From Jean Luc Goddard to Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and Bernardo Bertolucci, Ingmar Bergman’s body of work has influenced many great directors, who have recognized and appreciated his unique style. As Bertolucci puts it in an interview shortly after Bergman’s death, he managed to capture “the depths of the human spirit, going even further into the interiors of men and women, in a black and white that turned his characters into ghosts and his ghosts into characters”. Inspiring himself mostly from his reality, learning from the pain and suffering of others, his recurrent theme in his films is death. Two of his best known films, The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries have death as one of the main themes, but the way in which it is presented differs greatly from a film to the other, even though there are many similarities in style between the two.
Thomas Elsaesser writes in his study ‘European Cinema: Face to Face with Hollywood’ what he finds to be the things “that make Bergman a great film director: his use of close-ups, his work on the sound track, the composition of these incredibly complex, yet fluid action spaces within the frame, in both indoor and outside scenes”. One can find all this in both The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, which appear to be two very different stories when first viewed, but at a closer analysis, similarities arise from all corners, establishing Bergman’s style unique. Yet he doesn’t make a template of his work. His films remain “Bergmanesque” but they never become dull, being approached as a lesson on life.
Wild Strawberries is a story of an old doctor and his journey to be honored for his entire activity, while The Seventh Seal presents a knight of the Middle Ages returning home from the crusades. The journeys presented in the two films have apparently simple goals: the doctor has to go to Lund to receive an award, and the knight is coming home after ten years of crusades. Yet the style in which these two journeys are presented shows that there is much more to it than to reach the physical destination. The protagonists from both films (Isak Borg and Antonius Block) are threatened by death and haunted by questions of their own existence, life and the regrets they have. The style in which both stories are told brings them together and helps us understand one character by understanding the other.
Threat of Death
The threat of death is depicted differently in both films but there are certain elements that are central to both scenes. In Wild Strawberries Borg sees his own death in a dream. The whole dream sequence is played beautifully and most effectively, with the contrast between light and darkness, silence and sudden noise being central to the whole scene. The setting plays also an important role, as through the deserted street, where one can’t see where it starts and where it ends. It can make reference to the deserted beach in The Seventh Seal, where Antonius Block first meets with Death and they start a game of chess. In this second film, silence and sound also play an important part, as once Death has made an entrance, one can no longer hear the sound of the waves crashing to the shore. It is dead silent as well as on the empty street in Borg’s dream. The pacing is of the essence in these scenes as the slow action allows the viewer to observe all the details, which prove to be more important than the action itself, revealing key information on the characters (their fears, their questions and desires).
Godless and godly characters
Antonius Block and Isak Borg are quite similar characters portrayed in very similar manner. They both have questions about life and death, about God and his existence. Borg has acted all his life as if he was God and feels now that the day of his reckoning has come. Block has fought all his life in the name of God and finds all his struggles have been in vain. They both embark on a journey that is meant to help them find an answer to their questions; they both meet interesting people on the way, which helps them to some degree achieve their goal. The style of both films is very dark but contains many elements of humour inserted in the story telling.
One of the recurrent themes of Bergman’s films is family. It is true that the ways in which family relations are looked at are very different in both films, but the central idea of redemption remains in both films and the style is quite similar. In the midst of all kinds of threats from all sides, family remains unified at the end of the film even though not much seems to be resolved. Darkness and light are intertwined in both films, suggesting the viewer an inner struggle within both characters. At the end they are both somewhat at peace with their imminent deaths, knowing that they leave a happy and united family behind, that have just escaped from death’s trap. We notice that both Mia and Jof and Marianne and Evald are threatened by the concept of death, only that in Wild Strawberries the threat comes from the inside, namely Evald’s view on life and death and his refusal to have any children.
Life changing experiences
Both films focus on issues of existence, on how fear and constant struggle can be at the same time human and grotesque, how life experiences can transform a person, turning them into outcasts in the middle of society. The difference between the two protagonists is that Block realizes how he has estranged himself from his own persona. War has changed his view on life and God, making him question everything and in the end feeling more lost than ever. Just as Borg, Block needs to solve unfinished business before he dies; both films follow the same style when it comes to fulfilling that last task by using the journey motif. Block’s journey has begun long before he is presented to us, while Borg seems to reinvent his own life by embarking on a rather unplanned journey. Borg had slipped into a state of oblivion, living in denial of his own self. It is the dream of his own death that makes him realize he’s not immortal and that he too has a task to fulfil before he dies. Death thus is a strong element in both films, but the style in which it is presented and the effect it has on the protagonists differs greatly. In The Seventh Seal death has a face and represents almost a constant threat. In Wild Strawberries, death is not seen but merely feared of and this fear acts as wake-up call on Borg’s conscience.
Bergman the auteur
The style Bergman has applied to his films, especially during the “middle period” to which the two films we’re analysing belong, is very complex in its simplicity. The dialogue is very important in helping to portrait the characters especially when it alternates with moments of complete silence which are very expressive in creating an image around the characters. It is true that one can distinguish the theatrical style in his films, but that is of secondary importance as one cannot expect much realism in a Bergman film. His reality is what we are being presented, and as theatrical as his storytelling style may be, he can’t be accused of artificiality. In both The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries the problems the protagonists deal with are very personal to the filmmaker. It is his signature and his filter on life. He even stated that The Seventh Seal was “’excellent therapy’ for his morbid obsessions. He presented life as he experienced and saw it. Both Block and Borg can be seen as images of Bergman at different stages in his life, even though Borg resembles more the figure of Bergman’s father, who had a great impact on Bergman, while Block more like the filmmaker himself. The close-ups are a trademark of Ingmar Bergman’s style of filming and storytelling as with a facial expression he manages to make it easier to render feelings.
Style of narration
The narrative style is very reflective. In Wild Strawberries the protagonist narrates as a voice over what has been happening to him, reflecting on the points he considered to be flagrant: his two dreams namely the dream of his own death and the one of him failing at the most important exam of his life. They both suggest that Borg is afraid not only of his death, but also that he may have not achieved anything significant throughout his whole life. In addition to his dreams, his youth comes to haunt him as if to ask the same question. In The Seventh Seal, even though there’s no narrator, one might say that the narrative style is also reflective, as there are many scenes of monologue. Block is narrating his inner thoughts to the viewer. But instead of presenting what has been happening to him, we guess it from his revealing of his thoughts and torments (the scene at the confessional). Bergman gives an insight on Block’s mind and what he is thinking through his monologues, which is presented somehow clearer than in the case of Borg, where the 1st person narrative is used.
Elements of humor
Humor is a very important part in the narrative as well as in helping portraying the characters. Borg and his maid have a very interesting almost comical relationship that hides a deep respect and appreciation on both sides, despite the obvious taunting. There is a comical element in The Seventh Seal as well, though the overall style is much heavier. The humour is induced by Block’s esquire who proves to be a very wise man but also a very subtly funny one, mocking those around him whenever he gets the chance (the relationship between the blacksmith and his wife for example, or the way in which he presents his marital status: “I am married but I have hope my wife will be dead by now”). In The Seventh Seal even Death has some sense of humour, especially when he chops down the tree where the coward and lustful actor Skat finds refuge. Though picking him as his victim is not completely at random. Skat represents betrayal and he is portrayed in contrast with the angelic family of Jof, Mia and Mikael.
The symbol of the wild strawberries is worth being taken into consideration as it relates to key moments in both films and also to Bergman’s style of using details as key elements in his story-telling. In The Seventh Seal, the wild strawberries represent the simplicity and innocence that is associated with Mia, Jof and Mikael. They are the only image throughout the film that comes close to holiness, bearing a striking resemblance to the Holy Family. Similarly, in Wild Strawberries, whose title couldn’t be more suggestive, the wild strawberries represent Borg’s lost love, youth and innocence, which he looks upon nostalgically. Both Borg and Block catch a glimpse of that long lost bliss in their life. As he helps himself with strawberries and milk from the bowl, Block says “I shall remember this moment. The silence, the twilight, the bowls of strawberries and milk, your faces in the evening light […] I’ll carry this memory between my hands as carefully as if it were a bowl filled to the brim with fresh milk. And it will be an adequate sign – it will be enough for me”, suggesting that this was the sign from God that he had been looking for.
Bergman shows his unique craftsmanship by using almost the same style, almost the same cast to depict two stories that couldn’t be more different to each other, yet couldn’t be more similar. He has used his own life as the nucleus for most of his films on which he added more or less the same “ornaments”, using the same palette and the same range of “tools” but with such different effects. He is an auteur and he has created films that can be easily identified as his own, but he has never created a pattern in his work, which could turn him from a true artist into a second rate dull filmmaker.