By almost any conceivable metric, the experimental short film The Dance of the Damned Women/The Condemned Women Dance is the most minor work of Ingmar Bergman's mature career, and maybe even putting the qualifier "mature" in there is unnecessary. Possibly its single biggest point of significance is that it was the last project the director completed in Sweden before his self-imposed exile to Germany, premiering in the fall of 1976 at the Prix Italia radio and television competition. Its Swedish premiere was in December of that year, when it was broadcast twice in row, first by itself, then with commentary by art critic Ingela Lind. Whether it had any afterlife of significance, I cannot confidently say; certainly it seems to have been almost totally forgotten in the intervening decades.

Which, being minor as all hell, is probably what would have happened no matter what, but it would still be nice if it hadn't been buried on top of it. Because minor or not, The Dance of the Damned Women is a pretty fascinating, creative thing, and quite effective on the terms it sets for itself. It was pitched as "a play for dancers", which ends up looking awfully like a modern dance piece that happens in front of a camera, with Bergman and the choreographer from his filmed production of The Magic Flute, Donya Feuer (who absolutely ought to count as co-author of the piece, and it's worth noting that Bergman did not take a formal "directed by" credit), crafting a blend of body movement and image that resonates emotionally even if it wouldn't be automatically clear how they resonate intellectually without having advance word from the filmmakers what they wanted us to take away from the material.

Which is, for the record, about how the oppression of women is a self-perpetuating system that gets transmuted, generation by generation, from women to other women, all of them captured at such a young age that they have no chance to break free of the endless cycle. In this case, the damned women are dancers Nina Harte and Lena Wennergren, who appear, along with the black-hooded Death (Lisbeth Zachrisson), in a space of close walls and narrow hallways in front of a girl (Helen Friberg). The three spectral figures move around her, trapping her with their movements, until in the dance's final moments they finally capture her in a tangle of arms and hands, one of the damned women covering her eyes, the other her mouth, at last robbing her of her ability to see and to express herself.

All very symbolic, of course, and expressed with all due symbolism by both Feuer and Bergman, who are working together so closely that it's hard to imagine how they could possibly be two different people, resulting in a much tighter relationship between their work than was seen in The Magic Flute (which featured all four members of the caste: Harte was one of the people in the dragon costume, Wennergren and Zachrisson were dancers in crowd scenes, and Friberg, who also appeared in Face to Face under Bergman's direction, was the little girl in the audience). The choreography is designed to be seen specifically from a camera, specifically at these very distinctive angles; it is all made out of individual pieces of movement that Bergman and Sven Nykvist, ever the reliable cinematographer even on an offbeat little bit of noodling like this, frame almost exclusively in tight close-ups that turn the dancers' bodies into little slices - a hand here, a head here, a facial expression here. And I do think those three things cover it. Dance cinematography going back to the 1930s has always been focused on the whole body and on legs, capturing how the dancer moves through space; this is in no way a priority of The Dance of the Damned Women. While the dancers' movements through the close confines of the set, and in relationship to each other, are very much the point of the piece (especially the latter; the whole thing is about tightening a net around the girl), this is mostly achieved through Siv Lundgren's editing, not through a clear visual articulation of how the area is laid out. Rather, the visuals are all about gestures - hands thrusting out, the camera lingering with great attention to how they appear as a pattern of light and shadow (the short was filmed in black-and-white, made up mostly of luminous greys); the shape of heads facing this or that way contrasting with the heads moving behind them, or in front.

The latter confirms that we are, ultimately, in the heart of Bergman country; this has more than its share of Persona-style shots of faces lined up with other faces, blocking each other, running in perpendicular lines. For a dance movie about the oppression of women, it is in fact surprisingly interested in faces and hands taken in isolation as graphic elements of the frame, and the emotional impact such images can have. Feuer's choreography tells a story, but it also creates a sense of gripping dread, one that comes through whether we have the thematic interpretation in mind or not. Whatever is happening to the girl, it's threatening and otherworldly, and the way that pale white hands and distressed faces of the damned serve to create walls in the frame effectively makes her feel trapped and helpless. There's something very oppressively angular about the choreography, all straight lines that jut against the music - Claudio Monteverdi's Il ballo delle ingrate - "The Ballet of the Female Ingrates) - from his Eighth Book of Madrigals, of 1638 - in hostile, inorganic ways. This is not beautiful movement flowing with the music, nor contrasting with it in specific ways; it seems to exist outside of the music, and that emphasises how fundamentally inhuman it is.

The whole thing, in its high-impact brevity (the version I was able to find runs 12 minutes - half the commonly-reported 24 minutes, and I do not know if this means I saw a very well-constructed condensed version, or if the 24 minutes is in reference to the film being broadcast twice in a row at its television premiere), is a marvel of style, both in its foggy visuals and its methodical movements, and it feels like something that was conceived and assembled with great care, even if it is basically just a little tossed-off exercise for Bergman and Feuer. It's too bad that it has been effectively lost; while there's nothing here that's all that radical or unusual, for an avant-garde dance film, it is at least quite well done, and hauntingly beautiful to look at. So yes, it may be minor, but it is also very good, and that is surely what matters more.