Recently I watched Bergman’s From the Life of the Marionettes, what seems to be a lesser-known film in his corpus, garnering a 56% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 7.5 rating of IMDB. Bergman had always been a film-maker that eluded my grasp. When I was younger, I watched The Seventh Seal, Persona, and Wild Strawberries – the first of which I was somewhat impressed with, the second which went over my head, and the third which bored me, except for the mesmerizing dream sequences. Of course, those were opinions tempered by naïve youth, and I’ve always thought about rewatching those films one day – partly thanks to Dan’s illuminative reviews on Bergman.
Going back to the Cosmoetica Great Films list, I picked up From the Life of the Marionettes because it was the only Bergman film on the list that didn’t have a review attached to it, but Dan rated as great. I was curious as to why this seeming lesser light in Bergman’s oeuvre was ranked as such. After watching the film in its entirety, I can definitely agree with Dan’s judgment.
From the Life of the Marionettes has a simple structure, on the surface at least. Starting with the murder of a prostitute by main character Peter Egermann, it uses a kind of faux-documentary style to explore events leading up to the murder, and the responses of those related to Peter, before and after the incident. You might compare the structure to Citizen Kane, which begins with a defining event and then slowly unravels the mystery of that event through multiple viewpoints, with the main event here being the murder.
This will be a review as to why I think From the Life of the Marionettes is a great film, as well as a look into some of the responses to this film.
In fact, let’s begin with one of those responses – the first negative review on Rotten Tomatoes, done by Chicago Reader critic Dave Kehr:
“The subject of this Ingmar Bergman film is repression, but everything is dismayingly on the surface—it’s structured to give each of its main characters a prolonged confessional monologue, delivered straight into the camera, and by the time they’re through there’s no mystery or tension left (1980). Bergman was at loose ends since God’s walking out on him in the early 60s; Freud’s in his later heaven, but Bergman’s obfuscating style doesn’t serve the mysteries of psychoanalysis nearly as well.”
This, to me, marks one of the main faults in responses to the film – and I’ve seen several responses that have made this mistake beyond Dave Kehr. That is – to put too much weight on the confessional psychobabble within the film itself, while failing to recognize all the moments that actively pull away from the overanalytics of the characters, setting up a ‘seedier’ counterpoint to the words that come out of their mouth. As such, the “no mystery or tension left” is completely untrue – because of how much conflict there is within the totality of what we are given. If Kehr couldn’t see any ‘mystery or tension’ – it is most likely because he merely looked at the words, and not the structure of the whole.
This analysis by WordPress reviewer Forrest in Focus is more on the mark about the essential mystery of the movie:
“But as we jump from scene to scene, Marionettes goes from chamber-drama to chronicle, as almost every chapter begins contradicting the impression or information the previous one left us with. Every character, Peter, Katarina, the wife’s homosexual business partner, Tim, and even the psychiatrist and the murdered prostitute, becomes guilty of something, desperately trying to control those around them and to control themselves (…) But control is never easy for these characters. None of them are as smart as Bergman’s existential heroes, rarely possessing the ability to analyze themselves with any true poignancy. This causes several monologues to be more frustrating than riveting, but it’s also the key to everything we see. Marionettes is light on conversation but heavy on confession and interrogation. Everyone is always trying to fool everyone else and assert themselves.”
The film itself opens with the act of murder itself. The main character, Peter, sensually rests his head on the shoulder of the prostitute he is about to kill. He says that he is “tired”, and she tells him that “now you will sleep”. These words seem innocuous for now, but will have great symbolic import as the film goes on. Suddenly, after what seems like one stretch of calm, he breaks out into a murderous rage. He chases her through the peepshow establishment where they’re situated in, and she hides in one of the rooms to escape his wrath. This room happens to be the primary stage of the peepshow, and it is washed over in a red sensual hue thanks to the lighting. The place where she hides also happens to have velvet decorative cloth as a backdrop. He finds her, and murders her by strangling her. When he strangles her, she is pulled backwards, out of the frame of the camera, and we only see her lower body, legs and crotch, thrashing around. He drags her body and places it on the stage, then begins caressing it. The film has been shot in colour so far, but it suddenly desaturates and we’re left with black and white for most of the length.
As you can tell from the descriptions above, the mise-en-scene is really apt at capturing what Peter might be feeling at the time, and how he might perceive the world. It focuses on the bodies with lewd intensity, and the way the colour drains when the moment passes has great impact, pointing to the shift into ‘factual’ documentary style, as well as the release that Peter experiences after his outburst.
The next scene in the movie is a recollection from a professor of psychiatry, and an acquaintance of Peter’s, Mogens Jensen. He’s the one that Peter calls immediately after the murder. From his vantage point, we get a view of the crime scene outside of Peter’s head, and we also find out that Peter had anal sex with the corpse after the murder was committed.
Another aspect of Mogens’ recount is how totally unreliable it is, and Bergman is quick to show this. He claims that he is shocked at what happened to Peter, as they have known each other for 20 years, and Peter is an “amiable, talented, conscientious man” who is “happily married to a hardworking career woman”. When asked about Peter’s mental problems, he claims that “it was never serious. Nothing that Valium couldn’t cure”. The scene after this unmasks the lies, showing 14 days before the murder, when Peter comes to Mogens with a confession about wanting to kill his wife, and the toxic relationship that they share – proving that the psychiatrist knew full well what was troubling him.
When Peter is confessing to Mogens his desire for murder, he goes into this sort of self-justifying psychoanalytic spiel about the relationship between him and his wife.
“Katarina has been unfaithful, and so have I. But no matter. We’re great in bed. Actually, our sex life is fantastic. We make love – how should I put it? Without emotions. I mean, without having to think about our feelings for each other (…) We love our pleasure. Or perhaps the pleasure the other person feels. Sex was always best after we had been unfaithful to each other. But the word “unfaithful” is the wrong word. It has a negative moral connotation. And we never… I guess it’s called “mutual sexual freedom”.”
Then, he goes into deeper description of the violence and tearing at one another that is constant in such relationships. Within that speech, he drops this little moment:
“Everything’s like a game… with often repeated answers, pauses, tantrums. The exits are rehearsed. Of course it’s fatal we don’t have an audience… but we usually manage to overcome that inconvenience. That’s all… That’s all nothing. Just part and parcel of our life together.”
This idea of the ‘game’ will surface repeatedly throughout the movie, and become one of the overarching metaphors for the whole relationship.
Halfway through their dialogue, Peter describes what his fantasy of killing his wife looks like, and Bergman shows it with great dreamlike cinematography.
“It’s all quiet in the apartment. And intense sunlight floods in. We’ve been left to our own devices for several days. Perhaps longer. We haven’t quarrelled. All is… quiet. Maybe it’s early morning. The street is empty. A feeling of peacefulness overcomes me. Everything seems very far away. (…) I can see her moving around in the bathroom… saturated in the intense, almost unreal sunlight.”
We get a shot of Peter sleeping in his bed, with the blurry figure of his wife moving around in the back, out of focus. We also get a shot of her silhouette moving behind some kind of mesh dressing screen. During the imagined murder, both of them are in a pure white place, and he slowly strokes her hair before bringing the razor up to her throat.
Immediately after the description of the fantasy, Mogens rebuts his romanticized scenario with cold pragmatism, describing exactly what would happen if he were to cut his wife’s throat. Cutting the jugular releases a lot of blood, and it will stain the bathroom floor completely.
This diving into fantasy/sensuality and pulling back reflects the depiction of the murder at the start, and it really outlines how much of Peter’s head is stuck in the clouds. The ‘intense light’ is also another symbol that will surface again in the movie.
Mogens offers to put Peter under meds to keep him placated and ‘obliterate his identity’ (another statement that will acquire resonance by the end of the film). They agree to meet up again another time, and Peter leaves the room – but he doesn’t, and he slams the door shut to fool Mogens, while he hides in the darkness of the entrance. Mogens immediately calls up Katarina, Peter’s wife, saying that he has something to tell her. From this, it is revealed that the psychiatrist has been making moves on Katarina all along, and, when she comes over, he is all dressed up and ready to flirt.
While Katarina cleans herself up in Mogens’ bathroom before the tryst, Peter is still hiding in the darkness, and he peeks over at his wife’s silhouette behind the translucent bathroom door. This shot mirrors the shot of him seeing his wife in the earlier murderous fantasy. It’s a subtle touch that tells a lot about how Peter sees thing, and if one were to take a speculative leap, they could even use this as evidence that this whole scene is a jealous fantasy within Peter’s head. Either way, this whole scene is swamped with ‘internal cues’ – pointing to psychological/existential states – beyond the external ones.
After cleaning herself up, Katarina eventually rebuffs the professor’s advances, citing Peter as the cause. He warns her about her husband’s homicidal fantasies, and she goes into her own poetic/psychological description of her relationship – expounding on how they have become so intertwined that there is a part of him inside her, and how they “refuse to grow up”. While she talks about this, the camera doesn’t focus on her, and zooms in on Peter’s face instead, pulling a same technique that would appear in Another Woman by Woody Allen, where a disembodied voice of another character reflects upon the interior state of the subject in the frame. While this grand exposition of psychology verges on soliloquy, artifice, and melodrama, it is techniques like these, as well as the precision of the dialogue itself, never getting too full of itself in its self-aware recursions (see, for example, any David Foster Wallace story or other lower tier po-mo), that pulls away from the artifice into artistry.
The next scene focuses a week after the murder, in an interview with Peter’s mother – which offsets the high intellectual tenor of the previous scene through the more ‘material’ monologue that occurs. Peter’s mother focuses more on concrete events, and outlines his childhood, as well as a single moment where Peter visited her in her old manor. Peter’s mother also drops a slight indication of what she thinks of Katarina, feeling that she was pushed out of her son’s life because of her. This scene serves up a few potential childhood causes to Peter’s crime – his fearful and sickly condition since young (a result of being “too spoiled”), and hints at his attitude towards his mother and his old lifestyle (he feels that she should move out of the old house, a “rat trap”, while she wants to stay because she loves it). No answers are revealed outright yet, but are left to simmer to create a greater picture of Peter as a character.
Five days before the catastrophe is what is shown next, and this scene shows Bergman’s pure skill at depicting interactions between a married couple. Peter wakes up in the middle of the night, unable to sleep, waking up Katarina as well. Peter putters around the house, trying to sleep, and goes to the kitchen. Eventually, Katarina comes in, unable to sleep, and they engage in banter and a few more psychological insights unfolds in the process. Bergman takes the time to show Peter in his sleepless state, trying to listen to music, and staring at himself in the bathroom mirror. When he talks with Katarina, their actions and tone is light-hearted, but there are passive-aggressive jabs hidden in the words – such as nagging to each other, and Katarina openly relating a moment where another man tried to fondle her at a party.
They bicker over their schedules, and we also get a glimpse as to what the couple thinks about Peter’s mother. We find out that the description “rat trap” comes from Katarina, and she calls his mother a “rotten old monument to your father’s ancient imperium of oppression”. Placed in conjunction with the last scene, we get a sense of how the spite in the relationship carries outwards to other relationships between the characters.
As a final touch to the scene, Katarina asks why Peter is so unhappy, and he mentions in an offhanded way and nonchalant way that “there is no way out” – a phrase that will appear later when we return to the moment of the murder. After that, Katarina describes a moment where she had a certain insight while in the bath, that suddenly all the familiar things to her would be taken away somehow. All this adds to the idea that the couple are trapped in some greater net that they are neither aware of, nor can escape, even as they try to contemplate and push against it. Immediately after Katerina relates this, we get a moment where she reaches out to grab Peter’s hand, and coaxes him back to bed – an intimate moment that is broken when Peter suddenly talks about hearing “trucks on the highway”.
In a leap of poesy, Bergman cuts away from the conversation to a few shots of roads, with cars driving up and down while atonal alienating music (reminiscent of Antonioni) plays in the background. From this image, one more cause is added to the complicated picture of Peter’s downfall – that of modern ennui encroaching in on the couple.
The camera passes through a couple of these atmospheric shots, before the voice of Peter droning on about a bunch of boring business stuff (dictating notes to a secretary) comes in, and the upwards flow of the camera, over a bunch of factory buildings, matches with the next shot where the slow shift of Peter’s hands flows over the curves of an ornate lamp. The new scene is shot in a dark room, making it seem as though Peter is wandering in a void rather than his office.
After he finishes his dictation, the secretary tells him that his mother called regarding a date that they had. Another imagistic leap occurs where it cuts from the office to a catwalk, with models strutting across in slow motion. The title-card flashes in to say that this is 4 days before the catastrophe, and this is Katarina preparing a fashion show. While previous scenes merely stuck to the format of title-card, then showing the scene – each scene being a self-contained puzzle-piece – this is the first time we see Bergman break this rule, allowing for a poetic flow between title-cards. The cut does well to outline external events, while also hinting at where Peter’s thoughts are going to within his modern office space.
Reviewer Amber Wilkinson praises the film, but notes this fact:
“In an accompanying extract, Bergman says that he wished he had cut 10 minutes from the film. I think that may be an underestimate. There is, in particular, a description of a dream, which is overindulgent and way too long, and a segment of Peter dictating notes at work, which seems curiously overblown.”
And I would disagree with her sentiment here, regarding the note-dictation scene, although I understand where that might come from. If Bergman’s aims were merely to hint at themes of modern alienation, just keeping the highways scene would be enough, but the dictation scene has great images that deals with more than that – the curves of his lamp, the void of the office, and the shift into the models on the catwalk (if it went from highway to models, it would be a lot less natural). These images play with the current conceits established, like Peter’s fantasy of light for example, and showcase his reaction, or, in a broader sense, general human reactions to the alienation established in the highway shots. As such I feel that removing the scene would lessen the film’s artistic core, although not enough to remove it from the realm of greatness.
Going back to the new scene, Peter meets with Katarina at her office so that they can go on that date as mentioned, with Peter’s mother. In direct contrast to his own office (another additional layer that makes the previous scene harder to cut) – we are shown the vibrancy and activity going on in Katarina’s workplace, through the comfortable music and models spinning around in the background. This shift doesn’t just indicate the stark contrast between both characters, but it might also reflect internally as to how Peter views/romanticizes his wife (when Peter first appears, he appears from the right side of the screen, taking the position of a blurry onlooker to the action).
We are also introduced to a new character in this scene, which is Katarina’s colleague Tim. When Peter and Katarina leaves, the camera shifts to his face, hinting at his significant role later.
Next, we see Peter and Katarina in an elevator for a while, before heading into a bar. Throughout this stretch, we see them arguing about the date with Peter’s mother, and Katarina refuses to go, stalls, and orders a drink from the bar, while mocking Peter all the way. Eventually Peter gives up and leaves Katarina at the bar. This entire argument isn’t done with any large fireworks, but it merely has Katarina calmly and mockingly taking jabs at Peter throughout the whole way, treating him like a child. We get a sense that one of Peter’s flaws, and potential causes for his breakdown, is passivity – choosing rather to stay in this vicious equilibrium rather than attempting to break out of it (at least until the incident). This syncs up with the characterization made by Peter’s mother in her interview.
Katarina rests at the bar for a moment, before Tim suddenly appears and kisses her on the head. They exchange a few words before he invites her to his apartment. In another subversion, what initially seems like a romantic tryst, one of Katarina’s many affairs, similar to Mogens – is revealed to be nothing but a friendly proposal after he find out that Tim is a homosexual.
In this scene at Tim’s apartment, we get a lengthy analytical dialogue between both Tim and Katarina. Slowly, it jumps between a variety of subjects, such as the nature of homosexuality and more on Katarina’s relationship, before honing in on a lengthy monologue done by Tim, while staring into a mirror, that falls into dark psychoanalytic/existential language. This is probably the most psychoanalytic and ‘pretentious’ part of the whole film (and probably one of the moments most frustrating to viewers), but it works because it has the rest of the film to reflect, and parallel the ambiguities that are lain within. For example, this excerpt:
“One day someone will kill me. But that too is a titillating thought. Certain powers drive me that I can’t control. Doctors, lovers… pills, drugs… alcohol, work. Nothing helps. They’re secret powers. Do they have a name? I don’t know. Maybe it’s the aging process itself. The putrefaction. (…) I get closer to the mirror and look into my face… that has become so familiar. And I come to the conclusion that this blend of flesh and blood… and nerves and pieces of bone contains two totally incompatible… I don’t know what to call it. Two incompatible people. The dream of intimacy, of tenderness, common interests… of the ability to forget yourself and of all that is alive. And on the other hand, the violence, the obscenity, the horror and death. Sometimes I think they all stem from one and the same origin. I don’t know. And how could I know anyway? Perhaps my dreams were just a bit too beautiful. And as a punishment…”
Think of how this excerpt can extend to Peter and Katarina as well, and how it reflects upon things like Peter’s passivity, and his fantasies. Placed in one of those over-theoretical Godard films, it would have no staying power. Yet, it feels so much more when placed in conjunction with human depictions that ring true, poetically pulling away the mask of a seemingly banal exterior.
Yet, Bergman has another twist, for when we pan back to Katarina, she has fallen asleep. Tim goes to Katarina, wakes her up, and asks her to feel his hand, and whether she can feel ‘that it’s him’. She lightly shakes her head, in a muted and nervous manner. The scene cuts there, and another time-marking card appears. Not only does this subvert the grandiosity of Tim’s monologue, but it also creates an interesting existential symbol to cling on to.
The next scene is an interview with Tim by the police, where he reveals that he was the one who introduced the prostitute to Peter in the first place. He reveals that he’s had a crush on Peter all this time, and wanted to destroy their marriage – or, rather, save Peter from a “terrible coldness” in his marriage. This scene establishes that Tim is pretty melodramatic in his actions, despite all his self-awareness, and helps to set-up the last scene where Mogens does his final analysis of Peter. Furthermore, a nice parallax is dropped when he ends his confession with this:
“There are certain clever people who say we’re blind. That our movements are preordained. That we’ve been pledged or violated since birth. But that doesn’t make the slightest difference. Don’t you agree?”
This is pretty much the main theme of Psychoanalysis and its offshoots – pulling apart and decoding ‘myths’ generated since young that secretly dictates the rest of our lives. Aside from just referencing the school of thought though, it adds another poetic layer to the whole ‘game’ being played, of couples stuck in cycles of violence against each other.
The next scene is the previously mentioned Dream, that was accused of going on for too long. As for whether this charge has value or not, let me break down the symbols within dream first.
The dream is narrated by Peter – supposedly written in a letter to Mogens that he never sent. Most of the dream takes place in a white space where Peter and Katarina are stuck naked, which links up to the previous fantasy described.
Peter describes the dream as beginning sensually, “dreaming of dreaming”, as the camera drifts over the body of Katarina, sometimes using repetitions in editing to heighten the sensuality. His narration is a fragmentary string of sensations, and he has yet established any place for the dream yet other than that he “moved over a glittering, spacious surface with (his) eyes closed”. Peter describes how he feels as though every finger on his hand has an eye, and each one “perceived this glittering whiteness with twinkling delight”, matched to the camera showing the slow drift of his hand over Katarina’s naked body.
The next part shows both of their naked bodies from a bird’s eye view, with Peter finally having a more concrete sense of place, “a closed room without windows or doors” as though ‘locked in a sphere’ – and this time he dreams that he “woke from a deep slumber”. This time he recognizes the body next to him as Katarina. He seems to enter into some sort of anxiety and tells himself to be calm – and then Katarina wakes up. He tries to talk to her but she doesn’t respond “soft and indifferent in a sexually arousing sort of way”. He tries to penetrate her but she “watched me, her lids half-closed, and smiled”. He feels a blind rage and withdraws to stop himself from killing her. Then camera suddenly becomes violent as the couple breaks into slow-mo fighting (or, rather, the camera focuses on Katarina hitting him). Then, it zooms in on Peter’s eye, and the image changes again, to a “moment of tenderness” where Katarina is holding Peter in her arms. The narration even becomes gentle, speaking of “entering into sudden spirituality without reservations”.
Then, the dream abruptly ends with Peter suddenly realizing Katarina has died, and he “knew he killed her” in some cruel fashion.
I recount the entirety of the dream to show that even though the dream might seem hermetic and enigmatic to viewers, it has an overall logic to it. It opens with fragmentary sensuality, then goes into an attempt by Peter to connect, his wife mocking him, an explosion of violence, a moment of reconciliation – then sudden death. Reminds me of the random stuff I’ve read about Domestic Abuse from those random articles shared on social media to raise awareness – where violence is followed by reconciliation, which only provides illusory reprieve before stronger violence follows. This makes the whole scene to be an abstract poeticization of the stuff that happens in reality. But, it also imparts upon us the fantasies that Peter has, which keeps him from leaving the cycle – shown to us through the sensuality of the camera. He’s being dragged around by his desires.
As a result, the whole dream feels essential to the movie – rather than “excessive” as previously stated – because it acts as a unifying symbolic enactment of the stuff that happens around it, unifying it all together. It fits with symbols previously established, and heightens the depiction of real life problems into a metaphysical level – a powerful subversion.
This scene ends with Peter questioning Mogens if he can be helped:
“Or was my dream in effect the only brief moment of life I had? Of experienced and vanquished reality?”
This statement rings out tragically across multitudes of people who are stuck in situations similar to Peter, not knowing any alternative.
The next scene is two days before the murder, which shows Peter trying to commit suicide. It begins with Katarina pacing around in their house, worried, until the doorbell rings and she opens the door for a friend – imploring him to talk to Peter because she doesn’t know what to do.
We then learn that Peter is outside, on the roof, with one foot on the ledge looking down on the street below, full of moving cars. This entire part is done in a single shot, in a cramped space between two buildings. It is a subversion of normal tropes because of how nonchalant it is – the friend goes out, makes a few statements to Peter, asks if he’s cold, goes back to get a coat, and then turns around to see Peter standing at the door, given up on his intent. There is no music, nor melodrama, which just shows how banal the whole thing is.
We get a sense that this kind of outburst has happened many times before, especially when Katarina goes to talking about normal things with the friend once Peter comes back, as she tries to rub Peter’s feet, possibly to placate him. He kicks her, in front of the friend without care for what he thinks, and she just goes back into conversation while sitting on the floor. This small act of violence, done in such a fashion, holds more weight to it than a thousand other trite depictions of abuse or violence done in other works to manipulatively draw sympathy from the viewer – because of how ingrained it seems to their life.
After a while of talking, the couple get into an argument. Katarina begins to mock Peter’s sexual inefficiency, talking about how she faked majority of the orgasms she’s had with him. Peter smiles silently and takes it at first, then goes down on her and goes on a tirade while grabbing her as she struggles. The friend casually smokes on a cigarette while this goes on, and then Peter leaves the room to take a shower.
It then cuts to night-time, where Katarina apologizes about how she was a “hysterical silly goose”. Peter sarcastically talks about how its just the same old routine. She tries beg him to speak to her, but he says its better to say nothing because they’ve “already tried 100,000 times” and the next time, they’ll just use the words as weapons against one another. Katarina asks if Peter remembers how much they tried when they first started out, and Peter replies that it was because they had ‘love capital’ at the time, but now:
“We accepted the rules but had no knack for the game. And then we were betrayed.”
Peter talks about how he can’t go about doing normal things in life because “the slightest hitch could ruin my carefully devised security system” – he knows he’s on the path to ruin and wants to “blow himself up” until there’s “mincemeat of sorts” left. Katarina asks if that’s supposed to be better, with sadness in her tone, and he replies that it will be “more like the reality that encases me”.
Parallels to Tim’s speech, and repetition of the game motif – but, for this scene in particular, I’d just like to point out how good Katarina’s acting is, with the slight shift in her face and voice when she makes that last statement. She also presses her head into the pillow, seemingly about to sob, before the scene changes, and Bergman cuts it exactly at that moment – causing the emotion to linger.
The scene changes to the mansion of Peter’s mother, 3 weeks after the incident, with Katarina going to visit. They begin by talking about banalities, before Peter’s mother talks about her loneliness and how she “walks around all day by herself” after the incident. Then, there is slight animosity when she senses a critical tone in Katarina’s voice, and both talk about how they never accepted each other. They trade these remarks for a while, before it focuses on a monologue delivered by Katarina:
“Full of astonishment I look back on our lives… on our former reality and think it was all a dream. It was a game. Lord knows what the hell we were doing. This is true reality, and it’s unbearable. I talk, answer, think, put on my clothes… sleep and eat. It’s a daily compulsion. A strange, hard surface. But under that surface, I’m crying. I’m crying for myself… because I can no longer be the way I was. What was, can never be again. It’s been destroyed. It’s gone… like a dream.”
I don’t think I have to point out the parallaxes here and how it fits with everything established. She continues to talk about how she finally feels like she understands Peter after being split apart from him – “unprotected, frightened, and lonely”. Then she reveals that the most horrible part is the prostitute who was his victim. The camera cuts to a shot of her face as Katarina talks about her. This shot is in the peep show, but we don’t know that till the next scene comes around. Either way, we get a sense that Katarina is finally freed from the spell – though at a great cost – and she is finally getting a sense of the reality around her full of other lives and ethics. Having to lose Peter in the process was just one of those costs that are borne constantly throughout humanity, in a bid for greater progress and understanding.
The transition to the next scene is sudden, with blaring electro-pop music playing over one of the strippers dancing in the peep show. The camera focuses entirely on her body in close detail, cutting off the head in the process. It’s slightly grotesque because the powerful chiaroscuro accentuates the wrinkles and flab – making it contrast with the sensuality of the fantasies that takes place in the ‘pure white space’. The camera drifts past the stripper on a girl at the side, who is the prostitute. The title card then reveals that this was 50 minutes before the incident.
After the title card, we get a glimpse from the audience viewpoint, and Peter’s reflected face while he stares through the peep-hole – with the soft focus making the girl’s dance blurry – a great image of the tunnel-vision that he has had throughout his life. The peep show is closing, and the guard goes and chases people out, but he goes over to Peter and tells him that he can stay with the prostitute till six. He enters the establishment, and the guard closes the door.
This is back to the start of the movie, but in monochrome – which makes the walls seem dirty and drab. While the prostitute is doing stuff at the dressing table, Peter sits behind and converses – and we find out the prostitute is also called Katarina. From her talk, in contrast to Peter’s, and how the characters have talked for the entirety of the movie, she’s a completely down to earth – speaking about a variety of normal things and making remarks about life, rather than going into abstraction. In a later part of the conversation, she even goes into a kind of reminisce at one point – but rather than overanalysis, she talks about a memory from her childhood and the smells of the seasons.
Meantime, during the conversation, Peter is uneasy at various moments, and walks around – trying to escape, repeating the words “there is no way out”. He tries to get out, but realizes that the guard locked the door, and he has to stay there till six. The scene ends with him resting his head on her shoulder, saying the words that opens the start of the movie: “I’m tired”. The scene ends when he says it.
Rather than the intense close-ups of the opening, the scene is shot from a distance – and, given the nature of what prostitute Katarina talks about, the sense of reality seeps through, in opposition to the limited worldview of Peter. This whole scene is charged with much symbolic power. There could be many reasons as to why Peter breaks down here, such as perhaps seeing his wife in the prostitute because of their shared name, or seeing warmth in the prostitute and realizing the utter wreckage that is his marriage with a sarcastic adulterous intellectual and what it could have potentially been, or just realizing that his dreams and fantasies are being ruined and he cannot progress any further. And the causes extend beyond the scene itself, his mother’s influence, his wife’s infidelity, Tim’s influence, the alienation of his work, just being a plain repressed pervert etc… etc… Everything is laid out on the table, giving us a complex and total picture of the incident, opening the way for the ending…
And it ends with Mogens giving his final report on Peter’s breakdown – and it is complete and utter Freudian Nonsense. Mogens diagnoses Peter with latent homosexuality, which, although unconfirmed, strikes us (or me at least) as completely untrue simply because of all the blatantly sensual imagery sprinkled throughout the movie. He also goes into the standard Freudian mythologies of the Dominant Mother and absent Father. Furthermore, given what we know of Mogens, and his tryst with Katarina – we know that he is not trusted since he might be trying to distance himself from his possible contribution to Peter’s downfall. One review on IMDB even falls for Mogen’s spiel, and comments:
“The script is generally brilliant, very observant. The only thing I felt was a little underdeveloped was the homosexual character, Tim, and Peter’s supposed latent homosexuality, which the psychoanalyst character describes near the end. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that material”
When the homosexuality, far from being a subplot, is a complete red herring. The reviewer even senses that it’s ‘underdeveloped’ – when, in fact, it rings entirely false (of course, there’s also the whole anal sodomy thing, but the totality of the movie goes more against than in favor of) – and completely on purpose too, because it undercuts the entire psychoanalytic thrust of the whole movie and subverts it – revealing instead far more essential and complex characteristics that escape that kind of limited analysis. This is what makes the film realistic, and anti-psychoanalytical.
One commentator on the Criterion Forums falls for it too, and states:
“What I did like and I think this is where Bergman was heading (the murder plot is to me a kind of sub-plot to what he is trying to say) is the study of sexuality and in this case of homosexuality. There is a openly gay character in the film that is attracted to the guy that kills the girl at the beginning. Now, throughout the film we see that the killer has some very conflicting feelings that he seems to be struggling with and I think that what Bergman is suggesting here is that maybe (or maybe not, it depends on how you see it) he killed her because deep inside him he really hates women, hence the murder. Either that or he just reached a point of rupture inside him.”
The camera pulls away from Mogens at the later part of his analysis, focusing on Peter’s face in the mental hospital. Colour seeps back in, this time, more autumnal and solemn. We see that he’s playing a game of chess with a computer – with the machine revealing that he “missed the mate”. Mogens analysis, despite being mostly rubbish, ends with a powerful line “Only he who kills himself has total control over himself”. This line is said over a shot of Peter reaching towards the window in a green room, while we peek at him through a small rectangular hole. And it fades to a card saying Epilogue.
A voiceover comes in relating what Peter does throughout the day – a female one, coming from the nurse taking care of him – talking to Katarina who is visiting him. It relates how Peter spends the day playing chess (picking a difficult level), and how his life is stripped down to one of catatonic austerity. It ends with the nurse saying that he takes a tattered old teddy bear to bed, and the shot focuses on the bear before it cuts out.
These two images follow up on the motif of the ‘game’ as well as the perpetual childishness that Peter has been stuck in throughout his life. The concreteness of the whole scene is in contrast to the psychoanalysis that came before, and it’s a great move that Bergman can still leave a line that rings powerfully in Mogens’ ridiculous analysis, creating one more subversion that ends off the whole thing.
So, in the end, after looking closely at every part of this movie – what we have is not an overanalytical hermetic mess, but a work whose power comes from how it subverts those aspects, and how it makes use of its artifice to actively commentate on deeper things. A brilliant script goes into an intense examination of a destructive marriage. Although, even with the subversions in mind, we still have to take into account the fact that the moments of pretense does limit its translation of reality – so I would give it a low great rating of 95 or so. Ignore the external voices, and see what is there for yourself, and see if you agree.