The shocking murder of a woman opens Ingmar Bergman’s From the Life of the Marionettes (1980) and frames its plot, which explores an unceasingly gruesome vision of male brutality. Peter (Robert Atzorn), a bored middle-class man, simultaneously displaces and fulfills his vivid fantasies of killing his wife, Katarina (Christine Buchegger), by murdering a sex worker, also called Katarina (Rita Russek), and then violating her corpse. Twelve years earlier, Bergman had anticipated this killing in Hour of the Wolf (1968), another film that culminates in male violence. During a sleepless night, Johan (Max von Sydow) confesses to his wife, Alma (Liv Ullmann), his murder of a young boy. By the end of the film, Johan has shot Alma in a rage and disappeared, abandoning her and her unborn child.
The men in these films are similarly consumed by desire for domination and fear of losing control: both express their anxieties about masculine identity in violence; both are deeply homophobic but possibly gay and incapable of being close to women who are stronger and more open to life than they are. Yet by the time he made From the Life of the Marionettes, while in self-imposed exile in Munich, Bergman seems to have refined his notion of how these anxieties are weaponized: the confused, formless anger that propels Johan to madness in Hour of the Wolf has in Peter become directed andfocused, his targeting of women made explicit. While each film is formally masterful—Bergman’s staging is impeccable, and Sven Nykvist, the cinematographer on both, uses light dynamically to create striking shots—their visual beauty does not mask the aggression and brutality enacted by their male protagonists.
“As the men disintegrate both mentally and physically, the women, independent and engaged with the world in ways their husbands are not, do not diminish.”
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