Ingmar Bergman and the clown

22 December, 2011

Here’s a film theory essay I wrote for uni. Thought it might be interesting.



Ingmar Bergman was seen by many critics and academics as one of the last of the great European directors.[1] When examining his body of work one can easily draw the conclusion that he was an auteur. Bergman fits in with the idea of the auteur which Truffaut and others established in the 1960’s[2].  Bergman wrote and directed most of his films, he worked with mostly the same actors and crew throughout his career and he most importantly kept returning to the same themes and images in film after film. One can, as Jesse Kalin points out in The Films of Ingmar Bergman, boil Bergman’s themes down to if life offers either mercy or meaning.[3] Bergman asks the big questions by exploring religion, death, family, lack of communication and art. It is this later aspect of his filmmaking I want to examine, his use of the artist. The most common type is the actor or the performer. The mask in all its various forms is a recurring character in Bergman films. Bergman kept using the idea of the mask throughout his entire career but did it very literary in his earlier films.  I want to focus especially on the image of the white faced clown and jester in two of those films; Sawdust and Tinsel (1953) and The Seventh Seal (1957). What does role does the masked clown play in these films? I also want to do a brief comparison of Bergman’s image of the clown and the fool to that which Mickhail Bakhtin finds in the medieval writer Rabelais’s work. A subject Bakhtin wrote about in the book Rabelais and His World.

Sawdust and Tinsel, also known as Naked Night or The clown’s Evening in English is a film that fittingly enough is set around a traveling circus. It takes place during 24 hours, from dusk to dusk. The main story is about Albert, the owner of the circus and his mistress Anne. Albert goes to see his estranged wife who he hasn’t seen for three years and Anne revenges his behavior by flirting with the actor Frans who forces himself upon her. Albert and Anne’s story is told not only through their actions but also through the story of Frost, the main clown at the circus. I want to focus on a sequence in the beginning of the film when Jens the coachman tells Albert a story about Frost and his wife Alma. It’s a flashback to an event that happened seven years earlier. It shows how Alma goes down to the beach to parade in front of the regiment that is on a shooting practice. They make her strip and dare her to bathe naked with the officers. She goes skinny dipping while a big group of people watches her.  Frost is told about it and goes down to save his wife. After Frost’s failed attempt to command Alma to go out of the water he goes in to fetch her. He strips down to his underwear and both his and her clothes are stolen. Frost carries his naked wife out of the water, desperately trying to cover her body up with his own while the regiment watches them, constantly laughing. Frost carries her over a rocky terrain with bare feet and ultimately collapses before reaching the circus. At the end of the story the camera goes back to the present and we see that Albert has fallen asleep even though the anecdote is a sign of what to come in his own life.

What makes this sequence stand out is that it is presented like a dream. The dreamlike quality is achieved partly by the overexposed footage and the lack of dialogue. We see Frost shouting at Alma but we don’t hear his voice doing so. We hear Frost speak when he is told about Alma skinny dipping and we hear the officer ordering the soldiers to go to the cannons but that is the only dialogue. Frost reacts to the information on his wife bathing with the soldiers as he’s been told a joke. He cannot take it seriously at first; he is in his clown costume. The most prominent sound in the sequence is the constant laughter from the crowd or as one should call them; the audience. It is accompanied by upbeat brass music which changes into steady rhythmic drum when Frost carries Alma over the rocky beach. The sequence and the whole film is ultimately a story about humiliation. Frost, the clown, is there to be humiliated and laughed at. The mocking laughter from the audience and the upbeat music creates a primal feeling of an audience that demands Frost to perform for them when all he wants is to hide and get himself and his wife away from their preying eyes.

The story about Frost and Alma is a hint to what is to come for Albert and Anne. During the evening’s show Albert challenge Frans to a fight for what he did to Anne. What is important to point out is that this fight takes place within the circus ring and is therefore seen as a performance by the audience. Jesse Kalin means that the circus ring makes the fight seem like something which is only for fun, that it would stop the fight before it becomes too violent.[4] He goes on by calling the clown’s act as an act of domination.[5] The audience behaves as the regiment did when they saw Frost suffer, they howl madly like animals. The fight is shot in a sequence of rapid shots of close ups of the characters faces, mixing Albert and Frans with the two clowns in the ring; Frost and Jens. It compares the clown’s eye markings with Albert’s bleeding eye. There is also significance in the clown’s ever present smile that is painted upon his face, it encourages the audience to take it all like a joke. We see them grin and hear them chortle which reminds us more of an animal than anything else. The audience is a beast in Bergman’s eyes. They don’t treat the performers, the clowns with any respect or humanity. The performer becomes the scapegoat in his world. The clown is the one that can be humiliated and carry our shame, like Frost carries Alma, instead of us being the ones that are humiliated.

The same sense of the performer carrying shame and being humiliated is present in The Seventh Seal. The film is most famous for the knight that is trying to delay his faith by playing chess with death but Bergman uses the image of the traveling theatre company in this film as well. The married couple Jof and Mia makes a living by traveling the land with their fellow actor Skat. Even though they might not be clowns like Frost and Jens in Sawdust and Tinsel they have white painted faces and are dressed as jesters as the film is set in the plague ridden Middle Ages. What the audience does is to heckle them and complain about them; “Damn actors. They’re making fools of themselves.” The only real laughter from the audience comes when a knight throws a tomato in the face of Skat. That laughter is a laughter of spite and humiliation as the audience laughs at the jesters and not with them. Their performance is interrupted by another performance from a procession of flagellants who preaches of the plague as god’s wrath against the humans. Next time you see Jof he’s at the local inn and he is not dressed as a jester anymore. When the people around him understands that he’s an actor he’s being threatened with a knife and forced to dance like a bear. They force him to perform for them as a slave. As Kalin notices, the people at the inn, the audience, do not show any pity for Jof[6]. They laugh at his expense. Kalin suggests that the reason for this is that the crowd sees Jof as being in their mercy.[7] The necessary evil can be directed at him who leaves them safe from ridicule. The audiences in both Sawdust and Tinsel and The Seventh Seal are laughing at the clowns/fools/jesters as a means of dominate the situation. Mia remarks on Jof’s action when he comes back to their wagon when she accuses him of never being able to not play the fool. Audiences use laughter as means to power. The idea of power and laughter in The Seventh Seal is also interesting when one look at the ultimate practitioner of power in the film; death himself. Irving Singer has written a book about Bergman and philosophy where he notice that;“…the ever sad-looking clown appears recurrently in whiteface. To that extent, Death belongs to the same or equivalent profession as the other players in The Seventh Seal who also perform with faces painted white.”[8] Death is here nothing more than a performer which could be leading to the idea of dying being nothing more than a game. This idea is strengthen at the end when Jof sees Death, the knight and the others dance over the hills, like it was a celebration.

These characters are however the ones that comes out as the winners even though they become symbols of humiliation. Bergman is putting their lives in focus as a slightly more sane way to live. This can be seen in both of the film’s endings. The groups in respective films continue the journey on the outside of society by going away with their wagons. Jof and Mia walks away safely escaping death and Frost, Anne and Albert continue with their circus, bound to one another. It won’t matter how humiliated they’ll get they will continue with their performance.

The medieval jester and fool differ radically from that of the 20th century Bergman. In the work of Rabelais Bakhtin finds them to be the owners of an abstract objective truth.[9] There is a respect towards the clowns in the work of Rabelais. Laughter was seen as something good and overturning, not humiliating.[10]The clowns were constant representatives of the carnival spirit in everyday life.[11] The same is happening in Bergman’s world when the crowd demands Jof to dance in The Seventh Seal. He is the constant jester. What is lacking in the modern interpretation of the Medieval society though is the respect for the clown.  Masks are as mentioned important both for Bergman and Bakhtin. To Bakhtin the mask is connected with the joy of change and reincarnation.[12] It becomes especially important as a symbol of metamorphosis. For Bergman the mask is a constant, if not punishment, burden. The crowd won’t leave Jof alone even though he has washed the white paint off his face when he sits down at the Inn. Interestingly none of the characters in Sawdust and Tinsel are wearing their masks of makeup at the end of the film, not even Frost. Frost then tells the second story about him and Alma; a dream where Frost is made as little as a foster and falls asleep inside of Alma’s womb. Alma then calls him back to the wagon so that they can fall asleep together. It is not until Frost is without the mask he can tell the true story about his marriage himself.

Bergman’s view of the fool and the clown is rather cynical in Sawdust and Tinsel and The Seventh Seal. The clown is there to be laughed at in disgrace so that the audiences don’t need to be mocked themselves, an image of the clown very different from the slightly idealized picture painted by Rabelais. Bergman is at the end on the clowns side though as they are seen as the honorable outcasts that manage to escape death and the boredom of bourgeoisie life.



Bergman, Ingmar, Sawdust and Tinsel (1953)


Bergman, Ingmar, The Seventh Seal (1957)



Bakhtin, Mikhail, Rabelais and His World (trans. Héléne Iswolsky) (Bloomington, Indiana University Press: 1984)


Braudy, Leo, Cohen, Marshall, ‘The Film Artist’ in Film Theory and Criticism (edt. Braudy, Leo, Cohen, Marshall) (Oxford, Oxford University Press: 2004)


Kalin, Jesse, The Films of Ingmar Bergman (Camebridge, Camebridge University press: 2003)


Macnab, Geoffrey, Ingmar Bergman: The Life and Films of the Last Great European Director (London, I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd: 2009)


Singer, Irving, Ingmar Bergman, Cinematic Philosopher: Reflections on His Creativity (London, The MIT Press: 2007)

[1] Macnab, Geoffrey, Ingmar Bergman: The Life and Films of the Last Great European Director, page 3.

[2] Braudy, Leo, Cohen, Marshall, ‘The Film Artist’ in Film Theory and Criticism, page 556.

[3] Kalin, Jesse, The Films of Ingmar Bergman, page xvii.

[4] Kalin, page 43.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Kalin, page 46.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Singer, Irving, Ingmar Bergman, Cinematic Philosopher: Reflections on His Creativity, page 106.

[9]Bakhtin, Mikhail, Rabelais and His World, page 93.

[10] Ibid, page 8.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., page 39.


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