Culture Bytes: An Existential Road Trip

The recent death of Ingmar Bergman has set me brooding about the greatest cinematic brooder of them all. He was 89 and had spent his life writing and directing for the theatre and films. He died on the same day as the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni. It was writing about those two deaths in this space a few weeks ago that started me on a Bergman jag.

He was in his late-thirties, in 1957, when Wild Strawberries was released in the US. It followed The Seventh Seal, his first international hit. I saw those movies as a teenager and surely misunderstood both.

Wild Strawberries is one of those public works of art that you probably know something about whether or not you've actually seen it. It's 91 minutes long and worth almost every minute. There's an excellent Criterion Collection DVD available that contains an astute commentary track by the English critic, Peter Cowie and a fascinating, intimate interview with Bergman conducted by Jorn Donner.

Wild Strawberries is a story of old age. A retired professor of medicine (Victor Sjostrom) is about to receive an award. The movie is framed by the journey he makes to collect his prize. He goes with his daughter-in-law (Ingrid Thulin) in an old Packard that looks like a hearse.

The doctor, Isak Borg (note the initials, thank you), is an unhappy man who knows he'll soon die. The journey is an occasion for memories and dreams of his life. Wild Strawberries is an existential road trip.

Victor Sjostrom is a story in himself and one of the chief reasons this is a great film. Sjostrom, who had been an early supporter of Bergman's, was 78 when the picture was shot, and essentially out of business. As a young man he had been a leading actor in Sweden. Later, he was a director of silent movies. In Hollywood he made The Wind (1927) with Lillian Gish, one of the best of the late silent era.

It is Sjostrom's performance, almost as much as Bergman himself that makes Wild Strawberries a touchstone of the cinema. He doesn't seem to do much. Mostly he's waiting for death. Some of his reveries please him; others are haunting. It's an immensely empathetic performance, one that slides into the mind and heart and just sort of lodges there, a permanent part of your memory bank.

Bibi Andersson, radiant at 21, plays Sara, Isak's first love. He wooed her awkwardly and lost her to his brother. Sara is unassuming and docile, at least in Isak's memory. Later, Andersson returns as a modern young woman, also called Sara. As Sara 2, Andersson is brash and impulsive, one of a trio of young people who join the journey for a while. It's the least convincing part of the movie. Other actors also return as second characters. Which helps dramatize the confusion in Isak's aged mind.

Isak sees Sara 1 at his family's summerhouse where the blooming strawberries are evoked in memory so specific that you start to think you too have been there. The journey is filled with incident - a motoring accident, a visit with Isak's ancient mother, and a dark dream about Isak's medical examinations when he was a student. There's an enormous amount of story and yet the movie never feels rushed. Each scene seems to lead inevitably to the next whether in the present or the past, which is what dreams do.

Isak takes pleasure as it comes and considers the past because he can't do differently. The people around him, in the present and in memory, change in traditional dramatic ways and yet by the end, it's Isak who is different. He finds an acceptance of his life, flaws and mistakes as well as transient pleasures. How that is accomplished is the voodoo of Bergman's art.

Persona (1965) is one of the Bergman movies that led to his reputation for obscurity. There are mysterious elements in Wild Strawberries but they have an internal logic that is readily apprehended. Persona can be baffling. The watchword for the mid-sixties was deconstructionist and Bergman deconstructs parts of Persona past understanding.

The story that grows out of those modernist shenanigans, however, is easy enough to follow even though it shimmers with mystery. Liv Ullmann is an actress who has had a breakdown. She refuses to speak. Bibi Andersson is the nurse who tends to her. They go to the seashore in the hope that the sun and the sea air will help break the silence. It is essentially a long soliloquy by Andersson met by a series of reactions from Ullmann.

There are vampire, lesbian and melodramatic elements that convey the feeling that the women are becoming one. There's a famous shot of them in which their faces actually merge. The black and white photography by Sven Nvkvist gets tones and shadings that make Bergman's compositions seem sculptural. There's a memorable close shot of the women's faces, almost pressed together. They gaze at the camera, and presumably the director, in a way that is presumptuous and frankly sexual. The eroticism - between the women and sent out to the director -- comes off the screen like steam.

Andersson had been Bergman's lover. During Persona he began an affair with Ullmann that lasted several years and produced a child. Those romances create a subtext to the movie that draws a viewer into a sort of psychosexual ménage a trois that can make you dizzy.

Bergman had an organized professional life but a tumultuous personal one. He was married several times, had frequent love affairs and many children. His background was bourgeois. His father, Erik, was a Lutheran minister and pastor to the Royal family of Sweden. Clerics don't come off well in his movies. Bergman said, famously, "Everything I've done is a dialogue with my childhood."

In 1976, the Swedish equivalent of the IRS accused him of tax crimes. It was an international story and Bergman took it badly. The charges were eventually dropped but it resulted in a nervous breakdown.

In his autobiography, The Magic Lantern, he writes of his heavily medicated three-week stay in a clinic, "I was deep down in a motionless vacuum... I was standing on the yellow rug looking at myself sitting in the chair..." He goes on in that vein mentioning thoughts of suicide. It's a breakdown all right, Bergman style. He'd had other earlier ones, too.

He retreated to his house on the island of Faro, in the Baltic Sea. Several of his movies, including Persona, were shot there. He spent less time in the public eye though he continued to work. In the Criterion interview he speaks of his last marriage, to Ingrid von Rosen, as stable and sustaining. They had been married 24 years when she died about six years ago.

Bergman grew out of a Scandinavian literary tradition, notably Ibsen and Strindberg. Chekhov was a great influence. Bergman, unlike most directors of his generation, was both a man of the cinema and of literature. Recognizing that fact is fundamental to appreciating him. His art was narrative and he employed and expanded the forms and techniques available to him.

Wild Strawberries and particularly Persona, have abstract cinematic elements but both are at their best when Bergman is explicating character through his camera. In the place of the language of the stage or the novel, he uses close ups. His passion is for the faces of his actors. That is the essence of Persona and the reason to watch this ravishing movie.

His reputation has been in something of an eclipse in recent years. When I talk to film students and their teachers or to film professionals and mention Bergman, they often look at me with patronizing amusement. They seem to be saying, well, yes he's good but he's so depressive. English speakers find Swedish funny. The various parodies of Bergman over the years usually have people talking in a mock "ounga-dounga" accent. When Woody Allen (a great Bergman fan) in Love and Death says, "The key is not to think about death as an end but more as a way to cut down your expenses," he's taking a comic poke at Bergman.

This is an age of irony and winking self-consciousness. Bergman doesn't allow himself such safety nets. His is an extraordinary art, one that raises the most fundamental questions of existence through narrative: Big themes dramatized in recognizable people in human situations. Those ambitions are out of fashion now. That wheel will surely turn again.

Treat yourself to Wild Strawberries and if you have the nerve, try Persona. They're demanding but well worth the effort. Both are from the end of his early period. The great masterpieces of his maturity, Scenes from a Marriage, Cries and Whispers and Fanny and Alexander lay ahead.