The Bergman Files: Prison

“Once he wrote a script about a girl named Birgitta Carolina. She went through the world as if living in a real-life morality play, encountering evil, oddity, degeneracy, poetry, and goodness. And the script ended with her finding salvation. In the final scene she stood singing in the uniform of the Salvation Army.” – Vilgot Sjoman on Bergman’s original script for Prison.

Watching Prison (1949) for the first time, one is immediately struck by the striking imagery that Bergman seeks out – a lone figure walking along windswept hills kicks the film off. He also seeks it out in a more creative manner than the rather straightforward shooting of his first five features. There are zooms, pans, close-ups and much more than we have seen from him previously. There are a number of possible explanations for this. Firstly, the budget of the film was exceedingly tight, so Bergman may be going to more creative lengths to try and make the film look good. Whilst this is part of it, I think the main reason is a heightened ambition on display from the great director. He seems to be challenging both himself and his audience with this film.

Prison (1949 film)

DVD cover of Prison.

This ambition earned some goodwill from me toward Prison, but it only lasted so long. Unfortunately after the exhilaration of the first 15 or so minutes’ ambitious musings, the film becomes overly complicated and pretty underwhelming in general. The film is essentially a film within a film. Or at least I think it is. This device of a film within a film serves to distance the audience from what is occurring onscreen, resulting in scenes that should hold a lot of weight – the birth of new love and the tearing asunder of old – lack an emotional punch. When Bergman begins adding in flashbacks within the film within the film and dreams within the film within the film, things in the film just get altogether too dizzying to follow. I will not spoil the end of the film for those who wish to see it. But I will say that the ending mentioned in Sjoman’s summary above does not come to pass. Bergman was reputedly talked out of his original ending, convinced that it was too sentimental. I think this lack of conviction perhaps shows throughout the film, as it is a genuinely unfocused work.

As great a director as Bergman would go on to become, at this stage of his career he does not seem up to the challenge of handling this storyline. There is just too much going on here. The director in the film looks a lot like Bergman which suggests that the work is at least in part autobiographical. Add to this the scene involving a cinematograph, a favoured childhood toy of Bergman’s, and these suggestions grow even more overt.  The storyline is attempting to be quite self aware and self referential in its construction. And the thematic concerns are not integrated as well into the core love story narrative as in a number of his other early works. Mortality, famously one of the director’s core thematic concerns, is much more prominent here but it also just feels a little out of place in many of the sequences. Again Bergman is confronting, here the exploration of abortion in Port of Call (1948) becomes an examination of infanticide. It is telling that whilst this part of the film shocks, as well it should, it does not have the resonance that it should.

This is Bergman’s best looking and most interesting film thus far, but it is also my least favourite them. The start of the film makes you suspect that he is going to deliver something great for the first time in his career. By the end though, you will just be unengaged and unenthused.

Verdict: Schooner of Carlton Draught

 ‘The Bergman Files’ Leaderboard

  1. It Rains on our Love (1946)
  2. Crisis (1946)
  3. Port of Call (1948)
  4. Music in Darkness (1948)
  5. A Ship Bound for India (1947)
  6. Prison (1949)

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