Thirst (1949)

Ingmar Bergman | 1hr 23min

The austere, psychological fantasies that Ingmar Bergman would explore at the height of his filmmaking career were still a long way off for him in 1949, and yet even so, the uneasy flashbacks of Thirst still bring a faintly nightmarish edge to the festered love at its centre. This contempt between married spouses would continue as a source of fascination for him in later projects like Scenes from a Marriage, and although there is nothing here quite on the level of that domestic epic, the vitriol that Rut and Bertil spit at each other is vicious nonetheless. These “prisoners in chains” are bound to each other in sickness and in health, and as they ride a train through a war-ravaged Europe, old heartbreaks rise to the surface, splitting our focus between their parallel traumas and nostalgic affairs.

Given how much of Thirst is spent following these alternating perspectives, it takes a fair bit of time for their context in the present day to emerge, and there is additionally some formal messiness in Bergman’s narrative construction. Specifically within Bertil’s memories, many scenes take place around his widowed mistress, Viola, where he is altogether absent. As a character though, she is a powerful testament to the failing of a patriarchal culture on many levels, from her struggling to stay afloat financially following the death of her husband, to the manipulative abuse of her psychiatrist Dr. Rosengren, thereby creating an opening for former ballerina Valborg to seduce her away from the world of men. Almost like a mirror held up to the opening scene of Bergman’s previous film, this young woman approaches the edge of a pier with the intent to drown herself, but where Port of Call’s Berit was unsuccessful, there is no one around to rescue Viola.

The camera only follows her so far though, eventually resting on the still reflection of a ship in the water, and just as the ripples of her jump gently disturb its image, so too does the impact of her suicide reverberate through Thirst with a haunting melancholy. It does not just occupy the thoughts of Bertil, whose love for her persists, but it also leaves a hopeless void in this allegory of Europe’s lost innocence. Outside the train windows in the present day, crowds of men and women whose lives have been disrupted by war and poverty reach up to the passengers onboard, begging for food scraps. Rut and Bertil may placate their requests, but it isn’t long before they are speeding off on the train again, submerged back in their own drama.

It is frequently in these intimate scenes of claustrophobic interiors where Bergman’s filmmaking flourishes, forcing the camera into delicately framed close-ups of his actors as they pour their frustrations out onto each other and themselves. As Dr Rosengren imposes himself upon Viola, Bergman shoots the profile of her insecure expression with his face behind hers, composing a distinctive shot that he would most famously return to later in Persona. Here though, the camera rotates around their heads in an enchanting swirl, moving into a shot of duelling faces on either side of the frame before letting Viola dominate the image, reflecting the scene’s shift in power dynamics with a single, fluid take. Similarly, the lighting of the train scenes also manifest the deep derision shared between Bertil and Rut, casting shadows and the train’s blinking lights across faces as the foundation of their misery surfaces.

“I hate you so much that I want to live just to make your life miserable. Raoul was brutal. You took away my lust for life.”

There is no downplaying the agony of Rut’s past, which saw her become another man’s mistress and suffer a botched abortion, and yet it is her current husband whose insistent longing for the deceased Viola which torments her the most. Conversely, it is Rut’s own history with her past lover Raoul which plagues Bertil’s mind too, setting up a pair of intangible obstacles that neither can move past. Both are at an impasse, taking snarky jabs at each other by complaining that “There’s too much nudity in this marriage,” but also degrading themselves with harsh, demeaning language.

“Nothing takes root in me. I’m all filth and sludge inside.”

The final, psychological departure from reality that sees Bertil kill his wife with a bottle to the head does not spill over in a moment of anger, but even more chillingly punctuates a cold silence. Once again, close-ups are Bergman’s chosen aesthetic in framing this violent outburst, though in separating them into their own shots there is a disconnection in the action. We see Bertil’s slow turn and sudden attack, and we also see Rut collapse a few seconds later, but the surreal discontinuity in the framing and delay hints at the action taking place purely within a dark, eerie dream state.

With both their previous love lives lying in tatters, further destruction is not the answer for these loveless partners. Perhaps these is a tinge of studio interference in the happy reconciliation that comes about, but if this couple is to represent the disrepair of Europe in the wake of war, then their decision to pursue a more hopeful future together at least expresses an optimism for the continent’s social and economic recovery. For Bergman, it is also slightly closer to the magical realism he would pioneer in future decades, even if it is not fully present yet in his narrative. Still, his dynamic camerawork and framing is enough to visually manifest the wistful temptation to escape into one’s mind from grim realities, especially when that reality is a morose, resentful marriage.

Thirst is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

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