“When I want to put myself to sleep in the evening, I can go through my maternal grandmother’s apartment—room by room—and remember in the smallest detail where different things were, how they looked, what color they were. I also remember the light, the winter or summer light coming through the window, the pictures on the walls.”
— Ingmar Bergman, discussing his recollection of childhood in the 1998 documentary Ingmar Bergman on Life and Work
“Dreams are movies that live in your head / every night when you sleep in your bed.”
— Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared 6
Early on in Wild Strawberries, the ailing professor Isak Borg (played by pioneering Swedish actor, director, and screenwriter Victor Sjöström—an early hero of Bergman’s and no doubt someone with whom Bergman identified) lies down to go to bed. A spotlight, slightly too theatrical, illuminates his face. He’s asleep, but distressed. He’s having a nightmare, “a weird and very unpleasant dream.”
This first nightmare sequence balances a classicism rooted in silent Swedish cinema and the sensibilities of an emerging European arthouse, one that Bergman, in large part, would come to define. Aside from an early voiceover, the sequence is almost entirely silent; it impresses stillness, emptiness. The image appears to flicker, slightly stutter, an imitation of cinema’s earliest roots. Borg wanders a deserted city street, the buildings like preserved ruins, windows and doors boarded up. Bergman frames his dreamer against buildings, under an alcove, a distant figure consumed by the coldness of the vacant city facades. Without anyone around, no one can see Borg. But, a pair of eyes hangs from a clock without hands. It’s a cheeky Magritte-like surrealism that plays on the anthropomorphizing name for the markers of time—the clock has no hands but it has eyes.
Then Bergman frames Borg against a void, total blackness encasing the dreamer. Borg turns around, and he is suddenly not alone. A man in a suit stands at a distance, his back to Borg. Borg tries to get his attention, the man turns and his face is uncannily human, squeezed together and smushed down, each feature distorted and wrong, a practical effect as jarring and disturbing as any computerized creation of contemporary horror cinema. The soundtrack comes up, the sound of the man shuffling down to the ground, a stilted and improbable fall. Then the man disappears, only his dark clothes remain as an inky substance drains from the collar of the jacket. A carriage and its trotting horses can be heard in the distance.
Borg looks down the narrow street and the horses turn the corner with the old carriage thundering behind. The carriage crashes into a light post, a wheel breaks from the cart and rolls into a wall, almost hitting Borg who watches the scene with a bemused unease. A coffin sits in the back of the carriage and as the horses tear away from the post, setting the carriage free, the tomb slides off the back and cracks open, exposing the hand of the corpse inside. Borg is drawn toward the hand, bending over to peer inside the casket. Then the hand moves, the arm reaches for Borg, pulling him into the coffin. A figure emerges and it’s Borg himself (the first of several doppelgängers in the film), dragging the dreamer down into darkness, the corpse stone-faced and the dreamer petrified, barely able to resist the phantom.
This is a not-at-all subtle reference to Sjöström’s own 1921 silent Dickensian ghost story The Phantom Carriage, a moral tale of an abusive alcoholic who must confront his guilt when he meets an image of death, a cloaked figure with sickle in hand, the “strict master” that was also the starting point for Bergman’s death character in The Seventh Seal. The carriage in Borg’s dream is the carriage of Bergman’s originating fascination with cinema (he first saw Sjöström’s film when he was 15 years old and he would rewatch it every year for the rest of his life). It’s the carriage of Sjöström’s film, carrying all of its meaning from its original context, and standing as the vehicle of the seminal work of Sjöström’s influence as the “father of Swedish cinema.” And the carriage is breaking down, falling apart and its coffin, which holds an undead corpse, becomes the site of Bergman’s character’s fear, the character played by a now elderly Sjöström. The directions of meaning and the valence of feeling are complex but concrete, and it, apart from its totality of horrified revelation, represents much of the project of Wild Strawberries and Bergman’s later work, always looking back so as to look forward, taking as a starting point, and not superficially, our memories of the past and the dreams that reveal our inner selves.
After waking from his nightmare, Borg will depart on a road trip through the Swedish countryside in order to receive an honorary award for his lifelong academic achievements. He considers the ceremony an obligatory but otherwise meaningless ritual and the award itself a mere trinket. In his ailing health, the learned man of books is troubled by regrets, guilt, and the creeping fear of mortality. His son and his daughter-in-law will join him on the trip and they will meet a group of young students. In each case, Borg’s interactions with others become the catalyst for a series of recollections and dreams that make clear the unresolved matters of the past that trouble the professor’s sleep, memories of his childhood, of failed romance, that overwhelming fear of death, and the impelling question of whether any of it matters at all.
Bergman uses the dual modes of flashback (a vision of the past as real or a subjective remembering) and dream sequence (a vision of inner self and desublimated worries, Freudian condensation and displacement) to study his characters. For Bergman, remembering was as vivid as the movies; in interviews he frequently remarked on how clearly he could recall his childhood, how each item was real to his mind’s eye as if it were in front of him at just that moment. This was true of even mundane scenes of adolescence, such as rummaging through his grandmother’s dresser drawer belongings or playing outside in the yard. This immediacy and its emergent details have always played a role in Bergman’s cinema, from films like Summer with Monica, with its strong nostalgic overtones, to the through-the-eyes-of-a-child masterwork Fanny and Alexander, where Alexander stands in for the director’s own childhood experience. Dreams, a sort of strange cousin to remembering, have taken up much space in Bergman’s oeuvre. From the vampiric nightmares of Hour of the Wolf to the whole of Persona, the broken logic of the dream world, its secrets of self, and the cinema’s unique ability to recreate the dream have each figured prominently in Bergman’s work.
In Wild Strawberries, dreams and memory play together but are contrasted by the humanist dramaturgy of its waking moments. It’s hard to resist not thinking about the relationship between remembering, dreams, and the cinema, as Bergman puts them to use so liberally and with such confidence in form and realization. But the film keeps bringing us back to its human problems, the quiet crisis at the end of the professor’s life, all the people who he encounters on his trip and all the people he has ever known. By the end, when Borg lies down again to go to sleep, the dreams and the remembrances mean something else, something apart from their Freudian clichés or their singular tragedy, something newly grounded in tangible human relationships and with a great force of feeling. Unlike the empty streets of Borg’s first nightmare, Bergman offers us hope through a world full of people.
Bergman begins with Sjöström’s early cinema work but he also wants to upend and so humanize that legacy, and to show its inevitable winding down. He wants to have his character stand in for himself, for Sjöström, and for no one at all. The carriage stands for all the things I’ve mentioned earlier, for Swedish history, for Bergman’s early love of the movies, for the spectre of death, but it’s also the carriage of Borg’s dream, which stands for Borg’s own personal fear. However, it must also be reconciled with itself: as merely a carriage. The interplay of symbol, allegory, and drama is pronounced but never so muddled, so mixed up with one or another that something should falter in the presence of the next thing. A clock with no hands no doubts stands for something, but its power is as much a facet of the strength of its mere presence as it is the suggestion of its meaning. With Bergman, just as it’s true of our capacity to dream and our compulsion to remember, we feel the symbols before we intellectualize them.
Wild Strawberries screens on October 14th at 3 pm as part of the City Lights Film Series, a continuing series of key masterworks of 20th-century filmmaking, programmed in collaboration with the David S. Bradley Film Collection held by the Lilly Library and sponsored by The Media School at Indiana University.
For another character study on old age staring a monumental cinema figure, see John Carroll Lynch’s directorial debut Lucky, with the recently departed American actor Harry Dean Stanton, screening at IU Cinema on October 19th at 7 pm as a special one-night event.
Nathaniel Sexton enjoys the films of Andrzej Żuławski, Alex Ross Perry, and Jerry Lewis. He reads comic books, plays pinball, prefers his movies sad or slow, and volunteers at a video rental store. He likes to travel west by car but always misses movies when living out of a tent.