(Since there's nothing else on hand for this week, I'm re-posting this, slightly updated, from October 2007.)
When I decided to re-acquaint myself with the Bergman films I had seen and loved many years ago, and to see those I hadn’t, this was my first step, and as it turned out a very good place to begin. I would recommend it to anyone who’s curious about Bergman but has been put off by what they’ve heard about him, or perhaps, as someone said here a while back, by a bad experience with one of his more difficult or disturbing works.
This film is also a good example of what makes the non-religious Bergman so interesting to some Christians, especially to Catholics. It’s not only that he takes on the big questions and treats them profoundly. It’s that many of the themes of Christian spiritual life work themselves out on an earthly level in the lives of his characters. Wild Strawberries is very similar in that respect to Babette’s Feast, another great film which has no religious intention but is much loved by Catholics because it bears such deep and clear parallels to certain aspects of the faith. It’s not hard to suppose—in fact it’s hard not to suppose—that Bergman’s childhood as the son of a Lutheran clergyman left his mind deeply impressed with Christian ways of thinking even though he rejected the faith. He consistently confirms our belief that the empty place in the human heart is, in fact, as we are so often told, God-shaped.
Wild Strawberries might be described as a story about Purgatory, an earthly and secular rendering of the process we can all expect to undergo after death. It’s a process that frequently begins before death for one who is open to it, a painful process of recognizing how and where one has failed and what one may have lost as a result—a recognition which may itself be the punishment for those failures—and of preparing to accept forgiveness. The film is the account of one day in the life of an elderly physician, Isak Borg, in which both internal and external events come together to confront him with his failures as lover, husband, and father, bringing him a deep and almost unbearable pain (“Is there no mercy?” he begs at one point) followed by the beginnings of reconciliation. And it’s so beautifully done in every way, so rich in its details and their meanings, that anyone who is susceptible to Bergman’s art is likely to find himself wanting to watch it over and over again.
The Criterion Collection (may it be praised) DVD also includes an interview with Bergman. Any Bergman fan who’s acquainted with Wild Strawberries but hasn’t seen this interview should seek this disk out at once. It was done in 1998, when Bergman was 80 and semi-retired. He comes across as a surprisingly unpretentious man, given his achievement and celebrity. Toward the end of the interview he speaks interestingly and movingly about death and faith.
The first comes up in reference to his beloved third wife, whom he married in 1971 and who had died in 1995. His grief is plain; he describes himself, calmly, as “crippled” by her death. And he goes on to say that after having been terribly afraid of death for many years he had, around the time he made The Seventh Seal, at last taken comfort in the idea that it would be a simple extinction. But his wife’s death has disturbed this comfort: that he might never meet her again is “an unbearable thought,” in “violent conflict” with his previously comforting views. Anyone who has his own unbearable thoughts will sympathize.
And when the interviewer asks him if he has perhaps returned to faith in his old age, Bergman dismisses the idea with a laugh, but then begins to reflect: he is “not what you would call religious in any way” but has “a whole lot of ideas about other realities that surround me. I have the feeling sometimes that we’re part of an infinitely larger pattern….You can feel that sometimes.”
Indeed. Or, in the words Bergman gave to Isak Borg some fifty years ago: “In this jumble of events, I seemed to discern an extraordinary logic.”
Here's the Criterion Collection trailer:
Postscript: This Is More Like It
On the occasion of Bergman’s death in July of 2007, I was irritated by a rather stupid (may as well speak plainly) dismissal of his work by John Podhoretz. Some weeks later my late friend Robert sent me a link to this far more perceptive piece by John Simon. Perhaps the Shakespeare comparison reaches too far, but I have no doubt that Simon is far closer to the mark.