The Ingmar Bergman Project #2: A Ship to India (1947)
If you followed me on the first post in my journey through Criterion’s Ingmar Bergman box set, you’ll know that while I've seen a handful of his films, I’m mostly a Bergman beginner. Having seen a few, I’m approaching the box set in chronological order, doing no research before watching, and only a minimal amount afterward, mostly to get plot details I may have missed or technical/personnel information. Mostly these are my own observations from watching the films for the first time (unless otherwise noted).
I am also keeping up with how many times Bergman used the same collaborators. For instance, you will notice a (1) next to two names in the production credits, signifying that these people were also used in Bergman’s first film. I plan to continue this practice throughout, numbering the films according to the box set’s chronology.
A Ship to India (1947)
Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Produced by Lorens Marmstedt
Screenplay by Ingmar Bergman (1)
Based on the play Skepp till India land by Martin Söderhjelm
Cinematography by Göran Strindberg
Edited by Tage Holmberg
Music by Erland von Koch (1)
(1:38) Criterion Blu-ray
It almost feels as if Ingmar Bergman had directed three or four films between his first feature, Crisis (1946), and his next film, A Ship to India. This second effort not only displays greater confidence, but also renders a more cohesive film with a stronger consistency in tone. (I am convinced that one way Bergman accomplishes this is in paring down the musical score, which nearly overwhelmed his debut film.) The director is clearly learning how to control the tone, movement, and flow of his films, and we see some very effective evidence of that here.
The majority of A Ship to India (released as Frustration in the US) is told in flashback. A young sailor named Johannes (Birger Malmsten) returns to his Swedish home after having been at sea for seven years. Longing to find a woman named Sally, Johannes discovers that she’s living with two of his acquaintances. Even though he has matured and lost the hump from his back that once burdened him, Sally (Gertrud Fridh) wants nothing to do with Johannes.
Thus begins a flashback to a time when Johannes was living with his mother Alice (Anna Lindahl) and father Kapten Blom (Holger Löwenadler, an actor to whom Max von Sydow bears more than a passing resemblance), working aboard a salvage ship. The cruel, sadistic Blom is disgusted with his son’s disfigurement and equally dissatisfied with everyone who won’t bow to his authority, on or off the ship. The three-man crew express their view of the captain early on, exclaiming, “Damn that Captain Blom!” when he’s not around. Yet the trio also provides the film’s scant comic relief, that is, when they’re not tempting Johannes to rebel against - or at least stand up to - his father.
This is a dark film. Johannes laments his life and sees nothing bright in his future. “I’ll never get to leave,” he tells his mother, who seems more a servant than a wife and mother. Just before one of their first scenes together, Johannes looks at himself in a mirror, wishing his hump were gone, or at least diminishing. When his mother comes in, we see not only her, but two images of Johannes: the real one and the one in the mirror, representing the man he is and the man he wants to be. A Ship to India is filled with mirrors and windows, but Bergman’s metaphorical images are not overdone to the point of tedium. Each mirror or window has something to tell us, even when they’re broken.
Part of what Bergman is using here with the windows and mirrors is metaphorical, but the metaphors appear in other forms as well. After watching Blom march through a seaside town’s theatre district, we see the captain from above, a shot implying that he’s the master of all he surveys. Without breaking stride, Blom roughs up a man and grabs a woman as he enters a rowdy theatre where a woman is belting out songs with lyrics like “Give sometimes and don’t always take,” advice Blom would certainly ignore. He finds Sally, the woman he’s looking for, but also finds the man he pushed around earlier, who’s now looking to settle the score. Blom takes care of him, but not easily. We come to discover, as Sally does, that Blom is slowly going blind.
“Going blind isn’t the worst thing in the world,” he says. “To never have seen anything is far worse.” In a quieter moment, Blom hands Sally a seashell. “I can listen to that seashell for hours at a time,” he confesses. As his eyesight grows dimmer, he draws comfort from the voices whispering to him from the shell, enticements to return to the sea. He decides to take Sally with him, but what will his wife Alice say? He could care less. Despite knowing that his sight is deteriorating, Blom states, “My life isn’t over yet. I intend to get everything life has never given me.” Giving further insult to Alice, he tells her, “You’ll have a pension from the company and a cottage on land.” What a prince, this guy…
Although we sympathize with Johannes, he - like his father - wants everything life hasn't given him. From the moment Sally sets foot on the ship, Johannes is smitten. Is this because he wants to possess something of his father's, or is he genuinely interested in Sally? (Is it love or lust?) Johannes soon makes a play for her (significantly, just after we see another image of him in a mirror), with disappointing results.
The fractured nature of their initial encounter is reflected in the brokenness of Blom and Alice’s own relationship. Late one night, in the top bunk of their cabin, Alice reflects on the early days of their salvage operation: “I pumped air down to your lungs so you could breathe.” The camera descends to Blom in the lower bunk as Alice continues: “It was like I gave you life every time I pushed that lever.” Blom’s wide awake, but says nothing, sees nothing. He’s literally in the dark and unable to respond, even to this soft, resigned rebuke.
Meanwhile, Johannes hasn’t given up on Sally. After their first disastrous encounter, he tries the soft approach, rowing the two of them to a small island where they relax inside an old windmill. Sally’s barriers have come down somewhat and Johannes (as well as the audience) senses he might have a chance with her, but soon learns that Sally - much like Jack from Crisis - has essentially stopped caring about other people. “Maybe I was born to be unhappy and make others unhappy,” she confesses, but “If I could fall in love with someone, I’d fall in love with you.”
Considering everything that has come before, this scene may seem forced and a bit false, but it leads to a magnificent long shot of Johannes and Sally outside under a cloudless sky, a wonderful moment between the couple contrasting with the massive, yet deteriorating windmill. I’m only two films into Bergman’s filmography, but this is the most exuberant, joyous scene he’s given us thus far. We already know these characters well enough to sense this won’t last, but for a moment, there’s hope, joy, exhilaration.
This event is also enough to give Johannes the courage to finally confront his father, which he does. In a heated exchange in front of the crew, Blom slaps Johannes, but the son returns his father’s slap with one of his own. The young man is clearly satisfied with his action, and perhaps Sally is as well, telling Alice that she, too, should stand up to Blom. These moments lead up to the film’s most devastating scene between Blom and Johannes. If you’ve read this far, you’ve already worked your way through several spoilers, but I won’t disclose what happens here. You’ll have to experience it for yourself.
I’ll also leave the ending for you to discover for yourself. At first, it disappointed me, but when you think about what Bergman has established with his characters and this setting, you realize it’s the most honest, effective ending he could’ve chosen.
I mentioned earlier that A Ship for India seems like Bergman’s third or fourth film after Crisis. Bergman displays at least three or four films’ worth of experience from that first effort, especially in how he handles characters, narrative flow, and staging. A Ship to India shows a wide range of creativity and maturity, and although Bergman is still trying to refine the control he will eventually exert over all aspects of filmmaking, these early results are impressive. It must have been amazing to see this talent develop. I wish I could’ve been there, but in a way, I am.
Photos: IMDb, The Bergman Challenge, A Damn Fine Cup of Culture