Thursday, 29 June 2017

Wild Strawberries and Ingmar Bergman's concern with love (or the inability to love)

In a discussion a short while ago, my friend Himadri called Wild Strawberries Ingmar Bergman’s Christmas Carol.
Look at this passage from Harvey R. Greenberg’s essay “The Rags of Time” (Ingmar Bergman: Essays in Criticism, edited by Stuart M. Kaminsky with Joseph F. Hill):
“… A lesser artist would have cast Borg in the likeness of Scrooge, waking from troubled dreams to spread good cheer until the end of his days. But Borg is an ancient man with an extremely rigid character. Miss Agda and Evald, though they have been hurt by him, believe nothing else possible at his hands; they are actually as inflexible after their own fashion as he. Brilliantly, Bergman portrays the rejection of Borg’s tentative efforts to soften his behavior towards the old housekeeper and the stinging rebuff he receives from Evald, so much his father’s son. People such as these do not give up their defenses with such facility. And Borg’s self-description in the opening scene is written after this memorable day has passed; the mask he turns to the world would not seem to have altered that significantly.”
Whilst seeing some similarities between Wild Strawberries and A Christmas Carol, I agree with this view—the spiritual journey in Ingmar Bergman’s film (as opposed to the physical journey) doesn’t quite lead to any real transformation; it’s about self-understanding and understanding of people close to him, resulting in a slightly changed outlook but no significant change in person. The film is no parable, nor fairy tale. At that age, people don’t change; Isak Borg can’t be like the protagonist in Kurosawa’s Ikiru. For years, he has been living like a dead man, all of a sudden he’s shocked by Marianne’s admission of her dislike of him, into re-examining his whole life, and through memories and dreams, comes to see his own egotism, rigidity and coldness, and to realise that whilst he has been successful in his career, he has failed in his private life. What makes Wild Strawberries a life-affirming film rather than a cold dissection of a man’s personal failures and his loneliness, is Marianne—the life of the film. She has feeling, she has love, she chooses life—she has seen coldness from Borg’s old mother going down to Borg and then her husband Evald, but somewhere it must end, and she will end it. 
Now, after many films, I’ve concluded that Ingmar Bergman’s main concern, even in the films that thematically deal with the question of God, is sympathy and love, or rather, selfishness and the inability to love and see beyond oneself. Through a Glass Darkly isn’t about God and the vision of God as a giant spider, as much as it’s about a woman’s struggle with schizophrenia, her inability to respond to the love of her husband, and her cold, distant father’s use of her mental disorder as material for his novel. Winter Light deals with faith, but placed at the centre of the film is a cold pastor who can even be unnecessarily harsh and cruel. As Roger Ebert put it:
“There is more silence here than the silence of God. Tomas' late wife is wrapped in the silence of the grave. Tomas is silent to the need of the fisherman. He cannot respond to Marta's love except by stern silence and rejection. Fredrik, the church organist, is silent in the way he pays no attention to the service and wishes for it to be over. Those who are not silent, such as the fisherman and his wife, ask for help and receive none.
But then there is Algot, the crooked sexton. He alone of all these people seems to have given more thought to the suffering of Christ than to his own suffering. His insights into Christ's passion are convincing and empathetic, but the pastor cannot hear him, is wrapped in his own cold indifference.” 
Even The Seventh Seal is not really about the existence of a God. 1 of the 1st images we associate with the film may be the knight playing chess with Death, but Antonius Block isn’t the centre or the only important character of the film. The Seventh Seal must be understood by placing him next to his squire Jons and Jof the actor, both of whom live instead of wasting time searching for answers. Ingmar Bergman’s view is most manifest in the character of Jons, who appears realistic and sceptical, even mocking and cynical, and doesn’t bother himself with metaphysical questions, but throughout the story, we see him act and help others. His actions make Antonius Block’s questions meaningless. The knight’s too wrapped up in himself, till the end. 
I think Ingmar Bergman’s the greatest of filmmakers, because of his mastery of techniques and understanding of human beings, and more importantly, because of his vision and humanity. 

I forgot to mention that I am now back in Oslo for the summer :D 


  1. Di,

    Great review: I've avoided Bergman in the past because of what I've read about his films. It didn't just seem to be my cup of tea. But your opening comments on the film brought back a memory of a book I'd read with a similar concept,and it is a book that I've enjoyed and have read several times.

    Have you read _Anglo-Saxon Attitudes_ by Angus Wilson? Among several themes is the one similar to the reaction to Borg. In the first half the protagonist comes to a realization that many of the problems in his relationships with other people are his fault. Armed with this insight he then tries to change his relationships with others and is rebuffed, for various reasons. He may want change, but change is difficult to accept for many.

    1. I haven't read it. Sounds interesting.
      May I ask why you avoided Ingmar Bergman? Have you seen any of his films now?
      I used to avoid him too, then I plunged into his works (partly because of Kieslowski and Woody Allen, partly because he's my boyfriend's favourite director) and realised that many of my conceptions of him were just wrong.

    2. Di,

      depressing content basically. plus long periods of silence etc.

      I also avoid Woody Allen. I don't need to spend several hours with a whining, depressing neurotic.

      Sorry about that, but I did watch several of his and they had basically the same theme.

    3. I reckon people need to be in the right mood (and right mindset?) to appreciate Ingmar Bergman, and he's not for everybody. However:
      1/ Why are long periods of silence a bad thing? Film is a visual medium.
      2/ Why is it a bad thing that his films basically have the same theme? To quote Kubrick, "I believe Ingmar Bergman, Vittorio De Sica and Federico Fellini are the only three filmmakers in the world who are not just artistic opportunists. By this I mean they don't just sit and wait for a good story to come along and then make it. They have a point of view which is expressed over and over and over again in their films, and they themselves write or have original material written for them."
      Ingmar Bergman's 1 of the true auteurs who made cinema a personal medium (film was his means of self-expression), and he had a specific vision.
      3/ I can see why you don't like Woody Allen though I like his films. However, he's not on the same rank as Ingmar Bergman. He's intelligent and witty, but his films are not visually beautiful, he doesn't do anything inventive or revolutionary, and doesn't make the audience go "wow I didn't realise film could do that".


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