Gycklarnas afton / The Clowns’ Evening / The Naked Night
Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 23 November 2007
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
In his autobiography, The Magic Lantern, Ingmar Bergman recalls that he wrote the screenplay for Sawdust and Tinsel “in a burst of unusually profound misanthropy.”1 Whether Bergman considers this particular instance of misanthropy to be especially profound for him, or whether he considers misanthropy itself to be not usually profound, he doesn’t specify. But he does specify the cause of this misanthropy: guilt about his betrayal of his (already) third wife, Gun Hagberg, with his star Harriet Andersson on the set of Summer with Monika; dissatisfaction with their subsequent romance; and the humiliating withdrawal of an offer to work at the Royal Dramatic Theater. It was the autumn of 1952, and with a bad conscience, a rocky relationship, and little work for him in Stockholm, Bergman set to work on synthesizing all of this guilt, betrayal, and dissatisfaction into the first major work of his career.
Bergman preceded Sawdust and Tinsel with a trio of films that any director would find enviable—Summer Interlude, Waiting Women, and Summer with Monika. These are fascinating, formally masterful, and largely overlooked films: the first two are as extraordinarily artful as they are more or less critically ignored, and Monika seems to be remembered solely as a prototype of soft-core porn, which it isn’t at all (but don’t tell young Antoine Doinel). Nonetheless, these are films about embattled youth and idealism, films that desperately seem to want to cling to an evanescent nostalgic feeling that is constantly being quashed or qualified. Sawdust and Tinsel is another film altogether, the first of many films (Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal, especially Wild Strawberries, and so on) that accept the loss of this idealism and seek to move beyond it. For the Bergman of the mid-1950s onwards, it is not enough simply to be disappointed or embittered by this loss of nostalgic feeling—one must find something better. And Sawdust and Tinsel is the first foray in Bergman’s career-long project of persistently stripping away the illusions of one’s youthful desires in order to reveal something more truthful, more substantial, but also more vulnerable about oneself.
What Bergman makes clear in his autobiography is that the personal inspiration for Sawdust and Tinsel was as much professional as romantic, and that his sense of self-worth (and the worth of others) in both of these aspects of his life was at something of a low. At the director’s own suggestion, and in spite of the lack of physical resemblance, we are to take Albert, the oversized and blustery leader of the dilapidated traveling Cirkus Alberti, partly as a stand-in for the lanky and austere film and theater director himself. Harriet Andersson herself plays Albert’s young mistress Anne, a blousy, headstrong, yet defenseless young gypsy girl for whom Albert has left his cold, punctilious wife, Agda, some years before. But the characters’ struggles also hinge on professional and economic as well as romantic failures, and as the film opens, we see the circus caravan, destitute and threadbare, pulling into the town where Agda now lives with Albert’s young sons, who haven’t seen their father in three years. In the winter cold of the morning – the polar opposite of that lost summer with Monika – Albert wakes and quickly dresses in his cluttered, rocking caravan, tenderly covering the bare shoulders of Anne, who is sleeping next to him. It is a gesture of earnest, but fleeting care, and the remainder of the film – which follows a full cycle of twenty-four hours in the life of this circus caravan and its characters – will show each of these characters betraying the other, suffering the indignity of these betrayals, and dealing with their consequences.
Before plunging us headlong into these indignities, Bergman offers a sort of cautionary prologue: a seemingly salacious anecdote about the clown Frost, related to the half-awake Albert by another clown, Jens, as they drowsily ride along with the caravan in the cold morning light. This is a sequence of astonishing technical mastery, one of the most inventive of Bergman’s entire career, and although it is clearly indebted to (even somewhat parodic of) German Expressionism and the silent cinema of E. A. Dupont and even Eisenstein, it presents a clear and very early counterexample to those claims that Bergman’s films are merely filmed theater. A nearly wordless film-within-a-film, it is an instance of aggressive montage that, while not typical of the director, nonetheless finds echoes in some of his 1960s work, like the first sequence of Persona. More to the point, this sequence prefigures much of the film to come, allegorizing and foreshadowing several scenes to come in almost excruciating detail.
It is some years earlier and the circus is performing in the same region. While strolling along the rocky coastline, Frost’s wife Alma begins to flirt with a group of soldiers practicing their cannon-fire along the shore and is soon goaded into performing a striptease for them, twirling her parasol and doffing her voluminous skirts. As the phallic cannons report and the leering soldiers egg Alma on under mercilessly overexposed sunlight, someone finds Frost and leads him down to the beach, where his wife is now splashing naked with the soldiers among the waves. Jeered at and mocked by his impromptu audience, Frost strips bare and pulls his wife from the water, someone steals away with his clothes, and the couple, now thoroughly disgraced under the scrutiny of the ogling, derisive crowd, are forced to laboriously scale the rocks back to their camp, naked and ashamed. Their walk back to the circus is quite clearly figured as an image of Christ ascending Golgotha with his cross, but as Frost pulls Alma uphill, covering her, forcing her, and comforting her all at once, it becomes increasingly difficult to discern who is dragging whom, which is the cross and which the savior.
In his unmatched analysis of the film, Jesse Kalin notes the centrality of this film-within-a-film not just to the themes of Sawdust and Tinsel, but also to the concerns of Bergman’s career as a whole. “The story of Frost and Alma expresses the core of Bergman’s vision in which our most basic weaknesses and vulnerabilities are portrayed in a master narrative of abandonment, passion, and return,” Kalin claims, “and at one level, everything else he has done is a variation on this quintessential minifilm.” It certainly foreshadows all that will happen to Albert and Anne in the film, and yet Albert fails to heed it—he falls asleep before the story is finished.
Later, sporting fake finery, old hats, and cheap perfume, Albert and Anne stroll into the town and seek out the local theater troupe in order to borrow costumes to replace those they have had to left behind or pawn. After humiliating treatment at the hands of the theater director Sjuberg and his actors, and a thwarted attempt to drum up interest in the circus among the townspeople, Albert and Anne find themselves dispirited. They soon drift into their own cycles of desire: Albert feels the temptation of a respectable life back in the quiet comfort of Agda and their family; Anne feels the sexual temptation of Frans, a local actor, whose promises of respectability and freedom, empty though they are, are more alluring than anything Albert can promise. Before long each betrays the other – Albert begs Agda to take him back; Anne succumbs to Frans’ seduction – but each is ultimately rejected or disillusioned in their betrayal. And in realizing this, both Albert and Anne become acutely aware not only of the insufficiency of their lives as they are, but also of their inability to escape them. “You’re as sick of the circus and me as I am sick of the circus and you,” Albert tells Anne. “We’re all stuck, Anne. Stuck like hell.”
This realization – like many in Bergman’s films – is a hard one to come to and difficult to live with, but it is ultimately the only honest one. For Bergman, this sense of shame, of recognition of one’s own weakness, ugliness and vulnerability, is the only way forward, lest one remain trapped in a world of vanity and sterility. This stripping away of illusion in search of harsh truths about one’s life is the lot of all of Bergman’s characters: Isak Borg peeling back layers of memory to find the sources of pain in a superficially normal and successful life in Wild Strawberries; Tomas struggling with his loss of faith in the divine and in himself in Winter Light; Johan and Marianne relentlessly tearing down the fictions of their perfect relationship in Scenes from a Marriage. These are undoubtedly excoriating works, and they have always provided plenty of cannon fodder to those critics who find Bergman’s films overly serious and dour. But curiously, Bergman’s films are almost never fatalistic – they always hold out some hope for their characters in their capacity for realizing such truths about themselves – and it is only those who fail to realize such things who are truly lost or even dangerous.
Not to sense the shame of one’s situation is to have no means of moving beyond it, and Bergman reserves a special brand of contempt for those characters who, through fear or self-satisfaction, remain deluded, in hiding from themselves and from the rest of the world. In Sawdust and Tinsel, this is the crowd – the uncaring, unthinking judges of the performers – for whose amusement the clowns and other circus performers degrade themselves like beasts. (Thus the same mass of people that have humiliated Frost do the same to Albert, as he vainly tries to avenge himself upon Frans in a fistfight under the big top.) For this is one of Bergman’s many great films about performers and their craft, and as in most of these films, the emphasis here is on the humiliation of these performers at the hands of an unsympathetic public or group of critics. There are always those in Bergman’s films who judge others – whose fear and self-loathing have calcified into an air of superiority, with which they look down upon, exploit, insult, or humiliate others, nearly always as a preemptive strike against becoming victims themselves. These are the characters so often played by Gunnar Bjornstrand, who in this film is the imperious theater director Sjuberg, insulting Albert to his face even as he concedes that their worlds – one of sawdust, the other of tinsel – are both equally degraded and degrading. Artists suffer demeaning scrutiny and vilification at the hands of various personifications of bourgeois social institutions in The Magician, Hour of the Wolf, The Rite, and others. In these films, performance is a way of life – not just for artists, but for everyone – and the humiliation that Bergman’s performers suffer in the eyes of society is that which we all risk in the performance of our own lives. In Sawdust and Tinsel, this takes the form of a circus in which we all must take part, inside and outside of the ring, as clowns whose very job it is to humiliate ourselves.
But in Bergman, there is more to life than shameful realizations and struggles with one’s illusions. Against this notion of art as artificiality and cruel deception, his films also propose the idea of art and its liberating capabilities, the possibility it holds of transcending the strictures of an oppressive, limited world order. This is the case in Fanny and Alexander especially, but also in The Magic Flute and the conclusion of The Magician: characters triumph through imagination, righting the wrongs of the world through force of aesthetic will and ingenuity. (In this way, Bergman is much closer to Schopenhauer than he is to the existentialist thinkers to which he’s so often colloquially compared.) In these films, the world of the theater or the circus or caravan can also be a place of shelter, and the tenderness that Albert shows to Anne in the opening moments of the film – replacing the blanket over her bare shoulders to keep her warm – suggests there is still some care that can be extended to others, that sympathy and vulnerability, even in the face of betrayal and cruelty, are still possible.
There is no overtly triumphant note struck for art in Sawdust and Tinsel, but like nearly all Bergman films, the film is ultimately neither fatalistic nor dour. After all, the circus is a “world of misery, lice, disease,” but it is not the artificial and the manipulative world of Sjuberg’s melodramatic theater with its two-dimensional trees and false knives. Nor is the circus the spare, claustrophobic world of Agda’s shop, that space of ticking clocks, buttons to be sewn, and formal, mirthless children. Even though he desperately attempts to rejoin it, Albert knows that this “normal” life is empty and motionless. It lacks the vitality and perpetual movement of the circus caravan, which he recognizes as teeming with life even in the depths of his drunken, jealous, suicidal rage. In a pre-showtime drinking binge with Frost, Albert threatens to kill “five or six” people, including Frost, Alma, and himself, out of mercy—“It’s a pity people must live on this earth.” But soon he bursts into the open air, and the sound of music and performers rehearsing and singing open his eyes, however momentarily or drunkenly, to the sight of life around him. It is one of those fleeting moments in so many Bergman films – the al fresco lunch in Wild Strawberries, the picnic in The Seventh Seal – in which the intensity of self-scrutiny dims for a moment and some peace is afforded, free of the constrictions of the world or the order that the mind assigns to it. It’s a temporary rest, but not an illusion to rest upon, and soon Albert and Frost drunkenly begin to whip their colleagues into shape. For better or worse, they have a performance to prepare for and there is much work to do.
That this performance – the performance of a clown – is itself meant to draw ridicule or derision, even if these are ritualized, is partly what makes Sawdust and Tinsel such an interesting film for Bergman. His later films about artists focus on more respectable art forms (The Magician being a notably liminal exception) or are simply about characters from more reliably bourgeois backgrounds. But the Cirkus Alberti is indeed flea-infested, mud-splattered, and in economic, physical and spiritual disrepair. It is an unusually wild and impoverished world for Bergman to explore – even in comparison to his other 40’s and 50’s films about Bergman’s own beret-and-goatee bohemianism – and the film executes many of Bergman’s later themes in a more visceral, animalistic manner. The sex and violence here are particularly brutal: in the fistfight, note Albert’s incessant, bestial wailing at Frans’ attack on his genitals, and in the scene of Anne’s seduction, we sense every ounce of exertion she expends in trying to free herself. Sweat pours liberally off Albert’s face in several scenes, and the constant reference to smells – of sweat, manure, and cheap perfume – create an almost synesthetic impression of this grim atmosphere and its textures. Bergman’s other films convey many acute sensations as well – think of the rich sights, sounds, and smells of the Christmas sequence in Fanny and Alexander – but few explore such brutishness as the feral grunting of a wild bear or even the comforting calm of Albert’s stabled horse. This is not the world of quiet bourgeois hypocrisy exposed, as is so familiar in Bergman’s films, but a more garish, more primitive variation on the same themes of (self-)betrayal and shame.
But essentially, this is the world of all of Bergman’s subsequent masterpieces, fully formed, if more savage on its surface. Like so many Bergman protagonists that follow them, Albert and Anne become ensnared in their illusory fantasies of self-betterment, traps that they have laid for themselves. And in sensing the inescapability of their positions, they finally see no alternative but the perpetual motion of the caravan. At the close of the film, it is morning again, the caravan must move on, and the performers must continue playing their roles as clowns, with no possibility for escape except for alcohol (Frost’s own vice) or death. And so, stuck together in hell, without recourse to vain illusions of betterment or wealth or success, the question that these characters face is one of vulnerability: How do we make ourselves vulnerable again in a world that may well – or perhaps will inevitably – hurt us? Propelled through this circle of desire and dissatisfaction, we are bound to betray others and ourselves, and we face humiliation and cruelty at every turn. Once wounded, how can we again make ourselves vulnerable by reaching out to others? And if we cannot, what other life is there available to us?
1 As has often been noted, the English title Sawdust and Tinsel is an apocryphal one, made up for the British release of the film. It is presumably intended to suggest the artificiality of the circus, or perhaps functions as a double metonym of the different materials of the circus (sawdust) and the theater (tinsel). In America, the film has played under the title The Naked Night since its initial release, at a time when the mere hint of Scandinavian sexuality was quite marketable. (The film has just a little bit of nudity, much of it quite humiliating to the characters in question, and none of it occurs at night. Nonetheless, this title does inadvertently describe one of Bergman’s favorite temporal settings, “the hour of the wolf.”) The actual title translates as something closer to The Clowns’ Evening, though nobody in the English-speaking world refers to it as such. ↩