Monday, March 20th, 2023

Homophobia animates Bergman’s “From the Life of the Marionettes”

LifeOfMarionettesPosterFrom the Life of the Marionettes

Written and Directed by Ingmar Bergman

First released July 13, 1980, Oxford International Festival of Films
Released in the U.S. on June 30, 1981
104 min. • Find on imdb

Review by Stephen O. Murray

June 01, 2013.

Though beginning with an excruciatingly prolonged murder, followed by anal rape, of a peepshow performer who sometimes turned tricks, Ingmar Bergman’s 1980 From the Life of the Marionettes 1 is very, very, very talky.

The talkers include the businessman turned murderer Peter Egerman [Robert Atzorn], his successful  fashion designer (and usually solicitous) wife, Katarina [Christine Buchegger], their smug psychiatrist “friend” Mogens Jensen [Martin Benrath], Peter’s overbearing mother [Lola Müthel], and Katarina’s gay friend and business partner Tim [Walter Schmidinger].

The movie veers back and forth from incidents before the crime to investigations after it. The psychiatrist gets to wrap things up in neo-Freudian orthodoxy, blaming unconscious latent homosexuality plus a smothering mother for Peter snapping. The immediate stimulus remains unclear. The erotic “dancer,” also named Katarina [Rita Russek] does nothing to provoke her customer and seems quite warm and friendly. She is “maternal” in more positive senses than Peter’s actual mother.

Peter had been entertaining thoughts of slaying his wife, especially when she taunted his impotence, which he claims was only with her. He also contemplated suicide out on the ledge of a balcony high above the street. The psychiatrist pooh-poohs his homicidal fantasies…and then attempts to seduce Peter’s wife while Peter was (rather implausibly) still onsite.

Life of the Marionettes
Robert Atzorn and Christine Buchegger in Ingmar Bergman’s From the Life of the Marionettes

Tim delivers a stereotypical aria of a homosexual despairing finding love, even as age corroded his looks, and cruising episodes wear down his soul—with a mirror doubling his maundering. He later tells the investigating magistrate that he hoped that Peter, unhappy in his marriage, would seek comfort in his arms, though the idea had never seemed to occur to Peter.

Given how many desperately unhappy characters there are in Bergman films, I hesitate to take issue with the portrayal of bitterness about the impossibility of intimacy to the gay character. But Tim seems to be a very heterosexual take on the aridity of same-sex relations, including acceptance in advance of eventually being beaten to death.

In my opinion, Walter Schmidinger is also the least physically attractive of any of the major characters, and my verdict is that, aside from being fundamentally unconvincing (about the opening murder, filmed in color though the rest of the movie is in black and white), the movie is homophobic—both in its portrayal of the homosexual character Tim but also in blaming the murder on “latent homosexuality” (however unconscious).

The Bergman CollectionBergman claimed that with this production (after the disaster of the big-budget The Serpent’s Egg, also filmed in Germany), he “found a way–a formula–a very definite and clear formula to which I could transfer and remodel my pain, my anguish, and all of my hardships to something concrete.” It seems to me, however, that Bergman’s emigration after charges of tax fraud have very little in common with Peter’s psychosexual anguish in general, or homosexual attractions in particular. For the latter, see the mysteries of Persona. (I must confess that if the characters are marionettes, I don’t know who is pulling the strings to manipulate them other than Mr. Bergman.)

Bergman’s usual cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, delivered in the black-and-white bulk of the movie, which has frequent closeups and a lot of full-frontal female nudity, though I was not impressed by the (red) look of the opening color sequence showing the murder and the terror of the murdered woman.

©2013, 2016, Stephen O. Murray



  1. Made for German television as Aus dem Leben der Marionetten

About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.