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The Scandinavian Pain

Written by Andrea Klaeboe in 2018

Haptics, meaning “I touch”, is a way of communicating that both humans and animalsemploy. The haptic sense can give information about the world around us and be away of expressing intimacy with another person. It is a very physical sensation. So howis it when we are watching a film, we are able to feel what is happening on-screen?Jennifer Barker argues that “touch is not skin-deep but is experiences at the body’ssurface, in its depths, and everywhere in between” (2009: 2). In other words, touchneed not necessarily happen in its most traditional manner. You could be able to feeltouch through your body without physically touching something or someone.There are many ways of describing touch. The one I’ll be focusing on in this essay isthe feeling of pain. How does one depict pain in a way that people can relate to or feel?I will specifically look at the phenomenon the Icelandic performance artist RagnarKjartansson has dubbed “the Scandinavian pain”. I will look at Kjartansson’s work toexplore the Scandinavian pain, and then evaluate Ingmar Bergman’s two films Persona(1966) and Cries and Whispers (1972) to see how they fit into the phenomenon. I willgo on to look at haptics and determine whether one can experience the pain charactersfeel without having once experienced something similar. 

Ragnar Kjartansson has been active as an artist since the early 2000s. In all hiscreations he expresses grief and despair with a hint of subtle humour. He is famousfor repeating actions or lyrical phrases over and over again in his exhibitions, whetherit’s a song that’s on loop for six hours or over 100 paintings of the same man (LittleScandinavian 2016). He has always been fascinated with what he calls “theScandinavian pain” and uses this as inspiration for his work. The Scandinavian pain isfull of sadness, hopelessness, and melancholia, and because the countries are knownto be such wonderful places to live, it creates a great contrast. His greatest inspirationand the epitome of the suffering Nordic artist is Edvard Munch (1863-1944). EdvardMunch was a Norwegian painter and poet, most famous for his pieces Scream (1893)(originally named Despair) and Madonna (1894). Scream is a part of a collection henamed The Frieze of Life. It touches on what he felt the phases of life were – love,fear, melancholia, and death (with a bit of existential angst) (Næss 2004: 522). The anxiety he suffered was prominent in many, if not all, of his works., He felt it became apart of him and would not want to part with it:

Yet I often have the feeling that I must have this existential angst – it is essential to me –and that I would not want to be without it – I often feel that even the illness has beenessential – In periods without angst and illness I have felt like a ship sailing in strong wind– but without a rudder – and asked myself where? Where will I run aground? (Munch 2017:72). 

In Kjartansson’s own words, Munch is the Elvis of Scandinavian pain; he is the king.Kjartansson’s installation Scandinavian Pain is a shrine to him (Louisiana Channes2013). The installation itself is an eleven-metre long pink neon sign which reads“Scandinavian Pain” that Kjartansson installed on top of a barn from Moss, Norway.He came across the barn in what he claims to be “Edvard Munch-land” (LouisianaChannes 2013). Feeling inspired, he installed more than 40 works by Edvard Munchinside it. He then lived in the barn for a week and used images and actions to enactthe stereotype of the suffering, Nordic artist (Aesthetica Magazine 2013). 

Haptics can be split into different categories: Pressure, temperature, proprioception(the sense of one’s self), and pain. Pain is a multi-dimensional sense, in that ismeasured both in unpleasantness and intensity (Coe 2016). Pain can also meanpsychological pain, such as a depression, despair, or anxiety. There is a lot of depictionof pain in the cinema. It is a topic that seems to fascinate audiences, whether it isviolence or inner turmoil. Even in the time of the “cinema of attractions”, before thedevelopment of narrative cinema, this was highly interesting to audiences (Gunning1989: 122). The public desired more than anything else to see images of the human invarious states of pain or pleasure (Barker 2009: 133). This interest could have its rootsin haptics. Through the tactility of cinema, we can understand cinema as an intimateexperience, giving us a close connection to it. Viewing cinema as purely a visualmedium robs us of this connection. By saying we are touched by a film, it indicates thesignificance the film bears. Barker argues that “as a material mode of perception andexpression cinematic tactility occurs not only at the skin or the screen, but traversesall the organs of the spectator’s body and the film’s body” (Barker 2009: 2). In otherwords, the cinematic haptic touch is not simply about skin, and it does not necessarilyhave to be pleasant. The touch that traverses through the entire body might be pain.But how can one feel what is happening onscreen? Laura Marks explains that “in haptic visuality, the eyes themselves function like organs of touch” (Marks 2000: 162). Withhaptic visuality you are making yourself vulnerable to the image, ideally losing yourselfin the image. 

Ingmar Bergman’s Persona is all about vulnerability. The story follows two women whoslowly seem to merge as their minds deteriorate until their identities becomeinterchangeable. Elisabet (Liv Ullmann) is an actress who has suddenly stoppedtalking, deciding that the world is too cruel and refuses to take part in it anymore. Alma(Bibi Andersson) is the nurse assigned to her case. As the movie progresses wediscover that Alma has a lot of shame and misery that she has hidden away under abubbly persona. Bergman conveys the character’s breakdown not only through theirbehaviour, but through editing as well. In the midway point of the film, the screen cracksand becomes blurry. Bergman uses this as a means of communicating the sensationof breakdown directly to the spectator (Wood 2013: 188). With this technique, he drawsthe spectator in and helps them experience the pain and confusion the characters arefeeling. Wood suggests that Elisabet and Alma’s consciousnesses find a commondenominator in the consciousness of the spectator (2013: 190). The film conveys asensation of sinking into a dark abyss of uncertainties, making it a highly uncomfortablewatch. 

A few years later, Bergman released Cries and Whispers. The film tells the story ofthree sisters, one of whom is dying of cancer. Initially, we think only of Agnes (HarrietAndersson), the sister who’s dying, as the one in pain. However, it soon becomesapparent that the other two sisters are dealing with a lot of pain on their own. We areslowly introduced to them via flashbacks which reveals something dark in each of theirpasts. This helps the viewer understand the sister’s separate reactions to Agnes dying.Bergman explained that he once imagined the soul as enclosed in a red membrane(Wood 2013: 241). Red is a running theme in Cries and Whispers. The set is heavilycoloured red, with all the walls and most drapes a bright red. He also uses red beforeand after each flashback, accompanied with a shot taken in front of the character whoexperiences the flashback looking directly down the lens. The sisters are inviting us totake part in their consciousness. Wood considers the story of Cries and Whispers tobe about a tension between a striving toward health and wholeness and tendency toindulge neurotic traits in sterile and perverse self-torture (2013: 241). The best exampleof the perverse self-torture Wood is talking about is when Karin (Ingrid Thulin) inserts a shard of glass into her vagina. Although at first, she seems to be in pain, she exhibitsmixed emotions by smiling, as if she experiences a euphoria from the pain. Karin is byfar the most confused, disturbed, and repressed character in the film.The experience of watching someone in pain can be more palpable than watchingsomeone being caressed. Sara Ahmed talks about the economic nature ofintensification and suggests that: 

one is more or less aware of bodily surfaces depending on the range and intensities ofbodily experiences. The intensity of pain sensations makes us aware of our bodilysurfaces and points to the dynamic nature of surfacing itself (Ahmed 2004: 26) 

This ability to feel what others are feeling is a brain mechanism that we all possess todifferent degrees (Choi 2007). Films that depict pain at a high level are therefore oftenperceived as extremely uncomfortable, and spectators can’t always explain why thatis. With the presumption that Ahmed is right, that the intensity of pain sensations makesus more aware of our bodily surfaces, this would explain the discomfort some viewerscan experience watching a film like Cries and Whispers. Throughout the movie, Agnesis in very much pain. She has trouble breathing and just a few moments before shedies, she beats her chest in agony as she screams at her sisters “Can’t anyone helpme?”. But this leads us to the question: can we experience pain if we have not had asimilar experience ourselves? Is it possible for the spectator to experience Agnes’ painto the full extent when we have not had cancer? Can we truly understand and feel theinner turmoil of Alma and Elisabet in Persona? Marks argues that senses are a sourceof social knowledge and memory. She goes on to say that the “organisation of thesenses, that is, the sensorium, varies culturally as well as individually; thus, we wouldexpect cinema to represent the sensorial organisation of a given culture” (Marks 2000:195). This suggests that we can only know the pain the characters feel to a certainextent. If we do not have the same experiences (memories) or cultural background itis harder to understand and experience the pain onscreen for certain people. 

Ingmar Bergman depicts a clear inspiration to Munch and what Kjartansson dubs theScandinavian pain in his films Persona and Cries and Whispers. Munch was known tooften portray women as suffering. In Bergman’s films there are almost no malecharacters, and if they are shown, it is only in relation to the women. Several of hisframings are similar to Munch’s paintings, especially Self Portrait with Skeleton Arm (1895), Vampyr (1893-95), and The Sick Child (1885-86), as shown in the video essay.The framing of the sisters and the maid sitting in Agnes’ room right before she dies hasan uncanny resemblance to Munch’s Death in the Sick Room (1895), which is an aptname for the scene as well. The video essay reinforces the depiction of Scandinavianpain in the style of Kjartansson by repetition. The line “Jag kan inte” is spoken by allthe main characters in the two films (with the exception of Elisabet who doesn’t speak).The literal translation is “I cannot”, but in the different contexts it gains differentmeanings. When Karin says it, she is saying that she simply cannot go on like thisanymore, she can barely breathe, which relate to her character being repressed. Almaindicates that she cannot live with this shame anymore, talking about her abortion.Agnes simply cannot go on living, as it is too painful. There is even repetition within therepetition. Every time the line is spoken, it is repeated. The contrast that Kjartanssonsees in Scandinavian pain is apparent in Ingmar Bergman’s films as well. Both filmsdepict well-off women who should have no reason to feel troubled. 

With Marks’ conclusion on the cultural meaning behind a film, it can perhaps bechallenging for a non-Scandinavian to derive as much meaning and tactility fromBergman’s films as a Scandinavian would, when they are so laden with Scandinavianpain. However, haptics is something physical, something chemical that happens in ourbrains. Can we really control it to the extent that we even have time to consider thecultural meaning behind the film before out body reacts? Perhaps the fact thateveryone has a different reaction to films is inevitable, as each individual is differentand would react differently even though they come from the same country, or the samefamily, as Bergman shows us through these two films.


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AHMED, Sara. 2004. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. New York: Routledge. 

BARKER, Jennifer M. 2009. The Tactile Eye: Touch and the Cinematic Experience.Berkeley; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press. 

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COE, Patrick. 2016. “Intro to Haptics: The Senses of Touch – Temperature,Pressure, and Pain” on LinkedIn [online]. Available at:https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/intro-haptics-senses-touch-temperature-pressurepain-patrick-coe [accessed April 18, 2018]. 

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MUNCH, Edvard. 1895. Selvportrett med skjellettarm (Self Portrait With SkeletonArm) Oil Painting.
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