The Ingmar Bergman Project #4: Thirst (1949)
(My Bergman project disclaimer, if you care to read it.)
Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Produced by Helge Hagerman
Screenplay by Herbert Grevenius
Based on the short story collection Thirst by Birgit Tengroth
Cinematography by Gunnar Fischer (3)
Edited by Oscar Rosander (1, 3)
(1:24) Criterion Blu-ray
I once asked a friend of mine what he thought of Ingmar Bergman’s work. He replied with one word: interminable.
Thirst (the director’s seventh film, but fourth chronologically in the Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema Criterion box set) stands as an exercise both in cinematic pacing and extreme patience. With Thirst, Bergman shows moments of pure brilliance, sort of a sneak preview of what’s to come in his later work, combined with other moments that seem to go on ad infinitum. Yet those interminable scenes (as my friend would call them) could act as a contrast to the instances of characters making decisions in the heat (or coldness) of the moment. After all, life is often a combination of both.
Rut (Eva Henning) awakens in a Basel, Switzerland hotel room, finding her man asleep. She wanders around the room, bored for several minutes. Cut to a flashback with Rut on a sailboat with a different, older man. After they go ashore, Rut’s lover tells her there are snakes about, which frightens her. This moment may seem a bit heavy-handed, but perhaps not. We - and Rut - soon learn that this particular snake, Raoul (Bengt Eklund, above), is married and has children. When Raoul, his wife, and Rut later meet in an awkward moment, Raoul isn’t ashamed, but rather proclaims “Any healthy man has to have two women.”
I won’t disclose what happens next with this part of the story, but we soon rejoin Rut in the hotel room with her husband Bertil (Birger Malmsten). Whatever maturity Rut may have picked up from Raoul (if any) has been lost: She is immature, impulsive, and moody, and Bertil knows how to handle none of these behaviors. Yet maybe he knows more than we give him credit for, since he states, “The two sexes can never be united. They’re separated by a sea of tears and misunderstanding.”
Although what I’ve just described constitutes much of the first half of the film, things soon begin to move rapidly. Across two stopped trains, Rut and Bertil have a conversation with Raoul and his wife. Does Rut have regrets? Does Raoul? What about Bertil’s own regrets over his former lover, a woman named Viola (Birgit Tengroth, who wrote the source material for the film)?
Viola is introduced in the second half of the film, but she wastes no time, walking from her husband’s grave to an appointment with her psychiatrist Dr. Rosengren (Hasse Ekman), who’s arrogant, predatory, and sadistic. “Your whole life,” he tells Viola, “has been one long mistake. A neglected childhood, a foolish marriage, twisted liaisons… Give yourself to me and I’ll deliver you.” Eager to escape this creep, Viola finds that an encounter with a woman named Valborg (Mimi Nelson, below right) may lead to a relationship she’s not ready for.
These characters are all connected to one another, but not in the way we might expect from later films such as Magnolia or, on a much larger scale, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Three Colors” trilogy. The problem - especially in an 84-minute film - comes from a disproportionate amount of time spent with each character. Through extended scenes of her antics and wild mood swings, we get to know Rut (and to a lesser degree, Bertil) far too well, while barely exploring the personality of Viola (a much more interesting and complex character). Many of these scenes with Rut and Bertil are enormously taxing, which could be Bergman’s point, but he’s also given us other characters I wish I could’ve spent more time getting to know.
The structure of the Herbert Grevenius screenplay is both challenging and bold, yet Bergman doesn’t shrink from it. The seemingly static hotel room scenes convey both the drudgery of Rut and Bertil’s lives as well as their confinement. But when things start to move, Bergman knows how to incorporate that sense of movement to align it with the confusion and uncertainty of his characters. Despite all this, Bergman continues to ask questions about men, women, and relationships, as he will in his coming works. Like the earlier films, he seems to be on a journey of discovery, learning as he asks his questions, then allowing each film to display what he’s learned. Thirst is an enlightening and frustrating stop along the way, featuring an ending that could be considered one the director hasn’t earned or totally inconsistent with what has come before, or perhaps it could be best thought of as the end of a particular chapter. Or, if you need one more explanation, Bergman could simply be discovering what’s in his toolbox, figuring out how and when to use certain tools. Regardless, it’s a fascinating - if sometimes tiresome - journey.
Photos: IMDb, DVD Beaver, Criterion, The Film Sufi