Prison (Fängelse)

Sweden (1949) Dir. Ingmar Bergman

“Life is merely a cruel and sensual arc from cradle to grave”

The master of the brooding introspective film gets a bit meta in this overlooked early outing, his sixth feature, but still features many of the themes which would become central to Bergman’s later and  more well known works.

A retired maths teacher (Anders Henrikson), recently released from a mental hospital, pays a visit to one of his former pupils, film director Martin Grande (Hasse Ekman) and proposes an idea for a film to him – Satan has taken over the planet so the earth is no Hell, although nothing will be changed. Martin isn’t sure about it but the real life events involving some of his friends makes Martin ponder Paul’s idea a little more deeply.

This was the first film that Bergman wrote himself and typically it is unconventional in its premise and approach. Seasoned Bergman fans will know the he dispensed with end credits in his films but in this instance he also abandoned the opening credit too! The film opens cold with a wide shot of Paul walking across a grass path and it isn’t until ten minutes later that a voice over then runs through the cast list and key production staff.

From here the story-within-a-story begins. Martin’s writer friend Tomas (Birger Malmsten) is a desperate alcoholic who is driving his loyal wife Sofi (Eva Henning) away with talk of a suicide pact of which she wants no part. They row, she hits him with a bottle and he retaliates by strangling her but when he returns with a policeman after confessing this murder, Sofi has in fact awoken and left.

Meanwhile a young streetwalker that Tomas once interviewed, Birgitta Soederberg (Doris Svedlund) gives birth to a daughter whom she hands over to her bosses, husband and wife Peter (Stig Olin) and Linnea (Irma Christenson). A short while later the police arrive having found the body of the baby causing Birgitta to run away with Tomas after meeting him in the street alone and depressed.

So, your usual cheery outing from Bergman then, heavy with visual symbolism and philosophically charged dialogue but with an uncharacteristic cheeky touch in places. While on the run, Tomas and Birgitta stay in the attic room of Mrs. Bohlin’s (Marianne Löfgren) apartment where Tomas finds an old cine-projector. He shows Birgitta a mocked up silent film in which death is featured for the first time in physical form.

The silent film played out by an Italian acrobat troupe sees a Chaplin-esque character having troubles with a cast of familiar tropes, one of which is death dressed up as a pseudo-devil type character right out of the Georges Méliès playbook. However the levity begins and ends here, sandwiched in between existentialist doom and gloom delivered in Bergman’s inimitable style.

Because of the interweaving nature of the stories it is not immediately clear whether we are watching the film being played out in real time or Martin’s memories or even the fall out of Martin seeking Tomas’s advice on whether Paul’s idea is filmable. Tomas suggested that Birgitta would make a great protagonist for Martin’s script based on the experiences she shared with him, which Martin politely refused.

Even up until the end the illusion is kept alive, the film’s climax taking place on the film set with a passing comment offering some closure as to what we had just witnessed. As ever Bergman doesn’t supply us with answers to his questions, he presents us with scenarios to illustrate his own musings and we are left to draw our own conclusions. Prison is certainly oblique at times but not as arcane as Bergman’s later works.

With a cast of clearly damaged and tragic figures the ambiguity as to how the audience should view them is one of Bergman’s fortes. As a prostitute Birgitta will find little sympathy at first, her coquettish manner and candour about her work being a less endearing quality but her post birth plight changes all of that. Tomas comes across as pretension personified but maybe he is stifled by Sofi’s perfect wife routine that Birgitta’s verve and caprice excites him so much.

In essence the lines are drawn between the lesser of two evils, the other ones being Peter and Linnea, who are keen to hunt Birgitta down to avoid her revealing the truth which would see them arrested. Yet there is fleeting signs that they may genuinely care about Birgitta but it is so thinly veiled it could just be another ruse. This pitting of black against dark grey is presented with no intent to sway the audience either way, even if the response feels obvious.

While Bergman was still finding his voice in terms of both style and narrative, there is evidence of his influences being paid homage to here, in this instance Victor Sjöström with a nod towards German Expressionism. This manifests itself in a dream sequence in which Birgitta is walking through an eerie forest where people are trees and she witnesses a surreal re-enactment of her baby’s death with a fish supplanting the child.

Such overt artistic flare became less a factor in Bergman’s ensuing works, making this a remarkable sight if one is more familiar with the less flamboyant stylings of say Cries And Whispers or Wild Strawberries.

Much of the cast here may not be as well known as the legendary cadre that would make their names in the major classic Bergman films, however they are equally adept in bringing his vision alive; in particular Doris Svedlund is engaging as the doomed Birgitta while Birger Malmsten makes for an effective tortured writer in Tomas.

Prison may not the most well know film in Bergman’s impressive and prolific canon but this doesn’t mean it is any less worthy of your attention. For a portent for things to come from the Swedish master the blueprints for his greater works can be found here.  

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