In 1942, at the age of twenty-four, Ingmar Bergman was hired to work as a “script washer” for Svensk Filmindustri. His job on this “slave ship,” as he later called it, was to turn out Hollywood-style screenplays, an experience he described as providing “solid foundations” for his directorial efforts. However solid the foundations may have been, though, Bergman looked back harshly on his early forays behind the camera. He called his first film, Crisis (1946), “lousy, through and through,” and his third, A Ship to India (1947), “a major disaster.” Such retrospective hostility is not surprising. No one likes to be reminded of where they come from. Early work is proof that genius has a history—that it develops along the way, in particular places and times.
Bergman was not “Bergman” when he directed these films, although both show flashes of Bergman becoming Bergman. They contain early expressions of narrative elements that would interest him throughout his career (authoritarian fathers, relationships among women, aging, the theatrical frame, sickness and suffering, the temptation of suicide). And they evince, in embryo, some of his visual preferences. From the beginning, he eschewed Hollywood’s standard shot-reverse-shot model, preferring to hold the camera on one face. (It’s also hard to imagine another director inserting, into a first studio commission, a scene of an old person waking in screams from a nightmare about death.) But we don’t have to see Crisis and A Ship to India as merely the early stages of an inevitable evolution. They also show us how Bergman’s mature investigations into spiritual torment and despair exist on a cinematic continuum with the frequently maligned genre of melodrama, which treats private feeling and the fate of the individual as matters of utmost importance.
“Bergman turns matters of the heart into matters of proto-existential despair.”
Melodramas often employ stock characters, and both Crisis and A Ship to India are filled with types, including the young naïf, the crass urbanite, the chorus girl, and the saintly provincial. But Bergman fills in these outlines with interior life. He shows great care for suffering, particularly the suffering of women, whose anxieties about death and unhappy relationships he treats with emotional frankness and sympathy. Influenced by Marcel Carné and Jean Renoir, Bergman turns matters of the heart into matters of proto-existential despair. In Crisis, the sad cad Jack (Stig Olin) confesses in a monologue that is at once false and true, “I only love myself.” In A Ship to India, Sally (Gertrud Fridh) tells Johannes (Birger Malmsten), “Maybe I was born to be unhappy and make others unhappy.” Already, Bergman was keenly aware of the fear, pain, selfishness, egomania, and other forms of limitation that prevent humans from communicating, though not from being touched by one another.
Crisis arose when Svensk managing director Carl Anders Dymling approached the young writer with the text of a Danish play by Leck Fischer called Moderdyret (The Maternal Instinct). The first step, Bergman recalled, was to “wring a good script from this grandiose drivel.” After two or three rewrites, he found himself in a very hot studio, with a cinematographer who didn’t know the equipment, a “walking catastrophe” of a sound technician, and a stage actress (Dagny Lind) who was “paralyzed with fright” in front of a movie camera. The early results were not promising. After seeing the first three weeks of dailies, Dymling told Bergman to start over, and sent in as adviser the great Victor Sjöström (whose classic film The Phantom Carriage inspired Bergman’s directorial ambitions); he became a mentor to Bergman and a decade later starred as the stern and haunted Isak Borg in Wild Strawberries. Sjöström urged Bergman to be simpler—to photograph the actors from the front, for example. Still, frustrations mounted. Rain ruined a three-week location shoot in Hedemora. Caught up in studio politics, Bergman raged on set, and his decision to continue filming the night a grip fell from some scaffolding and was hospitalized did not endear him to the crew.
Yet the film is confident and, at times, ingenious. As the camera pans over a riverbank, a narrator describes a town where the day’s major event is the arrival of the bus. The church bell tolls insistently, and a plump woman in black descends. This is Jenny (Marianne Löfgren), come to collect her eighteen-year-old daughter, Nelly (Inga Landgré), raised in the country by Ingeborg (Lind). “Let the play begin,” the narrator says. “Let’s raise the curtain.” And as Ingeborg’s maid pulls up the window shade, the camera draws us in. In no time at all, Jenny’s younger lover, Jack, arrives, causing a scandal and altering the course of Nelly’s fate.
There is one sequence in Crisis that Bergman later defended, about “two hundred feet” of film shot in Jenny’s beauty parlor at night: perhaps it begins with the moment when Jenny dissolves into view over the mannequin heads, or perhaps it’s from when she gazes, hands clasped under her chin, into the mirror. “Under this face,” she says, “my God!” Jenny’s monologue is interrupted by gunshots. She rushes outside and screams offscreen, while the camera remains inside the shop. On the street, a newspaper already covers a fallen body, and sirens wail, a “Theater” sign blinking on and off. The moment is clearly indebted to French poetic realism, and one almost wishes Bergman had had the courage to make it the film’s last scene. But conventions demanded that Nelly return to the sleepy country town, where the filmmaker gives her story an ending that resembles the requirements of happiness but is, unmistakably, crushing.
Bergman claimed that after Crisis opened, he received a call from producer Lorens Marmstedt: “Dear Ingmar. That was an awful film! Hard to imagine anything worse! I suppose your phone is ringing off the hook with offers.” In fact, Marmstedt himself put the young director on another 1946 project, It Rains on Our Love, teaching him how to watch dailies—to see what he had made, not what he wished he had. Next, Marmstedt approached him with a play by Finnish-Swedish author Martin Söderhjelm.
“We’re in Berglandia, where people openly discuss their mutual needs, desires, and hates, demanding to be recognized and understood.”
A Ship to India is a surer work, darker and more even in tone than Crisis; unlike that film, it never lurches into sentimental humor. The bulk of the plot unfolds retrospectively, as the hunchbacked sailor Johannes Blom recalls the rebellion he waged against his sadistic father, Alexander (Holger Löwenadler), captain of a salvage boat. As would be the case in many other Bergman films, the family in A Ship to India provides no refuge from the world’s cruelty and coldness but is merely another arena in which people can play out their faults. When Alexander brings strong-jawed Sally, who dances at the local vaudeville hall, on board, Johannes falls in love with her. Circumstances have made Sally desperate; like Crisis’s Jack, she believes she cannot love, and begs to be left alone. But in the end, she capitulates to the male dictate that she accept love. As in Crisis, Bergman allows the conclusion to be mournful rather than triumphant. The past is not so easily left behind.
We can glimpse in A Ship to India some of the abiding themes that would define Bergman as a filmmaker. The vaudeville plotline was his addition, echoing the stage-play frame of Crisis (which he made when he was still managing director of the municipal theater in Helsingborg)—another early indication of his career-long interest in bringing a theatrical sensibility to both script and mise-en-scène in his cinema work. As ever, Bergman’s great desire is to film people talking about their lives, and in A Ship to India this creates moments of affecting intimacy. One night, from her cabin’s top bunk, Johannes’s mother, Alice (Anna Lindahl), remembers working the air pump as Alexander dived for salvage. “I pumped air down to your lungs so you could breathe.” A mask of light illuminates her face; as she speaks, the camera tilts down to Alexander. “It was like I gave you life every time I pushed that lever.” Alexander explains that he wants to enjoy the things he lacked in his youth and intends to run away with Sally. “And what’s left for me?” Alice asks in a strangled voice. Whatever is stock or archetypal about their characters has melted away; we’re in Berglandia, where people openly discuss their mutual needs, desires, and hates, demanding to be recognized and understood.
A Ship to India’s debut was a debacle. Marmstedt called Bergman from Cannes, urging him to cut more than a thousand feet from the footage. “In high dudgeon, despite a somewhat faltering egomania, I informed him that I had no intention of cutting even one foot from this masterpiece,” Bergman would recall. At the Swedish premiere, a problem with the soundtrack made the dialogue inaudible, and the reels had been packed incorrectly, so the fourth act began before the third. The party afterward, Bergman remembered, was the only time he got so drunk that he passed out. However, after his experience on A Ship to India, the young director was careful to learn about film sound, developing, and copying: “No technician would ever walk all over me again.” Spoken like a true auteur.