The film does not suppress this suggestion, but rather postpones it to a much later scene when Alma, in a repeated monologue, speaks for Elisabet about her experience of motherhood. By this time our perception of Elisabet, through Alma’s eyes, has changed considerably from what it was at the beginning, and we are prepared to accept a detailed description of Elisabet’s “cold and indifferent” rejection of her child as being of a piece with her treatment of Alma. At the beginning, we catch a hint of this side of Elisabet when, still in the hospital, Alma reads Elisabet a letter from her husband. Included with the letter is a photograph of their son, whom the script specifies to be four years old (Bergman 1972b: 94; Fig. 2). Elisabet accepts the photograph from Alma, studies it briefly, and then tears it in half (Fig. 3). Later, the reappearance of this photograph will prompt Alma’s monologue about motherhood.

Fig. 3
Fig. 3

The decreased attention to Elisabet’s role as a mother at the opening of the film, in contrast to the script, strengthens the impression that she is playing the reciprocal role of the child. It is not quite accurate to say, as the doctor does, that Elisabet is playing a role by pretending to reject all roles, but she is playing a role by assuming a state of childlike innocence, untainted by falsehood. Her refusal of speech is literally “infantile,” the word “infant” meaning “without speech.”[17] When Alma reports her first impression of Elisabet to the doctor, a childlike quality is one pole of the dual character that she struggles to describe: “her face looks so soft, almost childish [barnslig]. Then you see her eyes . . . She has a mean look, I think.”

Then, when Alma reads aloud the letter from Elisabet’s husband, Elisabet hears him echo her own words depicting the two of them as children. “You have taught me,” her husband writes, “that we have to see each other as two anxious children, filled with good will and the best intentions, but ruled by powers that we can only partially control.” “Good will” (god vilja) is the title (Den goda viljan), translated as The Best Intentions, that Bergman would later apply to his narrative of his parents’ courtship and early marriage. In Elisabet’s marriage, the countervailing “powers” (krafter)—a concept strongly resonant of Strindberg—would include both the natural process and the social pressures that made her a mother, forcing her into a role opposite to that of the child.[18] The image of her child in the photograph contradicts Elisabet’s image of herself as a child, so she tears up the photograph.

Fig. 4
Fig. 4

Elisabet’s response to this photograph contrasts with her response to other images in a way that provides further insight into her image of herself. Another photograph of a young boy shows up in a later scene, when Elisabet is staying at the doctor’s summer house. At this point, Alma has begun to pour out accusations against Elisabet that show her in a very unattractive light. In a moment of solitude and quiet, Elisabet picks up a book from which falls an iconic photograph of the Holocaust, showing a boy among a group of Jews being rounded up on the Warsaw ghetto by Nazi soldiers. [Fig. 4] Rather than expressing horror or grief at the image, Elisabet appears to find solace in it. She places it under soft lamplight and cradles her head in her hands (Fig. 5), studying the photograph as Bergman’s camera lingers over its details. If Elisabet is able to become absorbed in this image, whereas she tore up the image of her own son, it is because, I would suggest, she identifies with the Jewish boy not only as a child but as a victim. From the image of victimizer that Alma projects upon her, Elisabet seeks to retreat once again into the innocent role that she played at the start of the film.

Fig. 5
Fig. 5

Another image from the start of the film fits this pattern. This is the glimpse of the Vietnam war that I mentioned above in connection with the charge of self-absorption leveled against Bergman by critics demanding political engagement. Bergman showed little interest in defending himself against such criticism, and he understands Elisabet’s response to what could be read as political violence in terms, rather, of self-inflicted violence. When the TV in Elisabet’s hospital room shows newsreel footage of a Buddhist monk in Vietnam setting himself on fire in protest against the war, “the monk scares her,” according to Bergman, “because his conviction is so enormous he is willing to die for it” (Bergman 1975: 109). Horror registers on Elisabet’s face, but she cannot take her eyes off the image. She moves away from the TV, but she does not turn it off, as in a previous scene she had turned off a radio broadcasting a play in which a suffering woman begs for forgiveness. To be in the position of needing forgiveness is intolerable to Elisabet, but she is willing to be sacrificed as a victim, even, like the monk, to sacrifice herself, in order to maintain her own innocence, whereas the monk’s sacrifice, as a political act, presumably aims to make others conscious of their guilt.

The dialectic of victim and victimizer is a repeated pattern in Bergman’s films, relating to both the role of the artist (e.g. Sawdust and Tinsel [1953]) and the role of the mother (e.g. Autumn Sonata [1978]).[19] Like Charlotte in Autumn Sonata, Elisabet occupies both of these roles in Persona, but to see her principally as an artist, which some critics have insisted and Bergman has resisted (Bergman 1972a: 32), is to neglect the immediate occasion for Elisabet’s silence.

In the opening scene, the doctor tells Alma that Elisabet was acting in Electra when suddenly “she fell silent and looked around as if in surprise.” After a minute she was able to resume her performance, and “she apologized afterward, saying she had got the urge to laugh.” Her more enduring period of silence began at home the next day. If we accept the doctor’s explanation that Elisabet, as an artist whose profession is role-playing, has decided to reject all roles, we are left to question what surprised her about this particular role and why the surprise was accompanied by laughter. If we recognize Electra as a play in which accusations of guilt are heaped upon the mother, rather as Alma does to Elisabet immediately before her contemplation of the Holocaust photograph, we can at least get a start on answering these questions.

The doctor does not specify which version of Electra was being performed, nor which role Elisabet was performing. However, the unfolding of her own story in Persona suggests that Elisabet wants to play the victimized child but life has cast her in the role of the victimizing mother. Acting in Electra, either as the mother, Clytemnestra, or as the daughter, Electra, Elisabet would have been surprised to recognize the functions of both victimizer and victim combined in her single role. Clytemnestra is complicit in the murder of Agamemnon, her husband and Electra’s father, and she assumes further guilt for displacing Electra in the household now ruled by Clytemnestra’s lover, Aegisthus. If Electra is thus victimized, she turns victimizer when she joins with her brother Orestes in plotting to take revenge by killing Clytemnestra, who ends as a victim not entirely innocent but nevertheless sacred, by virtue of her status as mother.

In recognition of this double bind, Elisabet’s laughter could only be ironic, like her laughter later at the end of her most violent interaction with Alma, who protests: “You’re laughing, are you? It’s not that simple for me. Not so funny, either. But you have always your laughter.” Alma feels Elisabet is laughing at her, but the earlier instance of laughter during Elisabet’s performance in Electra suggests that, in this later instance as well, Elisabet is laughing at her own inability to escape the role of victimizer in which, this time, Alma has cast her. This is “not so funny”—or so ironic—to Alma because she has not found herself in a role that she wanted to escape—not until her encounter with Elisabet.

Alma Mater

Although Persona is remembered as a film in which “two people [. . .] lose their identities in each other,” as Bergman himself expressed it (1973: 196), initially the separateness of Elisabet’s and Alma’s identities is emphasized through the distinctness of their roles as child and mother, respectively. To be accurate, Alma presents one mask of the mother’s role, while the doctor presents a contrasting mask. Both occupy the position of care-giver to Elisabet, but the doctor, like Bergman’s mother in her “cold” guise, sees through Elisabet’s illness as an act of deception, to which she responds with intellectual admiration but little emotional sympathy. Alma, on the other hand, offers comfort in keeping with her “warm” role as nurse, without judging, at the outset, the patient’s responsibility for her behavior.

The association of Alma’s role with motherhood is reinforced by her name, which in Latin means “nurturing,” a meaning still linked to motherhood in the phrase “Alma Mater.”[20] In English, the word “nurse,” Alma’s professional role, has similar connotations, not present in the Swedish term for medical nurse, sjuksköterske (“one who cares for the sick”), but preserved in the term for wet nurse (amma), cognate with Latin alma. Elisabet’s infant child, we learn in Persona, was given into the care of en amma, as was the infant Bergman (Bergman 2007c: 1, 289). In addition, the name Alma had at least two personal associations for Bergman, as the name of a household servant and as the name of his father’s mother.[21] His own mother, as noted above, was trained as a nurse, as was the mother of Alma in Persona.

Alma highlights her connection to her mother through the nursing profession when she introduces herself in Elisabet’s hospital room: “How do you do, Mrs. Vogler? I am Sister Alma. I’m here to take care of you. Maybe I should tell you a little about myself. I’m 25 years old and engaged. I graduated from nursing school two years ago. My parents have a farm in the country. My mother was also a nurse until she got married.” The reference to the farm in the country connects Alma to a natural setting, foreshadowing her retreat with Elisabet to the doctor’s summer house. For Bergman this connection seems to be more significant than the class role hinted in Alma’s background, or the gender role that projects a future in which she, like her mother and Bergman’s mother, will give up her profession after marriage.

Bergman insisted that his films do not comment on the debate about gender roles that was a hot topic in Sweden at the time when Persona was made.[22] However, he considered himself “a respectable social democrat” (Bergman 1973: 18), and he supported state-sponsored day care for children on grounds that reflect on the mother’s role in Persona as well as his relationship to his own mother. Not all mothers, he argued, are emotionally fit to raise children. Day care centers may benefit children by providing professional mothers, “women who have a vocation, sometimes a genius, for being mothers” (Bergman 2007d: 119). In Persona, Alma seems to be drawn to motherhood as a vocation. If Elisabet flees motherhood, it may be partly because it conflicts with her vocation in the theater.

There is some indication that Alma finds more personal fulfillment in motherhood as a professional vocation than in the prospect of playing the domestic role. At the end of the day on which she first meets Elisabet, Alma recites to herself her expectations for her life, as if she senses that Elisabet may somehow disrupt these expectations: “I’ll marry Karl-Henrik and have a couple of children, which I’ll have to raise. All of this is predestined. It’s inside me. It’s nothing to think about. It’s a safe feeling.” It is a safe feeling because it is predictable, but what Alma predicts is not necessarily what she wants, as the strange locution about children “which I’ll have to raise” suggests.[23] Her job, in contrast, is something that “I like and enjoy,” something “good,” like the prospect of marriage and children, but good “in another way” that Alma is unable to define for herself. She can merely repeat the assertion, “But it’s good. Good,” as she lies down in bed and turns off the light. Then, as if a light has turned on in her head, she says, “I wonder what’s really wrong with her. Elisabet Vogler.” The chain of associations suggests that what is wrong with Elisabet may also be wrong with Alma, a recognition that she has tried to repress by insisting that what she feels is “good.” Within herself she has felt the stirrings of self-assertion that she finds threatening in Elisabet, the source of the “mean look” that contrasts with the “childish” quality in Elisabet’s face, as Alma reported to the doctor.

Although Alma is assigned a maternal role with respect to the role of the child that Elisabet has assumed, Alma admits to the doctor that she doubts whether her strength is a match for Elisabet’s. She doubts, in effect, whether she may not be more of a child than her patient is. Indeed, Alma’s conception of the nurse’s role has something childlike as well as maternal about it, as she recognizes explicitly in a scene that occurs early during the stay at the summer house.

Fig. 6
Fig. 6

Seated at a table across from Elisabet, safely indoors while rain pours down outside the adjacent window, Alma describes her admiration for the nurses at a retirement home on the same grounds as her nursing school (another feature of Sophiahemmet that Bergman recalled from his childhood [Bergman 2007c: 12-13]). The retired nurses had “lived for their work– always in uniform,” says Alma. Although she has ceased to wear a uniform while at the summer house, Alma still shares the nurses’ selfless devotion: “I think you should be of importance to others,” she affirms. At this point Elisabet reaches across the table to touch Alma’s cheek [Fig. 6]. Then Alma concludes: “I know it sounds naïve, but I believe in that.” The word translated in the subtitles as “naïve,” barnslig, literally means “childish.” It is the same word that Alma used when describing to the doctor the “childish” aspect she perceived in Elisabet. In the scene at the summer house, Alma’s ability to recognize the childish aspect in herself has been aided by Elisabet’s touch, a maternal gesture.[24] At this point, the two women appear to have exchanged the roles of mother and child.

In retrospect, it is clear that this process of exchange has been at work since Alma and Elisabet first met. It is a consequence of Elisabet’s determination to remain silent, which requires Alma to speak, and casts Elisabet, from Alma’s perspective, in the role of listener.[25] Alma does not know what to talk about other than herself, and she seems to feel tremendous relief in finding someone who, by listening, appears to take an interest in her. Immediately after the scene in which Alma praises the devotion of the retired nurses, but in a different setting that implies some indeterminate lapse of time, Alma describes her first love affair, with a married man to whom Alma was “never real,” she now recognizes. Elisabet’s attentiveness makes Alma feel real to herself.

In the next scene Alma tells Elisabet, “I think you’re the first person to listen to me.” As she says this, Elisabet is standing behind her, massaging her shoulders. As in the case of the earlier touch on Alma’s cheek, Elisabet’s listening is experienced by Alma as physical intimacy, something “warm and nice,” as Alma puts it. It is a feeling that Alma says she has never experienced before, though she has longed for it. “I’ve always wanted a sister,” says the nurse whose professional title is “Sister Alma.” But in filling the role of a sister to Alma, Elisabet is clearly filling a more primal absence, that of the mother who was also a “Sister,” but who was displaced from mothering Alma by a succession of seven brothers who were born before her, as she tells Elisabet. Bergman, who was the middle child between an older brother and a younger sister, similarly felt displaced from his mother’s attention (Gado 1986: 8; Bergman 2007c: 2-3). Nevertheless, he associated his mother with an exceptional ability, “often attested by others, to listen, to listen intently” (Bergman 1971: 67). Only in the hospital during his mother’s final illness, he goes on to say, did he feel that he and she truly listened to each other.

Sons and Lovers

While the exchange of the mother and child roles between Elisabet and Alma keeps them in a relationship of complementarity, the similarity that is the film’s most dramatic discovery centers on children, in relation to whom each woman shares the role of mother. Although Elisabet’s name has less resonance than Alma’s in Bergman’s personal mythology, Elisabet’s namesake in the Bible is the great mother-forerunner, the mother of John the Baptist.[26] The Biblical Elisabet shares the joy of expecting a child with Mary, pregnant with the child Jesus, in a scene that has become known in Christian iconography as the Visitation. With Alma in her childlike innocence playing the role of the virgin mother (a parallel more clearly intended in the role played by Bibi Andersson in The Seventh Seal [1957]), Bergman, whether intentionally or not, has staged a kind of perverse Visitation in Persona, since the mothers in the film share the guilt of rejecting rather than the joy of expecting a child. As a shared object, this child appears as a single figure in the prologue, where he simultaneously stands for Bergman as a child, the boy in The Silence (whose name is Johan), the boy rejected by Elisabet, and a fetus aborted by Alma.

The story of Alma’s abortion is the culmination of a series of progressively more intimate confessions made over the course of what appears, by the changes in lighting, to be a single day, beginning with the recollection of the nurses’ retirement home and including Alma’s account of her first love affair with the married man. The abortion occurred during Alma’s current relationship with her fiancé, Karl-Henrik, though it is not clear that it was Karl-Henrik’s child that she aborted. On the same day that she enjoyed her most satisfying experience of making love with Karl-Henrik, Alma tells Elisabet, she had previously participated with another woman and two teenage boys in a spontaneous “orgy,” as Elisabet later refers to it in a letter to her doctor.

Fig. 7
Fig. 7

Alma herself does not know what to make of her behavior on this occasion, but it is clear that her recollection of what she felt then is parallel in some profound way to what she is feeling now in her relationship with Elisabet. To describe the day of the “orgy,” she uses the same phrase, “warm and nice” [varmt och skönt],” that she used moments before to describe how Elisabet makes her feel. The setting then, as now, is the seashore. And then, as now, Alma is in the company of another woman whose presence draws her out of her customary inhibition. Conspicuous by his absence in the room where Alma makes her confession to Elisabet is the boy with whom Alma joined in ecstatic sexual union, but her desire for him is conveyed so palpably through her narration that the boy is conjured up as if he were present to both Alma and Elisabet. [Fig. 7] They share him now as Alma shared him then with the woman who instigated the “orgy.” Their shared desire for the boy is the heart of the similarity that unites Alma and Elisabet.

One way or another, Alma and Elisabet are united in maternal desire. Alma’s narration of her orgy emphasizes that the boys “were very young,” and the women’s relation to them is both sexual and maternal. Alma’s companion “gave [. . .] her breast” to the younger boy, described in the filmscript as “about thirteen or fourteen” (Bergman 1972b: 55). At this point the camera focuses on Elisabet listening with rapt attention to Alma’s story, and later, when the story is over, Elisabet cradles Alma in bed, “like a mother,” Hubert Cohen notes (Cohen 1993: 236; see also Wood 1994: 64). Such gestures have led some critics to assume that Alma and Elisabet primarily desire each other, with the boy serving merely as the bond between them, or as “the lesbian phallus,” according to one theory (Foster 2000: 136, 138). But the lesbian hypothesis further assumes that “the source of lesbianism is in the intimate contact of mother and child” (Wood 1994: 64; see also Oliver 1998: 104; Foster 2000: 134, 137).

What we know of Bergman’s desire for intimate contact with his mother suggests that the structure of desire in Persona would be primarily incestuous and only secondarily lesbian. While Bergman was quick to warn an interviewer that he was “not a little Oedipus” in his love for his mother (Bergman 2008: 552), the boy who stands for him in Fanny and Alexander is chided for presuming to “play Hamlet” when his mother remarries after his father’s death. Much earlier, before he made Persona, Bergman spoke with Vilgot Sjöman about his tendency to conflate wife and mother in his dreams (Sjöman 1978: 127-30). The Silence, the direct predecessor to Persona, conflates incestuous and lesbian desire in the relationship between the two sisters, while the maternal alternatives they present to the boy Johan are incestuous.[27] In Persona, as I suggested earlier, Bergman attempts to enter more fully into the mother’s point of view, to experience her desire for the child and to understand, at the same time, how she could deny what she desires. In Alma’s case, her denial is expressed in her decision to abort a child in embryo that results from her blissful union with a sexually precocious child. Such a conflict of emotions leads Alma to ask Elisabet if it is possible for one person to be two people at the same time.

A conventional explanation for Alma’s abortion is readily available, of course, in her relation to Karl-Henrik. As Alma recalls, Karl-Henrik did not want to be burdened with a child yet, though he might not have suspected that the child whom Alma had conceived was not his child. Alma, who had good reason to suspect, complied with Kark-Henrik’s wishes out of the additional motive of guilt for infidelity. The problem with this explanation is precisely that it is conventional, when, immediately after Alma finishes the story of the “orgy,” Persona leaves convention behind, in terms of both narrative structure and characterization, through the first of several dream episodes. As a transition into dream, Alma hears Elisabet telling her to go to bed before she falls asleep sitting up. It would be a remarkable breakthrough for Elisabet if she indeed resumed speaking at this point, but what follows suggests rather that Alma has broken through into Elisabet’s psyche, that Alma is hearing Elisabet’s voice in her head (the camera is focused on Alma when we hear “Elisabet’s” words).

Fig. 8
Fig. 8

In the following scene, Elisabet enters Alma’s bedroom and the two women caress, looking into the camera as if into a mirror in which each sees herself reflected in the other (Blackwell 1997: Gender 153; Fig. 8). Whatever Alma’s motive for an abortion might have been at the time when it occurred, her feelings about the abortion, now, need to be explained not on the level of convention, in terms of Alma’s relation to Karl-Henrik, but on the much deeper level of identification, that is, in terms of Alma’s relation to Elisabet. In that relationship, not only have two people become one, but each person sees a reflection of her own doubleness, including the conflict between her desire for and her rejection of a child.

Fig. 9
Fig. 9

Alma’s understanding of Elisabet’s rejection of her child is narrated in a later scene, the scene initiated, as I mentioned earlier, by the reappearance of the torn photograph of Elisabet’s son. Although Elisabet tries to hide the photograph under her hands, Alma discovers it, and proceeds to offer an explanation of why Elisabet is brooding over it. Once again, it is uncertain whose words we hear. Alma speaks, but the words seem to reflect Elisabet’s feelings from deep within her psyche, a reflection that is expressed formally in the film’s repetition of the monologue, first with the camera fixed on Elisabet, then with the camera on Alma. Alma herself is so shocked at how far her identification with Elisabet has gone that after the monologue has repeated she draws back and exclaims, “No. I’m not like you. I don’t feel the same as you. I’m Sister Alma. I’m only here to help you. I’m not Elisabet Vogler. You’re Elisabet Vogler.” Her denial is immediately contested by the film’s most striking image of the identification between Elisabet and Alma, the composite face showing Bibi Andersson’s features on the left and Liv Ullmann’s features on the right (Fig. 9). That the features fail to combine seamlessly does not undermine the identification but rather confirms its basis in a sense of self torn by conflicting desires—an image already suggested by the torn photograph of Elisabet’s son. As Alma says after telling about the “orgy,” “It doesn’t make any sense. None of it fits together. [Det stämmer inte, det hänger inte ihop nånting.]”

The nature of this “it” that Persona continually seeks but fails to compose is most clearly indicated—pointed to rather than defined— when Alma gives voice to Elisabet’s rejection of her child. Alma’s entire monologue expounds Elisabet’s difficulty in assuming the role of “motherhood,” an exposition that echoes the doctor’s earlier analysis, in the script, of Elisabet’s rejection of all roles. However, Alma’s account uncovers a psychological motive, a fear of inadequacy, more basic than the existential “bad faith” that the doctor sees in role-playing. At the climax of Alma’s monologue, she recalls for Elisabet: “The boy was seized by a massive and unfathomable love [en häftig och ofattbar kärlek] for his mother. You resisted desperately because you felt that you could not return it.” Elisabet’s rejection of the child appears here as resistance, an act of self-defense against being made to feel inadequate, a feeling which is rationalized as the “falseness” of playing a role.

As Alma experienced during the orgy, desire is excessive by its very nature. It not only exceeds social conventions; it exceeds any object in which it might seek fulfillment. Although the love of mother and child represents the ideal condition of fulfillment, from either position in that relationship the reality will fall short of the ideal. Neither can love the other enough. Alma’s abortion and Elisabet’s rejection of her child reflect both women’s sense of personal limitation in the face of potentially limitless demand, a child’s “unfathomable love [ofattbar kärlek].” Bergman’s relationship to his mother reflects, in turn, the child’s sense of inadequacy in the face of a mother’s love. His notebook for Persona includes this revealing meditation: “My parents spoke of piety, of love, and of humility. I have really tried hard. But as long as there was a God in my world, I couldn’t even get close to my goals. My humility was not humble enough. My love remained nonetheless far less than the love of Christ or of the saints or even my own mother’s love” (Bergman 1994a: Images 56-58).

A belief in God, which Bergman gradually abandoned during the period leading up to Persona (Bergman 1972a: 28; 1973: 195), both guaranteed and demanded an infinite love that neither parent nor child could provide. Abandonment of belief in God removes the guarantee but not the demand. Although Elisabet rejects the demand placed on her by her son, she makes an equally absolute demand on Alma by her silence. It is a demand for fidelity, if not to Elisabet as a person, then to the ideal that she stands for, the ideal of absolute truth. Although it is distorting to interpret Persona as an allegory in which the silent Elisabet stands for a silent God, it is accurate to see the absolute demand formerly reserved to God now maintained by Elisabet, illegitimately, because she is only a human being.[28]

The disastrous consequences of this situation are multiplied in A Passion (The Passion of Anna, 1969), where the character Anna, again played by Liv Ullmann, makes impossible demands on herself and others in the name of truth. As Maria Bergom-Larsson argues (1978: 102-04), the absence of God as stabilizing guarantor of truth in A Passion seems to lock human beings into an endless cycle of reciprocal victimization, like the tragic pattern that Elisabet experiences in Electra.

However, within the more narrow scope of the story in Persona, the principal victim appears to be Alma. At one point in the script she is allowed to articulate the frustration that in the film she must convey mainly through her behavior: “It’s not easy to live with someone who doesn’t say anything. [- – -] You hear your own voice too and no one else! And you think ‘Don’t I sound false.’ All these words I’m using. Look, now I’m talking to you, I can’t stop, but I hate talking because I still can’t say what I want” (Bergman 1972b: 73). She can’t say what she wants to say, because language is limited. She can’t say what she wants, because desire has no limitations. Yet Elisabet’s presence seems to impose the demand that Alma say something.

While Elisabet’s husband and son are also her victims, Bergman keeps them in the background—like Anna’s dead husband and son in A Passion—presumably in order to allow the fullest possible sympathy for the woman cast in the role of victimizer. Nevertheless, we twice see Elisabet’s son in the torn photograph, and twice hear from her husband, first in the letter that Alma reads at the hospital, and then in a dream-like visitation that occurs in the setting of the summer house.[29] In this scene the identification between Alma and Elisabet is confirmed by the husband’s treating Alma as his wife, even to the point of going to bed with her. Although Alma protests, “I’m not Elisabet,” as she will do again after the “motherhood” monologue, she ends the scene with Herr Vogler by confessing to the same emotional failure, in relation to the husband, of which she later accuses Elisabet, in relation to the child: “I’m cold and rotten and indifferent [jag är kall och ruten och likgiltig].”

These are key terms in Bergman’s relation to his mother. He reports that his childhood “devotion” (hängivenhet) turned to “indifference” (likgiltighet). As a defense against his mother’s sudden turns from warmth to coldness, he “used to get cold and inaccessible [kall och otillgänglig]. I left her before she had time to leave me” (Bergman 1971: 65; see also Bergman 2007c: 4). The “theatrical” aspect of this behavior, which Bergman acknowledges in both his mother and himself, becomes a further source of guilt for Alma and Elisabet. If it is bad enough to be cold and indifferent, it is doubly bad to feign coldness and indifference as a protective façade. Warmth and love, too, can assume the falseness of a stratagem, as Alma learns in her encounter with Herr Vogler, although that is not the only lesson that Herr Vogler provides.

Fig. 10
Fig. 10

Elisabet is present throughout the scene with Herr Vogler and Alma is aware of her presence, to the point where she sometimes seems to be playing the scene to Elisabet, mocking her with the falseness of the role that her husband demands of her. [Fig.10] Although he claims that he has no demands of his own, he proceeds to imply demands on behalf of their child, thus imposing on his wife the role of mother that she finds intolerable. At the same time, however, Herr Vogler invites his wife to play the role of the child, in terms that we recognize to be Elisabet’s, echoing the letter that Alma read to her in the hospital. In that letter, her husband had written, “you have taught me that we have to see each other as two anxious children.” Now, in his dream-visitation with his wife, he says it is important for them “to see each other as children, tormented and helpless, lonely children.” After the exchanging of mother and child roles that has gone on between Alma and Elisabet, we are now in a better position to recognize that a different type of relationship is being offered here. It is a relationship of identical (child and child) rather than reciprocal (mother and child) roles.

In the same notebook entry in which Bergman describes his sense of inadequacy in the face of his mother’s love when he was a child, he admits that he still feels like a child. However, now that God and the Saints and the Mother as Ideal are all dead, he recognizes that all the other people around him are children, too. There is no Ideal to impose a sense of inadequacy, no victimizer. “Now that God is gone,” Bergman concludes, “I feel that all this is mine; piety toward life, humility before my meaningless fate, and love for the other children who are afraid, who are ill, who are cruel” (Bergman 1994a: 58).

This discovery became the basis for his reconciliation with his mother during her final illness, as Birgitta Steene has summarized on the basis of an interview with Bergman: “His close contact with his dying mother, who revealed to him her own life-long frustrations, made him realize that the distant parent– an object whom he couldn’t reach as a child, was herself a suffering subject, a frightened human being who could not possibly give solace and support to her children, because she herself was not always sure of her own sense of self” (Steene 1979: 102). In Autumn Sonata, Bergman lets the mother address a similar message directly to her child: “I didn’t want to be your mother. I wanted you to know I was as helpless as you were.” The woman who speaks these lines is no more sympathetic as a character than is Herr Vogler in Persona, yet each conveys a message for which Bergman invites our sympathy. In choosing such unlikely messengers, it is as if Bergman is testing our capacity for “love for the other children who are afraid, who are ill, who are cruel.”

Fear of Lying

Initially, Elisabet presents herself as ill. Increasingly, Alma comes to regard her as cruel. Ultimately, Alma achieves a degree of sympathy for Elisabet based on the recognition that both of them are afraid. To be sure, the tone does not sound very sympathetic when Alma attributes multiple fears to Elisabet as the grounds for her cruel rejection of her son: “you became afraid, afraid of responsibility, afraid of being tied down, afraid to leave the theater . . . afraid of pain, afraid of dying, afraid of your swelling body. “ However, the force of the accusation here is directed against Elisabet’s attempt to hide her fear by playing a role: “all the time you acted [spelade du rollen], played the part [rollen] of the happy expectant mother.” If Elisabet had been more honest about her feelings, Alma implies, she would have seen herself as a child, fearful, rather than pretending to be a fearless, self-confident mother. Alma thus shares the impulse to reject role-playing that initiated Elisabet’s illness, but both women are caught in the dilemma that the only alternative to a role is another role. To see oneself as a child is still to play a role, a representation of self rather than a “true” identity. The truth of the self is not sameness, identity, but multiplicity, as Alma discovers when the cruel streak in her own character emerges in response to what she perceives as Elisabet’s cruelty.

Alma turns cruel toward Elisabet after reading a letter that Elisabet has left unsealed, in which Elisabet writes to her doctor about her pleasure in “studying” Alma and hearing her confessions, including the account of the “orgy.” The word that describes Elisabet’s attitude toward her study, roligt, has the connotation of “amusing” rather than the more clinical “interesting” given in the English subtitles. Certainly, Alma’s resentment, as she later tells Elisabet, is based on her sense of being “laughed at,” not merely observed. Elisabet’s response turns Alma’s confessions into a performance, something that feels false, mere role-playing, to Alma herself. “I hear how false it sounds,” she later admits to Elisabet in the course of upbraiding her for her betrayal.

Alma’s initial response to reading the letter avoids the falseness of words by converting her own psychological pain into physical pain that Elisabet can feel. On the patio outside the summer house, Alma leaves a splinter of glass for Elisabet to step on in her bare feet. Bergman would later use the same image to represent the cruel streak that his mother revealed at unpredictable moments. In the novel The Best Intentions, a brother of Anna—the fictional version of Bergman’s mother—warns her future husband that Anna is not simply “so well adjusted and clever and purehearted and tenderhearted and loving” as she seems: “You see, my boy, she possesses a splinter of glass, a sharp splinter that cuts” (Bergman 1991: 29).

After stepping on the glass splinter, Elisabet stares accusingly at Alma, who stares back from behind the window of the house where she has retreated after setting her trap. Suddenly, the image of Alma’s face burns out from the center of the frame, as if the strip of film itself were burning up. This sudden jump from the fictional world of the characters to the real world of the audience watching the film is often cited by formalist critics for whom Persona is primarily a film about film (Sontag 2000: 78; Vierling 1974: 51; Kawin 1978: 126-27; Boyd 1983-84: 14; Michaels 1998: 41). However, as in the case of the opening “poem in images,” some of which reappear in rapid montage following the glass splinter “break,” references to the medium of representation in Persona perform double duty as references to the central subject of representation, namely, the ambiguous, “two-faced” character of the mother. The mother’s ambiguous character calls into question the truth of any representation.

The two faces we see as Elisabet and Alma stare at each other at the end of the glass splinter incident are the same faces that the young boy sees alternating on a glass screen (like the window of the summer house) at the end of the prologue. Just as the boy is evidently mystified by the alternation between the two women’s faces as if they were one, so Elisabet seems to be stunned by the revelation that Alma, despite her seeming simplicity, also has two faces, one of which is much crueler than she had expected. Moreover, in the doubleness of Alma as it is now exposed, Elisabet is offered a glimpse of her own doubleness, her duplicity in the ethical sense, as it appeared to Alma when she read Elisabet’s letter to the doctor. As the doctor had predicted, Elisabet cannot escape the sensation of playing a role as long as another person is present to reflect back to Elisabet an image of herself, a representation.

Critics who take a psychological or feminist rather than purely formalist approach to Persona have been more likely to connect the problem of representation to the role of the mother. Starting from a feminist perspective, Lucy Fischer examines Persona to understand why role-playing is associated with women in particular, and the role of the mother proves to be crucial. Borrowing the Oedipal model from classic psychoanalysis, even to the extent of assuming the perspective of a male child, Fischer offers a provocative speculation. When the child discovers, inevitably, that his mother’s love for him is less than total, his disappointment arouses the suspicion that her previous expressions of love were false, merely part of an act (Fischer 1989: 70). The mother is thus the role-model for all role-playing.

For Frank Gado, from a biographical as much as a psychoanalytic perspective, the deception in Elisabet’s relation to her son, mirroring Bergman’s own disappointment in his mother, becomes generalized in Persona to the “universal lie” that taints “all human relationships” (Gado 1986: 384). A “terrifying vision of life as Nothingness masked by lies” has been inscribed at the core of Persona, according to Gado, as “the ‘necessary’ concomitant of maternal rejection” (Gado 1986: 384-85).

Does Persona represent “nothingness,” as Gado concludes, or does it represent representation, as the formalist critics maintain? If the figure of the mother is allowed its full weight, the balance tips in favor of the latter response to the question, although the question itself has become one of character rather than pure form. Whatever Bergman’s mother was to him, she was certainly not nothing; rather, she was everything to him as a child. As a result, everything took on the mother’s character, which was enigmatic, shifting, illusory. Illusion can mean deception, if it hides some inner truth, but it can also mean simply the play of appearances, without reference to truth—or the play of children, in a world where there are no “adults,” as Bergman came to understand his situation. He also expressed that understanding in terms of his devotion to “the noble, magical illusion of theater. Nothing is, everything represents.[30] In this formula, the term “nothing” is not nihilistic but rather liberating, a denial of the God terms, including the ideal Mother, that made Bergman’s love for his real mother feel inadequate.

This sense of “nothing” applies, I believe, to the crucial utterance that Alma elicits from Elisabet toward the end of Persona, in one of the most enigmatic scenes of this altogether enigmatic film. The one word, “nothing” (ingenting), is not the only word that Elisabet speaks in the film. (I will examine her other words below.) But her pronouncement of ingenting is undeniably climactic. The scene qualifies as one of the film’s “dream” episodes, but only insofar as it fails to fit “realistically” into the story. Although the setting is a hospital room, there has been no indication that Elisabet and Alma have left the summer house, nor does the scene make sense as a “flashback.” Elisabet appears in a more infantile state than we see her at any other time in the film, incapable of movement as well as speech (as the doctor originally described her), until Alma lifts her in her arms, like a mother, and instructs her, like a mother, to repeat the word that she speaks: ingenting.

Alma’s manner (reinforced by her resumption of her nurse’s uniform) is more cold than loving (more like the doctor than like Alma at the beginning], though of course that makes her no less like a mother in Bergman’s understanding. And the lesson she delivers, like the one Bergman conveys through the unsympathetic mother in Autumn Sonata, is one to which Bergman expects us to attend. It repeats, in essence, a lesson that Alma attempted to teach Elisabet a few scenes earlier: “Is it really important that you don’t lie, that you tell the truth, talk with a genuine tone of voice? Can you live without talking freely? Lie and make excuses? Isn’t it better to give yourself permission to be lazy and lie?” If “Nothing is, everything represents,” one need not be afraid of lying or playing roles.

How does Alma arrive at this acceptance of lying after reacting with such hostility to the deception exposed in Elisabet’s letter to the doctor? Part of the explanation is that Alma speaks from different perspectives at different moments in the film. When, in her double monologue scene, she speaks with disgust about Elisabet’s playing the role of the mother, she is speaking as much from Elisabet’s perspective as from her own. In the scene where she instructs Elisabet to say ingenting, the setting of the hospital room reinforces the suggestion that Alma is speaking as much from the doctor’s perspective as from the nurse’s, combining the two sides of the film’s initial presentation of the mother figure. Along with the discovery of her cruel side when she lashes out in response to Elisabet’s deception, Alma finds herself playing a succession of roles that undermines her sense of a stable identity, and ultimately shatters her sense of a fixed reality in which her identity might find a place.

Such shattering is visualized when, after the glass splinter incident, the film itself breaks apart. But it had been vocalized earlier, after the conflicting desires reawakened by her account of the “orgy” led Alma to exclaim: “It doesn’t make any sense. None of it fits together.” Somewhere along the mental path that leads from that exclamation to her acceptance of lying, Alma has asked herself whether it matters that “It doesn’t make any sense.”

Late In Bergman’s career, in the film Fanny and Alexander, that question would be answered by another mother figure, Helena. To Helena, being a mother was just as much a role as the various parts she played in the theater. “It’s all acting anyway,” she observes with equanimity. “One role follows another. The thing is not to shrink from them.” The last sentence marks her contrast to Elisabet in the starkest terms. In further contrast to Elisabet, Helena’s acceptance of role-playing has developed in response to the death of her adult son, Oscar, whereas Elisabet’s panic over role-playing starts with the birth of her infant son. Helena “grieved terribly” over Oscar’s death, as she explains lovingly to his ghost, who has returned to visit her. The force of her grief was like the force of desire that Alma experienced in the “orgy.” “My feelings,” says Helena, “came from deep in my body. Even though I could control them… they shattered reality, if you know what I mean.”

These feelings are among the “powers that we only partially control,” referred to in Herr Vogler’s letter to Elisabet, which we might rewrite, in terms of the problem of representation, as “powers that we can only partially represent.” With her faith in reality “shattered,” Helena is able to relax the demand for true representation of reality that grips Elisabet, and that forces Alma to cry, “It doesn’t make any sense.” As Helena concludes, “Reality has remained broken ever since… and, oddly enough, it feels more real that way. So I don’t bother to mend it. I just don’t care anymore if nothing makes sense.”

Fear of Dying

At about the time that Bergman was making Persona, very likely during the period of illness in which the film was conceived, he had an experience that released him from the demand for meaning, as Alma in Persona and Helena in Fanny and Alexander are released from the demand to have things make sense. Release from this demand requires a release from fear—the fear of lying, in the case of Alma and Elisabet. The nature of Bergman’s experience suggests a related fear, the fear of dying, which Helena confronts in the death of her son.

During a minor operation, Bergman received a larger than necessary dose of anesthetic, and “six hours of my life vanished,” he reports in his autobiography.[31] It was like a foretaste of death. “The lost hours of that operation provided me with a calming message,” Bergman continues. “You were born without purpose, you live without meaning, living is its own meaning.” There is no afterlife beyond this life, from which this life can be judged, just as there is no underlying truth to expose the appearances of this world as lies. While acceptance of this view brings to Bergman “a certain security,” it nonetheless stands in tension with a contrasting urge to deny death by insisting on some form of life beyond its reach. This tension, which provides much of the dramatic tension of his films, is summarized by Bergman in his autobiography at the conclusion of the account of his operation. The acceptance of death as sheer extinction, he says, “brought with it a certain security that has resolutely eliminated anguish and tumult, though on the other hand I have never denied my second (or first) life, that of the spirit” (Bergman 2007c: 204). Dramatically, this tension is staged in Fanny and Alexander when Helena expresses her resignation in the face of Oscar’s death just at the point when his ghost returns to visit her.

Fear of death is verbalized at several points in Persona. Being “afraid of dying” is one of the many fears that Alma attributes to Elisabet in her double monologue about Elisabet’s response to motherhood. Earlier, in their most violent confrontation, Alma threatens to hurl a potfull of boiling water at Elisabet, who breaks her silence for the first time, crying, “No, don’t do it! [Nej ,låt bli]. “Alma is pleased that she has forced Elisabet to talk, but also that Elisabet has expressed what Alma calls “an honest fear of death [en äkta dödskräck].” The implication is that Elisabet’s fear of lying, the motive for her refusal to speak, was itself dishonest, because it masked a fear of dying.

Earlier still, toward the beginning of their stay at the summer house, Alma reads aloud to Elisabet a passage from a book about the relation between fear of death and the hope for an afterlife. The English subtitles translate this passage inaccurately, so I quote from the translated script, which is closer to what Alma actually reads in the film: “All this anxiety we bear with us, our disappointed dreams, the inexplicable cruelty, our terror at the thought of extinction, the painful insight we have into the conditions of life on earth, have slowly crystallized out our hope of divine salvation. The great shout of our faith and doubt against the darkness and silence is the most terrifying evidence of our forlornness, our terrified unexpressed knowledge.”[32] When Alma asks Elisabet, “Do you think it’s like that?”, the latter nods in agreement, while Alma dissents.

It is difficult to know precisely what part of this complex statement each is agreeing with or dissenting from, but in a sense it does not matter, since the statement is at odds with itself. It expresses, though with a much higher level of anxiety, the same tension evident in Bergman’s concluding remarks about his operation: on the one hand, life has no meaning beyond itself; on the other hand, there is “hope of divine salvation.” Even the translation of the script is misleading at this point, because the phrase Alma actually reads is not “divine salvation” but “otherworldly” or supernatural salvation (en utomvärldslig frälsning). Ghosts such as Oscar in Fanny and Alexander belong to that other world.

“Ghosts, demons and other creatures with neither name nor domicile have been around me since childhood,” Bergman confessed (2007c: 202). While visiting his mother in the hospital after her heart attack in 1964, he told her he was working on a film about “demons” (K. Bergman 2003: 509). When he found himself in the hospital early in 1965, he cancelled his plans for that film, whose working title was The Cannibals, and turned instead to the simpler concept of Persona (Bergman 1973: 215; 2007c: 205). However, his next film, Hour of the Wolf (1968), is given over to the demons haunting the artist Johan Borg (Max von Sydow), who refers to them as “cannibals.” Looking back at Persona from the perspective of Hour of the Wolf reveals that the original conception of a film about demons runs continuously through Bergman’s work of this period, sometimes on the surface, sometimes beneath.

Although Persona is notably stark in contrast to the lurid fantasy of Hour of the Wolf, the earlier film has its gothic moment in the “vampire” scene when Elisabet sucks the blood oozing from Alma’s arm, which Alma offers in a weird combination of challenge and sacrifice. Alma’s uncanny ability to read Elisabet’s mind is played out more explicitly in Hour of the Wolf as a form of demonic possession when Borg’s wife, who is also named Alma (portrayed here by Liv Ullmann), sees the demons that we nevertheless understand as projections of her husband’s mind. Even more natural elements of plot acquire a supernatural aura in this light. For instance, as Alma in Hour of the Wolf tells us her husband’s story, she is pregnant with his child, a form of possession intended perhaps as a benign alternative to the demons, or perhaps not. Are Alma’s abortion in Persona and Elisabet’s wish for “a dead child” attempts at exorcism?

Although demons lead Bergman in many different directions, it is clear that they first got their grip on him in childhood through his fear of death and the equally frightening denial of that fear in the image of the dead come back to life.[33] Despite Bergman’s claim that he was freed from the fear of death by making The Seventh Seal (Bergman 1975: 129; 1973: 117), in which Death is personified as one of the characters, in his later films and writing demons and ghosts persist. In his autobiography, the tension between the “security” of not believing in an afterlife and a persistent belief in the life of the spirit is embodied in the form of two anecdotes told in direct succession. The account of the operation that freed him from the fear of death is the second anecdote. The first, about the dead coming back to life, concerns an incident when Bergman was ten years old.

An attendant at Sophiahemmet shut him up in the morgue, apparently as a practical joke, and young Ingmar found himself studying the naked corpse of a young woman. Her erotic attraction is natural, but Bergman also suggests a supernatural fascination in his inability to decide whether the woman was alive or dead: “She was breathing. No, she wasn’t breathing. Had her mouth opened?” (Bergman 2007c: 203). He falls under her power, to the extent that even his ability to flee from the morgue (it turns out the door was not locked) is understood to be subject to her permission. “The young woman let me escape,” he says (2007c: 203).

Bergman adds that he tried to express this memory in Persona, Hour of the Wolf, and Cries and Whispers. The premise that “the dead cannot die but are made to disturb the living” provides the basic structure of Cries and Whispers (Bergman 2007c: 204) as a whole, but comes to the fore especially in one scene, when the dead Agnes is brought back to life through the motherly devotion of the servant Anna. Although Bergman claims that he cut the relevant scene from Hour of the Wolf, Johan Borg still finds Veronica Vogler, a former lover, presented to him on a bier, as if dead, only to reawaken and mock Johan in staged love-making as the other demons watch. In Persona, another Vogler, Elisabet, glides through the dream scenes of that film like a ghost, and Alma doubles her in this role, as in so much else. The stage directions in the script at the end of the “vampire” scene describe Alma like “a corpse” fastening a death-grip on Elisabet (Bergman 1972b: 93).

Fig. 11
Fig. 11

However, the scene in Persona that Bergman links specifically to his childhood memory is the morgue sequence at the end of the prologue. In a succession of shots we see several bodies, including that of the young boy previously discussed, lying motionless, as if dead. During a close-up on the face of an old woman, shown upside down, we hear a ringing sound like that of a telephone, and suddenly the woman’s eyes are open [Fig. 11]. The ringing sound is continuous as the camera switches to the boy, who now wakes up as if he were returning from the dead. The boy’s encounter with the double projection of two women’s faces, alternating between Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann, follows immediately, metaphorically linking the ambiguity of that projection with the undecidable state—dead or alive?—of the bodies we have just seen. Further along the metaphorical chain, we return to the dead young woman of Bergman’s childhood memory, whose erotic attraction reappears in the doubled faces of Andersson and Ullmann, but whose deathly fascination concentrates in the face of the “dead” old woman whose eyes suddenly open.

Fig. 12
Fig. 12

Again, metaphorically—though with an uncanny literalness, given their physical resemblance [Fig. 12]—the old woman’s face figures the presence of Bergman’s mother, an object of erotic attraction to him in childhood, and increasingly a focus of his fear of death as her health declined. His fear that she would die was realized in 1966 and simultaneously denied, repeating the pattern exhibited in Bergman’s anecdote about the young woman in the morgue. Observing his mother in death, having arrived too late to share her last moments alive, Bergman recalls: “I thought that Mother was breathing, that her breast was heaving and that I could hear a quiet indrawn breath. I thought her eyelids twitched. I thought she was asleep and just about to wake, my habitual illusory game with reality” (Bergman 2007c: 7).

Toward the end of his autobiography, Bergman imagines a visit with his mother long after her death. It resembles the scene of Oscar’s visit with his mother in Fanny and Alexander, except that the autobiography consistently emphasizes the denial of death as “illusory.” Bergman’s attempt to reconcile with his mother fails. Like Elisabet in Persona, she remains frustratingly silent, and ultimately her image dissolves without “too great” an effort on his part to sustain it (Bergman 2007c: 286). He seems to lack the energy, or the imagination, either to deny or to maintain the illusion.

Failure of imagination haunts Bergman as much as, and as a version of, the fear of death. In his autobiography, acknowledging that death will separate him from his wife, Ingrid, he says, “I lack the means of imagining the moment of separation.”[34] When that moment arrived with Ingrid’s death in 1995, Bergman restated the sense of “security” he gained from the temporary experience of death during his operation, then compared that experience with “the total extinction that is Ingrid’s death,” adding, “I find it immensely difficult to imagine that I’ll never see her again” (Bergman 1998: 190). Indeed, he said that he still sensed her presence, as he had sensed his mother’s presence after her death. If, when making Persona, Bergman projected his fear of his mother’s impending death and his wish that she would not die onto the old woman in the morgue, he projected his fear of losing his own creative powers, “the means of imagining,” onto the boy.

Bergman’s illness, itself brought on from overwork as head of the Royal Dramatic Theatre, left him feeling exhausted. The hospital setting brought further associations of death. “I thought to myself,” Bergman told Charles Samuels, “that I would never create anything anymore; I was completely empty, almost dead” (Bergman 1975: 107). “So,” he explained in another interview, “I made believe I was a little boy who’d died, yet who wasn’t allowed to be really dead, because he kept on being woken up by telephone calls from the Royal Dramatic Theatre” (Bergman 1972a: 199). The images that precede the boy’s awakening refer to Bergman’s previous films, “because whenever I thought about making a new film, silly pictures from my old ones came into my head” (Bergman 1975: 107), as if to mock him with his loss of creative power. Then, “suddenly two faces are floating into one another. And that’s where the film begins” (Bergman 1972a: 199)—a new film, born out of a new image. Or, rather, an old image of new birth, the birth associated with the mother, pictured in her two faces.

Fig. 13
Fig. 13

Although the concluding image of Persona repeats the opening image of the boy reaching out to the ambiguous maternal face behind a screen, it is easy to miss the connotation of new birth in that image, because the mood of the ending contains none of the joy we expect to be associated with new birth. True, the last image we identify specifically as the face of Elisabet shows her upside down [Fig. 13], like the old woman who “wakes up” in the morgue at the opening of the film. The old woman, an image of the mother, has been renewed as the young woman, and the young woman has been renewed by returning to her career of acting. We see that last image of her face reflected in the lens of a movie camera, signaling the production of the film we are watching, in which Bergman himself found renewal.[35]

These are positive concepts, yet they are conveyed in images that feel negative. For instance, Elisabet’s return to acting is further suggested with a quick shot of her face made up for her role in Electra, frozen in a look of terror. And her face in the camera, while relatively calm, is captive to the apparatus, just as Alma, departing from the summer house on a bus, is literally caught up in a machine. The simile is sonically constructed by the harsh sounding of a horn that bridges the two shots, so that it could be either a horn signaling for silence on the movie set or the horn of the bus (Livingston 1982: 213; Blackwell 1986: 113). In each case, the “powers that we only partially control” seem to have taken over Alma and Elisabet. Bergman’s commentary in the script implies just such a fatalistic connotation for the image of “the ribbon of film” as, “inexorably,” it “rattles through the projector.” He elaborates: “Nothing can be changed, undone. It all thunders forth again and again, always with the same cold immutable willingness” (Bergman 1972b: 42).

If there is new birth for Elisabet and Alma, it is the birth in them of a countervailing willingness capable of opposing the powers of fate, though no less cold.[36] That feeling of coldness contradicts the conventional associations of new birth, but Bergman found in the contradiction one of his special subjects, “children born from cold wombs” (Bergman 1973: 148; see also 1994a: 17; 1991: 163). In Persona we witness the birth or rebirth of women with cold wombs as Elisabet and Alma discover or rediscover a personal will.

At the start of the film, lack of will power is a problem for both of them. The doctor understands Elisabet to have made “lack of will [viljelösheten]” into a “fantastic system [ett fantastiskt system],” evident in her silence and immobility.[37] Alma reports that her fiancé sees her lack of ambition as the condition of a sleepwalker (en sömngångare), an image of will-less automatism that is dramatized in some of the later “dream” sequences. The translation of “sleepwalker” as “zombie” in the subtitles pushes too hard on the gothic quality of the later “vampire” scene, but the zombie image is consonant with the motif of the dead returning to life that is present from the outset of the film. Life returns to Elisabet and Alma as a determination, a willingness, to return to the lives they had been living, despite their new insight into the “powers” ranged against them. Having neutralized those powers in the shared recognition that “nothing is,” each woman now wills her own self-representation. At the start of the “vampire” scene, before Elisabet sucks Alma’s blood, Alma declares: “you can do what you want. You won’t get to me.” Bergman characterized the relationship between the women at the conclusion of the film when he explained to John Simon that “Elisabet has come back” after having “fed on Alma a little bit,” but that Alma, like Elisabet, “can go on.”[38]

If Alma and Elisabet go on, they do so on terms that are very different from the supernatural consolation that persisted in Bergman’s own denial of death’s finality. In their acceptance of “ingenting/nothing,” they have accepted that there is no transcendent realm of values “beyond” present existence, and yet they continue in that existence both by the force of will and by the force of imagination. They imagine a possibility that Bergman said he could not imagine himself. What he could imagine, evidently, was a type of character who could imagine the possibility. Rather than simply inventing such a character, he discovered her as he came to understand the character of his mother, whose double nature is reflected in the relationship between Alma and Elisabet. However, in the strength of will that each woman, whether real or fictional, ultimately expresses, the emphasis shifts to singleness of purpose rather than doubleness of character. And a tragic consequence of that singleness is isolation, the abandonment of relationship, represented in Persona by the mother’s rejection of her child.

While Bergman as a child had sensed his mother’s rejection at intermittent moments, his understanding of her motives developed only gradually, over the course of his conversations with her during her final illness, and then, after her death, through the revelations provided by her diary. Persona, produced early in that process, reflects an understanding so far mostly intuited. Bergman later formulated it much more explicitly in his autobiography. As presented there, his failure to sustain the illusion of his mother’s presence after death leads to an understanding of his mother’s commitment to a life without illusion, despite her theatrical moments. “She was no liver-of-a-lie like father. She was no believer” (Bergman 2007c: 289), Bergman asserts.

The force of will that made this commitment possible links Bergman’s mother in his mind to her own mother, his grandmother: “I catch a glimpse of Grandmother’s cold strength behind the drama of my parents” (2007c: 289). Bergman associated cold with strength of will, whether it be the “cold immutable willingness” of the impersonal powers in Persona, or the willfulness that an individual might oppose to those powers. This is the cold side of his mother that we noted above in the essay that first reported his reading of her diaries: “the flash of warmth could turn to ice” (Bergman 1971: 19; trans. Gado 1986: 13). In the same essay, Bergman characterizes his mother as “strong-willed” (viljestark; Bergman 1971: 67).

In his autobiography, Bergman dramatizes this “strong-willed” quality by quoting an entry from Karin Bergman’s diary describing the conditions of her life at the time of Ingmar’s birth in July 1918. Taken ill during an influenza epidemic, she has no milk for the baby, who is also ill, so the strong-willed grandmother takes the child away to a wet nurse (amma, related to Alma as described above). Foreseeing the possibility of the baby’s death, the grandmother insists that Karin prepare to leave her older child and even her husband (whom the grandmother has never accepted) and, like Elisabet, return to her career, which is nursing, like that of Alma. Karin is strong enough to oppose her mother’s directives, but she can find no other source of authority besides her own will. As quoted by Bergman, the diary entry concludes: “I pray to God with no confidence. One will probably have to manage alone as best one can” (Bergman 2007c: 290). With no more confidence in herself (“as best one can”) than in God, Karin Bergman nevertheless determines to go on.

It is remarkable that Bergman’s autobiography should conclude, as it does, with these words, since they are not the words of the autobiographer but rather of his mother, who seems prepared to abandon at the very outset the life that is the book’s ostensible subject. It would have been difficult for Bergman to add any commentary to this passage without casting himself in the role of victim, so from the absence of commentary we can surmise that the quotation is intended not as an accusation against his mother but rather as a gesture of understanding. It might even be taken as an expression of a principle, either learned from or confirmed by his mother’s example, that Bergman would apply to his own life: in the end, one must “manage alone.” However, the form of expression belies the principle as it applies to Bergman. Ironically, he depends on his mother’s voice to express the necessity of independence, of managing alone. This double-voiced structure is a key to Bergman’s dramatic expression, certainly in Persona and, I would argue, throughout his work.

The Primary Audience

Having “saved its creator” at a time when Bergman seriously doubted his ability to go on as a filmmaker (Bergman 1975: 107), Persona came to represent for him his determination to go on in a way that seems parallel to his depiction of Elisabet and Alma or his understanding of his mother. That is, he is willing to forsake relationship, in this case the artist’s relationship to an audience, in order to be “an artist for one’s own sake” (Bergman 1972c: 15). These are the alternatives presented in “The Snakeskin,” a lecture written for delivery just after the filming of Persona, and subsequently published as a kind of preface to the filmscript. Initially, Bergman explains, his work for the theater and film grew out of a desire for attention that stemmed “from very early childhood” (1972c: 11). With each new achievement he felt “a great need to attract the attention of the grown-ups to these manifestations of my presence in the physical world” (1972c: 11).

Now, in the face of “an increasingly distracted public” that seems more or less indifferent to the kind of serious art that Bergman feels called to produce (1972c: 13), he is willing to give up his efforts to attract their attention and to seek instead to satisfy no one but himself. In Persona, he later recalled, “for the first time I did not care in the least whether the result would be a commercial success” (Bergman 1994a: 64). The desire he now sought to satisfy was simply “an intractable curiosity. I note, I observe, I have my eyes with me, everything is unreal, fantastic, frightening, or ridiculous” (Bergman 1972c: 14). A hint of a similar motive appears in the script for Persona, though not in the finished film, in an expanded version of the letter from Elisabet to her doctor that Alma reads surreptitiously. It is one of the signs that Elisabet is recovering her mental balance. “I am beginning,” she writes, “to get back elementary but forgotten sensations, things like a ravenous hunger before dinner, a childish drowsiness in the evenings, curiosity in a fat spider, the joy of going barefoot” (Bergman 1972b: 63). The obvious difference, of course, is that Elisabet’s curiosity reawakens amid “elementary” and “childish” sensations, whereas Bergman’s curiosity, he claims, replaces his childish desire for attention. That difference should give us pause.

There is good reason to read the shift in attitude that Bergman describes in “The Snakeskin” as the repetition of a childhood pattern rather than a progression into supposed maturity.[39] The shift pivots on the relationship to an audience, and the primary audience whose attention young Ingmar desired was his mother. The “theatrical” nature of their relationship entailed “a peculiar game” (Bergman 2007c: 4), employing a strategy I have noted above. In the face of his mother’s indifference, like the indifference of the modern audience Bergman describes in “The Snakeskin,” he feigned indifference toward her, so that “I left her before she had time to leave me” (Bergman 1971: 65). What he was really hoping, of course, was that his act of indifference would attract his mother’s attention, a hope that was frequently realized (Bergman 2007c: 4).

The indifference toward the audience that Bergman claims as his later attitude in “The Snakeskin” proves to be equally feigned if we consider the evidence of his films after Persona. The fact that he continued making films itself puts him in a different category from the “poets who never write” and the “painters who never paint” whom he cites as symptoms of the modern condition (Bergman 1972c: 13). Even more significant, his films continue to feature what had already become a paradigmatic Bergman scene: a scene that presents an audience watching a performance.[40] In such scenes, Bergman’s continuing desire for the attention of an audience comes into the foreground, just as his continuing desire for his mother’s attention comes into focus in the repeated appearance of mother figures in his films.[41]

If Bergman experienced a new freedom in making Persona, as he claimed, it was not the freedom to express himself without regard for an audience, but rather the freedom to explore his subject with relatively little regard for himself. Curiosity, as he describes it in “The Snakeskin,” entails attention to the subject before him, rather than a demand that he be the object of attention, the sort of demand that he directed toward his mother in childhood. Making the mother the object of his attention, as Bergman does in Persona, places Bergman in the position of the audience, with all of the childlike curiosity implied in Elisabet’s letter. Thus, the boy who serves as Bergman’s surrogate in the prologue seems also to stand for the film’s audience, watching the double face of the mother as it materializes on the screen, exploring with curiosity the distance between the audience and the image while at the same time seeming to accept that distance (Blackwell 1997: 139-40).

A more emphatic sign of acceptance is the removal of the boy entirely from the “story” portion of the film, perhaps a parallel to each mother’s rejection of her child, but nevertheless a recognition that the woman has a story of her own, just as Bergman came to accept his mother’s coldness on her terms. The depth of understanding of the central character or characters in Persona, and more, the acceptance of the character’s independence even beyond any claim to understanding are unique in Bergman’s oeuvre, although he thought he had achieved something equivalent in Cries and Whispers, that other film in which his mother appears with more than one face. Looking back at his career after he had made his “farewell” film, Fanny and Alexander, Bergman wrote: “Today I feel that in Persona—and later in Cries and Whispers—I had gone as far as I could go. And that in these two instances, when working in total freedom, I touched wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover” (Bergman 1994a: 65). The complex character of the mother is surely one of those secrets. Why Bergman thought of the secrets as “wordless” is a question for another study, but the term is an appropriate cue for this very wordy study to come to an end.

Terence Diggory is emeritus Professor of English at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. He studies interarts relations in modernism and postmodernism, and has previously written on the films Pull My Daisy (by Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie) and The Red Wheelbarrow (by Bridget Sutherland).


Andersson, Bibi (1977), “Dialogue on Film,” American Film 2.5 (March), pp. 33-48.

Barr, Alan P. (1987), “The Unraveling of Character in Bergman’s Persona,” Literature/Film Quarterly 15.2, pp. 123-36.

Bergman, Ingmar (1973), Bergman on Bergman, int. Stig Björkman, Torsten Manns, Jonas Sima (trans. Paul Britten Austin), New York: Simon and Schuster.

—– (1991), The Best Intentions (trans. Joan Tate), New York: Arcade.                   

—– (1972a), “Conversation with Bergman,” int. John Simon, in Simon, Ingmar Bergman Directs, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, pp. 11-40.

—– (1998), “Demons and Childhood Secrets: An Interview,” int. Jörn Donner (trans. Joan Tate), Grand Street 66 (Fall), pp. 180-92.

—– (1994a), Images: My Life in Film (trans. Marianne Ruuth), New York: Arcade.

—– (1960), “Introduction: Bergman Discusses Film-Making,” in Bergman, Four Screenplays. (trans. Lars Malmstrom and David Kushner), New York: Simon and Schuster, pp. xiii-xxii.

—- (1975), “Ingmar Bergman: An Interview,” int. Charles Thomas Samuels, in Stuart M. Kaminsky and Joseph Hill (eds.), Ingmar Bergman: Essays in Criticism, New York: Oxford UP, pp. 98-132.

—– (2001), “Ingmar Bergman: Reflections on Life, Death and Love with Erland Josephson,” int. Malou von Sivers, in Bergman (dir.), Cries and Whispers, Criterion Collection DVD, 2001.

—– (2007b), “Ingmar Bergman: Summing Up a Life in Film” (2007), int. Michiko Kakutani, in Raphael Shargel (ed.), Ingmar Bergman: Interviews, Jackson: UP of Mississippi, pp. 156-70.

—– (2007c), The Magic Lantern: An Autobiography (trans. Joan Tate), Chicago: U of Chicago P.

—– (2008), “Man måste älska—annars går det inte” [“You have to love—or else it’s no good”] (excerpts), int. Mika Larsson (trans Katarina Trodden), in Paul Duncan and Bengt Wanselius (eds.), The Ingmar Bergman Archives, Los Angeles: Taschen, p. 552.

—– (1971), “Min mors dagböcker avslöjar vem hon var [My mother’s diaries reveal who she was].” Husmodern 29 (August 20), pp. 18ff.

—– (1972b), Persona and Shame (trans. Keith Bradfield), New York: Grossman.

—– (1997), Private Confessions (trans. Joan Tate), New York: Arcade.

—– (1972c), “The Snakeskin,” in Bergman, Persona and Shame (trans. Keith Bradfield), New York: Grossman, pp. 11-15.

—– (1994b), Sunday’s Children (trans. Joan Tate), New York: Arcade.

—– (2007d), “A Visit with Ingmar Bergman,” int. A. Alvarez, in Raphael Shargel (ed.), Ingmar Bergman: Interviews, Jackson: UP of Mississippi, pp. 113-25.

Bergman, Karin (2003), Karins liv: Karin Bergman i dagböcker och brev 1907-1966 [Karin’s Life: Karin Bergman in Diaries and Letters 1907-1966] (ed. Birgit Linton-Malmfors), Stockholm: Carlssons.

Bergom-Larsson, Maria (1978), Ingmar Bergman and Society (trans. Barrie Selman), South Brunswick, NJ: A. S. Barnes.

Blackwell, Marilyn Johns (1981), “The Chamber Plays and the Trilogy: A Revaluation of the Case of Strindberg and Bergman,” in Blackwell (ed.), Structures of Influence: A Comparative Approach to August Strindberg, Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, pp. 49-64.

—– (1997), Gender and Representation in the Films of Ingmar Bergman, Columbia, SC: Camden House.

—– (1986), Persona: The Transcendent Image, Urbana: U of Illinois P.

Boyd, David (1983-84), “Persona and the Cinema of Interpretation,” Film Quarterly 37.2 (Winter), 10-19.

Boyers, Robert (1988), “Bergman and Women,” in Boyers, After the Avant-Garde: Essays on Art and Culture, University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, pp. 190-201.

—– (1977), “Bergman’s Persona: An Essay on Tragedy,” in Boyers, Excursions: Selected Literary Essays, Port Washington, NY: National University Publications—Kennikat Press, pp. 47-70.

Cohen, Hubert I. (1993), Ingmar Bergman: The Art of Confession, New York: Twayne.

Cowie, Peter (1982), Ingmar Bergman: A Critical Biography, New York: Scribner’s.

Fischer, Lucy (1989), Shot/Countershot: Film Tradition and Women’s Cinema, Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1989.

Fletcher, John (1973), “Bergman and Strindberg” Journal of Modern Literature 3, pp. 173-90.

Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey (2000), “Feminist Theory and the Performance of Lesbian Desire in Persona,” in Lloyd Michaels (ed.), Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, pp. 130-46.

Gado, Frank (1986), The Passion of Ingmar Bergman, Durham, NC: Duke UP.

Gervais, Marc (1999), Ingmar Bergman: Magician and Prophet, Montreal: McGill—Queen’s UP.

Kael, Pauline (2000), “Swedish Summer,” in Lloyd Michaels (ed.), Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, pp. 169-71.

Kawin, Bruce F. (1978), Mindscreen: Bergman, Godard, and First-Person Film, Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP.

Koskinen, Maaret (1997), “’Everything Represents, Nothing Is’: Some Relations Between Ingmar Bergman’s Films and Theatre Productions,” Canadian Journal of Film Studies 6.1 (Spring), pp. 79-90.

—– (2010). Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence: Pictures in the Typewriter, Writings on the Screen, Seattle: U of Washington P.

Liffner, Axel (1966), “Vad upplevde Ingmar som liten [What Ingmar experienced as a child],” Aftonbladet October 30, p. 3.

Livingston, Paisley (1982), Ingmar Bergman and the Rituals of Art, Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP.

Marker, Lise-Lone, and Frederick J. Marker (1982), Ingmar Bergman: Four Decades in the Theater, Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Martin, Marcel (1967), “Persona d’Ingmar Bergman,” Cinéma 67, no. 119 (Sept-Oct), pp. 73-81.

Michaels, Lloyd (1998), “Reflexivity and Character in Persona,” in Michaels, The Phantom o f the Cinema: Character in Modern Film, Albany: State U of New York P, pp. 33-46.

Myrdal, Alva (1967), Foreword, in Edmund Dahlström (ed.), The Changing Roles of Men and Women, Boston: Beacon, pp. 9-15.

Nordberg, Carl-Eric (1966), “Ingmar Bergman och det gåtfulla ansiktet [Ingmar Bergman and the enigmatic face]” Vi 49, p. 10.

Oliver, Kelly (1998), “Face to Face with the mOther: Alterity in Bergman’s Persona,” in Kelly, Subjectivity without Subjects: From Abject Fathers to Desiring Mothers, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, pp. 95-107.

Phillips, Gene D. (1975). “Ingmar Bergman and God,” in Stuart M. Kaminsky and Joseph Hill (eds.), Ingmar Bergman: Essays in Criticism, New York: Oxford UP, pp. 45-54.

Simon, John (2000), “Bergman Redivivus,” in Lloyd Michaels (ed.), Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, pp. 171-75.

—– (1972), Ingmar Bergman Directs, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Singer, Irving (2007), Ingmar Bergman: Cinematic Philosopher, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Sitney, P. Adams (1986), “Kinematography and the Analytic Text: A Reading of ‘Persona,’” October 38 (Autumn), pp. 112-30.

Sjöman, Vilgot (1978), L 136: Diary with Ingmar Bergman (trans. Alan Blair), Ann Arbor, MI: Karoma.

Sontag, Susan (2000). “Bergman’s Persona,” in Lloyd Michaels (ed.), Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, pp. 62-85.

Steene, Birgitta (1976), “The Ambiguous Feminist,” American Scandinavian Review 64.3, pp. 27-31.

—– (2000), “Bergman’s Persona through a Native Mindscape,” in Lloyd Michaels (ed.), Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, pp. 24-43.

—– (1979), “Bergman’s Portrait of Women: Sexism or Subjective Metaphor?” in Patricia Erens (ed.), Sexual Stratagems: The World of Women in Film, New York: Horizon, pp. 91-107.

—– (1968), Ingmar Bergman, New York: Twayne.

—– (2006), Ingmar Bergman: A Reference Guide, Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP.

Strindberg, August (1972), The Plays of Strindberg (trans. Michael Meyer), vol. 1, New York: Vintage—Random House.

—– (1976), The Plays of Strindberg (trans. Michael Meyer), vol. 2. New York: Vintage—Random House.

—– (1994), Till Damaskus / Ett Drömspel, Stockholm: Natur och Kultur.

Ullmann, Liv (1977), Changing, New York: Knopf.

Vierling, David L. (1974), “Bergman’s Persona: The Metaphysics of Meta-Cinema,” Diacritics 4.2 (Summer), pp. 48-51.

Vineberg, Steve (2000), “Persona and the Seduction of Performance,” in Lloyd Michaels (ed.), Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, pp. 110-129.

Wood, Robin (1969), Ingmar Bergman, New York: Praeger.

—– (1994), “Persona Revisited, ”CineAction 34 (June), pp. 59-67.


[1] For specific instances related to Persona, see Bergom-Larsson 1978: 31-32; Wood 1994: 64-67. For summaries of feminist criticism of Bergman, see Steene 1979: 91-93; Blackwell 1997: 2-3.

[2] See Liffner 1966; Nordberg 1966. Steene (2006: 271) provides an overview of this position.

[3] Among critics of Persona, Alan P. Barr (1987) stands out for his engagement with this question.

[4] For dates in Bergman’s life I have relied primarily on the “Chronology” by Peter Cowie in Bergman 2007c: 291-303. Bergman himself misdates his mother’s death to “early 1965,” which would have placed it before the filming of Persona (Bergman 2007c: 5-6).

[5] Bergman 2007c: 6-7. In Shame, Jacobi describes his experience of his mother’s death to Eva, whom he is trying to seduce. In the opening scene of The Touch, Karin (the name of Bergman’s mother) arrives at her mother’s hospital room to find her already dead.

[6] Bergman has given several accounts of his illness. See Bergman 1975: 107-08; 1972a: 39; 1973: 195-96; 1994a: 45.

[7] Bergman 1971: 19; trans. Gado 1986: 12. Gado translates excerpts from this essay, which he refers to by an alternative title, “Ingmar Bergman berätter om sin mor [Ingmar Bergman tells about his mother].” I have followed Gado’s translation where indicated; otherwise the translation is mine.

[8] Private Confessions is the third “novel” in a trilogy that Bergman wrote during the 1990s, based on the courtship and marriage of his parents. Each text became the basis of a film by a director other than Bergman: The Best Intentions (pub. 1991; film dir. Bille August, 1991); Sunday’s Children (pub. 1993, film dir. Daniel Bergman [Bergman’s son], 1992); Private Confessions (pub. 1996; film dir. Liv Ullmann, 1996).

[9] Lucy Fischer (1989: 74) suggests that the large size of the woman’s face recalls the infant’s view of the mother. This suggestion helps to explain the fascination with faces in close-up that is a hallmark of Bergman’s films.

[10] Bergman 1994a: 54. Although Bergman suggested in at least one statement that each of the main female characters in Persona is, in a different way, “like me” (2007c: 206), this does not undercut my thesis that Bergman’s mother was the primary model for the complex character division explored in the film. Bergman repeatedly notes that members of his family share—and in some way inherit- -family traits, for instance, what he calls “the Bergman paralysis” (2007c: 284).

[11] Bergman 1994a: 54. On the stretching of time as dreamlike, see Sjöman 1978: 211-12.

[12] Steene (2000: 31-37) discusses The Stronger but argues for the greater relevance of A Dream Play (2000: 37-42). For other discussions of The Stronger in relation to Persona, see Sontag 2000: 82; Fletcher 1973: 185; Cowie 1982: 44; Blackwell 1986: 100-101; Cohen 1993: 447n43; Vineberg 2000: 119-22.

[13] Strindberg 1976: 193. Steene (1976) explores the complexities of Strindberg’s attitude toward women.

[14] In Liv Ullmann’s portrayal of Elisabet, she does not appear to be immobile, except in the late scene, discussed below, when Alma gets her to speak the one word “nothing” (ingenting).

[15] Bergman himself offered a similar explanation of Elisabet’s silence as “a strong person’s form of protest” against the hollowness of words as well as roles (Bergman 1973: 211). In quotations from all films, unless otherwise noted, I quote the subtitles rather than the published script, which often differs from the film. References in Swedish are based on the dialogue spoken in the film.

[16] Critics frequently assume that Elisabet and Alma have “retreated to this tiny island” (Blackwell 1997: 159), but the film does not specify the location as an island. The misidentification may be due in part to critics’ knowledge that the island of Fårö, which became Bergman’s home, was the location for shooting the film. If we discard the image of an island, with its connotations of isolation, it becomes more significant that the setting is by the sea, with its connotations of the womb and the absence of ego boundaries in the infant’s early relation to the mother. In the fuller version of Elisabet’s letter to her doctor that appears in the script, she writes, “Surrounded by the sea, I am cradled like a foetus in the womb” (Bergman 1972b: 63).

[17] Toward the end of the script there is a scene in which the doctor sums up her view of Elisabet’s case as “strongly developed infantility” (Bergman 1972b: 99), a condition she connects with that of the artist in the modern world. Though Bergman accepted a connection between creativity and infantility (Bergman 1973: 83), he decided not to emphasize Elisabet’s role as an artist in Persona (Bergman 1972a: 32), which may explain why this scene with the doctor was dropped.

[18] In developing the theory of occult “powers” associated with his Inferno crisis, Strindberg usually referred to “makter,” but he used a variety of other terms, including “krafter.” In Part One of To Damascus, the Unknown learns “that there are things—and powers [krafter]—that I didn’t believe in before” (Strindberg 1994: 80; 1976: 88).

[19] Andreas’s speech in A Passion (The Passion of Anna, 1969) about “immense armies of victims and executioners” is the locus classicus for critical discussion of the theme of victim and victimizer in Bergman’s work. See Bergom-Larsson 1978: 104; Livingston 1982: 167-68.

[20] Simon 2000: 173; Bergom-Larsson 1978: 71n; Oliver 1998: 106. A critical tradition dating at least as far back as Sontag (2000: 68) takes Alma to mean “soul,” but this is its meaning in Spanish. There is no reason why Bergman would have been thinking of the Spanish meaning, whereas Latin was one of his favorite subjects in school (Cowie 1982: 17).

[21] On the servant, Magic Lantern Bergman 2007c: 10; Blackwell 1997: 206. On the father’s mother, Cowie 1982: 4. Gado’s census of “Recurrent Names”(1986: 516) in Bergman’s work records the appearance of the name Alma in Sawdust and Tinsel (1953), Persona 1966), Hour of the Wolf (1968), and Fanny and Alexander (1982).

[22] Bergman 1973: 19-20. For the contemporary debate in Sweden, see Myrdal 1967.

[23] The sense of imposed obligation rendered in the subtitles as “I’ll have to raise [the children]” is less emphatic in the spoken dialogue, but implied in the distinction between the parents’ shared responsibility for producing the children and the mother’s sole responsibility for raising them: “we [will] have a couple of children, whom I will raise [vi får ett par barn, som jag ska uppfostra].”

[24] The gesture is repeated in a later scene when, after searching for Alma, Elisabet is pleased to find her reading a book on the patio. Wood (1994: 64) finds “a maternal gesture” in the more erotic embrace of Alma by Elisabet at the end of Alma’s “orgy” narrative, discussed below.

[25] Critics have compared this relationship to that of analyst and analysand in psychoanalysis: e.g., Kael 2000: 170; Sitney 1986: passim; Barr 1987: 126-29; Oliver 1998: 100. However, this interpretation limits the relationship to a specialized domain, like the relationship of artist and audience that Bergman explicitly resisted, arguing that “it has just to do with human beings” (Bergman 1972a: 32). This is the sort of relationship, “not as mother and son but as two people,” that Bergman felt he and his mother achieved by finally listening to each other while she was in the hospital (Bergman 1971 67), as noted below.

[26] Gado does not list “Elisabet” in his census of “Recurrent Names” in Bergman’s work (1986: 516-20). The name is assigned to at least one other character, a relatively minor role in Face to Face (1976). With regard to the character in Persona, Simon discusses the name as meaning in Hebrew “consecrated to God” (1972: 292), though he allegorizes God to mean “art.” Oliver (1998: 106-07) discusses Alma’s associations with the virgin Mary.

[27] Cohen 1993: 220; Koskinen 2010: 151-52. Through a Glass Darkly (1961) features sister-brother incest in the absence of the mother.

[28] The analogy between Elisabet and God was proposed in 1966 by Hans Nystedt, as discussed in Steene (2006: 271). It persists in later criticism, e.g., Kawin 1978: 122, 125, 130-31.

[29] Bergman has confirmed that this scene was intended as “just a sort of dream” (Bergman 1972a: 40).

[30] Bergman 1994a: 353; Bergman’s italics. This statement is a variation on the declaration of the theater director in After the Rehearsal (1984). See Koskinen 1997: 80.

[31] Bergman 2007c: 204. In the same passage, Bergman dates the operation to “twenty years ago.” Magic Lantern was originally published in 1987.

[32] Bergman 1972b: 47. A major error in the subtitles is the reading of “crystallized out [kristalliserat ut]” as “worn out.”

[33] On what Blackwell calls the “death-and-resurrection motif” in Persona (1986: 113), see also Bergman 1973: 190; Kawin 1978: 109-12, 132; Gado 1986: 341.

[34] Bergman 2007c: 265. Bergman’s marriage to Ingrid von Rosen in 1971, the year he published “My Mother’s Diaries” and filmed Cries and Whispers, was itself a means of denying separation from his mother, since Ingrid resembled her, as Bergman acknowledged (2007b: 168; 2001).

[35] Bergman also found renewal in his romance with Liv Ullmann, which began during the shooting of this film. Ullmann has written of Bergman that he “always touches the mother in me. The way he did when I was twenty-five and knew almost nothing about him” (1977: 205).

[36] The “coldness of spirit” manifested in Elisabet is part of the price she has to pay “to purchase extreme autonomy,” according to Robert Boyers (1988: 200).

[37] I follow the translation of the script (Bergman 1972b: 42), which is more accurate than the subtitles: “Your lifelessness has become a fantastic part.”

[38] Bergman 1972a: 32. That both Alma and Elisabet are able to go on living their lives despite the “new insight” they have acquired was important to Bibi Andersson’s understanding of the film’s ending (Andersson 1977: 43-44). Boyers (1977: 70) stresses Alma’s ability “to be conscious, and to go on living” as a mark of her status as a tragic heroine.

[39] In another instance (Bergman 1972a: 38), Bergman himself dismissed as “very romantic” a previous statement in which he identified with the anonymous medieval craftsman who received no public recognition for his contribution to building a cathedral (Bergman 1960: xxi-xxii).

[40] Especially notable examples include, before Persona, Sawdust and Tinsel (1953), The Magician (1958), The Seventh Seal (1957), Through a Glass Darkly (1961), The Silence (1963); and after Persona, Cries and Whispers (1973), The Magic Flute (1975), Face to Face (1976), Fanny and Alexander (1982). A factor in the uniqueness that I attribute to Persona is the absence of such a scene, with the possible exception of the boy reaching out to the screened face of the mother. The script (Bergman 1972b: 35) sketches a scene in which Alma joins the audience in a movie theater showing a film in which Elisabet stars.

[41] In addition to the examples cited throughout this discussion, two late works are especially notable for the representation of the mother in photographs, a means of distancing while also staying in touch. Karin’s Face (1983) is a brief documentary composed entirely of still photographs of Bergman’s mother (Bergman 2007c: 286-88). Saraband (2003), Bergman’s last production for television, repeatedly shows a photograph of the dead Anna as an image of a “highly idealized mother” (Singer 2007: 13).

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