DVD Review Of A Passion

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/3/07


  Ingmar Bergman’s 1969 film A Passion (En Passion, misnomered in America as The Passion Of Anna) is a great film, and out of the series of late 1960s films (also including Persona, Hour Of The Wolf, and Shame) dealing with relationships and the self, it may be the best. It stars many of the Bergman retinue of actors: Max Von Sydow as Andreas Winkelman, Liv Ullman as Anna Fromm, Bibi Andersson as Eva Vergerus, and Erland Josephson as Elis Vergerus.

  It follows Andreas, an ex-convict, as he recovers from his wife’s abandonment, on a small farm on a Swedish island- ostensibly Bergman’s own Farö, where it was filmed. One day, Anna, a crippled widow, comes to his home and Andreas listens in on the phone call she needs to make. She then accidentally (or not?) leaves her purse at his house, and he reads a letter of her rocky marriage, as he digs through her purse to find her address, and learns of her dead husband’s fears for her sanity. When he returns the purse, that night, he meets the Vergeruses, the couple whom Anna lives with. He is later invited over to dinner, and the foursome discuss life and philosophy.

  Eventually, Elis, a famed and rich architect, hires Andreas to do some work for him, as well as pose for photographs. He is someone who gets off on photographing human vanity and cruelty. His marriage to Eva is a sham, as he freely admits to Eva’s affair with Anna’s dead husband, also named Andreas, and when he is abroad, building a gallery in Italy, Eva seduces the living Andreas. He gives her the puppy he saved from a sadistic animal torturing fiend. Then, she all but disappears from his life, after a jarring cut, and Bergman’s overt narrative storytelling, and months later he has taken up with Anna, who moves in to his home, and continues her lies about how happy her marriage was. Her husband and small son were killed in a car crash that she survived, but which left her a cripple. She terms it an accident, but several things seem out of place with what Andreas knows about her from the letter he read. She is lying, but only of a bad marriage, or more?

  Throughout the film, a number of other subtexts emerge, such as Bergman again breaking the fictive spell of the film by having his four main actors portray themselves talking about their characters. Another side story involves the abuse, torture, and killing of local animals. A local hermit, with a history of mental instability, is suspected. Andreas knows the man, Johan Andersson (Erik Hell), and it’s clear he is not the culprit, because he is an old lumbering man, and early in the film the audience glimpsed a young man speedily running away from a scene where he is hanging the puppy that Andreas saves. Nonetheless, as sheep, and other animals, are killed, a band of young vigilante islanders have apparently beaten and tortured the old man to confess. This act of cruelty drives him to suicide, and he leaves a note of thanks for Andreas, for all his kindnesses, that the police bring to him.

  Throughout the film, many such episodes are seen to be eroding the psyches of the four major characters. Johan’s suicide seems to be the final straw for Andreas who, sick of Anna’s lies of her past, confronts her, as violence between them ensues. Later, as they are driving in the rain, he admits he read her letter from her husband and knows she is a liar. Finally, she admits this, and apologizes for he lies. Andrea, however, cannot deal with her craziness, as she almost replays, with deliberation, her ‘accident’ with him. He now knows, however, that the ‘accident’ was no accident, and Anna is not sane. She killed her husband and child, for reasons we never learn. He forces the car to a stop, and gets out of it, as the revelation that his lover is a delusional killer seems to be too much for him to bear, as the image of him, alone in a wet landscape, pacing frantically, is blown up, and dissolves to graininess.

  This ending is famous, but has been misinterpreted in many ways. First, Bergman has admitted in print that he did not zoom in to get the graininess of the final images, but merely blew up the shot. As for what it means? Many take it simply as the psychological dissolution of Andreas Winkeleman, which is the final in a series of character dissolutions in this series of late 1960s films, for Bergman states, ‘This time they called him Andreas Winkelman.’ But that’s too melodramatic a claim. It is the static and confusion over the revelation of Anna as a killer that leads to the symbolism of the visual technique; not only Andreas’s inner turmoil, but Anna’s, as well. And the mentioning at the final scene, by Bergman, can be seen as him describing Von Sydow as the character, or Andreas Winkelman as another Andreas, victimized by Anna, and that this has become known at a later date, to distinguish him from Andreas Fromm, Anna’s dead husband.

  As for the DVD I got, an MGM edition, it does a disservice to the film to call it The Passion Of Anna, since clearly Andreas is the lead character. Anna has less screen time, in fact, than Eva. The more proper A Passion is also more accurate, as the passion mentioned is not emotional passion, but the Christ-like suffering of Andreas, and the lesser sufferings of the other characters. Andreas also passes from his earlier degraded state as a criminal to a state of grace, as a substitute for a dead man whose murderer has fixated on him as a substitute.

  The breaks in narrative, with the actors playing themselves and commenting on the film, works quite well, although Bergman regretted this technique, in a 1971 interview: ‘I’m sorry to say that those [interviews with the actors] are very unsuccessful. I just wanted to have a break in the film and to let the actors express themselves. Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann improvised their interviews, but Max von Sydow and Erland Josephson had no idea what to say, so they said what I told them to. This led to two different films, and I no longer understand why I left the whole batch in, because I always realized that they wouldn’t work. But I like coups de theatre, things that make people wake up and rejoin the film. This time, however, it wasn’t successful.’ Unlike Persona, however, it is not too intrusive, and not nearly as showoffy, and since they lack a true improvisational feel, it only heightens the blurring between the actors as themselves, as actors, and as the characters. It also serves a symbolic purpose as the actors pass from their real selves to their filmic celebrity identities to those of their characters. Of the three films that show Von Sydow and Ullman as lovers (Hour Of The Wolf, Shame, and A Passion) this portrayal is the most realistic and multi-faceted. Cinematographer Sven Nykvist, however, makes a smooth transition to color, and some of the symbolism early in the film, such as a sundog that fades to clouds, is superb. Such a shot would be impossible to distill so powerfully in black and white. Von Sydow has also never looked better than in color, as his features smooth out, and he looks younger. In another move, late in the film, Andreas and Anna emotionally confront each other on a black stage backdrop which suggests that the things they are saying are wishes, not reality, for much of the same things are repeated, more cruelly, in the final scenes as the two drive in their car.

  The ending also, as discussed, leaves a visceral impact, both for its visuals and its often overlooked critical revelation of Anna as a murderess. The four main characters are generally not likeable. Elis is a distant voyeur and emotional sadist, Eva is a manipulative temptress whose despairs drive her to insomnia, Anna- aside from getting away with murder, is a skilled liar, and Andreas a petty convict who hides from his past. In a sense, they are all parts and parcels of the unknown sadist who goes around killing animals. It is almost as if he is a psychological construct of the worst aspects of the four main characters. Anna, though, is the worst, as she has a black and white dream that seems almost a continuation of her portrayer’s role from the prior film, Shame, where her own internal guilt over killing her husband and son, in an ‘accident’, comes back at her with a vengeance. Andreas also has a dream, of sex with the wife who left him, but this seems less guilt than mere sex fantasy. Yet, of the four characters, the most intriguing is Elis the architect, who seems to know full well of his wife’s affair with Andreas, and glees in his knowing of it, while they still act innocent. His entry into a scene, unblinking and strutting, where Eva and Andreas have been talking, reeks of emotional vampirism, and Josephson suggests this brilliantly with just a glimmer in his eye and a blank expression on his face.

  The DVD comes with some interesting extras, such as a reading by Elliott Gould of a short story of the film. There is also a short documentary about the film, called Disintegration Of Passion, which tends to overemphasize the disintegration aspect of the film as a negative, when the truth is that, by film’s end, all the lies have disintegrates, ad Andreas is left with a truth he cannot deal with. Subtleties as this are lost on Marc Gervais, a dimwitted Bergman scholar who gives yet another inane commentary for this film, as he has in the previous films in the five film set that follows these Farö set films. He apparently has never watched a Bergman film or seen a Bergman symbol he could not misconstrue. He always tries to force his limited views on the viewer who sees he is wrong. There are also brief interviews with Ullman, Andersson, and Josephson, from 2002. Yet, the film succeeds magnificently, in an understated way that many of Bergman’s more famous films do not. It’s that good.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]


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