With legendary Swedish cinematic maestro Ingmar Bergman having recently departed for the great picture house in the sky, what better way to celebrate his life and career than with the re-release of a couple of his more obscure and neglected outings? The films in question being made finally made available on DVD through Tartan are “Sawdust and Tinsel” and “The Devil’s Eye”, originally released back in 1953 and 1960 respectively. Although the two are perhaps amongst Bergman’s lesser known works, this is not to suggest that they are minor efforts, and though they are very different in terms of approach, both are excellent examples of his versatile style and thematic obsessions. As well as being required viewing for fans and indeed for serious cineastes everywhere, perhaps more importantly they also offer a worthy introduction to the great director and pack in enough drama and bleak comedy to entertain the average viewer who may well never have thought before about watching an old black and white Swedish film.
“Sawdust and Tinsel” follows the tragic relationship between middle-aged circus owner and ringmaster Albert Johansson (Ã…ke GrÃ¶nberg, who some may recognise from the rather less dignified Swedish monster film “Terror in the Midnight Sun”) and young horse rider Anne (Harriet Andersson, a Bergman regular who also appeared in “Summer with Monika”, “Through a Glass Darkly” and “Fanny and Alexander”). The film begins as the shabby circus arrives in the town where Albert’s wife and children live, a fact which causes him to rethink his life and which drives the jealous Anne into the arms of Frans, a cruel actor from a local troupe. Although the two attempt to find happiness their efforts are thwarted, and they are eventually dragged back to each other and to their miserable lives.
As should be pretty self-evident from the above, “Sawdust and Tinsel” is a grim, gloomy affair, filled with dashed hopes and with Bergman using the notion of performers to explore destructive relationships and the acts which people go through in search of their dreams. More than anything, the film is neatly summed up by the classically Bergman figure of Frost, a pathetic, hateful drunkard of a clown, betrayed by his wife and angry at the world. Certainly, the characters are a difficult to like lot, with both Albert and Anne being frequent liars who are all too willing to discard the other in order to fulfil their own desires. Despite this, the two are oddly sympathetic figures, and it is hard for the viewer to begrudge them their wretched scheming. Although there is little light offered by the film, which guides its protagonists not towards redemption or contentment but pain and public humiliation, it is actually quite moving, albeit in a depressing way, and works well as an engagingly dark commentary on the human heart in the director’s usual fashion.
“The Devil’s Eye” is rather a different prospect, being a darkly comic morality play in which an irate Satan sends Don Juan (played by Jarl Kulle, another frequent Bergman collaborator), currently languishing in hell for his sins, back to earth to seduce a young virgin bride-to-be who just happens to be the daughter of a vicar. Unfortunately, the girl (played by Bibi Andersson, one of Bergman’s favourite actresses) proves to be more than a match for the tortured lothario and he finds himself questioning his decadent ways. At the same time, his impish servant Pablo sets about wooing the lady of the house while the unfortunate vicar attempts to trap another visiting demon in his cupboard.
Bergman openly structures the film like a play, dividing it into three acts, all of which are introduced by a dryly humorous narrator who talks directly to the viewer, commenting on the drama. The film also has the look of a play, taking place mainly on sets and basically revolving around scenes of dialogue. As such, it is a verbose affair, though witty and with some very clever lines, often involving some surprisingly vulgar sexual language. Bergman shows a sly, cynical sense of humour throughout, and the film is darkly amusing, though at the same time thoughtful, playing upon concepts of good and evil, innocence and corruption, and contrasting the more archaic aspects of the Don Juan’s supposed depravity with the coldness of modern morality.
Filled with demons and magic, the film is surreal at times, though Bergman never allows it to degenerate too far into farce, grounding the drama with a distinctly melancholy emotional core that offers no easy answers. His Don Juan is a fascinating figure, wretched and weary, though whose personal journey to self-realisation and suffering is moving and not without a certain dignity. Still, “The Devil’s Eye” works mainly as a clever comedy, and though perhaps lacking in dramatic weight, is arguably one of Bergman’s more entertaining films and certainly deserves to be better known amongst his body of work.
Ingmar Bergman (director) / Ingmar Bergman (screenplay)