Wild Strawberries, Ingmar Bergman, Cold Mother and a Sentence To A Lonely Life

WILD STRAWBERRIES
(Ingmar Bergman 1957)
How A Cold Mother Stops Emotional Time
& Sentences A Boy To Loneliness

“One sleeps in one’s childhood’s shoes,” Bergman remembers Swedish poet Maria Wine, saying, and “that was the real starting point of Wild Strawberries.” (p. 212*) It’s true. And, some live inside the echoes of a cold mother. Every psychoanalyst knows how our childhoods slumber within each waking and dreaming moment of our lives, creating their repercussions. Like Dr. Isak Borg’s loneliness. A loneliness predicated on the need to stop emotional time; so not to feel anything.

As we travel with Isak back to his childhood home, we see the chilling effects of his cold mother (and too many siblings in the way.) Yet, Wild Strawberries also brings us a hopeful note in vivid black and white. We see that if we face the dreams and memories living in our child self, we can find our way out. And, we don’t have to wait until old age, as Isak Borg (Victor Sjostrom) had to do.

Wild Strawberries & Cold Mothers

Bergman knew cold mothers. Throughout his own childhood and life, he lived with the agony of a mother he could never reach. Reflecting on Isak Borg’s mother (Naima Wifstrand) in Wild Strawberries, Bergman (p. 216*) had these thoughts:

“[The old mother] says: ‘I feel so horribly cold, what can it be due to, particularly, here in my stomach?’The notion occurred to me that some children are born from cold wombs. I think it’s a horrible idea, little embryos lying there shivering with cold.”

It is a horrible idea. And is the root, we discover, of Isak Borg’s troubles. Troubles that he must come to terms with as an old man. Cold mothers close you off to emotional connections; and to feelings of love. For Isak, nine siblings aren’t any help at all. Someone’s always in the way.

And, then to only confirm the dangers of love, he (not surprisingly) chose a cold first love who betrayed him, his cousin Sara (Bibi Anderson). Not to feel the hurt of being cut off and left by his mother or later anyone else; he rejects them before they can leave him, not even seeming to want them.

So here we have the emotional state of Isak Borg, who is also Ingmar Bergman’s alter ego in Wild Strawberries: “Isak Borg equals me. IB equals ice and Borg (the Swedish word for fortress).” (p. 221*)

Having a cold mother and a fiancé who deeply hurt him, Isak had no choice but to close off his feelings and turn them to ice. Cold mothers pave the way for this kind of self-protection. What else did Isak know? Cold mothers stop emotional time. And, Isak Borg lives, lost, in a world of deadened feelings.

Stopping Emotional Time

Isak’s nightmare is a journey into the dead and hurtful way he’s lived his life:

“I dreamt that during my morning walk I lost my way among empty streets with ruined houses.” We watch as Isak moves through the empty streets of his dream. He is starkly alone. With a shock, he sees a large clock, swinging from the rafters of a building.

A clock with no hands. He takes out his pocket watch. It has no hands either. A man appears, with his back to Isak. Isak taps him and he turns. The man has no human face. His features look etched on; eyes closed; no ears. And, just as soon as the man turns, he collapses into dust. The clock suddenly chimes.

A horse-drawn hearse turns the corner. The only passenger, a casket. The hearse rocks. The casket tumbles out. The horse runs off. A hand reaches out of the casket and grabs Isak’s arm. He looks. It is his own dead self.  And he can’t escape coming face to face with it.

Isak Borg wakes up with a start. Perhaps this is his wake-up call? A dream that shows him how time has stopped. And how lost and alone and dead he’s become. Not because he’s old and nearing death. Not at all. Time stopped long ago; in childhood; when he deadened himself to love. Turned his back on people. And, on any more hurt.

Is it possible to turn back those “hands of time” and get them moving again? Yes, Wild Strawberries says he can. But, it means a long car trip back to childhood. More dreams. Many passengers along the way. All, taking him into the sources and consequences of his deadness and his hurt.

Road Trip Back To The “Whys” Of Being Dead & Cold

Isak Borg is a doctor. A scientist. A successful man with a son and a dead wife. He’s not a feeling man; he won’t let himself be. Yes, he’s dead, as we see in his dream. Feelings are too threatening. But, after his nightmare, something needs to give. He’s being awarded an honorary degree in Lund, near his childhood home. He decides to drive.

He means to go alone. But, his beautiful daughter-in-law, Marianne (Ingrid Thulin) asks to come along. She’s staying with him now, but meeting his son, Evald (Gunnar Bjornstrand), her estranged husband, at the award ceremony. He can’t say no. She’s not just a passenger, though. She becomes the voice of Isak Borg’s personal truths.

A cold father to his son; that’s what she faces him with. And, Evald, because of the Borg legacy of coldness is also cold (and also a doctor). Isak exacts re-payment of “a debt.” He’s far from a loving father. And, Marianne is rightfully angry. She pays the price. She lets Isak know that Evald may “respect a promise,” but also hates him.

Hate is a strong word. But, Isak must face the cost of his icy endowment: “You’re a selfish old man. You don’t think of anyone else but yourself. Beneath your benevolent exterior, you’re hard as nails. I thought you might help Evald and myself, but you said, ‘I have no respect for mental suffering … don’t lament to me.”

As the road trip continues, we see why. Isak hasn’t allowed his own mental suffering. And he has plenty. He shut it off, beginning with his cold mother. Then, in the Wild Strawberry patch with Sara’s betrayal; the lid of that coffin was closed.

Wild Strawberries & Sara’s Betrayal

As they travel along, sole road companions now, Isak stops to show Marianne his childhood summer home. The place where Wild Strawberries grow. Marianne goes off to swim as Isak walks towards the old house. He looks worn, tired, and sad.

A memory suddenly appears before him. He’s living it. He’s old, but Sara, his cousin, his first love; his fiancé, is picking wild strawberries. There, but out of reach. “Sara, Sara,” he calls to her. His voice is unusually soft and full of longing. Someone else enters the scene. His brother Sigfrid (Piers Sjostrand), as cocky as Isak is not. His betrayer.

Sigfrid kisses Sara. She struggles (not very hard) to fight him off, to remind him that she’s “secretly” engaged to Isak; the “nicest one of all the brothers.” But, she can’t resist Sigfrid’s charms. She marries Sigfrid, bold and exciting, while Isak is moral and kind:  “Poor little Isak, he’s so good to me.  How unfair everything is.”

She’s hurt Isak beyond repair. He’s now overwhelmed by emptiness and sadness he doesn’t often feel. He awakes from his reverie to the voice of a young blonde girl calling to him. Here is another Sara (Bibi Anderson). A modern day one, that looks the same but is quite different from the Sara he lost.

Marianne, with her bold blunt review of his callousness, will take us back to the roots of why Isak closed the door to people. But, this young girl, whose father now owns the summer house, will start to unlock the love and kindness buried inside him. She’s open, warm, and alive – all the things Isak and the original Sara are not.

But, first, he must face the different parts of himself that crowd out softness. And that form a hard fortress against love and loss.

Mirroring Parts Of Isak’s Dead Self

The new Sara also has two boys that love her. One, Anders (Folke Sundquist), a musician, theologian, and poet, she calls her “steady.” The other, Victor (Björn Bjelfvenstam), serious, studying to be a doctor, is their chaperone. A scientist like Isak. The three, off to Italy, hitch a ride as far as Lund in Isak’s large black sedan.

Now there are five, on this leg of the journey. The threesome, glaringly reminiscent of Sara, Sigfrid, and himself. This Sara, though, confidently open, starts to show Isak the limits of time; a clock that’s ticking even without “emotional” hands: “I can’t think of anything worse than growing old … oh, I’ve really put my foot in it!”

Isak laughs. Age can bring its acceptance. An almost-crash comes next; bringing him closer to the wreckage of his life; ruins he hasn’t wanted to see. A failed marriage; and a husband that refuses to acknowledge his wife’s feelings or needs. That was Isak towards his now-dead wife, Karin (Gertrud Fridh). That is the couple in the other car.

Sten (Gunnar Sjöberg) and Berit (Gunnel Broström) Alman’s fighting caused the near-crash. Their black VW bug rolls over; but they get out, unscathed. Although they admit responsibility, the car won’t run. And, now, there are seven in Isak’s car; Marianne at the wheel. Sten is cruel and ridiculing of his wife. Marianne stops and kicks them out.

Yet, it isn’t that easy when parts of him are deeply embedded inside and have been for years. He can’t just kick them out. They must be faced head-on; with all the feelings attached. Including sadness and guilt.

A Sad Lost “Hushed” Little Boy

Isak is in a battle between sticking to what seems like hard, rational, but sometimes cruelly imposed “facts” versus feelings of hope and love. Just like the fight that finally breaks out between Anders and Victor: religion versus science. Really, a fight for Sara’s love – one that Isak could never have. Underneath Isak’s struggle is a sad lost boy.

He has another dream, a vivid nightmare. Sara, his love, is holding a mirror; forcing him to look. She tells him she has her life ahead of her, but he’s a worried old man about to die. He was a worried “old man,” moral and good; as a boy. He shut out his lonely sadness in the midst of nine loud and rivalrous siblings.

Sara went for Sigfrid. For him, love was a game. In Isak’s dream, she cruelly tells him: “I’m going to marry your brother. I’ve hurt you haven’t I?” He denies it: “Look again.” Finally, he admits how much it hurts. “You’re a professor emeritus and should know why. You know so much, but you don’t know anything.”

It’s true. He doesn’t. Not about the world of feelings. Sara runs to a baby, alone, in a cradle in the woods. That baby is Isak. Alone and lost. She coos: “Poor baby. Hush, baby, sleep.” Isak had no choice as a little boy, but to hush his hurt and sadness; to sleep and become a dead corpse of a man. Now, he’s waking up.

Because of his childhood, Isak locked out those he might have loved and who might have loved him. He pushed Karin away. She ran around with other men; threw it in his face; and they put their own son in the middle of a terrible marriage, with no one. Now, Isak must remember his guilt.

Isak’s Courtroom “Exam:” Facing His Guilt

Isak Borg’s “trial/examination” of guilt comes in another nightmare. He bangs on a locked door. This door is all the doors locked to him; and the doors he, in turn, used to lock others out. With all the cruelty and selfish callousness born out his fear. All that’s responsible for his isolated dead life. Those empty streets and casket in his first dream.

The door opens and the room he enters is both a courtroom and a classroom. He’s to take an examination; a scientific one. Yet, there, in the tiered classroom seats is a jury of hard, cold, sober faces; some he knows. Sara, Anders, and Victor among them. He’s told to identify a specimen under a microscope.

There’s something wrong. He can’t see. He’s asked to read a text: “I’m a doctor, not a linguist.” He can’t read or speak the language of feeling or love. The examiner (Gunnar Sjöberg) queries him about a doctor’s first duty. He’s forgotten. The examiner tells him: “To ask forgiveness. I’ll make a note that you haven’t understood the charge.”

The charge? “You have been accused of guilt.” Isak Borg recoils; tries to mitigate the sentence: “I have a weak heart.” Yes, his heart has been broken, but is that an excuse to hurt others? He’s told to diagnose “the patient.” It’s Berit. He looks and responds: “The patient is dead.” Berit lifts her head and laughs hysterically.

Berit is both a version of Isak and of his unhinged wife. The examiner’s verdict: “You are incompetent, guilty of callousness; selfishness; ruthlessness. Your wife has accused you.” She’s dead. But as much as Isak might live like a dead man; guilt lives on. And, instead of hushing his feelings, he’s forced to remember the source of his guilt.

Hush, Baby. No Feelings. “A Perfect Achievement?”

Now, a scene replays from his past. One he could only imagine over and over. He’s forced to watch his wife with another man: “I’ll go home and beg forgiveness. He’ll say there’s nothing to forgive. But, he doesn’t mean a word … he’s as cold as ice. And, suddenly he gets tender. And, I scream that he’s mad. He says he’ll get me a sedative.”

Hush, baby, sleep. That’s what he does with all feelings; his and hers. Anyone’s.

His wife was forced to bear all the feelings for both of them; too heavy a weight. Feelings that drove her crazy: “I’ll tell him it’s all his fault I am the way I am. He says it is his fault. But, really, he doesn’t care about anything.” Isak asks the examiner: “Where is she?” “Gone, they all are. Removed by a surgical operation.” 

This is what he’s done. Hush, baby, sleep: “How quiet it is,” he remarks to the examiner. And the examiner ironically answers: “A perfect achievement, in its way, professor.” Is it? The lonely boy will not feel. There will be no pain. But, really, all the hurt, sadness, and the guilt still live inside him. The punishment? “The normal, I guess. Loneliness.”

Yes, that’s the punishment inflicted on a sad little boy; and it’s one he came to inflict on himself. And, on his wife and son. His coldness drove her crazy trying to break through to him. He couldn’t love. Lack of love from his cold mother stopped his heart very early.  Encasing it in a bitter, selfish chill.

Settling The Legacy Of A Cold Mother

Perhaps Isak Borg doesn’t have to stay lonely and cold. He’s experienced the warmth of his travel companions, young Sara and Marianne. And, there’s a new baby on the way, a grandchild. Marianne is pregnant, and she’ll be a different kind of mother. Can he be a different kind of man?

She tells Isak: “I saw you with your mother and I was panic-stricken. Here’s this old woman, cold as ice, more forbidding than death… and I think of the baby inside me. All there is – is nothing but cold and death and loneliness. It must end somewhere.”

It must end with them. By facing the past. Wild Strawberries tells us that a sentence to loneliness can end. Loneliness was Isak’s sentence from birth. Evald’s too. An unwanted child, he, like his father, went “stone cold dead.” But, now, in danger of rejecting his own baby and a wife he loves, Evald’s heart opens. Can Isak’s?

New life has been stirred in Isak by his passengers. And by his nightmarish dreams. All mirrors of various parts of himself and his past. He’s softened. Tries to be kinder. He tells Evald “I’ll forgive your debt.” Evald refuses, but asks his father, “how’s your heart?”  “Excellent,” Isak answers. Because now his heart isn’t too weak to feel.

Breaking Free Of A Sentence To Loneliness

Love is not for the faint of heart. Especially when there’s been childhood trauma and the heartbreak of a cold mother. Plus betrayal by a first love and brother. Yet, if there’s hope, longings might be satisfied. And, hearts can open once again.

The last scene in Wild Strawberries is just this kind of a wish for something happier in childhood; the wish of a serious boy left on the outside of too many raucous brawling siblings. It was hard to find mother or father in such a situation. And in Isak’s reverie, Sara takes the hand of this sad lost boy (now old man) and shows him where they are.

Isak’s father fishes quietly. And, his mother sits on a blanket behind him. There’s a gentle longing in Isak’s old face. When mother and father see Isak, they wave. A welcoming wave. He’s been able to take in the caring of Marianne and the new Sara. Maybe now he can love. And leave the biting cold of his lonely life behind.

* Taschen Books, The Ingmar Bergman Archives, pp. 212; 216; 221.

Dr. Sandra Cohen, a Los Angeles based psychologist and psychoanalyst, specializes in childhood trauma and the heartbreak of unreachable mothers. She works with people to get free of a need to deaden feelings and the unwanted “sentence” to a lonely life. 

2 Comments
  • Holly Prado Northup
    Posted at 10:40h, 28 March Reply

    This isn’t an easy film to take apart and put back together again. You’ve done a beautiful job, Sandra! You’ve explored the major theme of the film — the absence and loss of love and the re-discovery of love in oneself — along with the detailed metaphors surrounding the major idea. As always, I’m impressed by your knowledge, insight, empathy with the characters you write about. Thank you!

    Love, Holly

    • Dr. Sandra E. Cohen
      Posted at 15:15h, 28 March Reply

      Thank you so much, Holly. I am always very appreciative of the time you take to read, absorb, and comment on my writing. And, especially since you are not only my dear friend but also my favorite poet!

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