Ingmar Bergman’s third time in the director’s chair, Skepp till India land (A Ship to India), was released in Sweden in September 1947 and was shown at the 2nd Cannes Film Festival around the same time.
It was the first Bergman film to be shown in the United States, where it was released in 1949 as Frustration.
Frustration isn’t a bad title. It is a film about angry, trapped, and frustrated people, after all. But A Ship to India is such a beautifully understated title, and it has a touch of irony. It evokes exoticism and adventure, but for most of the film, the characters are stifled and miserable, and trapped in one dreary place.
The film, which is based on a play by Martin Söderhjelm, begins with a handsome young sea captain named Johannes Blom (Birger Malmsten) returning to Sweden after being away for eight years. He learns from an old friend, Sally (Gertrud Fridh), that his father died of pneumonia while he was away, but he seems strangely unmoved by the news. Sally has fallen on hard times, and seeing her upsets Johannes.
He walks down to the beach and falls asleep on the rocks, remembering his earlier life.
He was born with a hump on his back and his father beat him mercilessly when he was a child. His father, Alexander Blom (Holger Löwenadler), was the captain of a salvage vessel, and lived on it with his crew, as well as his son Johannes and his wife Alice (Anna Lindahl). Capt. Blom was an alcoholic who would disappear for days at a time, which threatened his salvage operation. With his crew doing nothing while he was away, the wreck they were working on was in danger of sinking forever.
The tensions simmering below the surface bubbled over when Capt. Blom brought his mistress, Sally, to live with him on the salvage ship.
Capt. Blom is one of the nastiest, most despicable film characters I’ve seen in a long time. The worst thing about him is that he never comes off as a monster. His cruelty to his wife and son is believable, and we see just enough of his internal life to understand him without ever sympathizing him. It helps that Löwenadler is a really fantastic actor.
Like Bergman’s first film, Kris (Crisis) (1946), Skepp till India land shows flashes of brilliance, but it’s not as masterful as a lot of his later work. Birger Malmsten, who plays Johannes, is easy to feel sorry for, but not always easy to understand.
But Bergman has a keen sense of why people do the things that they do, and the human drama in Skepp till India land is keenly observed, if rarely uplifting.