This will appear in the next issue of DreamTime, the membership journal of the International Association for the Study of Dreams:
Most serious film critics who attempt to sort out relation of dreaming to cinema start with an obvious distinction, inferred from the conventions of the fiction films they study: There are films that are relevant because of their celebrated or notable dream sequences, like Hitchcock’s Spellbound or Vertigo, and films structured as dream visions, like The Wizard of Oz, or Richard Linklater’s underrated metaphysical fantasy, Waking Life. The latter is an ancient form, with a history in many media, and a tradition of critical interpretation as allegory, supernatural revelation, or philosophical statement on the nature of being in the world; the former is usually approached in the terms of twentieth-century psychology—especially Freudian—as a mystery to be decoded for clues to the dreaming character’s state of mind.
Very rarely does a film transcend this useful distinction and treat dreaming both as a device to present a glimpse into a character’s psychological state and as a means of elevating cinema to the condition of spiritual quest—considering, like the great artistic dream journeys of the past, the existential questions of authentic being, full engagement with the human world, and confrontation with one’s own developing and incomplete identity. Certainly no other film has integrated these two approaches to the cinematic use of dreaming with such consummate artistry as does the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman in Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället, 1957), a kind of modern Pilgrim’s Progress, but executed with the complex understanding of character of the dramas of Ibsen or Strindberg.
One of Bergman’s greatest insights was to recognize that the transcendent aspects of life—the sources of the religious experience he so often made his subject—could be addressed in film not through stylized attempts to depict the supernatural but by bringing the audience progressively further into a single character’s mind. The game of chess played with Death himself in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) remains justly famous, but largely through parody of its heavy-handed symbolism. By contrast, Wild Strawberries achieves profound impact in a scene in which a character simply recites a poem about finding God in nature, while dining in the open air.
The plot of the film, too, is simple—Isak Borg makes the long car trip to the university town of Lund to be honored for his life’s work as a doctor. Accompanying him is his daughter-in-law, who’s estranged from her husband, and along the way they encounter characters who all raise variants on the same question: Has Isak lived so cerebrally, so rigidly adhering to his own code of rectitude, than he has failed to experience the real humanity in himself and others? The incidents are mirrors that reflect his own failings to himself, though sometimes they comfort him with knowledge of the good he has done.
Yet Isak Borg is a character who lives as much in dreams, fantasies and reveries as in his present reality. His day begins with one of the most famous dreams in film history, loaded with symbolism of clocks, coffins, and empty streets that many critics have labeled “Freudian,” though Bergman himself has only hinted that it is an homage to the German expressionist films that impressed and disturbed him in his youth. It is—not to spoil the experience for readers who haven’t seen the film yet—a classic confrontation with mortality. The dream disturbs Isak enough that he determines to drive all the way to Lund instead of flying, the film’s first indication that its theme will be Isak’s growing awareness that he must accept rather than avoid life.
His second dream comes during a rest stop, as he wants to show his daughter-in-law the house where he spent summers as a child. This seems a kind of reverie, exactly recapitulating scenes from his early years, concerned with the petty jealousies and infidelities of adolescence, especially his unsuccessful pursuit of his cousin Sara, who ultimately prefers his more playful and lively brother.
His third dream, as he sleeps in the car while his daughter-in-law drives, returns to the theme, beginning with a fantasied conversation with the young Sara in which she explains just why she rejected him, and ending with a scene—remembered or imagined—of his wife’s adultery some years later. The intervening scene is another great exercise in convincing dream symbolism, an extraordinary achievement of capturing the real feel of a dream: Isak is required to take an unexpected examination, in an unknown language, in which he seems to fail completely in the elementary skills required of a doctor.
Two points become very clear as one examines these dreams: First, the tendency of the mainstream of American film criticism, from the intellectual establishment of the 1950s to recent post-structuralist theories, to ground all consideration of symbolism in Freudian terms seems especially misguided and inadequate here. All of Borg’s dreams so vividly illustrate Jung’s concept of compensation—that the content of the dream compensates for an unbalanced view of self and life in waking existence—that they might be used as textbook examples. Second, the complaint made by a few critics (and more viewers) that Isak’s dreams are haphazard, aimless interruptions of the narrative manifestly misreads the real structure of the film. Bergman—the writer as well as director—clearly considers carefully the different nature of each of Isak’s extended side-journeys into the subjective view. Though a Jungian reading of Wild Strawberries is convincingly neat, the Swedish director is after something larger. By emphasizing not only dream, but memory and fantasy, he goes beyond the illustration of concepts established in depth psychology, and subtly influences the audience’s ideas about the capacities of cinema itself. (Considering that his career as a screenwriter and director stretches from 1943 to the present—more than half the history of the artform—at least in hindsight he ought to qualify almost uniquely to do so.)
There are many tantalizing themes to take up in Wild Strawberries: the tension in Protestant theology, and this in western ethics, between the value of works and faith; the two characters named Sara, who appear in Isak’s old age as well as his youth, suggesting a notion of the anima or Eternal Feminine at the heart of the film; even the slight hints that Bergman is quite aware of the film’s indebtedness to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol—itself a modern dream vision never fully appreciated by literary criticism. But the uniqueness of this film—consistently appearing on critics’ lists of the ten greatest masterworks of cinema, even as they frequently condescend to its “old-fashioned” and “literary” character—is truly in its structure. In the heyday of documentary realism—which has its own virtues but became a dominating paradigm squeezing out other approaches to film—Bergman took up the most foundational questions of cinema, the ones that require constant reinvestigation, by exploring not technique but representation itself, the relation of cinematic images to lived experience, and he did so, in Wild Strawberries, by showing us the continuity of dream, fantasy, and memory, and how much of our lives may be absorbed in them, and in meaningful subjective experience, in the course of a single day. The most significant function of art, as of dreams, is subversive—to show us that the words we use in the day are inadequate to our real experience, and that we must always remain open to new ways of framing and understanding that experience—new images, new subjective events, that can deepen our limited understanding of the world. Wild Strawberries constitutes its own theory of representation, and whatever else we find it, it teaches us something just be holding that our accustomed account of the relation of the individual to the world, and of the nature of perception and memory, is inadequate to our lives —and this is the most important work that the fictional worlds of cinema can do. Wild Strawberries thus stands as the distinguished forebear of virtually every recent film that challenges the metaphysics of everyday life—Memento, Pi, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and even such as apparently anti-Bergmanesque spectacles as The Matrix.
Wild Strawberries is available on DVD in a beautiful print from Criterion. Extras include a great documentary on Bergman’s life and work by Jorn Donner.