Reality Is Diabolical: The Representational Masks in Bergman’s Persona

Kevin Catalano



In “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” French film critic and theorist Andre Bazin states that a primary function of film is to preserve life by representing it. The implication of his theory is that film can capture, objectively, the reality that the camera witnesses as a way to “snatch [the event] from the flow of time.” This is the very intention of the documentary, specifically the sort interested in capturing the brutal side of reality. (Think Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s relentless documentary about the Holocaust.)

While Bazin’s theory of objective reality would appear to have little to do with the films of Ingmar Bergman, Bergman’s Persona is very much concerned with the idea of representation, particularly its portrayal of other types of representations. In Persona, Bergman gives attention to nearly every medium that attempts to capture reality—television, photography, theater, and film—in order to both reveal the inherent problem of objectively capturing reality, and to create his own version of it. Analyzing these different representational forms will shed light on the fantasy-reality fusions that occur frequently in Persona, which are not meant to confuse but to illustrate the limitations of film (and its sibling forms) to capture and represent reality, while revealing, in the doctor’s words, that “reality is diabolical.”

But Susan Sontag warns us against weighing the doctor’s monologue too heavily. In her essay “Bergman’s Persona,” Sontag tells us to be suspicious of what the doctor says so as to avoid a psychological interpretation of the film. When Sontag speaks, we listen. Still, we can use the doctor’s lines as a way to diagnose the film’s ontology. For example, after saying “reality is diabolical,” the doctor explains to Elisabet that “life trickles in everywhere.” The idea that “life trickles in” is an important cue that explains the pervasive rain, and its auditory counterpart, which appears to be Bergman’s visual reminder of reality’s fluidity.

At the opening of the film, once the camera finally focuses on a subject—the ostensible morgue—the first natural sound that orients the viewer is that of dripping water, a sound that reminds of the most basic element of reality (water) while at the same time disconnecting us from the reality of the scene (since its origin is never revealed). This sound design is important in establishing its visual counterpart—rain—while also connecting to the larger theme of the life, or reality, that “trickles in” this film.

Another auditory cue of this trickling is in the scene where Alma succumbs to her curiosity and opens the letter Elisabet wrote. When Alma retrieved the mail at the cottage, it had been raining; while Alma is in the car reading Elisabet’s letter, the rain has appeared to stop; however, the same dripping sound from the opening of the film serves as soundtrack. This sound is worth observing in terms of its reality as it is a representation of the real rain that the viewer is supposed to assume is still occurring. In other words, the sound of the dripping is a stand in, a mask, for the actual. As we know, Alma’s reading of Elisabet’s letter is a major turning point in the narrative, as this catapults her into her suspicion, jealousy, and loss of patience; therefore, the film itself shifts into its major conflict. The rain’s “double” (the sound) has seeped into Alma, and hereafter, she will wear one of her many other masks—representations of her former self. This is confirmed in the next shot, an exterior long shot of Alma standing pensively before a pond, her reflection (a representation of herself) clearly captured.

Immediately following Alma’s orgy monologue comes another significant instance of rain offering an interpretation of the film’s reality—or in this case, the lack thereof. As in an earlier scene, Alma and Elisabet find themselves at the same table in the same medium shot, the same window in the background revealing the (same?) rain. In this scene, Bergman appears to use the rain as a visual cue for fantasy rather than reality. First, it is not until Alma comments on the rain—“It’s almost morning. And it’s still raining.”—that the sound comes into focus, holds, and then falls away. Here, the characters seem to be able to manipulate reality, evidenced by the fact that noise exists only when Alma observes it. This is subtle, but allows for Bergman’s next leap into fusing reality and fantasy. In this same scene, the viewer hears Elisabet say, “Go to bed. Otherwise, you’ll fall asleep at the table.” However, Alma’s reaction to this—repeating the idea as if the voice came from her head—reveals that Elisabet did not speak.

The very next scene is the most significant and epistemologically problematic: Elisabet comes into Alma’s bedroom and the two caress each other’s hair. At the initial viewing, the audience would most likely take this as an actual occurrence, since Bergman does not give any visual nor auditory cues to suggest otherwise. (It’s not until Alma denies both speaking and entering the room that doubt is cast on its reality.) The point here is not whether this actually happened, but that Bergman is playing with the viewer’s expectations of reality. With all of these rain-drenched scenes, it appears that Bergman is conveying the slippery nature of reality and the problems that arise when film attempts to capture it. However, there are scenes in the film where the reality Bergman represents is arguably more anchored.

The burning monk and the Warsaw photograph are two instances in the film where Bergman attends to the issue of a seemingly objective representation of reality. Here, Bergman is capturing two types of mediums—television and photography—to reveal their own respective and unique limitations. The burning-monk television scene is the most obvious connection to Bazin’s theory; however, upon closer inspection, we see that Bergman is, once again, playing with this theory specifically and reality in general. The disturbing footage of self-immolation appears to fit snuggly into Bazin’s thesis: the camera (for the filmmaker who documented this event) is an objective witness to these events, and thus preserves them. Bergman gives full attention to this documentation, but with a twist: initially, the television’s borders frame the shot, conveying that this is Bergman’s representation of a representation. Then, without announcement, these borders fall away—Bergman’s filmic mask is removed—and the viewer is now in the scene, without the second camera’s distance.

One could interpret this maneuver as a shift from subjective representation to objective; however, this interpretation is too simple since we are witnessing this documentation in the context of Bergman’s film. Also, we can’t exclude Elisabet’s presence as another lens through which the viewer sees the footage. The camera alternates between close-ups of the burning-monk to close-ups of Elisabet’s horrified reaction, the latter of which acts as a mask of the audience’s own reaction to these brutal visuals. The viewer can witness that Elisabet grows increasingly disturbed by the television—the sound of the flames somehow growing louder to mirror her disturbance—and when it becomes too much the sound of the footage inexplicably cuts off. Here again, there is the idea that reality obeys the characters’ reactions. More importantly, however, this moment of pure, objective reality is tainted with Bergman’s fantastical touch, as the viewer now becomes suspicious of Elisabet’s experience: how did the sound cut off? Did she imagine this? The questions are more important than the answers since Bergman is proving that even pure documentation becomes tainted when represented on film.

The attention to photography as a type of representation is also significant in interpreting Bergman’s concept of reality. Directly following the “fantasy” sequence of Elisabet entering Alma’s bedroom, there is a stationary long shot of the beach and the ocean, a shot that mimics a photograph. However, the audience has only a moment to appreciate this shot before Elisabet pops up and, in a medium close-up, takes a picture of the camera. This is one of the many self-reflexive winks Bergman includes in Persona, but it also serves to establish the relationship between film and photography and their subtle battle. When Elisabet takes a picture of the camera, it is as if she has snuck up on it, a “gotcha” moment. However, film gets its vengeance when Elisabet discovers a photograph of a Jewish family being held at gunpoint by Nazi soldiers. For Elisabet, this photograph has an impact since it is reminiscent of the photograph of her own boy (which she tears up); because it acts as antithesis to her whimsical picture taking of the camera and Alma; and because, more than Alma, Elisabet is most sensitive to images of reality (i.e., the burning monk).

For the film and the theory of art as a representation of reality, this photograph is even more important. Consider first the idea that this image of the Holocaust is another type of documentation, a preservation through representation. Therefore, it is fair to assume Bergman is at least conscious, if not interested in Bazin’s theory, by the simple fact that he attends to the photograph so carefully. However, Bergman seems to want to prove that film is a better medium for representation, as he commences to use his camera to reveal what the photographer’s camera could not: close-ups for emphasis. A series of extreme close-ups of the photograph itself reveals a grittier reality than would otherwise have been observed: facial expressions of the Jewish boy and his family reveal their fearful confusion; the faces of the Nazis show their malice; the captors’ raised hands tell a story of resignation and vulnerability. Through all of these shots, Bergman is besting the photograph as a medium of representation since, he almost boasts, the film’s camera can expose more truth. However, we must remember that Bergman is still not concerned with objectivity here, since the audience is aware that this photograph is being interpreted by the filmmaker.

Aside from television and photography as representational mediums, the doctor’s diagnosis of theater also serves as a vehicle for interpreting the problems of reality that saturate Persona. As the doctor told Elisabet, “Nobody asks if it’s real or not, if you’re honest or a liar. That’s only important in theater, perhaps not even there.” Looking at the film through this lens allows us to make sense of the many masks Elisabet and Alma wear, masks that, according to the doctor (and Bergman), symbolize what is not real, what is a lie; what’s hidden beneath, then, is what is real or honest. Therefore, acting is absolutely a representation of reality. (After all, “persona” is Latin for “mask.”)

One significant scene that conveys acting as representation is when Alma catches herself performing and yet is unable to escape. During the first of many fits, Alma acknowledges the role she has been forced to play: “Oh, yes, I hear how false it sounds – ‘You used me and then threw me away.’ That’s how it is, every word. And then these glasses!” Not only is Alma frustrated that her real feelings have become synonymous with artifice, but she also recognizes her sunglasses are props for her performance—casting them off in annoyance—as these have never appeared before and never will again. Bergman is having a little fun here, announcing once again that we are watching a film, a representation. As always, however, these little details are cues to larger themes, for the next scene, Alma forces Elisabet to break her role of silence by threatening to toss boiling water on her. Alma is satisfied with Elisabet’s brief unmasking, a return to reality, as she explains, “For a second you were really scared, right? A real fear of death, huh?” Then, in the same sequence, Alma confides in Elisabet, once she has calmed down, saying, “Is it really important that you don’t lie, tell the truth? …. Your acting is healthy.” The doctor’s diagnosis is echoed in these lines, which articulate the idea of performance as a representational mask. More specifically, Alma is struggling with the obligation to be honest, to not perform, and through her, Bergman is dramatizing the problems with strict adherence to reality.

Persona is just as much a piece of theater as it is a film; and much in the same way as he did with the other mediums, Bergman captures theater filmically to reinvent reality. Consider the spare mise-en-scene of the film’s opening, when Alma first arrives in the narrative. The stage is sparsely set, with only simple props to set the scene: a nurse’s uniform, the doctor’s desk, a bed where Elisabet rests, a radio on the nightstand, and later, a television. Like theater, only the most basic props are provided to give the audience a sense of location. Unlike theater, however, props in this film come and go as needed: consider the television in Elisabet’s bedroom, absent the first time Alma enters; the radio behaves the same way. Here, physical reality is dictated by the actors, and by Bergman.

Of course, the film’s stage does not remain this spare throughout. Returning to the doctor’s orders will give us some insight into the next major narrative shift: “I think you should play this part until it’s done… until it’s no longer interesting.” What happens once the doctor’s monologue is complete is that another film begins; there is a shift from theatrical representation (a stage with props) to filmic representation (natural scenery of the ocean). There is even an announcement that a new narrative has begun from a voice over that we’ve never encountered before (and never will again). This shift supports the idea of representation, moving from artifice to nature—a kind of mask being removed from the film. However, such an interpretation is never so simple with Bergman.

Let’s jump ahead to the end of the film to reflect on how Bergman closes the scene at the cottage: is Alma packing up the cottage for the winter, or is she putting the props away, stacking the chairs after the final performance? Remember too that while Alma is packing and leaving the cottage, Bergman cuts to Elisabet in costume once again, implying that she has dropped her silent role and is speaking once more. As the narrative of these two women comes to a close, the doctor’s words become scripture: “Then you can leave it, as you leave all your roles.”

The most obvious example of Bergman’s attention to representation is the one deliberately left for last: film itself. By framing Persona with a dramatization of the workings of a camera—the sounds of the reel, the film material, the lights—Bergman gives attention to the very mechanics of the medium he is using to represent. Showing its material establishes its limitations, since the camera is simply a thing, a machine. True, there is self-reflexivity in this: he’s filming film, representing the representational apparatus. But Bergman is also informing the viewer that whatever we see—whatever he captures—is going to have its limitations; in a sense, he is setting himself up for failure. In another sense, Bergman is taking us through the evolutionary life of his film; beginning in its nascent stage, we see the camera come to life, the camera’s newborn eyes opening, searching for a reality beyond that of film: hands, a spider, a lamb, trees, snow, faces, and then settling on the boy. Of course the images matter symbolically; but with this interpretation, it seems Bergman is literally showing the camera’s point of view as it sees the world for the first time. Halfway through the film, after Elisabet has stepped on the broken glass Alma left for her, the fallible camera malfunctions; when it has been fixed, it again seeks out reality, moving from blurry, slow-motion substance, to focused and real-time Elisabet. Finally, at the end, when the camera has exhausted its purpose, the film comes off the reel, the lights fade, and it dies. Whatever we have seen, Bergman seems to be saying, was just an imperfect representation of reality captured on this finite machine.

However, we should not necessarily be satisfied with this almost nihilistic view of an amazingly complex, often transcendental film. We could also vote for the interpretation that Bergman is being willfully ironic, exposing the phenomenon that something material can capture a sense of reality that is bigger than the machine (the filmic version of Descartes’ mind-body problem). In any case, it is difficult to see Persona as a failure, no matter what the filmmaker points to. It may be true that the various mediums Bergman himself represents are a way to expose the limitations of art as a means of pure representation. On the other hand, Persona may be the ultimate success, for if reality is in fact diabolical—elusive, contradictory, destructive—then perhaps Bergman has offered an extremely accurate representation of it, one even Bazin would find faithful.



Kevin Catalano is the author of The Word Made Flesh (firthFORTH Books). His stories have appeared in PANK, Gargoyle Magazine, storySouth, Monkey Bicycle, and other places. He teaches film and writing at Rutgers University-Newark.