July 2018 marked the birth centenary of Ingmar Bergman (14 July, 1918 – 30 July, 2007). Silhouette members gathered to watch Bergman’s last film Saraband as a tribute to cinema’s one of the greatest masters. The occasion was sombre and the film colossal. Though included as part of the monthly ‘Silhouette Recommends’ series this is more of homage than anything else. In accordance, there is no Silhouette Rating for Saraband.
A Tribute by:
Amitava Nag, Anwesha Deb, Diptansu Sengupta, Doelpakhi Dasgupta, Partha Raha, Sambaran Sarkar
On the birth centenary of Ingmar Bergman, Silhouette members discussed Saraband (2003), his last motion picture. The film was shot on digital video for Swedish television and released theatrically in a longer cut outside Sweden, much to the disinclination of Bergman himself. Saraband is a sequel to his 1973 feature Scenes from a Marriage, in which a couple played by Liv Ullmann as Marianne and Erland Josephson as Johan, journey through the agonizing realizations and revelations of the inner turmoil and failings of partner and self that the intimacy of their relationship had hitherto rendered invisible. Saraband reunites the two characters after thirty years. The film is structured as a series of ten acts with dyadic personae, with an epilogue and a prologue. The acts are introduced in the fashion of blackout gags with their sequence numbers and titles.
The film opens and closes with Marianne sitting alone at a table scattered with photographs addressing the camera. She talks of their two daughters and of Johan, who has come into money late in life. He has bought his grandparents’ summer house, a rundown chalet in an isolated and heavily wooded area near Orsa and lives there after a voluntary retirement from the university. She admits that she has been thinking of visiting him for some time. The first act opens with Marianne arriving at Johan’s and finding him sitting out on the porch. As she stands inside watching a slumbering Johan, she expresses her dilemma in the final minute of acting upon her “irrational impulse” of getting close to him. The peck on the cheek as she crawls lovingly up to Johan, the warm embrace that lets out years of suppressed longing for tenderness, the exchange of news and their general reading of the lives they have lead sets the pace of the acts to follow. What starts with a visit of a few hours turns into one of weeks as Marianne witnesses the emotional turmoil and upheaval, and the complexity of relationships shared among Johan, his sixty-one-year-old widowed son Henrik (Börje Ahlstedt) and nineteen-year-old granddaughter Karin (Julia Dufvenius). Henrik, a cellist by profession and Karin, who has been in the tutelage of her father, live in the lake house on Johan’s property. Henrik’s wife of twenty years, Anna had died two years ago of cancer. Unable to come to terms with this loss, Henrik has retired before his time. Now, father tutors daughter on the cello, working towards an audition at the conservatory the following fall.
Things that worked:
Amitava finds the acting in the film exemplary. It is a film where the narrative progresses based only on dialogues. Hence what holds paramount here are nothing but the subtle changes in every sinew of the face as words are spoken. Amitava feels that this is done with archetypal dexterity and that it is not just the work of a great director but that of prodigious acting.
For Anwesha, Bergman’s deft play of words in conversations brings out the dualities and intricacies of human relations where love and hate intersperse each other so inextricably that it is difficult to tell one apart from the other. Marianne and Johan spend a few weeks together that are relaxingly pleasant, almost always trying to evade sensitive subjects, yet continually trying to make sense of their own lives and that of their relationship with each other. The ease with which Bergman portrays Johan’s wellsprings of doubt about the sensibilities of his own life is especially touching as he expresses his inability to determine if he is in hell or if he is fine. Yet he masterfully sums it all up as he says, “Who the hell said that damnation would be fun?” His ability to perceive the love that Anna and his son, Henrik shared is diametrically contradictory to his discernible despise for his son. When he hears of Henrik’s failed attempt of suicide, he expresses his disdain at fathering a son who systematically fails at everything yet he is visibly concerned about both son and grand-daughter. The Johan we see in the first act who is not pained much by the failings in his relationships in life, who leads a life of self-imposed isolation, in the final act is engulfed in bottomless anguish that he fathoms is bigger than himself.
For Partha, the way the complexities of the human mind have been explored from myriad angles is the most efficacious aspect of the film. Though Marianne has been depicted as more of a narrator in the film, her perception of the relationships around her and her trying to make sense of them is unique. In the epilogue, as she looks at Anna’s photo, she expresses her wonder at how Anna managed her own life, surrounded as she was in death by a loving husband, a loving daughter and even, a loving father in law. Anna’s life stands in contradiction to her own, lonely with ailing and distanced daughters and a marriage that she did not see the end of.
Partha feels that the film works quietly towards establishing an end to all relationships that are depicted in it yet the intricacies and contradictions of the human mind are artfully portrayed in their perceptions of these endings. While Johan feels that his marriage with Marianne was devoid of eroticism and hence, was inevitably doomed in spite of the companionship that they shared, Marianne feels sad for “Marianne and Johan” and their inability to save their marriage. While Johan, Marianne and Karin are able to put lost or failed relationships behind themselves and carry on with their lives, Henrik struggles to deal with the death of his wife and is driven to dire means when his daughter, whom he almost sees as a surrogate of her mother leaves to pursue a vocation of her own choosing. Partha finds Karin’s inner turmoil especially striking as she struggles to choose a path conducive to herself and those around her.
Sambaran finds the juxtaposing of music in the film noteworthy – whether it be Marianne soaking herself in the mellifluousness of Bach’s sonata in the chapel played by Henrik on a 1728 organ, or Henrik disciplining Karin to practice Paul Hindemith’s Sonata for Solo Cello Op. 25, or Marianne listening to Brahms’ String Quartet in C minor Op. 51 mirroring her solitude, or Hendrik writing a book about Bach’s Passion of St. John, or Johan immersing himself in a tumultuous piece of Beethoven in an attempt to expel the distressed world without, or Henrik asking Karin to play Sarabande from J. S. Bach’s Fifth Cello Suite which is the inspiration to the very film; Sambaran feels as if it were that the music is a character itself in the film and that Saraband is indeed Bergman’s swansong.
Diptansu feels that the relationships and emotions depicted in the film as scripted by Bergman is probably a result of the timelessness of his art of film making and his profound understanding of the human mind, the kaleidoscopic nuances of which can be fathomed anew as we watch the film again and again as we age and mature with experiences. The enormity of Bergman’s art is apparent in the relationships being so intimately personal, that notwithstanding age, epoch or place, the viewer can easily empathise with them. Saraband is a walk down the memory lane for its characters where healed wounds are resurrected, not without pain but the pain is abated by a tameness to age and experiences or is still as ripe and indelible as it was on the day that it was inflicted. As Henrik struggles through his interaction with his father, through windy suspirations of forced breath, he asks, “Papa, where does all this hostility come from?” Johan reminds him of the time when he thwarted his efforts of a reconciliation some forty years back when the teen aged Henrik had said: “You never were a father!” and that he was dispensable in his life.
Doelpakhi finds Saraband yet another example of Bergman’s master story telling prowess where he plays with the dispensability and indispensability of the characters in each other’s lives. Henrik is devasted by his wife’s death and is trying to hold on to his daughter which almost borders on being unnatural. Johan who has struggled with his fidelities through life, somehow feels drawn to Anna and is admittedly, left on the “periphery of catastrophe” by her death.
To Marianne, he expresses his consternation, almost enviously, that a person as feeble and as weak of mental aptitudes as his son, Henrik could love Anna and that Anna could reciprocate that love. This revelation makes Marianne feel that she is perhaps reliving the old infidelities that had plagued their marriage and her remorse of knowing that she is dispensable in Johan’s life is stirred again; yet years of acquired resignation keeps her from expressing her remorse.
Marianne walks into Johan’s life after thirty years providing a comforting companionship yet fades out just the same with time as if it were inevitable. The epilogue shows Marianne sitting at the same table heaped with photos but she has two more added to her collection of moments and faces – one is of Johan and herself, in perhaps the most vulnerable moment in his life seeking her out to comfort him; the other is of Anna. She wonders how Anna was in life – how she spoke, how she moved, her look, her feelings, her love and that almost surreal smile.
Amitava ponders if Bergman, in the last film of his life, expresses through Marianne his wonder that a person who loves all and in return is loved by all, who in life as well as in death has stirred those closest to her to extremities of happiness and sadness, who is almost a baffling enigma in life and in death, is perhaps someone who can only exist in a frame and not in flesh and blood.
Things that didn’t work:
The experience of watching Saraband was overwhelming for the group. Not only because it is a well-made film, nor is it because of the nuanced acting or the soulful music but, more than anything else, it is about experiences of individuals, each in their own way which culminated and resonated with a common feeling of being touched with something noble, something greater than the worldly beings. No film or art form for that matter is without flaws. But the viewers know that the approach to the highest art is through selective rejection of the unobvious.
Parts of the film that will be remembered:
Amitava finds it remarkable how Bergman expresses his views on righteousness in the conversations between Marianne and Karin as they sit together talking of Johan and their marriage. Righteousness as a human quality in one individual can only be determined by his/her relation with another individual. While to the world Johan could be a man of flaws, to Marianne his vulnerability makes him a good man. She admits she had loved him utterly and is not sad for Johan but is shedding tears for “Johan and Marianne”.
Partha mentions the surrealism of the moment when Marianne and Johan lie together in their most vulnerable states, a little rusty from the years devoid of intimacy, him reaching out to her in his hour of utter anguish, her understanding that Johan will never understand his subconscious need for her; and a light transcends the darkness to capture the memory in Marianne’s mind’s eye.
Sambaran loved the gesture of Johan before Beethoven’s picture and his tempestuous musical piece before Karin met him. It seemed that the music was saving and destroying him at the same time. Sambaran also finds it amusing that after a simple and pleasant conversation with Marianne in the chapel, Henrik sits close to her to pour out all his poison stored in his mind against his father.
When Henrik leaves the chapel, Marianne, confused and shocked, gradually makes her way to the door. Suddenly, light flows through the windows. She stops, turns back and looks at what the light commends. It is an altar piece depicting the Last Supper where the child-like Apostles are comforted by the Heavenly Father. The serenity of the moment, the playing of Sarabande in the background and the divine love stand in contradiction to the hauntingly gaping eyes of the figurines in the depiction. Diptansu wonders if this indeed is the embodiment of the constant tribulations of love and hate portrayed among the characters in the film.
Doelpakhi finds the torrid pace at which the first act progresses unique as Marianne arrives at the chalet, walks around it slowly, immersing herself in the familiarity of some of the objects, pauses to deliberate on her dilemma of seeing Johan and then their rendezvous after thirty years that is not marked by furtive longing, yet is not devoid of tenderness.
The other texts (films or otherwise) which come to mind watching this:
Amitava finds similarities among Wild Strawberries (1957), Saraband and some of the other works of Bergman where the coldness in the relationship between father and son has been explored time and again. He feels that this might be so owing to Bergman’s strained relationship with his own father.
Sambaran and Doelpakhi find similarities in the structure and theatricality between Chekhovian short stories and plays and Saraband.
Diptansu, and Amitava, talk of the use of face in Bergman’s cinema. Bergman has so famously mentioned a number of times that it is the human face which intrigued him the most. Bergman’s films are replete with extreme close-ups where he holds the face as a canvas for myriad emotions. In his last film, Bergman continues with this inimitable style and yet doesn’t bore the audience.
Anwesha feels that there is a striking similarity between Cries and Whispers (1972) and Saraband where a person who has died is brought back to life either in supernaturality or in memories and letters left behind, as if still trying to reach out to those that they loved in the mortal world. In Seventh Seal (1957), when death asks the knight if he is afraid of death, the knight answers, he is not, but his body is.
Amitava observes that Bergman in many of his films pondered on the different facets of death – preparation for death, fear of death, deceiving death – and death is explored yet again in the last film of his life where Johan feels that his self-imposed isolation and the perceived senselessness of his life have already taken him beyond death to damnation.
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