YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM (and only Bergman holds the key)
Our first guest Shadowplayer, filmmaker Matthew Wilder, looks at a late-ish Bergman — Bergman spent more of his career making late movies than anyone before or since — I think he first announced his retirement with FANNY AND ALEXANDER but then kept writing and directing up until his death, and has authored several post-mortem works.
In a moment fraught with resonances at once Freudian and Kafkaesque, Ingmar Bergman was arrested at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in the midst of a rehearsal of August Strindberg’s DANCE OF DEATH for income tax evasion. The subsequent stress—though all charges were dropped against Bergman and he was entirely exonerated—drove him to a nervous breakdown and hospitalization. There is an irony here that no doubt Bergman appreciated most of all: the great auteur, known for woman problems in his own life, attempts to “exorcise” them through staging the notorious misogynist Strindberg’s folie a deux on the subject of marriage…and in the process gets pinched by two plainclothes Superego Cops, putting the cuffs on him for a crime he didn’t commit…but perhaps he did commit it: the crime of being Ingmar Bergman.
Let’s remember that this act—the act of being put under arrest—caused Bergman to crack. And let’s view this crack-up as the bridge between Bergman’s two superb crack-up movies, FACE TO FACE (1976), where ill-treated-by-Ingmar Liv Ullmann is the cracker-upper; and FROM THE LIFE OF THE MARIONETTES (1980), where Peter, a male who may or may not be an Ingmar stand-in, is he-who-cracks.
The subject of FROM THE LIFE OF THE MARIONETTES is inexplicable trauma. And as analysts of the traumatic event that is FROM THE LIFE OF THE MARIONETTES, we must, like the dislikable, Simon Oakland in PSYCHO style shrink in MARIONETTES itself, look at the facts. Yes, Bergman was arrested for tax evasion; yes, he “broke down” and went into a mental asylum; and yes, he transformed that crack-up into the coolly objective (feeling) “dossier on a crack-up” FROM THE LIFE OF THE MARIONETTES. However, Bergman had no problem finding money for projects outside of Sweden (AUTUMN SONATA and MARIONETTES were British/German coproductions); he easily re-routed himself to Munich; and his problems were solved in the homeland in time for him to slide into home and create FANNY AND ALEXANDER, perhaps the most cannily devised farewell-tour, wasn’t-I-great-folks? Swan song in the history of cinema.
I would venture to say that what was traumatic to Bergman had nothing to do with his finances, or his auditors’ view of them. It was the sheer trauma of that act of arrest. Its concomitant air of persecution and its presumption of guilt were what snapped the string in Bergman’s head. Hitchcock spoke of his lifelong fair of getting pinched by the cops; and to be sure, we read that into that traffic cop with mirrored sunglasses knocking on the window of the sleeping Marion Crane’s car in PSYCHO. Bergman (like Fritz Lang, who saw the actual inside of a Gestapo questioning room) actually experienced it.
The effect of this trauma was transfiguring. From it came one of Bergman’s strangest but most mature works. There are earlier Bergman films that seem entirely carved out of self-pity born out of some jarring events in Bergman’s life. The almost unbelievably preposterous NOW ABOUT ALL THESE WOMEN (1964) derives from Bergman’s agony at the hands of critics, and of the many women in his life; THE RITE (1969) is a free-floating fantasia of persecution, staged in the manner of a Living Theatre bacchanal merged with a movie—it’s about every kind of Establishment force cracking down on a troupe of sensitive artistes.
FROM THE LIFE OF THE MARIONETTES, on the contrary, does not depict its melting-down protagonist as a righteous character violated by an unjust society. Its attempts to decrypt an abominable act of violence are entirely equivocal.
The genre MARIONETTES belongs to, I would insist, is the giallo. This Italian pulp form features many narrative shapes: some are Agatha Christie-like whodunits, some are cop sagas, others are in the vein of Gothic dark-old-house yarns. But what yokes them all together is fetishized images of highly sexualized, then highly vandalized, female bodies.
To break it down: they all feature a bare-breasted hooker, strangled with her eyes bugged out, or perhaps slashed, a bloody gout zigzagging her torso, also with her eyes bugged out.
Sometimes (more often than not) this image is eroticized; other times it is sheerly horror-ized; in all cases it is wildly fetishized.
FROM THE LIFE OF THE MARIONETTES does not quite give us that precise form of visual satisfaction. The protagonist, Peter, kills a prostitute at the outset. In the seconds counting down to that murder, we are very much on the side of the hooker, Ka, as the runs about a tiny, windowless, foul-smelling strip joint and tries to find a place to hide before Peter can kill her. And, unlike the equally sober Bob Fosse film STAR 80, MARIONETTES tells us that Peter anally rapes the corpse, but does not show us the goods.
What I would suggest is that FROM THE LIFE OF THE MARIONETTES is a deconstruction of the giallo. (Is the giallo really derived from Hitchcock’s FRENZY? If so, there is an interesting family tree revealed here. MARIONETTES seems in many ways an oblique commentary on, or at least wink at, PSYCHO; FRENZY was Hitch’s attempt to steroid up, to make a contemporary, R-rated PSYCHO, and it would seem the giallo form was in large part spun off from FRENZY—with the most famous topless, strangled-tongued, bulgy-eyed victim in the history of cinema.) Where the conventional giallo gives us garish, lurid repetitions of the primal scene of bulgy-eyed-hooker, MARIONETTES takes that eroticized image away and gives us a geyser of potential explanation, psychologizing, motivation. And Bergman never lands on one satisfying “Rosebud” password that opens the door to Peter’s psyche.
Before killing Ka (Rita Russek), Peter (Robert Atzorn) fights with his sexy, proud, self-possessed wife (Christine Buchegger), with whom he has a relationship that is described as more sibling-y than conjugal. “We have good sex,” he says, “we do it without emotions.” He has a seemingly dismal job in business—in one virtuoso sequence, Bergman has him dictate a business letter in its entirety, its bean-counting prose a dazzling feat of imaginative writing—but he seems quite happy with it, and with the status it affords him. His mother (Lola Muthel) is a one-time big-shot actress who still thinks a great deal of herself though the spotlight has moved on; we see how this could be destructive, though it doesn’t seem to land with Peter very strongly. The strangest element, the one likeliest to contribute to his psychopathology, is his relationship with the rather sinister shrink, Professor Mogens Jensen (Martin Benrath). This character is reminiscent of all those cold-blooded, quietly sadistic men of science in Bergman movies who go by the name of “Vergerus.” Peter visits him and tells him of the thoughts that dog him about killing his wife. Jensen callously tells him to “take a long walk, then have a coffee and some cognacs,” and is generally smugly dismissive of the younger, more attractive man. Peter pretends to leave, but hides near one of Jensen’s bookshelves. A moment later, his wife arrives…kisses Jensen…and they talk about Peter. Jensen wants to bed her at last; she says no, she is too devoted to her husband, as irritating as he may be. They are, she says, permanently joined. We see Peter hearing this—seeing her step away from infidelity with the doctor—and it would seem this moment of loyalty saves her life.
Or is the whole scene a fantasy? It is one thing for Scorsese to stage Travis Bickle’s final encounter with dream girl Betsy in TAXI DRIVER; or Rupert Pupkin’s triumphant return to late-night TV at the end of THE KING OF COMEDY, as maybe-it’s-all-a-dream-or-maybe-not. Those are the closers to the movie…and the movie has said its piece, made its points, longer before that INCEPTION-like pivot of ambiguity arrives in the last inning. Here, Bergman plants this crucial scene—maybe the one that comes the closest to “explaining this whole thing”—somewhere around the one-third point. All the other possible reasons ping off this critical moment…and we don’t even know if it’s real.
There is something a little subjective in my fascination with MARIONETTES: there is a certain way of speaking, of being, that I think of as signifying “Bergman’s people.” The pinnacle of it is in the 1974 SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE, to which MARIONETTES is supposedly a sequel or an offshoot. (Peter and his wife are meant to be doubles of the unhappy couple who visit Johan and Marianne in SCENES.) There is a certain kind of dialogue Bergman wrote in that largely noble string of movies extending from PERSONA to MARIONETTES, which sometimes cries out in terror and pain, and oftentimes lacerates another character in language so acid and indelibly cruel, the scenes are almost intolerable to watch. The characters in MARIONETTES…they are not really these people. They are not as self-assured, self-regarding, self-aware. They seem harbingers of a newer, post-self-conscious society…closer to today’s society of people who constantly speak and tweet of themselves, yet seem to have no particular deep awareness of themselves. Katarina, Peter’s wife, stages fashion runway shows; Peter works in some form of sales that is opaque. The characters know they have feelings but don’t seem to know where they come from—possibly a first for Bergman.
There is a shock to some of these scenes that recalls opening Andy Warhol’s Diaries for the first time and discovering that his telling of “Cab Ride–$13” and “Drugstore Pickups–$23” were entirely unironic. Bergman seems to be trying to speak in the voice of, and perhaps analyze, a new, different kind of person. (This is certainly borne out by his ending the movie with a blast of disco music from the strip joint—as if he thought that were what we, like the strip-joint habitués, wanted.) It has always struck me, from my first viewing of MARIONETTES, that Bergman was, for the one time in his career, influenced by the work of someone working at the same time as he: in this case, making MARIONETTES at Munich’s Bavaria Film Studios, it is Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who was just down the hallway making BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ at the same time. The film seems an attempt to step up to what Bergman considers Fassbinder’s level of coolness or indifference—there is even a character who screams in German of her terrible “fear of fear”: the title (Angst vor der angst) of a particularly baroquely cruel late Fassbinder movie.
Though the vignettes are laid out in cool, objective, pseudo-journalistic fashion, MARIONETTES is as nakedly the artist’s attempt to put himself on the examining table as any late work by Lars Von Trier. For instance, Bergman reveals more about himself than the character in a strange vignette in which Katarina hangs out with a co-worker, an aging homosexual who is almost literally an encyclopedia of all the clichéd traits associated with “aging homosexual.” At one point, half preening, half self-loathing, he delivers an entire speech with his face smooshed against a mirror. Childless, afraid of aging, pathetically vain, he confesses to Peter’s now rather cop-like shrink that he planned to weasel his way into Katarina’s marriage and steal hot young Peter away from her. One wonders whether this toxic portrait is a legitimate snapshot of Bergman’s own loathsome homophobia, or a deliberately jacked-up grotesque character that Bergman plunked down in this story to thumb his nose at the PC types in the audience—or, perhaps, in Munich. (Could it be a va fongu to the BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ guy down the hall?)
If nothing else, FROM THE LIFE OF THE MARIONETTES is a giallo with all the misogynistic pleasure taken out. The hero’s dreams, that swirl around violence toward his wife, are more empathetic and cringe-inducing than sadistic and aestheticizing a la set pieces of DePalma. Even the black and white seems superegoic punitive. For all intents and purposes, FROM THE LIFE OF THE MARIONETTES spelled the end of “Ingmar Bergman” the filmmaker. The work that followed—FANNY AND ALEXANDER, AFTER THE REHEARSAL, SARABAND, and other odds and ends—were more part of Valedictory Tour, Inc., than part of the main body of Bergman’s work. No, this trauma finished him—and he ended in a far-off land, the land of Vergerus, the Nazi doctor in THE SERPENT’S EGG, doing an eighties take on something like Oskar Kokoschka’s MURDERER HOPE OF WOMEN: a German Expressionist saga of Liebestod with many a grimacing dead hooker’s face. MARIONETTES is as complete a testament to the unknowability of human evil as David Fincher’s ZODIAC. It is a truly terminal work, like Pasolini’s SALO, an edge past which there is nowhere to go.
So it makes sense that Bergman would, as Pauline Kael so succinctly put it, “go sprinting back to Victorian health” with the widely beloved FANNY AND ALEXANDER. Like many other film artists who hit a wall at the end of the seventies, Bergman gave the people what they wanted in the eighties. And he had a long string of no-really-this-is-it finales. But as a last gasp of the monster he was, FROM THE LIFE OF THE MARIONETTES is Ingmar Bergman’s real testament movie.