Even with some familiarity of the bleak psychodramas and ruminations on a godless universe that make up many of Ingmar Bergman’s later films, the subject matter of Prison, made in 1948, still comes as a bit of a shock. Bergman’s early films in the 1940s certainly had their darker elements, which were evident to some extent in his films immediately prior to Prison, Eva and the neo-realist influenced Port of Call, but by and large they were much more social melodramas, adapted from popular literature with a commercial audience very much in mind. Prison (or ‘The Devil’s Wanton’) was however Bergman’s first film where he had complete control over everything from scripting to directing, and the tone is noticeably darker. Realising that it wasn’t the kind of film that Svensk Filmindustri would finance, Bergman took the script to Lorens Marmstadt and his independent Terrafilm studio, for whom Bergman has previously made Music In Darkness. By necessity, since it wasn’t likely to be a commercial film, Prison had to be made on a very limited budget over a very short timescale, but the resulting film is consequently taut, bleak, dramatic and closer to pure Bergman than any of his other films in the 1940s.
A filmmaker (Stig Olin) is visited on set by an old schoolteacher (Anders Henrikson) who, having just been released from an asylum, has come expressly with an idea for a film screenplay. It’s a dark and non-commercial idea that is scarcely filmable, a film to warn people that the devil has assumed control of the world where God is dead and people are living in hell on earth. “Life cuts a path like a cruel and sensual arc, from cradle to grave. A great laughing masterpiece. Simultaneously beautiful and hideous, without mercy or meaning”. The filmmaker later tells his friends Thomas (Birger Malmsten) and his wife Sofi (Eva Henning) about the encounter. Thomas, a journalist, suggests a way in which the idea of hell on earth could be turned into a film, and digs out an interview he has conducted with a teenage prostitute while researching the nightlife in Stockholm.
After this prologue, the film then indeed takes up the story of hell on earth from the point of view of the young prostitute, a seventeen year old girl called Birgitta Karolina (Doris Svedlund), who has since had a child. She is abused by her boyfriend who acts as her pimp and doesn’t want her to keep the baby, suggesting that they get rid of it since there would be too many questions the underage girl would have to answer to the authorities. Thomas and Sofi meanwhile are going through hell in their own relationship, both of them drinking heavily and Thomas contemplating suicide. Both situations bring Thomas and Birgitta Karolina together while they are at the end of their tether, and they move into a boarding house together - but there is no escaping the realities and horrors of the world outside.
While the above outline synopsis of Prison is certainly bleaker than anything seen previously in Bergman’s films, it still only seems like an intensification of the melodramatic aspects of the social issues seen in Port of Call, with the personal reasons for Thomas and Sofi’s drinking problem and suicidal impulses not really delved into in any convincing way. Birger Malmsten, moreover doesn’t have the authority or conviction as an actor to carry the existential angst that would weigh heavily on Gunnar Björnstrand in Winter Light or Max von Sydow in Hour Of The Wolf, to name but two examples of tortured Bergman characters. Doris Svedlund however manages to much more successfully convey the vulnerability of Birgitta Karolina and the direness of her predicament.
What however lifts the film above the rather self-conscious social bleakness and melodrama of its storyline is Bergman’s marvellous treatment, which here in this independent production moves away from studio influence and commercial consideration and takes a huge leap forward towards the more familiar austerity of his approach to highly emotive subject matter. The film is blessed with some marvellous and adventurous photography that is closer to the experimental lighting and imagery of Sven Nykvist’s cinematography for Bergman. This could partly have been down to the necessity of using long takes due to the rationing of film stock on a low budget film, but it makes for some inventive tracking shots and angles, to make something of the limited sets that were re-used throughout the film. The film also contains several effectively eerie dream sequences, making use of this dramatic lighting, that presage Marta’s child-birth fever-dream of Waiting Women (1952), and the death nightmare of Professor Borg in Wild Strawberries (1957). The first appearance of the figure of death also appears here in Prison in a silent slapstick farce by the Brothers Bragazzi, shown as a movie within the movie. The whole conceit of the movie within a movie and a post-modern authorial framing of the film itself is also alluded to, very much ahead of Bergman’s later experiments, with the very opening sequence of the film, which itself takes place on a movie set. After the schoolmaster’s suggestion of the subject of the film, a narrator steps in to identify it as a prologue, proceeding to list the cast and crew in the manner of the closing sequence of the television episodes of Scenes From A Marriage (1973) – although I suppose it is possible that in this case it may also have been a budgetary consideration to dispense with the expense of credit screens.
Whether the experimentation was dictated or not through budgetary considerations, Prison does see Bergman moving closer towards a more familiar style and subject matter, the making of an independent film outside of the Swedish studio system giving him the freedom to explore personal issues and the take full control of all the filmmaking elements such as sound recording, camera lenses and editing that he had forced himself to be become aware of in the making of Port of Call. The result is a fascinating film, that perhaps doesn’t quite have the psychological and existential weight of his later films but, prior to Summer With Monika in 1952, Prison is as close as any of Bergman’s early films come to a masterpeice.
Prison is released in the UK by Tartan as part of their Bergman Collection. The DVD is in PAL format and is not region encoded.
Strikingly photographed, Prison looks marvellous in a fine transfer of an almost perfect print. The image is sharp and clear with few marks or scratches, superb greyscale tones and beautiful luminous whites. Brightness levels are stable, though there appear to be one or two minor jumps in one or two frames. Like a number of the titles in the Tartan Bergman Collection however, the only real issue is with some artefacting problems causing flicker in backgrounds. The film is presented only on a single-layer disc, but with a feature that runs to only 75 minutes, and a couple of trailers the only extra features, there really shouldn’t be a problem with compression. But for the artefacting problems though, the otherwise impressive image here would be almost perfect.
The audio track, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, is quite good. There is very little analogue background noise, though voices have a slightly harsh edge. Nonetheless, dialogue is relatively clear and well toned.
English subtitles are in a clear white font and are optional.
In line with other recent Tartan Bergman Collection releases, the only relevant extra features to the film itself would be the Philip Strick film notes contained in an accompanying booklet, but these were not present with the checkdisc sent for review. On the disc itself are the now very familiar Autumn Sonata Trailer (2:22) and Persona Trailer (2:30) presented on the majority of other Bergman releases. Filmographies are also included for Ingmar Bergman, Birger Malmsten and Doris Svedlund.
An independent production made in 1949 with Bergman in control of all the elements of filmmaking for the first time, Prison sees the director experimenting with the form, partly through budgetary considerations, but also as a way to express the personal darker demons and themes that would be explored in his subsequent films. There are a few minor flaws in Tartan’s transfer of the film to DVD, and little in the way of contextual extra features, but the striking force and horrible beauty of the film is no less evident.