Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

Persona (1966)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Persona (1966, Swe.)

In Ingmar Bergman's psychological, dramatic thriller, a film-within-a-film about illness, insanity, personal identity and death; the abstract film told about two women who both experienced life-changing events involving motherhood, abortion and childbirth:

  • the strange and abstract opening sequence (montage) of very brief projected images, representing the birth-of-the-film-medium: the beginning of a film being projected, a segment of film leader (with a countdown of upside down numbers), a split-second shot of an erect penis, excerpts from a cartoon and a silent film reel, a child's hands, a tarantula, the cruel blood-letting slaughter of a sheep, nails pounded into hands during a crucifixion, a close-up of a wooden fence, a forest-tree scene (with snow), an iron spiked gate, a series of extreme close-ups of faces, feet and hands (of corpses?), and then the image of a boy who woke up next to the corpses in a hospital (or morgue), read Michail Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time, and caressed or reached out towards large blurry images of the film's two main characters
Opening Montage
  • young 25 year-old nurse Sister Alma's (Bibi Andersson) caring for well-known stage actress Mrs. Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), who had been mute and semi-catatonic for three months, after a performance of Elektra; treatment would be conducted in the doctor's seaside cottage or summer vacation home; her condition was diagnosed by a Doctor (Margaretha Krook) who declared that the patient had deliberately decided to remain silent and immobile: ("The result is clear: She's perfectly healthy, both mentally and physically. And it's not a question of some hysterical reaction either")
  • the Doctor's later further insight about the reasons for Elisabet's muteness - because she was playing another more authentic role: "I understand that you're not speaking or moving, that you've turned this apathy into a fantastic set-up. I understand and admire you. I think you should play this part until it's played out, until it's no longer interesting. Then you can drop it, just as you eventually drop all your other roles"
  • Elisabet's disengaged muteness also seemed to deepen from viewing images of death and inhumanity: (i.e., the Buddhist monk self-immolation TV image from the Vietnam War era, and an image of the Jewish ghetto during the Holocaust)
  • during the treatment at the summer cottage, Alma's self-therapeutic words to Elisabet about how no one ever listened to her before, and her growing affection and idolizing attachment to her famous patient: "Lots of people have told me I'm a good listener. Isn't that funny? No one's ever bothered to listen to me. Like you're doing now. You're really listening. I think you're the first person who's ever listened to me. It can't be all that interesting. You could be reading a good book instead. How I'm going on! I hope I'm not irritating you? It feels so good to talk. It feels nice and warm. I've never felt like this in all my life. I always wanted a sister"
  • the sequence of a vivid confessional monologue, when Alma (who was engaged to fiancee Karl-Henrik at the time) described a private and secret sexual experience she had at the beach with friend Katarina when they were sunbathing in the nude: ("We lay there sunbathing beside one another, completely naked"); she told how two boys came up to them and Katrina encouraged one of the boys to have sex with her: ("She took him by the hand and helped him off with his jeans and shirt. Then suddenly, he was on top of her. She guided him in with her hands on his behind"); feeling left out, Alma also asked for sex too: ("Suddenly, I turned over and said, 'Aren't you coming over to me, too?' And Katarina said, 'Go to her now.' He pulled out of her and fell on top of me, completely hard. He grabbed my breast. It hurt so bad. I was ready somehow, and came almost at once. Can you believe it? I was about to say, 'Careful you don't get me pregnant' - when he suddenly came. I felt it like never before in my life, the way he sprayed his seed into me. He gripped my shoulders and arched backwards. I came over and over. Katarina lay on her side and watched and held him from behind. After he came, she took him in her arms and used his hand to make herself come. When she came, she screamed like a banshee. Then all three of us started laughing"; the second boy named Peter was also invited to participate: ("Katarina unbuttoned his pants and started to play with him. And when he came, she took him in her mouth. He bent down and kissed her back. She turned around, took his head in both hands and gave him her breast. The other boy got so excited, that he and I started all over again. It was just as good as before"); that evening, although she felt guilty, Alma had sex with Karl-Henrik after dinner ("Then we had sex. It's never been as good, before or since. Can you understand that?"); however, Alma became pregnant, was forced to abort the baby, and suffered a "guilty conscience"
  • the growing realization that the two women (often seen in doubled or overlapping profiles) were interchangeable and very much alike, but it was an increasingly harmful relationship and a destructive merged identification between the two, when Alma specifically stated: "Is it possible to be one and the same person at the very same time? I mean, two people?"; when Alma began crying, Elisabet comforted her; Alma continued: "...We're alike somehow. I think I could turn into you if I really tried. I mean inside. You could be me just like that, though your soul would be far too big. It would stick out everywhere!"
  • the scene of Alma's shocking discovery, when reading one of Elisabet's unsealed letters for delivery to her doctor, that Elisabet was feigning illness, and actually 'studying' her: (excerpt from the condescending letter: "It's a lot of fun studying her. Sometimes she cries over past sins - an orgy with a strange boy and a subsequent abortion. She complains that her notions about life fail to accord with her actions")
  • returning to the house, Alma was frustrated and furious (symbolically, the film's celluloid strip tore, broke apart, jammed and burned), and she accosted and denounced Elisabet directly, and insisted that she talk back: "You've hurt me badly. You've been laughing at me behind my back. I read the letter you wrote to the doctor...You got me to talk, to tell you things I've never told anyone. Then you go and pass it on. Great study material, eh?" - when Alma went to throw a pot of boiling water at Elisabet, she reacted and spoke for the first time, and Alma was shocked
Alma Reading The Shocking Letter
"It's a lot of fun studying her"
The Film's Celluloid Strip Broke Apart, Jammed and Began to Burn
  • later, Alma was still disburbed by Elisabet's silence: "There's no reaching someone like you. The doctor said you're mentally healthy, but I wonder if your madness isn't the worst kind. You act healthy, and the worst thing is, everyone believes you. Except me, because I know how rotten you are"; however, she also apologized for being so harsh, during a long tracking shot to the right as Alma ran after Elisabet: "Elisabet, forgive me. I'm behaving like an idiot. I don't know what got into me. I'm here to help you"
  • the (dream?) sequence of the visit of Mr. Vogler (Gunnar Björnstrand), Elisabet's blind husband, who mistook Alma for Elisabet - something that Elisabet actually encouraged, and they also slept together; during sex, Alma told him: "You're a wonderful lover. You know that," but then she detested herself: "I'm cold and rotten and indifferent. It's all just sham and lies"
  • in the film's conclusion - Alma spoke to Elisabet about the picture of her son that she had torn up at the hospital: ("What are you hiding under your hand?...It's the picture of your little boy. The one you tore up. We have to talk about this"); during the scene, the camera was on Elisabet's face as she listened to Alma (off-screen) narrating Elisabet's life story back to her; Elisabet had become pregnant, but fearing loss of her acting career, failed in two abortion attempts to rid herself of an unwanted and unloved son: (" tried several times to abort. But you failed. When you realized it was inevitable, you began to hate the baby and hoped it would be stillborn")
Picture of Elisabet's Son
"It's the picture of your little boy. The one you tore up."
  • the repetition of the same previous scene, but this time with the camera on Alma's face
  • at the conclusion of the repeated scene, Alma feared that they had become too identified with one another, and asserted her identity as Alma: ("No! I'm not like you. I don't feel the same way you do. I'm Sister Alma. I'm only here to help you. I'm not Elisabet Vogler. You're Elisabet Vogler"); she realized that, unlike Elisabet, she had truly wanted a baby to love, and that she would never be like Elisabet
  • the striking image of their two faces was juxtaposed (or spliced together) to appear as one face (half of Alma's face, on the left, and Elisabet's half visage on the right)
  • in a hospital room, Alma persuaded Elisabet to say the word "nothing" - the film's final lines of dialogue:

    Alma: "Try and listen to me now. Repeat after me. Nothing... Nothing. No, nothing... "
    Elisabet: "Nothing."
    Alma: "That's it. That's good. That's how it should be."

  • in the concluding scene, the two packed up and only Alma was seen departing by bus from the cottage (there was a striking mirror-image dissolve of Elisabet touching Alma's head)
  • as the film ended, the crew and director were seen filming their exit; there was a brief reprise of the prologue image of the boy touching large blurry images of the two women, before the film broke away from its projector sprockets and self-destructed - again

Doctor (Margaretha Krook)

Sister Alma (Bibi Andersson)

(l to r): Alma (Bibi Andersson) and Mrs. Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann)

Close-Ups During the Lengthy Beach Monologue

The Two Women

With Mr. Vogel, Who Mistook Alma for Elisabet

The Camera on Elisabet While Alma Spoke

Repeated Scene: The Camera on Alma While Alma Spoke

The Famous Shot of Juxtaposed Faces

"Repeat After Me. Nothing"

Mirror-image Dissolve of Elisabet Touching Alma's head

The Director and Film Equipment


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