The Compleat Ingmar #33: Thirst (1949)

It’s a difficult act to follow Persona, and Criterion probably made the right choice when it decided to follow Bergman’s monolithic masterpiece with a number of his earlier, smaller films, in which he was trying to find his voice as a director. Thirst is one of those films. It’s by no means bad – in fact, some of the later films that are more clearly Bergman’s work are probably worse films (and yes, All These Women, I’m looking at you). However, it is a film that in the context of Bergman’s filmography feels like he was trying his hand at themes and techniques that he’d later use to better effect.

In the plot strand focusing on young newlyweds Rut (Eva Henning) and Bertil (Birger Malmsten, who would later also star in other films by the director, such as To Joy and Summer Interlude), we get early hints of Summer with Monika in its depiction of a young romance turned sour and resentful, while the male and female characters and their fraught relationships foreshadow Bergman’s later preoccupations. We also get shots that feel like try-outs for the later, classic Bergman compositions: although the film was shot by Gunnar Fischer, who collaborated with Bergman until The Devil’s Eye, there are scenes that are framed not too dissimilarly from Persona, whose cinematographer was Sven Nykvist. Similarly, the train ride through postwar Europe that takes up much of Thirst recalls a very similar journey in The Silence, while scenes of starving townspeople hint at the images of civilians during an undefined war in Shame. Arguably, Thirst often works better in terms of its visual storytelling than its writing.

Nonetheless, Thirst is also structurally interesting, and not just to Bergman fans. The film adapts a collection of short stories by Swedish actor and writer Birgit Tengroth (who also acts one of the main parts in the film), and the individual short stories are combined into an overall narrative by means of the characters, in ways not too dissimilar to, say, Paris, 13th District (original title: Les Olympiades), Jacques Audiard’s 2021 drama combining three comic short stories by Adrian Tomine into a single film. There is an episodic, short-story feel to Thirst that is fascinating, if perhaps not sufficiently developed to work as well as it might.

At the same time, while Thirst isn’t uninteresting, it is the kind of early film that is more appealing for the potential it shows than in fulfilling that potential. There is a heavy-handedness to some of the stories and the way they develop, and neither the male nor the female characters quite grow into the complexity that Bergman’s later films display, even if there are some interesting wrinkles (such as a lesbian character, although at the time the film was released her scene was cut considerably by the Swedish censors). The actors do a good job, but lacking the nuance we will see in the later films, some of these characters veer towards being annoying rather than being layered in their flaws.

Thirst is a film that I’d most likely skip on revisiting the collection, even if I’m glad to have seen it once. According to the essay included in Criterion’s Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema, Thirst is the first of Bergman’s films that is recognisably his in style and themes, so it’ll be interesting to watch Port of Call, the film that preceded it, next – though more than Port of Call, which according to the notes in the Criterion collection sees Bergman trying to imitate other films and directors of the time, it is much more the one that follows it in the collection – the 1972 drama Cries and Whispers – that I am looking forward to.

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