August 12, 2020

Lent with Bergman 1 – Wild Strawberries


All along the line, there’s nothing but cold and death and loneliness. It must end somewhere.

– from Wild Strawberries

* * *

It seems to me the movies of Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman would provide fruitful material for us as a source of contemplation during Lent. As part of this year’s IM Lenten emphasis, we will discuss a few of these important 20th century works of artistic genius.

In the 1950s and 1960s Bergman directed a number of European art films that became a canon for students of serious cinema. He used dark, haunting imagery and symbolism concerning the nature and meaning of life, death, God, and human relationships that sparked many a conversation on college campuses and in coffee shops. Jason Ankeny’s bio says that Bergman transformed “a medium long devoted to spectacle into an art capable of profoundly personal meditations into the myriad struggles facing the psyche and the soul.”

Facing our struggles is not the whole of Lent, but certainly forms a part of it. In this season we are encouraged to participate in disciplines of examination and renewal, and as we do we, like Christ in the wilderness, come face to face with fundamental issues of human existence and the testings that accompany them.

A good place to start with Bergman’s films is Wild Strawberries [Smultronstället] (1957), one of his warmest and most accessible early works, thanks primarily to the rich, poignant performance of Victor Sjöström in the lead role.

Ingmar BergmanWild Strawberries is the story of a day’s journey in the life of an successful and respected doctor, Professor Isak Borg. Borg is a widower who lives an unexamined lonely life, cold and aloof from others, especially those closest to him.

The occasion comes when the doctor is to be honored for fifty years of medical practice. He decides to take his car rather than fly to to the ceremony, and he takes his daughter-in-law with him. She has been separated from Borg’s son and doesn’t really like the old man. But she finds that time together in the car gives her opportunity to have revelatory direct, personal conversations with him. They also pick up hitchhikers — two young men and a young woman — who ride with them to the end of the journey. The woman is a double for Borg’s first, long-lost love and this sparks longing and regret in his heart. The travelers have an incident with a quarreling husband and wife who remind the doctor of his own painful marriage. Along the way, they visit the cottage where Borg’s family spent summers during his youth, the town where he had his first medical practice, and his aged mother in her home.

The road trip in Wild Strawberries provides an opportunity to trace the sojourn in Dr. Borg’s soul. Conversations, images, reflections, and dreams he experiences as they travel help him face himself, his mortality, his regrets and failures, and differences between his distorted self-image and what other people really think of him.

Dreams are particularly important devices in this film. A surreal vision of a funeral carriage forces Dr. Borg to face his mortality straight on at the outset. Later, he has an touching nostalgic reverie of the summer cottage and young love. He also has a deeply disturbing dream: the lecture hall where he once taught becomes an examination room in which he is tested and found wanting. In the end, when Borg closes his eyes and beholds a scene of serene contentment, it reflects that he has, in some sense, begun to come to terms with his life and relationships.

* * *

Wild_Strawberries_2Lent is the season of mask-destruction.

Listen to your life. Listen to your past. Listen to those around you, those who know you best.

Stop listening to the voices of self-defense that keep you deceived. Stop speaking excuses. Let the truth sink in.

Take the journey. Face yourself honestly.

In a dream, Dr. Borg heard these words: “A doctor’s first duty is to ask for forgiveness.”

It is everyone’s first duty.

* * *

Wild Strawberries [Smultronstället] (1957)
Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman
Starring Victor Sjöström, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, Gunnar Björnstrand

Many of Bergman’s films are in The Criterion Collection and available on Hulu Plus.


  1. David Cornwell says

    “Listen to your life. Listen to your past. Listen to those around you, those who know you best.

    “Stop listening to the voices of self-defense that keep you deceived. Stop speaking excuses. Let the truth sink in.

    “Take the journey. Face yourself honestly.”

    This is not easy. Especially when listening is hard.

    • Stop listening to the voices of self-defense that keep you deceived…..

      It is really hard to not react when someone is communicating something you don’t want to hear. Humbleness comes to mind. And there are days I am better at this than others. No one likes a mirror held up in front of them because of vulnerability, fear, perception and yet sometimes it is the best thing that can happen.

      Humility – a quality I have been trying to incorporate for years and also one I can fail at rather easily…..

  2. Lent is hard enough without adding Bergman to the mix.

    Honestly, though, I’ve never been attracted to Bergman, I don’t know if I’d have the patience to sit through one of his movies, which appear to me to be composed mostly of people sitting in bare, austerely decorated interiors discussing depressing things before going outside into even barer, more austere Scandinavian snowscapes. I have seen several of Fellini’s movies, and I like him, but I wouldn’t watch any of them during Lent.

    I allow myself one movie each week, on Saturday nights. This year the mix is

    1) Arranged – I found this one too charming a movie about a conservative Muslim girl and an Orthodox Jewish girl who bond over the fact that they both are going to have arranged marriages in deeply patriarchal subcultures.

    2) Tokyo Godfathers My only rerun, I bawl like a baby every time I see this.

    3) Into Great Silence I hope this isn’t boring. It is either going to be transformative or entirely pointless. The same people who recommended this to me also recommend Terence Malick, who I just don’t get.

    4) Luther – This is another curiosity piece. I liked Joseph Fiennes a lot in Shakespeare In Love and Enemy At The Gates.

    5) For the Saturday before St. Mary of Egypt Sunday, I want to see something hallucinogenic. By this time, I’m getting into Buzz Town anyway for lack of sugar. I have the South African film Forgiveness scheduled. I hope it fills the bill.

    6) Lazarus Saturday is always reserved for a big, in your face, Hollywood Biblical epic like The Ten Commandments or Ben-Hur. This year I thought I’d go with the ultimate Jesus Freak movie, Zeffireli’s Brother Sun Sister Moon.

    • I saw Into Great Silence and it was just OK, in my opinion. Brother Son Sister Moon…I didn’t like it.

      The others you listed sound interesting.

    • I loved Brother Sun Sister Moon, one of the few movies that made my jaw drop.

    • I really appreciated Into Great Silence. It was rather meditative, so I think one’s opinion of it might have more to do with what is going on internally when you turn it on.

  3. “Lent is hard enough without adding Bergman to the mix.”

    Hear, hear! Truer words were never spoken.

    I saw two Bergman films many years ago (Wild Strawberries and Virgin Spring) and both are pretty depressing. For what it’s worth, I think that Dr. Borg dies at the end of the film, not “has, in some sense, begun to come to terms with his life and relationships”….

    I think I will opt out of this particular Ingmar Bergman film festival.

    • Bob, no Dr. Borg doesn’t die, he goes to sleep at his son’s home after trying to reconcile his son and daughter in law.

      Of all Bergman’s films of the period, Wild Strawberries is the least depressing. That’s why I wanted to start with it. I almost think it should have been in color. There are many smiles and even moments of laughter, especially in scenes depicting the family home and with Dr. Borg’s housekeeper. She’s a hoot.

      • CM, I’m in the “Bergman is too bleak” camp as well. He’s definitely a director that I admire, but man! His films are (almost) relentlessly painful and seem to over-focus on intense suffering + the absence of hope. Just not my cuppa, even when relatively “light.”

      • CM, you can keep on with the Bergman movies. I’ve seen and ‘enjoy’ them all. They are in keeping with my upper midwest, Lutheran, Scandinavian upbringing and make me nostalgic. BTW, you heard about the Norwegian fellow who loved his wife so much that he almost told her?

  4. >“Lent is hard enough without adding Bergman to the mix.”

    If Lent is hard, you might be doing something wrong.

    • flatrocker says

      Sounds like you found the two-fer-one special on cheap grace.
      Got any coupons?

      • Nope. Just read the Bible. Genesis to Revelation. Hebrews most recently. Jesus is the High Priest and the sacrifice. Nothing else needed. Amen.

        • And admittedly there’s more to it than that, but it’s the best I can come up with in response for the silly cheap grace/two-for-one coupon comment.

  5. “I want my
    LSD, golly gee,
    DDT, wowee!
    Daddy’s broke
    Holy smoke
    My future’s bleak
    Ain’t it neat?
    Yeah, I wanna be well”
    – Ramones

  6. So because we are saved by grace alone, by faith.. facing ourselves is always easy? Huh?

  7. Thank you thank you thank you for discussing Bergman here. He is one of my favorite directors – his material is so rich.