The Compleat Ingmar #13: From the Life of the Marionettes (1980)

How’s that for coincidence? I ended my write-up of Saraband with a reference to everyone’s favourite dysfunctional married couple, George and Martha (sad, sad, sad) from Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Fast forward to the next film on our Swedish odyssey, the 1980 From the Life of Marionettes (Aus dem Leben der Marionetten), which Bergman made for German state TV while in tax exile – and there is more than a touch of the seething resentment and marital cruelty of Albee’s classic on display.

As with Saraband, there is a connection between From the Life of Marionettes and Bergman’s essential work on marital dysfunction, Scenes from a Marriage. While Saraband brought back two of his most indelible characters, twenty years older than when we last saw them, the main characters of this one, Peter and Katarina, are based on the unhappy friends of Johan and Marianne we saw back in the first episode of Scenes from a Marriage, laying into each other after one cognac too many. This Peter (Robert Atzorn) and this Katarina (Christine Buchegger) are not the earlier characters so much as that they are variations on a theme, and as such they’re a dark mirror image of Marianne and Johan – the married bourgeois couple whose affection has curdled into something sour and toxic, but who cannot find a way out.

I’d seen From the Life of the Marionettes a few years back, before I’d seen as much Bergman, and while I enjoyed the performances, it left me somewhat nonplussed. It still strikes me as lesser Bergman, especially because there is something overly glib and reductive to how it dissects the psyche of its characters – usually in long monologues by the characters themselves, as if they are all armchair Freudians – while at the same time it remains coyly vague about the motivations for the horrific act with which the film begins. Whichever explanation we choose to follow, it all seems to come back to that old Bergman chestnut: men who feel inadequate and castrated by women who, simply put, have their shit together much more than the men do, so the men resent them.

But even by Bergman’s standards of toxic masculinity Nordic- style, this is extreme: Peter murders a prostitute and has sexual intercourse with the corpse. Why? We get various explanations, none of which are particularly satisfactory (a psychiatrist friend of the couple provides as facile and pat an explanation of the horrific deed as that delivered by Dr Richmond at the end of Hitchcock’s Psycho), but the film suggests that, whatever the details, Peter killed the prostitute because he could neither kill himself nor his wife, so instead he put an end to the life of someone entirely unlike Katarina… except she shared her name. I do hope that psychiatry and psychoanalysis were a bit less simplistic in 1980 than this instance of displacement suggests.

Nonetheless, there is a lot to appreciate about From the Life of the Marionettes – especially in the context of Bergman’s entire oeuvre. This may be what I enjoy most about Criterion’s box set: this may be the first time that I am getting a curated view of the breadth of an artist’s work. I’m seeing how certain themes keep coming back, how certain anxieties keep bubbling to the surface, and the elements that remain the same reveal as much as the variation does. So often, his characters are expressions of the same types, the same hang-ups, filtered through different actors and stories.

Also, From the Life of the Marionettes displays what I must assume is Bergman’s impish sense of humour – that, or an absolutely dreadful taste in modern music – as the film cuts from a mutedly depressing ending to what may be one of the worst examples of sleazy Eurotrash dance music accompanying the end credits (sadly (?) the video can’t be embedded, but you can jump straight to it here). I don’t know who at the production company got on Bergman’s bad side, but this much is certain: he got them good.

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