There’s something mysterious about circus life; it sounds like a life of freedom and a place where you find yourself. We have all heard of the term ”I’m going to run away to the circus”. The world of the circus is the centre of this Bergman 1953 film, Sawdust and Tinsel, and starts off with the circus’ portly owner, Albert (Ake Gronberg), recalling a humiliating incident involving the company’s clown, Frost (Anders Ek). Who discovered his wife, Alma (Gudrun Brost), swimming nude before a band of cheering soldiers.
The scene is played with almost hysterical intensity. With Frost, dressed as a clown, tearfully carrying his nude wife from the water, past the soldiers, and back to the circus tent – tripping on the pebbles as he staggers back. The sequence is mostly silent, allowing the images to speak for themselves. Which makes for a powerful, profound moment, perhaps one of my favourite sequences in a Bergman film.
It is far more dramatic than any other scene from any of the films that I have seen this year, and shows the extent that one might go to try to hold on to modesty and respect. Despite being dressed as a clown, Ek’s performance is somewhat tragic, and piteous, because he is humiliated publicly by the woman he loves, through no fault of his own.
Having concluded his recollection, Albert visits his estranged wife, Agda (Annika Tretow), who realizes that he has made little money with his circus endeavor. The times are changing, and circuses are no longer a popular form of entertainment.
While Albert endures the humiliating encounter with his wife, his jealous mistress, Anne (Harriet Andersson), decides to seek revenge by seducing a local actor, Frans (Hasse Ekman). But later realizes that she has been exploited and debased. Later, the drunken Frost informs Albert of Anne’s sexual indiscretion, whereupon Albert determines to thrash Anne’s cynical lover. However, it is Frans who delivers the thrashing to Albert, beating him up.
Beaten and degraded, Albert ponders suicide. Then decides to avenge himself on unfaithful women by killing the company’s bear, beloved by the provocative Alma, whose betrayal of Frost has so haunted Albert. Following the bear’s demise, the company departs to another town.
The film’s tone is very downbeat, and it is pessimistic, yet truthful study of human nature in relationships. Ingmar Bergman confessed that this was a personal film for him, because of the connection to the excitement of the profession being played out against personal turmoil and trouble in professional terms. Like Albert, Bergman was being pressured to put on a show and was responsible for finding a group of performers work.
The soundtrack is this jarring contrast between sheer silence and a blaring brass band. This is coupled with the stunning black-and-white cinematography that emphasis on glaring sunlight, generating a mood of considerable tension and unease. We mostly feel unease for the fate of the characters. Indeed, none of these characters are truly happy in the way of the definition. Yet, they continuously search for some sort of satisfaction and happiness.
Hailed by some at the time of its release as Bergman’s masterpiece, although the best was yet to come. This is proof of the director’s maturing visual and thematic style. Sadly, the film was a box-office flop, and was one of the more expensive films, relatively to others, Bergman made up to that point. Still, years later, it has become a must-see in terms of Bergman’s early work, and Sawdust and Tinsel has only gotten better with age.