The shocking murder of a woman opens Ingmar Bergman’s From the Life of the Marionettes (1980) and frames its plot, which explores an unceasingly gruesome vision of male brutality. Peter (Robert Atzorn), a bored middle-class man, simultaneously displaces and fulfills his vivid fantasies of killing his wife, Katarina (Christine Buchegger), by murdering a sex worker, also called Katarina (Rita Russek), and then violating her corpse. Twelve years earlier, Bergman had anticipated this killing in Hour of the Wolf (1968), another film that culminates in male violence. During a sleepless night, Johan (Max von Sydow) confesses to his wife, Alma (Liv Ullmann), his murder of a young boy. By the end of the film, Johan has shot Alma in a rage and disappeared, abandoning her and her unborn child.
The men in these films are similarly consumed by desire for domination and fear of losing control: both express their anxieties about masculine identity in violence; both are deeply homophobic but possibly gay and incapable of being close to women who are stronger and more open to life than they are. Yet by the time he made From the Life of the Marionettes, while in self-imposed exile in Munich, Bergman seems to have refined his notion of how these anxieties are weaponized: the confused, formless anger that propels Johan to madness in Hour of the Wolf has in Peter become directed and focused, his targeting of women made explicit. While each film is formally masterful—Bergman’s staging is impeccable, and Sven Nykvist, the cinematographer on both, uses light dynamically to create striking shots—their visual beauty does not mask the aggression and brutality enacted by their male protagonists.
“As the men disintegrate both mentally and physically, the women, independent and engaged with the world in ways their husbands are not, do not diminish.”
So how are we to watch these films—in particular, how are women to watch such unrelenting examples of male anger and entitlement, and what can we draw from the portrayals of the women who incur this wrath? In her 1996 essay collection Reel to Real, the feminist theorist bell hooks, addressing dominance in heterosexual relationships, observes that “there are moments when submission is a gesture of agency and power, [and] a distinction has to be made between conscious surrender, an act of choice, and the submission of someone who is victimized and without choice.” For hooks, love is something that can fortify the person who loves, regardless of whether it is reciprocated. Throughout From the Life of the Marionettes and Hour of the Wolf are moments of such conscious and complete love, offered at some point by each of the three women; the two wives, Katarina and Alma, at least, gain strength from them. As the men disintegrate both mentally and physically—hunching into their clothes, their faces twisted into expressions of pain—the women, independent and engaged with the world in ways their husbands are not, do not diminish.
The key idea under investigation in From the Life of the Marionettes, adapted for German television from a longer script called Love with No Lovers, is the intertwining of passion and contempt—a theme that turns up time and again in Bergman’s work—which makes it difficult for either party in a relationship to break free. Through a series of vignettes, we observe the unraveling marriage of Peter and Katarina Egermann in the days leading up to Peter’s brutal murder and rape of the other Katarina. The Egermanns were first introduced as peripheral characters (played by Jan Malmsjö and Bibi Andersson) in Scenes from a Marriage, representing an alternative trajectory—they are unhappy but stay together—to that of the series’ central couple, Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and Johan (Erland Josephson). Like Marianne in Scenes from a Marriage, Katarina Egermann is a more modern woman than the female characters in Bergman’s earlier films. Described disparagingly by the sleazy psychiatrist Mogens Jensen (Martin Benrath) as a “career woman”—a perspective that does not stop him from trying to sleep with her—Katarina represents an independence that thwarts Peter’s idea of what a wife should be. But while Peter harbors fantasies of murdering his spouse and at one point kicks her roughly in the face after he has been talked out of a suicide attempt, Katarina remains simultaneously autonomous and open to their relationship. Bergman here gives his female protagonist a fuller humanity and a better aptitude for life than he does her male counterpart—something that had been increasingly the case since the early days of his career. Unlike Hour of the Wolf’s Alma, who is partially reliant on Johan for her livelihood and becomes independent only after he disappears, Katarina does not need Peter, and continues to thrive once he is gone.
Yet this freedom is granted only to the married Katarina. Her sex-worker double, who offers one of Marionettes’ most startling images of conscious empathy, is denied any form of renewal. The scene between Peter and this Katarina is shown twice: the first image of the film—shot in color, as is the final scene—is of her shoulder. Then we see her open, curious face and her finger tracing the outline of Peter’s face—a Bergman motif. The first time the scene occurs, it is a generous, tender image that is then disrupted by Peter’s sudden violence. But the second time it plays out, just before the end of the film (and now, like the rest of the movie, in black and white), it becomes clear how radical this gesture is. By now, we know that she has felt unsettled by him. “Something about you is strange,” she says. “One of the girls wanted to stay here and keep an eye on things. Maybe it was stupid of me to send her away.” Despite this, she chooses to be empathetic. The fact that the film plays out conservatively and kills her off, in the long-standing cinematic tradition of punishing prostitutes, does not diminish the symbolic power of her action: it is not because she has chosen compassion that Katarina is murdered but because the system in which she is caught offers no escape. As Peter repeats throughout the film: “All ways are barred.”
Like From the Life of the Marionettes, Hour of the Wolf portrays the spiral into madness of its male protagonist, which cannot be halted by his wife’s compassion and generosity. The moody, secretive Johan, a successful painter going through a bad patch, and his good-hearted wife, Alma, have been spending the summer on a remote island. (A similar location, the island Fårö-, would soon serve as the setting for Shame and The Passion of Anna, two other films from the late sixties featuring Ullmann and von Sydow as tortured couples—and the scenes that bookend it, in which the present-day Alma gives a documentary-style report directly to the camera on the events of the plot, prefigure similarly self-referential moments in those films.) The pair’s time on the island ought to be a pleasant one, but Johan is haunted by dark visions that fracture his sanity.
Hour of the Wolf is constructed in such a way that the audience can never be sure which actions are part of the material world and which take place within Johan’s visions. His murder of the boy, for example, could be read as a vision or as a memory, an indeterminacy effected by the image itself. The struggle between child and man is presented with a tangible vividness and attention to detail, yet it is shot in the overexposed, high-contrast cinematography that marks many of Johan’s hallucinations. When the couple visit the castle of their neighbor, the Baron von Merkens (Josephson), for a dinner party, von Merkens’s ghoulish guests chatter chaotically at Johan, their faces contorted under a hard, unforgiving light. Johan begins to break under the pressure, but Alma remains strong. As she and Johan walk back across the moonlit island, she tells him, “I’m not going to run away, no matter what they try,” even though she’s sure something terrible is about to happen. “I’ll stay,” she says, “I will. I’ll stay.” Although ultimately the power of her love is not enough to save him, like Katarina Egermann in Marionettes, she accepts that fact and moves on. Without Johan, there are no ghosts, and Alma is free to live with her soon-to-be-born child.
Addressing the hallucinatory figures who haunt him into madness near the end of Hour of the Wolf, Johan says, “The mirror has been shattered. But what do the shards reflect?” In Images, Bergman draws a connection between this identity crisis and the one sufferred by Peter in From the Life of the Marionettes. But the films offer no indication that these men can succeed in reassembling their broken psyches. Rather, it is the female characters here who have been able to make—in their fierce holding on to their capacities to love, within and against the structures of a patriarchy that is unrelentingly abusive—radical gestures of will and resilience. The men in these films have lost their senses of self, but the women have learned that, to return to hooks, “to love is to endure.”