Judge Clark Douglas wants out of the circus.
"I want out of the circus!"
Upon its release in Sweden, Sawdust and Tinsel was rejected by critics, and has been quietly forgotten about over the past fifty-plus years. In the wake of director Ingmar Bergman's death, The Criterion Collection has chosen to restore the film and give it new life. What sort of film do we have on our hands? An early Bergman failure? A curious piece of film history that helps fill a significant gap in the collection of a Bergman fan? Or a genuinely excellent film that has been tragically ignored?
Sawdust and Tinsel: Criterion Collection explores the case and puts it into context.
Facts of the Case
Sawdust and Tinsel presents the story of tormented relationships against the garish background of a low-budget traveling circus. Albert (Ake Gronberg), the circus ringmaster, has been tirelessly leading the circus from village to village over the past three years. He is married, but hasn't seen his wife once in those three years. When he decided to become a circus ringmaster, she elected to stay behind and run a little shop. Albert is both fearful and eager to return home, unsure of how his wife will receive him. This is deeply upsetting to Anne (Harriet Anderson), Albert's mistress. She declares that if Albert goes to visit his wife, she will not be waiting for him when or if he returns.
Albert is tired of the circus, and of his mistress, and goes to visit his wife anyway. The mistress reacts by paying a visit to Frans (Hasse Eckman), a lustful actor from the local theatre troupe. As the film progresses, Albert and Anna throw themselves into games of power, psychosexual manipulation, and jealousy—all culminating in a violent and bitter climax in the center of the circus ring.
On his excellent commentary track, Bergman expert Peter Cowie claims that Sawdust and Tinsel is the finest film of Bergman's early (pre-Seventh Seal) period. I am inclined to agree. While a few moments in the film are mere foreshadowing of things to come in later works, the film also has many scenes that spotlight Bergman at the very peak of his powers as a young director. Bergman is quite possibly the master of intimate character studies, and there are crucial sections of this film that are nothing short of magnificent examinations of human nature.
Consider the first scene between Anna and Frans, the way Frans begins the scene as a lascivious, dominant figure, and ends on his knees in pathetic desperation. Then consider their second encounter, in which Anna continues to remain in the seat of power until she realizes that Frans is willing to play by his own set of corrupt rules. Then look over at Albert, and the conversation he has with his nine-year-old son. Albert asks generic questions, and the son offers the expected answers. Then Albert asks whether his son would be interested in joining the circus, an appealing idea to many young children. The child's response, the tone of his voice, and the look on his face reveal the inevitable outcome of the scene that follows between Albert and his wife.
These are truly great scenes, and they aren't the only ones. The great scenes in the film are almost always bracketed by good or very good scenes, and the film holds up as an excellent whole. I can't think of a single moment in the film worthy of deletion because Bergman does such a superb job maintaining the pace and tone. There's a brief 2003 introduction to the film from Bergman, who comments that he likes the film because "it's wild without losing control." That's very true, as the scenes in the film frequently tip-toe all the way up to the very edge of melodrama without ever slipping into it. A notch less, not enough, a notch more, too much…it's one of Bergman's great gifts, knowing precisely how much of each ingredient to bring to a scene.
Performances are strong across the board. Gronberg's turn is particularly touching, as he internally reels back and forth between compassion and anger, desperately struggling to find the strength to commit to something. When he does manage such a feat, he always finds the rug pulled out from beneath him. Intense close-ups of Gronberg's sweaty, sad face are often quite moving. Anderson (Bergman's real-life mistress at the time) is also very good at finding the emotions beneath a scene, bringing a great deal of unspoken feelings to the surface. Eckman is very effectively loathsome as the actor, bringing smarmy and cruel intellect to his emotionally impaired character. Bergman regular Gunner Bjornstrand appears in a pair of scenes, and Bergman makes the most of his authoritative presence.
The film was shot by famed Bergman collaborator Sven Nykvist, his first collaboration with Bergman. The black-and-white cinematography here is simply excellent, demonstrating Nykvist's natural skills. Nykvist would not collaborate again with Bergman until The Virgin Spring some seven years later, when he would finally become Bergman's regular cinematographer. Nykvist uses a lot of natural lighting that is very effective, and brings a rather stark look to his images. Special mention should be made of one early sequence in the film that was shot by Hilding Bladh, a flashback sequence involving the public humiliation of a clown (Anders Ek). That particular sequence has a much different look from the rest of the film, as Bergman elects to make the scene look diabolically bright. The sun is harsh, brutal, almost blinding, washing the screening in waves of white, making sure that no one is able to miss the humiliation of the clown. Criterion has done a fine job of cleaning up the film, as the picture is mostly free of flecks and scratches. The dialogue is occasionally just a little muffled (that may not matter as much to those of us who don't understand Swedish), but the violent, carnival-themed score by Karl-Birger Blomdahl usually sounds rather crisp.
The extras here are minimal, but of significant quality. The aforementioned Bergman introduction is only three minutes, but Bergman demonstrates great affection for the film. The director is famously critical of his own work, so to hear him speak so warmly ("I have a soft spot for the film") of this movie is telling. However, the real highlight is the commentary by Peter Cowie, who has previously provided excellent commentaries for other Criterion releases of Bergman films. The reserved and professional Cowie is a living treasure trove of information, sharing insights, trivia, history, stories, and much more over the course of the film's 92 minutes. He covers all the material with enthusiasm and intelligence, answering nearly every question that could pop into the mind of the viewer. Though it might have been nice to have some sort of making-of material, I don't imagine that anything could do a better job of covering the film than the commentary presented here. There is also a pair of fine articles on the film provided in the film's accompanying booklet.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Some may feel that the film pushes a few too many emotional buttons in the telling of this story. The film isn't as reserved or subtle as Bergman's later, more mature works, finding very visceral ways to deal with emotional issues. Those who prefer the quieter tones of films like Winter Light might find this just a little too over-the-top and emotionally explicit for their tastes.
Sawdust and Tinsel is a particularly memorable and satisfying Bergman work, one of those films that grows better in the viewer's mind after it has ended. Bergman pushes hard enough to make sure that his images stick with us, but never so hard that we fail to believe the human emotions of the story. Add in a terrific restoration and a top-drawer commentary, and this one is an easy recommendation, especially for those who value thoughtful character studies.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Bergman Scholar Peter Cowie
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