“Crisis” - Ingmar Bergman (1946)

The earliest films that Ingmar Bergman directed, in the 1940s, are often dismissed by later critics as prosaic and jejune. In particular, this is probably the critical consensus concerning the very first film that the 27-year-old Bergman directed, Crisis (Kris, 1946) [1]. However, when I recently saw it, I found the film full of interesting stylistic flourishes that make it stand out even today; and in fact I think the film is superior to his later Thirst (Törst, aka Three Strange Loves, 1949). 

The story, scripted by Bergman and based on a Danish radio play, Moderhjertet (The Maternal Instinct) by Leck Fischer, concerns the psychological turmoil surrounding five principal characters variously encumbered by their own obsessions.  The presumed protagonist, Nelly, is a teenage girl who has become the center of attention for the other four principals.  But actually the narrative focalization is rather diffuse and spread out beyond the protagonist across those other principals, too. 

These principal characters in Crisis are
  • Nelly (played by Inga Landgré), an 18-year-old girl hoping to leave the humdrum confines of her small town in search excitement in the big city.
  • Ingeborg Johnson (Dagny Lind), Nelly’s stepmother who has been looking after Nelly since she was a baby.
  • Jenny (Marianne Löfgren), Nelly’s birth mother, who has come to visit Ingeborg in order to reclaim the daughter that she had abandoned 18 years ago.
  • Jack (Stig Olin), the oily, self-centered boyfriend of Jenny who falls in love with Nelly.
  • Ulf (Allan Bohlin), a thirtyish and decent, but unexciting, village local who hopes Nelly will accept one of his repeated marriage proposals.

As the story unfolds, we see that Ingeborg, Jenny, Jack, and Ulf all feel that only Nelly can supply them with fulfilment that is missing from their lives.  But Nelly is confused and noncommital about all of them.  What makes this situation and its presentation interesting is not Nelly, who appears rather conventional and not particularly endowed with personal magnetism.  Instead, it is the way Bergman fashions an expressionistic atmosphere around the personages of Ingeborg, Jenny, and Jack.  All three of them are facing existential crises, and Bergman’s mise-en-scene is employed at full tilt to externalize their intense inner turmoil.

The narrative passes through four phases.
1. Ingeborg and Nelly Receive a Visit
In this part we are introduced to the five characters.  Ingeborg is a spinster piano teacher in the small town, who looks after her maturing “daughter” Nelly. We also get the foreshadowing hint, which will be confirmed later, that Ingeborg is dying of a terminal disease and doesn’t have much longer to live. Ulf is shown lurking around Nelly and hoping for a response, but she dismisses him as too old and laughs off his marriage proposals. After having abandoned her newborn daughter to Ingeborg 18 years ago, Jenny shows up at Ingeborg’s house to reclaim Nelly and take her back to the big city. Soon Jenny’s boyfriend, the self-consciously suave and knife-wielding Jack, shows up, too, and it is obvious that his presence spells trouble. They all plan to attend the village ball that evening.

2. The Village Ball
At the ball, Jack charms Nelly, and the two of them quickly become inebriated. They disrupt the staid activities of the ball by arranging a boogie-woogie session in an adjoining room, and then they run outside into a park by the river. The dapper Jack represents something mysterious and bewitching to Nelly, but there is something bizarre and disturbing about Jack too. With a dark, half-mad demeanor, he tells her
“Once I lived under a stairs in an old castle in ruins. Across from the stairs was a big broken window.  Through it I could see the fields beneath the moon, the sea, the woods, and two bone-meal factories.”
He adds further,
“This is a moonlit life.  Not yet for you, but you’ll soon see. . . unreal light, darkness, and shadows, and all manner of frightful things."
He repeats this moonlit imagery several times later in the story, as if it represents a capsule summary of his obsessive melancholic psyche.

Although Ulf shows up and punches out Jack, it is clear that Nelly is attracted to the city slicker, and she informs the distraught Ingeborg that she will immediately leave with Jenny for the city.

3. Nelly in the City

Nelly is now in the city, and some time has passed.  Ingeborg comes for a visit and observes that the relationships between Jenny, Jack, and Nelly are riven with jealousy and are unraveling.  The next day Jack, now unshaven and in rags, shows up at Nelly’s apartment and appears to be a different person and even more deranged than usual. He tells Nelly a fantastic story about how he has just murdered someone (presumably Jenny) –  but she succumbs anyway to his embraces, and they make love. Then, to Nelly’s shock, Jenny hauntingly shows up alive and well at her apartment and confronts the unclad girl in her bed. This sets up a final confrontation between Jenny, Jack, and Nelly that has disastrous and fatal consequences. 

4. Back Home
The final segment, which is rather flat, shows Nelly returning to the village to live with Ingeborg. Ulf is there waiting for her, but Nelly is too traumatized by what has happened and has no patience for his hang-dog entreaties.

On the surface and probably to most critics, Crisis merely represents the well-traveled territory of small-town innocence briefly enticed by big-city corruption.  But the way this story is told suggests penetrations into deeper psychological issues of existential angst that would underlie many of Bergman’s later works.  Bergman’s cinematic expression is already well-developed here.  Regrettably though, the musical score on the soundtrack, which is loud and trashy, doesn’t match the narrative and is only an irritating distraction.

As mentioned, the interesting characters are Ingeborg, Jenny, and Jack, all of whom are drawn with an expressionistic brush.  At first, the characterizations of Jenny and Jack appear so exaggerated and repulsive that one is tempted to dismiss them as overblown stereotypes. But Ingeborg, Jenny, and Jack all turn out to be self-reflective characters, and the narrative focalization is equally weighted on them.

Ingeborg may seem colorless, but her understated anxiety is always present, since we know that she has only a couple of years left to live.  She craves to spend that limited time with her beloved adopted daughter, but she doesn’t reveal her doomed condition to others.  I particularly liked the depiction of the nightmare that she had on the train when she returned from the big city. Although she has devoted her life to selflessly serving her adopted daughter, when she pleads to God in her dream for salvation from death, she recognizes that she is not guiltless – she anguishes over the thought that she has coveted Nelly’s presence in her life for her own happiness.  Realizing, when we are in dire straits, that we don’t really deserve favors from God probably comes to all of us at some point.

Jenny appears as a vulgar and insensitive woman, someone who looks quite a bit older than her purported 36 years of age [2]. But she, too, turns out to be a self-reflective person, and we occasionally get glimpses of her own anxieties – she is more interesting than she first appears. She has evidently had a hard life, and now that she has finally earned some money she seeks to extend her youth by living off younger people that she thinks she can buy – Jack and Nelly.

But the most interesting character is the self-destructive Jack, who instills the film with its psychological foreboding.  He remarks on one occasion to Nelly, “
“Jenny lives off me, and I live off Nelly. It’s all rather diabolic.”
He knows that he is playing a role to energize the fantasies of Nellly and Jenny, and questions what, if anything, is behind any of the roles that attract us. The unacceptable horror for him (and something that he doesn’t want to tell Nelly) is that there really may be nothing more out there than the barren mundanity of  “two bone-meal factories.”

  1. Bergman had earlier written the screenplay and served as the assistant director for Alf Sjöberg’s Torment (Hets, 1944).
  2. Interestingly, though, actress Marianne Löfgren was 36 at the time of filming.  Ageing appearances have changed over time.

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