Monika / Sawdust & Tinsel
Ingmar Bergman was one of the hardest-working directors ever, and he had a long apprenticeship in the Swedish film industry before getting any recognition. Monika, in 1953, was his twelfth film. The story concerns 19-year-old Harry Lund, played by Lars Ekborg. Harry is unhappy with his job as a stockboy, where he is treated abusively by the staff. By chance he meets Monika, played by Harriet Andersson in her first major role, and they go on a few dates. Monika is an impulsive and sexually uninhibited teenager living in a poor part of town with her alcoholic father and many siblings. Harry has never met anyone so unselfconscious, and he falls hard for her. It all leads up to them running away in the summer and hiding out on an island up the river.
The picture got a lot of attention because of Andersson’s bold erotic screen presence and some brief nudity, which was of course a big deal in the 1950s. In America the film was retitled Summer with Monika, and although much of its audience probably came for the wrong reasons, the film is actually a very strong and sensitive portrait of youthful hopes and illusions. Harry is ultimately willing to settle down into a normal life, but this is not enough for Monika. Her self-centeredness and narrow point of view becomes more evident, but Bergman doesn’t allow us to sacrifice empathy. Without knowing it, Monika yearns for the kind of freedom and fun that conventional society can’t provide. In a way, her character is an early example of the youth disaffection that would dominate the 1960s. Andersson, in her first role with Bergman, is just wonderful. She makes the movie more powerful than it might have been with anyone else.
Bergman’s next picture, also from 1953, is a good deal more significant artistically than Monika. Sawdust and Tinsel, which he wrote as well as directed, is a searing drama which presents the outline of the mature artist who would soon storm the international film world. As one might guess from the title, this is a circus movie, about one of those run-down, seedy, barely surviving traveling circuses that have become a staple of melodrama over the years.
In an eerie and unforgettable prologue we see a reckless showgirl deciding to swim naked in the ocean with an entire troop of artillerymen. Her husband, a circus clown named Frost, played by Anders Ek, arrives on the scene to pull her out of the surf and carry her away bodily while the artillerymen jeer and hoot. The entire scene plays almost like a nightmare, and it foreshadows the film’s theme of humiliation.
The head of the circus, Albert, played by Ake Gronberg, is tired of the carnie life, and despite enjoying the favors of a younger lover, the bareback rider Anne (Harriet Andersson again), longs for the ordinary middle-class family life he abandoned years ago. He directs his traveling troupe towards the town where his wife and children live, going off to visit her in the desperate hope that she’ll take him back. The jealous Anne has other ideas, and finds a particularly painful way to exact revenge on Albert.
The film is suffused with a sense of grievance over the everyday mistreatment suffered by powerless people. Andersson once again steals the film—she is the radiant center of this dark tragedy. The cinematographer was Sven Nykvist—the somber black and white visuals are a true marvel—and this was the first of his numerous collaborations with Bergman. The movie was retitled The Naked Night in the U.S., because, you know, the word naked might bring audiences in. In any case, it was the beginning of Ingmar Bergman’s mature period as one of the great film directors.
Summer with Monika and Sawdust and Tinsel are available on DVD and Blu-Ray.