Published September 19, 2019
T.S. Eliot’s beautiful evocation of the communion of souls from “The Four Quartets”—“We die with the dying:/See, they depart, and we go with them./We are born with the dead:/See, they return, and bring us with them”—is visually expressed in Ingmar Bergman’s film “Wild Strawberries,” which remains one of the great masterpieces of world Christian cinema.
The film, which premiered in 1957—the same year as the release of “The Seventh Seal,” Bergman’s other masterful meditation upon faith and death—remains a phenomenal achievement. In ninety taut minutes, Bergman meditates upon youth and age, the persistence of memory and the past, interpretations of eternity, death and judgment and reconciliation and acceptance.
That the movie may be viewed on both literal and allegorical levels allows it to transcend most films of this type; it is neither somber nor sentimental. It incorporates our fears and our hopes regarding the fragility of life and the mystery of the eternal, and demonstrates that time and timelessness are always connected. It becomes a true reflection of universal humanity.
The film originated in Bergman’s own growing realization that all things are passing, a step towards spiritual maturity that is nonetheless frightening. Bergman, the son of a Lutheran minister, sought in the film to reconcile his rigid religious upbringing with the simple faith that life has meaning and that our past life offers us a glimpse of our life to come. Bergman presents us with a view of life that is characterized in equal measure by doubt and hope.
A spiritual search for meaning
“Wild Strawberries” is narrated by Isak Borg, a retired professor of medicine, who journeys to Lund Cathedral to receive an honorary degree recognizing his decades of service to his profession. On a fundamental level, the film operates according to the journey-quest motif, but Borg’s travels soon elevate to the level of pilgrimage, a spiritual search for meaning. Borg is joined on his journey by Marianne, the pregnant yet estranged wife of his son Evald. Along the way, Borg and Marianne also meet three young hitchhikers and a quarreling dysfunctional married couple. Though Borg and Marianne and the youths all arrive in Lund in time for the ceremony, the married couple is dismissed from the trip by Marianne, who finds their incessant arguing a poor influence for the students.
Yet the journey is interspersed with a number of flashbacks and dream sequences. After the film’s opening introduction, Borg has a nightmare in which he sees himself as a corpse. Shortly after Borg and Marianne depart on their journey, Borg stops to pay a visit at his childhood summer home. There, in a moment straight out of Charles Dickens, Borg is able to inhabit his past, unseen by the other figures. Later in the film, Borg will again return to the summer home, yet this time in a dream. In the dream, the love of his younger life recognizes him for the old man he has become.
Other dream episodes are important in the film. In one sequence, Borg experiences a kind of judgment, in which he is asked to perform a basic examination in medical fundamentals. He cannot see a specimen in a microscope. He cannot recall a doctor’s first duty, “to ask for forgiveness.” Asked to diagnose a patient, he protests that the patient is in fact dead, yet when the patient laughs at him, he is judged as incompetent, and told by his judge that his punishment will be to endure loneliness, which he inflicted on others throughout his life. As the first phase of his sentence, he is forced to watch his wife commit adultery in a reenactment of an event he actually witnessed in life. His judge, ironically, is the same man Marianne dispatched from the car; he is the only Catholic in the film.
Yet Borg awakens from his dream, and upon awakening, he goes on to experience the simple joys of the conferment of his honorary degree and the adulation of the young travelers. On a deeper level, he witnesses the reconciliation of his son and Marianne and he is able to forgive his son a substantial financial debt he owes. The film ends with a third return to the summer home, in which Borg is told that the wild strawberries—a symbol of youth and vitality—are all gone, yet Borg seems completely at peace.
A chance at redemption
The film is structured therefore along two lines of action. On one level, it is a literal journey from one location to another. Yet at the same time, the film moves in and out of past and present, fantasy and reality. If we were to chart these actions on a graph, they would form the sign of a cross, an image that is frequently referenced throughout the film.
Viktor Sjostrom plays the part of Borg. Like the character he plays, the actor was a difficult man. Bergman chose to name the character Isak as a pun upon “icy,” and the motif of cold or heartless behavior runs throughout the film. Yet the viewer cannot help but have both empathy and sympathy for Borg. He has suffered heartbreak; he knows the pain of estrangement, and his many foibles and neuroses are patiently borne by his long-suffering housekeeper Agda, who serves as a reflection of the viewer. In Borg’s many faults, we see our own shortcomings, yet likewise we sense that like Borg we too have a chance at redemption.
If Wordsworth was correct that “the child is father of the man,” then “Wild Strawberries” strongly underscores this truth. Everything in Borg’s old age can be traced back to his youth, yet his memories strangely bring comfort rather than pain.
This is one possible interpretation of eternity that Bergman suggests in the film, what we have been we remain, and what we are is what we have always been. The persistence of the past, what Faulkner said is “not even past,” hearkens to Eliot again: “In my end is my beginning.” Still another interpretation of eternity relates to the continued cycle of human birth, growth and death. The pregnant Marianne insists that she will have her child, even though Evald does not initially want the baby. The presence of the unborn child throughout the film serves as a reminder that human life goes ever on, even as one generation passes away and another grows into maturity.
That Bergman is able to get so much philosophical and theological truths into a short film is simply remarkable. Regardless of how we interpret the film, either that Borg is already dead and the story is an allegory, or that Borg is alive and contemplating his entire life, “Wild Strawberries” affirms that life—all life—has dignity, purpose and meaning made, yes, to suffer, but also to be redeemed.