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Man is an Island: Exploring the Symbolic Meaning of the ‘Island’ in Ingmar Bergman’s Films

“… everyone knew that all islands were worlds unto themselves, that to come to an island was to come to another world.”
― Guy Gavriel Kay,

There is something about the setting of an Island that storytellers keep returning to time after time. As a writer myself, I know that where the narrative occurs is as important to its evolution as the story’s themes and characters. The setting helps to create mood and context for the drama, even dictating the kinds of drama that can happen.

For centuries, writers have been constructing narratives around the location of an island. Indeed, even Plato wrote about Atlantis, an isolated lost civilisation cut off from the rest of the world. But what is it about these places surrounded by sea, isolated, and remote that makes for such useful contexts for storytelling? And why do the films of Ingmar Bergman feature so many troubled individuals stuck on an island?

For this piece I will be focusing on three Bergman films in particular. Hour of the Wolf, Through a Glass Darkly and Persona. All of which take place on an Island.

The characters in Bergman’s films, such as Elisabeth Vogler (Liv Ullmann) in Persona, Karin (Harriet Andersson) in Through a Glass a Darkly, and Johan (Max von Sydow) in Hour of the Wolf, travel to an Island as they all consider it as a place where they can recover. And believe it will serve them as a sanctuary away from the stresses and pressures of the mainland. However, whilst on the Island, they are lonely creatures despite having the company of others. In fact those who are with our main characters are often shown to be a pest and an annoyance.

Take Johan’s wife Alma (Liv Ullmann), for example, who nags and is forever fussing over her husband constantly, depending heavily on him due to her condition. As Johan becomes more irritated by his wife, his delusions grow increasingly stronger. We see this in the scene where his past lover appears naked, as he is out painting. Bergman is implying that being on an Island and isolated from the world and it’s judgement, allows one’s true desires and wants to come bubbling to the surface.

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Bergman is far more interested in presenting us with the idea of the Island being a metaphor for isolation rather than a community. People that live on islands are separated from the rest of the human population. Without the pressures of society, the isolation of the island brings the people back to the “very basics of humanity”. And we see this occurring in Hour of the Wolf, where Johan becomes increasingly violent and aggressive in his erratic behaviour.

We see in one sequence how Johan attacks a young boy who is being a nuisance to him as he is painting. Whether this sequence takes place in reality, or whether it is one of Johan’s delusions, is up for debate. But it does show us that being on an Island, and being faced with the prospect of Fatherhood, has meant that Johan has lost his grip on reality. He can’t cope with the responsibilities of being a father, therefore he has responded the only way he knows how to, by only caring about his needs. And like an Island, he cuts off the rest of the world.

It is not just Johan who has become dysfunctional, the other individuals who live on the Island seem to act erratically. Like saying certain things that don’t make sense, and acting overtly sexual. This is perhaps best seen when Johan and Alma attend a dinner party at Baron von Merkens’ (Erland Josephson) castle. The dialogue is given to us in confusing snippets. The Island in Hour of the Wolf is a mysterious surreal environment which offer the viewer very little explanation as to the mysterious events that occur there. Bergman suggests to us that if we stay on the Island for too long, not only do we become disconnected from the rest of the world, but also disconnected from reality.

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According to dream analysis, from a spiritual point of view, the island in one’s dreams depicts your spiritual nature. It symbolizes your mental peace, and can indicate that one needs to seek rest from their mental stress. This is the opposite to the portrayal of the island in Bergman’s films.

Perhaps the most evident of this is in Through a Glass Darkly, were the island is seen as place that does little to save Karin (Harriet Andersson) from her mental illness. In fact, the Island acts as a catalyst, as Karin is trapped in one location with very little to do in terms of entertainment, aside from perform in plays with her brother, swim and read. This is shown by how quickly her condition deteriorates as the film’s narrative unfolds. Being forced to interact with her family, her distant father and her husband, who doesn’t understand her situation, Karin begins to unravel.

The Island becomes a prison for Karin, and it represents her mind being imprisoned as the story develops. Karin’s behaviour is being analyzed by her father, and finding his notebook where he discusses how he believes she can never be cured, sends her spiralling downwards. The only relief Karin can find is when she is in the attic at the top of the house, where she seeks comfort in the voices that she hears in the walls. Bergman is implying that Karin’s escape lies in going in one direction, Up. This suggests that for Karin, she will only seek relief from her condition by spiritual means, and that the Island on the ground is holding her back. We can see this by how the Island is presented, the ‘ground’ is dark, depressing and shadowy, whereas the attic is light and airy.

The Island for Karin is a dangerous and volatile place where storms rage on and where sexual tensions run high. Her only escape from the Island comes from above, and at the end she leaves in a helicopter to be institutionalised. Karin believes that her release will come from God (up above), but only if she succumbs to her schizophrenia. In the end, she leaves the Island, but leaves behind her identity, her family and her sense of reality.

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Like Karin and Johan, the character of Elisabet in Persona, also seeks a place to recover from the stresses she has endured. And a place where she can be alone and seek comfort from her surroundings. Also, like the two other characters discussed, Elisabet is accompanied by someone on this journey, nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson).

Until we reach the seaside retreat where Elisabet plans to rest, the only scenes we see take place inside. Once the women arrive on the Island, there are many scenes set in the exterior. At first the Island is presented as a haven, like the Islands seen in Hour of the Wolf and Through a Glass Darkly, with our main characters relaxing in the sun. Like the other two films, the isolation of the Island has consequences in the characters becoming more mentally unhinged.

Perhaps the best depiction of this occurs when Alma recalls an incident were she sunbathed in the nude with Katarina, a woman she had just met. Two young boys appeared, and Katarina initiated an orgy. Alma became pregnant, had an abortion, and continues to feel guilty. Alma confides to Elisabet because of their isolation and confinement together, but after discovering Elisabet’s letter she accuses the other woman of using her. The tensions between the two have reached a boiling point, and Bergman acknowledges this by the fact that he has Alma threaten to throw boiling water over Elisabet.

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Persona shows that the Island is a place where individual identity doesn’t matter. Like Karin and Johan, both Elisabet and Alma begin to question their identity. Johan questioned his identity as a Father and a husband. Karin questions her identity as being an individual who was ‘sound of mind’. And in Persona, Elisabet and Alma have so many striking similarities in terms of personality, body language, and behaviour, that they could be the same woman. Therefore, they don’t have an individual identity.

The Island and the construct of identity is so closely connected in these films, that it is evident that Bergman believes that these isolated places away from civilisation allow us to address our own identity, and question what makes us who we are as a person. The Island for Bergman, is a place where reality and fantasy overlap. For example, it is often hard to distinguish what scenes are ‘dreams’ in these three films. Is Elisabet really appearing in Alma’s room when she sleeps, or is Karin really being awoken by a fog horn that only she can hear? The Island seems to be a place where surreal situations occur so spontaneously, and often that our perception of what is occurring on-screen is tested.

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For Bergman, the Island is its own character, a place that exists separate from time and other civilisation. At first it is presented as location where our main characters can recover from their illnesses, but the isolation of the Island results in their decline. And as a result they lose their identity and sense of reality. To Bergman, man is an Island, alone in the sea, and cut of from others, or at least man desires to be like an Island. Being an Island is unhealthy, and man cannot be an Island if they wish to function probably, they need to connect to the mainland (society).

Ultimately, the characters in these three films discover this the hard way, and it’s often too late. Being an Island is a fate worst than death. Perhaps Bergman saw himself as the ultimate Island, alone, misunderstood and troubled, and these films where a way of him attempting to connect to mainland. It would seem that no man is an Island, apart from Ingmar Bergman.

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