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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.