The film opens with a flashback story about the clown Frost and his wife Alma. Their story sometimes parallels and sometimes counterpoints the story of Albert and Anne which follows. Albert is the owner of a small, tawdry circus, and Anne, his mistress is a horseback rider in the circus.
The circus stops at a small south-Scanian town. Years before Albert had left his wife Agda for the circus, but now he is tired of being on the road, and he tries to effect a reconciliation. Agda refuses to resume the marriage.
Anne, in the meantime, has a brief and humiliating affair with an actor, Frans.
During a gala performance given by the circus Frans taunts Albert about his liaison with Anne. Unhappy and enraged, Albert challenges Frans to a fight and is severely beaten as a result. Albert then tries to kill himself but the revolver misfires, and instead he shoots a caged bear that belongs to Alma, the wife of the clown Frost.
Finally, the circus leaves town, and Albert and Anne find themselves still miserably committed to each other.
"Acknowledging the influence of Dupont's Variety
–one of the keystones of German expressionism, in which marriage was seen as a perilous high-wire act–Bergman here employs the circus as a metaphor for the humiliating hoops through which men and women are put by their sexual dreams and desires. Heavily masochistic in its anguished account of the futile attempts of an ageing circus owner (Grönberg) and his steely young mistress (Andersson
) to escape the dreary limitations of their mutually destructive involvement, it isn't exactly prepossessing in theme. But visually it is a treat, with Bergman's richly baroque compositions and persistent use of deep focus brilliantly exploiting the circus and theatre settings. And the performances are first-rate."
– Tom Milne, Time Out
"I thought I'd made a good, a vital film. I was perfectly well aware where the film had its thematic and stylistic roots: in Dupont's old film Variety
with Emil Jannings, which I've treasured for many years in an old Pathé 9.5-mm copy in four reduced reels. Sawdust and Tinsel
was intended as a conscious reply."
– Ingmar Bergman, Bergman on Bergman