It’s hard to pinpoint just one film as Ingmar Bergman’s bleakest, but the overlooked From The Life of the Marionettes” has just as much going for it as more traditional picks like The Seventh Seal or the Trilogy of Faith or Shame. Made in Germany in 1979 (and released the following year) while Bergman was in “tax exile” from Sweden, Marionettes sees Bergman finding beauty in new faces and directing new actors to great performances. It’s one of Bergman’s most experimental features, too; it opens with a murder on a beautiful set draped in a red just as beautiful as the unforgettable tones in Bergman’s next film, Fanny and Alexander (1982). The camera, full of trickery and smooth glides from room to room, provide tension as a seemingly tender conversation invisibly becomes horrifying and then ends violently. It’s the film’s most beautiful scene, but there are some more creative moments that equal it.
Following the murder, quickly revealed to be perpetrated by Peter (Robert Atzorn) against a woman named Katarina, a name shared by Peter’s wife, the color drains from the film, not to return until the epilogue. We jump back in time, alternating crucial moments prior to the murder and important ones that follow it, always with a title card to orient us to the next event. The world this effect creates is tremendous; Marionettes becomes divided into very precise chapters, each one claustrophobic, almost all of them contained to one set, and flourished with only vaguely expressionistic cinematography that recalls the German Kammerspiel of old. But as we jump from scene to scene, Marionettes goes from chamber-drama to chronicle, as almost every chapter begins contradicting the impression or information the previous one left us with. Every character, Peter, Katarina, the wife’s homosexual business partner, Tim, and even the psychiatrist and the murdered prostitute, becomes guilty of something, desperately trying to control those around them and to control themselves. The storytelling method complicates every character, so a murder mystery based on motive instead becomes an ensemble portrayal of desperation and control. For all the depression and sexual frustration in Marionettes, it’s the urge to control that Marionettes unites the characters. The psychiatrist tries to talk Katarina into having an affair, and Tim schemes to somehow end up with Peter, while Peter and Katarina’s love-hate relationship swirls and cascades just like the film’s timeline.
But control is never easy for these characters. None of them are as smart as Bergman’s existential heroes, rarely possessing the ability to analyze themselves with any true poignancy. This causes several monologues to be more frustrating than riveting, but it’s also the key to everything we see. Marionettes is light on conversation but heavy on confession and interrogation. Everyone is always trying to fool everyone else and assert themselves. The only one smart enough to do this is Tim, the homosexual, who has a fantastic monologue, mostly taking place in a symbolic mirror shot, that even finds a way to quietly advocate for homosexual equality at a time when most films could not be bothered. Indeed, the most important revelations in Marionettes are all related to a repressed homosexuality, and there’s the quiet but omnipresent suggestion that a more accepting society, one that allows, as Tim wishes, “for homosexuals to be faithful,” maybe none of this would have had to happen in the first place.
What does happen is admittedly implausible, but the creativity with which Bergman manifests it, most notably in dreams marked by blank white background and masterful superimpositions, makes it all worth it. We never really get a reason for the murder, and the other characters’ storylines conclude with a somewhat disappointing Dénouement, but maybe that’s the point. These characters are not quite smart enough to pinpoint their problems or analyze themselves, so they can never find a solution. Why should one fall into their laps? It’s a strained commentary on middle-class life as it is, but it’s far less patronizing than the alternative. Bergman is rarely interested in answers more than questions, and Marionettes is no exception.
This could understandably frustrate many viewers; Marionettes never raises problems as universal as Bergman’s bleakest masterpieces, so it’s a struggle to insert oneself into the film, which seems to take place very specifically within middle-class West Germany and in no particular place all at once. But it’s that same structure that makes Marionettes so entrancing and memorable, a remarkable display of a director who would make just one more feature film for theatrical distribution pushing himself onto new ground and conquering it in the same stride.