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SAWDUST AND TINSEL

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Ake Gronberg, Harriet Andersson, Hasse Ekman, Anders Ek, Gunnar Bjornstrand
Director:  Ingmar Bergman
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  92 Minutes
Release Date:  November 20, 2007

“For me, it’s fulfillment.”

“For me, it’s emptiness.”

Film ***1/2

The world will sorely miss Ingmar Bergman…cinema will never see his like again.

Still, while we mourn his passing, we have ample opportunity to celebrate his life.  Criterion has offered his fans a real treat with the release of his 1953 film Sawdust and Tinsel.  It’s been rarely seen in this country intact until now, and even then shown only in shoddy looking prints.  Now, thanks to the good folks at Criterion, we can see this early masterpiece uncut and looking better than ever.

It deals with a traveling circus owned by Albert (Gronberg).  As the movie opens, we see their caravan lumbering along from a distance.  Always another show, another town.  But the story begins with a flashback involving their resident clown Frost (Ek).  It’s a strange interlude for a Bergman film…told like a glaring bit of silent film that hearkens back to Sergei Eisenstein, we learn of a tale of infidelity and humiliation…one that will greatly mirror the story to come.

Albert is married but has long abandoned his wife and family for the circus, and now has Anne (Andersson) for his mistress.  The hard life of the circus seems to be taking a toll on them both.  Albert dreams aloud about circuses in America, where they parade down streets to jubilant throngs and owners are rich.  In Sweden, there is no such luck…they arrive in a downpour and half their costumes are ruined.

Albert decides to parade himself and Anne in their finest threads to the local theatre in hopes of borrowing some outfits.  The theatre manager Sjuberg (Bjornstrand) seems amused and less than hospitable…he scorns the circus performers saying “you only risk your lives; we risk our pride”, but provides them with what they need.  It’s there that Anne first lays eyes on the haughty actor Frans (Ekman). 

Albert arranges a small parade to advertise his show like they do in America, but things are a lot different in Sweden…he is informed such act is illegal and has his horses confiscated.  But to make matters more complicated, Albert also decides to pay a visit to his family while in town, against the wishes of the pleading Anne.

Both step out, and both face the fact that life in the circus isn’t what they expected.  Albert feels a sense of domestic pull with his family, but for his sensible wife, such a revelation has come too late.  And Anne returns to Frans, but instead of help, she finds more humiliation.

This culminates in the big show, in which Frans and the theatre people show up.  Albert knows what Frans has done, and decides to call him out…yet another in a series of mistakes, and another choice that leads to his belittlement and embarrassment.

In the end, what is left for show people but the show?  It must, as the saying goes, go on.  There’s always another town, another performance, and Albert and Anne are there with it, though their decision seems one less of resilience than one of hopeless resolution.

Bergman loved the theatre and spent much of his artistic life with it as a writer and director.  In Sawdust and Tinsel, he offers both a tribute to and a solemn commentary on the life of a performer.  As Fellini would demonstrate in years to come, Bergman’s writing and directing shows a true affinity for these people.  They may be foolish, but there’s a certain quiet nobility in their ability to put all aside, perform on cue, and let the moments they spend on stage make up for the emptiness in other areas of their life.

This film marked the first arrival of Sven Nykvist behind the camera, and was the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration with Bergman.  This film, though not as surreal and grandiose in theme as future works, still boasts incredible cinematography.  I can’t forget Bergman’s use of mirrors, which often allows us to see two actors addressing each other at the same time, whereas a lesser director would cut between the two.  We get both delivery and reaction simultaneously.  And we also feel a sense of people who never seem to look one another in the eye.

The film was troublesome for Bergman…it wasn’t well-received, and was released at a time when he still had to seek out funding for each new project.  Thankfully, his career continued, and modern audiences can look back on Sawdust and Tinsel as a significant early work that clearly pointed toward a future of greatness.

Soon there would be The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, films that would permanently cement Bergman’s reputation.  But turning the clock back a little further and visiting an early work like Sawdust and Tinsel is a real treat for movie fans.  Here we see the marks of a genius in blossom, and all the proof of an indelible artist’s greatness, even in more formative years.

Video ***1/2

Criterion does another exemplary job with a classic Bergman film.  There are only minor noticeable instances of flicker or grain in the margins, but for the most part, the print is clean, and the black and white images are crisp and well defined.

Audio **

The Swedish mono is workable, with some good music cues adding a touch of dynamic range here and there.

Features **1/2

The disc includes an introduction by Ingmar Bergman and another terrific commentary track from the venerable Peter Cowie, who offers a wealth of information about Bergman and the film.

Summary:

Bergman is gone, but his influence and genius that helped shape the world of international cinema lives on.  Sawdust and Tinsel is sublime evidence.

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