Ingmar Bergman: Sawdust and Tinsel (1953) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Ingmar Bergman: Sawdust and Tinsel (1953)

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Each Tuesday Andrew will be going through every available film of Ingmar Bergman.

Andrew COMMENTARYFor those few hardcore Bergman-philes left in the world, and the list of fewer ones that are reading this site, you'll notice that this is the sixth Bergman film that I'm analyzing.  I mention this because today's film, Sawdust and Tinsel, is the thirteenth film that he directed since starting his career with Crisis in 1946.  In those seven years he managed to direct thirteen separate films, and it's lucky number thirteen that finally establishes his voice in a more compelling way.

His characters have been adrift in isolation before this point, but now is when the common Bergman themes of suffering and humiliation really come into play.  The characters in Sawdust and Tinsel are, by nature of their profession, isolated wanderers.  We follow a group of performers looking for a new home after they have not had much luck in previous locales.  Whether their new home will be of any use to them remains to be seen, but the prospects don't look too promising.  The skies are gray, the foliage appears to be dying, and the church itself looks like it is crumbling to the ground.

So establishing isolation in this environment isn't particularly difficult.  Some low angle shots of the various horses and carriages moving against the darkened gray sky set this up nicely.  It also recalls how effectively he will use the same kind of shot at the end of The Seventh Seal. But aside from those two moments from the opening and closing, Bergman continues to move story and style into a different direction.

The circus is a new touch, and sounds like something that Fellini would do instead of Bergman, but Bergman has a long history of using circuses or similar kinds of performers to make a point about life versus art.  The circus never seems like it had a once vibrant life, and what few trinkets and costumes they have left aren't enough to put on a decent show.  Now they just creep around the dead and diseased landscape looking for a place to lay down and die.

The way that Bergman lights and presents the human face seems, at times, designed to hurt us more so than illuminate their pain.

It doesn't seem like that's going to be their initial fate, but a brilliant opening sequence lays out the rules for the rest of the journey.  While traveling, the carriage operator recalls the trials and tribulations of the clown Frost (Anders Ek) and his slightly older wife Alma (Gudrun Brost).  In an attempt to show that she is still desirable, she swims naked for a large group of soldiers shooting off not at all symbolic cannons.  All the while none of their dialogue can be heard, just the piercing silence, discordant melodies of the soundtrack, and the soldiers incessant laughter.  Frost eventually reovers his wife, but not before cutting his own feet on the ground carrying her back to camp like a cross.

While this is told, Bergman shoots the mostly silent sequences with a harsh mixture of well lit photography and suffocating close ups.  This opening stretch is absolutely brilliant expressionistic film making that shows Bergman hitting directorial heights that his previous films could not even touch.  The story goes on to reveal three parallel romances that could have learned a lesson or two from the clown and his wife.

Albert (Ake Gronberg), the circus master is trying to balance his passion for his mistress Anne (the wonderfully sensual Bergman regular Harriett Andersson) and the wife he abandoned years ago.  This causes Anne to start feeling insecure about her own attractiveness, and signals her fall into the hands of a sadistic theater actor who lives for humiliation.

All of this sets up a climax that is tragic and, sadly, expected.  Bergman follows his characters on the path that they are doomed to follow from the first frame.  But even then, nothing can really prepare you for the level of humiliation that an embarrassed sadist is willing to inflict on a man looking to protect his loved one's pride.  The inevitable ending is every bit as agonizing as some of the tortures inflicted on Bergman's later heroes, and the depths of sorrow that they reach are incredibly compelling.

Never embarrass a sadist.

I've mentioned many of the positive aspects of Sawdust and Tinsel, and part of the overall effect of this film is the fact that it contains one of Bergman's first collaborations with cinematographer Sven Nykvist.  Bergman films would rarely feel this oppressively bright.  The realities of their harsh existence follow them everywhere, and only allow shadows so long as they bathe their sadistic enemies in darkness.  Extreme close ups, intense angles, and distorted features dominate each frame.  All of this adds together to create one of Bergman's more nauseatingly effective films.

Bergman still allows time for some quiet contemplation of his characters actions.  The moments of understanding between Frost and Alma, or the recently shattered bond of Albert and Anne, are handled with dignity and pain.  These moments highlight their togetherness and, when needed, complete and total isolation from each other's pain.  Sometimes they're separated by their work, other times greed, but those divisions are rarely overcome.

Sawdust and Tinsel is Bergman's first great film.  It may not plumb the metaphorical depths that his next few features will, but it serves as a masterful introduction to the nightmare world that he constructs for his circus players.  We'll meet their ancestors in The Seventh Seal soon, for now we must forge on and hope that the circus will survive the betrayal and humiliation that they are made to suffer.

Next week is one of Bergman's lighter films, and one I'm looking forward to revisiting, Smiles of a Summer Night.

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The Films of Ingmar Bergman

Sawdust and Tinsel (1953)

Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman.
Starring  Anders Ek, Gudrun Brost, Ake Gronberg and Harriett Andersson.

Posted by Andrew

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