Half a Century Later, Bergman’s Imagery Still Resonates

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By Timmy Brown


Wild Strawberries.

In a culture in which Michael Bay has emerged as one of the most financially successful directors of our time, it is unfortunate that Ingmar Bergman is no longer a household name among U.S. filmgoers.

The Swedish director’s lasting influence on filmmakers is profound; Woody Allen once called Bergman “probably the greatest artist, all things considered, since the invention of the motion picture camera.”

Indeed, Bergman’s films portray the great motifs of human existence—interpersonal relationships, remorse, life and death—in ways that promote them to the level of lasting art.

Bergman’s breakthrough as a director occurred with the release of two acclaimed black-and-white films in 1957.  Shot in just over a month, the first of these, “The Seventh Seal”, follows the knight Antonius Block, who has returned from the Crusades only to find that the plague has thrown his homeland into chaos.

The film emerges as more of an existential allegory than a historical drama as early as its famous (and often parodied) opening scene, in which Block challenges Death—a pallid figure in a black cloak—to a game of chess in order to stave off the ravages of time.

“The Seventh Seal” achieves its visual power through its stark and frequently jarring juxtaposition of mood. Midway through the film, a farce staged by a traveling acting troupe is interrupted by a procession of flagellants, who ominously intone the Dies Irae (“Day of Wrath”) sequence from the Latin requiem mass while scourging themselves to rid the land of presumably sin-induced plague.

Death, both in its abstract and personified forms, dominates the film; yet through the darkness, Bergman manages to infuse many of his characters with life-affirming goodness, a contrast underscored by the final sequence.

Death also features in “Wild Strawberries”, albeit in a different way.  On the surface, the plot is fairly straight-forward: elderly doctor Isak Borg, accompanied by his daughter-in-law, must travel by car to receive an honorary degree.

But the film primarily depicts Borg recollecting his past and coming to terms with the inevitable approach of death, which Bergman illustrates through inventive flashback and dream sequences.  It soon becomes apparent that Borg, now the almost stereotypical “lonely old man,” was not always a warm and loving husband and father.

Disappointments from his past contribute to his present state.  Like “The Seventh Seal,” however, “Wild Strawberries” is not a manifesto chronicling the miseries of life, but a journey of self-overcoming designed to cause viewers to reflect on the patches of beauty in their own lives.

Both films are available for loan from Pierce Library.

The Seventh Seal.

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