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Betty Huse Memorial Lecture Award for 2011
The Healing Power of Wild Strawberries
Barbara Young, M.D.
Wild Strawberries, a film by the Swedish artist Ingmar Bergman, is the story of one day in the life of an elderly doctor as he returns to his medical school where he is to receive an honorary degree on his 50th anniversary. The film flows from his lonely life to his dreams, memories and reveries; returning to a life enriched by the happenings of the day. Bergman often said: “I want audiences to feel, to sense my films. This …is much more important than their understanding them.”
When you take the time to watch this incomparable film, I suggest you approach it as though you are listening to Beethoven’s Opus 111 piano sonata. You won’t understand the details of the artists’ lives which they are revisiting, but, in their creations, you will deeply experience their painful longing, their hurt and rage at betrayal, their guilt and regrets, their fear of death, and, at the end, a sober resurrection. As Bergman wrote, “Film as dream, film as music. No form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does, straight to our emotions, deep into the twilight room of our souls.”
Wild Strawberries (1957) is one of the two most discussed of Ingmar Bergman’s films. It is hard to believe that he was only 37 when it was composed, so deeply does he identify with the elderly Prof. Isac Borg, played by the actor and film director Victor Sjöström. Ingrid Thulin, in the role of his son’s wife Marianne, and Bibi Andersson who plays both Saras, were members of Bergman’s loyal troupe of actors formed when he was directing the Malmö City Theater from 1952 to1959.
The psychopathology of our main character is self-evident. However, rather than approaching the film from a psychodynamic point of view, I plan to emphasize the coping mechanisms employed by the characters in the film as well as the glimpses we are given of those of Bergman himself; both as a child of genius in a harsh environment, and an extremely creative but tormented man. We will hear of coping mechanisms we all make use of in order to get through the trials and tribulations we encounter. We will see that some of those early coping mechanisms we used that were essential to us as children, can seriously handicap us in the full unfolding of our lives.
Prof. Isac Borg’s way of dealing with the adversity of his childhood by withdrawing into himself, had led to the betrayal by his fiancée and by his wife, had produced a cold obsessive compulsive son, and resulted in a disgruntled personality who pushed people away and left him lonely and terrified of his approaching death. And we will discover that the creating of films had been a vital coping mechanism in Ingmar Bergman’s survival of his own very difficult childhood and in dealing with the subsequent anxieties and psychosomatic illness with which he suffered most of his life. Since Wild Strawberries is so specifically autobiographical, as I summarize the film I will occasionally step aside and call these parallels to your attention.
One way of looking at the film is to think of the events occurring during the long auto trip to Lund as symbolic of the professor’s life. Marianne, his daughter-in-law, is both a silent observer and that part of Isak Borg which represents his conscience. She confronts him straightforwardly: “You are a hurtful, mean old man!” The hitchhiking children represent the few happy times he had experienced as a child. The quarreling sadomasochistic couple represent his quarreling parents, whom he “gets even” with by permitting Marianne to put them out of the car. The unexpected company on the drive brings about subtle changes in his personality. At the end of the film, as the professor goes to sleep, his heart has been truly warmed by the children’s loving serenade. He speaks kindly, somewhat seductively, to his housekeeper, and puts himself to sleep with a fantasy of his father and mother happily together. The time has come to cease being angry with his parents and to make the most of the life he has left.
Now let us look in some detail at the events of the day. Retired Prof. Borg, age 76, keeps to himself. He is essentially alone. He has a crotchety distance-producing relationship with Miss Agda, his housekeeper of 40 years. We, the audience, are to be his companions on this long drive. He speaks directly to us, telling us the nightmare that had awakened him at three in the morning. We psychoanalysts think of most anxiety dreams as wish fulfillments. As the story unfolds we’ll see that even this terrifying nightmare served a positive purpose.
In the dream, he has gone out for his customary morning stroll. Though it is a sunny day, he feels chilled. There are no people, no vehicles. It is frighteningly silent. As he passes the oculist’s shop, he sees that the hands have fallen off the face of the huge clock, and someone had bashed in the eyes on the glasses sign so they look like infected sores.
He checks his watch and sees that its hands are missing as well. When he finds watch still ticking, his heart races in frenzy. Is he actually dying? Terrified, Isak rushes up to a lone man for help. But when he touches his shoulder, he is confronted by a rubbery distorted face, The man collapses, his head falls off and blood pours out into the street. An ancient hearse with two horses but no driver rattles by. A wheel rolls off and almost smashes the dreamer against the wall. The coffin falls out onto the street and breaks open. The hand of the corpse reaching up to him is his own!
In senseless horror, he awakes. It takes him time to come back to reality; to realize that he actually is still alive.—It was just a dream!—Yet in some way, the dream has sent him the urgent message that he must drive his car to Lund.
We ask ourselves, what does he fear about this trip that set off the nightmare? What will he be revisiting in Lund that he feels will be too painful to bear? He is returning to the land where he grew up. He will be seeing his 96-year-old mother who is a cold and lonely woman. This is also the world where he was betrayed by his fiancée and his wife.
However, it is also the world where he was in family practice for many years. When his former patient, the gas station attendant, greets him warmly, he realizes sadly that his life might have been very different if he had remained in this community of people who loved and appreciated him.
Perhaps the nightmare is also an admonition that it is not too late to change, for when he wakes he knows he must drive rather than be shepherded on the plane like a child by his housekeeper. He will prove to himself that he is still in charge of his life; that he is still very much alive!
We ask ourselves, what had happened before the dream that had given this solitary elderly man the courage and strength to have the dream that would catapult him back into the life of the living? We know that he was capable of change because he had enjoyed his medical career in the country. Perhaps it was Marianne’s visit to his home that had stirred the memory of his loving relationship with his fiancée Sara before his brother stepped in—whom he had lost because of his fear of, and his defenses against intimacy. The coping mechanisms he had needed to survive a cold and painful childhood had made impossible the adult flowering of his ability to love. Marianne’s presence may well have sparked a latent fire.
Dreams are a ubiquitous part of our coping mechanism system. We are forced to see things we don’t want consciously to see. The eerie lighting of Isak’s dream could be a visual representation of that part of him which is saying, “You’re going to see and face what you need to face whether you like it or not!” The eyes that are festering sores could be the resistant part of his mind battling back, “I won’t see! I won’t face the fact that I am going to die; and that I have been a mean man out of my unhappiness.” The mind that still hopes says, “I want to change. Help me find the way!”
When the professor awakes, he has no grasp of this battle that has taken place inside himself. All he knows is that it had been a terrifying dream. But the dream has been successful. He has his solution. By driving alone, he will have time to contemplate why he is so anxious so he can enjoy this return to his native ground. He might even be pushed by the dream to face up to the fact that his solution to his pains by isolating himself and driving people away has been too costly. He has been more dead than alive!
As he is eating breakfast, Marianne asks if she can accompany him in order to return to her husband. As they drive along the highway, we see the professor’s unpleasant rejecting personality in action. But Marianne is a match for him. She tells him he is a selfish, ruthless old man hiding behind his old-fashioned charm and friendliness. She doesn’t like him. She feels sorry him. Even his son hates him.—This verbal battle delights the professor and the air begins to clear.
He turns off the road to show her the old house where he and his nine brothers and sisters had stayed in the summers. Marianne disappears and Isak relives the memory from his youth of watching his fiancée Sara as she is picking wild strawberries being seduced by his older brother. She tells Sigfrid that he, Isak, is fishing with Father. Isak turns aside and tells us: “I felt a secret and completely inexplicable happiness at this message.” (Here bursts through our story Bergman’s childhood longing for a companionable and loving relationship with his Lutheran minister father who was frequently cold, rigid and physically and emotionally abusive, all in the name of God.) As we hear Sara’s conversation with her cousin, we learn what Isak was like as a young man before he had hardened himself against the painful sadness of rejection. “He is so refined and moral and sensitive and he wants to read poetry together and he talks about the after-life and wants to play duets on the piano and he likes to kiss only in the dark and he talks about sinfulness.” On learning that Isak had once been a sensitive person, I begin to have hope that this lonely old man is still capable of change.
As Isak awakes from this reverie, he is startled by the appearance of a young woman also called Sara. They immediately begin a delightful banter. She is not put off by the dignity of his age or his reserved manner. He is delighted by her happy spirit, her self-possession. She and her two young men companions hitchhike a ride as they make their way south toward Italy.
Just as a spirit of playfulness and warmth has taken over the passengers, they crash into a car driving on the wrong side of the road because a couple is engaged in a violent argument. Rescued by the professor, they continue to quarrel in Isak’s car with no respect for their good Samaritans. The husband explains. “This is my way of enduring. I ridicule my wife and she ridicules me…. But we need each other’s company. It’s only out of pure selfishness that we haven’t murdered each other by now.” His wife slaps his face.
Marianne, who is now driving, speaks up. ‘We have three children in the car and for their sake may I ask the lady and the gentleman to get out.” Here Bergman, through the film, expresses his feelings toward his own parents. If only someone like Marianne had been there to stop his parents from quarreling, and his father from beating his children and humiliating them, damaging them for the rest of their lives!
The sojourners have lunch together outside an inn. It is clear that Isak is recovering his old warm loving self with these young people who truly respect and value him. He starts to recite a poem exposing his own loneliness and expressing his appreciation for his new friends: “Where is the friend I seek everywhere? Dawn is the time of loneliness and care…When twilght comes I am still yearning.” (a psalm by J O Wallin, a 19th century Swedish theologian) To his surprise, Marianne and the hitchhikers carry on the poem.
As they approach Lund, Isak doses off. He has a very disturbing “examination” dream. We are all familiar with these dreams. They are so painful it is hard to see how they can possibly be wish fulfillments. And yet, in a way, they are. And we profit from them. Because of the warmth and love Isak has experienced in his relationship with Marianne and the children, he is being reassured by this terrifying nightmare. In the dream, he is being quizzed by the husband whom they had left standing on the highway. He is asked to identify bacteria under the microscope. All he can see is his own eye staring back at him. —“What is the first duty of a doctor?”—He can’t remember and is seriously flustered. The stern examiner tells him that the answer is “to ask for forgiveness.”— He has been accused of callousness, selfishness, and ruthlessness by his wife—the very things he has been accusing himself of.
The examiner then leads him to the woods where he witnesses his long-dead wife with another man in a field. First the man threatens and attacks her and then they make love. As she straightens her hair she laughs at Isak. She describes to her lover how Isak would have reacted when she confessed her infidelity. “I…know exactly what he will say: ‘Poor little girl, how I pity you.’ As if he were God himself…. ‘I feel infinitely sorry for you. You shouldn’t ask forgiveness from me. I have nothing to forgive.’ But he doesn’t mean a word of it, because he is completely cold. And then he’ll suddenly be very tender and I’ll yell at him that he’s not really sane…and then I’ll say that it’s his fault that I am the way I am, and then he’ll look very sad and will say that he is to blame….” The examiner declares that the penalty for Isak’s behavior is Loneliness.
How can this complex dream be reassuring? First of all, that he will get through the formal ceremony about which he is anxious; just as he had passed his exams in medical school 50 years before. But, more profoundly, “You did survive your parents’ separation when it felt as though the bottom had dropped out of your world. You did survive the betrayal by your fiancée and your wife. Now be reassured that, even at your age, it is safe to dare to love again.”
When Isak wakes, Marianne is now willing to listen to his dream; to his pain. He says, “It’s as if I’m trying to say something to myself which I don’t want to hear when I’m awake….That I’m dead, although I live.” Perhaps the dream has led him to recognize that he is not the only one who was betrayed; that it had been his withholding personality which had pushed the young women away. He was indeed as guilty as they.
Marianne’s face grows dark and serious. She tells Isak that Evald, her husband and his son, says the same thing about himself. She describes his reaction when she had finally told him she was pregnant.. “…It’s ridiculous to populate this world with new victims and it’s most absurd of all to believe that they will have it any better than us… Personally I was an unwelcome child in a marriage that was a nice imitation of hell. Is the old man really sure that I’m his son? Indifference, fear, infidelity and guilt feelings —those were my nurses….” Here again Bergman is putting his own thoughts into Evald’s mouth.
Isak asks Marianne why she has told him about this. She says, “When I saw you together with your mother, I was gripped by a strange fear…Here is a very ancient woman, completely ice-cold… And here is her son, and there are light-years of distance between them….And Evald is on the verge of becoming just as lonely and cold—and dead. And then I thought, there is only coldness and death…Somewhere it must end.” She has decided she is going to have her child. No one is going to take it from her!
When they arrive in Lund, Agda, his housekeeper, is curt with Isak—he has ruined the most important day of her life—but he is pleased to see her and surprised to feel a great warmth toward her.
The long tedious ceremony is finally over. Exhausted, he avoids the banquet and is helped to bed by Miss Agda. He repents his morning’s utterances and asks forgiveness. He suggests that they speak less formally to each other. She declines but says, with a sly smile, “You know where I am if you should want something.” The children appear under his window and serenade him. Young Sara says, “Goodbye, Father Isak. Do you know that it is really you I love, today, tomorrow and forever?”
To calm himself so he can sleep, he recalls memories of his childhood. He was back at the wild strawberry patch. The children were playing. But he can’t find either his father or mother. Down at the beach he saw his father fishing. His mother was sitting on the bank reading a book. “I tried to shout to them but not a word came from my mouth. Then my father…lifted his hand and waved, laughing. My mother looked up from her book. She also laughed and nodded. I dreamed that I stood by the water and shouted toward the bay, but the warm summer breeze carried away my cries and they did not reach their destination. Yet I wasn’t sorry about that; I felt, on the contrary, rather light hearted.” (As long as his parents are happy together, he can cease keeping his eye on them and is free to enjoy his life.)
How interesting it is that Bergman ends Isak’s journey with this fantasy-discovery of his absent but happy parents. Marianne and he had worked through their relationship from negative to positive. The quarreling couple had been evicted from the car. He had been warmed by the playful, loving engagement with the hitchhiking children. A shift had occurred in his aloofness with his housekeeper and with his son. Filled with the recovery of love, Isak is no longer obsessed with death, and can put himself to sleep with the fantasy and wish that his parents could have been as fortunate. Isak’s wish that his parents had been happy together was Bergman’s wish as well.
In looking back on Wild Strawberries, Bergman later said: “I had created a figure who on the outside, looked like my father but was me through and through…cut off from all human emotions.” It was Bergman himself who was the loner. So it behooves us to look at Bergman’s life as it was at the age of 37 when he created this film; as his life had been as a child; and as his life was to become in the future. In the process, we will observe the major coping mechanisms this very gifted child and man had made use of in the face of a severe sense of inferiority and vulnerability, and daily struggles with the demons of anxiety, severe gastrointestinal problems and outbursts of violent temper.
Bergman, at 37, was at the beginning of the height of his skill as a film creator. He has just finished The Seventh Seal. Wild Strawberries was to be a lighter film with a happier ending, though he later said he didn’t think it was actually possible for a person like Isak to change. Here he was no doubt expressing his discouragement with his own life of suffering which had not diminished despite his success as a theater director and the close community of actors he had formed around him—a loving family for most of the hours of the day and night. Recently separated from his third wife, he said, “It is a strange experience to love someone with whom you could absolutely not live.” His intimate relationship with the actress Bibi Andersson, who played both Saras in the film, was crumbling. And he was feuding bitterly with his parents. “… Mother and I tried time and again for a temporary reconciliation, but there were too many skeletons in our closets, too many poisonous misunderstandings .…I tried to put myself in my father’s place and sought explanations for the bitter quarrels with my mother. I was quite sure I had been an unwanted child, growing out of a cold womb, one whose birth resulted in a crisis [in their marriage]…” He later realized that through Wild Strawberries he was pleading with his parents: “see me, understand me, and, if possible, forgive me. …”
Bergman had always had stomach troubles and when in the army at 19 he was diagnosed with a stomach ulcer and discharged. At 36, he was waking at 4:30 every morning with his gut churning. During a two-month hospital stay, the doctors sought the source of his severe gastrointestinal symptoms of constipation, abdominal pain and explosive diarrhea so severe that he sometimes “shit in his trousers.” The doctors concluded that his illness was psychosomatic and told him he would have to start looking seriously into this “dimly-lit area, the border country between body and soul.” While in the hospital, his intellectual curiosity, his creativity and his rigid self-discipline helped keep him in balance. It was here in the isolation of his hospital room that he wrote Wild Strawberries.
That a man with such severe suffering could create a film so cohesive, imaginative, visually beautiful, and psychologically sound is a miracle: a miracle of the genius. This gift of creativity had saved him as a child and was saving him now. But genius is not enough. It has to be fed by love. His mother had no milk. Dying from inanition, his maternal grandmother had carried him all day by train to her summer home, keeping him alive with sponge cake soaked in water. Here he was mothered by his grandmother, her housekeeper and friend Lalla, and a wet nurse from the village.
We don’t know at what age he returned to his own mother. Suffering with separation anxiety, he was “deeply in love” with and in need of her, but she pushed him away when he clung to her, rationalizing her behavior with the advice of a prominent pediatrician. The little boy was very angry with her when, at four, he was put out of her bed because of the birth of his sister. Naturally he and his older brother resented this intruder. However, they did not ask when the baby was going back to where he came from. They did not fantasy how they could get rid of her. They actually attempted to kill her. The brother encouraged him to choke her but he pressed on her chest. Fortunately, their attempt was not successful. Though the boys were eight and four, it is apparent that their love from and for their mother was so ambiguous and inconsistent they had not been able to reach a stage of object constancy that would have inhibited this active expression of their murderous rage. The lack of an automatic inhibition of aggression was to plague Bergman most of his life in the form of violent outbursts of temper when his wishes were threatened or denied.
Ingmar was aware of the serious tension between his parents caused in part by the fact that his mother was in love with another man. Feeling the insecurity of his parents’ relationship must have been terrifying to this sensitive child. Was this lack of trust in a permanent relationship responsible for Bergman’s five marriages? Did he leave his wives and mistresses before they could leave him because of his clingy and rageful behavior? Silence, in particular, was unbearable, reminding him of the silent days he had suffered when being punished as a child. It was his mother who had made him wear his sister’s red dress all day when he had wet the bed. Humiliation was even more damaging to him than the harsh beatings and forced apologies demanded by his pastor father in the name of God. He lived in fear of his father’s brutal outbursts, but he thrived on the rare private times they had together as he accompanied him on the bicycle when they traveled to outlying parishes and stopped to swim and fish.
How did this little boy thrive and continue to mature under these difficult circumstances? He was exposed to the theater and films by his grandmother, with whom he spent every summer. He and his sister put on puppet shows; he reciting all the parts. Another of his coping mechanisms was ingenuity. After being confined to a dark cupboard as punishment, he hid a flashlight in the cupboard. When his brother was given a primitive film projector, he threw a tantrum because film was his interest; his brother played war games. So he came up with the brilliant idea of trading half of his lead soldiers for the magic lantern. By making friends with the projectionist, he was able to attend the movie theater frequently at no cost.
In his early twenties—when he felt he could survive by himself—and irritated with his father’s discouragement of his passion for becoming a theater and film director, all his suppressed and repressed rage rose to the surface. He stood up to his controlling father, knocking him across the room and slapping his mother when she tried to intervene. He then walked out the door. His siblings were suffering too. His brother tried to commit suicide and his sister was forced into an abortion out of consideration for the family reputation.
As an adult, Bergman worked all the time, directing theater in a number of different cities. The films were shot in the summer in order to give work to his loyal group of actors. His mind was always busy with ideas for the next film. His intense drive and determination were coping mechanisms for getting through life and for keeping his demons at bay. (He was well aware that at least one of the demons lived within himself because he would draw a little stick-figure of the devil after his signature.) He was compulsive about organizing his day; making use of the traits of orderliness and discipline he had learned from his precise and demanding father.
As time passed, his films became more complex. Like all artists, he was drawing on information from his childhood as a foundation for his films as well as making use of his present day conflicts and agonies. Over a period of more than 50 years of making films he went through adolescent rebellion, the struggles between man and woman who eventually conclude that “Hell together is better than Hell alone,” his religious conflicts—is there a God?—life’s emptiness, the fear of disintegration, and finally—after his parents’ death—an open expression of violence as though it was finally safe to shout to the world, “This is how it really was!” The remarkable thing is that as he projected these pains and terrors into his audience, he himself got better. By gradually resolving and ridding himself of his demons, he was—intuitively—conducting his own psychoanalysis. A few years before his parents died, there was an uneasy reconciliation. Later he reflected, “My mother and father were transformed into human beings of normal proportions, and the infantile, bitter hatred was dissolved and disappeared. And then we were able to meet in a mood of affection and mutual understanding.” And after four failed marriages and a number of liaisons, he had grown enough to establish and maintain a peaceful marriage.
At the age of 58, an extreme circumstance put to the test Bergman’s ability to survive. While he was in the middle of a rehearsal, tax officials appeared and carried him off to the station where he was charged with tax fraud. The humiliation was so great he seriously dissociated. “…In the sharp light, a few metres away, I saw myself as standing and looking at myself. …I was standing on the yellow rug looking at myself sitting in the chair. …I was sitting in the chair looking at myself standing on the yellow rug. … I could hear myself wailing.” He put himself in the Karolinka psychiatric clinic where he was snowed under with five Valium a day …. “Every morning, I walked for an hour in the park, the shadow of an eight-year-old beside me; it was both stimulating and uncanny.”
Gradually his extraordinary defense mechanisms came into play. “I went on the attack against the demons with a method that had worked well in previous crises. I divided the day and the night into definite units of time, each of which was filled with activities organized beforehand, alternating with periods of rest. Only by rigidly following my day and night programme could I maintain my sanity against [violent] torments…. I returned to planning and staging my life with great care.… The attack of the tax officials actually managed to do something neither psychiatry nor myself had been able to achieve during my two months’ illness….I was so furiously angry that I recovered immediately. The horror and sense of…humiliation I had been suffering from day and night evaporated within a few hours and have never been heard of since….”
He and his wife went into self-imposed exile in Germany where he directed plays and made two films. After eight years he returned to Sweden and lived on the island of Fårö, where he had made a number of films and had built a home. Though he had had no psychotherapy that we know of, through the self-exploration he had undergone in the creating of his films, he had discovered some secret elixir that enabled him to overcome his terror of intimacy. He and his fifth wife, Ingrid, were married 24 years before she died of cancer. Bergman felt, rightfully so, that he had been a failure as a father to his eight children. Now all the children came to their home for celebrations and got to know each other. All but one followed him into similar creative fields. Ingmar Junior became an airplane captain.
Bergman lived 10 years after Ingrid’s death. As he said in an interview when he was 80, “Her death was a blow to my will, my very existence, my reality, a total catastrophe. It was like being crippled with grief. You lose a part of yourself, of your body.” His writing was temporarily paralyzed, but by sheer determination he resumed his technique of recovery by leading a strictly orderly life; each hour had its tasks. Though he declared he was going to retire, he remained active in the theater and helped produce at least three more films. At home, he made time for reading, listening to his beloved music, and for his daily walk where he found comfort in nature: the sea, the subdued colors of the island. Every Saturday morning he carried on long telephone conversations with his actor friend of many years, Erland Josephson. And in the privacy and solitude of his home he also talked with Ingrid. At times she seemed to answer, giving him good advice. Often he could feel her presence near him. He died in 2007 at the age of 89.
That he was able to live peacefully and independently on his island refuge—that he no longer needed a woman to at least temporarily fill the hole of loneliness and appease the raging monsters—is proof to me that this extraordinary man had truly healed himself.