Sawdust and Tinsel (aka, The Naked Night) (Ingmar Bergman, 1953)
‘I had a dream this afternoon while I slept off the booze. I dreamt that Alma came to me and said ‘Poor Frost, you look tired and sad. Wouldn’t you like to rest awhile?’ ‘Yes’, I said. ‘I’ll make you small as a little unborn child,’ she said. ‘You can climb into my womb and sleep in peace.’ So I did as she said and crept inside her womb, and I slept there so soundly and peacefully, rocked to sleep as if in a cradle. Then I got smaller and smaller, until at last I was just a tiny seed and then I was gone.’
- the tormented laughing stock of a circus clown Frost (Anders Ek)
The portly owner and ringmaster of a failing turn-of-the-century circus Albert (Åke Grönberg) and his long-time mistress Anna (Harriet Andersson) grapple with their desire to be free from each other as well as the grinding humiliations of their daily lives as they arrive in a small village where Albert visits his estranged wife and children who he abandoned three years before, with the jealous Anna retaliating by giving in to the seductions of a smarmy actor from a nearby theater troupe.
The harshly surreal and dream-like prologue that opens Sawdust and Tinsel, with Albert recounting to a fellow performer as they arrive by horse carriage, cold and weary (where they will be subjected to what they know is already coming — police harassment and public harassment), the humiliation the last time they came to this particular town of company clown Frost (Ek) as he discovered his wife Alma (Gudrun Brost) brazenly, in intoxicating manner, stripping on a beach before a group of gawking soldiers, with the uniformed men pointing and cruelly laughing at the clown carrying her naked form (as she herself suddenly realizes the horror and humiliation of the moment and clings to him) across the sharp rocks that cut his feet, not only brilliantly sets up the entire theme of desperation, seething resentment and humiliation that Bergman sees as defining human relationships (and the state of living) that he’ll explore again and again throughout the film, it also manages to be what is certainly up there with the most unforgettable and all-defining scenes from the cinematic master’s legendary career.
With the blazing ‘whiteness’ of the sun almost supernaturally severe (an effect initiated by Bergman and his director of photography then tweaked in post), creating a harrowing sense of inescapability, of nowhere to hide, the picking and choosing of when to use natural sound and when not (the soldiers’ cannons boom loudly, but the sound of their laughter is silent), as well as sudden close ups, with white circus makeup smeared grotesquely across the faces of both Frost and Alma, Bergman creates a ghastly vision of debased humanity. Visually, Bergman speaks eloquently to representations of the classic formalist past (Bergman claims he hadn’t seen it by this point, so perhaps it was through artistic zeitgeist osmosis or something, but resonances to Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin are all over the scene – with further nods along the way to silent cinema) as well as a clear greatening maturation and move towards the modern (the nudity, the sweat, the sense of something real and natural being expressed). It’s a phenomenal scene, perhaps Bergman’s greatest on the level of expression achieved and allegory constructed.
It’s quite fascinating to discover that Sawdust and Tinsel was a huge bomb upon its release, with critics hating it and audiences staying mostly away. It’s a film that almost tanked Berman’s career (it certainly hurt his confidence and put his thankfully inevitable ascension on hold for a few years). Yet, it’s hard today not to see it as one of his great leaps forward, in terms of bringing forward his themes with a sophisticated shooting style to match (the film is gorgeously shot, and choreographed in scene after scene with a sense of a filmmaker already completely in control). Women’s faces hauntingly dissolve over each other in close-up, mirrors are used again and again in important scenes to reveal inner turmoil, long complex shots of much action, both emotional and physical, play out masterfully in tight quarters, and the overriding theme of life as a series of very small victories (‘tinsel’) crushed against grotesque humiliations (‘sawdust’) play out on every level of the drama.
Harriet Andersson is an early example of the bevy of stunning women – and personal mistresses – Bergman would pepper his work with. While as fascinating a presence as any of them, she stands apart from his later ‘types’; it’s not just the obvious dark hair, it’s also that Andersson is more physically voluptuous, bringing an earthier essence (an almost tomboy quality to her raw sexiness) than the later more reserved (and more bourgeois) Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson for instance. She’s an innocent impetuous tomboy, but not an innocent one; she’s not driven by intellectual neurosis like Ullman or innocent flirtation like Bibi (who later in her career under Bergman would become perhaps the most complex and fascinating of them all).
Andersson and Grönberg work together wonderfully, revealing their characters’ struggle between co-dependency and resentment, with their ultimate understanding that their fates are inextricably linked, and not by happiness or perhaps much love. The tall gaunt Ek, Bergman’s occasionally used, face-contorting weirdo of an actor who I find always fascinating to watch, goes particularly over the top in this one – and that’s saying something for Ek – but it works well (if sometimes hard to not to get annoyed by), reinforcing the grotesque and unforgiving quality to their lives… and to life itself.
Reinforcing certain sounds and voices then entirely omitting others (such as having actors speak directly in close up, yet not hearing their voices) as well including a score of a cacophonous, almost horror film style (the moment of Albert clandestinely discovering Karin’s affair reinforced by staggered and arrhythmic blats of horn instruments which could have fallen into over-theatricality, instead manages to reveal the true inner state of what one would experience at that moment… I mean, stumbling across your lover having an affair is NOT an emotionally subtle moment) shows a filmmaker capable of achieving great things through daring experimentation.
Anders Ek & Åke Grönberg
The very ending, coming just after the disgraced Albert has been cruelly beaten to a pulp before an audience’s heartless laughter (with the soldiers from the opening again present) by the pompous actor who took Anna (having tempted her with the lies of wealth he didn’t have, then practically raping her behind a closed door) driving the exhausted man to almost kill himself (instead he shoots his mirror image then the sick carnival bear that Alma loved… at Frost’s sadistic pleadings), with our circus troupe packed up and now, in narratively circular fashion, wearily walking off together on to the next town and to certain further humiliations, Albert again speaking intimately with a performer as he did at the beginning, this time Frost himself, with the odd clown delivering the final soliloquy quoted above, has Bergman beautifully presenting the final uncompromisingly pessimistic message, an exclamation point arising directly from the overriding themes of the film – that being that the only real comfort to be found… is to no longer exist at all.