(a “you know so much, but you don’t know anything” film review by Timothy J. Verret)
I remember seeing WILD STRAWBERRIES the first time when I was maybe in my late 20s or early 30s. I had already grown accustomed to the marvelous majesty of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, but I’m afraid this film at that time was a little lost on me. Cut to me now, age 54, and I can honestly tell you that there is NOTHING lost on me about this film. I TOTALLY “get it” now and what I “get” is encapsulated in the line Sara delivers to the main character, Isak Borg, wherein she is holding up a mirror to Isak and says, “you know so much, but you don’t know anything.” Yes, indeed, do I EVER “get” that!
Isak Borg is a doctor of much knowledge but also much disappointment and much loneliness. The film begins with Isak taking a trip to Stockholm to receive a medal of honor for this much knowledge. What he doesn’t receive is much peace on the way to Stockholm by car, for he is treated to flashbacks and “flashforwards” that make him question who he really is minus this much knowledge. What he really is, as mentioned, is much disappointment and much loneliness. Victor Sjöström, a most definite favorite actor of Bergman ever since he saw Sjöström’s THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE, plays Isak Borg, and this performance is wonderfully nuanced and wonderfully “naked.” Borg flashbacks to the girl, Sara, he wished he had married. He flashbacks that he has not been kind at all to his son, Evald, or Evald’s wife, Marriane, who accompanies Isak on his trip to Stockholm. These flashbacks collide with “flashforwards.” One such as these was when Isak and Marianne picked up a husband-and-wife hitchhiker whose marriage was infused with humiliation and mean words, all taking place in the back seat of their car. It is Marianne who eventually stops the car to let these troubled souls out, but we know Isak wants them out, too, because they remind him of his humiliating and mean words spoken to his wife, Karin, who has passed away. There are also three young people they give a ride to, and they also are “flashforwards” but also flashbacks, because they remind Isak of his lost youth.
WILD STRAWBERRIES has two (BOTH) dream sequences that are the sheer genius of Ingmar Bergman. Isak has a dream at the beginning of the film where he is walking down a deserted street with a blazing yellow sun (you can feel the heat, although the film is in black-and-white). He spots a clock tower that has no hands and an eventual meet-up with someone who has a smudged face and when touched crumbles and bleeds (blood? water? Jesus? (“one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water”-John 19:34). A horse-drawn carriage (never one of my favorite things) comes around the corner carrying a coffin that eventually falls to the ground and then a hand with the face of Isak protrudes out, attempting to pull him into the coffin. The other dream sequence midway through the film is Isak being tested for all his much knowledge, only to realize that this much knowledge has led him to “you know so much, but you don’t know anything.” If there is anything Isak comes to realize, it is that his life up until now has been resentments, coldness, and, yes, loneliness. In fact, it is the medical record from this testing that reveals Isak’s diagnosis. And what is that diagnosis? Yep, you guessed it….loneliness! In fact, almost every character in the many Ingmar Bergman films I have seen have this same diagnosis of loneliness. I know for a fact it’s my diagnosis.
“You know so much, but you don’t know anything.” What does this really mean for all of us? It means, like Isak, we can know so much but not know anything. It means we can think we know so much but actually not know anything. This is such a struggle for the intellectual ones like Bergman and like myself. We have all this knowledge. We have our intellect, we have our words, we have our careers, and we even have our family and friends. But do we know anything about any of these things? Of course not! We don’t really know what any of these things will mean in the end. We won’t really know until the end if any of these things have meant anything. I have often been quoted as saying (or thinking): “I know God and yet I am still coming to know God. But, outside of knowing God, I don’t know anything.” I sure do try to know anything about anything, but I only know God and yet I am still coming to know God. The irony here is that there can be much freedom in admitting I don’t know anything. I think I am going to lose something by admitting I don’t know anything (can you relate?) but, in reality, I know EVERYTHING because I know FREEDOM! When I detach from anything, I have EVERYTHING which is I have FREEDOM!
Writing this film review of WILD STRAWBERRIES made me think of a comment I received once from someone who was reading one of my Ingmar Bergman film reviews. The one commenting said, and I’m paraphrasing, “Your film reviews are too much of a love fest of Ingmar Bergman.” I think this one commenting meant that as an insult, but I took it as a HUGE compliment! My film reviews of Ingmar Bergman’s films ARE a “love fest” because I LOVE INGMAR BERGMAN’S FILMS! Should I be hesitant to “drip” this “love fest” all over these reviews I write about Ingmar Bergman’s films? I want them to “drip” a “love fest” and, in fact, I want them to downright “bleed.” My blog website here has the mission statement of “I’m gonna to need to bleed for God!” I still hold steadfast to that statement, but I also can have BOTH by “I’m gonna need to bleed for Ingmar Bergman!” Can’t I?
To close this film review out is the closing image of Isak in WILD STRAWBERRIES. Isak has received his medal of much knowledge and after such a long day of flashbacks and “flashforwards” of much disappointment and much loneliness, he is seen lying in his bed, quickly falling asleep, and he has a face of TOTAL peace. I think Isak has come to realize, like me, he has detached from anything, and he, like me, has EVERYTHING which is he, like me, NOW has FREEDOM!