Everyone I’ve talked to about Cynthia Sailers’s treatment of The Passion of Anna mentions one scene in particular. Max von Sydow, the human epitome of Scandinavian despair, slowly reads a typewritten letter. Ingmar Bergman runs the camera in close-up across the sentences, at the same speed and with the exact visual pauses that von Sydow’s character might use, as if the words are worth the same intensity and attention as any less inward, more kinetic filmic event.
Part of what makes the scene so memorable, at least as Sailers used it in her piece, is the way it casts the solitary act of reading as a concentrated instance of group dynamics. Through the medium of the letter, von Sydow brings his character into a new connection with the person who wrote it, and the person it concerns; mirrors his situation as an actor speaking Bergman’s script; and ventriloquizes Sailers’s own version of the letter in her capacity as the film-teller, who pulls the voiceover of the reader reading the letter—that age-old device for depicting interiority—into her own orbit of concerns.
Fittingly, Sailers’s concerns seemed to be largely those suggested by the scene: the tension between individuals and groups; the provisional, even ventriloquized, nature of the self; and the ontological uncertainty involved in the act of playing at being someone else. Sailers’s script, which drew on her training as a therapist, explored the oscillation between the drive for solitude and “a longing for affinity” (Bergman’s phrase) with others, a theme her piece teased out over ten one-minute scenes skillfully assembled from across the film. Linking them was a backbeat of aggression and violence provided by a subplot involving the random killing of animals on the island. The atmosphere of muted Nordic gloom, all significant pipesmoke and woodcutting and stoical swigs of aquavit, added to the powerful sense of inwardness her piece seemed to worry and torque.
The climax in Bergman’s film comes when von Sydow’s character, Andreas, realizes he’s been a stand-in all along in Anna’s mind for a prior Andreas, the husband she killed in a car accident. (Not so unlike the position of von Sydow himself in his long partnership with Bergman.) When Anna tries to recreate the trauma incident with Andreas 2, Sailers turns from interpersonal psychology to questions of being, as Andreas prepares for a new birth of sorts from the womb of the car: “My body pursues its own ideas. I was aborted”; “born as a girl.” My predominant impression from the scenes Sailers chose, and the script she read across them, was of how plastic the self is, and how apt we are to resist that insight, expressing our yearning for connection with others—its own kind of self-disappearing—in terms of violence, anger, and cruelty. In the final scene though, as von Sydow faced his psycho-spiritual rebirth, her piece had me thinking that Andreas had pushed through the shell of the ego to an entirely new beginning: semblance, truth, jouissance.
34 minutes ago