by Mervyn Marshall
‘Life’ says Kierkegaard, ‘can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.’ Bergman never acknowledged the influence of the Lutheran that was often attributed to his work. Yet it is this momentum forward, a rapid acceleration of life towards the end that causes Isak Borg to reflect on his youth and his family. ‘No form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does… deep into the twilight room of the soul’ wrote Bergman in 1987. Here, in his films, dreams and memories dominate the relationship between his characters and the world. Their senses are exposed, susceptible to heat of the sun, the feel of the earth between fingers, to ‘hearing the grass grow, and the squirrel’s heart beat... and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.’
It is a dream that prompts Isak Borg to take the drive from Stockholm to Lund accompanied by his daughter-in-law. One night he finds himself walking down an abandoned street. A harsh and relentless sunlight blankets the empty streets. There is an unbearable silence that accompanies Isak, so much so that he can hear the beat of his own heart. Silence is loneliness. Unlike solitude, which is to be cherished, loneliness is one of Bergman’s greatest fears. He will forsake many of his characters to loneliness, to anguish and death, such as Eva and Jan Rosenberg in Shame (1968) abandoned in a tiny life boat, adrift at sea, or Karin from Through a Glass Darkly (1961) whose violation at the hands of the Spider-faced god leads to her total mental collapse. However for Isak Borg, a character created out of the fusion of the turmoil Bergman found in his own inner life and the icy posterior of the director’s father, the dream serves as a warning, a chance of self-redemption through reflection. To dream of oneself is to dream of death and Isak is entitled to a premonition as his body spills from the coffin and latches onto him whilst the eyeless figure that crumbles to the ground and disintegrates alludes to the ignorance and stubbornness of his will. Isak is performed by a former titan of Swedish cinema, Victor Sjöström, then 78, in a role that came first with apprehension and later, celebration. Bergman declared that ‘Wild Strawberries was no longer my film; it was Victor Sjöström’s!’ This sequence pays tribute to his mentor through the ghostly, driverless carriage that crashes in the street. A reference to Sjöström’s 1922 film The Phantom Carriage, a Dickensian folktale of death and regret. Bergman’s relationship with his father dominates so much of his canon and a bitter feud between the two informed much of the relationship between Isak and his son, Evald, in Wild Strawberries. Upon seeing the film, his father, Erik Bergman, wrote to Sjöström, stating that, ‘I will always remember with gratitude the friendly, encouraging words you spoke to me about Ingmar when he was still very young, and I stood before you in doubt and uncertainty.’
Along the journey, Isak decides to make a brief interlude at the house where spent the summers of his youth. He spies a patch of wild strawberries and at a touch, he is transported into the past. The howl of the wind against the trees and the song of summer birds prompt the involuntary memory of the soul for Bergman just as madeleine cake did for Proust. Isak is taken to a memory, or rather, to the essence of a memory, a feeling of a memory not retrieved but revealed. Before him appears Sara, the love of his youth who would eventually marry his brother and have six children. Sitting amongst the grass, picking a basket of strawberries, she is approached by Isak’s brother. Nature encompasses the two figures, giving way to the earthy and loose sensuality of their body language. With this framing Bergman evokes Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, his camera tracks inwards, inviting the comparisons of voyeurism. After all, what is the man who searches through memories both cherished and pale, but a voyeur?
Eventually Isak is brought back from the past by another ghost, or rather the reincarnation of his childhood love in a modern form. This Sara, both played by Bibi Andersson, reinvigorates Isak by flattering him with attention and flirtation, soon she and her companions are joining them to Lund. The ancient car driven by Isak has a metallic, tomblike physicality to it that contrasts with the spacious freedom of the Swedish countryside. No more is this deliverance into nature felt than the lunch break at Isak’s family home, which takes place just after the bitter married couple have been ejected from the car. One of Europe’s largest inland lakes sprawls out as a backdrop and the conversation between the companions relaxes over cigars and port. Turning, eventually to a psalm written by Johan Olof Wallin:
Where is the friend I seek at break of day?
When night falls I still have not found Him.
My burning heat shows me His traces
I see His traces whenever flowers bloom
His love is mingled with every air.
Bergman struggled with his faith throughout his life and work, but at this moment, as momentum slows in the hazy afternoon, within the expanse and serenity of his country’s natural landscape he equates all beauty to the work of God.
Back on the road Isak falls into the belly of consciousness and finds himself enduring a series of painful humiliations; physically, professionally and finally sexually in an extended nightmare. Bergman codes the natural world with meaning: a flock of birds becomes a recurring audience for Isak’s humiliations. Once again we find ourselves in the patch of wild strawberries with Sara, this time alone. She presents Isak with a mirror and forces him to examine the ageing features that look back at him. Allegedly, Bergman conceived the idea for this sequence whilst at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival with Smiles of a Summer Night. After sitting down for his portrait to be drawn by a Russian artist he noticed that 'there were two Bergmans: one, as it were, direct, and one in the mirror. The first had a childish, almost foolish expression on his face. The image in the mirror was of an old man, a ghost with a weary look.' We then bear witness to the life that was beyond Isak. Sara, child in hand, takes refuge from the night, leaving Isak with the empty cradle and the mocking of chattering birds. The twilight casts a sinister shadow over what was previously serene and tranquil. Nighttime and darkness are another source of recurring anxiety for Bergman. Famously, the tortured artist, Johan Borg (Max Von Sydow) in Hour of the Wolf states: The old ones called it "the hour of the wolf". It is the hour when the most people die, and the most are born. At this time, nightmares come to us. And when we awake, we are afraid.
Isak is then disgraced as a doctor as he repeatedly fails a series of simple tasks whilst his traveling companions look on in detached silence. This sequence demonstrates Bergman’s crippling lack of confidence in himself as an artist, something else that would preoccupy much of his work. Here, Isak’s judgment and ability is undermined repeatedly, bringing him to question his relevance and self-worth. First, he is unable to work the microscope, thus being rendered obsolete by technology. Secondly he cannot read or recall the first line of duty taken by doctors, as Bergman questions his role as an artist. Finally he declares a patient dead before they erupt into a violent and terrible laughter. This is most degrading, if Isak cannot recognise the signs of life, how is Bergman to find meaning and truth in his art? Finally, Isak is forced to confront a memory of his wife’s infidelity and subsequent bitter tirade against his character. At this point, as Isak is abandoned by the woman he shared his life, that terrible silence of loneliness returns to blanket the forest. Once again, Isak observes the scene from the position of the detached voyeur. The deep black that encompasses him as the scene unfolds evokes the framing of Edvard Munch’s Jealousy. The scene was originally meant to contain hundreds of snakes, however the night before the shoot they escaped from the terrarium that was holding them and then had to be recovered by the various handlers.
Awaking from this nightmare, Isak takes timid steps towards redemption by opening up to his daughter-in-law, Marianne. She explains the reason for temporarily separating from her husband was because of his reaction to her pregnancy. The flashback that ensues is one of the director’s most personal sequences, a violent collision of familial conflict and existential fatalism under the howling turmoil of a storm. Evald, in fear of becoming his father, rejects the idea of bringing a child into this world. The raging current that encapsulates the two serves only to emphasise Evald’s hostility against the world. The world, as if in response to Evald’s reluctance to take up his natural duty as a parent, turns to chaos and violence. This completes Isak’s awakening, he can now, tentatively with reservation take steps towards reconciling with his son.
As with all road movies, of which Wild Strawberries is surely one of the first, it is not the destination but the journey, in which the importance lies. The ceremony in which Isak is to receive his service award is brief, formal and shrouded in an uninviting darkness. It is not until the day’s events are at a close that Isak can find redemption, his invitation to break down formalities with his housekeeper are ironically, cheekily spurned, of course. However as he drifts once again into sleep, a light generates from his head suggesting the redemption of his spirit. The film ends in memory, a phenomenon of old age, where childhood memories swell up through the soul and into the mind’s eye, clearer than the passing day. Where ‘time and space do not exist. Upon an insignificant background of real life events, the imagination spins and weaves new patterns; a blend of memories, experiences, pure inventions, absurdities and improvisations.’ Where the birds sing, and the innocent love of youth brings us to the serene, warming comfort of our parents… and only then can we welcome with open arms ‘that roar which lies on the other side of silence.’