“To Joy” - Ingmar Bergman (1950)

After the rather over-heated theatrics of Thirst (Törst, aka Three Strange Loves, 1949), Ingmar Bergman turned to a more personal and inward perspective for his next film, To Joy (Till Glädje, 1950), which he also scripted. This thematic redirection may have been motivated by a personal event in Bergman’s life that occurred at that time – the dissolution of his 2nd marriage. In any case, what we see in To Joy is a much more subtle portrayal of a romantic relationship and the ups and downs that happen to the couple over an eight-year period.

Some people might say that this is just another cinematic love story – a theatrical “scenes from a marriage”, if you will.  But I would say that this film has an almost philosophical perspective, as suggested by its title, that elevates this story above the usual offerings of this nature.  Behind the  story about two musicians who fall in love, there is the overlying theme of harmonic resonance – as overtly manifested by symphonic orchestral collaboration – that pervades the entire film. 

In fact the theme of harmonious collaborative production was something in which Bergman undoubtedly took a serious personal interest.  He had a masterful way of starting with a theatrical, almost stagy, and dramatic conception and crafting it into a compelling cinematic narrative. And he repeatedly accomplished this feat by working closely and collaboratively with his actors, camera crew, and production team [1]. Here, as with his other films, especially those in collaboration with the outstanding cinematographer Gunnar Fischer, Bergman’s camera movements (sometimes over the course of a shot lasting several minutes) are melded together with the dramatically motivated movements of the actors to create a natural narrative movement to the presentation.  All of this is done to convey a feeling for what Bergman had in mind in connection with “joy”.

The story of the film concerns the passion-filled experiences of a 25-year-old musician, Stig Eriksson, who, like most young men, seeks greatness.  In the case for Stig, this means greatness as a solo violinist.  He wants to be a star, above all others, and he feels that he has the capabilities to do so.  However, the film’s title, “To Joy”, which has an explicit musical reference in the story, points thematically to some kind of greatness that transcends Stig’s personal view.  To a certain extent what transpires in the film is a depiction of Stig’s journey to see what this means.

That explicit reference of the film’s title is to Friedrich Schiller’s poem, “Ode to Joy” (1785, 1803) [2], which was used as a choral element to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (1824).  If you read that poem, you will see that Schiller was not evoking mundane pleasures, but something rapturous, almost ecstatic.  Indeed, joy for Schiller has cosmic importance [3]:

    Joy is the name of the strong spring
    In eternal nature.
    Joy, joy drives the wheels
    In the great clock of worlds.
    She lures flowers from the buds,
    Suns out of the firmament,
    She rolls spheres in the spaces
    That the seer's telescope does not know.

And yet as can be seen in the film, these rapturous moments are really usually embedded in ordinary experiences that feature a harmonious interpersonal resonance.  It takes years for Stig Eriksson to experience this epiphany.  For us to experience his journey first-hand, Bergman presents almost everything from Stig’s point of view.  Because of his earnest, almost childish, innocence, we can empathize with Stig along the way, although his selfish narcissism is sometimes off-putting.  So despite our seeing (almost) everything from Stig’s personal perspective, our sympathies and ultimate appreciation come to focus on the source of Stig’s ultimate epiphany – his loving wife, Marta Olsson.

The story of To Joy moves through six phases or acts, with the key inner four of these acts depicting flashback episodes in which Stig’s self-centeredness causes a problem.
1.  Tragic News
Violinist Stig Eriksson (played by Stig Olin) is interrupted from an orchestra rehearsal to receive the tragic news of his wife’s death.  She had been visiting family and had burned to death in a cottage fire when a kerosene stove exploded.  As is typical of Bergman’s cinematography when key emotional events take place, the news is conveyed in a single extended shot, this one lasting 85 seconds.  As the grieving Stig reflects on his loss, the film moves into a flashback reflection, signified by the image of a harp playing.

2.  Stig and Marta Meet
Stig and Marta (Maj-Britt Nilsson) are introduced as new violinists in a symphony orchestra conducted by Sönderby (Victor Sjöström), a stern task-master. Here we are shown one of the many visually compelling and suggestive tracking shots of orchestra players combining their skills to achieve a grand harmony that goes beyond the talents of any one player. This is the visual motif behind the story of Stig and Marta.

It is immediately clear that the naive Stig is inexperienced and no social match for the attractive and sociable Marta – especially when he compares himself to the super-confidant, suave, and somewhat oily fellow musician Marcel (Birger Malmsten).  At Marta’s birthday party that evening, Stig gets very drunk and launches into an embarrassingly boastful tirade about his artistic talents and integrity.  He’s so drunk in fact that he passes out, and Marta has to let him sleep it off on her couch.  In the morning Stig gives her a teddy-bear gift he had bought for her, and this is the first of the “key relationship scenes” (KRS1) in the film.  Like other such scenes, it features a lengthy (92 seconds) moving-camera shot of the two of them interacting in medium-shot and closeup range.

3.  Stig and Marta Get Together
It is now Autumn and Stig and Marta are more intimate and talking of love.  Marta is the experienced one – she has been married before – and while talking of love she maneuvers the conversation over to the idea that they should move in together (KRS2).

Later they decide to get married. While preparing for the marriage ceremony, Marta tells Stig (in a 3-minute shot) that she is already pregnant. The news shocks and disturbs Stig, who doesn’t want a baby, and Marta responds by telling him that he is childish, selfish, and cruel. This is followed by a second 3-minute shot in which Stig manages to make up to her and restore their relationship (KRS3).  They then go ahead with the marriage ceremony (KRS4) as planned, with Marta silently showing her rapturous pleasure.

4.  Going Solo
Stig’s goal is not just to remain an ensemble violinist, but to be a featured soloist.  He gets his chance to be a star, but his performance at a public event in a key solo movement is a failure. Afterwards unable to soothe his disappointments, he quarrels with Marta and rejects her consolation by telling her, “inside, you’re always alone.”

Somewhat later Marta is having labor pains, and she is taken to and left with the doctor.  Shortly thereafter during a rehearsal, Stig is interrupted with the joyous news that his child has been born. (This scene reverberates with the opening scene when he was interrupted to hear about his wife’s death.)  Stig rushes to the hospital delivery room to meet Marta, and they silently embrace (KRS5).

5.  Quarreling and Making Up
It is now three years later, and Stig is still obsessed with making it as a soloist. He is also having an affair with Nelly (Margit Carlqvist), the wife of the orchestra manager. At home in a key 140-second shot (KRS6), Marta accuses him about the affair, and he coldly criticizes her for having had affairs before they knew each other. Losing his temper, Stig slaps Marta around in the bed, and their relationship appears to have reached its end.  Marta moves out with their two kids.

But three months later Stig writes to Marta renewing his love, and she welcomes him back.  He takes the train to meet her, and they reunite in love (KRS7).

Some years later in a brief scene, Stig and Marta are shown living happily together with their two children, who appear now to be about six and seven years of age. While they are preparing for Marta to go off with one of the children to visit grandmother’s place, they are shown taking along a kerosene stove that will be used for them to stay in a cottage next to grandmother’s house.

6.  Return to the Present
The harp playing is again shown, indicating that the flashback recollections are over.  Stig is gripped in grief, but returns to the rehearsal to prepare for a performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.  The conductor Sönderby tries to convey to his performers the idea of what is meant by the “Ode to Joy” 4th movement:
Not the joy expressed in laughter or the joy that says, ‘I’m happy’”. . . What I mean is a joy so great, so special, that it lies beyond pain and boundless despair.  It’s a joy beyond all understanding.
As they play, Stig sadly reflects on his years with Marta, visualizing moments from all their key relationship scenes.

As usual, Bergman worked with a small, theatrically-experienced acting ensemble in order to externalize the intense human emotions that are presented in his work. The role of orchestra conductor Sönderby was played by noted film director Victor Sjöström, who would later more famously play the lead role in Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957).  Stig Olin, in the role of Stig Eriksson, was a Bergman regular, and as the center of focalization, he performs well.  But it is the performance of Maj-Britt Nilsson, as Marta, that really makes the film memorable. She evokes the selfless empathy and compassion that makes joy possible.

In fact the narrative mode of focalization is almost an issue in To Joy.  While the focalization is almost entirely focused on Stig’s journey, it is not exclusively so.  There are conspicuous moments when the focalization shifts over to Sönderby and to Marta, and this is somewhat disturbing to the narrative flow.  But perhaps this was an explicit effort on Bergman’s part to heighten the awareness of harmonious collaboration.  After all, it is this convergence of diverse feelings and perspectives that brings about joy.

  1. See for example, “Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie” (Vilgot Sjöman, 1963), The Film Sufi, 2014.
  2. Friedrich Schiller, “Ode to Joy”, presented in Scott Horton, “Schiller’s Freedom Hymn”, Harper’s Blog, November 9, 2008. 
  3. Friedrich Schiller, “Ode to Joy”, “Wikisource”.

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