Persona versus Frankenstein
In 1816, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley began writing what was to become her first novel, Frankenstein; or: The Modern Prometheus. She was housebound in a Swiss holiday villa, when the idea for the horrific character came to her in a dream (1).
In 1965, Ingmar Bergman began writing what was to become his twenty-seventh film, Persona. He was bedridden in a Swedish hospital, when the images for the opening montage came to him in a feverish dream (2).
The opening sequence of Persona, a ‘poem in images’, is a moody montage of startling footage. Intensely personal, these images spell out Bergman’s artistic obsessions: cinema, life and death, religion and sexuality. The sequence is surprisingly horrifying: its imagery is very much akin to what one would expect of, well, a Frankenstein movie.
Surely this is a coincidence. It’s a coincidence that Persona‘s opening sequence is riddled with images of lifeless bodies under white sheets – resembling Frankenstein’s monster before his reanimation. It’s a coincidence that Bergman shows us how life is breathed into still images by a movie projector, just like lightning breathes life into the Creature. It’s a coincidence that Persona uses the same horror iconography (skeletons, spiders, bloody entrails) that is to be found in Frankenstein films. It’s a coincidence that the religious references in Bergman’s visual poem echo the blasphemous hubris of Victor Frankenstein.(3)
But these sure are a lot of coincidences. So many that one could even, say, recreate the opening scene of Persona using only footage from Frankenstein films (4).
Perhaps Ingmar Bergman was channeling the Victor Frankenstein that is in every filmmaker. Like Frankenstein’s patchwork brute, a movie is pieced together from disjointed shots, and then animated by light. What else is film than resurrecting dead matter: creating motion out of still images?
(1) ‘When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision, —I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.’ (Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley in the preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus)
(2) The website of the Ingmar Bergman Foundation has some background on the genesis of Persona.
(3) Maybe all of this isn’t such a coincidence after all. In his book The Passion of Ingmar Bergman, author Frank Gado writes that when Bergman saw horror films such as Frankenstein and The Mummy, these films ‘strongly affected a mind already disposed to seeing demons. One can well believe his testimony that the visions they induced haunted him through sleepless nights…’. In addition, Gado states that when Ingmar Bergman was asked to name a film that personally influenced him, for a series at the Swedish Film Institute in the late 1960s, Bergman chose Frankenstein.
Gado, Frank. The Passion of Ingmar Bergman. Durham: Duke University Press, 1986.
(4) I have taken some liberties with the source material, in that I shortened Bergman’s opening sequence. The original is 1 min 45 secs longer: towards the end it features images of the young boy sitting up, reading a book and (most notably) touching a large projection showing female faces. It was hard to find enough matching footage in Frankenstein adaptations to recreate those images. (Although there are several scenes in various movies of the Creature interacting with his own reflection in water or a mirror that would be fitting. Even some scenes of the monster wordlessly interacting with his maker might serve the purpose).
This video essay includes clips from:
Persona [feature film] Dir. Ingmar Bergman. Svensk Filmindustri, Sweden, 1966. 85 mins.
Frankenstein [short film] Dir. J. Searle Dawley. Edison Manufacturing Company, USA, 1910. 16 mins.
Frankenstein [feature film] Dir. James Whale. Universal Pictures, USA, 1931. 70 mins.
Bride of Frankenstein [feature film] Dir. James Whale. Universal Pictures, USA, 1935. 75 mins.
Son of Frankenstein [feature film] Dir. Rowland V. Lee. Universal Pictures, USA, 1939. 99 mins.
The Curse of Frankenstein [feature film] Dir. Terence Fisher. Hammer Films et al., UK, 1957. 82 mins.
Flesh for Frankenstein [feature film] Dir. Paul Morrissey, Antonio Margheriti. Compagnia Cinematografica Champion et al., USA et al., 1973. 95 mins.
Frankenstein: The True Story [television film] Dir. Jack Smight. Universal Studios, USA, 1973. 185 mins.
Spark of Being [feature film] Dir. Bill Morrison. Hypnotic Pictures et al., USA, 2010. 68 mins.
Tender Son: The Frankenstein Project [feature film] Dir. Kornél Mundruczó. Proton Cinema et al., Hungary et al., 2010. 109 mins.
Frankenweenie [feature film] Dir. Tim Burton. Walt Disney Pictures et al., USA, 2012. 87 mins.