An older review of this film can be found here

There are two ways one can look at the first film made by any major filmmaker. We can go backwards, hunting for all of the clues to the great, or at least prominent works to come. This approach has its charms, not least of which is that it allows the enthusiast to wax enthusiastic, and this is probably why, when I was myself an idiot enthusiast many, many years ago, I took that approach to reviewing Crisis, the 1946 film debut of director Ingmar Bergman. Or, we can go forward, letting the film be just what it is, unburdened by the weight of future history, and uninflated by a desire to find in it all the little acorns that would grow up to be majestic oaks like Wild Strawberries and Persona and Fanny and Alexander. You're all clever enough that I have no doubt that you've guessed that I'm going to take the latter approach this time. So let us wipe of memories of ever having heard of this man Ingmar Bergman, love him or hate him, and journey in to the mists of 1946, when Europe was still reeling from the recently-completed World War II, and a 27-year-old theater Wunderkind was about to be given the keys to his first movie.

At the point in time, tiny baby Bergman had two major triumphs to his name (three, if you count his wild success as a theater student, which led directly to the other two. But that seems generous). First, he had written the original screenplay for the 1944 feature film Torment, directed by Alf Sjöberg; not, I would say, a terribly exciting screenplay, either, with its lead-footed metaphors for totalitarianism. Though I can see where that would have been awfully damn daring for a film that went into production in Sweden in 1943, and it led to a national debate about the state of high school and the emotional abuse of students, so I suppose I should cut it some slack. Second, he became, in 1944, the manager of the Helsingborg City Theatre, making him the youngest manager of a professional theatre company in Europe. So it's hardly surprising that Svensk Filmindustri was willing to put their trust in him to adapt Leck Fischer's Danish-language radio play Moderhjertet (A Mother's Heart) for the screen.

I do not know Moderhjertet in the slightest degree, so for all I know, Bergman included only the most elliptical references to it in his script and otherwise invented the whole thing out of whole cloth. Still, just in terms of the ol' smell test, when I first learned that this was adapted from a radio play - that is to say, a play in which there is absolutely no visual storytelling, which means everything has to involve people talking all the time - my immediate response was "oh sure, that fits". And look, if I can be permitted just one glance at the Ghosts of Ingmar Future, it would be to say that the man's films have a lot of talking, so it's not like Crisis is some appalling outlier there. It's just that, with time and practice, he started to figure out ways of making talking feel cinematically generative, rather than just as a permanent record of theater (we know that Bergman felt his first loyalty was to theater, not cinema, but even here at the start, he was obviously thinking of film as its own distinctive medium). He's not really there just yet.

The talking comes right at the start, in the form of a narrator (Gustaf Molander) speaking over a picture postcard panorama of sleepy, rural Swedish town. At the end of the film, both the narrator and the panorama will come back, giving the film a perfectly rounded shape, and I think that's the perfect explanation for where young Bergman's head was at in 1946: savvy enough about film form to know that this would be extremely satisfying and tidy, naïve enough not to realise that it would be a bit trite. As for the narration, it offers a degree of heavily ironic detachment from its own content to suggest something almost playful. The narrator warns us right off that there's nothing special or unique about this story, really not even anything interesting (though he takes great pleasure in introducing us to the townsfolk and their colorful ways). It's just a standard light drama about a family, "almost a comedy". And after setting the stage, he asks to have the curtain raised just exactly at the moment that Malin (Svea Holst) lifts the shades in the room she's cleaning, a twee little visual joke that feels exactly like the kind of thing a first-time director things is cool.

Malin is not going to be very important, but our attention is immediately focused on somebody wh is, as the camera pushes in through the now-open window to transition us into the first boxy room of this chamber drama. See, I can snark about Bergman's first-time goofiness, but he's actually got a pretty great eye for things like this - or, at least, cinematographer Gösta Roosling does. Either way, it's a nice graceful way to make sure we're paying attention to the woman conducting a piano lesson in the back of the room, Ingeborg (Dagny Lind). For Ingeborg is the foster mother of an 18-year-old girl named Nelly (Inga Landgré), and it is around Nelly that all the rest of the drama will rotate. As the narrator has already informed us, Miss Jenny (Marianne Löfgren) has just arrived in town, with her very fancy hat, and a tacky hanger-on named Jack (Stig Olin), and as we now learn, Miss Jenny is Nelly's birth mother, absent in the big city all these years, and ready to return to the work of being a mother, now that the work part is all done. Nelly is fascinated enough by the promise of glamor that seems to waft right off of Jenny - and seems more than a little willing to respond to Jacks' obvious amorous interest in her, a far cry from the simple and sweet Ulf (Allan Bohlin), who has been courting her - to seriously consider this possibility.

The rest of the film, which runs to a nice, clean 93 minutes in total, basically just looks at how this plays out, as Jenny is anxious to prove that she's a good woman by re-entering Nelly's life, and Jack is eager to seduce Nelly, and Ingeborg, already sickly, is pushed into desperate skeletal illness by the stress of it. Nelly, meanwhile, is just a confused kid, aroused by the thought of the city and also terrified by its bigness, happy to have her birth mother back while acutely aware that her foster mother has been the source of all her strength, and this is all next-door to a betrayal of that. It's her movie, ultimately, and in the midst of a very good quartet of actors, Landgré is a pretty fair pick for MVP; but they really are. Coming from theater, it's no surprise at all that Bergman had a deft hand for working with actors, and the toolkit of cinema gave him a swell new tool to work with in showcasing them: proximity.

The film has a slightly restrained style, as far as that goes - close-ups are pretty damn rare, medium shots abound - but it takes full advantage of the camera's ability to take us close enough to the actors that they become isolated in large spaces with clean, spare lines, given a lovingly creamy grey texture in Roosling beautiful black-and-white images. The film knows when to let us see groups of characters playing off each other versus when to pull one out, to make sure we have no choice but to contemplate their thoughts and feelings. It's even able to smuggle these moment of isolation into group shots, as in one terrific composition that finds Löfgren facing the camera people mill around her, just slightly out of focus so that we're able to see the sadness and doubt washing over her face - it's a great moment that humanises the character and makes us realise that this is just as tough for her as anybody, and this in a film with a fairly unhidden alarmist attitude towards folk like Jenny an' their big city ways.

The point being, Bergman (aided by director-turned-producer Victor Sjöström, one of the greatest legends of the Swedish film industry - and the Hollywood industry, if you share my inclination for the late silent period) has put a great deal of thought into how to present these characters with depth and dignity, refusing to make anybody a villain or pretend that there's a nice, easy solution that will leave everybody happy. He is, in this respect, a substantially better director than a writer, even; the script for Crisis is fairly undistinguished, hardly bad, but ridden with clichéd interpersonal conflict and cheap sentiment about the noble small-towners versus the hedonistic urbanites. And it also has no idea how to end gracefully, tying several bows atop the bow it has already tied on the central conflict with almost ten minutes of running time left.

Not every directorial decision was the right one: the shift from a kind of plush theatrical realism towards slightly bashful Expressionism near the end amplifies the film's sentimentality in the worst way at the worst time. Also, the strenuous desire to pay off the narrator's promise that this would all be light and gentle runs into the problem that actually, it's kind of sad and not light at all. But the filmmakers try to force it anyway, sometimes by means of the actors playing their scenes a bit too breezily and risking trivialising the content; more often through Erland von Koch's sing-songy musical score, which seems hellbent on putting the slightest curl of a warm smile on our faces every time it shows up, regardless of what's going on in the scenario.

Still, overall, this is what you would call a promising start. Bergman has an eye, or at least he knows to hire people who can have one for him, and he has an obvious affinity with actors, able to help them find the woozy human truth even in a sort of chintily written story. And that was without even having an affinity with the actors, on a somewhat fraught set. It is by no means a perfect film, and even less does it suggest the grandeur of the career that would spring from it, but it's a very satisfactory version of a mid-'40s character-driven melodrama, with just enough emphasis on the characters to give it a sense of depth that's not necessarily there.