Written by: Johan Fundin on May 31st, 2007
Theatrical Release Dates: 17 Jan 1948 (Sweden), 8 Jan 1963 (New York, USA), 1 Jul 1963 (USA nationwide)
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Producer: Lorens Marmstedt
Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman, Dagmar Edqvist
Cinematography: Göran Strindberg
Cast: Mai Zetterling, Birger Malmsten, Olof Winnerstrand, Naima Wistrand, Bibi Skoglund, Hilda Borgström, Douglas Håge, Gunnar Björnstrand, Bengt Eklund
DVD release date: 2007
Approximate running time: 84mins
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1 Original Academy ratio, B&W
Rating: 15 (UK). (Contains nudity and mild violence)
Sound: Mono 1.0
DVD release: Tartan Video
Region coding: R0/PAL
Retail price: £14.99
“A heart wrenching story that successfully combines surreal dream sequences with breathtaking imagery” – Tartan video
Yet another agonizing Bergman picture with suicidal elements. A film often regarded as one of the director’s minor works, though evidently good enough to be nominated for a Golden Lion at Venice 1948.
Music in Darkness is the story of a blind pianist, Bengt Vyldeke (Malmsten) who falls in love with Ingrid (Zetterling), his housekeeper and sexy nurse whom he has come to depend on. Given the bleakness in which the film is moulded, it almost feels ironic that the first encounter between the two leads takes place in association with a funeral: Ingrid’s father has died, and Bengt is asked to play the church organ. He is not enthusiastic about the offer, but accepts it.
Bengt and his sister Agneta lives with their dominating old aunt Beatrice (Naima Wifstrand) in a large house. The pianist has suffered a double blow; not only has he lost his sight in a recent military accident, but he has also been cowardly abandoned by his girlfriend as a consequence of his blindness.
Very soon, attractive forces develop between the blind pianist and the pretty housekeeper. (A prettiness that the pianist at the offset is, of course, unable to be aware of, let alone see.) In their spare time, Ingrid is reading books loud for Bengt. At this point they are not really a couple but there is a certain degree of mutual affection in the air. Their friendship grows and eventually transforms into love.
Suddenly an apparent misunderstanding following a conversation -between Bengt and aunt Beatrice – that Ingrid overhears, damages their fragile happiness. Unaware of what Ingrid has heard him saying, Bengt is driven by a desire to improve his piano-playing skills, a decision that involves moving out of the house. He explores his talent at the Royal Music Academy, followed by an unpleasant spell as piano player at a cheesy restaurant in another town. His second job is as piano tuner at a blind school. Ingrid, on the other hand, is studying for her O levels.
Late one night, when Bengt is walking through the town centre, he comes across Ingrid by sheer coincidence. They haven’t seen each other for a long time, and it turns out that Ingrid is involved with another man…
Music in Darkness is one of the earliest Bergman pictures; a film the young and inexperienced director made during his apprenticeship under influential producer Lorens Marmstedt. Thus, this is an unpolished diamond (far better films would come), though it does feature several elements that in later decades would become known as Bergmanesque within their dark context of the human soul:
Depression; melancholy; despair; pain; suffering; questioning (denial) of God; the occasional reference to Evil and damnation; questioning whether suicide is justified – and nevertheless Bergman’s sub-textual film language of characters’ hands – unequalled in world cinema. Hands moving, touching, stroking, caressing, wiping tears.
“All cats are grey in the dark”
When one of Bengt Vyldeke’s fellow blind men says “all cats are grey in the dark” it pretty much sums up what this film is all about.
The bizarre questions discussed at aunt Beatrice Schröder’s household are:
“Isn’t every individual person in charge of his or her own life, and therefore possesses the right to do whatever he or she wants to do with it?”
“Is suicide murder?”
“I suicide a crime against life?”
Suicidal characters (using various methods to kill themselves) would re-appear in several subsequent Bergman pictures, such as Port of Call (1948), Prison (1949), Winter Light (1963), Face to Face (1976) or Saraband (2003, Bergman’s swansong).
Music in Darkness is a widely experimental film where Bergman and cameraman Strindberg (who would shoot four Bergman pictures) explore the possibilities of shadows, lighting, fog, reflections and fancy camera movements. Two sequences stand out:
1. The gorgeous, haunting dream sequence. (See note on Argento and Romero below).
2. The magnificent Noir-style tracking shot of Ingrid in a long dress running through a corridor at a dance hall – a corridor that looks like an elongated cage formed by a network of lights and shadows. This Suspiria-esque scene is inter-cut with a second tracking shot of Bengt escaping from being run down by a train. This is the film’s most action-filled fragment.
Other camera technicalities worth mentioning:
The travelling of a breakfast tray from the kitchen to an upstairs bedroom – without a cut. This scene was re-used (intentionally or not) and improved in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987).
And this one (perhaps certain film historians should see over their material): Tracking shots in which the camera moves smoothly between rooms of an apartment, ignoring the natural spatial boundaries of the studio set walls (i.e. makes the camera look like moving through walls from one room to another, as if the boundaries of the walls didn’t exist). Bergman uses this technique in several of his 1940s films, including Music in Darkness. But somehow, certain film critics claim that Stanley Kubrick was first, in 1956, when shooting his heist movie The Killing.
Modern-day fans of Dario Argento and George A. Romero might, like myself, be amused by certain visual or plot-related elements.
In Music in Darkness, Bergman predates the nightmarish opening scene in Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985) – with those living-dead arms stretching, reaching, through the walls of a room occupied by a sole woman (Lori Cardille). Both scenes are great though, the difference being that Romero utilizes SFX while Bergman, almost four decades earlier, shoots his sequence, naturally, on a much smaller budget.
Then there are the scenes that lead the thoughts to Dario Argento (at least for me):
1. Opening dream sequence, involving an underwater scene where the dreamer (the protagonist) encounters a big fish. (The opening in The Stendhal Syndrome).
2. The blind pianist Bengt. (Daniel in Suspiria). Bengt (as well as Daniel) owns a dog.
3. Scene where Bengt is leaving the circus, and walks all alone through the dark, foggy town centre. (Daniel is leaving a tavern, and walks through the darkness towards the big square. Suspiria).
4. Aunt Schröder’s relentless (sometimes sarcastic) attitude towards Bengt, and how she drives him on at the piano. (Reminiscent of Miss Tanner’s attitude towards Suspiria’s blind pianist.)
Acting performances are nothing short of magnificent. This is Malmsten’s and Zetterling’s film. Malmsten would become a Bergman veteran starring in about a dozen of the director’s films. Zetterling, here in her second Bergman picture (her first was Torment (1944)) would later star in several movies abroad, including TV series, such as “The Third Man” (1959) and “H.G. Well’s The Invisible Man” (1959).
Music in Darkness is a warmly welcome contribution to Tartan Video’s Bergman collection. The quality image and sound is on par with Tartan’s other Bergman releases. As always in this Tartan series, the film comes with optional subtitles in English.
Extras: Persona trailer. Autumn Sonata trailer. Director filmography. Birger Malmsten filmography. Mai Zetterling filmography. A four-page booklet with film notes.
On the negative side: Tartan Video often wrong-spells Swedish names; it has happened before and unfortunately they’ve done it again with this DVD release, both in the four-page booklet and in the DVD extras section. The studio should benefit from cooperating with a native Swede to proofreading their work before releasing it.
‘Jelma’ (Selma [Lagerlöf]
In the booklet, it is also very clumsy to abbreviate Svensk Filmindustri to ‘Svensk’. Svensk Filmindustri means ‘the Swedish Film Industry’ – SFI. Compare with the British Film Industry – BFI: It’s needless to say it’s poor and incomprehensible to say something like “Mr Smith was employed at British from 1940 to 1947.” (when what you mean is: Mr Smith was employed at BFI from 1940 to 1947.)
There is another detail that not only Tartan but other DVD studios in the world have brought into confusion: Why this film (as well as other early Bergmans) are presented in aspect ratio 1.33:1 – the Academy ratio, claimed to be the film’s original aspect ratio. There are, in fact, doubts about that. Bergman shot several of his early films in 1.37:1, including Music in Darkness, Shame, and Hour of the Wolf.