port of call (1948)
One of our leads ponders at the start of the third act, why we overlook our own flaws so easily and not the flaws of others. We attribute the faults in ourselves to the actions of others, “someone did this to me”, we think “they made me act this way”. Bergman’s pared down realism yields much strife, terse drama and few rewarding observations overall, ringing the bell at the same note for much of its runtime. The tale of two jaded lovers who find each other in a time of despair, drift toward each other with an apathetic shrug and then become attached and want to go on in the other’s embrace is charming at the outset and not bundled in a way that amounts to much sober reminding when all is said and done. We see that the group, whether it be our old occupation, our old comrades and gang, out current coworkers, our parents, our society, etc. trap the individual and set them into a prison that could prove fatal as they try to avoid judgement or try to settle an old score. Bergman attempts to balance the hordes of schoolmarms and stuffed shirts with the dock worker mantras, where books are a waste of time, thinking is a curse and best to down some liquor and forget about it. All the while we watch as the individual, in this case our lead, Berit, crumbles under the weight of trying to live up to the standards others place upon her, but don’t live up to themselves. This tendency is fertile ground for a narrative to build on, but Port of Call becomes redundant.
As our lovers grow from their place of apathy (an apathy which has clearly grown as a reaction to the intense strictness of the world’s overbearing morality, code of conduct, etc.), they find it difficult to reconcile their own desire to be free and easy and their need for those around to be seen in the strictest standards of moral function. Gosta cannot stomach Berit’s promiscuity any more than her mother or the state that attempts to lock her up in reform clinics for her deviance, yet he would never ask this of anyone else in his life. It is this quandary of needing innocence from the thing we love that places an inhuman necessity for perfect behavior over them; for what human could be so infallible as to measure up to this need for purity? We see that what all humans resort to in the repressive society is to cover up their less desirable actions and those who hide it the best are the ones who prosper. When the poor slip, they hide all the more, even to Gertrud’s demise near the film’s climax. As Berit reminds, had she been wealthy, she would have had the best medical attention and no shame. The film touches on these points only once in this passage, and the rest of its runtime focuses on the harsh morality and mutual loathing of the underclass, their woes and difficulties working in factory conditions, how they bite at one another and wash it all down with some whiskey to ease the pain. The anesthetizing effects will wear off soon, however, and the pain returns. In ways Port of Call is about anesthetic in all forms, ignorance can have the same effect, and in all times when the truth threatens the illusion, the characters cry out for the illusion to return. Their struggle is between how little they care what happens to their own self while caring deeply what all others do with their time, Bergman attempts to add brief explanations of a childhood in which Berit was pulled on by both of her parents as an object of innocence and a prize of which parent was ‘in the right’.
Port of Call is a worthy effort, but one that fails to add up by the end, it has flashes of expressionism in a mostly realist shell, the best flash being Gosta’s drunken rampage ending in becoming trapped in a prison of locked doors and windows, looking up barely able to see the sky in an exaggeratedly large building courtyard. To escape from our surroundings or to stay and attempt to reconcile ourselves with the pressures of the group becomes the film’s final conflict. All of her life, Berit has seen her family escape to solitude when the going got tough, her father leaving port to sail away, leaving home for the arms of a boy, or even being sent to a reeducation facility by the state. Bergman finds resolution for his characters in their decision to stay and face life’s hardships, though that is all the clarity we come to by the film’s conclusion. Without a solid way to bring the threads to a statement, Port of Call becomes aimless and drifting, unable to signify much but to continue to circle the same thematic points. The way we numb ourselves to our troubles while slapping sense into one another may be an accurate realist rendering, yet it never moves beyond itself to find a place in the sun.