Saraband: from Dalarna to Dallas, and back

Ken Worpole
15 November 2005

Some years ago the Italian writer Claudio Magris gave a lecture in London about art and (un)happiness, drawing attention to the paradox whereby artists often portray the tragedy of the human condition with such insight and illumination that a kind of optimism emerges from the wreckage. “Poetry”, he observed, “often says there is no more enchantment, no beautiful worlds, but its way of saying it paradoxically denies this.”

Ken Worpole is an author and policy advisor. Among his books are Here Comes the Sun: Architecture and Public Space in 20th Century European Culture (Reaktion Books, 2000), Last Landscapes: the Architecture of the Cemetery in the West (Reaktion Books, 2003) and (with Jason Orton) 350 Miles: An Essex Journey (ExDRA, 2005). His website is here

Ken Worpole’s writing on openDemocracy includes:

“Stockholm Woodland Cemetery” (January 2003)

“Essex shores, Essex lives” (September 2003)

“Death in the Luxembourg gardens” (October 2003)

“There is nothing, then there is something, then there is nothing again” (May 2005) – on John Berger & Jean Mohr’s A Fortunate Man

“The world’s first environmental blogger” (August 2005) – on Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selbourne

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The films of Ingmar Bergman achieve the same effect. For me he is the Shakespeare of the 20th century – using film rather more than theatre, though he is at home with both. His latest production, Saraband (2005), originally made for television, is yet another artistic triumph: a story of betrayal, despair and unfulfilled dreams, executed with such an astonishing regard for colour, drama and composition, that you leave the cinema with a sense of life and hope restored.

The plot is simple, particularly for those whose evening television viewing in the summer of 1973 was harrowed on a weekly basis by his series, Scener ur ett Aktenskap (Scenes from a Marriage), starring Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson – a serialised portrait of a marriage in destructive freefall. At the time Bergman referred to it as his “soap opera”, and it was alleged to have influenced even the producers of Dallas.

The same actors take up the story some thirty years later, when the divorced wife, Marianne (Ullman), comes to visit the ailing ex-husband and recluse, Johan (Josephson), in his rural retreat, hoping possibly to effect some kind of reconciliation. But the old wounds are reopened and scourged again. However, the returning angel does help at least one new member of the family – Johan’s granddaughter from another relationship – start again.

The film is divided into ten scenes, with a prelude and coda. It opens sparely but effectively with Marianne sitting at a table, picking through family photographs, recounting the back-story direct to camera. Each subsequent scene involves some combination of the four principal characters, retreating or advancing towards each other as if in a danse macabre. One early scene depicts the tranquil Dalarna (central Sweden) landscape, with its forests and lakes, and the interior of Johan’s exquisitely painted and furnished house. Yet the four protagonists have made a hell for themselves even in these idyllic surroundings.

Saraband is devoid of any references to the world beyond: there are no cars, no other people, no television news, no social democracy, no cities, no wars (except personal ones), no prime-ministerial assassinations, no European constitutional crisis, no African famines, no America. As with an Ibsen or Chekhov play, all the world’s tragedies are played out in drawing-rooms, or below stairs. This is a perfect example of what Edward Said, following Theodor Adorno, characterised as “late style’” – the ruminative art of “apartness, exile and anachronism”. We can’t help assuming that the film is in parts autobiographical, dealing with an artist refusing to seek reconciliation with his past, while expecting death to come calling at any moment.

Walter Pater once wrote that “all art aspires to the condition of music”. In this film more than any other one senses that for Bergman, music is the ultimate form of human transcendence. Bergman himself has described Saraband as “a concerto grosso, a concert for full orchestra – only … with four soloists.’” Music plays a crucial part in the film in other ways. The granddaughter is an aspiring cellist, who finds her father’s tyrannical ambition for her solo career almost totally destructive. At certain points in the film – a Bach organ piece played in the village church, a scene where the granddaughter, dressed like Little Red Riding Hood, beats her way into Johan’s rooms where he sits with his head between the speakers listening to the scurrying tempest of Bruckner’s 9th symphony at full volume – Bergman is still able to produce some of the most electrifying moments in contemporary cinema.

A selection of openDemocracy’s singular perspectives on cinema and life:

Rosemary Bechler, “ All our (Gothic) yesterdays – the really special relationship” (April 2002)

Rouzbeh Pirouz, “The Lizard: Iran in the cinema’s gaze” (July 2004)

Pavel Seifter, “The Czech dream” (June 2005)

Maryam Maruf, “Howl’s Moving Castle: a film for adults” (September 2005)

Geoff Andrews, “The life and death of Pier Paolo Pasolini” (November 2005)

Bergman also appreciates the memento-mori value of the still photograph. Each of the other three characters is seen referring to the same black and white photograph of Johan’s former daughter-in-law, and mother to the young cellist, who died prematurely. Her loss haunts the whole film, and Bergman extracts the fullest emotive power from the use of this single image, reminding us that photography is a form that allows the dead to live again.

After the most terrible arguments, storms (literal and metaphorical), a kind of peace is restored to Johan as he confronts his own fear of death. As the Swedish critic Maaret Koskinen has observed, the personification of Death as a hooded, white-faced spectre – Bergman’s most famous image from Det Sjunde Inseglet (The Seventh Seal, 1957) – has, in what is likely to be Bergman’s last film, been replaced by Death as “a dark-haired woman with a warm, maternal style”.

In one of the concluding scenes, Johan, waking from a nightmare, comes to Marianne’s room and asks if he may come to her bed. He takes off his nightshirt and asks her to do the same. Adam and Eve are naked again in Eden, but only until dawn. In the coda we see Marianne back in a room in Stockholm, once again surrounded by her collection of photographs. The trip has resolved the determination of the young cellist to leave her father and seek an orchestral career in Berlin; it may also have helped reconcile Johan to his imminent demise. Finally it causes Marianne to visit and make contact with her ageing daughter, incarcerated in a mental hospital for many years. The lesson is, perhaps, that it is never too late to begin again.

For those of us for whom Bergman’s films have provided much of the imagery of our interior worlds – in my case for something like forty years – Saraband is as fearsome and emotionally terrifying as ever. But like all of his films, the sheer formal satisfaction of its chamber composition, the use of music, the employment of the close-up, and the sheer pace and editorial energy, all combine to make it a worthy late work to mark the concluding years of one of the greatest artists of the cinema of all time.

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