Sawdust and Tinsel (Gycklarnas afton)

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman
Stars: Åke Grönberg (Albert Johansson), Harriet Andersson (Anne), Hasse Ekman (Frans), Anders Ek (Frost), Gudrun Brost (Alma), Annika Tretow (Agda), Erik Strandmark (Jens), Gunnar Björnstrand (Mr. Sjuberg), Curt Löwgren (Blom), Kiki (The Dwarf)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1953
Country: Sweden
Sawdust and Tinsel: Criterion Collection DVD
Sawdust and TinselSawdust and Tinsel (Gycklarnas afton) is generally considered to be one of the first films, if not the first film, that truly defined the stylistic and thematic preoccupations of Ingmar Bergman, perhaps because it feels as if it had been drawn directly out of the writer/director's fervid subconscious. Bergman claims that the inspiration for the film came out of one of his dreams, which he translated into a crucial, surreal flashback sequence early in the film. According to his autobiography, Bergman wrote Sawdust and Tinsel straight through in a three-week period “without stopping to think or add or fill in,” which further underscores the film's unimpeded direct link to his subconscious. It was also Bergman's first collaboration with legendary cinematographer Sven Nykvist, who took over when the film's chief cinematographer left the production to go to the United States for a course on using the CinemaScope camera.

Taking place at the turn of the 20th century, Sawdust and Tinsel is set in a nearly destitute traveling circus, which immediately gives the film an air of the slightly surreal with its clowns, trained animals, and other vaguely bizarre sights. The main character is Albert Johansson (Åke Grönberg), the corpulent circus owner who is constantly sweating through his middle years. When the film opens, his circus is returning to the small town where he left his wife (Annika Tretow) and young children many years ago. Albert's mistress, a beautiful young woman named Anne (Harriet Andersson), doesn't like that Albert is planning to see his estranged wife, so she allows her jealousy to lead her into the arms of Frans (Hasse Ekman), an effete scoundrel of an actor in the local theater troupe.

As the story suggests, Sawdust and Tinsel is spun out of the twin, interlocking threads of sexual jealousy and humiliation, something Bergman was particularly attuned to. When he wrote and directed the film he was already on his third marriage and was engaged in an affair with Harriet Andersson, an unknown whom he had made a star by casting her in his previous film, the scandalous Summer With Monika (1953). The film plays in a series of bitter setpieces in which the characters are tempted by others and fail miserably to maintain their dignity.

For Albert, seeing his wife and children for the first time in years tempts him with the opportunity to leave the circus life, with its nomadic wandering and lack of stability. While such a life was once dazzling enough for him to leave his family, it has clearly failed to make good on its promise of independence and adventure. Anne, on the other hand, seems to be acting primarily out of fear; she senses that Albert will be tempted to leave her for a steady homelife, thus she attempts to leave him first. Bergman saw pieces of himself in both characters, but particularly Albert with his simultaneous desire for show business and bourgeois normality (interestingly, this is one of the few films that Bergman, also an accomplished theater director, set in the world of show business).

As many of Bergman's films are autobiographical in nature, at least emotionally and philosophically, it is hard not to read a dark mentality into Sawdust and Tinsel, which offers at best the promise of reconciliation, but no hope of genuine happiness. The characters are all twisted and sad, living out their miserable lives and failing to transcend their limitations. The film reaches a climactic point of both sadness and absurdity when Albert and Frans duke it out in the circus's center ring. Albert's literal fight for respect ends with him beaten and eating dust, a fitting image for the film's despondent view of the nature of human relationships. The film's other major setpiece, the aforementioned flashback at the beginning of the film, involves the circus clown (Anders Ek) having to reclaim his wife (Gudrun Brost) from a naked swim with a group of leering and cackling soldiers. Bergman filmed the sequence in such harsh, overexposed light that it takes on the tone of a nightmare, with the bleached image threatening the same lack of vision and coherence traditionally associated with darkness.

For Bergman, this sequence is the root of the film's trauma, and each character acts out a unique dance of jealousy and humiliation, finally learning to accept what they have and move on with life. In this sense, Sawdust and Tinsel holds out a modicum of hope, but only enough to suggest that human relationships, despite their difficulties, are what keep us together.

Sawdust and Tinsel Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioSwedish Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Subtitles English
  • Audio commentary by film scholar Peter Cowie
  • Introduction by Ingmar Bergman
  • New essay by critic John Simon and an appreciation by filmmaker Catherine Breillat
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateNovember 20, 2007

    Because it has been out of circulation for so long and rarely seen except during revivals, it is a real pleasure to see Sawdust and Tinsel looking so good. The high-definition transfer was made from a 35mm print struck from the original negative and then digitally restored. The resulting pictureboxed image is virtually pristine, with excellent detail, black levels, and contrast. The purposefully bleached-out flashback near the beginning of the film does pose a challenge, and at times the image looks a little too digital with the harsh contrasts, but otherwise this is a beautiful transfer. The digitally restored monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm optical soundtrack print, is completely clean, with no hiss or other aural artifacts.
    Peter Cowie is no stranger to Criterion DVDs of Ingmar Bergman films, having previously appeared in video interviews (Smiles of a Summer Night), written essays (The Virgin Spring), and recorded audio commentaries (Fanny and Alexander). His newly recorded screen-specific audio commentary on Sawdust and Tinsel is exactly what you would respect from the renowned scholar and author of Ingmar Bergman: A Critical Biography: excellent, detailed analysis of the film and plenty of historical background. He does make a rather large claim at the beginning of the commentary, saying that this is “one of the most exciting DVDs Criterion has issued,” and while that may be a slight overstatement (I don't think it's quite in the league of Criterion's reconstruction of Mr. Arkadin or its rumored upcoming release of Sam Fuller's long-suppressed White Dog), it's always nice to have an enthusiastic scholar talking his or her way through the film. There are no other supplements on the disc except a video introduction to the film by the late Bergman recorded in 2003 as part of a series recorded by Swedish television journalist Marie Nyreröd.

    Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3)

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