Port of Call | Criterion
Criterion

To Go Away and Not Find the Way Back

On the ships of Ingmar Bergman

“Sweden is a beached unrigged ship.”
-Tomas Tranströmer

In 1628, on a bright, clear August day in Stockholm, the greatest Swedish warship ever built was readied for her maiden voyage. It was late afternoon, a Sunday, and thousands of spectators gathered along the shore to see the Vasa leave the harbor with a full 64-gun salute.

There had never been a ship quite like the Vasa. Built at the command of the king of Sweden, she was intended as the mighty flagship of a squadron based in the Stockholm archipelago, and was ornately decorated to serve the part. The stern was a bright, garish collection of statues depicting the stories of the royal family as well a smorgasbord of Biblical figures and mythological beings including sea monsters, mermaids, and tritons—some even extravagantly detailed with gold leaf. The king himself reigned over this nautical menagerie at the top of the stern, arms outstretched, with flowing hair and two flanking griffons supporting his crown. Every gunport was adorned with the head of a lion, and the custom bronze cannons that poked their barrels out of the holes could fire iron shot at nearly the speed of sound.

The Vasa was led down the waterfront on ropes to the place where the current would guide her out of the harbor. Flying four sails, she at last looked toward the open seas, letting out a smart, resounding salute after being released from her ties to the land.

But as she made her departure, the Vasa hit a modest gust of wind under the bluffs of Södermalm, which pulled her concerningly to the portside. The second gust, farther along, beneath the bluffs of Tegelviken, pushed her over far enough that cold water began to rush in the open gunports on the lower deck. She did not recover from this listing: soon, heavy with the burden of seawater gushing through the gunports, she began to founder and sink. Within mere minutes, only the very tops of her masts remained poking out of the harbor, with frantic sailors clinging on and hollering for rescue.

In all, it had taken only 20 minutes and some 1,400 yards of open water for the mighty Vasa, and all the dreams she carried on her splendid decks, to rest in the darkness of the Stockholms ström.

In 1947, a young Ingmar Bergman, intent on making a film “just as good as the French directors,” pulled his own wreckage from the depths of the cold, dark waters off a remote Swedish coast near Stockholm.

The salvage ship that hoisted the wreckage was to be the setting for his new film Skepp till Indialand, clumsy translated into English as A Ship Bound for India, Land of Desire, or, in the United States, where Bergman’s films were marketed as skin-flicks, Frustration—playing up the titillating conflict of protagonist Johannes Blom (Birger Malmsten) falling in love with his father’s showgirl mistress (Gertrud Fridh).

Skepp till Indialand, though, is best translated as A Ship Bound for Indialand, the latter word, “Indialand,” being an intentional mistake—the word for “India” in Swedish is “Indien,” not “Indialand.” There is, of course, no such place as Indialand. To Swedish ears, the Indialand of the title, rather, would suggest a fantasyland, a nonexistent place, that land of desire so poorly encapsulated in the other English-language translation. “I will rescue that boat,” Captain Blom (Holger Löwenadler), the patriarch of the salvage boat, vows to the showgirl, Sally, of the shipwreck he is working to recover. “And you and me, we’ll go far away.” To Tahiti. To Ceylon. To Indialand.

A Ship Bound for India (1947) | Nordisk Tonefilm

These dreams are never realized; Blom has lived his entirely life fantasizing about escape, and Skepp till Indialand turns the searing light of reality on the cruelty of his dreams—the harm it would do to his wife, his son, and even Sally.

But there is another level of escape in the film, one much more subtle than Blom’s violent desire to leave behind his family. Because Skepp till Indialand actually begins much later, with the arrival of a ship pulling into the Swedish harbor: an amateurish model ship, if you look closely, set against a fearsome, diorama storm.

On board this boat, Johannes returns from his travels around the world, seeking Sally years after falling in love with her, back when she was his father’s mistress. Johannes, by all appearances, has escaped Stockholm; he has traveled to the lands his father could only dream about.

But Skepp till Indialand begins with, ostensibly, its ending—Johannes will recall the bulk of the narrative action in the film in flashback, from where he dozes on the beach. He will remember his own conversation with Sally, and her secret wish “to go away and not find the way back.” And the movie begins with his journey back to find her.

Of course, Johannes’ travels weren’t really a breaking away, then. He is sucked back to Stockholm, unable to truly cast off the lines from his life and city, as much as he might have wished he could have. For the audience, this is even starker; we never see Johannes free. We only know his life in Stockholm. We only know that when he leaves, he returns. A journey in a circle. Is that even a journey at all?

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Utbrytningsdröm is a beautiful Swedish word meaning something roughly like a dream of breaking away. The word promises an unmooring, a severing of ties from something earthly to something divorced from reality. Something adrift.

It is a useful word, utbrytningsdröm. It refers to something perhaps only truly understood by those people who live above the 59th parallel, who spend so much of their lives in winter, waiting for it to warm enough to emerge outside again and imagining what they might do then. Birgitta Steene, in her reference guide to Bergman’s films, called the theme “a common motif in Swedish cinema” at the time that Skepp till Indialand was made. But Skepp till Indialand was hardly Bergman’s only flirtation with the burdens reality has on dreams. In his work, it is the boats that tend to function as the dream of breaking away, only made physical. They are the escape hatch that is never opened, the getaway car that is never put into drive, the dream that, were it to actually set sail, would capsize under the weight of the gilded burden of escapism.

In Skepp till Indialand Captain Blom, who is going blind, finds a renewed vigor to live out the life he never had with his wife on the salvage ship with a showgirl who also dreams of escape. But Captain Blom never has the opportunity to turn his utbrytningsdröm into something concrete. Ships are not vessels of departure in these films of Bergman’s; they do not actually bear people away to new lives so much as they offer the tantalizing chance of an escape never acted upon. They are like the shot of adrenaline in the night, when everything seems wildly possible.

Because that is the tricky thing about dreams of breaking away—when you try to catch them in your net, they vanish back into the deep.

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Consider another of Bergman’s stories about a sailor, Port of Call, released in 1948. Again, the film begins with the arrival of a ship; this time, it is Gösta (Bengt Eklund) who has returned home. The music swells as the film opens on his ship returning to the harbor; it is grand, romantic imagery, almost a better ending for a film than a beginning, and Gösta leans against the railing, taking in Stockholm as the gulls welcome him home.

As the music darkens, though, so do the images: No longer shots of the ship churning through the open sea, but of boats moored in the harbor, roosted, tethered to land. When Gösta at last disembarks, he is instantly met with the brutal reality of terrestrial life, witnessing a girl, Berit (Nine-Christine Jönsson), attempt to kill herself by throwing herself into the sea.

As in Skepp till Indialand, the story of Port of Call is sandwiched between two ships. There is the arrival of the sailor home at the beginning, but then there is stagnancy of the dream unrealized. “Let’s get away from all this,” Gösta urges Berit unspecifically at the end of the film, seized by the fantasy of starting a new life together away from their troubles. He even goes as far as to set up their passage on a steamer with a German family.

Only after securing their departure does Berit suggest “it feels odd, running away like this.” As the lovers walk farther away from the port and their ship of departure, she notes that “a lot of things haven’t been set right,” swimming back to the world of the practical: the concerns of jobs, family, the law. It is an odd ending for a film — where two lovers might run away to a happily ever after in another movie, Gösta and Berit instead breathlessly agree to stay in Stockholm together. “I can feel it in my bones,” Gösta gushes. “Let’s stay here.”

There is no escape, no dream they can possibly go away to. For all the promise of breaking away, they do not.

Summer with Monika is the best defined of Bergman’s nautical utbrytningsdröms, coming much later, in 1953. That is partially because Summer with Monika explores both sides of the utbrytningsdröms, being a film in which the dreamers do actually manage to break away. While in Skepp un Indialand and Port of Call, the couples never manage to make it out of their harbors, Monika has Bergman’s most memorable ship, which bears the two dreamers to the islands outside of Stockholm.

Summer with Monika | Criterion

Yet dreams of this sort are never built to float. Monika (Harriet Andersson) and Harry (Lars Ekborg) hop from island to island, but their entire journey has the shape of a closed circle; inevitably, like the sailors who ventured out in Bergman’s earlier films, they too must return home.

What had begun as an idyllic and romantic summer devolves, by the end, into bickering, a pregnancy, fights. There is perhaps no scene in Bergman’s oeuvre as dreadful as Monika and Harry’s return to Stockholm; their stolen boat’s slow puttering under the city’s bridges, as the pair slink back like a dog returning home, tail between its legs.

Summer with Monika beautifully captures the boundless glory of young love—which returns as a sort of afterimage to Harry at the end of the film, most memorably in the form of his unburned lover sunbathing on the bow of their home—but it also looks at the reality of trying to set sail under the load of such ambition, such ignorance, such gilded, untenable fantasies.

It is the final third of the movie, as Monika and Harry are crushed by the rudeness of reality, that is so easy to forget in Summer with Monika, for it is like being shaken awake in the night by something unpleasant. Breaking away occupies so much of our time when we feel trapped, but Bergman reminds us that this is why fantasies are so sweet, so tender, so worth holding dear. A dream can never sink; only when you decide to put it to the water can you discover its holes.

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There is an easy parallel in all of this, of course. Filmgoing, like Bergman’s ships, contains the contradictions of stagnancy and escapism. There is the magic of imaging yourself elsewhere, when you in fact don’t leave your seat. The breathless dream of running away—to Germany, to the islands outside Stockholm, to Indialand—and the inevitable awakening back to reality when the lights go up.

Three days after the sinking of the Vasa, the order went out to lift the boat from the ström.

In those days, salvage ships did not have the benefit of the complicated machinery used by Johannes and his father in Skepp till Indialand. Instead, two empty hulls were filled with water until they were sunk as low as possible in the harbor, and then sidled up to either side of the wreck. Ropes with hooked anchors were sent down into the harbor and attached to the sides of the Vasa. Then the water was pumped out of the salvage ship hulls; as they filled with air and became more buoyant, the hope was that the ship below would be lifted from the murk along with the hulls.

But the Vasa would not budge. The more she was pulled, the deeper she got sucked into the mud, thick and unyielding, 105 feet below the waves.

Finally, at long last, the word was given to release the anchors from the Vasa‘s sides. To re-coil the ropes on the desks of the salvage ships. To leave to the ström what the foolish fantasies of man had given her.

Released at last, the Vasa teetered for a moment and then lay still, her ribs and planking like the wooden bones of dreams, settled on the seabed, waiting to be dredged.