Ingmar Bergman’s early 1953 piece Sawdust and Tinsel is now on The Criterion Collection with an utmost restoration. In the special features, providing a plethora of insightful criteria and tidbits is Ingmar Bergman scholar Peter Cowie offering audio commentary as an extra feature to the film. We also get Bergman himself, talking with Swedish journalist Marie Nyreröd in 2003 about the film’s polarising opinions. One critic, who refused to review it, called the film “vomit” but Bergman reveals he is still happy with the film. “It’s intense. Without losing control”. This funnily, is an accurate summary and opinion of how to go in and watch Sawdust and Tinsel.
Sawdust and Tinsel is a dark and brooding story about a travelling circus owner Albert (Åke Grönberg) and his young mistress Anne (Harriet Andersson). It is kind of a farce but equally depressing. It is the type of cinema worth suffering for. When you see the likes of newish directors such as Yorgos Lanthimos you cannot help but envisage similarities that has already been laid out by Bergman. Human sufferings, male and female relationships and the use of acute musical arrangements are very Bergman and very Lanthimos.
Shot in black and white, the opening scene is strange and deliberate played out with its over-exposed tone. This particular scene is about sexual tensions and torment. We meet an aging circus couple. Frost a clown Anders Ek) and his worn-out angelic partner Alma (Gudrun Brost). Beginning as innocent, Alma strips for the male gaze swimming naked with an army in the seaside. It isn’t until Frost comes to rescue her that the situation becomes questionable. The army jeers at the couple. Bergman uses silent cinema references as the characters lip-sync over muted dialogues. The only sounds present are from the severe laughter and humiliation from the crowd.
This type of cruelty is elevated also through psychological power play between man and woman, Albert and Anne. Anne moves like a panther and acts like a child, using Albert for her own insecurities. And Albert wants to rekindle his relationship with his wife Agda (Annika Tretow), whom he has not been with for the past three years. Upon Albert’s return home he is not recognised by his own children. Suggested by Cowie as a personal anecdote from Bergman’s past (as he had fathered eight different children and not been home), one of Bergman’s children did not recognise him.
Although Anne is a physically strong looking woman and uses her sexual prowess over Albert as with the other encounter with another male character it still proves Anne is naïve. Agda is a much more nuanced character who does not need to avert her femininity. Initially, Adga does play up domesticity serving Albert food and mends his circus trodden clothing. In a tragic and funny reveal, we see that under Albert’s jacket, his shirt only has a collar and cuff attached to it.
Albert is desperately sweaty while Agda is calm and maintained. Yet, knowing she is a successful business owner who has independently raised two children Adga has the power to tell Albert, he is no longer welcomed back.
Truth is, I have not seen Bergman’s entire catalogue but enough to understand the way the artist injects human relationships in an honest and bitter way. You can connect and turn away from the characters and situations he puts you in.
Sawdust and Tinsel is a beautifully minimalist film, stripped of entertainment and certainly not vomit worthy. Nothing changes. Only the circus goes on.
Drama, World Cinema, Arthouse | Sweden, 1953 | 7th January 2019 | Criterion Collection | Dir.Ingmar Bergman | Åke Grönberg, Annika Tretow, Anders Ek, Harriet Andersson
SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES
New 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
Audio commentary by Ingmar Bergman scholar Peter Cowie
Introduction by Bergman from 2003
PLUS: An essay by critic John Simon
SWEDEN | 1953 | 92 MINUTES | BLACK & WHITE | Subtitles | 1.37:1 | SWEDISH