2018 Film Essays

A Retreat into the Self: Introspection and Egoism in Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Wild Strawberries’

A fastidious chronicler of his own psyche, the legendary Ingmar Bergman remains arguably cinema’s prime example of an artist who looks inward, rather than outward, for inspiration. Often mining insight and emotion from the rocky relationship between the intellectual mind and the more primal fears and desires of our inner animal, Bergman uses the historically haunted landscape of rural Europe as a canvas on which to paint his dreams, memories and personal demons.

Bergman’s penchant for giving physical form to the conscious and subconscious mind is rarely more apparent than in his 1957 masterpiece Wild Strawberries. Inspired in part by the director’s childhood memories and his troubled relationship with his father, it is a work that moves fluidly between past and present, fantasy and reality, as elderly physician Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström) contemplates his own mortality and reflects on all the people he has hurt and who have hurt him. But perhaps more than any other entry in Bergman’s filmography, Wild Strawberries also sees the director take himself to task for his own solipsistic tendencies. It is an introspective work about realising the harmful repercussions of indulging in self-pitying and self-justifying introspection, exposing the irresponsible cowardice of Borg’s grudge-fuelled withdrawal from the world and into himself.

As Professor Borg nears the end of his life, his road trip from Stockholm to Lund (for the purpose of receiving an honorary degree) is also a figurative journey back to the beginning via everything that has elapsed since. The film’s most direct immersion into the past occurs when Borg stops by a family summer home from his youth, triggering an eccentric recreation of the time when Borg’s former sweetheart Sara (Bibi Andersson) shared a kiss with his brother, whom she would go on to marry.

This catalysing moment in Borg’s growing distrust of people is immediately followed by the present-day arrival of a new Sara (also Andersson), similar in manner and identical in appearance to the figure from Borg’s memories. This flirtatious hitchhiker embodies the youthful energy and idealism that Borg once lost, and her two childish, debate-loving companions — the religious Anders and the atheist Viktor — suggest manifestations of Borg’s younger, indecisive self. The sourest chapters in Borg’s unhappy marriage, meanwhile, are reflected in a quarrelling couple, Alman and Berit, who make public theatre out of their resentments as they accompany the group for a stretch of their journey.

As is typical for Bergman, the figures of Borg’s thoughts, dreams and memories wander seamlessly through his present reality. As arguments, confessions and personal musings play out in the passenger seats of Borg’s car, Wild Strawberries shows how romanticism and cynicism each jostle for a place in the character’s psyche.

But while Borg’s semi-fantastical process of coming to terms with the past and reopening his heart to the world may at first glance seem reminiscent of A Christmas Carol and other heart-warming journeys from cinema’s lonely old men, Isak Borg’s amiable exterior is a far cry from your average Scrooge. Unlike his grouchy equivalents, Borg does a somewhat convincing job of masking his inner coldness with a layer of superficial warmth and understanding that’s aided by Sjöström’s natural charm.

With time, however, the dishonesty of his manner reveals itself. In the film’s most guilt-ridden dream sequence, Borg witnesses an act of adultery from his late wife Karin before hearing her describe with increasing resentment the response she anticipates from Borg when he finds out about her affair. With seeming accuracy, she predicts that he will react not with anger but with a sickening display of false compassion and passive-aggressive condescension.

Borg seeks to conceal his lack of empathy as much from himself as those around him. Through the opening voiceover narration, he rationalises his antisocial behaviour before he laments his own loneliness in the film’s first dream sequence. By creating a self-pitying victim narrative for his own life, Borg is able to justify his neglect as a sensible retreat from a hostile world, rather than an act of cruelty towards the people who loved and needed him. As a character from Whit Stillman’s sharply written 1990 film Metropolitan once put it: “When you’re an egoist, none of the harm you ever do is intentional.”

The long-term effects of Isak’s emotional remove are most vividly seen in his estranged son Evald Borg (Gunnar Björnstrand), who is at risk of extending his father’s legacy of bitter isolation. Evald even seems to have inherited Isak’s defensive tactics of intellectualisation and blame-shifting, using his own misery and his troubled upbringing as justification for his cowardly refusal to raise the child of his pregnant wife.

In finding such cross-generational parallels, Wild Strawberries suggests a self-perpetuating cycle of resentment and disconnection, but its scenes of reunion between parent and child — or more generally, the past and the present — also suggest the possibility of inner peace, acceptance and reconciliation, making this one of Bergman’s more warmly approachable works.

In his 1990 book Images: My Life in Film, the director himself admits that Wild Strawberries was meant as a means of bridging the gap of understanding between himself and his parents, consciously modelling the character of Isak Borg after his own father. However, as those “IB” initials would suggest, Ingmar Bergman ultimately found much of himself in the protagonist he’d written: “I had created a character who, on the outside, looked like my father, but was me, through and through.”

Perhaps this revelation that Bergman was, once again, exploring the depths of his own psyche rather than his father’s can be interpreted as a sign that the director’s attempt at empathy was ultimately a failure. But in a film that regularly sees moments from the past recreated, cycles repeated and the figments of memories reborn as new people — all from the perspective of one solitary man — maybe this is all that human connection truly is: to look at the supporting players in the story of your life and recognise reflections of your own inner struggles.

David Pountain (@David_Pountain) is a London-based writer who has previously contributed to Little White Lies, Asia Times and Eastern Kicks. He is also the editor of the FilmDoo blog.

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