Background: Described by the Criterion Collection as “a traditional portrait of provincial innocence versus urban corruption,” Ingmar Bergman’s directorial debut was based on a Danish play and co-produced by Bergman’s mentor, Victor Sjöström. (A fine filmmaker in his own right, Sjöström directed a fantastic silent, 1921’s The Phantom Carriage.) The production faced many challenges, some stemming from its director’s inexperience: Criterion quotes Bergman as recalling that he “knew nothing, could do nothing, and felt like a crazy cat in a ball of yarn.” Bergman did finish the film, however, and would go on to become one of cinema’s most celebrated directors.
The Plot: Nelly (Inga Landgré), 18, has been raised since infancy by a foster family in an idyllic Swedish small town. One day, her innocence is shattered: Nelly’s biological mother Jenny (Marianne Löfgren) arrives in the village, intent on rebuilding her relationship with her daughter. Jenny asks Nelly to come and live with her in the big city, an offer that the young woman initially refuses. Jenny, however, is accompanied by Jack (Stig Olin), a well-dressed would-be gentleman who claims to be her stepson. Jack and Nelly begin a romantic relationship that causes a scandal in the small town, forcing the young girl to move in with Jenny. Life in the big city leads to tragedy for both mother and daughter.
Crisis has an elemental, oft-told theme: a young person leaves everything they know and goes out into the big world, only to discover that “there’s no place like home” and returns, older and wiser. It’s a great through-line for a coming-of-age film.
The execution, however, leaves something to desired. Crisis is the kind of film referred to in the ’30s and ’40s as “women’s weepies,” full of melodramatic plot complications and possessing an often distractingly over-the top score. My cynical 21st century eyes can’t help but see the basic plot – girl leaves home to live with her biological mother; both mother and daughter become involved with a mustachioed fop who may or may not have a dark past – as akin to a stereotypical soap opera. It doesn’t help that the screenplay (adapted by Bergman from Leck Fischer’s play) fails to properly flesh out any of the characters. All of them are one note: young Nelly is naive, her foster mother is a no-nonsense country wife, her real mother is what we would call a “cougar” nowadays, small town boy Ulf is defined only by his attraction to Nelly. Like many mediocre films, Crisis is more generic than archetypical.
There are, however, some flashes of brilliance. Whenever the film leaves its stagey interior scenes, Bergman and cinematographer Gösta Roosling show a knack for both landscapes and cityscapes. (An early romantic interlude by a brook is particularly well-shot.) Bergman’s theatrical background allows him to block scenes well, with many employing overlapping action in the same shot.
The most memorable scene in Crisis comes about a third of the way through, when all of the major characters attend a formal ball in the unnamed small town. After waltzing to Strauss’s Blue Danube, the foppish Jack lead’s the villages young people in a much wilder dance to some very un-Swedish jazz music. All of the town’s upstanding citizens are scandalized by this “devil’s music,” predicting how their future counterparts would react to rock and roll, heavy metal, and hip-hop. Unfortunately, very little of the film is as relatable as this. All in all, Bergman’s debut is much more historically important than it is entertaining.