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God, death and the silence of Ingmar Bergman

“Persona” (1966) is a cult movie that has inspired many directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Francis Ford Coppola or David Lynch. This is one of the three movies that Ingmar Bergman was most proud of and actually he claimed that the film had saved his life. Bergman′s biographer named Marc Gervais assures that in this particular film, Friedrich Nietzsche′s theory on the secondary effects of atheism is confirmed. Nietzsche said: “The belief in the absolute immorality of nature, the lack of purpose and the lack of meaning, is the psychologically necessary affect once belief in God and belief in an essentially moral order is no longer bearable′.

Article by Pablo Fernández from Barcelona on Friday, May 22nd 2020 ·.·★ Reading takes 16 minutes or 3195 words.


Ingmar Bergman believed that he had reached this point described by Nietzsche in his relationship with God in 1965. He believed he understood the details of the film he made, but he wanted to keep the secret of its details and leave the viewers his own interpretation. The movie ′Persona′ has in fact been considered the Moby Dick or Everest of cinema for those seeking morals behind the movies. Bergman defined it as a poem in images and as in every poem there is in it a content that is necessarily ambiguous. As Bergman′s biographer named Peter Cowie says, ′Everything that can be said about this film may be contradicted, and the opposite would also be true.′

The context of a poem in images

“Persona” is not exactly an experimental film and the uniqueness of Ingmar Bergman′s biography provides valuable knowledge to the viewer. The following is an elementary lesson actually. It is true that a spider is a spider in any case and of course inspires something different to each spectator. However, if you know in advance that Ingmar Bergman had recently used the spider as a symbol of ′God as a threat′, you can better understand the particular fears that really inspired the author.

The fact that the film provides ground for speculation does not mean that it cannot be analyzed. Many writers actually have written and speculated about the psychological interpretation behind the film based on the teachings of Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung. Ingmar Bergman treated neuroses as demons and believed more in imagination than in psychology, but obviously he also knew those authors. We will see now that the cornerstone on which Ingmar Bergman′s life and work rests, however, isn′t any of those interesting recurring themes around guilt, sexuality, or God′s silence.

The theory that we will argue here is that the basis of all the profound questions he raises is actually very common and easy to identify. The ′key′ of all his work is his deep desire for power and the conflict with authority resulting from trying to be in control. Ingmar Bergman represents it in a spectacularly attractive and poetic way though movies, but the basis is indeed common to all human beings: ′I am a good director,′ said Bergman of himself, ′I have a vision and I know how to impose my will. I get to make things how I want! ′.

The conflicting education of Ingmar Bergman

Bergman′s maternal grandmother had assumed custody of Ingmar Bergman for years. The complaints about his son-in-law during the parents′ long absences had also made his brothers especially sensitive to certain issues such as anguish, mistrust and guilt. According to Barbara Young′s biography titled ′The Persona of Ingmar Bergman,′ the director was not only especially sensitive to the opportunities offered by rivalries between his adult relatives, but also to the possibility of losing the people he really loved. The fear of that loss remained until the end of his life and marks many of the emphases of his work.

There are people who seem to have been born to be leaders. Reports from Ingmar Bergman′s school show us a student who was particularly striking for his confrontation with all forms of authority with his fist raised high. Ingmar Bergman himself claimed that he started making films at the age of ten as a way to remake his reality. In his particular case there was in a pyramid hierarchy by order of power: God, the king, and of course his father, but also the church, the teachers, or even his own older brother, who also rose above him. The truth is that being a young kid, you just have your toys to make things happen your way and sometimes not even that!

Ingmar Bergman actually was very used to playing with little soldiers when he asked for a movie projector for Christmas. That day the little boy believed that the brown box by the Christmas tree was the enveloped projector he had asked for, but finally discovered that the projector it contained was really for his older brother. Ingmar gave Dag his entire collection of soldiers in exchange for the projector as in the Bible Jacob snatched the birthright from Esau so while Dag Bergman was preparing to work in the army, Ingmar built his first puppet theater and would soon hire real acrobats to shoot with them the stories he wrote with his sister Margareta Bergman.

The ultimate battle against death

His temperamental character also escalated to the media as his films gained international popularity. ′There is nothing that scares me more than humiliation,′ Ingmar Bergman would later say. The director then demonstrated his ability to throw a box of records through the window, grab a frightened critic by the neck, or send to hell all who could interfere with his plans. Ingmar Bergman took advantageous positions through the transgression of traditional laws in the cinema. Like that one that disabled actors to look directly at the camera. The young protagonist of ′A Summer with Monika′ (1953), for example, not only looks directly at the camera but keeps her gaze with authentic lust. However, the most talked about confrontation of his life was the one he had with his own father Erik Bergman and the faith he held as a Lutheran pastor in the official church of Sweden.

Ingmar Bergman had already defied all his rivals when he also faced death directly in his film ′The Seventh Seal′ (1957). The director assured on television that in this movie he deliberately attributes clown traits to the character of death, in order to visualize his enemy in this way with sufficient advantage. Real death did not take long to take his mother Karin Åkerblom, precisely the year that ′Persona′ was released (1966). It was the first in a long list of losses from which he would never recover. His conflicts with God are also amply documented in this same magazine thanks to the articles by José de Segovia: ′Why can′t I kill God within me?′ Asked the protagonist, anguished, when he reflected on the confessional. These conflicts had in fact been his main concern for the last five years when he finally recorded ′The Silence′ (1963).

His work rate was hectic then while producing around four plays and one film each year. In early 1965, however, Ingmar Bergman emotionally collapsed, went blank, and was finally hospitalized in Sophiahemmet. We can not only find similarities to this reaction in the biography of Friedrich Nietzsche. Also why not in what happens to the biblical patriarch Jacob when he fought against the angel in Peniel. Ingmar Bergman claimed a cold and an ear infection, but according to Liv Ullmann, she locked herself in that hospital every time she suffered a panic attack. Jan Holmberg, the director of the Ingmar Bergman Foundation, would put it more delicately, saying that ′his concept of truth was complicated.′

Lying is of course another way to exercise power but who is free of charge for that sin? In any case, looking at the details of the walls of this hospital, it is when he establishes the bases of ′Persona′ (1966). The film marks a before and after in Ingmar Bergman′s life, but it is not true that he abandoned the religious theme from then on. Ingmar Bergman assures in a televised and commercialized interview with the comments of Marc Gervais by MGM that the desire to record this film is actually produced from a deeply religious sentiment.

The unexpected rival that lives in us

Ingmar Bergman claimed that ′Persona′ (1966) arises from a feeling of deep relief at the conviction that he will never again have to compare himself with the perfection of God. Comparing himself to the perfection of God made him feel terribly guilty and the idea of ​​being able to stop doing it made him regain strength. And that′s of course when he faces a new and worthy rival: himself. You can have full control over the little soldiers, the puppets and the acrobats but how do you have control over yourself? If God no longer exists, why am I not in control? Why do I end up doing precisely what I don′t want to do? What is the value of my artistic career if everything is a hoax? Should I be quiet? At this point the silence of God gives way to the silence of men, but is there really a great difference between deception and silence when what has been said before is a lie?

The etymological meaning of ′persona′ in fact points to the fictional role played by an actor and more particularly an actor wearing a mask, which is how the plays were originally made in Greece. Ingmar Bergman, like the main character in “Persona” (1966), was doubting on the value of being interpreting a lie. Ingmar Bergman also reproduces personal traits in both main characters played by Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann. Despite the great physical resemblance of the two actresses, who had initially attracted Ingmar Bergman′s attention, their roles are supposedly antagonistic. He did it in the past, joining together the knight and the squire in the same journey of ′The Seventh Seal′ (1957). Bergman will do it later also adding his own personal traits to the two characters that represent him and his father in ′Fanny & Alexander′ (1982). Bergman ended up realizing that many times he really fighted what he loved the most because of his fear to lose it.

Artistic creation is definitely a way of playing God. When we play God, everything should be under our control, but now the responsibility is ours and we don′t always like the results. The strict discipline, processes, and punctuality that he so hated from his father had finally become the hallmark of his own work. There doesn′t seem to be a movie where a watch doesn′t appear and it doesn′t make an exception in ′Persona′ (1966). The disappointment in personal relationships that failed in cyclical periods hardly differed from what he had seen in his own parents and produced in Ingmar Bergman a fatigue of biblical dimensions.

Prey on the battlefield

Ingmar Bergman was looking for an excuse when he came across the island of Fårö. He wanted in that time to twist the arm of the Svensk Filmindustri team, which resisted his suggestion to record the film ′Through Glass Darkly′ (1961) in the islands of Scottish Orkney. But he fell in love with this Swedish island so much that he not only recorded most of “Persona” (1966) there, but also built his personal summer house there. Fårö has a population of five hundred people in winter and is about six hours from Stockholm by ferry. Bergman normally used a small plane to get there. The island is in the middle of the Baltic sea and the most similar to the Mediterranean landscape you can find on the Scandinavian peninsula. Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann got to know each other better on the set of ′Persona′ (1966), they had their daughter there and for five years they wrote on the doors and on the furniture evocative texts of love and lovelessness.

Ingmar Bergman worked on television and countless plays in Stockholm but lived on the island of Fårö for most of his later years. First with his last wife Ingrid von Rosen and then in an austere and premeditated solitude, cherishing the idea of ​​a possible reunion with her. Death is particularly serious because it separates us from what we love. Bergman surrounded himself as always with memories and kept strict routines around the clock that assured him a certain stability. Some of the recurring tasks he did around the medieval church in Fårö and others around the one phone call he made on Saturday to his best friend Erland Josephson. It was to him that he confessed that the idea of ​​being able to see his last wife again pushed him to want to believe in a life beyond death. His family recalls that Ingmar Bergman once confronted the parish priest the day he was five minutes late when ringing the bells.

Linn Bergman was born on the island as the last of her total of nine children by five different women. The first time that all of Bergman′s children met was there, on the occasion of Ingmar Bergman′s 60th anniversary. From that day on, a few customs were established around his birthday and the small cinema that he had built next to his house. Many of them were then working in show business so one year they all prepared a private play where each of them played roles of their parents, death or God. Ingmar Bergman was so pleasantly surprised that year that he asked that it be repeated the next day in order to record it. Ingmar Bergman died in his sleep a few days after his 89th birthday. His family reminds of his enthusiasm for short periods of time while they projected even commercial movies together. They also remind him, of course, of falling asleep during screenings, before asking to be allowed to go to sleep.

Analysis, reflection and decision making

Keep in mind that a recent study published by The Local ensures that 84% of the members of the official church in Sweden do not believe in Jesus and that in fact 15% of them consider themselves directly atheists. Ingmar Bergman′s attention to Jesus acquires a certain normality in that context or community of parishioners. ′Regardless of whether I am a believer or not, whether I am a Christian or not, I will help in the collective building of the cathedral,′ he said when asked about his participation in the reconstruction of Chartres Cathedral. Ingmar Bergman was not a believer in the traditional sense of the word, but that does not mean that God had no interest in him. After all, the divine objective was to rescue sinners from among whom the patriarchs like Jacob were pioneers. When a spontaneous asked him at Ingmar Bergman Week in Fårösund in July 2005 if he believed in God, the director broke his habitual silence to ensure that he believed in Jesus in the same way that he believed in Bach, as a witness to the existence of life beyond death.

Ingmar Bergman died two years later and despite all his herculean effort he left many tasks pending. At least sixty sheets with erasers are preserved about a film that he wanted to inspire in the last days of Jesus. The notes were also written manually during his stay on the island of Fårö and his objective seemed to be more focused on the perception of his contemporaries of Jesus, than directly on the person of Jesus himself. Ingmar Bergman recognized after having studied the original texts in more detail, that he had been wrong in the value of what happened in that time period around Jesus. It is not clear in the preface to which original texts he refers, although he assures that they were the same ones that he knew in his childhood in church, when he accompanied his father every Sunday. It is also unclear at what time he wrote these notes, and there is little point in assuming too much detail beyond what he writes in the same preface: That the person of Jesus actually deserved much more attention than he had received then from those that they mistakenly believed that they knew him and that, ultimately, Jesus′ objective was mainly to intervene and transform them.

The Gospels certainly often show the bewilderment of Jesus ′disciples and also maintain that Jesus′ goal was primarily to intervene and transform us precisely because there is nothing in us that enables us to do so autonomously. According to the Gospels it does not matter if you have a good or bad education, attitude, planning, discipline, experience, precision, reputation, conscience or memories; nothing that is properly our merit can change us to the level to which our creator wants to change us. Jesus, however, does not appear in the Gospels, much less as a simple witness of the beyond. God appears in the Gospels, actively and passively supporting the testimony that Jesus is truly his only son and plan of salvation for us. He did it with an audible voice and with prodigious deeds but also with the silence of the cross. If God sacrificed his son′s life as a ransom for us, will he ruin his plans for our particular misinformation? Will he now want to make useless the blood of his own son because of our tendency to mistrust?. ′For which I am sure,′ said the apostle Paul, ′that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor the present, nor the time to come, nor the high, nor the deep, nor can any other created thing separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord ”.


This is an short translation of the original article published in Spanish by Entrelíneas: Revista de Arte as Persona: Dios, la muerte y el silencio de Ingmar Bergman


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