Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Ingmar Bergman | Törst (Thirst)

the hell we have
by Douglas Messerli

Herbert Grevenius (screenplay, based on stories by Birgit Tengroth), Ingmar Bergman (director) Törst (Thirst) / 1949

Bergman’s 1949 film Thirst, although not as complexly plotted as many of his later works for which he provided the texts, is a psychologically revealing and emotionally compelling film that matches some of his best.
       The tale consists basically of a long train trip from Italy back to Sweden, where a married couple, Bertil (Birger Malmsten) and Rut (Eva Henning), have been vacationing on a very low budget. The time of this trip is crucial, occurring as it does soon after the devastation of Europe by World War II, which helps create another layer of explanation for the couple’s obvious angst, the key to their “hunger” and “thirst.”
     Their hunger, in part, has to do with the fact that they have so little money; yet they have been able to pack a rather ample picnic basket to fill their stomachs during their voyage home. But even before they set out, Rut rummages into the basket to sneak a slice of sausage, almost as if she were starving.
      Yet, once they are on their way, it is apparent that her real problem is drinking to fulfill her thirst. At once point, when they encounter an entire train station full of starving children and adults, Rut readily hand out the basket’s contents to the post-war sufferers. It is wine, beer, and cigarettes that she

most desperately needs to fuel her endless battles with Bertil, seemingly a loving companion who often patiently puts up with her bouts of abuse followed by sudden attempts to make up. Yet, he too is not without his verbal assaults directed to her, and, often, he plays the tormented saint, together the two of them reminding one of a tamer Martha and George of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
      And like Albee’s couple they have plenty of reasons to do battle with life. Rut, in particular, has lost not only a child, aborted by a callous earlier boyfriend, Raoul (Bengt Eklund), but in that process has become infertile, which has also ended her previous dancing career. Unlike the American play, however, this couple not only argue but toss out darkly witty observations a bit as if they were simply playing darts—but aimed, of course, at each other’s heads.
      The amazing thing about Bergman’s film, in this case, is how quickly the action moves between a simple domestic comedy and a darker drama, while also fluidly shifting from past to present, present to past, all the while paralleling an early voyage between Switzerland and Sweden (both neutral countries at the time) with Rut and Raoul.
      Simultaneously, the director takes us briefly through the lives of other friends of Rut, most notably her former co-dancer Valborg (Mimi Nelson), who disgusted by the men in her life, turns to lesbianism, attempting to seduce Viola (Birgit Tengroth, on whose stories this film is based), who has been equally abused by her psychiatrist Dr. Rosengren (Hasse Ekman).
       In short, beneath the desperateness of what appears to be nearly the entire European population, these more middle-class survivors suffer the deprivations of love and career. At times, it’s hard to know who’s better off, the hard-drinking, obviously guilt-ridden Swedes, or the starving masses they encounter during their trip. Both may survive, but at what cost?
       In some respects this film calls up the later Roberto Rossellini masterwork, Voyage in Italy, wherein another couple (played by another Swede, Ingrid Bergman and British actor George Sanders) who have a marital meltdown; or, in a kind a comic twist, the “visit to Italy” from 1956, by Lucille
Ball in I Love Lucy who suffers over not being back home for little Ricky’s 3rd birthday, determining to celebrate it with a young shoeshine street boy, who brings all of his young friends to the party claiming that it is their birthday as well. It is perhaps the closest Ball ever came to a psychological meltdown in her entire series and is the least wacky of the entire I Love Lucy shows. Obviously postwar Europe, Italy in particular, not only attracted the tourists because of its post-war inexpensiveness, but revealed other tensions in their lives.
     Thirst ends far more upbeat than it might have, with Bertil finally admitting that “despite the hell we have,” he would rather be with Rut than without her, rather be married than a lonely old man. And perhaps they can mend their seemingly fraying relationship.
     Bergman, fortunately, does not attempt to hint at the future; they are quite apparently caught up now in their pasts. Whether or not they free themselves to the future is undetermined. Perhaps none of us ever have been completely able to. As an immediate postwar baby, child of a father who’d been stationed during the war in Italy, I’m still haunted by the event that serves as an important backdrop in Bergman’s movie.
     Finally, what this film reveals is that before he became the great director that we now know him to be, he was making wonderful smaller films. Thirst was certainly on of them, and ought be watched by a far larger audience.

Los Angeles, August 15, 2018

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