A traveling troupe of actors enter a town for their next show. The leader of the group has to deal with tension and conflict both in professional and personal life. The bohemian life leaves no room for stability or comfort so they must constantly deal with turbulent relationships and broken families. They are not a respected social class either; their art belongs to the old world and their lives don’t follow the norms and values of society. Tension between the head of the group and his mistress arises when it’s revealed that he has a family in town and intends to see them after a long time. His mistress feels threatened and goes to extremes to secure her position in his life, forcing the man to make a decision in the end. By the time the troupe leaves town, many of their lives have been changed.
This is the central plot of Ingmar Bergman’s Sawdust and Tinsel(1953), and two of Yasujiro Ozu’s films: A Story of Floating Weeds(1934), a silent black and white, and its remake Floating Weeds(1959) created at the peak of his mastery in style and visual storytelling. Whether there has been an influence or inspiration in Bergman’s film or in Ozu’s remake, these films reflect their creators’ private lives and careers as artists and men, and the fate of traveling performers in modern times.
Ingmar Bergman’s world is defined by his strong attachment to some recurring themes: Dealing with existential matters, questioning the existence of god, loneliness as human condition, deteriorating romantic relationships and death are among them. In his world women and the female psyche appear constantly, and they gradually go through some sort of evolution. Bergman’s female characters start to become more powerful and dominant in the stories and the battle between sexes, till they turn into the survivors as the stronger side. But there is one entity that continues to grow and develop in his films, and that is the mother figure.
Karen Bergman keeps appearing not only as a name for the central character, but as the ultimate source of love and a part of the lover’s being. The mother-child oedipal relationship can be completed by adding the patriarch of Bergman’s family to the picture. Bergman’s father was a chaplain to the King of Sweden, and his strict Lutheran beliefs and methods of pedagogy were the cause of his troubled relationship with Ingmar. The parent-child relationship almost never dominates the plots of Bergman’s films completely, but has a recurring presence until he calls Cries and Whispers (1972), “a self-portrait of my mother… the great love of my childhood”. The cold and asexual Karen of Cries and Whisperswhen looked at from the child’s point of view turns into the only source of comfort and calm, and if so, Karen’s husband Fredrik reveals what a dominant and antipathic character his own father could have been.
Ozu’s childhood had some similarities to Bergman’s. Both belonged to the upper class, and lived in traditional, conservative cultures. Ozu’s father decides that countryside is a better place for his children and sends his wife and children from Tokyo to Matsusaka. Like Bergman, Ozu was a rebel and chose filmmaking as his career against the norms of his social class, and in his career never conformed to the trends and changes forced by modernism, politics, and commercial aspects of cinema. Despite being a hard-headed man, Ozu remained single and lived with his mother until her death and shared the same grave with her when he died.
Sawdust and Tinsel stands right where the auteur Bergman is being born. Though lacking the notoriety of his later works, some of the bold signature themes for which he’s known are present inSawdust. Years later he spoke of this film as one of his favorites despite its cold reception, and he confessed he had a soft spot for it. Being active both in theatre and cinema throughout his professional career, many of his cinematic characters and plot elements come from the stage and theatre world, and the traveling troupe of actors appear in several of them. Bergman’s personal life was affected by his romantic involvement with his female leads for decades as well. While writing the story of Sawdust and Tinsel his third marriage was suffering from his affair with Harriet Anderson, who stars as the gypsy circus girl and the ringmaster Albert’s mistress, Anne. The nature of the relationship between Albert and Anne is everything that the relationship between Albert and Adga, the mother of his children, is not. Agda appears as a mother figure for Albert as well: she feeds him, fixes his clothes and offers financial support. The same situation appears in Ozu’s films: the ex-lover of the Kabuki troupe leader hosts and comforts him, allows him to connect with his son, and remains asexual and mother-like till the end. In Bergman’s film the ex-wife has found security and comfort in the absence of her husband, and doesn’t want him back. In Ozu’s realistic world set in a 1930s Japanese small town, the ex-girlfriend has a more obedient nature and without pressuring offers the option of reuniting.
Sawdust and Tinsel’s silent sequence early in the movie foreshadows the relationship between Albert and Anne, while the coachman tells the story of Frost, the circus clown and Alma, his unfaithful wife. In a very stylized overexposed sequence Alma bathes naked with the soldiers while the people cheerfully witness their sexual escapade; Frost, hurt and humiliated, chooses to save and protect her dignity by sacrificing his own. A similar incident occurs later when Anne cheats on Albert with an actor, and when publicly humiliated and belittled for her cheap sexual encounter, Albert chooses to defend her at the cost of a greater humiliation in front of an audience. Defeated in love and show business Albert finally identifies with Frost, his longtime colleague whom he never has taken seriously. Frost tells him about a strange dream in which he becomes smaller and smaller until finally becoming a seed which goes back to Alma’s womb as if he was the child and Alma the mother. The image of wife-lover becomes one with the mother, and it’s only then that the female lover becomes a shelter for the man.
In both filmmakers’ stories the leaders of the traveling actors accept that their era has come to an end, and they let go of their colleagues who are able to start a new life. Bergman’s world is more dramatic and dark, and the decision manifests in a painful and brutal ritual of killing the circus bear. Ozu’s realism allows that chapter to be less dramatic; focusing more on the Kabuki master’s character change into a softer and more realistic man.
The similarity of Sawdust and Tinsel and Ozu’s mentioned works, whether intentional or not, could be the result of their individual experiences and the fate traveling traditional actors. Both of them were born and worked in an era in which performing arts went through fundamental changes. Their resentment for a conservative culture shaped their personalities as artists and defined their world as auteur directors. The image of woman in their works became complete and comforting only by being a mother; otherwise she was the source of pain and anxiety. The conclusion drawn from the comparison between these works of Bergman and Ozu is their mutual respect for the traveling performers whose art consciously defined their identity. These films pay tribute to traditional performing arts as the foundation on which cinema is built on.
Gado, Frank. The Passion of Ingmar Bergman (1986). Duke University Press Books.
Richie, Donald. Ozu: His Life and Films. (1977). University of California Press.