Dark Pilgrim: The Vision of Ingmar Bergman

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on January 1, 1966 @ Midwestern University Quarterly.

With his recent film, The Silence, Ingmar Bergman has completed his trilogy of disgust. (Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light are the other parts.) With this shocking and stunning film Bergman does not careen from the path of his previous vision. The Silence stays on the same road of life, but it has different pilgrims.

One of Bergman's most optimistic and satisfying films in Wild Strawberries (1957), but it contains more parallels with The Silence than any other of Bergman's work. Though seemingly vastly different, the two films complement each other. Both take place on trips that change their characters irrevocably.

Wild Strawberries is the story of Isak Borg, a seventy-eight year old man of medicine who is cold and unfulfilled. As the film begins he relates a nightmare that portrays his sterility. In his dream he is walking alone when he sees a clock without hands. He looks at his watch, and it is handless. He spies a man and goes up behind him and touches him, but the man disintegrates into a heap of clothes and a flow of black blood. Then a carriage comes by; the wheel comes off and narrowly misses the old man. A coffin falls off the carriage, and as Isak Borg goes near he sees his own body in the coffin. As the body tries to pull him in, he wakes up.

Awakened early by this chilling nightmare, the old man decides to drive to the town where he is to receive an award for fifty years in medicine. Marianne, his daughter-in-law, who is visiting him, decides to go with him to see her husband Evald with whom she is not getting along. As they begin the trip, Marianne reveals to the old man that she thinks he is selfish and insincere, and that she does not like him.

On the way, the old man stops at the house of his childhood and wanders among the strawberries. He dreams of the past and of his sweetheart who married his younger, more romantic, brother instead of him. He remembers the family and its life.

As Isak and Marianne continue their trip they pick up three youths whom they call the "children," a poetic guitar playing minister-to-be, a nihilistic doctor-to-be, and a vivacious girl devoted to the carpe diem life. Their passengers alternately bicker and rejoice. As they go farther, they are forced by an accident to pick up a man and wife, two hateful people who viciously attack each other. Marianne stops the car can banishes them. As the woman leaves she asks forgiveness.

When Dr. Borg stops at a gas station he is remembered, in a soft moment, by the proprietors as a good man. But, in his heart he is cold and guilt-ridden, for he has realized he has wasted his life.

He stops at his mother's house. She is ninety-six years old and has outlived her children except the doctor himself. She too is old and bitter.

As Marianne drives on, the old doctor sleeps and dreams another revealing dream. He is outside a door, and he impales his hand on a nail sticking out of the door jamb. Then he is admitted into the house by a man who leads him into a classroom with students watching from the arena seats. He is given three tests, all of which he fails. First, he looks into a microscope, but all he can see is the reflections of his own eye, staring back in terrible ego. He is told to read words from the blackboard, which contain a doctor's first moral. He cannot read them. They say, "to ask forgiveness." Finally, he examines a woman and pronounces her dead at which she recoils in mocking laughter. In his dream, Dr. Borg has lost all his craft; he has nothing. He then dreams that he sees his wife committing adultery as she actually had, a memory that has haunted him. He has nothing but guilt.

The doctor wakes up and finds the car has stopped. While the "children" are out gathering flowers to honor the old professor, Marianne confesses that she had told Evald that she is pregnant and that she was going to have the child even though her husband -- a copy of his father -- does not want the responsibility of having a child, the responsibility of living. The doctors asks why she is telling him, and she responds that the visit to his mother had frightened her. She sees her husband also falling into sterile coldness. Then the gay youths return and bestow the flowers upon the doctor, and the journey continues.

The arrive in the city, and Dr. Borg receives his prize. Afterward, as he lies in bed, the doctor calls Evald to him. Evald admits that he needs his wife and is giving in to her. Marianne enters and hugs the old man, and he says he loves her and she says she loves him.

The "children" sing a farewell song beneath his window and scamper away. Dr. Borg goes back to bed with a vision of his youth. He has been vitalized by really seeing those around him for the first time; he can die in peace.

The Silence (1964) is also a story of the road. Two sisters, Ester and Anna, and the young boy Johan, son of Anna, are traveling home by train. It is stiflingly hot, and the older sister is ill and vomiting. It eventually becomes clear that she is dying. The little boy plays unhappily by himself in the passageway outside the compartments. Inside, a tension is apparent between the two sisters.

They all get off the train and go to an old baroque hotel in a strange, foreign town. Anna, the younger sister, washes and splashes cologne on herself and her son, and then they lie down and sleep while Ester drinks in the other room.

John awakes and journeys throughout the halls of the hotel with his cap pistol. He pretends to shoot the workman fixing the chandelier lights. He comes across a group of dwarfs who playfully dress him in a girl's dress until their leader enters and halts the play. Johan also shoots the old manager who eats sausage and shows him pictures from his youth while he strokes him gently. The boy hides the pictures under the rug. And, Johan also urinates in the hallway.

Meanwhile, Anna wakes up and, ignoring the staring eyes of her sister who is a lesbian, she goes out to a café and then to a show where she witnesses two people in violent sex in another seat. She flees.

When she returns to the hotel she is greeted by Ester who has spent the day in solitary suffering. Ester has been drinking and has sexually abused herself. She faces Anna and demands to know what she has been ding. Anna tells her that she has been making love in the back of a church with a man she picked up.

Ester pleads with Anna not to leave again and tries to kiss her, but Anna leaves and goes to meet her new lover in the hall. They make love in her bed as Johan listens outside the door.

Johan tells Ester who confronts Anna; they argue as the man waits. The next morning Anna and Johan go to breakfast. Back in the hotel room Ester is struck by attacks of suffocation; she dreads a strangling death.

When Anna and Johan return, Ann viciously tells Ester they are leaving her. Johan throws himself into the arms of Ester who lies in bed.

As the boy and his mother travel him in their compartment on the train, Anna throws open the window and stands in the whipping rain. Johan holds a piece of paper, his inheritance from Ester. Ester was a translator, and had asked her to give him a list of words in a foreign language. Anna grabs the piece of paper, but, seeing it is just foreign words, throws it back. For the boy, however, they possess a glimmer. Written on the paper are the words "heart" and "hand." Johan looks at his mother bitterly. His world has no dreams.

In a summary of plot, the parallels between the ultimately idyllic Wild Strawberries and the vicious, ugly The Silence are probably not apparent. However, there are a great many similarities. Dr. Borg and Marianne in Wild Strawberries and Ester and Johan in The Silence bring revelation to one another. Both pictures end with death near. Both end in awareness.

In the world of Ingmar Bergman, to exist is to suffer. But if the harsh ticking of life is shown by Bergman, he also employs a group of characters in his films who hold life's vitality and are vivacious and boisterous. In Wild Strawberries the "children" possess this affecting joyousness. In The Silence, however, the bright characters are dwarfs, warped men. Everything has become abused in The Silence. There are numerous sex symbols. Sex is abused. Ester, who is a lesbian, masturbates; Anna, who approaches nymphomania, fornicates in the back of a church; and even John in his own limited way, urinates on the hall of the hotel. The adultery of Borg's wife in Wild Strawberries has become the total abuse of the characters in The Silence. The boy Johan is effeminate and Oedipal. The cap pistol which he shoots at the man who is changing the chandelier lights, the dwarfs, and the old manager is a sex symbol. The dwarfs dress Johan in girl's clothing. Sex, and humanity itself, is awry. Another symbol is the tank that rumbles into the street at night and mutely symbolizes the brutality, the menace of sex. While this symbol remains impotent and distant for Ester, the guns do fire a solute to Dr. Borg after his award in Wild Strawberries. Again, the same basic symbol in both films: one silent, the other exploding. Both seem ironic. Neither character has had a satisfactory, complete sexual relationship.

If sex is a source of man's misery and frustration according to Bergman, he draws the greatest conflict from his Puritan background. It is the struggle between the intellect and feeling, the mind and the heart. Both Wild Strawberries and The Silence are primarily concerned with this. Dr. Borg in Wild Strawberries and Ester in The Silence are the scientists, clinical and aloof. The old man and the older sister are caught up in a sterile detachment, the cold extreme of the intellect. Yet, Dr. Borg finally communicates with Marianne, and Ester communicates with Johan. Marianne throws her arms about Borg, and Johan throws his arms about Ester. Both Dr. Borg and Ester are lying in bed when they receive these gestures of love. Love is not dead in Bergman's world.

In both films there are sensual extremes in conflict with the coldness of the intellect. Isak Borg in Wild Strawberries is thrown over by his fiancé for his younger, more exciting brother. And his wife commits adultery realizing that he will "forgive" her in his cold way. The contrast is even greater in The Silence. Against the icy control of Ester is the extreme heat of desire in Anna. She glories in bathing herself and sensually splashes water on her breasts. She is physical, emotional, but her only intellectual expression is the adjective "nice." Even Bach's music to her is "nice," nothing more. Again, irony is apparent in the fact that the artist Bach's name and her son's are the same -- Johan.

In the face of frustration and despair, Bergman's characters search for communication. It comes in the form of confession. In Wild Strawberries Marianne confesses her fears to Dr. Borg, and near the end of the film Evald comes into his father's room, pulls a chair along side his father's bed, and sits as though he were a confessor. Evald and Isak come as close to communication as they can, and Evald admits his need for his wife.

In The Silence Ester also feels the need of confession as death approaches. She confesses to the old waiter of the hotel that she has not married because she hates the rotten smell of men's semen. Instead, she has developed "attitudes," but these have failed and she is left in terrible loneliness.

Confession is not the only religious element in Wild Strawberries and The Silence. There is also the symbol of crucifixion in both films. Both Dr. Borg and Ester are "crucified." In the doctor's dream, he impales his hand on a nail before entering the building and failing three tests. In The Silence, Ester hangs on the head bar of the bed as on a cross and suffers an attack of choking as death draws near. Both crucifixion scenes precede ascensions to knowledge of self.

Bergman is writing in a Puritan tradition, much as Nathaniel Hawthorne did in this country. The intellectual isolation and cold hatred of man is the curse of Isak and Ester as it was the curse of Hawthorne's Goodman Brown, Ethan Brand, and Roger Chillingworth. Ingmar Bergman is modern man, an artist struggling with modern horrors, uncertainties, and paradoxes. He, as perhaps no other modern artist has been able to do, has created evil and despair that are explicit and actual instead of the shadows for which other moderns have settled. Bergman goes further; his evil lives. There is a horror to it that has seldom, if ever, been expressed in film, or in literature for that matter.

Wild Strawberries and The Silence, respectively, present us with age and youth, past and the future. For Isak there is redemption from a bitter existence; for Johan there is the beginning of bitterness. But the boy possesses a clue to the truth the old man has found; he has in Ester's words that which some day may save him. In the emptiness around him, he has known love by the hand and the heart of a wretched woman who is dying in total loneliness. Ingmar Bergman asks man to listen to the expression of Marianne and Ester, of life itself, and to remember it as the communication of love from the rim of hell, from the death of mortal suffering.

© 2000-2017 Tony Macklin