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From the Life of the Marionettes 
Written by: on May 19th, 2006

Release Date: West Germany/Sweden ,1980
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Cast: Robert Atzorn, Heinz Bennent, Martin Benrath, Toni Berger, Christine Buchegger

DVD released: February 25th, 2002
Approximate running time: 104 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 Full Frame
Rating: 18
Sound: Dolby Digital mono
DVD Release: Tartan Video (UK)
Region Coding: Region 0 PAL
Retail Price: £19.99

“Am I really alive? Or was my dream in effect the only brief moment of life I had of experienced and vanquished reality?”

Regarded as one of Ingmar Bergman’s most disturbing films, From the Life of the Marionettes tells the intricate story of Peter Egermann (Atzorn) and his wife Katarina (Buchegger). Peter is a businessman in a private company while Katarina works at a fashion house. Outwardly they try to keep up the image of a happily married couple, but Peter suffers from deep depression, sexual frustration and paranoia. He is desperate to escape the haunted world that keeps him trapped, himself included. In his nightmares, Peter has visions about killing his wife after exposing her to his sexual violence. Peter Egermann’s mental collapse is paving the way for the inevitable catastrophe.

Like Andrei Tarkovsky, Bergman blends B&W and colour footage in several of his 1970s films, including From the Life of the Marionettes (shot in 1979, released the following year). The film is divided into thirteen distinctive sections, each prefaced by a caption card. The prologue and the epilogue are shot in colour while the remaining scenes are shot in B&W. The narrative structure is also intriguing: The narrative switches back and forth in time around the climactic murder. After the prologue sequence, each caption card signals a switch in time.

The opening sequence is arguable the most arresting set-piece in the film: Mr Egermann’s psychosis drives him to kill a prostitute at a dodgy club whereupon he has anal sex with the corpse. The murder scene is beautifully shot in intense red colour (a Bergmanesque trademark that scenes of fear or danger are often shot against a red background, or involving characters dressed in red, as in Cries and Whispers (1972), Face to Face (1975) or Saraband (2003). During Peter’s sexual act with the strangled girl, the colour imagery is gradually and slowly fading until it reaches monochrome (B&W). After the killing, Peter – seemingly unaffected by what he has done – makes a telephone call to his personal doctor and tells him to get to the club. When the doctor, Mogens Jensen – professor of psychiatry, arrives to the scene of the murder he finds the girl lying face down on a table with her legs widely spread and her swollen, discoloured face covered in blood. After this startling opening, the story is told in flashbacks with exception of the logical destination outlined in the epilogue.

From the Life of the Marionettes is Bergman’s most experimental and complex film since his analytic tale of female double-nature, vampirism and lesbianism in Persona (1966), not only because of the back-and-forth switching narrative but also due to the interrogation-confession style of the dialogue and the intense, hyper-stylish dream sequences. The dialogue one way (the interrogations) is associated with what is referred to as ‘the enquiry’ – the body in charge of the murder case. In every scene where someone talks to the enquiry he or she seems to have something to confess and a tape recorder is switched on. This theme that everyone is guilty of something is a reflection of the Bergmanesque paranoia that is read into many of the director’s films. Nobody is completely innocent.

The picture contains graphic full frontal nudity including vaginal imagery in semi close-up. In one of Peter Egermann’s weird dreams, a dream he describes in a letter to his psychiatrist, Prof. Jensen, and that is shown to the viewer, he wants to have sex with Katarina but she eludes him…he doesn’t manage to penetrate her. The feelings of rage and horror almost suffocate him, he says, and he tells himself to remain calm and self-possessed, not to be unpredictable. But they start a fight and he states that the dream ends with him killing his wife in a cruel and gruesome way. In another dream, Peter kills his wife with a razor blade whereafter he discusses his dream including its gory details with his psychiatrist.

Like Face to Face (1975) and The Serpent’s Egg (1977), From the Life of the Marionettes concludes with a scene of hospitalised psychosis. Peter Egermann distances himself from his feelings. Instead of being himself he adopted attitudes and played the role as dictated by his environment. As professor Jensen says, Mr Egermann’s emotional balance has been set free and he has become a suicide case himself. During an emotional black-out he kills the girl and in an ecstatic moment he has sex with the corpse. Peter’s own words, at the end, might add to the complexity of his mind.

The DVD:

The Rite is presented here in its original full frame aspect ratio. The black and white image looks crisp and exhibits solid blacks levels through out. The colors portions of the films look nicely saturated and flesh tones look healthy. The German audio mix is clean and easy to follow. The mix sounds balanced and there are no noticeable audio defects. Removable English subtitles have been included.

Extras include film notes, Star and Director Filmographies and Extracts from Bergman.s book Images: My Life in Film.

If one is asked to pick the ten best Bergman films, from the total of 60 feature films he made (the TV movies included), I believe that From the Life of the Marionettes must be among those top ten. It is, most definitely.

This review originally appeared at Dark Discussion and is reprinted here with permission.

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