“Prison” - Ingmar Bergman (1949)

Prison (Fängelse, also known in the US and UK as The Devil’s Wanton; 1949) was the earliest Ingmar Bergman film based on his own original screenplay and over which he had full control of all aspects of production.  Because in this instance Bergman was following his own artistic compass and eschewing box-office goals, the film’s independent producer restricted him to a very tight budget and a shooting schedule of only eighteen days [1].  Despite these limitations, though, the film’s production values are remarkably strong and polished, an accomplishment that was likely supported by Bergman’s experience in theatrical stage production.  In fact any weaknesses that one might identify in the film are not so much an outcome of Prison's tight shooting constraints and are more a matter of the film's schematic narrative structure.

Actually, as it turns out, the film’s narrative structure is an explicit issue that is held up to question in this story-within-a-story format.  In the film’s outer story, the prospective creators of a proposed film express doubts over whether the story they are thinking about (which is the subject of the film’s inner story) is even  possible to make into a film. This gives the film a self-reflective character that may appeal to the more philosophically inclined viewer. 

That philosophical question concerns the problem of evil: how can (or why would) an omnipotent creator of the world produce evil that preys on the innocent, who seek only love [2,3]?  And Prison explores, without answering, that insoluble conundrum, which has led to a variety of responses to the film [4,5,6,7].

The story proceeds through five phases, the first and last of which constitute the outer, encapsulating narrative.

1.  The Film Set 1
In the opening sequence Paul, an older man, comes to a film production set and is recognized as the former mathematics professor of the film director Martin (played by Hasse Ekman, who was at the time an even more well-known Swedish film director than Bergman).   Paul, who has recently been released from a mental hospital, has an idea for a film that he would like to propose to Martin. 

Paul’s idea is that in the proposed film the Devil has taken over the world.  Once doing so, he outlaws atomic weapons and punishes those who perpetrated the nuclear slaughter in Hiroshima, but otherwise allows things to carry on pretty much as before.  When Martin and his colleagues ask what is the Devil’s plan, Paul says,
“The devil does not have a plan.  That is the secret of his success.”
 . . .
“See how life hoods itself like a cruel and sensual arc, from birth to death. A great work of humorous art.  Beautiful and terrible at the same time, without mercy and meaning.”
Later Martin relates Paul’s crazy idea to his brother Tomas (Birger Malmsten) and Tomas’s wife Sofi (played by Eva Henning, who was Hasse Ekman’s wife at the time).  Tomas, who is a writer, thinks he can relate Paul’s idea of Hell on earth to an article he has been working on about a teenage prostitute, Birgitta Carolina (Doris Svedlund), whom he encountered recently.  He tells Peters, shown in a dramatized sequence, how innocent, carefree, and seductive the seventeen-year-old Birgitta is and how she guilelessly enjoys being a prostitute.

The rest of the film somewhat unexpectedly shifts away from Paul and Martin and now concerns itself with the inner-narrative – the lives of Tomas, Birgitta, and Sofi.

2.  Dissatisfaction
The film moves six months forward in time and shows Birgitta after giving birth to a child. Her lover Peter (Stig Olin), who is also her pimp, wants to do away with the baby, and he and his sister Linnea (Irma Christenson) force Birgitta to give in to their demands.  This is all shown in a fascinating moving-camera shot of 3:24 duration that is one of the film’s cinematic highlights.

Meanwhile Tomas is shown to be a troubled neurotic.  His marriage with Sofi is on the rocks, he has a serious drinking problem, and he is becoming suicidal.  He rhetorically talks to Sofi in Hamlet-like fashion about whether continued existence is worthwhile, and then he proposes that they both commit suicide.  The horrified Sofi knocks out Tomas with a bottle and runs away.

Back with Birgitta and Peter, the police come around to their place to investigate Birgitta’s reported prostitution.  Seeing the police, Birgitta runs off to hide in the cellar, where she encounters a young boy hiding a knife that he has acquired without permission. It is a seemingly minor event, but it shows up the film’s schematic narrative structure, because it is an artificial and unmotivated insertion into the story – we know that that knife will be come into play later on.

Eventually Peter and Birgitta are arrested, but Peter talks his way out their difficulties, and they begin walking home.  Along the way they encounter the disconsolate Tomas, and Birgitta takes advantage of a moment when Peter is off looking for a taxi to run away with Tomas.

3.  Birgitta and Tomas
Tomas and Birgitta run off to rent a cheap attic boarding room and begin an unlikely romance.  There are a number of interesting scenes in this section of the film, including one of them giddily watching a silent slapstick film that Tomas found in the attic.  After they kiss and make love, Birgitta falls asleep and has a moody, expressionistic nightmare.  This is probably the most memorable scene in the film and lasts more than four-and-a-half minutes.  In the dream she walks through a dark "forest" of static, standing people. Then she comes upon her late mother, who is shown giving her a precious jewel, which represents to Birgitta the mysterious secret of happiness.  Later she encounters Tomas, who is depressed about his damaged hobbyhorse, and she affirms her love for him.  Finally her nightmare brings her to Peter drowning her little baby, and she wakes up screaming in horror and implicit guilt.  However, Tomas soothes her and swears his love for her.

4.  Threats and Separation
Things now start to unwind.  The police discover the drowned infant and are looking for the culprit.  Peter and Linnea feel that if Birgitta doesn’t disavow Tomas, she will be accused of the murder.  Again Birgitta regretfully succumbs to their demands and has to pretend to reject her love.  Everything heads for a disturbing conclusion of the inner narrative, which I will leave to you to discover.

5.  Film Set 2
We return to the outer narrative, as Martin tells Paul that he has thought about his film proposal but must reject it since the idea is not possible to film.  He says that it would end with an impossible question about the world.  When Paul asks to whom would that impossible question be asked, Paul’s workmate Arne responds by saying that that second question is the macabre point – there is noone to ask.  Unless, of course, one believes in God.  Paul, Martin, and Arne nod their heads in gloomy agreement that they see no option in that direction.
Prison ends on a despairing note.  The central notion is that our lives are constituted by the narratives in which we become engaged.  The idea of God is simply one narrative that would be nice if it lived up to its promise.  But the God story cannot account for the cruelty and selfishness that dominates so many narratives, in particular Birgitta’s narrative shown here.  Birgitta is totally innocent, and she offers her love without reservation.  But she is surrounded by cruel hooligans and exploiters who are only governed by self-satisfaction.  Life is truly “beautiful and terrible at the same time, without mercy and meaning.”  We can only try to make the best of it, the doleful Bergman seems to be telling us.

As such, Prison is not a particularly uplifting experience, nor does it offer a compelling and organic narrative.  The cinematography is admittedly atmospheric and expressionistic (and includes some of Bergman’s preferred “mirror shots” [8]).  But many of the camera angles lack a focalizing perspective and motivation.  There is a saving grace, however.  Doris Svedlund’s emotive performance as Birgitta is so genuine and sympathetically energized that it almost on its own points us in the right direction.  We must remember that even in a seemingly meaningless world, love is the beacon we must follow.  Birgitta gave up, but we must not.

  1. “Prison”, IngmarBergman.se, (n.d.).    
  2. Michael Tooley, “The Problem of Evil”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (3 March 2015).   
  3. “Problem of evil”, Wikipedia, (14 May 2017).   
  4. “Fengelset (The Prison)”, Variety, (6 April 1949).  
  5. A. H. Weiler, “Screen: 'The Devil's Wanton' Opens: Ingmar Bergman Film Was Made in 1948 Movie Concerns Battle of Good and Evil”, The New York Times, (5 July 1962).  
  6. Noel Megahey, “Prison”, Film, The Digital Fix, (16 August 2006).  
  7. James Travers, “Prison (1949)”, FILMS de France, (2007).   
  8. For a further discussion of mirror shots, see my review of Torment (1944).   For a production that featured heaps of mirror shots, see the British television series Downton Abbey (2011 - 2016).

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