Sawdust and Tinsel Review
For Ingmar Bergman, the subject of Sawdust and Tinsel is quite clear and obvious – it’s about the fear of humiliation, particularly in relation to a sexual partner, being inspired by retrospective jealousy for that lover’s former partners. That theme is developed in a number of the relationships in the film.
As a travelling circus makes its way across the country, the first is related by the driver of one of the caravan’s of the Alberti Circus to the owner Albert (Åke Grönberg), telling the story of the Frost the circus clown (Anders Ek), whose wife Alma (Gudrun Brost) once stripped off all her clothes to entertain a regiment of soldiers. Caught up in a relationship with a young equestrian Anne (Harriet Andersson), Albert is to undergo a similar kind of humiliation. The circus is returning to Albert’s hometown where his wife and children live, and Anne is not happy. Believing that he is going to reject her and leave the circus to settle down, she submits to the advances of an actor in the town, who seduces her with empty promises. Albert’s wife Adga (Annika Tretow) however is not exactly pleased to see him return. Suspecting that his wife may have a lover of her own and that Anne has been unfaithful to him proves to be too much for the ringmaster.
The films of Ingmar Bergman reveal a mass of deep fears and neuroses on very large subjects – death, faith, the silence of God, relationships, families, the creative urge of the artist – and almost always in very stark, bleak, pessimistic terms. What is remarkable about Bergman’s films however is his ability to channel these issues into controlled works of great artistry, managing somehow to deal with their melodramatic aspects and bring out their full potential without (often) descending into complete hysteria. Rarely is this more evident than in Sawdust and Tinsel’s morbid meditations on humiliation, particularly in the episode featuring Frost the clown. Not only does Alma’s shame take place before hordes of leering and guffawing troops, but Frost’s attempt to rescue her dignity takes on an almost religious aspect as he drags her up his stony Calvary and collapses under the weight of his humiliation. Only Bergman could get away with such ludicrous overplaying, staging it like a silent movie and taking advantage of it being a story-within-a-story to effectively heighten and over-dramatise the subject into agonising self-flagellation.
The choice of setting for the film in a circus however reveals perhaps another aspect to the theme of fear of humiliation – that of a creative artist revealing himself through his work, putting it on display for the public’s enjoyment and entertainment, only for it to be rejected – or worse, laughed at - by critics and the public alike. While Bergman never suffered from creative blockage – the fires of his demons would continue to burn constantly throughout his life and career – he was susceptible to criticism and doubts about the nature of his work being served up as entertainment for the masses. The same sense of self-reflexivity is evident in many of the director’s other films that ostensibly deal with wider subjects, particularly in The Magician (1958), which appears to deal with the conflict between rationalism and superstition, but is more of a plea for the purity of the misunderstood artist forced to expose the innermost depths of his soul in a tawdry entertainment for an unworthy public. The theme is explored further and more abstractly in the gothic horrors of Hour Of The Wolf (1968) and The Rite (1969), and most directly on the stage of After The Rehearsal (1984).
Essentially then the world of Sawdust and Tinsel is divided between actors, directors, their families and the public. The directors are tyrannical – both Albert and the director of the town’s theatre company (Björnstrand) – Albert in particular ruthless in his demands from his performers, but neglectful of his family responsibilities. The actors or performers like Anne meanwhile prove to be vulnerable, compromising their talent and loyalty to the director for trinkets, hollow praise and empty flattery. The entertainment they offer is not highly valued, the civil authorities immediately preventing them from parading through the town, the public unreceptive to their artistic work and more excited by the public display of dirty-linen being aired at the end of the film. The alternative for Albert lies in the comfortable retirement of home, where everything is calm, organised and peaceful – but such an environment is death to the artist. Albert – and by extension Bergman - must therefore struggle on, battle with those demons and his metier, never knowing a moment’s peace, but never having it any other way. Ironically, Sawdust and Tinsel was savaged by sections of the press on its release, a fact that Bergman confessed “did not leave me unaffected”.
Sawdust and Tinsel is released in the UK by Tartan. The film is presented on a single-layer disc, is in PAL format, but is not region encoded. Although released as part of the Tartan Bergman Collection, neither this title nor The Devil’s Eye released alongside it, are included in the 30 disc Ingmar Bergman Collection boxset.
Sawdust and Tinsel perhaps shows its age more than most of the other titles in Tartan’s Bergman Collection, but still holds up fairly well despite the obvious problems. There are frequent tramline scratches, but they are fine and not particularly troublesome. The age is more apparent in the numerous little flecks visible from time to time and some brightness flicker in the image. Ghosting and dot crawl can be seen, reel-change marks are visible, and on one or two occasions, the image wavers slightly due to noise reduction artefacting. Although the contrasts are slightly boosted, blowing-out the whites, the tones are nevertheless relatively strong, with solid blacks. The image is relatively clear, but tending ever so slightly towards softness. It’s certainly not perfect, but certainly a more than serviceable transfer for the film, preserving the qualities of its cinematography (Sven Nykvist working with Bergman for the first time on part of the film).
The original audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and it’s quite good. There are a few pops between splices and some underlying crackle can be detected, but in the main, there is a decent quality of tone and relatively good clarity in the dialogue.
English subtitles are provided and are optional in a clear white font.
Incredibly Tartan are still trotting out the old Persona Trailer (2:30) and the Autumn Sonata Trailer (2:22) on their new Bergman releases. An enclosed insert contains an outline and essay on the film by David Parkinson (reprinted from the booklet that is presented in the Ingmar Bergman Collection boxset).
Sawdust and Tinsel is a fascinating film from the perspective of the insight it provides into the Ingmar Bergman’s life, creative processes, and in general on the roles and relationships of directors and actors. Whether that makes it a great film or not depends on how much value you place in such a subject and in Bergman’s treatment of it. It can occasionally be somewhat overwrought, but marvellously so, and the acting is also very fine. In almost every aspect however, Bergman would improve on the subject, treatment, script and performance - notably in The Magician and Hour Of The Wolf - but like this previous film Summer with Monika, Sawdust and Tinsel is more of an intriguing promise of what was still to come from the great director.