Sawdust and Tinsel (1953)

Ingmar Bergman | 1hr 33min

Life is a circus, Ingmar Bergman posits in Sawdust and Tinsel, creating entertainment out of backstage affairs and laughter out of humiliation. It travels long, grey roads from one location to the next, never staying anywhere long enough to grow roots and thrive. It has a strange pull over those trapped in its cycles – the ringleader of this specific troupe, Albert, dreams of leaving it all behind, but realistically this is not something he could ever be satisfied with. When he meets his estranged wife, Agda, who has since settled down and found peace, there is nothing about her stagnant existence that is even slightly appealing to him.

“Year in and year out… everything stands still. For me it’s fulfillment.”

“For me it’s emptiness.”

Therein lies the irreconcilable difference between the nomadic buffoons of Sawdust and Tinsel and the ordinary people they fall for. Albert and his mistress, Anne, will find disappointment wherever they go, but at their very core is a desire for those perpetual distractions which save them from self-pity. In the very first scene as a trail of wagons ascends hills and crosses bridges, Albert joins the coachman to hear the story of how the circus clown, Frost, pathetically tried to cover up his wife as she went swimming in front of nearby soldiers. Bergman renders his flashback through overexposed film, like a bright memory fondly living on in everyone’s minds save for Frost himself. Albert would do well to take the clown’s mistake as a lesson rather than mere entertainment, though given the parallel trajectory that he heads down in Sawdust and Tinsel as a cuckolded man trying to save face, it appears that his embarrassing story may too one day be recounted as a light-hearted joke at his expense.

Over-exposed footage in this initial flashback like a dream, which foreshadows the struggle of sexes that will play out as the film’s main narrative.

Bergman’s wry sense of humour is stronger than ever here, marking a shift in his career away from the troubled romances of youth and towards more philosophically minded dramas with sharp, witty edges. So too does it mark another step forward for him as a visual filmmaker, pairing for the very first time with cinematographer Sven Nykvist who would go on to shoot seventeen more of his films right into the 1980s. In many exterior scenes, and especially that opening montage of wagons trailing across grassy landscapes, the horizon looks as if it has been smothered by a giant grey blanket and pushed right to the bottom of the frame, along with the lowly people who traverse it.

An elegant montage of the traveling circus, its reflection bouncing off calm rivers and rising up over the horizon at sunrise.

As we move indoors, a Wellesian deep focus takes hold of the camera, letting Bergman’s typically excellent blocking emerge in dressing rooms and theatres. It is here where divisions are drawn between characters, both in the layers of visual depth and the cluttered production design, as Frans’ seduction of Anne in his trailer frequently splits them between mirrors in beautifully fragmented compositions. Bergman works wonders with this sort of framing, in one shot catching Frans’ reflection while he stands behind the camera, and having him dangle an amulet right in front of the lens. With a simple image, Anna is tempted away from the life she has grown sick of, and a physical barrier is simultaneously drawn between them. When they are united in this cramped space though, it is of course the mirror which brings them together, inviting an intimacy which she cannot find in her relationship with Albert.

Some impeccable blocking in the mirrors of Frans’ trailer, first dividing them on either side of the frame, and then uniting them in a single reflection.
More division in the blocking, though this time through Bergman’s depth of field splitting Anna and Albert across layers of the frame.

Whether in his personal or professional life, Albert can barely catch a break from anyone, as even when he approaches the local theatre director, Mr Sjuberg, and asks to borrow costumes, he is turned down with a savagely poetic soliloquy. From a low angle, Gunnar Björnstrand stands against an imposing backdrop of the stage’s ornate ceiling and chandelier, drawing a snooty distinction between creators with noble ambitions such as himself, and those like Albert who belong at the bottom of society’s ladder.

“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.”

A truly Wellesian low angle, slightly askew and using the deep focus lens to turn the ceiling into an imposing backdrop.

Only an artist with as much self-awareness as Bergman could write a passage so sharply satirical of his own profession. To consider one’s ego as more precious than life is to deem oneself above the material world, and to equally condemn those material beings such as Albert to the “world of misery, lice, and disease” they have always known.

As an actor in Mr Sjuberg’s cast, Frans is just as much an advocate of this classist thinking, topping off his cuckolding of Albert with one final act of sadistic humiliation in the hapless ringleader’s own circus. Starting with a few sexual taunts thrown Anne’s way as she rides a horse around the tent, Albert quicky gets involved too, whipping off Frans’ hat in a show of petty power. It is a brutal, bloody brawl that follows – a struggle of masculine dominance which simply ends up asserting the same rigid hierarchy which makes Albert, Anne, and their troupe the butt of society’s joke.

Albert’s humiliation rendered as circus entertainment, building on Bergman’s potent metaphor of life.
Bergman’s blocking of faces in close-up is among the best in the artform’s history – a lot of this has to do with the lighting, the depth of field, and of course, the actors.

There is nothing but a sorrowful look shared between these two lovers before it is time for them to move on again, riding across monochrome landscapes with the rest of their misfit crew in much the same way they came in. Life’s tragicomic farce continues, undercutting dreams of escaping its stranglehold with constant reminders of their own inadequacy. If there is any solace, at least those embarrassing stories will make for great comic fodder down the track, offering momentary distractions from their sad, squalid circumstances. Bergman needles the existential drama of Sawdust and Tinsel with a fine, sophisticated point, and in his extraordinary staging finds both sympathy and outright pity for its wayfaring circus performers doomed to eternal ridicule.

Sawdust and Tinsel is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s