Monday, November 29, 2010

WILD STRAWBERRIES (1957): Ingmar Bergman and Loneliness

It is too bad reviewers have done such a wonderful job of making Bergman’s movies incomprehensible to the rest of us.  The attention paid to the symbolism and allegories woven into the movie leaves the impression that reviews were meant for insertion in a college text.  Almost every review, regardless of the movie, mentions Bergman’s existential motif and social realism.  Since even a philosopher like Albert Camus had problems defining what existentialism actually was, most reviewers throw the concept in to gain brownie points with their intellectual readership and hope that no one ever challenges them on it.  Bergman, himself, was somewhat to blame.  He piled the symbolism in so deeply that most viewers almost drown in it.  Yet his movies convey emotion.  If they did not, it would be best to leave them for college professors and other intellectual pretenders.  When reading a review, replace existentialism with the terms loneliness or alienation, and the phrase social realism with disillusion and disappointment - then maybe the critique will make more sense.
Wild Strawberries is about an elderly doctor who, while about to receive recognition for his lifetime of service, realizes he’s received no joy out of life.  From his Swedish home, Dr. Isak Borg (Victor Sjostrom) decides to drive to the Lund Cathedral to pick up his honorary degree rather than take a train.  His devoted housekeeper of forty years, Miss Agda (Jullan Kindahl), is completely disconcerted by this change of plans.  Miss Agda is so accustomed to planning everything out in great detail that this sudden act of spontaneity causes her to quarrel with her employer.  Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), Isak’s daughter-in-law, is separated from her husband, Evald (Gunnar Bjornstrand), and staying with Isak.  Probably because Marianne was so startled by Isak’s sudden whim to drive, she decides to accompany Isak on his trip to Lund.  While driving to Lund, Isak picks up three young adults (two boys and a girl, probably about college age) who then accompany Isak and Marianne for the remainder of their journey.  And after a car accident involving a bickering married couple, for a short time, this married couple accompanies them in the car ride as well – until Marianne becomes so tired of the bickering and orders them out of the car on the behalf of the “children.”
So through flashback sequences, horrific nightmares on the part of Isak, and a visit to Isak’s mother and boyhood home, we find out that Isak’s entire life since childhood has been one of rejection, formality and rigidity.  Isak’s mother is an extremely cold and practical person.  Isak’s engagement with a girl named Sara (Bibi Andersson) ended because Sara was in love with Isak’s wild and irresponsible brother, Sigfrid.  (We learn that Sigfrid and Sara are to have six children together.)  Isak marries, but learns one day that his wife is having an affair.  Isak, by then so used to not feeling anything, does not even care.  And Isak’s son, Evald, has become just like Isak causing Marianne to separate from him.
Of the three young adults, the young girl also goes by the name of Sara (and also happens to be played by Bibi Andersson).  She’s a passionate young woman who is torn between her infatuation with the two boys she’s with, Anders (Folke Sundquist) and Viktor (Bjorn Bjelfvenstam).  Anders wants to be a minister, and Victor (always the rationalist) wants to be a doctor.  The two young men constantly argue over the existence of God and even get into a fight over this (showing they are still young and excitable).  Isak is so taken by the three (and especially the young Sara) that for the first time in years he begins to have hope.  That, and through conversations he has with both Marianne and Evald, Isak is able to make amends and bring to life the marriage that Marianne and Evald have for each other.  Evald finally understands that he cannot live without Marianne or the child that she reveals she is carrying.  After the ceremony and the awarding of the honorary degree, the three young adults serenade Isak, and the young Sara confesses that it is he and not the two boys she is with that she will always love.
I haven’t mentioned in any detail the nightmare sequences.  In Isak’s dreams, he sees clocks without hands, a horse drawn hearse where a clone of Isak tries to drag him into the coffin, and episodes of his wife mocking him at the moments that he is trying to show her passion.  The dreams are disturbing and a bit too easy to interpret.  It wouldn’t take Freud to interpret their significance.  The importance of the dreams is in making Isak understand how unhappy he has become, and how this unhappiness is still preferable to the indifference he has become so accustomed to feeling.  Both Isak and Evald had described themselves as being more dead than alive.  It doesn’t matter what the cause of this indifference is.  What is important is that the father and son become alive before it is too late.
This year, Wild Strawberries will be fifty years old, so it is safe to suggest that it has survived the “test of time.”  And so has Bergman.  Bergman was the son of a Lutheran minister, and we can guess that the mother in this film was Bergman’s real father in disguise.  Bergman’s evocation of Sweden as an almost soulless land where affection and fervor are unknown made him for a number of years unwelcome in his homeland.  If Sweden did attempt to welcome him back, it’s been surmised that this only occurred because he became one of the most critically acclaimed directors ever in movies.  Bergman, with his desire to be a joyous eccentric after years of being barely able to smile, was not comfortable with the perceived Swedish way of life.  Whether this perception of Sweden is legitimate or was conveyed to others in movies like the ones made by Ingmar Bergman is hard to know.  My exposure to Swedes (and other Scandinavians) has been strictly limited to those I’ve met that immigrated to America.  Bergman saw those from his homeland as a people that insisted on tradition and living by the clock – which resulted in an unstated authoritarianism.  The resistance to change and unwillingness to accept others different than themselves was what Bergman satirized.  In Wild Strawberries, he further suggested that only by throwing off such practices could happiness be found.
With Bergman’s recent death the usual tributes in the obituaries have been printed, and his career has been praised in the most eloquent phraseology.  Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal, in which Bergman released at about the same time, are one or the other often hailed as the greatest movie of all time.  So is Wild Strawberries the greatest movie ever made as has often been claimed?  Probably not: we are never swept away by the epic qualities of the film like we would in watching Gone With the Wind or The Godfather, and it certainly does not have the more universal appeal of a movie like Casablanca.  Sometimes the expressions of the actors or actresses seem a bit too pronounced like we were seeing a silent movie where the message of the characters is conveyed by gestures alone rather than words.  And the innocence of the young Sara and her two cohorts is overstated.  Still, if one is in a thoughtful mood and fed up with the crassness of movies that evoke no emotion at all, Wild Strawberries makes one feel sadness and also some relief that there maybe an answer.  Bergman’s dark story has in the end an element of hope.
August 8, 2007
© Robert S. Miller 2007

1 comment:

  1. One problem with the reviewers is that they almost all insist on Wild Strawberries (WS) consisting of memories (a la A Christmas Carol) instead of original dreams. Isak has only one actual memory and it comes within a dream, i.e. the wife's infidelity in the clearing. The rest of the "flashbacks" are original dreams that sometimes occur in places from Isak's past, but even then, are distorted as is typical of dreams.

    The deeper theme in WS is that, though humanity has progressed technologically and scientifically, it has gone nowhere in the relations between men and women, which spiritual life depends on. Isak's dreams are telling him that humanity is on its spiritual death bed and that the genders must change their attitudes toward each other to avoid eternal spiritual death. In fact, humanity has never lived, and now something must finally be done. Marianne and Isak must work together to give real birth (life) to humanity, not just physical birth to another child who will end up alienated like Isak. Marianne and Isak (men and women) have both contributed to humanity's living death. Isak's attitudes are more blatantly dysfunctional because they are more aggressive (e.g. based on manly principle, criticism of women) while Marianne's attitudes are more subtly dysfunctional because they are couched in compassion (e.g. avoiding abortion by giving physical birth).

    Telling is the dream in which Isak meets the young woman who cradles a crying baby after bitching Isak out for his coldness, etc. That crying baby is Isak. And he is still crying inside as an old man, as he tells the young woman: “It hurts so to smile.” Why is Isak still a crying baby? Because men and women have been unwilling to get along, having hidden behind their principles and superficial compassion. To live, the genders must replace the bickering and the arrogance with mature communication. That is achieved by each of them making themselves vulnerable by expressing their respective fears. In short, they must stop focusing how they “love” each other and start honestly “liking” each other.

    That explains the change in Isak and Marianne when, near the end of the film, after listening to Isak’s dreams and meeting Isak’s critical mother, Marianne drops her criticisms of Isak and says I like you Isak. Isak tells that he likes her too, and tells Evald he need not repay the loan. The lake scene at the end is not a memory, but another dream where Isak’s parents wave to him, symbolizing the spiritual connection Isak has made and the ability now of humanity to go on. The fishing pole arcs into the water symbolizing the unconscious. Isak’s previously tense face (the sour strawberry) is relaxed (a mature strawberry) now ripended into life under the leaf of consciousness.

    However one interprets WS, to be the classic film it is repudiated tobe, the interpretation must be more than just a man coming to terms with his faults.

    Erik L. Smith