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Prison
cast: Doris Svedlund, Berger Malmsten, Eva Henning, and Hasse Ekman

director: Ingmar Bergman

80 minutes (15) 1949
Tartan DVD Region 0 retail

RATING: 4/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Released back in 1949 and since largely forgotten, Prison (aka: The Devil's Wanton) marked an important milestone in Bergman's development as a director as it was the first film over which he was given complete creative control.

A filmmaker is visited on his set by his old mathematics professor. Recently released from an insane asylum, the mathematician has visited with the express purpose of suggesting his former student make a film about the fact that we live in a godless universe that has long since been run by the Devil as a form of Hell on Earth. Rejected by the director as un-filmable, the idea nonetheless finds its niche in the life of Thomas, a writer so depressed that he suggests a suicide pact with his wife before running away with a prostitute who was also running away from her sister and pimp/fianc´┐Że after they killed her newly born baby. Despite wanting to make a fresh start, the couple predictably find so solace from their problems and together they sink into a pit of misery so deep that the only way out is suicide.

Hardly uplifting, Prison nonetheless shows a number of nice little touches that would later be re-used by Bergman in some of his later films. For example, we see the first appearance of Death in a Bergman film (a character who would later star in The Seventh Seal), a haunting dream sequence reminiscent of that in Wild Strawberries and a strange black and white silent film-within-a-film that would appear in Persona. Indeed, as the first film over which Bergman had creative control it is understandably filled with the kind of tricks and gimmicks that any young filmmaker would want to try out as they attempt to gain mastery over their medium. Sadly though, beyond its obvious historical value to fans of Bergman and European art house cinema in general, Prison lacks the substance and emotional intensity to make much of an impact.

Prison is essentially structured to function like a tragedy whereby we learn, as Bergman puts it that "life cuts a path like a cruel and sensual arc, from cradle to grave. A great laughing masterpiece; simultaneously beautiful and hideous, without mercy or meaning." However, Bergman becomes so caught up in pushing out the boat on all the different forms of misery and hideousness that he can heap atop his poor characters that he misses the point that drama does not come from unhappiness but, as Aristotle suggests in his Poetics a movement from happiness to unhappiness. In other words, we never understand why or how the characters become unhappy or why things get worse. Bergman deals with his characters' unhappiness but he never bothers to dig down beyond the surface level resulting in a story devoid of conflict and any kind of character development.

This lack of depth to Bergman's characters is not helped by the unsatisfying performances provided by his actors. Doris Svedlund does best as Birgitta Karolina, but she suffers from the same problem as the rest of the cast in that her performance is reserved and passionless resulting in a screen full of people sulking rather than people experiencing the true depths of human misery. Nowhere is this failing more obvious than in the pouty wooden acting of Birger Malmsten who suggests a suicide pact to his wife in much the same way that one might express a sudden interest in going to the pub for lunch on Sunday. His final return to his wife should have been a moment of supplication and submission but instead it is merely a bit awkward.

Of interest only to film historians and Bergman junkies, Prison is clearly a sophomoric work and is therefore full of sophomoric errors. Poor casting and poorly thought through plot design make this tricksy film a less than satisfying experience.
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