Throughout the 1960s, Ingmar Bergman would tackle the question “How are we able to live?”
That’s not a question you ask when you’re happy with the state of the world. It’s a question you ask when you have thought seriously about the history and perpetuation of suffering and oppression. It’s that inescapable, nagging thought that humanity’s power structures, humanity’s base drives, and humanity’s future is fundamentally evil and you’re terrified that these cycles of destruction, violence, and wanton cruelty will never disappear.
Bergman’s 1966 psycho-sexual satire Persona is a critique of the most nihilistic responses to this question. Liv Ullmann’s Elisabet is an actress drowning in society’s expectations of women and the broader horrors of the 20th century. During a performance of Sophocles’ Elektra, she loses her will to speak and is committed to a psychiatric hospital.
The subtext of Elisabet’s depressive withdrawal is brought to life in two of the film’s most upsetting sequences. First, in her hospital room, Elisabet watches newsreel footage of Buddhist monks self-immolating to protest the Vietnam War. Later, in the summer home she retreats to with Bibi Andersson’s Nurse Alma, she studies a still photograph of Nazi soldiers leading Jewish citizens out of their homes and towards their death in concentration camps.
Elisabet lives in a world of monstrous injustice. French colonialism and its later variant, American “anti-Communism,” devastated the Vietnamese to such a degree that monks were willing to set themselves on fire to shine a light on its brutality. And while all this happened, what was Elisabet doing? She was an actress… performing classical Greek theatre. Her privilege and detachment from the actual problems of the world.
Elisabet lived through the Holocaust. She lived through the near extermination of an entire people. She lived through European collaboration and indifference to mass, systemized murder. How does any person recover from that? How does any person recover from the knowledge that we as a people are capable of something so barbarous?
Persona, ultimately, is an explicit criticism of Elisabet’s solipsistic retreat from the world and her responsibilities to others. But Bergman empathizes deeply with the fear that elicits that response. One of the running themes of his 1960s output, however, is that everything that is good and decent about us is destroyed when we fail to empathize with others who are as adrift as we are.
Winter Light is about a priest who begins to doubt the existence of God as the threat of nuclear annihilation begins to consume the Cold War world. He is so stuck in his own anxieties and self-doubt that when one of his parishioners arrives in his church and wants warmth and guidance and some modicum of hope or an excuse to keep going, the priest has nothing to offer to this member of his flock. And this parishioner kills himself when even his priest can’t give him anything to believe in.
Elisabet’s selfishness is conveyed through her “relationship” with Alma. I use “relationship” in quotes because it’s hard to have a relationship with someone who never speaks.
At first, Alma is an intentional hard contrast to Elisabet in nearly every way. Alma is young. She is 25. She is engaged to be married. She radiates a lust for life. Elisabet is entering middle-age. She is already married. She has a child. Elisabet’s self-imposed silence and isolation is her raging against a life she no longer desires but can’t bring herself to terminate. Elisabet is many things, but she isn’t suicidal.
But the dynamic of their relationship shifts rapidly once Alma and Elisabet retreat to the summer home. Elisabet is mute, and for the first time in her life, Alma has found someone who listens when she talks. And for much of the film, that’s what Alma does. She reveals herself. She reveals her sexual guilt. She reveals her insecurities about her looks and her achievements in life.
Alma devotes herself to caring for Elisabet, but when Alma shares her most tender pains , Elisabet returns silence and, eventually, cruelty. Elisabet feeds off of and heals herself with Alma’s youthful energy and unconditional affection. But when Elisabet discovers that Alma is as broken and lost as she is, she resents her. Elisabet complains about the burden of hearing Alma’s problems in a letter she writers to her husband.
And, in turn, Alma reflects Elisabet’s hostilities and aggression. Alma and Elisabet’s relationship is a carnival mirror reflection of the unequal power dynamics of May-December romances. Elisabet lusting after the innocence and capacity to feel joy that Alma still retains. Alma craving the balance and wisdom she thinks Elisabet possesses beneath her tragic sorrow. And when Alma realizes that Elisabet can’t fix her, she becomes as unmoored from reality as her mute ward.
That narcissistic inability to sincerely care for another human being when their suffering is as great as your own is at the heart of so much of Bergman’s conflict. When people talk about his Trilogy of Faith (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence) and fixate solely on the “Absence of God,” they’re not picking up on what these characters are actually missing: genuine human connection and the mutual vulnerability and honesty legitimate connection requires.
Like Bergman, I empathize deeply with Elisabet’s despair. Politics has always been one of the most intense triggers of my natural depressive tendencies and as a nonbinary person, I know plenty about the dysphoria of society’s expectations of your gender. I nearly failed out of college after watching the utter dissolution of rational discourse in the American body politic in the months before the passage of the Affordable Care Act. The far right manipulation of truth shattered what little remaining confidence I had in American electoral politics. I was so depressed that I wasn’t going to class. I wasn’t leaving my home. I was barely leaving my bedroom. Years of this. That trigger was an event as shallow as the realization of the hollowness of neoliberalism. If I’d had to endure Vietnam or the Holocaust the way Elisabet had, I don’t know if I’d have any shred of my sanity left.
But I do know what you need to do in the face of the world’s suffering… what you have to do if you don’t want to be part of the problem. You have to act. You have to love. You have to feel and communicate and give. You have to because the alternative is the oblivion of your own misery. You find room in your heart for someone who’s willing to find room for you in theirs.
I’ve written too much about Camus and “revolt” elsewhere the last two months but connection and working towards the care of others is the answer to Bergman’s question of “how are we able to live.” And as someone whose depressive tendencies have roared back in the months since the election of Donald Trump, I can attest how important it is to examine that question for yourself.