Sawdust and Tinsel (1953): Bergman’s Grim Tale of Life at Traveling Circus

Sawdust and Tinsel, an early work from Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, offers a chronicle of a circus and its performers, focusing on their skills, achievements, and, of course, frustrations and humiliations.

The gallery of characters is rich, headed by the circus’s portly owner, Albert (Ake Gronberg). The tale begins with his recollection of an embarrassing incident of the company’s clown, Frost (Anders Ek), who discovered wife Alma (Gudrun Brost), swimming nude in public, in front of cheering soldiers.

Albert visits his estranged wife, Agda (Annika Tretow), who’s frustrated with his meager income from circus work. While Albert endures this humiliating encounter, his jealous mistress, Anne (Harriet Andersson), succumbs to a seductive local actor, Frans (Hasse Ekman), only to realizes that she has been exploited.

When the drunken Frost informs Albert of Anne’s sexual liaison, he decides to attack the cynical lover, but Frans fights back. Beaten and degraded, Albert contemplates suicide, then decides to avenge himself on unfaithful women by killing the company’s bear. The act is meant to punish Alma, whose betrayal of Frost has haunted Albert.

But life on the road goes on, and after the bear’s death, the company departs to another town.

Plot description doesn’t do justice to this powerful film, which is intense in emotions and extremely well acted.

The scene in which Frost, clad as a clown, finds his wife nude in front of soldiers, and then carries her naked from the water, is heartbreaking.

Visually striking, the film relies on baroque compositions and use of deep focus to convey circus life. The score, which alternates deadly silence and blaring brass band, contributes to the tone of  unsettling tensions and anxiety.

Though an early work, Sawdust and Tinsel announced the arrival of a major filmmaker, suggesting some of the recurrent thematic concerns and stylistic devices that would preoccupy Bergman in his rich and lengthy future career.