How Ingmar Bergman uses landscape in ‘Wild Strawberries’

In this post I will be looking at how Scandanavian director Ingmar Bergman uses landscape to help portray meaning and themes in his film Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället).

Isak Borg

Professor Isak Borg, played by Victor Sjöström, seems to be simply too logical when dealing with matters of the heart, and this has led to him leading a very solitary life. Sjöström wrote and directed the 1921 film The Phantom Carriage, a film in which Sjöström  himself played the main role of David Holm. The Phantom Carriage also deals with a troubled man examining his life.

Isak Borg takes a scientific approach to everything, and this has led to him having strained relationships with his family and friends. The film follows Professor Borg evaluating the decisions he has made in his life, and looking back at his past. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, he is haunted by his past, present and future choices. The landscapes in this film acts as the backdrop for this introspective journey.

Bergman himself was sick in hospital at the time of writing this script. Facing death forces many people to review their lives and assess the choices they have made. This film has autobiographical qualities for Bergman.

Isak's luxurious house

The film opens with Professor Borg sitting in his study, in what is a very large and decadent house. He is obviously wealthy, and even though he is surrounded by pictures of his family when he talks about them there is no emotion, he is merely describing who they are. He does not tell us about their personalities, only their place within his world. At the start of his drive to Lund, his daughter-in-law Marianne point this out his coldness to him. She talks about the money that she and her husband, his only son Evald, owe him. It is ruining their marriage. This has no effect on Professor Borg, who says “A promise is a promise. And I know Evald respects that.”

In this film dreams play an essential role in Professor Borg’s maturing process. In these dreams Isak cannot escape what he can ignore while awake. The first dream he has involves him walking through an empty town, where eyes are watching him and the clock has no hands. He is small and vulnerable. A hearse goes past, and hits a lamppost, knocking the coffin to the ground. The body inside the coffin is Professor Borg, and it forces him to face his own mortality.

Subconscious messages

Professor Borg takes Marianne to the house where he spent his summers as a child. He fondly remembers this time with his large family. The house is overlooking a lake, surrounded by trees and fields. It’s idyllic landscape reflects the loving memories that Isak associates with it. He sees a vision of the girl he was once in love with, Sara, sitting in the bushes. Sara acts as a ghost from his past. She will end up marrying his brother, an event which probably triggered his bitter attitude regarding relationships. The Isak that Sara talks about is so different from the old Professor Borg we are confronted with. There is a young girl who interrupts his thoughts, ironically she is also called Sara – played by the same actress too. She and her two friends join Professor Borg and Marianne on their journey.

Sara at the summer house

When driving along in the countryside, they are nearly crashed into by an arguing couple, Alman and Berit. They are constantly insulting and belittling each other. This unhappy pair represent how Professor Borg has let the relationships in his life turn to ruin. His marriage was also a failure, they make him think about his wife Karina. After a violent outburst by Berit, Marianne leaves them on a stretch of road by a forest. These two also serve as ghosts from his past, more specifically from his marriage.

They then reach some beautiful scenery when Professor Borg talks about where he had his first practice. The middle of the film signifies the middle of his life (Erikson). It symbolizes a time when he was happy, and the landscape reflects upon this; the sun is shining, the road winds through the hills, with many trees either side, and water in the distance. The place he so affectionately remembers is the place with the nicest landscape so far. Along this road they stop at a petrol station, where we meet a couple who are delighted to see him. They reveal how popular Isak once was. He ponders “Maybe I should have stayed here.” He may have moved on and become a wealthy and respected professor, but it would seem he has sacrificed his family to do so.

Professor Borg is in “good spirits” over lunch. The group eat overlooking the impressive coastline. As Isak opens up so does the landscape. He becomes less bitter and less reserved the further along they get in their journey. Derek Malcolm sums it up in the following way “its characters pass through a natural world that seems at odds with their own impermanence but whose beauty also seems somehow to instruct them” (theguardian.co.uk).

Borg over lunch

The interior of Isak’s mother’s house is similar to his own. She is very blunt and forward in her approach, and we see how alike both of these Borgs are. She talks about their large family, but how none of them come to visit her. She is a ghost of the future, what he will become unless he reforms.

Marianne talks about her problems with Evald: she is pregnant with their child and Evald does not want a child. He tells Marianne he was “an unwanted child in a hellish marriage”, and that he cannot do that to a child. Marianne and Evald’s problems are a direct result of Isak’s own skills as a husband and as a father. Marianne is the ghost of the present, she helps him to save himself.

The rain arrives

Bergman uses pathetic fallacy. The storm that Marianne and Isak predicted has arrived. The rain starts to fall just as Isak starts to have another bad dream. He is sitting in the strawberry patch at the summer house. His childhood Sara tells him he is now an old man who will die soon. She talks about how she will marry his brother, and Isak breaks down, saying how it hurts him. She runs barefoot through the tall grass, collects the baby and goes inside. A sense of impending doom surrounds the house; the sky is dark, the wind howls, the music is eerie and the flocks of birds are gathering. The dream then takes a turn for the worse, when the Professor arrives to get his award, he is told he is incompetent, and that his wife has accused him of being ruthless, callous and selfish. The examiner, Alman, leads him from the intimidating, high-ceilinged classroom out into the woods. They walk through wilting and dead foliage. He is facing how he acted as a husband, and is repenting for it. He is tortured with the image of his wife cheating on him, he stands by the trees watching her in the clearing. That landscape, along with Alman’s presence, also shows us how his marriage had failed.

His final, and ultimately most joyful scene is the final scene where the walks through a blooming meadow, hand in hand with the Sara of his childhood. They walk through the rich forest until they find his parents relaxing by the water. This image is the one which finally brings him to peace with his life.

The lake at the house

Bergman uses the landscapes in Wild Strawberries to reflect upon the inner workings of Isak’s mind. He uses nature to help him come to terms with the poor decisions he has made. As he thinks of happier times, the landscape that surrounds him becomes more vibrant. When he has bad dreams he is depicted in depressing areas such as an examination hall or a deserted street. Professor Borg’s reflective experience has been mimicked in the landscapes of the film.

  • Bergman, Ingmar, dir. Wild Strawberries. AB Svensk Filmindustri, 1957. 
  • Cuccinello, Glen. “‘Bergman and Dreams’ at Harvard.” Journal of the University Film Association 30.4 (1978): 47–48.
  • Flower, Dean. “Ingmar Bergman’s Autobiography in Film.” The Hudson Review 42.2 (1989): 330–336.
  • Malcolm, Derek. “Ingmar Bergman: Wild Strawberries” The Guardian. The Guardian, 10 June 1999.
  • Scott, James F. “The Achievement of Ingmar Bergman.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 24.2 (1965): 263–272.
  • Steene, Birgitta. “Images and Words in Ingmar Bergman’s Films.” Cinema Journal 10.1 (1970): 23–33.
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Postmodernist techniques in the horror films ‘Scream’ and ‘Halloween’

Here I will look at the postmodern techniques in Scream and Halloween; how they relate to each other, other horror films and the horror genre. 

The term ‘postmodern’ is generally taken to mean something that literally comes after ‘modern’; even newer, fresh or up to the minute. It normally challenges views or traditions of the ‘modern’ era, and proposes new ways of thinking.

Postmodernism is now a term most commonly used for films, television shows, art and literature that reference other works; they can be obvious parodies or very subtle similarities. They may be missed by those who don’t know what is being referred to. While it won’t take away from the audience’s joy, it produces a feeling of being ‘in the know’ for those who do understand the reference. Some postmodern shows include Family Guy, The Simpsons and South Park.

The films I will look at are the Halloween, and Scream. Halloween was released in 1978 and directed by John Carpenter. Scream came later, in 1996. It was directed by Wes Craven and makes many references to Halloween throughout. Both films are ‘slasher’ films, where the killers wear masks, carry knives andmainly target teenagers in high school.

In her essay ‘Recreational Terror: Postmodern Elements of the Contemporary Horror Film’ (available through Jstor), Isabel Pinedo names five characteristics that are present in the postmodern horror genre; violence, violation of boundaries, irrationality, lack of narrative closure and a bounded experience of fear. I am going to use these as a formula for analyzing both Scream and Halloween.

Violence

Halloween is not a film centered on violence. Most of the film consists of Michael stalking his soon to be victims. At the start we see six year-old Michael stab his sister to death. But do we really see him killing her? Because of his mask, we never see the knife penetrating the skin; we are only given the impression of it. When Michael escapes fifteen years later, he stabs and chokes his victims in a variety of ways. We always see Michael killing the women in the film, but never see the men die. While there is violence in Halloween, it is not particularly overt; we never see any cut up bodies, and there is barely any blood shown.

In Scream, there are frequent, bloody deaths, which are far more gruesome than those in Halloween. The opening sequence is also a murder scene. Casey Becker and her boyfriend Steve are tortured before being killed. Steve has been heavily beaten, bound to a chairand placed on Casey’s back porch. It is here that he is violently slashed to death. His wounds are clear to the audience, and there is a lot of blood. When Casey tries to run away she gets stabbed several times, before being hung in a tree and cut open, exposing her insides. At this point, the film has already showed more blood, guts and gore than the whole of Halloween.

Violation of Boundaries

In Halloween, Michael Myers crosses the familial boundaries by killing his own sister. The fact that Michael is only six at the time is even more horrifying. Even though Judith should be in charge, it turns out she is the one who needs to be protected. He also breaks many physical boundaries; the injuries that become inflicted upon him would kill any normal man, but it cannot stop him. He is shot six times by Dr. Loomis but he survives. This is especially terrifying because it seems nobody can stop him.

The main boundary that Scream crosses is the boundary between film and reality. The obvious references to several popular culture films blur the lines between the characters being in our reality: aware of these films, with their own criticisms and opinions of them, and them being in their own horror film, separate from our world.

Both of the film’s murderers break violate the victims personal boundaries with their violent acts towards them. They also break moral boundaries and legal boundaries as they go on their killing sprees.

Irrationality

Irrationality is a key theme in Halloween. We all want to know why Michael acts the way he does. He has no clear motive, but we are able to link it back to his Judith; he wrote ‘sister’ on the back of his asylum door and returned to his family home after he escaped. He also steals Judith’s gravestone and places it over Annie’s dead body. The person with the most rationality is Dr. Loomis. He is only taken seriously by the audience. Dr. Loomis describes Michael by saying “this isn’t a man…” If Michael really is as “evil” as Dr. Loomis describes, we should be very scared that he is free.

In Scream, the irrationality takes the form of the killer. Throughout the film we wonder why all this is happening, and who could be behind it all, whereas we know exactly who it is in Halloween. This is enhanced by the police presence as they are trying to find out what we want to know. Motives and people are questioned throughout the film:

Everybody’s a suspect! – Randy

When we find out it is Billy we are surprised, even more so when it’s revealed that Stu is his accomplice. We find out Billy’s mother left because his father was having an affair with Sidney’s mother, and Billy has been struggling to cope since. However, this does nothing to excuse their actions. When questioned about his motives, Stu reacts almost-comically, saying “peer pressure”.

Not having any reasoning capabilities creates a terrifying monster because without rationality, they cannot see what they are doing is wrong, and it’s very unlikely the monster will stop.

Lack of Narrative Closure

In Halloween, we are left with no closure. After being shot and falling from a balcony, Michael has managed to survive and escape. He is still out there and able to carry on hurting people. This film is one of the best to apply this technique. At the end of the movie the theme music returns as we are shown several shots of the films locations. Over the top of all this, we can hear Michael’s breathing. He could be anywhere, in any of these locations. Michael is anywhere he wants to be.

This does not apply to Scream so much. Our questions are resolved when Billy and Stu confess to Sidney that are responsible for the killing but are going to frame Sidney’s father. They are overheard by Gail Weathers, who creates a tell-all news story once they have been killed. Everybody will know what happened. Billy and Stu are both dead which satisfies the audience because they were so anxious to be the only ones left alive.

Bounded experience of fear

Isabel Pinedo likens watching a horror movie to a rollercoaster, saying that in horror films “fear and pleasure commingle.” We use our rational minds to distinguish the movie from our everyday lives, and keep the two separate. Both Carpenter and Craven ask us to suspend these rational thoughts for the duration of the movie. However, when we leave the cinema, we aren’t looking around for a crazed killer in a mask.

In Halloween, we like to think that the authorities would never allow Michael Myers to escape, they would listen to people like Dr. Loomis and crisis would be averted. We trust those in charge to keep us safe from such people.

In Scream, although we are able to separate the characters world from our own, the lines between the two are blurred. They like the same movies as us, they dress like us, eat and drink like us, and are subject to the same advertising as us. If they were in a horror film, how are they aware of other horror films such as Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street? These hazy and unclear boundaries aim to set the film in our world, rather than in the realm of the horror movie.

How Scream references other horror films

I will point out the numerous references that Scream makes to other pop culture films. All these allusions make Scream truly postmodern.

  • The character Billy Loomis was named after Dr. Loomis in Halloween, who was named after Sam Loomis in Psycho. Also, the girl who plays Annie in Halloween is called Nancy Loomis. There is multiple inter-textual referencing between Scream, Halloween and Psycho. Jamie Lee Curtis was chosen for her role in Halloween precisely because her mother played the lead female role in Psycho.
  • At the start of Scream, Casey Becker, played by Drew Barrymore, is asked to name the killers in Halloween and Friday the 13th.
  • Billy’s line “We all go a little mad sometimes” is a direct quote from Norman Bates in Psycho. 
  • In a comical reference to A Nightmare on Elm Street, the janitor of the school is shown wearing a fedora and striped jumper similar to Freddy Krueger’s. The principal even refers to him as ‘Fred’. This acts as comic relief.
  • When the principle is killed, there is a close up of his eye in which we can see the mask of the killer. This is an obvious allusion to Psycho and the famous shower scene.
  • In both films, characters are sent to the ‘McKenzie’s’ house for help.
  • Randy mentions ‘Leatherface’ at one point, a direct reference to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
  • Tatum tells Sidney she is starting to soundlike something out of a “Wes Carpenter” film: a blending of Wes Craven and John Carpenter.
  • There are other minimal references made to The HowlingThe Exorcist and Silence of the Lambs as well as the characters of ‘Norman Bates’ and ‘Hannibal Lecter’.
  • During the party at Stu’s house, they all decide to watch Halloween. Randy explains the
    rules of horror films. Randy seems to be narrating Halloween and his own life, his own horror movie. Randy screams “he’s behind you!” at the screen, while the killer of his own movie is right behind him. When Dewey enters the house to investigate, the soundtrack to Halloween also acts as the soundtrack for Scream.

Both of the films are postmodern and both reference the horror films that have come before them. Both have had a huge effect of the horror movie genre and have created a new tradition in the horror genre. John Carpenter and Wes Craven have subverted and adapted the conventions to fit each of their films.