It is said, with some truth, that there are three major film-makers who empty cinemas these days: Bergman, Godard and Chaplin. In Bergman’s case, it is almost certainly because the ‘gloomy Swede’ tag has taken root. There’s just enough truth in the travesty to allow one to sympathise. After all, didn’t he envisage God as a spider in Through A Glass Darkly? But he also made one of the most subtle of Mozartian romantic comedies in Smiles Of A Summer Night, and Fanny and Alexander, his last major film, could hardly be called depressing.
The film I constantly go back to, however, is Wild Strawberries (1957), which, while scarcely a bag of laughs, has a compassionate view of life that best illustrates the more optimistic side of Bergman’s puzzled humanity.
At its centre is 76-year-old Professor Isak Borg, a distinguished medical scientist who travels from Stockholm to Lund with his daughter-in-law to receive an honorary doctorate. On the 400-mile car journey the old man remembers his past – the girl he loved who married his brother instead, and his own bitterly unsuccessful marriage. Despite his benevolent exterior, to which everyone pays tribute, he recognises in himself something arid and distant.
The film opens with a dream sequence that has been stolen from ever since. Borg arrives at a house with boarded up windows in the old quarter of Stockholm. He sees a clock with no hands and an old hearse approaching. One of its wheels gets caught up on a lamppost and a coffin falls out. The outstretched hand of the corpse within tries to pull Borg inside.
There are other Expressionist and certainly Freudian dream sequences in the picture, almost always with the old man appearing in them as his present self. And some of these, largely because so many have badly copied, now look a little self-conscious- arty even. But the film’s ability to engage the emotions makes it notable for more than just technique.
One of the prime reasons is what can only be described as the transcendent performance of Victor Sjostrom as Professor Borg. Sjostrom was the great Swedish silent-era director, who died aged 80, not long after the film was completed and whose The Phantom Carriage had so influenced Bergman. It was he who made the final scene one of the most serene of all Bergman’s endings. “Sjostrom’s face shone”, said the director. “It emanated light – a reflection of a different reality, hitherto absent. His whole appearance was soft and gentle, his glance joyful and tender. It was like a miracle”.
Later, Bergman admitted that the character of Borg was an attempt to justify himself to his own parents, but that Sjostrom had taken his text, made it his own and invested it with Sjostrom’s often painful experiences. It is still, however, chiefly concerned with forgiveness between parents and children and the lost possibilities of youth.
The other often neglected aspect of Wild Strawberries is that most of it was shot deep in the Swedish countryside so that its characters pass through a natural world that seems at odds with their own impermanence but whose beauty also seems somehow to instruct them.
If the theme of Wild Strawberries is how life can become atrophied and sterile – often repeated from generation to generation – Bergman’s working out of his argument is extraordinarily detailed, since almost all those in the film to whom this applies have no idea what is happening to them.
Isak’s admired and respected mother, for instance, is slowly revealed as hard and mean-spirited, though not to herself. And it is only when his daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin) speaks honestly to him in the car that Isak begins his journey of self-recognition.
What makes the film great is its nearness to each of us. And its almost Christian insistence on the possibility of reconciliation and redemption.