Stig, the central character of Ingmar Bergman's 1950 film To Joy, is an unexceptional musician who believes himself destined for greatness. When the director of his orchestra, Sönderby, calmly suggests that he should be content with being part of the ensemble, rather than becoming a soloist, Stig replies with anger – he is far too proud to admit his own mediocrity. Frustrated by his lot, he argues bitterly with his wife and takes a mistress.
This was Bergman’s eighth film as director, and the character was a thinly-veiled, castigating self-portrait. As he would do time and again, Bergman took inspiration from life; Stig’s failed attempt at giving a solo stands in for Bergman’s debut feature, Crisis (1946), while Stig’s matrimonial strife is drawn from Bergman’s marriage to Ellen Lundström (the second of his five wives).
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Sönderby, too, had an autobiographical origin; it’s not by chance that the mentor figure was played by Victor Sjöström, who had fulfilled a similar function in the early days of Bergman’s career. Sjöström was one of the leading lights of Sweden’s silent era, and Bergman considered him “one of the greatest filmmakers of all time”. When Crisis was made, Sjöström was artistic director of Svensk Filmindustri, the company behind the film.
Based on a play about an adopted teenager whose idyllic life is shattered by the unexpected arrival of her birth mother, Crisis is much better than Bergman gave himself credit for – but the first three weeks of the shoot were an unmitigated disaster. Carl Anders Dymling, then head of Svensk, suggested that Bergman scrap everything and start from scratch, and sent Sjöström along to supervise – which he did by grasping Bergman firmly around the neck and giving him some stern advice.
The two would work together again, more famously, when Bergman cast Sjöström in the lead role of Wild Strawberries (1957).
If Sjöström and Dymling were instrumental in fostering Bergman’s burgeoning talent, they weren’t the only ones: there was also Gustaf Molander. Molander began as a script writer in the silent era, went on to direct over 60 films, and helped launch Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman to stardom. It was he who read Bergman’s first script and recommended it to Dymling, claiming that it “contained much that was objectionable and unpleasant but also a considerable amount of joy and truth”. The timing was fortuitous; Dymling was in need of a project for director Alf Sjöberg, another titan of the stage and screen – and another of Bergman’s idols.
As it happens, Sjöberg had studied under the same sadistic teacher that inspired the script, which concerned a toxic love triangle between a teacher, a student and a downtrodden shop girl. Imbuing the resulting film, Torment (1944), with an anti-fascist subtext, Sjöberg conjured powerful, expressionist images to startling effect.
Determined to use the production as an opportunity to learn, Bergman served as a ‘script girl’, and even got to direct the final scenes – a happy ending, of sorts, which was demanded by Svensk after the original was deemed too bleak. The film was a hit, and Bergman was handed Crisis – but when that proved a failure, Bergman’s relationship with Svensk came to an abrupt, if temporary, halt.
Thankfully, independent producer Lorens Marmstedt stepped in. Convinced of Bergman’s potential, Marmstedt produced a run of films, all based on pre-existing works: It Rains on Our Love (1946, a moderate critical success), A Ship to India (1947, a critical and commercial disaster) and Music in Darkness (1948, a modest hit). That Bergman was given so many chances to bounce back from commercial failures seems almost unthinkable today, but Marmstedt was a compulsive gambler and he liked to foster new talent. He was harsh on Bergman, forcing him to reshoot scenes he deemed poor and helping him develop his skills.
After the success of Music in Darkness, Bergman returned to Svensk for Port of Call (1948), an outlier in Bergman’s filmography due to its Rossellini-inspired flirtation with neorealism – an encapsulation of Bergman’s stylistic experimentation during these early films, when he was still attempting to find his voice.
Like the Marmstedt trilogy, Port of Call centred on a turbulent romance between troubled youngsters, downtrodden by a careless and hostile adult world. Uneven though these and the other early films may be, they are filled with the themes that preoccupy Bergman throughout his career: the battle between the sexes; duelling families; humiliated lovers; loneliness, guilt, jealousy and betrayal; the nearness of death; the struggle to create and perform; and the notion that life together may be hell, but it is even worse alone.
While these works established Bergman as a filmmaker, a trio of screenplays directed by Molander proved his way with words: Woman without a Face (1947), Eva (1948) and Divorced (1951) offered Bergman further opportunities to observe and learn. He later said that ‘Molander taught me more than any other director.’ Made the same year as Port of Call, Eva is particularly interesting for giving an early, vocal expression to Bergman’s preoccupation with the silence of God.
This religious angst was continued in Prison (1949), which posits that God is dead, the devil reigns over hell on earth, and that life is a cruel and sensual arc from cradle to grave. It was the first film Bergman directed that wasn’t an adaptation, and can be seen as his first real statement of self-expression. To get the film made, Bergman returned to Marmstedt and agreed to work on a tiny budget.
If Prison finally gave Bergman his voice, Thirst (1949) would give him his style. In Prison, Bergman later explained, he had used long takes for budgetary reasons, but in Thirst he did it for artistic reasons – his camera penetrating through to the inner lives of the film’s tormented lovers, a technique that would later become Bergman’s trademark.
Like all of these early films, Thirst is the work of an angry young man who was far more exceptional than the belittling self-portrait of To Joy implies – an artist who really was destined for greatness.
Ingmar Bergman: Volume 1 (5-disc Blu-ray box set) is available from 26 July 2021.
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