SAWDUST AND TINSEL (Gycklarnas afton) B+
aka: The Naked Night
Sweden (93 mi) 1953 d: Ingmar Bergman
It’s a pity people must live on this earth. It’s a pity! They're all so frightened. So frightened.
―Albert (Åke Grönberg)
As much as Godard’s Contempt (Le Mépris) (1963) or Fassbinder’s BEWARE A HOLY WHORE (1971) are about the process of filmmaking, Bergman’s bombastic, largely over-the-top film is about the utter chaos of theater, with suggestions that the life of an artist (or filmmaker) is equally tempestuous, in particular the tragic emotional trajectory that inhabits stage performances, as actors must be willing, above all, to sacrifice their pride and self-esteem to risk it all, hit or miss, by swinging for the fences and leaving it all out there on the stage, as that is the true marvel of theater, which is, after all, a spectator sport. Audiences come face to face with strangers presenting real-life challenges, by mysterious characters that dare us to be indulged by their mastery of wit and repartee, who are willing to bare all onstage in order to earn our trust and applause, where laying it all on the line also means they must be willing to fail, as that human attribute is something we all have in common. But in the spectacle of the theatrical world, abject failure is debasement, grotesque humiliation, where you must be willing to play the clown or the fool, subject to public scorn and ridicule, displaying a nightmarish willingness to endure it all yet still somehow survive, as the show must go on. A key early film, yet hidden underneath all the theatrics and hysteria is a stripping away of all illusion, acknowledging one’s weaknesses and shortcomings, then incorporating that understanding into a self-reflective look into the mirror to discover one’s true identity, which may be the hard lesson needed in pursuit of the only honest truth. Otherwise you’re lost in the superficial surroundings of vanity and pretension. This anguishing, soul-searching process anticipates the human struggles in what constitutes “a Bergman film,” setting the tone and template for future films, and may be the defining characteristic of this director. The film was a flop when initially released, with critics hating it and audiences disturbed by the overly dour subject matter (his next three pictures would be comedies). Set in the dreary world of a ramshackle, turn-of-the-century traveling circus, the film could just as easily have taken place in the Medieval age, as there’s something almost barbaric or even primal about the look of the film, not all that different from other Bergman historical dramas that take place in earlier eras, with the line of horse-drawn carts silhouetted against the horizon both at the beginning and again at the end, much like the dance of death that ends The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet) (1957). While it’s a more ragged effort, using dream-like imagery that stems from our collective subconscious, creating a psychological interior drama that seems to play out onstage in the crude and muddy atmosphere of the circus, with cinema at the time being held in much the same regard, considered 4th grade entertainment, with Bergman choosing bold imagery to teach and instruct a new morality for a new mass culture, throwing out the old bourgeois pretensions that were exclusively for the ruling class, revealing an exaggerated but unambiguous morality play, much like the use of striking Bolshevik images in Russia during the 1920’s.
Set in a world of costumes, mirrors, masks, grease paint, and illusion, this is a story of tormented souls, a gloomy and anguished work that features a dilapidated circus, describing itself as “the smallest show on earth,” going up against the elements, forced to set up their tents in a torrent of wind and rain, no easy undertaking, yet a new town offers new opportunities. An opening flashback serves as an extraordinary introductory prologue, a Fellini-like hallucination sequence with overtly sexual overtones, taking place seven years earlier on the shores of a military exercise shooting cannon fire out into the sea, with the camera lingering on the phallic size and shape of the cannons, highly symbolic of the male apparatus at work. With voices muted, the surreal, over-exposed white sunlight and exaggerated facial expressions resemble a Silent era film as the officers bark out orders. Who should wander into this exclusive all-male military detachment but Alma (Gudrun Brost), the aging Fellini-like blond well past her years who is the wife of the circus clown (Anders Elk), intentionally straying from their nearby encampment. With designs of attracting lusty attention, as if to prove she’s still a desirous woman, she strips down for a naked swim in the sea, joined by the officers, before the ogling eyes of the regiment. A young boy alerts Frost, the circus clown, dressed in his white face make-up and costume, who comes running to her rescue, fishing her out of the sea to the catcalls and jeering laughter of the men, who hide their clothing, humiliating them even further, forcing Frost to cover her nakedness with his body, carrying her upon his back, like Christ carrying the cross, walking barefoot along the rocky path up the hill, repeatedly stumbling under her weight, until it’s impossible to tell which one’s carrying the other, yet what’s clear is they are unable to cover up the ultimate disgrace of the moment. Curiously, an early scene of police harassment was cut from the American release, one that accentuates this theme of humiliation. When the circus rides into town to publicize their show the police confiscate their horses, forcing them to pull their heavy wagons back to their camp by themselves, a brutally demanding ordeal. This nightmarish embarrassment sets the stage for what follows, which is a series of unfortunate events, each more devastating in impact, featuring Albert (Åke Grönberg), an essentially primitive man, like Anthony Quinn’s strongman in Fellini’s LA STRADA (1954), a portly middle-aged owner and circus ringmaster whose best days are behind him, and his lovely mistress Anne (Harriet Andersson), the much younger bareback rider whose beauty and sexual allure dominates the film, with both thinking they need to be free of one another and done with this hardscrabble life, tired of being up to their ears in debts, yet both undergo their own tragic fall from grace, their dreams dashed, forced to accept the bleak and dismal reality of an impoverished circus life, rootless and alone, filled with outcasts that drift from town to town, never really fitting in to mainstream society.
A tone of bitterness is established right away, as hat in hand, a groveling circus owner is forced to pay a visit to the local theater director, Mr. Sjuberg (Gunnar Björnstrand), hoping to borrow some costumes for their evening performance, using Anne, dressed in her finest, as his calling card. While she is a sight to behold, and likely the only reason he pays them any interest, this little showdown pits the theater against the circus, featuring artists at the bottom end of the social strata, becoming a face to face dual for relevance, with Sjuberg offering a stream of insults.
Why? Because we belong to the same riffraff, the same wretched pack, and because you put up with my insults. No, don’t hit me. 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 even sillier, with our shabby elegance, our painted faces, our pretentious speech. So why shouldn’t I insult you?
This bit of biting sarcasm accentuates the eternal conflict between the have and have-nots, with theater at the time being a literary artform only the well-educated rich and middle class could afford, while the circus, leading homeless lives open and exposed at the outer regions of town for all to see, is open for everyone, yet remain so poverty-stricken and beaten down from misfortune that they can’t risk their pride as they have no pride left. Theater actors work with other actors, memorizing lines from a written script spoken aloud, while circus performers work with live animals, pitting man against beast, with both developing routines through endless practice and rehearsals, honing their craft to maximize a dramatic effect before a live audience, existing in a world where life and art intersect. Who’s to say which displays the greater talent, but certainly the theatrical troupe boasts more arrogance through a supreme blend of mockery and pretentiousness. This confrontation brings to light Bergman’s greatest detractors who believe he is a consummate theater director posing as a filmmaker, that the world of theater is his heart and soul, never really advancing the artistic aspects of cinema to any real degree, merging both mediums to produce a highly sophisticated form of drama. Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum raised a stir when he claimed Bergman “wasn’t really a 20th century artist,” claiming “that the tradition embodied by Bergman was mainly rooted in the late 19th century, like the theater of Strindberg and Ibsen that he was repeatedly drawn to.” According to the Ingmar Bergman Foundation, there were “170 productions for stage, television and radio between 1938 and 2004,” and “fifty or so films for cinema and television” between 1946 and 2003. Be that as it may, there’s little question as to Bergman’s artistry as a filmmaker, with legendary Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky listing 3 Bergman films in his list of ten favorite films in 1972 (The Top 10 Favorite Films of Legendary Director Andrei Tarkovsky), literally a decade before he made what many consider his greatest film, FANNY AND ALEXANDER (1982). The point being, this blustery argument between two esteemed leaders of a ragtag group of performers is still highly debated today, with Bergman chiming in right on cue. Using a distinctly vivid visual style with intricate compositions and a fascination with close-ups, which really tell the story, this is the first film working with lifelong cinematographer Sven Nyqvist, who does a masterful job incorporating various influences, including Swedish landscape and German Expressionist cinema, fueled by heavy make-up, exaggerated emotion, self-loathing, openly inspired symbolism coming from the subconscious, including artificially stylized sets, mirrors, tilted angles, and dark shadows to achieve surreal effects, with many scenes compressed into tightly confined space, allowing the camera a certain intimacy. The ghost of Strindberg is recognizable here in the highly personalized nature of the film, including touches of gratuitous cruelty sprinkled throughout that reflect the harsh adversity of their lives.
The unsatisfactory nature of their lives sets the tone for the film, where life is a trap, with no way out, yet Albert and Anne are driven by their desires to escape, not just the routine monotony of the circus life, but one another, yearning for a better life elsewhere. Albert’s chance comes when his ex-wife lives in the local town, along with his three boys that he hasn’t seen in three years, deciding to pay her a visit, which immediately sets off the alarms for Anne, believing he will abandon her and leave her all alone. In order to alleviate that possibility, betrayal is her only option, as she pays a visit to the local theater where earlier the leading actor of the troupe made his intentions clear, professing his love and admiration, which she easily dismisses in a stinging rebuke, “Don’t be ridiculous, snorting like a bull! I’m not your cow! Save it for your pale, flat-chested actresses who swoon if you look in their direction!” Albert’s visit to Agda (Annika Tretow), on the other hand, is all proper and above board, where she politely receives him, offering him a meal, revealing that she’s capably enlarged her tobacco businesses and never been more comfortable since he left, maintaining a middle class posture of stability and success. Much to his chagrin, she knows him all too well, mending a missing button on his shirt, but expresses no desire for him to return, as his incessant instability sucked the life out of their marriage. Where she finds peacefulness, he sees nothing but emptiness. Anne’s visit is even more degrading, shifting quickly from having the upper hand earlier, now perceived as more vulnerable and desperate, allowing the young actor Frans (Hasse Ekman, a rival film and theater director) to take advantage of her, locking her in his room, enticing her into his bed (literally overpowering her), and promising her riches beyond her wildest dreams, using phrases from roles he’s played to entice her. When she submits, she regrettably discovers afterwards that the priceless jewelry offered is totally worthless, finding she has demeaned herself for nothing. With both meekly returning back to the caravan, each with their own hidden secrets (including a haunting dissolve of Agda’s face in close-up merging into Anne’s), Albert suspects foul play, bullying her into confessing, quickly realizing the irony of their predicament, laughing his head off. “Want to know what I think? I think you went to see him because you’re as sick of the circus and me as I am of the circus and you. We’re all stuck, Anne. Stuck like hell.” Making matters worse, in their evening performance, Frans attends and publicly mocks Anne, shouting out indecent remarks, causing her to fall off the horse, drawing the ire of Albert who uses his whip to knock the man’s hat off. Forced to fight it out in public, centerstage, becoming the main event, Albert fails miserably, with Frans kicking sawdust into his eyes, temporarily blinding him and making easy work out of him, leaving Albert a thoroughly disgraced and beaten man, utterly humiliated, yet his suffering before a hushed audience is the evening’s entertainment, where like Frost’s opening nightmare sequence fraught with shame, life curiously interjects itself into the performance. Getting dead drunk afterwards, he threatens the entire company with a revolver, is even on the verge of shooting himself, but hasn’t the nerve. By dawn, however, in the cold light of a new day, they strike their tents and move on, having sunk into the gutter once again, both peculiarly reunited, more than ever aware of the hopelessness of their position, yet in their flawed quest for something better, Bergman gives them a quiet dignity.