From the Life of the Marionettes (1980, Ingmar Bergman; Cinematographer: Sven Nykvist)
“Most unfortunately in the lives of the Marionettes there is always a BUT that spoils everything”. - Carlo Lorenzini, The Adventures of Pinocchio.
“I don’t have a truth.” - Peter Egermann (Robert Atzorn), From the Life of the Marionettes
The final shot of Ingmar Bergman’s From the Life of the Marionettes is of Peter Egermann laying in the bed of a psychiatric hospital, holding on to a raggedy, stuffed bear, as his nurse speculates on the bear’s significance. “Probably a childhood memento,” she muses. For cinephiles, this is a moment of insight. From the Life of the Marionettes is Citizen Kane, or perhaps the anti-Citizen Kane.
Like Orson Welles’ renowned triumph of the silver screen, Bergman’s Marionettes dissects a man’s life, his loves, his hopes, and his fears, through flashbacks following a death. Cinematographer Sven Nykvist even mimics the evocative newsreel style Gregg Toland brought to Kane, departing only to imbue a crucial dream sequence with a hypnotic fluidity. Citizen Kane proposes life is a like a puzzle in which each piece, when discovered, informs the whole. Bergman’s pieces are just pieces, and though some fit, often deceptively well, a total cohesion is impossible. There is always a “but”.
“Rosebud,” Charles Foster Kane’s enigmatic final word, when revealed to be the newspaper publisher’s childhood sled, is the key that informs the man’s every moment, and at the film’s climax, there is understanding. Kane is a man who never lived his youth, and forever grasped for it. When the nurse in Marionette suggests Egermann’s bear is a token of his past, Bergman is playing a cruel joke on an audience seeking a Rosebud. Egermann’s bear only serves to complicate the existence, rife with contradictions, of a human being in despair.
In a crucial sequence at the center of the film, Egermann’s friend Tim (Walter Schmidinger), delivers an anxious monologue into his mirror, ruminating on the impossibility of fulfillment in a world where intimacy and brutality can intertwine with such grace. Later, Tim insists to an investigative officer that Egermann and his wife Katarina (Christine Buchegger) had a “good marriage”, despite their constant fights and infidelities. Egermann’s psychiatrist, Jensen (Martin Benrath), tells the same officer that the couple’s unhappiness was nothing a little Valium couldn’t cure. When Jensen prepares his report on Egermann, he cites a laundry list of Freudian repressions, repressions hinted at throughout the film, to explain the violent turn which Egermann’s life took. The lights go out, and Jensen is literally left in the dark, his clinical explanation not only unsatisfying, but foolish.
Thus, signifiers signify nothing, Freudian imagery and dialogue fold into themselves, and a stark, docu-drama vantage point offers nothing in the way of clarity, but the film stock. “Who was Charles Foster Kane?” sought Welles. With From the Life of the Marionettes, Bergman responds, “Why ask?” in a tone of self-admonishment, having taken his own bait, and finding, of course