There’s an idyllic scene in Ingmar Bergman’s medieval danse macabre The Seventh Seal in which the death-haunted protagonist enjoys a brief respite from his crisis, sharing a simple meal of wild strawberries and milk with a blessed family of players.
The symbolism of this idyll is revisited in Wild Strawberries, the Swedish title of which literally translates as "strawberry patch," and is an idiom for nostalgic or sweet memories of some happy time in one’s past to which one returns in one’s mind, picking particular moments to cherish.
For Bergman’s protagonist, an elderly doctor named Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström) who significantly shares Bergman’s initials, there is bitter as well as sweet in the fields of his mind. The film is a road trip that is also a journey of self-discovery as Borg is forced to confront his own coldness of heart and need for forgiveness.
Unlike The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries isn’t greatly preoccupied with the question of God or the afterlife — indeed, the debate is touched on only in a semi-comic quarrel between two young men Borg picks up on the road, who are really strutting their plumage for the benefit of a female companion named Sara (Bibi Andersson) who reminds Borg of his first love (also named Sara, and also played by Bibi Andersson). When Sara asks Borg himself if he believes in God, he indulgently passes on the question.
Yet the film bears witness that unconcern for God and and afterlife is no defense against dread of judgment and a guilty conscience or the longing for redemption, and that nostalgia is no refuge for one who is dead inside. With unyielding moral precision no less austere for the lack of any religious conviction behind it, Bergman subjects his protagonist to judgment for the crimes of indifference and selfishness, and pronounces a verdict of "the usual" sentence: loneliness. Had Bergman set out to create an allegory of a loveless soul facing eternal judgment, he could hardly have crafted symbolism more exact; fans of C. S. Lewis may be reminded of The Great Divorce.
Yet like The Great Divorce, Bergman depicts only a dream of judgment from which the protagonist ultimately awakens. Wild Strawberries’s use of haunting dream imagery and stylized memories is similar to that of Fellini’s later 8½; yet Bergman’s self-examination and confession has the moral rigor lacking in Fellini’s cheerfully hollow show, which is precisely why the hope of reconciliation and final peace with which Bergman dares to end his film is so much more persuasive and uplifting than Fellini’s climactic whistling in the dark.
Starkly existential, boldly poetic, slow and grim, Ingmar Bergman’s great classic The Seventh Seal has haunted film aficionados, baffled and bored college students, inspired innumerable parodists, and challenged both believers and unbelievers for nearly half a century.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.