The Devil’s Wanton: Baby Bergman and Humor

About a month ago, I purchased a cheap Korean version (with reasonable subtitles) of an early Bergman film, The Devil’s Wanton (a.k.a. Prison). Just to clarify, that’s “wanton” with an “a”, not with an “o”. It has nothing to do with demonic Chinese food side dishes. This film was made in 1949 and was one of the first four or five films that Bergman both wrote and directed. It came before he’d really hit his stride, and at a time when he was still struggling to establish his name among Swedish studios and film-going audiences. It’s Incubation Stage Bergman.

Bergman in infancy

It reminded me a lot of the first time I watched Martin Scorsese’s second full-length feature film, Mean Streets. It’s ripe with the Madonna/whore complex; a classic 50’s/60’s era soundtrack; and male violence, amongst other things. In other words, it has all of the things that became Scorsese’s hallmarks throughout his career. It was fascinating to me that Scorsese had found his stride at such a young age and at such an early stage of his career. And yet, there it all was. The same applies to The Devil’s Wanton. Here are just a few themes in the film. You can consider this a de facto IMDB Plot Keyword List (although mine is more thorough than theirs, so SUCK IT IMDB!):

  • Suicidal ideation
  • Fixation on death
  • Theological self-loathing
  • the fear of having and raising children
  • God
  • The Devil
  • Hell on earth
  • Tortured artists
  • Creepy dream sequences
  • Experimental film devices

In summation, it’s a feel-good story. Ok, ok, I know that list of keywords will probably make you wonder why the hell anyone would watch something seemingly so incredibly depressing. The soul-crushing nature of the film notwithstanding, those are some very common themes that pop up throughout the Bergman catalogue.

But wait! It’s through that last bullet point that we break from the gloom and doom. It’s downright cheerful. The experimental film device that Bergman used was that it was a “meta” film. It’s a film about a filmmaker who’s making a film (think Fellini’s 8 1/2). In fact, the giant middle act of The Devil’s Wanton is comprised almost entirely of the film that the filmmaker in The Devil’s Wanton is making. And on top of all of that, as if Bergman wasn’t destroying the brains of enough Swedish filmgoers in 1949, two characters inside the film within the film watch a film. Simply trying to explain that to you, my gentle reader and potential Bergman viewer, makes my brain hurt.

It’s through this film that we get a glimpse of Bergman’s humor. The film inside the film inside The Devil’s Wanton that the people watch is familiar to Bergman completists. It’s a small, 3 or 4 minute silent comedy that appears again in his 1966 tour-de-force Persona. It’s the movie that the kid in the opening scene is watching, the movie that completely evaporates and burns on screen while the kid watches. But let’s not lose sight of the big picture here. It was a comedy. Bergman made a comedy! And he did make it, just in case you’re curious. He made this short film with the sole purpose of sticking it in the middle of The Devil’s Wanton, even going so far as to pay a small homage to Charlie Chaplin (the protagonist in the short is a goofy little character bearing a mustache). And it really illustrates the lighter side of Bergman. He’s not all gloom and doom, gentle readers. See? I’ll prove to you that he could be funny and wasn’t obsessed with death and the afterlife and Hell. Here are some screen stills of the short movie (ok, they’re crappy pics I took with my cell phone):

Look at this hilarious skeleton!

Here, a witty deadly spider the size of the main character's face descends upon him from above his bed. Or, as we all found out later in the Trilogy of Faith, that's actually God about to smite him.

This corpse is reaching out to menace our main character. My sides were hurting at this point.

Last but not least, the Devil makes an appearance. HYSTERICAL!

Um, so… ok, maybe it’s a good thing that Bergman stuck to drama and soul-searching films instead of making comedy. I couldn’t help but crack up at the thought that for Bergman, even in comedy, there were skeletons and death and humongous deadly spiders (another theme that permeates the rest of his filmography), and even the Devil. In the end, though, failed attempt at comedy and all, it’s a 5* (out of 5) film and pretty much a must-see for a Bergman fanatic like yours truly.

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Filed under Foreign Film, Swedish Film

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