Sawdust and Tinsel: The Lower Depths

On Film / Essays — Nov 19, 2007

Ingmar Bergman made some outstanding films before Sawdust and Tinsel (1953). But that film, released in America under the meretricious title The Naked Night—and known in Sweden as The Clown’s Evening—was the first that no other director could have made. Uniquely Bergman, it’s a masterpiece that encapsulates much that was to come.

Here were real people, their lives expressionistically intensified. Along with camera work that boldly made things paler or darker (and richer in chiaroscuro than we were used to at the time), Sawdust and Tinsel boasted earthy yet somehow charged, poetically heightened dialogue, alternated with achingly eloquent silences, all of which would become part of the trademark Bergman style.

It should be remembered that before becoming a film director Bergman was deeply committed to the stage, first as an actor, then a director—and even while making movies he maintained a parallel career in theater. Sawdust and Tinsel thus holds a special place in Bergman’s canon, as it was the first film in which the director fully engaged with show business—here in both its upper, theatrical and lower, traveling-circus strata, from stage actors and directors to ringmasters and artistes. Though enfolded in its own stark class system, the world of performers that Bergman presents in Sawdust and Tinsel is nevertheless—like those in his later films The Seventh Seal (1957), The Magician (1958), and Fanny and Alexander (1982)—emblematic of our own.

Fine as the Swedish filmmaker’s earlier outings were, here, in his thirteenth film, Bergman gazed deeper than ever into the human soul, depicting it with greater artistry. The sparring spouses in his 1949 film Thirst have their Strindbergian fascination, but the empathy in Sawdust and Tinsel is more profound, the suffering more shattering, the Pyrrhic victories (such as the film’s ending) more moving. Stylistically, one of the ways Bergman achieved this was by using a greater number of close-ups of the human face, which would continue to fascinate the filmmaker above all else throughout his career. But it isn’t a matter of introducing mere talking heads; rather, Bergman explores all that a constantly changing countenance can reveal or conceal along the extensive scale between openness and deception. In contrast to the theater director, who views the actor, first and last, as a living presence, the film director sees the actor primarily as an image—in a sense, then, Sawdust and Tinsel, with its reliance on the purely photographic device of the close-up, was Bergman’s true emergence as a filmmaker.

Sawdust and Tinsel showed us things seldom seen on film before 1953. True affection and brutal sex we had had, also faithfulness and betrayal—but here, as a central motif, was what we now know as a peculiarly Bergmanian theme: humiliation. Humiliation was paramount even in pre-Bergman films, as far back as Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930), but in Bergman it is no longer a single individual who suffers indignity; rather, as character after character gets humbled, it’s revealed as a painful, nearly universal phenomenon. Lying in wait for liars and cheaters, as well as forgivers and endurers, are the emotional injuries in word, action, and inaction that a person can wreak upon another; here life is largely, if not wholly, a deeply wounding power struggle.

Sawdust and Tinsel opens, in fact, with a story of humiliation, told in flashback. The wagons of the down-at-heel, itinerant Cirkus Alberti are trundling through the ambiguous boreal night. The middle-aged director, Albert Johansson (Åke Grönberg), sleepless beside his young mistress, the bareback rider Anne (played by the sexily childlike Harriet Andersson), leaves her and clambers up into the high seat of the coachman, Jens, who proceeds to entertain him with a story that happened in these environs years ago. Bergman depicts the following tale through deliberately overexposed images that have the ghostly pallor of distant memory. Alma, the no--longer-young but still handsome wife of the gangly, white-faced clown Frost (the sardonic-tragic Anders Ek), had gone bathing nude in the sea, with a regiment stationed nearby on firing practice, no doubt to prove herself still desirable. Amid taunts, and while struggling to shield her nudity, Frost, stripped to his pathetic undergarments, wades in and carries out the crying Alma, slung over his shoulder, back to the circus tent.

Bergman’s etiolated images are matched by the near mutism of the soundtrack. The only aural accompaniments are Jens’s intermittent, droning narration, the hideous laughter of the jeering soldiery, and the ominous, oddly rhythmed bark of the phallic cannons. Frost stumbles in this marital calvary and finally collapses, whereupon the now remorseful Alma clings to him as other circus members carry him onward. The harlot has turned anxiously maternal; the note of woman as sexually errant betrayer but also protective mother figure has been struck. Frost and Alma’s is a conjugal horror story that the dozing Albert might well have heeded.

Albert and Anne are in for a different sort of public embarrassment when, bedizened as much as they can manage, they head for the theater in the town where they are setting up the circus. Albert has some acquaintance with Sjuberg, the womanizing head of the guesting theater troupe, and with the somewhat tartly overdressed Anne as bait, he comes to ask for a loan of costumes, many of the circus’s own having been pawned at the previous stop. The cynical Sjuberg, brilliantly played by the star to be and Bergman standby Gunnar Björnstrand, muses to the postulants that the costumes might come back vermin infested. When Albert asks why he has insulted them, Sjuberg launches into his great speech, which crystallizes the correspondence of human interaction and humiliation that Bergman would continue to define in his work: “Why? Because we belong to the same riffraff, the same wretched pack, and because you put up with my insults. You live in caravans; we stay in filthy hotels. We make art; you make artifice. The lowest of us would spit on the best of you. Why? You only risk your lives. We risk our pride. I think you look ridiculous and overdressed, and your little lady would look better without her finery. If you dared, you’d think us sillier, with our shabby elegance, our painted faces, our pretentious speech. So why shouldn’t I insult you?”

This blend of sharp sarcasm, which cuts in both directions, is admirably multivalent and undeniably punishing. Only a consummate artist could have written, as an argument for superiority, the astoundingly paradoxical “You only risk your lives. We risk our pride.” Isn’t life more precious than vanity? Not to the supercilious artist, who would rather gamble with his life than risk losing the adulation of his public and his self-esteem. And yet this shrewd insight may cloak an error in judgment: life is more essential than art, and its sacrifice greater than that of pride. In the deepest sense, we have here the conflict between art and life. As Bergman certainly must have known, the theater actor is an artist whose vanity can be humbled by bad reviews and poor audience response. Life is what the circus artist gambles with. Which is more important? If the former, then art is superior; if the latter, then life. This conflict recurs, often symbolically, in such films as 1955’s Smiles of a Summer Night (loss of clothes and dignity versus potential loss of life in Russian roulette) and The Magician (the truth of the magician-artist versus that of the doctor-realist).

Anne and Albert’s professional disgrace at the hands of Sjuberg is soon compounded by mutual betrayal, as Bergman goes on to expose the power dynamics that often taint male-female relationships, even within the supposedly proper boundaries of marriage. In this town lives Albert’s wife, the tobacconist Agda, with their two boys, whom Albert abandoned. He now envies her business success and stability, hoping to escape from the circus vagabondage and resume the marriage. In the most motherly way, Agda rejects him, even as she sews on one of his dangling buttons and offers to lend him money he could never repay. But the calm life on a quiet street, which Agda perceives as peace, Albert sees as emptiness. Could Agda’s self-satisfaction be bourgeois smugness rather than fulfillment? At the same time, Anne, sensing Albert’s threatened defection, gets involved with the unscrupulous Frans (the subtly sinister Hasse Ekman), a handsome but effeminate actor, in a sadomasochistic seduction that’s nearly a mockery of a love affair. One of Frans’s lures is the gift of an amulet, allegedly of great enough value to ensure at least a year’s independence from the circus and Albert. It proves a worthless trinket. The emancipation attempts of both partners have fallen flat, but worse humiliation awaits.

When, following a failed suicide attempt, Albert takes out his bitterness on the circus’s only exotic beast, a decrepit and emaciated black bear in the equally old Alma’s loving care, Bergman shows man fallen to his most wretched point. In a horrifying scene filmed from inside the cage, Albert shoots the bear as Alma sinks weeping to her knees. Since many of the characters have suggestive animal equivalents—Alma parallels her poor bear; Albert is quite clearly a bull, especially in a climactic fight scene; Anne recalls her amazing
black-and-white cat, from which Bergman draws a stunning performance as it expresses fear and anger—and appear as lowly as them, this registers as especially, humanly -tragic. As if to confirm the closeness of man and beast, Albert, near the film’s end, seeks solace in the comfortingly warm, animal-scented stable, tearfully embracing his favorite Percheron.

“Poor Anne . . . poor Agda . . . my poor little boys! And [to Frost] you, you devil, and your miserable wife! It’s a pity people must live on this earth. It’s a pity! They’re all so frightened. So frightened,” the drunken Albert cries out de profundis in one of the film’s most intense moments. The words seem to echo over the melancholy last image, an extreme long shot of the caravan rolling through the murky night, replicating the film’s opening. Cirkus Alberti is en route again.

This closing shot patently adumbrates the much-admired extreme long shot of the Dance of Death at the end of The Seventh Seal. This is not the only moment in Sawdust and Tinsel to predict later Bergman films, as the dissolve of Agda’s face into Anne’s as Albert leaves his wife anticipates the much greater fusion of the two women’s faces in Persona (1966). In creating these -stunning images Bergman was aided by three master cinematographers: Hilding Bladh, Göran Strindberg, and the rising star Sven Nykvist. The result is a seamlessly blended visual style, by turns gloomily opulent (backstage at the theater), dazzlingly garish (in the over-exposed flashback), amiably muted (in Agda’s shop and apartment), and moodily ominous (the night shots of wagons rolling).

Similarly, the score of the great Swedish composer Karl-Birger Blomdahl swings between various moods—from the marvelous wrong-note music for Albert and Anne’s progress to the theater (possibly indebted to the wrong-note waltz in the Wozzeck of Alban Berg, whom Blomdahl admired) to the carnivalesque theme heard faintly as a background to the circus, and the hurdy-gurdy music lurking behind some of the town scenes.

Bergman would go on to burrow ever deeper into his characters’ psychological torments. Although it didn’t follow Sawdust and Tinsel immediately, Smiles of a Summer Night further developed many of its insights. Thus we get in Smiles of a Summer Night not just two but several couples whose experiences provide reciprocal commentary, and the cinematography contrasts light and dark even more intensely. Sawdust and Tinsel, which grows richer with each viewing, was a breakthrough for its director. Bergman may not have been the first filmmaker with an outlook both bleak and wryly comical, but he was the one to convey it with the most unblinkingly tragicomic, and timeless, truthfulness.