In the first part of this blog post, I talked about Joseph Campbell and Hero’s Journey. Campbell is deeply influenced by Carl Gustav Jung, whose theories of psychology centres around the concept of “Individuation”: the inner journey of an individual to discover his innermost being. According to Jung, this starts with dreams, and if the dreamer is allowed to follow the dream symbols to their logical conclusion (often with the help of a trained psychoanalyst), it will result in the person achieving his/ her full potential. He says that this dream journey is reflected in most of the myths and folktales across the world. (The whole of the Jungian concepts are outlined in a fantastic book, Man and His Symbols, a scholarly tome that is eminently readable. I will review that book someday on this blog. I strongly advise everyone who is interested in art and literature to read it.)
Echoing Jung, Campbell made his famous statement: “Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths.” In The
Seventh Seal, we were treated to the public dream involving Antonios Block and Death and their chess tournament: in Wild Strawberries, we enter the private mythical world of Dr. Isak Borg, a highly respected doctor and curmudgeonly old man. “Wild strawberries” as a symbol of lost innocence, first encountered in The Seventh Seal, becomes the central metaphor here: the chessboard which was central to the earlier film is passingly shown in the first scene. The movies, made only months apart, are close enough to be twins, yet strikingly different.
Fittingly enough, Bergman’s second journey starts with a dream.
Wild Strawberries: Journey Inward
The movie is presented as memoir by Dr. Borg of his journey from Stockholm to Lund, where he received his original degree. Before we start, let’s allow Dr. Borg to introduce himself, in the framing sequence, before he prepares for this trip.
In our relations with other people, we mainly discuss and evaluate their character and behavior. That is why I have withdrawn from nearly all so-called relations. This has made my old age rather lonely. My life has been full of hard work, and I am grateful. It began as toll for bread and butter and ended in a love for science. I have a son, also a doctor, who lives in Lund. He has been married for many years. They have no children. My old mother is still alive and very active, despite her age. My wife Karin has been dead for many years. I am lucky in having a good housekeeper. I should perhaps add that I am an old pedant, which at times has been rather trying for myself and those around me. My name is Isak Borg, and I am 78. Tomorrow I shall receive an honorary degree in Lund Cathedral.
This sequence is brilliant, as it introduces the character fully without resorting to too much exposition. We are shown the doctor’s study, where he sitting and writing his (presumably) diary: as he talks, the camera moves over the objects on his desk, the pictures of his son, wife and aged mother. All his near-and-dear have been objectified. There is a dog at his feet, which quietly follows him out as he calls it; even here there is no pat on the head, no sign of intimacy. In a significant detail (which I missed in my original viewing), there is a chessboard in a corner where the pieces are set. Dr. Borg contemplates a move before going out to dinner – obviously he is playing by himself. If one reads it along with The Seventh Seal, this could be seen as a premonition of approaching death.
On the eve of his journey, Isak Borg has a strange dream. He dreams that he is walking in strangely deserted and empty streets, where he has a terrifying encounter with a man with a closed face (who collapses at his touch) and a clock with no hands. Then a hearse arrives, and a coffin falls down from it. On closer inspection, Dr. Borg finds his own body… though not quite dead, because the corpse wakes up and grabs his hand.
This sequence, shot in stark black and white frames by Gunnar Fischer, is worthy of Kafka and Dali; it gives us the goofy feeling of unidentified menace which is the trademark of nightmares. Maybe because of this dream, Isak Borg decides to drive down to Lund from Stockholm in the early hours of the morning, instead of flying, against the counsel of his long-time housekeeper, Miss Agda. He is joined on the tour by his daughter-in-law Marianne, who is living apart from her husband Evald with her father-in-law: both the housekeeper and Dr. Borg are surprised to hear that she wants to return to her husband in Lund.
So the stage is set for the journey of discovery, with one of the classic road movies of all time.
Jung has said that a significant number of the folk and fairy stories start with a king who has fallen ill, and his sons must set out to procure the magic balm or object which will restore him to health. Actually, it is the soul which is sick, and dreams tell the person that he is ready for the journey of individuation. Seen in this light, the doctor’s decision to travel by road is significant: for a man who has remained aloof from other human beings all his life, he has decided to “come down to earth”. The fact that his daughter-in-law accompanies him is also significant – as she says at the beginning of the trip, he has so far categorically refused to mediate in their marital troubles, even though she hoped he would. The enclosed space of the car forces an uneasy intimacy upon them.
Through the dialogue between Marianne and Dr. Borg, we come to learn about the mechanics of the Borg family. They are a group of people who cannot connect. Evald has taken a loan from his father, and is being forced to pay it back, by some strange code of honour; even though it is keeping Evald poor and Dr. Borg does not require the money. Even after Marianne’s explanation that this is the root cause of the trouble between them, the doctor is not willing to relent.
Immediately after this exchange, however, Dr. Borg decides to take a detour to the summer house where he spent many happy days of his youth. Here, as Marianne goes for a swim, he slips into a daydream where he sees Sara, his cousin and childhood sweetheart, gathering wild strawberries; and the romantic scene between her and Sigfrid, his brother, whom she ultimately married. He also witnesses a typical holiday evening of his large family, where Sara confesses that Isak is good but too highbrow for her – she is drawn to the wicked and manly Sigfrid, against her will. As this scene fades away, leaving Dr. Borg “overwhelmed with feelings of emptiness and sadness”, he encounters a hitchhiker on her way to Italy with her boyfriend and chaperon – she is also Sara (in the movie, both characters are played by Bibi Andersson), endowed with the same bubbly nature as his childhood sweetheart.
Sara is hitchhiking to Italy with her sweetheart Anders who is studying to be a minister: their chaperone Viktor, an atheist, is also in love with her. The constant silly prattle of Sara, and the asinine quarrels of Viktor and Anders about the existence of God, are a direct link to the doctor’s youth, the lost innocence of the “wild strawberries”.
Here onwards, the memories and dreams of Isak Borg begin to mesh with the reality of the ‘Now’. On the way from the summer residence, their car nearly collides with the car of Alman and Berit, a couple who bicker continuously; and revel in hurting each other. They also join the doctor in the car, but soon get on everybody’s nerves due to their constant quarrelling. Ultimately, they are abandoned unceremoniously at the roadside by Marianne, who says she must do it “at least for the sake of the children”. The idyllic pre-marital stage of romance is contrasted here (rather explicitly) with the hellish post-marital state; Marianne and Evald are on the way to that troubled territory, while Dr. Borg is past it. As they get out, Berit says: “Forgive us – if you can.” The shot of the couple standing abandoned by the roadside is terrifying in the desolation it signifies.
Immediately after this distressing incident, Dr. Borg reaches the suburb where he spent his youth, and meets his aged mother: Marianne accompanies him. But before that meeting, there is a small yet significant incident where he meets up with an old acquaintance Ackerman and his wife who runs a petrol station: they are so much in awe of the doctor that they intend to call their unborn child after him! This is a new Isak Borg which we meet here. As Ackerman refuses to accept payment for petrol, he tells the doctor: “There are some things which can’t be paid back – not even with petrol. We haven’t forgotten. Ask anyone around here. They all talk of your kindness.” Dr. Borg replies: “Maybe I should have stayed here…” not quite understanding what he is saying. But we do.
Afterwards, they all have lunch and wine, and the doctor tells stories: he is a hit with the teens. The doctor believes that they simply did not “laugh out of courtesy”. Isak Borg is thawing; slowly moving away from his world of cold, hard scientific fact to the metaphorical world where wild strawberries abound the year round. This clash of the world views is presented as an argument between the atheist Viktor (who is studying to be a doctor) and Anders, the future minister. When confronted with the question which world view he believes in, Dr. Borg deftly sidesteps and sings a hymn, in which Marianne and Anders join in. Viktor derisively calls it “a love poem”, not knowing how close to the truth he is.
Immediately after these pleasant interludes, we meet Isak’s ancient mother, and that meeting is far from edifying. If Isak Borg is cold, Old Mrs. Borg is absolutely frozen at 96. As she opens an old box, full of her children’s toys, she keeps up a monologue.
Here are some of your toys – I have been trying to think which of you owned what. Ten children, and all dead except Isak. Twenty grandchildren. Evald’s the only one who comes to see me. Don’t get me wrong… I am not complaining. Fifteen great-grandchildren whom I’ve never seen. I send presents for all their birthdays. I get letters of thanks, but nobody bothers to visit me – unless they want to borrow money. Oh, I know I’m tiresome… and I’ve one more fault. I don’t die. The inheritance isn’t being divided up the way these crafty young people had planned.
Mrs. Borg complains of the cold; she has been cold all her life. It is the coldness of the soul that we are encountering here. As they are about to leave, she shows them the gift she proposes to give her grandson as he turns 50: her father’s watch, without hands, which she says “doesn’t matter”.
Dark Night of the Soul
By now it’s pouring with rain: Viktor and Anders have had a tiff, trying to decide God’s existence through a boxing match. As Marianne drives, Isak Borg dozes off, to be disturbed by “humiliating dreams”. He says “there was something powerful in these dream images which bore relentlessly into my mind”.
Dr. Borg has a classic “examination dream” (it seems we all have this in moments of crisis), where he fails every kind of examination possible: but before that he is literally made to face himself by his cousin Sara, as they hold the conversation in the garden of the old summer house, in front of a basket of spilled strawberries. She holds up a mirror to him.
Sara: Have you looked in the mirror, Isak? Then I’ll show you what you look like. You are a worried old man who’s soon going to die, but I have all my life before me – that hurt your feelings, after all.
Isak: No, it didn’t hurt.
Sara: Yes, it hurt, because you can’t bear the truth. The truth is that I’ve been too considerate – and so became unintentionally cruel.
Isak: I understand.
Sara: No, you don’t understand because we don’t speak the same language: look in the mirror again. [as Isak turns his face] No, don’t turn away…
Isak: I see.
Sara: Listen to me. I am going to marry your brother Sigfrid. Love is almost a game for us. Look at your face now… try to smile!
Sara: There! Now you are smiling!
Isak: But it hurts so…
Sara: As Professor Emeritus, you should know why it hurts. But you don’t know. You know so much, but you don’t know anything.
This realisation of ignorance is the first step to enlightenment. Going off in search of Sara, Dr. Borg is confronted by a stern examiner who behaves like a grand inquisitor and hauls him over coals. He fails all the exams, the most terrifying one being the confirmation of death when the corpse suddenly springs to life. The examiner, accusing him of guilt, incompetence, ruthlessness and selfishness, makes him witness a scene: that of an illicit sexual encounter between his wife and her lover, which he actually witnessed in the past. The most telling point of the whole episode is that his wife is angry that Dr. Borg will forgive her, ostensibly due to magnanimity, but in reality, “because he doesn’t care about anything – he’s so cold.”
The examiner tells Isak that his wife is gone forever: “Removed by an operation. A surgical masterpiece – no pain. Nothing that bleeds or trembles. A perfect achievement in its way.” And the punishment for the doctor’s crimes? “The usual. Loneliness.”
Dr. Borg is at the lowest point of his spiritual journey: from here onwards, the only movement possible is upwards. He has been through the dark night of the soul – now is the trek towards redemption.
Having woken up, Borg is ready to confess to Marianne that his dreams seem to be “telling him things which he won’t listen to when awake – that he is dead, even though he’s alive.” This prompts his daughter-in-law to talk about her problems: she is leaving Evald, because she is pregnant and wants to have the child and he doesn’t want it. He does not want to bring life into the hellish world he inhabits – his only wish is to be stone dead. And after meeting Dr. Borg’s mother, Marianne understands, because he, his mother and Evald are all more dead than alive – in her words, “all along the line, there’s nothing but cold and death and loneliness”. It has to end somewhere, so she is leaving her husband.
At this point, the hitchhiking teenagers who have been out stretching their legs come back with a bunch of wild flowers they have picked to congratulate the doctor: calling him a very wise old man who knows everything about life and wishing that he would live a hundred years, ironically contradicting all that he himself was saying. The movie suddenly brightens. Isak Borg is riding into the light.
Dr. Borg’s receiving of the honour, coming immediately after he “fails his exams”, is something of an anticlimax: the hollowness of the ceremony is evident to himself and the viewer, though probably not to the others. The hint that Isak is a changed man, however, comes at the end when he suggests to his housekeeper that they use first names – a suggestion which shocks her. Similarly, he broaches the subject of the loan to his son, evidently with the intention of writing it off, but Evald curtly replies that he’ll pay it without understanding what his father means. However, his travel companions have come to understand the changed Borg: as she kisses him goodnight, Marianne says: “I like you, Uncle Isak.” Also the girl Sara, who has managed to find a ride up to Hamburg, tells Dr. Borg cheekily as she leaves: “It’s you who I really love, father Isak. Today, tomorrow, always.” And he replies: “I’ll remember.”
The Final Dream
Dr. Isak Borg is preparing to sleep.
If I have been worried or sad during the day, it often calms me to recall childhood memories. I did so on this evening too.
In his memories, he is back at his summer residence, along with Sara, his cousins and parents. The wild strawberries are all finished: it seems the season is over. However, as Isak watches his father and mother (blurred figures in the movie) fishing by the side of the lake in a picture of domestic bliss, he is a happy man.
The movie ends with Dr. Borg asleep, with a smile on his face.
The Seventh Seal was a tragic journey of disintegration; Wild Strawberries is an edifying one of integration. In the former, the events are distressing, the action is epic, and the setting dystopic: in the latter, the events are humdrum, there is no action and the setting is extremely urban and mundane. However, watching both the movies in succession, one feels that the distressing questions which plagued Bergman during The Seventh Seal have been answered through Wild Strawberries. The memory of the magical evening that Antonius Block has been trying to hold on to, as he partook of milk and wild strawberries with Jof and Mia, has finally been captured forever and enshrined.