In preparation for writing about Liv Ullmann’s Enskilda Samtal (Private Confessions, 1996), I took the opportunity to watch Ingmar Bergman’s Nattvardsgästerna (Winter Light, 1963) and Scener ur ett äktenskap (Scenes From a Marriage, 1973). I also watched the Ullmann directed Trolösa (Faithless, 2000). The process exhausted me psychically. Here is the relentless quest for love that will never be fulfilled to one’s satisfaction, and here is the endless search for faith. Both of these themes are made manifest in Private Confessions.

Over a series of conversations, Anna (Pernilla August) explores the impact of an affair with a younger theology student, Tomas (Thomas Hanzon). Her pastor, Uncle Jacob (Max von Sydow) urges her to tell her husband Henrik (Samuel Fröler), and break off the affair. The film is far more fluid than Bergman’s novel, which reads more like an endless stage direction. But as Linda Haverty Rugg writes in her exploration of Bergman’s autobiographical works, “he alludes to his careful orchestration of episodes in his own life for the best dramatic effect… he claims he cannot experience life in the world as it unfolds, he creates a controlled environment in which he can know what will happen in advance” (1).

These desires for control fail his fictionalised mother and father. In one devastating scene after another they confront the fallout of her confession through passive aggressive behaviour and breakdowns (a dirty tablecloth becomes the catalyst for a battle between Anna and Henrik, worthy of any of the devastating later moments in Scenes From a Marriage), and Anna attempts to hold on to Tomas, only to have him leave her during a carefully planned tryst.

How shall I describe the poisoning that imperceptibly fills the home like a nerve gas, corroding everyone’s mind for lengthy periods, perhaps a lifetime? How do I portray the standpoints and partisanships that necessarily become blurred and uncertain when the participants on the second level never have the chance of a share in the factual truth? No one knows… everyone sees. (2)

For Bergman, this is not just about the artistic project. It is also about working out the tragedy of his parents’ marriage, and gaining a modicum of control over the circumstances of those lives, especially his mother’s. “Everyone sees.” In an interview with Ullmann, she mentions that Bergman “expressed concern… that although his mother is long dead, someday she would be upset about the secrets of her life being revealed in the film” (3). Bergman almost sounds like a confessional poet: there is the urge to expose family secrets, but the dead haunt him. And like the confessional poets, Bergman drew again and again on the self as his best subject.

But in the case of Private Confessions one must be reminded that it is not his life. “In fact, Bergman’s auto/biographies are perhaps not life writing at all in the traditional sense, since their primary concern is not the narrative of his life, but the presentation of this experimental concept of what might be – something broader than singular selfhood.” (4)

What we have in the world of the film – and the novel – is a fictional memoir. Because of this, there is no complete truth. Bergman has written a version of an episode of his mother’s life, and the leading actress in his life has shaped that story, with a mise en scène not unlike Bergman’s own. But in spite of the similarities, there are subtle differences at play. Sven Nykvist’s light is softer on these people who are eternally twisting; Ullmann uses the close-up, as Bergman does, but perhaps less often. This is already a film of intimacy.

Private Confessions

In writing about Winter Light, Dan Harper states that

At a deeper level this agitated groping after an undisclosed Truth was actually closer to a philosophical inquiry for Bergman, however clumsy, toward a compromise with the irreconcilable aspects of experience – the gratifications and frustrations of desire, happiness and despair, pleasure and pain. (5)

Private Confessions continues this search for a compromise, and sometimes we see the fulfillment of pleasure, as when Anna is with her lover, Tomas, and there is a close-up of her face, her hair undone. No words are needed. But there is the pain, too, as in the moment when Uncle Jacob delivers the uncompromising love of his faith to Anna, and insists that she tell Henrik about her affair, which she does, bringing no true release. Anna continues her “agitated groping”, which, as we see in the film’s epilogue/prologue, begins at the time of her confirmation; she has qualms about being confirmed. But she goes ahead; perhaps for the sake of appearances, perhaps to please those she loves. It sometimes amounts to the same thing.

“Bergman demands explanations from his mother, but receives no answers.” (6) Bergman isn’t wrong to demand answers from the dead, but he can only ask so many times. His mother’s silence affords him the opportunity to create a fictional memoir based on this episode from her life. Her formidable silence is perhaps a goad; he can take pieces of her life to create what he wants, and as he pleases. “Bergman… returns to the enigmatic image of his mother for clues about his life and in-formation about the blackness that separates them.” (7)

There’s a moment in Faithless where Erland Josephson’s old director (named Bergman) takes some photographs out of his desk drawer, but covers one of them over: a woman. We see only her lips. It could be his muse; it could be his former lover. It could be the woman at the heart of it all: his mother, as it almost looks like an older picture. I kept wondering if there would be a reveal. But Ullmann is too smart for that, and it is put back into the drawer, with the other memories. It’s ridiculous to think that it could be his mother, but at the same time, why not? He returns to her again and again, like a lover, and a muse. He keeps telling her story, hoping to make it his.


  1. Linda Haverty Rugg, “‘Carefully I Touched the Faces Of My Parents’: Bergman’s Autobiographical Image”, Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly vol. 24, no. 1, Winter 2001, pp. 72-84.
  2. Ingmar Bergman, Private Confessions, trans. Joan Tate, Arcade, New York, 1997, p. 56.
  3. Ullmann in David Brooks Andrews, “Ullmann: Private Confessions Plumbs Hard Truths, Gentle Lies”, Liv Ullmann: Interviews, ed. Robert Emmet Long, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, MI, 2006, p. 165.
  4. Rugg.
  5. Dan Harper, “Winter Light”, Senses of Cinema no. 34, February 2005: www.sensesofcinema.com/2005/cteq/winter_light.
  6. Rugg.
  7. Rugg.

Private Confessions/Enskilda Samtal (1996 Sweden 196 mins)

Prod Co: SVT Drama Prod: Ingrid Dahlberg Dir: Liv Ullmann Scr: Ingmar Bergman, based on his novel Phot: Sven Nykvist Ed: Michal Leszczylowski Prod Des: Mette Möller

Cast: Pernilla August, Max von Sydow, Samuel Fröler, Thomas Hanzon, Anita Björk, Vibeke Falk

About The Author

Sarah Nichols is the author of the poetry chapbook The Country of No (Finishing Line Press, 2012) and a contributing writer for the online film journal desistfilm. Her CTEQ Annotation on Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street appeared in 2008.

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