I once met a rather well-educated and experienced film critic who told me that in her opinion, Ingmar Bergman’s films of the later period were way too complex to be ever understood by any audience, no matter how sophisticated and intellectually advanced. According to that critic, “Efter repetitionen” (“After the rehearsal”, 1984) served as a perfect proof that the mind of Ingmar Bergman of “the fifth act” had long departed from the ordinary world, and dwelled in his own singular reality that included no reference points to the common human experience. (I never had a chance to ask her what she thought about “In the presence of a Clown”.) Based on the faulty logic of that critic, Bergman’s films after “Fanny and Alexander” (or, perhaps, even after “The Seventh Seal”) could only be admired for their esthetic qualities, but not appreciated for their ethical content.
“Efter repetitionen” was made for TV and is only seventy minutes long, not even reaching the duration that would qualify it as a legitimate “feature film” (according to American Screen Actors Guild) – but it does require considerable work from anyone who wants to understand its idea. Created by an artist of formidable intellect, this film does not descend to a vulgar viewer, but rather demands that the viewer rise to a higher level of awareness. Every detail matters, and things that appear irrelevant, accidental or may even be perceived as continuity mistakes, upon deeper scrutiny reveal their highly condensed metaphorical (that is, spiritual) value. A thorough intellectual examination also reveals, behind the complexity of the verbal lacework of dialogue, a simple, compact and masterfully designed dramatic structure of the kind that would make any student of Robert McKee proud: all characters in this film have clear, well-defined, easy to understand desires that they pursue by taking increasingly strong and risky actions, and the narration is organized through primal, archetypal conflict and the standard three-act structure.
I do not usually re-tell films in my essays – what’s the point of describing in words something that has already been expressed in moving images? – but Ingmar Bergman’s films are exception from all the rules. I find it impossible to explain the meaning of this film without actually retelling it in detail.
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The first act begins with an overhead shot of the boards that form the wooden floor of the theater stage. The camera floats down to reveal red ornate carpet that covers the stage, then a volume of August Strindberg’s plays on a work desk, and finally an aging man, the theater director Henrik Vogler, seemingly asleep behind it, resting his head on his work journal. (“Vogler”, in Bergman’s symbolic system, is the last name inevitably assigned to a positive, spiritually enlightened character.) The rough wooden surface of the stage, covered with scrape marks that look like mysterious hieroglyphs, symbolizes the bare bones of the crude material reality; the carpet, the illusory view of that reality formed by our kaleidoscopic perception. The desk that holds Strindberg’s plays and the work journal serves as a metaphor for the artistic profession, the spiritual calling of the main character. Finally, the sleeping man is the hero, a human being plunged into the dream play of living in the material world.
This opening shot is a direct allusion to August Strindberg’s most famous and influential work for stage, “A Dream Play” (1902). Here’s a quote from Strindberg’s introduction to the play:
“Anything may happen; everything is possible and probable. Time and space do not exist. On an insignificant background of reality, imagination designs and embroiders novel patterns: a medley of memories, experiences, free fancies, absurdities and improvisations.
The characters split, double, multiply, vanish, solidify, blur, clarify. But one consciousness reigns above them all – that of the dreamer; and before it there are no secrets, no incongruities, no scruples, no laws. There is neither judgement nor exoneration, but merely narration. And as the dream is mostly painful, rarely pleasant, a note of melancholy and of pity with all living things runs right through the wabbly tale. Sleep, the liberator, plays often a dismal part, but when the pain is at its worst the awakening comes and reconciles the sufferer with reality, which, however distressing it may be, nevertheless seems happy in comparison with the torments of the dream.”
Not lifting his head off the open journal, the old man on the stage fiddles with the desk lamp, turning it now on, now off. The activity may seem meaningless, and yet within Bergman’s economical aesthetics the primitive pulse of the desk lamp instantly acquires powerful dramatic significance. On / Off. Light / Dark. Good / Evil. Love / Hatred. Life/ Death. Being / Non-being. Time / Eternity. Body / Soul. Material / Ideal. The most fundamental conflict is expressed visually through this basic motion. This is cinema in its purest form.
Henrik Vogler, the film’s hero, has decided to stay on the empty stage of his theater after the daytime rehearsal of “A Dream Play”. After he wakes up, his voiceover monologue reveals immediately that we are already beyond the limits of the mundane: “I may have dozed off, I’m not quite sure. I look around and can’t recognize anything. Something has changed in a strange, inexplicable way.” The action of the film, as it always happens in Ingmar Bergman’s works, blurs the borders of material and the otherworldly, and the audience may never be sure whether what they see onscreen happens in reality, beyond it, or in hero’s mind.
The director doesn’t waste time on preambles. Exactly a minute and sixteen seconds into the film, the antagonist appears: Anna Egerman, young lead actress in Vogler’s current production of “A Dream Play”. Anna is dressed in all red: the color of passion, sexuality, pain and aggression; the color of the STOP sign on the road. Having recognized her talent for acting, Henrik Vogler chose her to for the part of Indra’s Daughter, the divine presence in the diabolic world of the play, and yet, out of her stage persona, in Henrik Vogler’s reality, Anna is the devil. She is creative, but creativity doesn’t imply spirituality. Her first close-up is that of a predator hunting for prey. Very characteristically, Henrik Vogler becomes aware of Anna Egerman’s presence before the audience can even hear her footsteps: he is suddenly alert, like a wild animal that has sensed a predator nearby. (“Egerman” in Bergman’s films is almost always the last name of an aggressive, often sociopathic character who may be experiencing deep inner torment, but whose main agenda is to cause suffering to others.)
A medium full shot reveals a mask of a demonic creature with antlers near the wall, behind Anna’s back. It seems as if the mask is watching over Anna’s subsequent actions, or maybe even dictating them.
Their first briefest exchange of lines between – “Hi!” – “Hi!” – is followed by a grotesquely comical shot: Anna Egerman turns away from Henrik Vogler who is looking at her, and bends forward, offering him the view of her buttocks. Anna justifies this behavior with the pretense of looking for a lost bracelet. This is the first of a very few wide shots in the film, revealing in the background a humongous headless, armless gray statue of Venus, the monster goddess of the material world, symbolizing raw, impersonal lust. The statue dominates the tiny characters on stage, and seems almost alive – and yet its asphalt-gray color gives it eery resemblance to a decapitated, dismembered corpse.
Anna’s presence makes Henrik suffer from the acute sense of alienation. His inner monologue, superimposed over their dialogue: “Distance and torture. Distance and torment. Distance and the sharp taste of iron in my mouth. I want her to leave.”
Henrik responds to Anna’s sexual teasing by reminding her casually that he’s old enough to be her father: “How old are you anyway, Anna Egerman?” – “Guess!” – “You’re the same age as my youngest daughter. Your father and I were making a film together, and each of us was blessed with a daughter, a week apart.”
Anna parries Henrik’s defense, attacking him with guilt: “You and Papa used to have fun back then […] Papa was always gone and Mama was always sad […] You were in love with Mama then. Did you have an affair?” Henrik denies the affair, probably untruthfully.
Anna’s dramatic throughline is not obvious at the beginning: Bergman will reveal it only in the third act; however, Anna is active in pursuing her hidden goals. It is also important for recognizing Anna as he antagonist of the story to notice that Anna is embittered and motivated by hatred: she tells Henrik that having to repress her hatred toward her mother used to cause her anguish, but now that the mother is dead for five years, Anna hates her and feels better. (While she is saying that, the gray statue of the naked Venus reflects in the tall mirror behind Anna’s back.)
The fact that Henrik and Anna are opposites is introduced in the most fundamental way when she expresses her materialist philosophy: “Where she [Anna’s mother] is now she can hardly be concerned about that [Anna’s hatred] anymore. (Laughs).” – to which statement Henrik responds as idealist: “(Sternly). That’s a great question, of course”. Anna immediately tries to catch Henrik at inconsistency, reminding him of his old interview in which he mentioned that he didn’t believe in the afterlife (looking for inconsistencies in the philosophical position of the opponent who professes idealism is almost an automatic default reaction for any self-respecting materialist.) Henrik disarms Anna by giving her a compliment: “You are certainly a girl with a gift for irony.”
And so it continues throughout the short first act – and subsequently throughout the film: attack – defense – stronger attack – evasion – even stronger attack. Anna provokes. Henrik de-escalates. Anna tries to hurt. Henrik responds to hatred with love. It’s almost like a martial arts movie featuring a very aggressive young villainess and the old, wise (even though imperfect) kung fu master – except the two opponents fight without fighting. Quite in accordance with Yin / Yang principle, the master’s imperfection holds the seeds to his probable ruin and the aggressor’s arrogance is self-destructive. Yet everything is extremely subtle, almost minimalist. The dialogue between Henrik and Anna is almost always cordial and polite. All the conflict occurs in the subtext.
Henrik overtakes the initiative and tries to make Anna aware of the mystical nature of the stage that connects the tangible and the invisible. Henrik’s idealism is emphasized by blocking (he turns his back toward the statue of Venus) and is clearly expressed in his monologue (“I’m going to tell you something, Anna Egerman. Here’s what happens in my age. Just lean forward, and suddenly you find your head plunged into another dimension! The dead are not dead, the living behave like ghosts. […] Sometimes I hear them – often I hear them – sometimes I think I see them…”) (This monologue foreshadows the appearance of Rakel Egerman’s ghost in the second act of the film.) Anna parries his monologue with a silent ironic smile. Henrik calls Anna out on it (a theater decoration representing a temple is visible behind him), then invades her private space, and accuses her face to face of the intention of hurting her mother even beyond the grave. Anna doesn’t back off, and admits having that intention. Henrik reproaches her for acting a role in a play of her own making, breaks the distance, roots himself firmly at his desk, and pretends to block Anna out completely from his mind. Wide shot: the Venus statue is partially hidden behind a screen panel. Anna lights a cigarette. Henrik opens his notes and begins to read.
Anna re-engages, hoping for Henrik’s reassurance: “Why did you want me to play Indra’s Daughter?” Henrik responds with truth: “Because you’re talented”, etc. Henrik opens up, makes himself vulnerable to Anna, and reminisces about his earliest experience of theater that coincided with his first experience of “A Dream Play”. Anna listens, using that time to recuperate for further battle, supported by the reflection of the Venus statue behind her. Henrik leads the dialog toward professional subjects, turning it from a verbal fight to a practical lesson in theatrical craft. He performs the Lawyer’s hairpin monologue (the famous episode from “A Dream Play” that metaphorically expresses the subject of alienation between the two human beings that are supposed to be the closest). Anna provokes Henrik to make a fool of himself and deliver a passionately self-deprecating tirade of a “perfectionist artist”. Henrik catches himself, as expressed in his inner monologue superimposed over his words addressed to Anna: “Why am I saying all these things? They are nonsense. Old clichés. Why am I acting out this mockery of conviction?” Henrik defends himself again with his strongest weapon: his profession. He succeeds in channeling his conflict with Anna into a creative discussion. Anna challenges Henrik’s authority as a director by questioning his belief in her as an actress, and the validity of his creative methods. Henrick reinforces his authority: he tells Anna off, and demands that she “gets rid of the private actress” in herself. Infuriated by her arrogance, he storms out from the stage, on his way to a hotel, to get some sleep before the evening rehearsal. Anna is enraged: “Sleep well!” (subtext: “Burn in hell!”)
Just before Henrik is gone for good, Anna re-engages: “So you think I’m acting in my private life?” Henrik allows himself to be re-engaged, getting caught in a trap of a creative task. He storms back to the stage and towers over Anna. Backstage, behind him, there’s a statue of the angry old man with a white beard, wearing a gray coat, bearing strong resemblance to Henrick – and a statue of naked Cupid blowing a trumpet in the old man’s ear. Anna tries to rationalize her private playacting, and counterattacks, questioning Henrik’s own sincerity. Henrik shields himself with his profession, as before.
Anna pretends to temporarily accept the rules imposed by Henrik, and demands his advice on acting. Henrik provides the advice. Anna puts on the mask of Indra’s Daughter, tries out Henrik’s advice, and finds it helpful. Watching the contrast between Anna as an actress and Anna as a human being, Henrik is suddenly drained of energy. It’s a terrifying paradox that Anna is such a perfect actress that she gives every impression of high spirituality, while being a devil. Anna ignores Henrik and scribbles in her notebook. Henrik watches Anna secretly: her neck, her hair, her hands. At this moment he reminds a schoolboy staring at a girl he has a secret crush on. Anna demands more advice. Henrik obliges. Anna suddenly attacks him with “professional guilt”, accusing Henrik of having victimized actors in the past. Henrik blocks guilt with maturity: “There are many people who bear the scars of my reckless drive, just as I bear the marks of the actions of others.” – and with love: “I love the actors, and so I can never hurt them”. Anna is about to light another cigarette. Henrik asks her not to smoke all the time. Anna complies.
The conflict is lifted, and it looks like Anna is about to leave, but Henrik stops her (close-up shot of Henrik’s hand on Anna’s forearm emphasizes Henrik’s choice to keep Anna from walking away). He calls out her bluff: he knows she wasn’t wearing any bracelet today. Anna feigns innocence and sits down away from him. Henrik “plays with fire”, beckoning Anna to sit next to him on the sofa. His gesture is emphasized by a zoom to a close-up on his hand, more dynamic and therefore more dramatic than the previous similar shot. For a brief period of time, Henrik and Anna are friends. They flirt a little. The chemistry is palpable. Henrik allows himself to pose for Anna a little. Anna gives him the admiration he expects.
After that Anna provides the transition to the Act 2, by reigniting her hatred to her mother, and for a moment even embodying her mother when she quotes her saying: “This is my only means of expression, have no other, whether real or unreal. I suffer, I’m alone, try to understand that.”
Enter the ghost (or a memory) of Anna’s mother, Rakel Egerman, the way she was eleven years ago, when Henrik worked on his previous production of “A Dream Play”.
The second act is a variation to the theme of the first act. As was the case in the first act when Anna first appears, Henrik now suffers from the acute sense of alienation in Rakel’s presence: “Distance and indifference. Suffering. Fear. Helplessness. Helpless outrage. Distance. Distance.” As in the first act, the two active characters often seem nice and caring on the outside, but the deadly combat between them rages in the subtext. The 12-year-old Anna is silently present.
Rakel is a fearsome opponent, not to be trifled with, and gives the impression of being a lot more skillful and aggressive fighter than her daughter will be eleven years later. Rakel starts out by untying her high boots and demanding sex, and then proceeds to unleash a quick series of attacks: she mocks, taunts, titillates, hypnotizes, blackmails and threatens Henrik before he even has a chance to respond in anything but monosyllables. Contrary to how it is with Henrik and Anna in the first act, in the second there’s not a trace of chemistry or attraction between Henrik and Rakel. The mirror that reflected the statue of Venus in the first act is replaced with a fake theatrical mirror that doesn’t have the ability to reflect anything. Rakel’s soul is completely fogged, she is the embodiment of subjectivism.
Rakel demands a bigger, more important role in the production of “A Dream Play” than the tiny role of Edith’s Mother Henrik selected her for. Henrik tries to reason with Rakel. Matching her daughter’s behavior in the first act, Rakel lights a cigarette. She uses gilt and then theatrical tears to incite Henrik, who just laughs: he’d seen it all before. However, he’s not quite impervious to those tears: he stands up from his desk, walks past the silent 23-year-old Anna, and comforts Rakel.
A brief truce. Henrik asks Rakel about her husband Mikael. Rakel speaks of Mikael with contempt. Henrik enquires about little Anna. Rakel insinuates that Anna may be Henrik’s daughter, and tortures Henrik, describing monstrous relationships in her family where Anna is growing up. Rakel hates Anna probably even more than Anna hates Rakel. Henrik is compassionate: “Poor Rakel”. Rakel is passive-aggressive: “People can do what they like with me, isn’t that so?” She applies a little reverse psychology: “Can you see that my upper teeth are coming loose? […] I’m rotting, bit by bit.” Instead of denying the truth of that statement, as Rakel has probably expected, Henrik confirms it. She bates him with the pleasant memories they share together, and then tries to seduce Henrik again, exposing her thighs and her breasts to him. She scoffs, sneers and derides Henrik some more. Then she bursts out sobbing and stares into the mirror that reflects nothing.
Henrik plays the shrink. Rakel complaints. Rakel opens up. Rakel invites Henrik to come to her place. Henrik makes up an excuse not to: he’s waiting for someone. To make Henrik jealous, Rakel mentions that she’s having an affair with her doctor, whom she hates and despises even more than her husband. Rakel paces up and down the stage, and suddenly tousles Henrik’s hair in a way that makes her momentarily seem like one of the Bosch’s demons. Little Anna is listening and watching… learning, perhaps. Henrik tries to reason with Rakel, who ignores him and admires her own act in a real, non-theatrical mirror. She makes herself repulsive. She demands bigger roles in theater. She threatens to commit suicide. She laughs hysterically. A true cornucopia of negative emotions, she pours them liberally into Henrik’s mind. She explodes in a paranoid rant, accusing Henrik of contributing to the conspiracy of evil men who try to destroy her.
To add to the overall sense of pandemonium, Anna begins to “flicker” between being twelve and twenty three.
Henrik tries hard to remain calm and ironic, but eventually fails. Entangled in Rakel’s emotional net, he snatches the volume of Strindberg’s plays from Rakel who has been clutching it; he barely stops himself from hitting her with the book. Henrik descends to Rakel’s moral level and accuses her of being the unfaithful and abusive lover in the past.
Rakel presses her advantage and demands sex yet again. Mirroring Anna of the first act, Rakel recites the Dionysus monologue from The Bacchae by Euripidis, saturating it with over-the-top frenzy. She greedily lights a cigarette and smokes it with smug, complacent mien, impressed with her own performance. She mocks Henrik for not being able to deal with the unpredictable.
Henrick responds with the monologue that contains the key to the entire film: “I administrate, communicate, organize […] I don’t take part in the drama, I materialize it. I despise the spontaneous, the unconsidered, the imprecise. […] I hate tumult, aggression, outbursts […] I am not private, I observe, regulate, control. […] I am not spontaneous, impulsive, part of the action. It only looks that way…” This monologue is so revealing that I prefer to postpone the discussion of its meaning till a little later.
Rakel ignores the sincerity of Henrik’s monologue and celebrates her moral victory over him. She is dominant, and he is oddly diminished. Rakel lapses into histrionics, breaks down, and cries. She does her best to generate maximum repulsion: “I stink like a rotten fish, some fluid is oozing from my skin that smells like carrion. […] I breathe decay…” She demands that Henrik directs a new version of Molière’s Tartuffe, just for her. Henrik calmly rejects this intrusion in his creative plans. Rakel blackmails him yet again. Henrik, softened considerably by the preceding emotional roller-coaster, hugs and consoles her: “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of you. Every night before my sleeping pill knocks me out, I think of you. You are always in my thoughts. That’s the way it is, Rakel.”
Henrik tells Rakel to go gome; he will come to her place in an hour. Maybe he is saying the truth. More likely, it’s a lie that Henrik resorts to, as the only way to get rid of Rakel. He kisses her and orders her to leave. Rakel walks off backstage and literally vanishes, as if having fallen through a trapdoor.
A moment later, Henrik calls Rakel – and then runs backstage after her. His mental shield broken, Henrik yields to Rakel’s emotional manipulation: “The same old story, I always run after her. And then lies and useless reconciliations. Shame, fear, and curses that I try to suppress. And pity. It’s always like this.” The petrified archaic Etruscan theater mask doubling as a shade for the backstage light on the wall, expresses a complex emotional state of bewilderment mixed with fear, and marks the border between the second and third acts.
Henrik returns to the stage, and reveals the inner nature of his attitude to Anna: gently, with great love and compassion he leans to touch the head of the twelve-year-old Anna with his cheek, and caresses her face. Little Anna sits with her eyes closed, as if in a deep sleep, symbolizing the state of a human being who hadn’t reached spiritual awareness. Henrik’s gesture reflects the famous recurrent line from “A Dream Play”: “Poor, poor people!”
Henrik reaches out to hold Anna’s hand with sympathy. The third, final act of the film begins. Anna admits that she often acts like a child, for her age. Henrik directs the dialogue toward professional subjects, pointing out that childishness is typical for people who work in theater.
By now it’s become clear that Henrik’s through-line has something to do with remaining strictly professional towards Anna. Over and over again he made effort to eschew the personal and stick with his duty as a director. This topic is recurrent in his speech, all through the film.
Anna redirects the conversation back to personal: “When I’m in the grip of passion, I’m not aware at all.” Henrick supports the topic – he is not a prude – but at the same time moves away from Anna.
Anna tells Henrik she’s in love with him. Henrik isn’t particularly impressed, but confesses to Anna that he has a weakness for her, too, and then switches to his professional self again: “I am happy that we have at least five weeks before us, that you are tied to me professionally and therefore emotionally.” Henrik is sincere enough to admit that he’s jealous of Johan, Anna’s boyfriend. Having admitted his jealousy, Henrik finally handed Anna the weapon she needed.
Anna doesn’t hesitate to deliver the double blow: personal and professional. She is three months pregnant. Having said this, Anna succeeds in forcing Henrik into a fit of uncontrollable frustration and rage: by the date of the premiere Anna will be five month along in her pregnancy, and because of that, the performance of Henrik’s new version of the play will be short-lived. Henrik recovers his temper almost immediately and becomes professional again: “To direct you as Agnes in “A Dream Play” is fun. That the production will be closed after two weeks makes it even more fun.” Anna offers to have an abortion. Henrik forbids her to do that: “Not for the theater. It’s not worth it.”
Anna threatens to give up the part. Henrik throws a tantrum worthy of a 2-year-old: “I don’t want anyone else!” Then he begs her: “Anna… I don’t want you to give up the role.”
Anna tightens the emotional thumbscrews some more: “There won’t be any child” – “Have you already had an abortion?” – “Last week. […] I want to play the role.” Now Henrik begins to realize just how dangerous she is: “Why did you tell me about the child?” Anna enjoys her power: “No idea. It just occurred to me. […] I wanted to see you lose your face. […] And you did.”
Certain now that Henrik had been sufficiently “softened up”, Anna escalates the attack: “Now I’m going to wipe away the sad face”. She kisses Henrik on the mouth.
His self-defense almost completely neutralized, Henrik tries to make Anna leave: “You’re a lot like your mother.” – “If you say it one more time – I’m leaving.” – “You are indeed a lot like your mother.”
Anna stays and throws in a little more jealousy and guilt: “Johan admires you. […] He was the once who convinced me to have an abortion. […] I wanted the baby even though it wasn’t Johan’s […] but he convinced me. So now here I am. In your hands.”
It’s at this moment that Henrik loses the battle: “And I’m in yours.”
Henrik confesses that he is lonely. Henrik tries to be professional again: a desperate, helpless last attempt at defending himself against Anna’s relentless seduction. Henrik reminds her that he is old. Henrik paces nervously up and down the stage, while Anna, quite relaxed, sits on a sofa dominantly like a queen. Henrik accuses her of being manipulative. He is a bad loser. The backstage behind Henrik and Anna has been magically transformed into set of decorations representing the interior of an apartment, making he interaction between Henrik and Anna look almost like a bad family scene.
Anna presses her advantage: “Put your hand on my breast.”
Henrik resists feebly. Anna embraces him.
Henrik admits defeat. Anna is victorious. It is over.
And then all of a sudden Henrik reveals the full extent of his true skills as a mental fighter. He puts his arm around Anna’s shoulders and walks with her across the stage. As they walk, Henrik engages Anna in the fantasy of how their love affair is going to progress. Using his powers as a director, Henrik succeeds at igniting Anna’s imagination. The theatrical set behind them is transformed again: this time it’s a backdrop representing city street. Facing each other, seated on two closely drawn chairs, Anna and Henrik seem like two lovers out on a date in a street cafe in an illusory city. Anna eagerly accepts the game, celebrating her psychological victory over Henrik. What Anna doesn’t realize is that Henrik, having her best interests in mind, “hides the blade behind the smile” and “yields to win”. He starts with a poignant romantic story, and invites Anna to join and to contribute her ideas. Anna does, with great enthusiasm. Gradually Henrik adds elements of crude reality to the idyll – more and more of them, until they merge together and form entirely different picture. Henrik destroys the daydream from the inside, deliberately undermining one by one every romantic notion Anna may cherish about their possible mutual sensual involvement, and about Henrik as a potential lover. He renders himself erotically unappealing, even repulsive. Leaving no “t” uncrossed, he carefully and meticulously stomps out every bit of attraction Anna may have felt toward him. He turns Anna’s own acting talent against her. He directs her emotions: triggers her anger and provokes her jealousy. Anna tries to resist, to bring in some positive emotions, but it’s too late: she is entrapped and manipulated, controlled like a puppet by Henrik, who molds her mind like soft clay. What started as a beautiful love story turns into a boring “roll in a sack” and a grotesque “dance of death”. Anna helps Henrik to finish off their failed romance.
The illusion of poetry is gone. The decorations vanished, and only the barren brick walls of the backstage remain. All windows that would have been open to the world are boarded, and just one window high above remains open, and through that window bright white light pours inside. There’s no statue of headless, armless gray Venus anywhere.
The demon is vanquished. Hastily, Anna wraps up her conversation with Henrik and dashes away to a rehearsal for the radio she’s completely forgotten about (probably in the same way as she earlier had lost her bracelet) – but not before having secured Henrik’s permission to mention being held up by him as an excuse for arriving to the radio rehearsal too late. Henrik remains onstage alone, and his only worry is not being able to hear the distant church bells (they symbolize the sounds of the great Beyond, where all inspiration and enlightenment come from). Henrik’s liberation is complete, but it has been achieved not without loss.
* * *
To see the dramatic structure of the film a little more clearly, let’s take a look at a brief outline of all three acts.
Theater director Henrik Vogler is alone on the empty stage after the rehearsal of “A Dream Play”. Young actress Anna Egerman, chosen to play the lead role, enters the stage and tries to stir Henrik’s emotions, using sexual teasing, guilt and aggression. Henrik resists Anna’s attacks (not quite successfully), trying – and somewhat failing – to remain professional towards her. Eventually Henrik manages to subdue the most acute conflict, but allows himself to flirt with Anna, who is young enough to be his daughter. The grey headless, armless statue of Venus dominates the background, symbolizing the power of raw sexuality.
The ghost of Rakel Egerman, Anna’s late mother, appears in a flashback of an event that may have taken place eleven years ago. Rakel, a failed actress and an alcoholic, who used to be a stage star in the past, repeatedly demands sex and career promotion from Henrik. She applies heavy doses of emotional manipulation, trying to provoke Henrik’s lust, compassion, repulsion and guilt, in a quick succession. Henrik remains calm and professional at first, but eventually fails to protect himself, and becomes vulnerable to Rakel’s emotional blackmail. He admits Rakel’s prominent role in his life, and runs after Rakel after she exists the stage. Anna Egerman (as a twelve-year-old girl or as a twenty-three-year old woman) is silently present onstage throughout Henrik’s interaction with Rakel.
Anna unleashes a series of emotional attacks: she tells Henrik she’s in love with him, confesses being three months pregnant by her boyfriend, then admits having made an abortion and finally makes sexual passes on Henrik. Jealous and angry at first, Henrik finally gives in to Anna’s seduction. But just when it seems that Anna has won, Henrik performs the act of emotional exorcism, frees himself from Anna’s influence and makes her leave.
* * *
It’s quite clear from the above outline that Anna and Rakel, despite their apparent mutual hatred, share the same dramatic throughline – and that Henrik’s throughline is the opposite of theirs. We can understand what’s going on between them if we remember Henrik’s monologue addressed to Rakel in the middle of the second act: “I administrate, communicate, organize...“ etc. (see above). It’s Henrik’s professional duty as a director to be able to influence the emotions of his actors, without ever being emotionally influenced by them. Being an artist gives true meaning to Henrik’s life, and that’s why he strives to fulfill his calling in every aspect of his existence. Therefore, Henrik’s goal throughout the film is: “to not allow himself to get entangled in any emotional nets, and to protect his spirituality”. Obviously, Anna and Rakel pursue the opposite goal: “to get Henrik involved in their turmoil, and by doing so, to achieve moral superiority over him and to destroy his spirituality”. Being set on achieving that goal is what makes Anna a demonic presence in Henrik’s life. She may not even be conscious of her intentions, but an unaware, even reluctant devil is the devil all the same.
Seen in this perspective, the nature of Anna’s actions is identical to that of the attempt made by Nurse Alma in Bergman’s “Persona” (1966) to make Elizabeth Vogler speak by threatening her with boiling water. It’s the old familiar pattern of a materialist trying to prove an idealist wrong by the threat of physical or emotional pain.
In many ways, “After the Rehearsal” is also reminiscent of the legend of Tibetan poet–saint Milarepa and the demoness Draug Srin Mo. Milarepa is assaulted by the arrogant demoness, but his adherence to principles of Buddhism disarm her.
Anna is a very dangerous opponent, but Henrik had seen it all before. If he were younger or less savvy, he may have been easily lured into Anna’s emotional trap. That would probably lead to his ruin, or at least to a considerable loss of time and spiritual energy. Henrik is human, so he is not entirely impervious to Anna’s attacks even now. But Henrik is old and wise. He reached that point where, no matter how strong and sweet the temptations may be, he realizes that they are just not worth it; his former relationships had taught him that much. So, in a way, the situation with Rakel eleven years ago, when Henrik wasn’t strong enough to not get involved, served as a rehearsal for a dangerous scene acted out by Anna today.
On a larger scale, Henrik’s entire life up till now may be interpreted as such rehearsal, but now that “the rehearsal” (the period of emotional and spiritual immaturity, trial and error) is over, the “evening performance” (the fruitful, mature period of the artist’s life) has come to replace it. This glorious time requires greater responsibility and greater dignity, and gives us strength to uphold our professional and spiritual integrity against threats and temptations.