Early Bergman (Criterion Collection) (5 Discs)
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Before The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries established him as one of the great masters of cinema, Ingmar Bergman created a series of less well known, devastating psychological character studies, marked by intricate, layered narratives, gritty environments, and haunting visuals. These early films, which show the stirrings of the genius to come, remain the hidden treasures of a European cinema on the cusp of a golden age. FIVE-DISC BOX SET FEATURES: Torment (1944) In Ingmar Bergman's first produced screenplay, the dark coming-of-age drama Torment, Widgren, a boarding-school senior, is terrorized by his sadistic Latin teacher. When he falls for Bertha, a troubled local girl, he finds himself caught up even further in a web of emotional mind games. Crisis (1946)
Urban beauty-shop proprietress Miss Jenny arrives in an idyllic rural town one morning to whisk away her eighteen-year-old daughter, Nelly, whom she abandoned as a child, from the loving woman who had raised her. Once in Stockholm, Nelly receives a crash course in adult corruption and wrenching heartbreak. Port of Call (1948)
Berit, a suicidal young woman living in a working-class port town, unexpectedly falls for Gösta, a sailor on leave. Haunted by a troubled past and held in a vice grip by her domineering mother, Berit begins to hope that her relationship with Gösta might save her from her own self-destruction. Thirst (1949)
A couple traveling across a war-ravaged Europe. A disintegrating marriage. A ballet dancer's scarred past. Her friend's psychological agony. Elliptically told in flashbacks, Thirst shows people enslaved to memory and united in isolation. To Joy (1949)
An orchestra violinist's dreams of becoming a celebrated soloist and fears of his own mediocrity get in the way of his marriage to the patient, caring Marta. Played out to the music of Beethoven, To Joy is a heartbreaking tale of one man's inability to overcome the demons standing in the way of his happiness.
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The prints are good, the subtitles removable. Each disc is packaged separately in a plastic case, and there is a concise essay printed on the inside cover for each film. The five cases slide up into the wraparound cover, so this isn't deluxe packaging. No special features, but these films are really intended for the Berman aficionado, who will presumably have seen one or more of them already.
All five films are nicely shot, and two of them (Port of Call and Thirst) are even recommendable to general viewers unaware of Bergman or his corpus. To Joy could just as well have been called To Despair--it is one of the few Bergman films I find truly depressing, with its depiction of a tortuous relationship involving a beautiful and congenial Swedish girl, portrayed by Maj-Britt Nilsson. The other two films, Frenzy and Crisis, besides their visual quality, have historical interest as Bergman's first produced screenplay and directorial effort, respectively.
Not included in this collection of early work are (among other films) The Night Is My Future (1947), which had popular success in its day but is quite conventional, and Prison/The Devil's Wanton (1949), which, while a mature and personal work, might be considered plodding and heavy-handed.
THIRST almost leaps ahead over everything he did in the 50s to connect with what he started doing in the 60s. When he makes THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY in 1961, it seems to me he is picking up where he left off with THIRST. The main character is Rut, played effectively by Eva Henning. She is a ballet dancer whose life and career have gone downhill ever since she had a tragic love affair with a married man who abandoned her, an affair that resulted in an abortion that left her barren and psychologically damaged. She also suffered a knee injury that caused her career to abort. The back story is told in flashback, along with scenes from her dancing school days. The film opens on the last day of her vacation with her husband, Birtil, whom she apparently married on the rebound after her affair with Raoul. The movie opens as they wake up in a shabby hotel room and confront their dissolute life and turbulent marriage. Rut is psychologically dependent on Birtil. She also feels tenderness toward him; she might even love him. But she also feels contempt because he's a stand-in for Raoul, and Raoul, however cruel, however big a male chauvenist pig he was, was an assertive military man (i.e., a real man), while poor Birtil--and Rut can't help throwing it in his face--is timid and wimpy (i.e., not a real man at all). When we first see him, he's asleep in a baby-like position with his rump up in the air. Anyhow, a stunning psychological portrait of their complex relationship unfolds on the last day of their vacation as they travel back home through black fantasies of murder and revenge.
The movie takes place in one day, much of it real time, but gives backstory in Rut's memory-flashbacks, which are deftly weaved in. There's also a second thread to follow, which is confusing at first but makes total sense by the end. Birtil has had an affair with a married woman named Viola, apparently also a dancer. On the very day that we meet Rut and Beril on their vacation, Viola, reeling from both her husband's death and her affair with Birtil, is seeing her psychologist, Doctor Rosengren, a cold, calculating sadist who tries to take sexual advantage of her fragile state. Viola rejects him and flees his office. As she walks down the street, she meets an old friend, who invites her up to her apartment. We had already met this friend in one of Rut's flashbacks from her days at Miss Henriksson's dancing school, so she serves as a link between Viola and Rut. (By the way, Miss Henriksson, an old, tough boozer, is brilliantly played by Naima Wifstrand). Anyhow, we then follow the events that lead up to Viola's suicide. In the apartment, the friends get drunk, but things turn dark as Viola realizes that she's being seduced into a lesbian encounter. The woman who plays the lesbian seducer--her name escapes me--gives a tremendous performance. (In fact, there are great performances from just about everybody.)
But the film begins and ends with Rut and Bertil, who leave the hotel room to catch a train home. On the train, through a phantasmagoric, war-torn landscape, their marriage comes to a crisis. The title, THIRST, can refer to several things in the movie: alcoholism, emotional thirst, suicide (Viola drowns herself); keep the theme in mind as you watch the film. In any case, it's Bergman's first major attempt and well worth buying even if you have to purchase the whole box set. The other films are good if intermittently dull, and they pale beside this one.
TORMENT (1944). The movie focuses on a boarding-school senior, Widgren, who is terrorized by his Latin teacher, and a local shop girl, Bertha, who in different ways, is involved with both men. Widgren is portrayed as a sensitive, caring, idealist. He says he wants to write and play the violin all day. He becomes involved with and falls in love with Bertha, only to be rejected by her later. He tries hard in school, but is scolded by his Latin teacher and unfairly given a demerit and later expelled. He works hard to impress his parents but they only express disappointment in him. He is a good soul who is slowly beaten down by convention and society. He almost folds to the pressure and begins to distance himself from others and life in general, but is saved in a way by a kind professor who understands him. The girl and the Latin teacher both represent tormented people, those who are, for some reason or another, excluded from society, and both meet a tragic end. 3/4 stars.
CRISIS (1946). The movie is told as if it were a play, a drama. There is a narrator who sets the stage in the beginning and speaks once again to end the tale. The movie centers around Nelly, an 18 year old girl raised by a loving women (not her natural mother), who grows up in a small town but dreams of something more for herself. She is pursued by a local gentlemen, Ulff, who is kind, but she does not want to be tied down. When she is given the opportunity to live with her estranged mother and work in a beauty shop in a city, she accepts the invitation. She also becomes involved with a man, Jack, who is a friend of the mothers. Her departure creates a crisis in each of the characters as they are forced in various ways to examine their lives. For some, it leads to growth and acceptance. For others, it is too painful. A decent movie overall. 3/4 stars.
PORT OF CALL (1948). The movie begins with the attempted suicide of a young woman, Berit, who has a troubled past, having spent years in a reformatory and who is now under the watchful eye of her judgemental mother. The young women begins an affair with a sailer, now a dock worker, Gosta, and through him hopes to find the happiness that has eluded her during life. Gosta too has a sense that time is passing by with little to show for it. He has seen much during his many years at sea, but still is alone and unsure of himself. The film has much Bergman philosophy in it, but is pretty conventional in most other respects. However, it is quite touching. In one scene, Berit tells Gosta that if they stay in town, they won't have much. He responds, "But I'll have you and that is a lot." Overall a very solid film. 4/4 stars.
THRIST (1949). The movie focuses on a young women, a ballet dancer, as she and her husband travel across Europe. She is married to a scholar who is fascinated by coins. Their marriage is a rocky one. He is practical. She is not. She drinks often and is depressed that she cannot dance due to a knee injury and cannot bear chuldren. In a series of flashbacks, you see glimpses of her troubled past, an affair with a married man, a botched abortion, and the not so glamarous life as a ballet dancer. The couple at times hate each other but neither can bear to be alone. The dialogue is quite good, but the movie, which jumps around a lot, is not always easy to follow and there are sub stories that do not seem to add much to the main one. 2/4 stars.
TO JOY (1950). The film begins with a violinist in a small orchestra, Stig Ericsson, receiving news of his wife's death, Marta, and continues with a lengthy flashback showing how the couple met and scenes from their mostly unhappy marriage, including an affair. Stig is an ambitious musician whose dreams of becoming a concert sololist but his talent is not quite up to the task. Plagued by mediocrity and lack of accomplishmemnt, he lashes out at those around him, his friends, his conductor, and most of all, his caring wife. In a cruel Bergman twist, it is only when Stig realizes that Marta has been the only positive event in his life, his only source of joy, that she is taken away from him. This is true Bergman cinema. 4/4 stars.
Recommended for the Bergman lover and those unacquainted with the poet of misery.
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