Humiliation — An Essay On Ingmar Bergman

Sean Brennan

In the final moments of Summer With Monika, Harry Lund (Lars Ekborg) reflects upon the happiest days of his life.  Defeated by both his wife’s betrayal and his own newfound cruelty, Harry reminisces on their summer together. Bergman accentuates both the loss of Harry’s childhood innocence and the harsh reality of adulthood by overlaying an extreme close-up of Harry’s weathered face with earlier scenes of open, sunbathed waters and young love’s gentle caresses.  For these few brief moments, Harry sees both his past and present lives with an almost unbearable sense of clarity.  In that moment, he realizes that his life has been marked by shame and contempt.

Humiliation, or the act of defamation, is one of the quintessential themes in Bergman’s oeuvre.  It appears in a myriad of ways throughout his career, from his first screenplay credit in 1944’s Torment all the way to his final work, Saraband (2003) (Simon).  Ranging from witty comedies to pitch-black dramas, these works all use humiliation as revelatory moment in which the characters under scrutiny are apprised of their sins.  In the standard fare, this would lead to either the humbling of said character or their eventual deference.  What makes Bergman’s use of the theme exceptional is that he defies these expectations, shaping his character’s responses not by the implicit nature of dramatic function, but from the complexities of human nature.

Smiles of A Summer Night
When looking at all of Bergman’s films, none combine his acute wit and revelry in misfortune with as much gleeful ease as Smiles of a Summer Night.  Written during a severe bout with depression, Smiles serves as the artistic cure to Bergman’s both creative and emotional lull.  Focusing its gaze primarily on the pride of men, Smiles aims for the gut more often than the diaphragm, and most of its laughs delivery an emotional response in lieu of a physical one.  Rather than focusing on various “gags” and “bits” to string together a workable comedy to give his distributor, Bergman pokes fun at his characters’ – and, by extension, his own – hubris, in order to make an infinitely relatable comedy.  As Frederik Egerman (Gunnar Björnstrand) fumbles his way through life and love, it is easy to feel for his plight.  Despite his desperate yearning for love, he is hardly equipped to either find it or cultivate it beyond simplistic terms of endearment.

Before he ends up in the arms of one-time-lover-lifetime-friend Desiree Armfeldt (Eva Dahlbeck), Frederik suffers a string of blows to his pride.  The first of these occurs at the hand of his wife, the virginal Anne (Ulla Jacobsson), who leaves her seemingly “happy” marriage to Frederik to run off with his son Henrik (Björn Bjelfvenstam).  Much of the romance between Anne and Henrik takes place when Frederik is otherwise engaged, and for the most part is fairly innocent.  They are merely two young people experiencing love for the first time.  Though Anne appears faithful to Henrik and their relationship on the surface seems happy, she originally entered her marriage out of pity.  While reminiscing over their meeting, she tells Frederik, “You were so lonely and sad that summer. I felt awfully sorry for you!”  She implies that Frederik had based his decision to marry her on his desire to feel the passion of youth again (“And the wolf thought: ‘I wonder what a young girl would taste like?’”)  Gunnar Fischer’s photography supports this dichotomy, placing Frederik and Anne on opposite ends of the frame, with Anne in the light and Frederik obscured in shadow.  However, this does not lend a sinister atmosphere to the scene – it merely substantiates the divide between the two spouses.  Though Anne does not feel threatened by Frederik’s age, she is not ignorant of the gap between their experiences of love.  She has never been in love before, yet Frederik is still coming to terms with the end of a lengthy affair with Desiree.  He still mutters Desiree’s name in his dreams, and when he goes to see her perform, Anne can only tear him away briefly before he begins seeking her out again.

Meanwhile, Henrik is torn between his training to become a minister and his love for his stepmother Anne.  In order to stave off his urges, Henrik has a brief affair with his father’s servant Petra (Harriet Andersson, who had previously starred in Bergman’s Summer With Monika).  Over the course of the film, Henrik and Anne fall in love and eventually elope, leaving Frederik dejected in their wake.  As they leave, Anne throws off her bridal veil, the last garment tying her to her youth as well as Frederik.  As he picks up Anne’s veil from the ground, Frederik realizes that he never truly knew Anne – he only knew the blushing bride.  Frederik’s idolatry of her youth had been masked with “love”, and though he had shared the same bed with Anna, their marriage was never consummated. At best, their relationship resembled that of father and daughter more than husband and wife.

In addition to the blows dealt by Anne, Frederik experiences a series of abasements at the hands of Desiree’s lover, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm before finally winding up in Desiree’s arms.  Malcolm, threatened by his mistress’ friendship with Egerman (“I can tolerate my wife’s infidelity, but if anyone touches my mistress, I become a tiger!”), attempts to ward him off with backhanded remarks and bold threats.  “I do not tolerate pugs, lap-dogs – cats or so-called ‘old friends’,” he admits before challenging Frederik to a duel.  In an almost Shakespearian string of vaguely masked insults, Egerman and the Malcolm belittle each other’s actions and stature. In order to mock Frederik’s masculinity, the Count flaunts his own, boasting his luck at duels and throwing a knife across the room. Frederik in turn comments on both the Malcolm’s impeccable aim and ridiculous demeanor, stating that he should join the circus.  Unable to withstand anymore of Egerman’s wit, the Count tries a different approach.  “I believe [lawyers] to be society’s parasites,” the Count states, unabashedly insulting Frederik’s pride and profession.  This eventually proves futile and Malcolm is forced to use his last resort – stripping Frederik of his garments (the Count’s own nightshirt, borrowed after an unfortunate incident concerning Frederik’s suit and a puddle) and forcing him to leave Desiree’s house.

However, this act of ridicule only convinces Desiree that she is in love with Frederik, and that they could be happy together.  In order to set this up, she throws a party and invites both the Egerman’s and the Malcolm’s to dine.  She schemes with the Count’s wife Charlotte (Margit Carlqvist), hoping to receive her help in wooing Frederik.  This does not go according to plan, as Charlotte seduces Frederik once Anne runs off with Henrik.  Seeing the affair from across the yard, Desiree notifies Malcolm, who becomes enraged (“I can tolerate someone dallying with my mistress, but if anyone touches my wife, I become a tiger!”). His subsequent fury causes Frederik’s final humiliation – the ill-fated game of “Russian Roulette”, in which the two parties each take turns pointing a revolver containing one bullet to their heads and pulling the trigger.  Unlike the previous battle of wits between the two, this match levels the playing field, which Bergman exemplifies by filming both actors sitting at the same level with the camera detailing their reactions to the action at hand.  By keeping the editing to a minimum, Bergman raises the tension of the scene, allowing the actors expressions to reign supreme.  This is not surprising, given Bergman’s obsession with faces (Ebert).  Gunnar Björnstrand stands out particularly in this scene, his usually relaxed demeanor eroding until the final shot, which, unbeknownst to the audience, sprays soot all over his face.

At this point, Frederik “lands” in the arms Desiree, the only person who he feels comfortable to share himself with, “warts and all.”  She alleviates his shame by sarcastically stating that he must be “greatly pitied” for the “veritable tragedy” that has occurred, wiping away the soot in the process.  In order to accentuate the subdued nature of the scene, Bergman parallels the Roulette scene and simply lets the camera roll, allowing the two leads’ chemistry and timing to work its magic on the screen.  Desiree sits at the same level as Frederik, proving to him that she is in the boat as him.  Her career in acting seems like a thing of the past, as the parts that once defined her career are being passed down to younger women.  Unlike Anne, whose youthful countenance lent itself to fantasy, Desiree keeps Frederik grounded in her humbled demeanor.  She offers to stay with him, and the film ends with Frid describing the summer night’s third smile on the “sleepless and lost souls,” who, after a long time searching, may finally rest a while in each other’s arms.

Through a Glass Darkly / The Magician
Among Bergman’s most vivid depictions of humiliation are his “self-portraits”.  These characters show up time and time again within his films as a constant reminder of the struggle of the artist and their self-inflicted isolation from society.  The artist, according to Bergman, exists “on equal footing with an every other creature who […] exists for his own sake.” (Bergman)  By extension, the work of an artist in the modern age lacks importance except in relation to one’s inherent desire to create.  Many of Bergman’s films obey this method, following characters as he or she deals with the stresses of doing something they know has little to no intrinsic value.  Unable to cope with the meaninglessness of their own pursuits, these characters often strive to maintain their appearance of importance and stature for as long as possible.

The 1961 film Through a Glass Darkly is a textbook example of Bergman’s portrait style, using four different archetypal characters to question life, religion, and art in nuclear age.  David (Gunnar Björnstrand), after being estranged from his family, tries to reconnect with his adolescent son Minus (Lars Passgård), schizophrenic daughter Karin (Harriet Andersson), and her husband Martin (Max Von Sydow) over a vacation to a remote island during Karin’s leave from the asylum.  Though Karin’s illness worsens significantly during her time on the island, David is primarily preoccupied with his own “writer’s block” and desire to be respected by critics (“He wants to be a writer,” Minus proclaims in the beginning of the film).  Despite this, he maintains the appearance that he is the caring father his children deserve – serving the food at dinner and giving them half-hearted gifts – hoping that thereupon he will receive their love and admiration.

This façade, however, is soon shattered by Minus’ play, which shatters David’s delusions of grandeur by lampooning his idea of artistic integrity.  The play, performed by Minus and Anne, portrays of an artist “of the purest kind” – “a poet without poems” who scoffs at the banality of “ready-made art” and instead simply creates nothing, wasting away his life in the name of art, until the day “death takes him” and posthumously bolsters his importance.  Bergman films most of the stage shots from below, which adds a domineering nature to play, making both the audience and David feel trapped, unable to escape their humiliation.  The play’s satirical nature, whether intended or not, is never addressed, because David’s reaction to the scene is all that matters.  While his body remains stationary during the play, David’s eyes lower as he realizes what he thinks his children think of him.  Rather than viewing the play as the cry of a neglected child begging to be noticed by his absent father, David only sees his own insecurities laid bare.  Nevertheless, in order to maintain appearances, David reassumes his guise once the play comes to an end, rising in furious applause crying “Author! Author!”

David’s façade, though damaged by Minus’ play, does not remain intact for very much longer following the dinner.  While searching through David’s desk, Karin finds some notes elucidating the incurable nature of her “affliction” and her father’s desire to keep a record of it as “inspiration”.  Martin, after being informed this, invites David on a fishing trip, confronting the charlatan “artiste”.  “There is no one else to blame. I’ve no excuse”, David says, as the camera settles itself in a close up.  As the man on trial, it makes sense for the director to want to record every nuance of his reaction.  “It’s always about you and yours,” Martin intones, savoring every word.  The camera shows him at medium distance, as he remains impassionate and completely unimpressed by David’s self-immolation.  “’Record its course.’ That’s so typical,” Martin says, belittling David’s struggle by attributing it to all artists.  “You’re a craven coward, but a genius at evasions and excuses,” he asserts,  “In your novels you’re always courting some God, but let me tell you, your faith and your doubt are very unconvincing.  All that’s apparent is your ingenuity.”  David affirms this, responding that does not how to move forward.  His struggle is not only that of the artist in the modern era, but of mankind who are left to exist under “a cold and empty sky” (Bergman).

Although Through a Glass Darkly subscribes to a fairly pessimistic viewpoint in regards to the meaning of art, it does end with David reconnecting with his son.  After Karin is taken to the hospital, Minus asks David what could possibly make living worthwhile without God.  David responds by simply stating that love is God, and “God is love”.  Though this may seem a bit forced on Bergman’s part, reducing all of the events of the film into a few minced words about love, it becomes crucial when viewed with The Magician, an earlier work of Bergman’s, in mind.  While Albert Vogler (played again by Max Von Sydow), the traveling mesmerist suffers a similar sling of abasements and doubts as David in Through a Glass Darkly, he lashes out against them with his final trick.  After being ridiculed during his act by an audience who wish to tarnish his reputation and credibility, Vogler fakes his own death, in order to “resurrect” himself and “haunt” Dr. Vergerus (Gunnar Björnstrand), the physician who criticized him in the first place.  Unable to explain what he sees, but equally unable believe that he has been proven wrong, Vergerus stumbles through the cluttered attic, trapped in his own nightmare.  Meanwhile, Vogler lurks in the shadows off-screen, between conceivable and inexplicable reality.  Herein lies the try real magic of the film – the “perceived illusion”.  While it is explained later that Vogler faked his death and that the whole act was a ruse, in the attic the audience as frightened as Vegerus is.  For those fleeting moments, belief is suspended and “magic” occurs.  That, in Bergman’s opinion, is the nature of art, and the reason it continues to subsist.

Sawdust & Tinsel
While Smiles of a Summer Night, Through A Glass Darkly and The Magician all use humiliation as a dramatic tool, none of them explore it as thoroughly as Sawdust & Tinsel.  Starring Åke Grönberg as Albert Johansson, a middle-aged ringmaster trying to keep his failing circus running, the film delves deeply into the recesses of human suffering.  The film opens with a circus member telling Albert the story of the time one of their troupe members betrayed her husband, the clown Frost (Anders Ek).  Though it is never specifically stated, it is implied that Frost’s wife — in a desperate attempt to regain her youth — ran to the sailors and teased them by going swimming in her undergarments.  However, this tryst only last a matter of minutes, as the captain sends one of his men to go fetch Frost.  They emasculate the clown with such glee because, in their opinion, he cannot sink any lower than his current state — walking around in a ridiculous costume with thickly painted cheap makeup.  By informing Frost of his wife’s betrayal, they strip him of his last shred of pride, reducing him to no more than an animal.  Frost does not speak as he strips to his undergarments to retrieve his wife from the waters.  Accompanied by only the sound of the sailors’ laughter, he grabs his wife and starts carrying her up the hill to their tent.  Unable to carry her the whole way, Frost stumbles and falls onto the rocks, only to be carried the rest of the way by the sailors themselves.  Bergman accentuates this sequence’s prophetic and almost divine qualities with high-key lighting that echoes the expressionist works of Wiene and Murnau.   By accentuating the layers of makeup of Frost’s face, the audience can see through every little crack in his persona, gaining, for a brief moment, a glimpse the wreckage underneath.

Frost’s story acts as an overture to Sawdust & Tinsel (also called The Clown’s Evening and The Naked Night), in which Bergman delves for the first time into the world of the circus performers — where artifice meets life and pride is a privilege held by few.  While passing through his old hometown, Albert tries to leave the circus business and his bareback-riding mistress Anne (Harriet Andersson) to return to his wife and children and lead a respectable life.  The chain of events caused by this action swiftly wreaks havoc on Albert’s life, driving him to the edge of suicide.  Although at first glance the story appears relatively simplistic, Sawdust reveals much about Bergman’s ideology once dissected.  Taking cues from both Expressionist master F.W. Murnau and innovator Carl Dreyer, Bergman grounds his clowns with empathy not often found in films of his contemporaries, save for Fellini.

Albert’s attrition, while continuously shape-shifting throughout the film, begins as soon as he enters the town.  Hoping to borrow a set of costumes for their performance, Albert and Anne visit the local “theatre”.  Upon arriving, they enter through the rear of the wings, behind the stage.  In order to see the director, Sjuberg (Gunnar Björnstrand), they walk away from the camera towards the stage, dwarfed by their immaculate surroundings.  Even though there is little dialogue employed in these shots, they immediately define the divide between the circus and the “theatre”.  Though Albert and Anne dress as if they are high-class, Sjuberg (Gunnar Björnstrand) derides them and their so-called “artifice”.  When they beg him use his spare costumes, his reply is terse and mocking.  “I’ve never dealt with a circus before,” he chuckles, “dreadful things could happen.”  “Why do you insult me?” Albert implores, surrounded by the discerning eyes of the company.  Flirting with the idea of criticism — which he would later explore in The Hour of the Wolf — Bergman clutters this shot with faces of actors, reminiscent of the ever-watchful eyes of critics, all watching Albert intently and waiting for the Sjuberg to respond.  “[…] Because you put up with my insults,” the director replies, pacing around Albert.  The camera tilts upwards at this point, forcing the audience experience Albert’s helplessness.  “The lowest of us would spit on the best of you,” the director relishes. Nevertheless, he allows Albert and Anne to borrow his costumes.  He does not need to deny them what they want in order to insult them; he insults them simply because he can.

Though the costume situation is an overall victory for the circus, it comes at a cost to Albert’s pride, convincing him to leave the circus (and Anne) in an attempt to salvage whatever life he can with his wife and children.  He soon comes to find they have moved on without him.  Rather than receiving love, Albert is pitied by his wife, Agda (Annika Tretow), who has managed better without him or the circus.  After dreaming of being welcomed back with open arms, Albert quickly realizes that he does not fit the mold of the “nuclear family”.  Even his presence in the building feels foreign, with his shabby, cut up dress shirt and detached cuffs sharply contrasting the tidy decor of Agda’s household.  Grönberg accentuates this discomfort by lending a nervous tone to his speech, sweating profusely during his conversation with Agda, knowing that every word Albert says plays directly into the outcome of his visit.  Even so, Albert’s brutish nature comes out periodically throughout their luncheon, further proving his inability to even maintain a calm disposition.  Agda, however, is much more suited for the idle life.  After being freed of the burden of both the circus and taking care of Albert, she found happiness and stability in a quiet life, which Albert desires but can never achieve.  Although the circus is slowing corroding Albert’s patience, he does not find solace in living a mundane, “normal” life.    “It’s so quiet here,” he says, physically unnerved.  “For me, it’s fulfillment,” Agda responds, surrounded by flowers and lace curtains.  Albert sighs, realizing he does not have a place in his family’s future, “For me, it’s emptiness.”

Upon leaving his wife’s shop, Albert discovers that Anne, in a jealous fit to get even with him, slept with Frans (Hasse Ekman), one of the company members from the theatre.  His last vestige of pride obliterated, Albert becomes angry and depressed.  This moment parallels the aftermath of the “Russian roulette” duel in Smiles of a Summer Night, except, unlike Albert, Frederik had Desiree’s loyalty.  Instead, Albert spirals out of control, alternating from moments of primal rage to one’s of sardonic self-deprecation.  “We’re all stuck,” he tells Anne before their evening show, “stuck like hell.”  When he sees Frans in the audience at that night’s show, Albert challenges him to a duel.  Reduced to circling the ring like a bull, Albert shows his true self for the first time.  Prior to this moment, his brutish soul had been masked by his false sense of pride.  Freed by his anger and abasement, Albert lunges at his opponent until Frans deals final blow the final blow.  Bergman does not censor any of the violent fight, allowing its sheer brutality to sink in.  When Alfred finally falls, the weight of the scene is finally lifted and the audience does only witness it; the audience experiences the fall with him, and as a result empathizes with his struggle.

In each of these films, Bergman uses humiliation as a tool to signal a change in his characters.  While the theme remains universal, whether the characters initiate the necessary change varies from film to film.  In Smiles of a Summer Night, Frederik’s trials lead him to realize the errors of his ways, opening up the possibility of a future with Desiree, while in Through A Glass Darkly and The Magician both David and Vogler come to terms with the meaninglessness of their art and struggle, hoping for a change yet to come.  What makes Sawdust & Tinsel transcend all of these other’s films in its depiction of humiliation does not lie in it’s brutal honesty in depiction, but in its final sequence, where Albert Johannson rises from the ashes of his old life and, instead of wallowing in defeat, chooses to exorcize his demons and carry on with his life.  After his defeat in the circus ring, Albert attempts to kill himself in his trailer.  The pistol jams and, while Albert attempts to investigate the error, fires into a mirror image of Albert, shattering the mirror and Albert’s reflection.  In this moment, Alfred realizes that death is not what he seeks.  Instead, he takes his pistol and shoots the troupe’s prize bear, who’d grown ill of late.  Bergman frames this final shot from the bear’s perspective, and it appears as if Alfred shoots the camera itself, killing the bear in a symbolic gesture of rebirth and self-immolation.  The bear, in this moment, becomes a symbol of not only Albert’s shame, but of his entire persona, which he sheds in order to — in the words of Frost —  “return to [the] womb and sleep in peace.”  By reaching the conclusion that shame — like everything in life — is only temporary, Albert is able to move forward.  In Bergman’s opinion, this is why humans choose to not only survive, but also thrive.  “Taken together,” Bergman writes, “we are probably a fairly large brotherhood who exist in this way […] on the warm, dirty earth, under a cold and empty sky.”

Works Cited

Bergman, Ingmar. “The Snakeskin” Ingmar Bergman. N.p., 1965. Web. 06 May 2014.

Ebert, Roger. “Ingmar Bergman: In Memory.” All Content. N.p., 30 July 2007. Web. 06 May 2014.

Simon, John. “Smiles of A Summer Night: Midsummer Merry-Go-Round.” RSS. Criterion Collection, 2004. Web. 06 May 2014.

Sean Brennan studies Composition at Berklee College of Music. He is an avid consumer of everything film, and is thrilled to contribute to FUSION.  His favorite directors include Alfonso Cuarón, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Ingmar Bergman.  This essay was originally written as his final project for the class Modern Drama and Film in April, 2014.