Although he has continued to work in television and in writing film scripts, it is twenty-three years since Ingmar Bergman delivered what was then considered to be his final word as a film director, the epic and life-encompassing masterpiece Fanny and Alexander (1982). The news that the great Swedish filmmaker was about to make one more film was greeted with surprise and delight and, personally at least, a degree of apprehension that after so many years away from the real body of his great works, it just might not live up to the high expectations demanded. Fortunately, with Saraband, the 86 year old Bergman has shown that there has there been no diminishing of his powers and he still can still write and direct a film that is as intense as anything he has ever made.
For his final film - intended for TV, but receiving a limited theatrical release in Europe - Bergman returns to two characters who were the subject of his 1974 television mini-series and film, Scenes From A Marriage - Marianne, played by Liv Ullmann and Johan, played by Erland Josephson. Thirty years after the events that led to their divorce depicted in Scenes From A Marriage, Johan and Marianne have gone their separate ways. Having inherited a fortune from a rich aunt, Johan is now a millionaire and has settled down to a quiet and comfortable existence in a remote countryside house. Although there has been almost no contact between them in the intervening years, Marianne, on an impulse, goes out to visit him. His crotchety old self, Johan protests at the intrusion into his life, but he is glad to see Marianne and she stays with him for a short while at his house.
Johan’s son, Henrik – from his first marriage before Marianne – has also come to stay at Johan’s lakeside cottage on his estate, where he is giving instruction on the cello to his 19 year-old daughter, Karin who is preparing for an entrance exam into music college. The death of his wife Anna two years previously has had a profound effect on Henrik and his daughter. They have been unable to come to terms with their loss which has thrown them together in mutual bereavement, in a way that is very unhealthy for both of them. Marianne finds that she is caught up in a complicated family situation between Johan, Henrik and Karin. She tries to give advice and mediate, and in doing so comes to some realisations about her own role as a mother.
There is no need to have seen Scenes From A Marriage to follow events in Saraband. Johan and Marianne are not the focus of this film. Marianne, in a conversation with Karin, encapsulates the events of 30 years ago into a few sentences and all the turbulence, anger and violence that Johan and Marianne inflicted upon each other seems remote and inconsequential. Its impact does remain however and its influence is passed on in much more subtle ways, particularly in the realisation of what it means to be a father and a mother. Henrik has turned out to be very similar to his father and the resonance and consequence of this is carried through. When Johan ponders how his deceased daughter-in-law Anna – a kind and gentle person – could ever have married someone like Henrik, you can see in Marianne’s face all the comprehension of that kind of love for a difficult person. The film takes tremendous force in this way as much from the past as from the clearly autobiographical elements – the picture of Anna that is used throughout the film, a picture of Bergman’s own deceased wife.
This is pure Bergman. There has been no dilution of his bitterness and no slackening in the intensity and directness of his scriptwriting. There are scenes of verbal brutality in the relationships between family members that would rival anything from Scenes From A Marriage or Autumn Sonata and there are sudden scenes of violence and break-down that are scarcely less powerful that anything seen in Cries and Whispers. In fact, Bergman has rarely been so compact, so precise and so incisive in a script. Every word cuts to the bone – almost literally – as does the music – principally Bach – which not only gives the film its title, but its structure and its sense of unspeakable emotions. The music is no mere backing to strengthen weaknesses in the script or acting, but as a further dimension on what cannot be expressed through words. The acting is, as you would expect from Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, astonishingly good under Bergman’s direction – but the other actors are also impressive. Börje Ahlstedt as Henrik is as bitter and as brutal as any Bergman character, but he is no villain – tormented into near insanity by the loss of his wife, he is fully human, if not all too human in his suffering. Young Julia Dufvenius is a revelation as Karin, an essential element of youth and burgeoning talent that cannot be stifled and suppressed in the midst of all these old people wrapped up in the past. If the film lacks anything, it is perhaps the cinematography of regular Bergman collaborator, Sven Nykvist – the photography being credited to no less than five cinematographers. Filmed in Digital Video, the image is crystal clear and perhaps not gritty enough – but there are certain scenes that work as powerfully as any of Nykvist’s compositions.
Saraband is released on DVD in the United States by Sony Pictures Classics. The disc is encoded for Region 1 and is in NTSC format.
This is what you get when you transfer an High-Definition Digital-Video image to DVD using a HD master – perfection. Or almost perfection. Compression of the image is inevitable and is evident here in some very minor movement blurring. Otherwise this is a stunning transfer showing clarity, sharpness, detail, perfect colour hues and well-defined tones that allow the smallest of details and shadow information to come through. Made for television rather than theatrical exhibition (though it has had limited showings), the image looks a little cold, harsh and sterile, lacking the warmth and softness of film stock, but this is inevitable filming on DV in studio locations and entirely how the film is meant to look. That has been almost perfectly represented in this transfer to DVD. Any minor issues with compression are scarcely enough to mark the transfer down, but the use of yellow subtitles on top of this is rather irritating and distracting.
The original Swedish soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 surround, and this really is flawless. The film inevitably relies heavily on dialogue and intermittent use of the music pieces performed during the scenes and these are perfectly conveyed in the sound mix, with a depth and tone that captures the underlying tensions that lie beneath the spoken words and in the music arrangements. That might sound speculative and vague, but we are talking about Bergman dialogue here, and about actors of such a calibre that there is as much conveyed in the tone of voice and in the silences between words as there is in the words themselves. It is essential that the soundtrack is of sufficient quality to be sympathetic to these nuances, and that is certainly the case here.
The subtitles, as I have mentioned above, are coloured yellow – an unfortunate trait with some United States releases, particularly those on Sony Pictures Classics. They detract enormously from the colour schemes in the film in a way that neutral white subtitles would not. They are however optional, as are the French and Portuguese options also included.
The only extra related to the film is The Making Of Saraband (43:49) which, although it contains a few clips of interviews, focuses on the on-set rehearsing and filming of scenes in the film. Even though it is fascinating to see Bergman at work and so active and creative on the set even at 84 years old, I personally didn’t get a lot out of this. Rather than have the illusion of the dramatic piece destroyed, I skipped through most of this – but most viewers will probably appreciate this more.
If Fanny and Alexander, as Bergman claimed at the time of its release, was a summation of his entire career as a filmmaker, Saraband is the perfect epilogue. Here he revisits characters and actors he has used before, bringing them in their old age to a typically Bergmanesque conclusion – one that has the full weight of a past existence to build upon and the experience and insight of a tremendous director to draw it out. In Saraband, Bergman reflects on the necessity of reaching an accommodation with the past, with one’s losses, and one’s mistakes and the need to let youth progress unfettered by those ties and there is no other director with the background, the experience and the ability to achieve that quite so powerfully.