The Compleat Ingmar #25: Sawdust and Tinsel (1953)

Sawdust and Tinsel tells a story of love, humiliation, abandonment, broken dreams and the pathos and piteousness of art, artists – and men. It is, you could say, a typical story for Ingmar Bergman – but while there are elements (and faces) here that by now are familiar when it comes to the director’s work, what the film made me think of is Fellini. The world of Bergman is more commonly that of the bourgeoisie – but the characters at the heart of Sawdust and Tinsel are outsiders who travel around with the world apart that they have made for themselves.

After the last two films in the Criterion set, The Devil’s Eye and All These Women, I was somewhat worried that we’d entered the doldrums of the collection, the former being personable but slight, the latter being something of a flop not only by Bergman’s lofty standards. Sawdust and Tinsel may not be one of the director’s most iconic films, but it is a stronger, more confident film that most of the ones that preceded it; while Summer with Monika came out earlier in the same year, much of his work before those two gives me the impression of a director who hadn’t quite discovered his strengths yet.

Sawdust and Tinsel also has an earthiness and physicality that, while not unseen in Bergman’s filmography, is at least rare, and much of this is to do with the setting of Sawdust and Tinsel. We accompany a travelling circus that has seen better days on what we come to think may be its final journey. Its director and ringmaster, Albert (Åke Grönberg) speaks longingly of the wondrous new world that is America, where circuses are loved by people wherever they go and can make money accordingly – but this largely seems to be a pipe dream of Albert’s, as we don’t see any indication that he or his circus could ever make the jump to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Meanwhile, the film’s early 20th century Sweden doesn’t seem to have much use for circuses. Sure, they can be amusing, good for a laugh (and not necessarily a very kindly one) but really they’re a bit sad and decrepit, much like Albert’s circus and most of its troupe. In their eyes, that’s mainly what a circus is good for: you look at the pathetic circus crowd doing its best to amuse you, and you feel better about yourself.

Albert, too, is something of a laughing stock: he is a man who has lived for the circus for decades, leaving behind his marriage and children for it, but the reality of the circus no longer matches Albert’s dreams. More than the smell of sawdust and roasted peanuts, it’s the musty smell of the unhappy bear and his droppings. Most likely, the circus never matched Albert’s aspirations so much as it provided a screen on which he could project them, and the man no longer has the energy or passion to keep up the pretense – but neither does he seem to have the courage or pragmatism to admit to this, at least on his better days. His young mistress, Anne (Harriet Andersson), one of the star attractions of the circus, senses that Albert’s heart isn’t in it any more, so she too starts looking for other options.

One of Sawdust and Tinsel‘s main motifs is that of male pride getting a thorough beating. The film starts with one of the circus people telling Albert about the time Alma, the wife of the troupe’s clown Frost (Anders Ek), humiliated her husband by cavorting nakedly with a nearby group of soldiers, and as Frost comes to take her away, the soldiers further humiliate both the clown and his wife, stealing their clothes and forcing them to walk back in the hot weather unprotected from the sun – yet Frost chooses to carry the fainting Alma in spite of the intense heat. She may have made him an object of ridicule, yet he still wants to be with her. Albert too is humiliated: first when the circus marches into town only to be stopped by the police who confiscate their horses; then by the haughty director of a local theatre (played by Bergman regular Gunnar Björnstrand in one of his more dislikeable roles), who looks down on the circus as being even more shabby and threadbare than those toiling on the stage; by his wife (Gudrun Brost), who tells him in no uncertain terms that she will not take him back, as she is happier and better off without him; and finally by Anna, who slept with another man promising her an escape from her dreary world, yet that man too finally sees her as laughable. To the world they travel through, that’s what circus people are: entertaining, disposable, pathetic.

Patterns repeat in Sawdust and Tinsel, and the infidelity of a man’s lover, first Frost’s wife, then Albert’s mistress Anne, mark the beginning and almost the end of the film – yet while they are humiliated, they keep getting up again, much like the circus troupe does whenever it is ridiculed. They hurt, they take the blows, but they do not leave the circus or each other. It remains ambiguous whether this is because they cannot, because they are too frightened or weak of having to make a new life for themselves elsewhere, or whether they are finally more resilient than that. Is Albert too weak to break free from the circus and from the cycle of humiliation, bound to get knocked down again every time he gets up? Is it that the circus is the source of his resilience, and this is what allows him to get up again every time he gets knocked down? Or is he simply stubborn – this is his life, what he knows, and what he understands, and the story we’ve just watched will happen over and over again, until none of the clowns and strongmen and circus animals are left?

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