Crash Course: Early Bergman

In an attempt to better diversify the content on this blog I’m introducing a new series of pieces I plan to write called “Crash Course.”  This is a rather casual series that will feature sporadically and will cover a wide range of topics.  With each Crash Course article I’ll look at something that’s been a blind spot in my movie watching and examine a handful of movies related to said blindspot.  Some of these articles will look at the works of a certain filmmaker, some will look at movies from a common franchise, and some will simply be looking at some films that all have a common theme. 

In 2007 the illustrious Criterion Collection announced that they’d begin releasing a new line of products called the Eclipse Series.  This was explained at the time as being a series of DVD boxed sets which would consist of movies that Criterion had acquired the rights to but which weren’t famous enough to quite warrant the expense of one of their famous deluxe blu-ray releases.  These would be DVD-only releases rather than blu-rays, they would be cleaned up but not given a full restoration, and they wouldn’t have any extras but at least these movies wouldn’t be left languishing without distribution and would be available to fill holes in the collections of certain enthusiasts.  It was also announced that their first release under this new line would be a set called “Early Bergman” which curated five films that Ingmar Bergman made early in his career before his international breakthroughs like Summer with Monika and Smiles of a Summer Night.  This set has sat on my shelf for a while I’ve been getting by Bergman fixes from some of his later and more famous movies but I decided that with 2018 being the much celebrated centennial of Bergman’s birth the time was right to finally explore this tantalizing boxed set and see how the genius was formed.

Torment (1944)

The first film that Criterion/Eclipse included in their boxed set was actually not a film that Bergman directed.  This was actually directed by a guy named Alf Sjöberg who was a Swedish director of note from the time but Bergman wrote the screenplay and served as an assistant director on it and did consider it to be the start of his film career.  Bergman was 26 when this came out and was likely even younger when the screenplay was written and you can pretty easily tell this is a young man’s film given that it’s about a young man’s time at a private school and it very much takes that teenager’s point of view and mostly validates his angst.  At the film’s center is a conflict between the film’s protagonist and a rather cruel Latin teacher who everyone calls Caligula and it is most definitely not the kind of story where a teacher and student eventually come to respect one another.  The film reportedly drew from Bergman’s own memories of his schooling days and how he found them to be stifling and rather miserable.  After the film was released he even found himself in a public correspondence with his old headmaster, who found the movie to be something of a hit piece.  Bergman responded that he “definitely [had] not wanted to criticize my own school, but all schools” and the two seem to more or less reconciled their differences.  Having said all that, one should not minimize the influence of Alf Sjöberg on the film as the visual style here is different from Bergman’s.  The film’s look and the acting style on display hue a bit closer to what you might expect from a conventional Hollywood movie of the era than the arthouse direction that Bergman would employ once he started getting more control over his films.

*** out of Five

Crisis (1946)

While Torment marked Ingmar Bergman’s debut as a produced screenwriter but it was the film Crisis that was his true directorial debut and by all accounts it was not exactly smooth sailing on set.  Svensk apparently had a lot of faith in Bergman at first but started to get cold feet and called on Victor Sjöström to be brought in and supervise the production.  However I wouldn’t say that this shows too many signs of being a troubled production and I would exactly say that it’s the sloppy work of an amateur but that characteristic Bergman feel has not developed yet and frankly it gave me a slightly renewed appreciation for what Alf Sjöberg was able to do for Bergman’s script on Torment.  The film is essentially a light melodrama which takes as its jumping off point a story of a birth mother coming to reconnect with an eighteen year old daughter that had long been raised by a foster mother.  Though it begins as a story about the conflict between the biological and adoptive mother it’s really more concerned with the eighteen year old and her sexual awakening.  The film has a lot going on in it and at times isn’t quite sure what it wants to be.  At times it feels like it could be mistaken for a standard Hollywood “woman’s picture” but it’s more daring than those movies would be and you can clearly see Bergman’s affinity for stage plays in it as well.  It’s a weird little movie for the most part and not one that I think many would have remembered if Bergman had quit the film industry after making it rather than become one of the great auteurs of cinema.  Worth watching for completists like me, but not an essential movie.

** out of Five

Port of Call (1948)

The next film in the Bergman Eclipse set was made two years after Crisis and Bergman had made three other movies since then.  Clearly Bergman developed pretty dramatically as a filmmaker in those two years as Port of Call feels much more cohesive and daring than his debut feature even if he still hasn’t quite developed his signature style.  This film is actually said to be inspired by the neorealist movement that was in vogue in the late forties and Bergman has suggested as much in interviews, but there are limits to how much this movie could really be said to be part of the movement.  While the characters here are more working class than the rich or at least well educated people who usually populate Bergmans films and while the film does weigh in a bit more overtly on social issues, the film is not populated by non-actors and the film’s ending is a bit more hopeful than what you’d expect to see in a Rossellini or De Sica film.  The film focuses in on a sort of working class romance between a seaman and a young woman who had done a stint at a reform school.  The film doesn’t seem overly concerned with the economic challenges the characters face so much as the social constraints they seem to be fighting against and the movie proves to be incredibly bold in its exploration of the female character’s sexual past.  It its second half the film even looks rather fearlessly at the issue of abortion and comes out with a pretty strong pro-choice message in an era when abortion appears to have still been illegal in Sweden for those who couldn’t afford to bribe public officials.  That’s definitely some stuff you were not getting from American films from the 1940s and it likely would have even been bold by the standards of many other sections of Europe.

**** out of Five

Thirst (1949)

In between making Port of Call and this movie, Thirst, Ingmar Bergman made a film called Prison that was considered something of a failure and this follow-up was considered to be something of a more commercial re-do of that movie.  It follows a married couple as they take a train ride from Italy back up to Sweden after a vacation and goes into flashbacks of some of their previous relationships that inform their current situation.  The couple bicker like crazy, sometimes in that semi-playful way that certain married couples do, but sometimes in ways that show some real issues with the marriage.  Bergman was only 31 when he made this film but was already on his second of five marriages so clearly he knew a thing or two about marital dysfunction already.  The chemistry between Eva Henning and Birger Malmsten was quite good I also liked the first of the flashbacks, but some of the other flashbacks did not work as well and even at only 84 minutes the film feels a little padded.

**1/2 out of five

To Joy (1950)

With 1950’s To Joy Bergman once again looks at the dynamics of a dysfunctional marriage and is even more open about the fact that it’s a loosely veiled autobiographical work.  The film concerns a man who plays violin for a symphony orchestra in Stockholm and falls in love with a woman who also plays for the orchestra.  We know from the very beginning of the movie because of a flashback structure that this is doomed to end in tragedy, that they will marry but that the woman is going to die in an accident, so you’re mainly rooting for them to have some happiness while they can but they frequently don’t because the man is kind of pathetic.  The man is constantly in a funk because of his doubts about his skill as a violin player and worries that he’s a mere mediocrity and this takes a toll on the relationship as well.  It’s not hard to see this guy’s violin pursuit as a stand-in for Bergman’s own struggles as a young director, especially given that he cast his real life mentor Victor Sjöström as his stand-in’s conductor and mentor in the orchestra.  If this is indeed supposed to be a self-portrait of sorts it’s not a very flattering one, in fact it borders on the self-flagellating as it shows this guy not appreciating what he’s got until it’s too late and generally screwing everything up.  In life Bergman would go on to make a lot of the same mistakes all over again and would have five different wives in total as well as some serious relationships with other women, but from what we see in this film he has clearly learned a lot already and I’m sure it took some guts to put everything out in his art like this.

***1/2 out of Five

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