The Bergman Files: Crisis

“Grandiose Drivel”how Bergman in later years described Crisis

A young Ingmar Bergman had to lobby hard to get the opportunity to make Crisis (1946), his directorial debut. The company Bergman was working for, Svenski Filmindustri, were content making B films on the cheap, using contracted actors. But eventually the director convinced them to allow him to shoot this more artistic fare. The screenplay was adapted by Bergman from a play written by Leck Fisher.  Bergman himself described the early part of shooting as “nightmarish”, and paranoid that the others working on the film considered him to be incompetent, he lashed out with repeated fits of rage. The entire process was, in Bergman’s words a “fiasco”. Others agreed, because as a result of it, he was booted out of Svensk Filmindustri.

English: Ingmar Bergman during production of C...

Bergman on the troubled set of his first feature directorial effort.

Despite the horrific shoot endured by the young director, I think the end product holds up very well. The film focuses on the 18 year old and innocent Nelly, who has been raised in a small country town by the piano teacher Ingeborg. Nelly knows that Ingeborg is not her real mother, and on the day the film opens her biological mother Jenny shows up, determined to take Nelly back to Stockholm with her. After getting drunk and disgracing herself at the town dance that night, Nelly agrees to go with her mother, leaving Ingeborg distraught. In what follows, the innocent Nelly is exposed to the darker side of humanity (particularly men).

From the very start, the film is set up as a contrast between the rural and the urban. The opening shots of the film show the idyllic country town where Nelly happy lives with Ingeborg. A town so sleepy and idyllic that the daily highlight is the arrival of the bus. On this particular day the bus brings into this idyll a woman of which “everything about her speaks of the big wide world” – this is Nelly’s mother.  Bergman, perhaps acknowledging his grounding in theatre, opens the film after a short prologue with the voiceover stating “Let the play begin”. The same voice over downplays any possibility of ‘grandiosity’ in the film’s aims soon after when it announces that the tale “really is just an everyday drama”.

Ingeborg and Nelly live a poor life, Ingeborg forever having to borrow money off friends. But their relationship even in the face of this is delightfully tender. Nelly is a dreamer, loved by everyone, particularly the older Ulf, a vet who rents a room in Ingeborg’s apartment. Nelly is wonderfully brought to life by Inga Landgre, who would go on to star in The Seventh Seal (1957) 11 years later. Her joy at the impending dance elicits everything that the viewer needs to know about her, especially the childlike naivety that would be challenged throughout the film. In many ways it is not the arrival of her mother that has the greatest impact on Nelly, but the arrival of her mother’s companion Jack. Initially they appear to be lovers, though it is later revealed that he is Jenny’s half brother’s son. Still later it is revealed that the man may have fulfilled both functions at some point in time. Jack is a smarmy, conniving and extremely narcissistic presence, a stark contrast to the rugged and upright Ulf. The early part of the film is devoted to the question of what really makes a mother. Is it simply the act of giving birth, or is it to do with nurture. In the eyes of the audience there is no doubt that Ingeborg is the real mother to Nelly. But in the eyes of society, things may take on a different reality. Once the action moves to Stockholm, the film falters a little. It becomes unclear as to what exactly is occurring and particularly what the relationship is between Nelly and Jack. In the end, Bergman is right to keep things oblique though as the conclusion brings it all together expertly and in a modern psychological way too.  The way it all plays out is stunning and it manages to work really well without feeling twee.

English: Ingmar Bergman and Victor Sjöström 19...

Bergman (l) with his mentor Victor Sjöström in 1957.

The film shows the genesis of many of the themes that would continue to characterise Bergman’s work. During the film Ingeborg becomes very unwell. She attributes her illness as punishment, some sort of deserved fate because of sin. Bergman’s childhood as the son of a pastor, was in the director’s eyes characterised by these same notions of sin and punishment. Bergman has talked of how early in the shooting he was overcomplicating his camerawork, before iconic silent film director Victor Sjostrom counselled him to keep things simple. The advice shines through in the film, because it is really beautiful, but restrained in its shooting. There is little more technically astute than the occasional simple zoom but it still looks great. The film has a great soundtrack, courtesy of Erland von Koch who emphasises all the melodramatic high points he is required to in the film, and also has some fun contrasting music in the early ball scene.

It is hard to see why Bergman looked back on his first effort with such disgruntlement. Perhaps it was the horror experience of actually making the film or the fact that it bombed commercially. Crisis though is much more than curiosity value, which is the fate of many a great director’s first effort. In fact so assured is the film that it barely even seems like a first film at all. Check this film out, I think that with the intriguing character motivations on offer, it is one that would probably hold up to repeated viewings.

Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny

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  1. Crisis (1946)

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