Bergman’s first great film, Thirst plays out the soul of human yearning across several connected scenarios, each within their own chamber, only interacting vicariously or in painful memory. We become bruised, pained and hungry; we need a drink, we need some sleep, we need some cash. When the train stops for a brief moment, all that waits for it are dozens of hungry eyes and mouths, open hands grasping into the air for a loaf of bread. How we are marked by our past and its transgressions, Ruth begins the film in extended flashback before we enter her first chamber piece; a sordid affair, an abortion, followed by a nagging and maddening fear of sterility. A return to the present and her manic relations with her husband in an endless cycle of hardening through volcanic surges of pain that lurk under the surface only to give way to the same sorrowful apologies and admissions each and every time, “I love you, please don’t leave me”. Bergman’s males seem to escape this fate either through a cold rationality, a sense of the world and its order as supporting their desires, or by redirecting their interests toward new pursuits, be they new women or new riches. Ruth’s lover in flashback at the film’s outset explains quite cooly that a man must have two lovers or he is not a man (his stature as such in comparison to Bertil’s emotional outbursts is later confirmed by Ruth during one of their arguments. Valborg, the dancer who befriend’s Ruth in a flashback takes the same approach and inherits the same masculine salvation from pain when she encounters Viola late in the film’s third act. She eventually succumbs, post-failed pursuit, and passes out from overindulgence.
The alcoholism goes hand in hand with the artist cut off from their art, no longer able to express themselves in dance, unable to mother children and utterly lonesome at the core of their being. It is the human penchant for causing harm to another borne from their own pain and loneliness that makes up a large swath of the interactions in Thirst. In each of our various scenarios we are called into one chamber or another as our characters cry out for their desires toward the unattainable. As Viola wants to be desired she encounters two who would satisfy her only to run from them. It is here, especially in the psychiatrist’s office, that Bergman first shows a penchant for diving within the character, to cause their screen personae of celluloid to become a flesh and blood reality in the collective audience’s eyes. We slowly move inward and find them in sharp closeup as Fischer’s camera moves from side to side locking them in closeup as they react to one another’s advances and retreats. It is the first of such striking examinations of the face of a human being that Bergman ever engaged in with such verve and it begins a career-long fascination, it is one of Thirst’s crowning achievements and a devastatingly hypnotic scene. The scenes aboard the train car hold a similar quality as we are transfixed by their potent blend of human drama and the roaring of the iron horse they travel on. As the hulking machine lumbers down the track in the night, they find one another outside of their chamber, outside of the grip of the relationship they share, with pumping steam and flashing lights reflected and they instantly fall into each other’s arms. Once back inside their private quarters the attacks begin anew in their endless dance. Bergman’s direction of these sequences is seemingly effortless as we’re kept within the tight quarters and the tight melodrama in lengthy sequences that breeze by.
The lust underneath the surface bubbles in many ways, mainly a thirst and a hunger that cannot be quenched. Our players here are in folly as something consistently holds them back from satisfying their hunger, or moving beyond it, instead they bite at one another trying to tear off little bits, becoming cross and desperate all in the same breath and then back again. The sequences on the train remain the film’s most evocative and the well-placed flashbacks fill out the narrative (maybe even a bit too much) to get it our of the chamber every now and again. Bergman’s penchant for character drama becomes clear in the chamber sequences as nothing but the interplay between two actors is needed to sustain all the energy of the scene. The film runs on the power of its own momentum until the final 10 minutes or so when it seems to spin its wheels and awkwardly find its way to conclusion. Still, this is strong filmmaking from start to finish with the power to volley effortlessly from one substantial set-piece to another. There is an element in the chamber that makes us want to escape, the cage of life, we bite at our cage-mate and snap at anyone who comes near, we want desperately to get out, and as soon as we do, we are lonesome, desperate for the confines again. Bergman captures this well in his first major success of his career. Thirst is a delicious film and rich with the promise of what’s to come.