This is the first film on which Ingmar Bergman was both sole writer and director and thus had what would later be celebrated as ‘authorial control’. It’s therefore a film which Bergman’s auteurist fans see as the earliest authentic expression of Bergman’s major themes and ideas. The Swedish website devoted to Bergman’s work has some useful material on Prison. It was a rare opportunity for the still young Bergman to get a free hand to make a film. Producer Lorens Marmstedt gave him the chance to make a very low budget film in just 18 days of shooting. Marmstedt had his own production company Terrafilm which also distributed the film in Sweden. Marmstedt also managed to secure Hasse Ekman, Bergman’s rival as a ‘hot director’, to play a director in the film and also Ekman’s wife Eva Henning as a leading player. Prison is a film of its time and from the Swedish film industry of its time. I find it a little difficult to grasp how the Swedish industry worked in the late 1940s so I must try to work on what I recognise in the film and try to relate it to global cinema in the late 1940s – and in some ways that is quite productive.
Prison opens with a long shot of an elderly man walking quickly in an odd jerky fashion down a hill and into a group of buildings on the edge of town. His gait and the long shot composition immediately suggest a fantasy of some kind. I thought of the 1920s German Expressionist films Nosferatu or The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. But the man finally enters what turns out to be a film studio and the man approaches a director (Hasse Ekman) in order to tell him a story idea about “Hell – on earth”. The director later tells a pair of young writers (a young couple who live together) about the incident and Thomas (Birger Malmsten), the young man becomes excited and tells the director about a teenage prostitute he has interviewed who could be the subject of such a film. So far, so conventional. At this point, 10 minutes in, we might realise that there haven’t been any credits. Now we are offered a long moving camera shot following a curving narrow street in the central shopping district of Stockholm and a voiceover reads the film’s credits to us. The camera stops moving when it captures the teenage prostitute Birgitta Carolina Söderberg (Doris Svedlund) staggering in a doorway. She is about to have a baby. Does this mean that we are about to follow a melodrama narrative? Yes and no. Some of the familiar elements from Port of Call (Sweden 1948) are certainly present but Bergman gives free rein to representations of dreams and nightmares and offers us a commentary on filmmaking.
The remainder of the narrative sees Birgitta being investigated for her activity as a prostitute after her baby is taken from her by her boyfriend and her older sister. She will again meet Thomas who is on his own downward spiral caused by his excessive drinking. Perhaps these events signify that ‘Hell’ is what Birgitta and Thomas experience. The dream nightmare sequences reminded me of Michael Powell’s expressionist ‘visions’ as experienced by Sammy Rice (David Farrar) with the effects of pills and abstention from alcohol in The Small Back Room (UK 1949) and also the kinds of fantasy conjured up by Jean Cocteau around this time. At one point I was reminded of the representation of ‘Heaven’ in the musical Carousel (US 1956) with Gordon MacRae up a ladder hanging stars in the sky. Bergman’s Hell is much darker of course! Expressionist lighting and set design is a feature of film noir and melodrama in the 1940s so in that sense the film is familiar.
While Thomas and Birgitta are in Hell, Thomas’s partner Sofi (Eva Henning) is visting the studio where we experience the artificiality of a love scene set on a small boat bobbing about with back projection. This is Bergman commenting on the conventions of mainstream cinema. He also inserts a different kind of commentary by having Thomas and Birgitta find an old film projector and a film which turns out to be a silent slapstick comedy – a film made by Bergman with an Italian comedy troupe who create a contest with Death and the Devil attacking a hapless sleeper. A burglar/assassin and policeman also appear. Finally, in the mix, Bergman offers us the kind of melodrama we saw in Port of Call, with a story about another young couple worried by yet another pregnancy. The film ends with the re-appearance of the old teacher at the film studio where the lights are being switched off after another day’s shooting.
What can be said about this odd mixture of approaches to cinema? It certainly does ask questions about what we expect from mainstream cinema. It’s difficult to judge just how ‘innovative’ a film like this was in 1949, though as I’ve indicated some of the ideas were being explored elsewhere and it’s very difficult to really find something ‘new’ in cinema – so much was done in the first few decades of filmmaking. The constraints imposed by the budget are evident but praise must go to cinematographer Göran Strindberg, art director P.A. Lundgren and the whole crew as well as Bergman and his actors. As to what it all might mean, the existential angst and the religious and philosophical themes do seem to presage Bergman’s later concerns. He made seven very different films in the four years from 1946-47. It’s interesting that each title seems to have supporters and detractors and several, including this title are claimed as the first breakthrough/success. There are more available to watch so I’ll hang fire for the moment on which worked best for me.
Prison did have a few struggles with censors in Sweden, but emerged unscathed as a 78 minute feature. It seems to have been widely distributed outside Sweden, reaching the UK (like Port of Call) only in 1960, uncut but classified as an X film with the title The Devil’s Unwanton, which seems a rather damning term for either Thomas or Birgitta.