Category: Swedish Cinema

A Lesson in Love (En lektion i kärlek, Sweden 1954)

Gunnar Björnstrand as David and Eva Dahlbeck as Marianne on the train together

MUBI promoted this film as a Bergman comedy. I might have managed the occasional wry smile, but no laughs I’m afraid. But that isn’t to say that the film is of no interest. It has many of the elements that became familiar for me in watching Bergman’s early work. The narrative features another train journey during which there are several flashbacks to earlier in the marriage of David (Gunnar Björnstrand) and Marianne (Eva Dahlbeck). Interior scenes are generally studio-bound but there are several location-shot sequences, mostly in Scania and Copenhagen. During the train journey, Bergman himself, wearing a beret, is seen reading a newspaper. So far, so good, but not so good from my point of view is a shift to the lives of the moneyed middle-classes. However, the two leads are strong and this film sees a third role for Harriet Andersson in a Bergman film. Bizarrely, this film comes after Summer With Monika (1953) in which Andersson plays slightly younger than her real age (she was born in 1932). In A Lesson in Love the 21 year-old Andersson played the 14 year-old daughter of the central couple. Somehow she is believable in the role.

Marianne shows her bruises in the flashback scenes covering her marriage to David

The set-up is simple. David and Marianne have been married for 15 years and have two children, Nix (the Andersson character) and her younger brother Pelle. They have long since passed the point of the ‘Seven Year Itch’ and David, a gynaecologist, has been having affairs with his patients. Marianne seems aware of this and is arranging to meet an old male friend in Copenhagen. David gets wind of what she is up to and secretly plans to get on the same train and play the game of meeting Marianne for the first time. The flashbacks then show us how the couple first got together and also how they recently compared their marriage to the 50 year marriage of David’s parents during a visit to his parental home on his father’s 73rd birthday. The final section of the narrative is played out in Copenhagen.

Presumably the ‘lesson’ is for both David and Marianne, requiring them to think about how their marriage has developed and whether its problems are universal or caused by the failings of both partners. Certainly the treatment of Pelle (ignored most of the time) and Nix (a tomboy who challenges the couple’s conformity – something they wouldn’t accept) is an issue they need to discuss. The general feeling among Bergman fans, most looking back to an early work by a proven auteur, is that this is a minor but entertaining work. It also bolsters the autobiographical aspects of Bergman as auteur. By this stage he was on his third marriage (out of five) and was having an affair with Harriet Andersson which today makes him seem a little creepy. But I guess it should make him aware of what certain kinds of marriage can be like.

Father and daughter in their own sequence. Gunnar Björnstrand is wearing a Bergman beret

As part of my attempt to understand Bergman, his body of work and his critical status, I’ve acquired a copy of Robin Wood’s Movie/Studio Vista book simply titled Ingmar Bergman and published in 1969. I wanted to get a feel of how a respected film scholar viewed Bergman in the 1960s. Wood places the film in the context of two later films, Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) and Wild Strawberries (1957)which feature some of the same lead actors. He pointed out in 1969 that A Lesson in Love was under-rated and deemed lightweight by many critics. Wood makes several interesting points. First, following what was then a standard approach, he suggests that the narrative lacks coherence and ‘stylistic unity’ and that the various flashbacks are hung on what he perceives as a ‘trivial’ central narrative line, the rail journey. Later he also points out that the film begins and ends with figures moving on a music box – a perhaps clumsy reference to the main characters and their ‘dances of love’? He argues that the chronology of the marriage is very hard to follow, even after several viewings. A further weakness he suggests is that the Ernemann family is never seen together in their own home and that apart from the parents’ relationship, the only other relationship shown in the family is that of father and daughter. Poor Pelle barely features and Marianne doesn’t come across (to Wood) as the mother of her daughter. Yet despite all this, Wood suggests:

Its air of relaxation, of not taking itself seriously, though it helps to account for the weaknesses, brings with it compensating strengths. It is notable among Bergman’s works for its freedom and spontaneity of invention, its emotional richness, warmth and generosity, its effortless flexibility of tone. (Wood 1969: 62-3)

These strengths, Wood suggests are a good corrective to the view that Bergman is best represented by films like Sawdust and Tinsel (1953) or The Seventh Seal 1956. This certainly seems valid to me. My problem with Bergman’s films from the 1960s onwards is that they seem cold and emotionless. I would add to Wood’s analysis that there is a sense here that Bergman is following or borrowing from the romantic comedies of both the UK and Hollywood. I suspect that Bergman’s auteurist followers have never given much credence to the importance of genre (unless it is via references to Woody Allen’s takes on Bergman) and especially the ‘rom-com’ which, in its various guises, including the screwball comedies of the late 1930s and 1940s, includes many of the devices that Bergman includes here. I think you can argue that this film is a narrative of ‘re-marriage’ in which the two leads have to discover why they married in the first place. Most of my enjoyment in the film comes from the two performances by Eva Dahlbeck and Gunnar Björnstrand. It occurs to me that they have something of the chemistry of a couple like Irene Dunn and Cary Grant in My Favourite Wife (1940). What A Lesson in Love doesn’t have is the ‘coherence’ of a Garson Kanin film with a script idea from Leo McCarey. The suggestion by Wood is that the workaholic Bergman produced a script during a rare period of relaxation with Andersson – a script in which various ideas were linked together without too much concern for narrative structure. That seems about right and confirms for me the idea that studio control and being asked to direct someone else’s script isn’t always a bad idea.

To Joy (Till glädje, Sweden 1950)

Conductor Sönderby (Victor Sjöström) with Marta (Maj-Britt Nilsson) and Stig (Stig Olin)

This is the second film in which Ingmar Bergman directs from his own original script (following Prison, 1949) without any other writers involved. Once again the script features a flashback, this time a long flashback that follows a decisive moment and gradually leads back to it. The film’s title perhaps refers to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and the ‘Ode to Joy’ in the final movement which is being rehearsed by an orchestra in Helsingborg, as the film opens. The performance of the same piece then closes the narrative. When the flashback occurs it takes us back several years to when Stig (Stig Olin), a young man with ambitions to be a violin soloist, and Marta (Maj-Britt Nilsson) have just joined the orchestra, she as the lone woman violinist. The orchestra is led by Sönderby (Victor Sjöström), who is frustrated by the day’s rehearsal and the lack of progress.

Stig meets Marcel (Birger Malmsten), the orchestra player with the spiv moustache

As we might expect, Stig and Marta are going to get together and will eventually marry. The main part of the narrative will focus on their difficult relationship. Sönderby acts like a surrogate father to the couple, visiting them at key moments at home and providing a sounding board or a wall against which Stig can bash his ego. There are only three other significant players, Birger Malmsten, another Bergman favourite, turns up as a rather smooth member of the orchestra with a spiv’s moustache, always mocking Stig. A young woman Nelly and her much older husband Mikael also befriend Stig.

Mikael (John Ekman) consoles Stig

If this makes the film sound dull in visual terms, I hasten to confirm that it is lensed by the great Gunnar Fischer who offers a number of rich compositions. Helsingborg is on the coast of north-west Scania with Denmark a few miles across the water. Stig and Marta live by the sea at one point. There are train journeys and a wedding in the Town Hall. As well as the central importance of Beethoven’s 9th, the orchestra and Stig at various points play Mendelssohn, Mozart and Smetana.

I was tempted to write that this Bergman narrative seems more coherent than in the earlier films but I’m not sure that is the case. I have mixed feelings about the film. It is well staged and the performances are strong. I am generally against the idea that an unpleasant character means that a film cannot work with audiences, but I confess that I did find Stig intensely annoying and at times quite stupid. On the other hand we (i.e. many men) all do stupid things at times in relationships. It doesn’t help that Maj-Britt Nilsson is beautiful and seemingly sensible. How could anyone behave in that way towards her? But then we know that Bergman’s characters are going to be tortured by self-doubt and to feel that they have been abandoned. In this case, Stig is the artist who thinks he has the talent to be supremely successful, but also suffers from the self-doubt that will prevent him attaining his goals. He doesn’t seem to realise that working on his relationship with Marta will probably improve his playing.

Another Bergmanesque use of a mirror in a melodrama

To Joy is closer in feel to the realism of Port of Call, rather than the expressionism of Prison, but there are certainly some melodrama moments and the orchestra setting provides the film with music and a representation of ‘artistic performance’. Also, two significant objects are carefully positioned/foregrounded at the start of the flashback and will eventually be revealed as such. At another point, a bottle of nail varnish is tipped over and begins to soak into a table-cloth. The film is monochrome but we assume that the nail polish is red. Bergman was a Hitchcock fan. The two ‘significant objects’ act in the narrative in ways that are familiar from Hitchcock’s films and Bergman follows the Hitchcock practice of appearing in his own films. Here he is an expectant father waiting in a maternity hospital.

A composition with a ‘significant object’ foregrounded – the teddy bear Stig gives to Marta

As in all of Bergman’s films, there is plenty of evidence here that Bergman and his team have many good ideas about how to stage scenes. They can also draw on very skilled actors who appear to be keen to work on Bergman films. Whether I enjoy the films seems to depend mainly on what Bergman is trying to achieve. I think I feel that he doesn’t like people very much or that he wants to explore the demons in his character’s heads because of his own demons. I feel that as I move forwards through his filmography that I find it harder to get involved with his characters. I’m trying to understand why many of the directors I admire were inspired by Bergman early in their careers. I need to watch Margarethe von Trotta’s film about him and read some more critiques.

Perhaps Bergman’s lack of interest in the sociology of his characters is my problem? We never learn anything about Stig’s background and all we know about Marta is that she has ‘grandparents’, but since this is mentioned in a family context this might refer to her own parents, i.e. the grandparents of her children. This contrasts with Stig’s relationships with both Sönderby and Mikael – older men who take the place of his father? What this film does provide, however, is babies – even though they follow previous abortions.

(Most of the images above come from dvdbeaver.com where you can find details of the DVD and Blu-ray editions of the film.)

Torst (Thirst or Three Strange Loves, Sweden 1949)

Bertil (Birger Malmsten) and Ruth (Eva Henning) on the train

In contrast to Prison, here is an early Bergman film in which he had no input to the script which brings together two separate narratives and three relationships. The script is by Herbert Grevenius, a theatre writer and mentor to Bergman, based on a collection of short stories by Birgit Tengroth who also appears in the film – she was both a ballet dancer and an actor. The narrative begins with a young woman, Ruth (Eva Henning) unable to sleep in what turns out to be a hotel room. Flashbacks to a few years earlier (at various points in the film) reveal that she is a ballet dancer and that she once had a holiday affair with a military man who she later discovers is married. Ruth eventually wakens her sleeping partner Bertil (Birger Malmsten) and the hotel is evidently in Switzerland where the couple have a stopover before they catch a train back to Sweden. They have been on holiday on the Mediterranean coast.

Viola (Birgit Tengroth) is suffering from the loss of her husband

In a double link, Ruth then sees her former military lover through the open train window. He is in another train on his way South with his wife. But as we settle in to follow the the difficult relationship between Ruth and Bertil in the hot and crowded sleeper train, we are introduced to Viola (Birgit Tengroth) via an argument about Midsummer, Strindberg and lilacs – or violets? I confess that I couldn’t interpret this exchange. The narrative now shifts to Viola, a woman in her thirties who has been widowed and is now visiting a psychiatrist (played by Hasse Ekman). Bertil became her lover after her husband died and before he took up with Ruth. This past love is one of the grounds for the goading of Bertil by Ruth. We now cut between Viola in Stockholm and the couple on the train travelling through a still devastated Germany. Viola will meet Valborg (Mimi Nelson) a dancer she knew earlier who once befriended Ruth in the ballet school. The two women get drunk together on the Midsummer Night with a street party in full swing below Valborg’s room. This proved the most controversial segment of the film and Valborg, the lesbian character, arguably prevented the film being released in the UK during the 1950s (it only received a video release in 2004). It also initially caused censor problems in Sweden. I won’t spoil the ending of the two parts of the narrative.

Ruth in ballet school with Valborg (Mimi Nelson)

Classic melodrama use of mirrors to show Ruth and Valborg and their strict ballet teacher (Naima Wifstrand)

Once again, this is a film which Bergman fans see as introducing his later themes and ideas. Compared to Prison this seems a more fully realised film and I can see what some critics mean with their identification of ideas that we now tend to associate with Godard films from A bout de souffle onwards. The bickering in the hotel room is not dissimilar to the scenes with Belmondo in girls’ rooms in Paris. There are various cultural references including a pair of ancient coins Bertil has bought in Sicily, one bearing the head of Arethusa – the nymph from under the sea who emerged as a freshwater fountain in Syracuse.

Ruth recovers from her abortion in one of several ‘big close-ups’

I found this a more satisfying film than Prison. It seems more coherent even as a dual narrative. Eva Henning and Birger Malmsten are an attractive couple and their taunts towards each other seem both realistic and erotic. I think seeing this film in the 1950s or 1960s would have been an eye-opener for my younger self. The representation of the central relationship is helped by a decision that Bergman made to build an ‘outsize’ railway carriage in the studio to allow more movement for the camera and therefore longer takes. Gunnar Fischer is behind the camera as he was on Port of Call and he offers a range of interesting exteriors as well as working the two major sets of the hotel room and the train. I think there are also more big close-ups of the central couple, intensifying their interaction. On the downside we are now with the middle-class, though with Bertil as a college assitant lecturer and Ruth as a ballet dancer, the couple don’t have much money. They are however better off than the starving crowds who clamour for food at the train windows in Germany. Ruth and Viola are strong intelligent women laid low by patriarchy. Ruth has had an abortion which has left mental and physical scars (the fate of three young women in three Bergman films in 1948/9). Viola needs psychiatric help but Dr. Rosengren is an extremely unpleasant character and I found his scenes bewildering. The ‘three strange loves’ involve four different women and the perspectives of two of them are explored in detail. I’m presuming this is as a result of not just Birgit Tengroth’s source stories, but also the help that she seems to have given Bergman, especially with the lesbian sequence. This film and Port of Call are two of the Bergman films I’ve enjoyed most and they were both sourced from existing literary works rather than Bergman’s own writing.

There are two more early Bergmans on MUBI which I will try to catch before they disappear. I have been surprised by the three I’ve seen. They do show remarkable skill and creativity from a filmmaker also working in the theatre as well as making so many films in a short time. He also seems to have been through two marriages by the age of 32. I wonder how much that affected his view of relationships? I don’t think I’ll ever ‘warm’ to Bergman but these early films are fascinating as film narratives.

Prison (Fängelse, Sweden 1949)

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.

Hasse Neckman and Eva Henning play the director and the young writer Sofi

The opening shot of the film

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 scene as a voiceover reads the credits and Birgitta stumbles (from dvdbeaver.com)

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.

In a nightmare sequence Birgitta meets her boyfriend, the possible father of her baby

Thomas looks down on Birgitta

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.

Birgitta watches a young couple experiencing the same worries she had in this noirish melodrama composition.

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.