Bergman themes

leitmotifs in the films of
Ingmar Bergman

wild strawberries
Wild strawberries (Wikimedia Commons).   

Abstract: This is a discussion of some of the central themes that Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman (1918 – 2007) returns to in his films. The article discusses social and existential misery and its spiritual remedy.

Keywords: film studies, dreams, wild strawberries, the personal paradise, unconscious suffering, Eurydice, scapegoatism, vicarious suffering, Christianity.


Filmic themes have much in common with symbolical products of the psyche, such as dreams and myth. That’s why they must be interpreted as such. Bergman’s films are dreamlike, and dreams also play a great role in the narrative. Art is a product of the soul, which is by nature mythogenic. Thus, it is bound to give expression to the soul’s content, including feeling. On the other hand, an art which is immured in a conscious ideology, such as ‘socialist realism’ of the Soviet era, is a shallow facade, void of the heartfelt meaning that gives nourishment to the soul. Regardless of the level of abstraction, art only becomes attractive to viewers in so far as it contains a symbolic element that evokes feeling.

Therefore I reject rationalistic attempts of interpretation, such as Robert E. Lauder’s (1989). Lauder endorses philosophical rationalism, which means that only the intelligible is real. He says about Persona (1966), for example, that it exclusively concerns Bergman’s view of art. As an example, he takes Elisabet’s (Liv Ullmann) “Nothing!” (at the end of the movie) to mean an evaluation of art’s importance. However, since virtually all of Bergman’s films revolve around inner emptiness, this statement immediately suggests itself as a comment on the state of the soul. How could an artist possibly evade the subject matters pertaining to the human soul, instead restricting himself to philosophical formulations like “art is meaningless”? If this was all Bergman wanted to say, it would be less costly to formulate it in everyday language.

An art which could equally well be formulated in intellectual terms, has divested itself of its raison d’être. After all, an intellectual wording is a more exact and effortless way of communication, less prone to cause misunderstandings. Art is a way of expression which involves the unconscious. It is coloured by feeling, instinct, and symbol. On the other hand, when images are used as a means of illustrating rational and conscious ideas, it is denoted illustration. It is an effective means of expression, but it is not art. That’s why art cannot be formulated solely by rational and conscious means. It cannot be wholly rational. Bergman’s world is a dreamy microcosm populated with contents that can be understood symbolically, but not merely as rational statements. In fact, dreams are helpful in shedding light on Bergman’s symbols. I have included dreams of my own and a few dreams contributed by anonymous members of a dream group.

Wild strawberries

The Swedish title of the film Wild Strawberries (1957) is ‘Smultronstället’. It really means “Wild Strawberry place”. Swedes use this designation for a kind of personal paradise where they thrive, similar to the notion of “the little red cottage with white trim”. It doesn’t mean that smultron (plural, wild strawberries) grow there; it merely signifies a modest place where people like to be. The wild strawberry is the fruit of the “personal paradise”, qualitatively different than the biblical paradise. In Wild Strawberries the bowl fell over and the smultron fell on the ground. The personal paradise was lost, and that’s why Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström) went through life like a living dead. The wild strawberries also appear in The Seventh Seal (1957), where the knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) 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.

Antonius realizes that he has to carry this bowl with him, and make sure that it doesn’t tip over. In effect he says that, in order not to forget it, he will carry the personal paradise along, keeping it close to heart. He avoids the mistake of Isak Borg. The word ‘paradise’ (pairi-daeza) is of Persian origin. It means enclosure or encirclement, similar to the greek word ‘temenos’. A bowl also encircles and encloses the smultron. There is a similar notion in Fanny and Alexander (1982), the long version. Here, Isak Jacobi (Erland Josephson) tells the story of a young man who left the sun-scorched parade and went into the wood, searching after his ‘smultronställe’ by the brook. I elucidate this theme with a personal example. Long ago, when sailing in the archipelago, I had a dream. I went ashore in the dark, set up my tent on the grass, and soon fell asleep:

I was awakened in the middle of the night by a woman (although now I’m dreaming). She wanted to show me a secret. We went into the woods, and there she pointed to something under the low foliage. I saw big wild strawberries, very red, almost shining in the dark. I had the strongest sensation of wonder and felt the most intense longing for life. It was like experiencing the sweet taste of life’s nectar.

That’s the feeling that mustn’t be forgotten. In my dream, the woman guided me to ‘smultronstället’. In The Seventh Seal and in Wild Strawberries it’s a woman who finds the smultron patch, just like in my dream. One curious thing is that cultivated strawberries are called ‘jordgubbar’ in Swedish, whereas the wild ones are called ‘smultron’. ‘Jordgubbar’ literally means “earth fellows” or “earth chaps.” It’s a stretch, but a bowl of smultron would translate to a fellowship of wild and earthy men, who live under the foliage in the wood. The smultron is the wild one, the maverick, whereas the strawberry is the domesticated version. Smultron have a more exquisite taste. In Bergman’s films, there is the recurrent theme of people who are like living dead (or even vampires, as in the Hour of the Wolf). The “man-eaters” are contrasted with the kind of people who know the wild strawberry place. The theme occurs also in Summer with Monika (or Monika). She (Harriet Andersson) shows Harry (Lars Ekborg) a patch where wild strawberries grow. At the end of the film we see the reflection of Harry in a window, when he holds his child and is thinking about the days together with Monika. It’s like he, after all, still keeps something in his heart: the “little”, or personal, paradise. This femme fatale corresponds to Eve in the Garden of Eden. In the Garden the woman presented the fruit to the man. Comparatively, Monika showed Harry a small tree with a small fruit on it. It’s the tree of the little paradise. The strawberry grows much closer to earth.

In Fanny and Alexander, Gustav Adolf Ekdahl (Jarl Kulle) elevates the “little world” in his final speech. Comparatively, bishop Vergerus’s (Jan Malmsjö) home represents the place where the outcasts from the Garden of Eden live. But there is a way of regaining paradise lost, namely by finding a way back to another kind of paradise, which is the wild strawberry place. This is what Gustav Adolf is talking about. Also, in the long version, Isak Jacobi tells the story about the young man who leaves the parade of suffering people (representing the outcasts of the Garden) to find a little paradise of his own in the wood. The notorious wild strawberries appear in Fanny and Alexander also, when the kids bring them to grandma.

In Sweden, “the little red cottage with white trim” represents the little paradise. Such cottages are painted in Falu copper red, which is a very common house paint. People use to say that they would want to escape the treadmill, go live in a little red cottage, and lead a simple life. In the traditional garden grow apples, pears, blackcurrant and redcurrant. This theme is portrayed in the film The Old Man in the Cottage (‘Gubben i stugan’) by Nina Hedenius (here). This documentary has been quite successful outside Sweden, too. It depicts an ideal that still lives in our heart.

Red cottage with white trim
Swedish cottage (photo by me).     


Bergman is notable for his depictions of women. They tend to be quite dark, and sometimes gloomy. The Eurydice theme is obvious in Bergman’s films. She is a chthonic goddess, similar to Persephone. In the Greek myth, she has Persephone’s permission to return to the world of the living. Yet Orpheus turns to look at her, and this causes her to vanish, once and for all, to the regions of the dead. In Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Karin (Harriet Andersson) has returned from the land of the dead: the lunatic asylum. But now she is finally brought back to the shadowland. There’s a similar theme in the stage play about the dead princess of Castilia (within the film). So the theme of the dead woman is very explicit. David (Gunnar Björnstrand) has attempted suicide in Switzerland. In the play the princess of Castilia tries to lure the young man into her deadly embrace. Karin tries to drag Minus (Lars Passgård) with her (she even accuses him of rape). The god of Hades himself, the spider, comes to retrieve her. Earlier, David had intended to commit suicide. But he got engine failure, which saved him. In this case, too, it seems that his condition improved only after he was prepared to face death.

In The Touch (1971) a Virgin statue in the church crypt is discovered. But when people, in the light of day, lay their eyes on her she immediately starts to deteriorate: now she will vanish, definitely. Torment from 1944 was not directed, but only scripted by Bergman. Only the final scenes were directed by Bergman. At the end of the film, Jan-Erik (Alf Kjellin) goes up to the top of Skinnarviksberget overlooking Stockholm. There is a pronounced feeling of freedom. Before this his Eurydice has died.

Bergman connects this theme with emancipation. These woman figures seem to have their male counterparts under a spell. Although Minus, in Through a Glass Darkly, said that “reality cracked”, he manages to cut himself loose. It’s obvious that he is ready now to face the daylight world, although he expressly shrinks back from it. The spell is broken. In Winter Light, the parson remains under the spell of his dead wife. She made the church into a sombre place, according to the organist Blom (Olof Thunberg). In Sarabande (2003) the image of the dead Anna appears. Her widower tries to kill himself. The beautiful Virgin Mother seems to call on the living from the other side of the grave.

In the antique Orpheus story the spell is finally broken after a long laborious journey. Orpheus had to look the god of Death in the eye first. Yet, in the end, Eurydice vanishes into the dark. Thus, these Bergman women are much like Eurydice. It’s as if the hero, in order to break the spell, must encounter them in the light of day. Thus, she will not continue to whisper behind his back anymore. Instead the hero turns to look at her, becoming fully conscious of her nature. Bergman’s take on the Eurydice theme revolves around emancipation. According to a psychological understanding, confrontation with the unconscious is symbolically a confrontation with the anima, the female personification of the unconscious. However, this notion fails to correspond with the Eurydice plots in Bergman’s films. In Bergman’s masterpiece, Persona (1966), Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann) is an actress who is playing Electra (the matricide). She suffers a mental collapse on scene and stops talking. She dies, mentally, as it were, and becomes passive and silent. Alma (Bibi Andersson) is the nurse who is assigned to her, to help her get back to life. Thus, Alma corresponds to Orpheus. The ending is similar to the Eurydice story: Elisabet goes back into darkness, after having experienced a partial recovery. In the end, Alma rejects Elisabet and says: “I’m not like you. I don’t feel like you. I’m not Elisabet Vogler: you are Elisabet Vogler. I’m just here to help you!”. Elisabet soon turns completely catatonic. The film ends when Alma beats her, packs her things and leaves the cottage.

Arthur Gibson (The Silence of God, 1969) takes the view that Elisabet is the superior and Alma is shallow and conceited, since she returns to her little suburban world, after having “throttled” the god-man Elisabet. But Alma has no other option than to return to life. She cannot remain in a disintegrated state on an island the rest of her life. Life must continue. To me, Elisabet appears like a goddess or a priestess (Electra), whereas Alma represents the anguished modern civilian. Elisabet is “archaic” whereas Alma is clearly her superior from a human perspective. Elisabet is like a priestess who suddenly realizes that her god is dead, and then she becomes mute.

In fact, Alma manages to squeeze the painful truth out of Elisabet, who finally makes the concession: “Nothing at all!”. So Alma is very successful. She manages to prove that Elisabet is the conceited and deceitful one, when she reads her letter. So I disagree with Gibson’s interpretation. He argues that if we follow Alma, throttle the god-man and return to our cozy, suburban lives, then we can only resort to our “faintly rotting strawberry beds”. Arguably, if we were to complete the unification with the god-man (which, allegedly, Alma left unfinished) then true wholeness is achieved. But, in fact, the strawberry patch represents the earthly paradise, which is not a depreciatory image. It seems that Gibson turns the message upside-down. Bergman, in fact, says that the god-man, the priestess, the elevated, beautiful and talented actor, is merely an empty shell — a persona (= the mask which the ancient Greek actors wore).

Elisabet, in a scene, appears like a vampire who sucks the blood of Alma. She tries to take over Alma’s soul. Elisabet represents the personality who strives after greatness, and to achieve this puts on a mask (persona). But her inner soul gradually dies. Alma represents the personality that keeps to the paradigm of the “little world”. Alma finally rejects the empty paradigm that Elisabet represents, and the vampirish personality sinks into oblivion. It is connected with falsehood and pretence, as Alma reasons in a state of agitation. It represents chimerical life, something which many people today are obsessed with. Alma’s abandonment of Elisabet represents a victory. They are two different persons, but a merger occurs in the film on account of psychological invasion. That’s why their faces merge in a scene. There is a conflict, between (1) the mask-wearing person, who strives after mechanization and derives energy from the outside world, and (2) the person whose source of life is within (cmp. the dream below: “The little fountain”). However, although they are evidently two different persons in the film, they can also be seen as two aspects of the same person, since this conflict may exist in the same individual.

Comparatively, in The Seventh Seal, Antonius Block throws off his ideal of heroic knighthood, and from now on he will keep in mind the unassuming bowl of wild strawberries. He has thrown off his mask of grandeur. It represents a victory when the paradigm of falsehood dies. In my early twenties I had a dream in which a midget approached me and said: “It’s better to be a little fountain that spouts water than to be a large fountain whose source has run dry”. It’s a remarkably clear formulation for a dream, similar to an alchemical dictum pronounced by the midget god Mercurius. It is a saying right from the god’s mouth. It is emphasized in Bergman’s film that Elisabet is a grand personality who has no motherly love for her child, and whose source has run dry, whereas Alma is a simple person. This conflict in human nature is central to Bergman: the dried up large fountain versus the little yet living fountain.

The notion of the “living water” also occurs in the message of Jesus. “Streams of living water will flow from deep within the person who believes in me” (John 7:38 & Matt. 5-7). Central to Jesus’s message is to stand aside from delusions of grandiosity, including the kind of religiosity that revolves around idolatrous and grandiose ideas. However, the personality that corresponds to a large dried-up fountain, will use religion as a means to achieve magnificence. In a way, such people deify themselves, and gradually throttle the living fountain. It seems to be a means of adaptation to life that belongs in human nature, connected with a dark instinct. It takes much energy and focus to be a careerist, to live according to the imitative creed of pretence. For instance, a person can imitate religious life and set out on an episcopal career. As people acclaim him, much like they applause an actor, he derives energy to continue his career. So he draws energy from other people, and not from within. With time, his inner source dries up. He turns into a vampire who must have recourse to other people in order to carry on. That’s why Elisabet exploits Alma.

It seems like this imitative instinct is part and parcel of human nature, although it causes the inner life source to wane, allowing a vampirish evil to surface. It’s a force that turns people into machinelike beings, as they become like empty shells. It is a form of addiction that engenders the automatic life. Psychoanalyst Poul Bjerre says that, in the human being, there is an impetus toward mechanization and routinization. It kills the spontaneity of life and leads to the steady and lifeless state of neurosis (Bjerre, 1929). He says that this is also at work in the human collective. According to him, the circular movement of death and renewal is what human life is all about. The organism tries to accomplish a mechanized and lifeless state, but must then be born again. It seems that the motion toward mechanization, to become “comfortably numb”, is ever at work in the human soul. However, a problem in psychoanalytic theory is that some psychoanalysts regard dependency on other people as the hallmark of psychic well-being. According to this view, Elisabet and Alma partake in a heartfelt “relation” that Alma refuses to fulfil. Thus, vampirish neuroticism is elevated as an ideal. They think of it as “being together” and “relating” with each other. Yet, it is nothing but psychological parasitism. Just imagine the damaging effects in the therapeutic relation!

In Through a Glass Darkly, the demise of Karin signifies emancipation from the spirit that possesses both her and the company of men, and which pulls her back into the darkness of mental illness. This is the spider god. What is attained is deliverance from a stifling form of spirituality, in part associated with a Christianity become stagnant and lifeless. In more general terms, Bergman depicts a false and evil spirit that humiliates and oppresses the young members of society, especially. In Torment (1944) it is personified by the Latin teacher Caligula (Stig Järrel). Jan-Erik suffers under his sadistic rule, but the demise of his beloved Bertha (Mai Zetterling) brings about emancipation. Caligula’s power shrinks in connection with Bertha’s demise. She is secretly involved with Caligula who is abusing her. He possesses her like the spider god possesses Karin in Through a Glass Darkly. It is as if these women symbolically represent the male’s fixation on a spirit that only suffocates him and keeps him confined. Only when she dies, the spell is broken, and he can begin to breathe again.

Latin studies, in itself, is an apt symbol, as it seems inappropriate for the life in the world. It is used in Torment, and in Through a Glass Darkly, where Minus practices Latin. He is obviously bored by his studies, since he is hiding a pinup journal in his Latin book. Minus experiences that “reality cracks”, an effect of the strong tension between the suffocating spirit, symbolized by the Latin studies, and the strong allure of the world outside, symbolized by the pinup girls. Minus could have used his Latin knowledge to build a circle of illusion, a protective womb to reside within, in order to evade the painful and heartfelt encounter with reality. So this Latin grammar, which is kind of unadapted to heartfelt reality, could represent an escape into bloodless scholarship or erudition, corresponding to his father’s works of illusion, which are his novels. But Minus is torn between the Latin studies and the image of the naked woman, probably representing a deliberate melding with gross reality. This is something which Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) carries out in The Silence (1963), having torn herself loose from Ester’s (Ingrid Thulin) intellectual circle of illusion (she actually was a scholar of some sort). This is reminiscent of Goethe’s Faust where the doctor leaves his circle of theory, descends into gross reality, and turns to depraved ways. In the final scene, after Anna and her son Johan (Jörgen Lindström) have boarded the train, Johan reads the note that Ester has left him: “To Johan – words in a foreign language”. It seems that she is inviting Johan to exist in a bubble of “linguistic studies”, as it were, which is her own solution to the quandary of life.

In Sarabande (2003), a career as a brilliant solo cellist has been staked out for Karin (Julia Dufvenius). The relation between Karin and her father (Börje Ahlstedt) is psychologically incestuous. He represents the careerist ideal, which Bergman connects with a suffocating life in a bubble, isolated from life. In this case it revolves around the study of notes rather than Latin grammar. Karin will be taught by the best teacher there is (at an institute in Russia, or wherever), and she will be funded by her grandfather (Erland Josephson), should she accepts this. She is regarded a great talent destined for stardom. But she is about to break free. She wants to become one with the “sound body” of the orchestra. After she has her vision about herself playing on the podium, where she is reduced to a dot that disappears, she makes the decision to throw this great opportunity away. Instead she opts for a career as member of a mediochre orchestra, where her creative talent cannot really come to expression. Nonetheless, she will still be able to play the simple solo cello music, represented by Bach’s sarabande in the 5:th cello suite. The simple solo music is reminiscent of the theme of wild strawberries. (See also my continued discussion of the psychological meaning of the Eurydice myth in the Addendum, here.)

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot: Orphée ramenant Eurydice des enfers
“Orphée ramenant Eurydice des enfers” (mod.) by Corot (1861) (Wikimedia Commons).

Unconscious suffering

Unconscious anguish is the foremost leitmotif. It is thematic in Ingmar Bergman’s films. In a scene in Fanny and Alexander, there is a big crucifix stashed away in the attic of the bishop’s house. It relates the image of a suffering Christ that has been consigned to oblivion. The theme of humiliation is recurrent, as in The Passion of Anna (1969), where Johan Andersson (Erik Hell) is wrongly accused of crimes. People in the community abuse him and bring about his suicide. In Cries and Whispers (1972), suffering takes diverse expression. Agnes (Harriet Andersson) is dying, whereas Karin (Ingrid Thulin) is plagued by her hollow and fake existence. “It is all a tangle of lies”, she mumbles to herself. The theme of the film is anguish, anxiety, and genuine hardship. It has been argued that the picture of women that Bergman relates isn’t truthful. This is not how women are generally constituted, is it? In fact, it relates a true picture. It gives us insight in the unconscious state of womankind, because Bergman reveals the unconscious suffering of humankind. He makes us realize its continual presence in ourselves. It is a valuable contribution to the mental health of the collective.

If moral conflict and adversity is not carried consciously it will not vanish; instead it will persist unconsciously. Modern-day Western culture renounces suffering in all its forms. It is regarded as something very unnatural and as a fallacy of nature. A good and ideal life does not include adversity — such is the attitude of the general citizen. Poverty must be exterminated from the face of the earth, and all people should preferably live in opulence. It is surprising that such a radical change of heart has taken place. After all, traditional Christians viewed poverty and desolateness as the royal road to spiritual advancement.

Indisputably, sorrow and pain is part and parcel of natural life. Death, sickness, and moral anguish, cannot be avoided in earthly existence. In fact, life on earth would not be possible without sickness and death. It is an integral part of life that serves to maintain the balance of nature. Nevertheless, modern people are desperate to displace all forms of misery from the conscious horizon. In consequence, the theme of unconscious suffering has become very central. Therefore, it is necessary to analyze our contemporary psychology from the perspective of unconscious suffering. In the unconscious of the average Westerner we can expect to find heartache and desolation, but not so much a cesspool of sexual desires, along lines of Freudianism. Sexuality, as well as diverse gratifications and addictions, tend to be a cover-up for an underlying torment. Behind the corporeal gratificatory wishes, and the materialistic fantasies of an earthly motherly paradise, hides the anguish of the unconscious psyche.

Unconscious suffering does not only revolve around the burdensome conditions of existence and the terrifying reality of death. Humiliating life-experiences play a great part. In an unconscious attempt to transfer (redirect) suffering, people notoriously subject each other to humiliation. This is the consequence of general unconsciousness: since everything unconscious must remain projected, the subject’s unconscious personality must needs be carried by someone or something else. Since self-conscious affliction is out of the question, the average individual is bound to humiliate his fellow beings, as soon as he/she sees a chance. All that is needed is a little hook on which to hang the projection. That’s why people are very keen to remove all hooks. Nobody must suspect that he or she is a troubled soul. That’s why they all want to appear so trendy and easygoing. The humiliated person is probably equally prone to unconscious suffering. As a consequence, the experience will be unconsciously absorbed, and soon projected on a new victim.

Vicarious suffering

In Cries and Whispers, it seems that the two sisters (Karin and Maria) can continue their empty and artificial lives only because of the Christlike ordeals of Agnes (Harriet Andersson). Later, when Karin (Ingrid Thulin) is rejected by Maria (Liv Ullman), she will be the next to carry this pain, I suppose. Comparatively, in Winter Light (1963) Märta (Ingrid Thulin) seems to survive the vicarious suffering, in support of the cold parson Tomas (Gunnar Björnstrand), as her stigmata recede. In Cries and Whispers, the soulful Agnes is wholly lacking a form to harbour her emotion and naïve love of life. With her sisters it’s the other way round. Their empty sophistication can furnish the form that Agnes is longing after, to accomplish a wholeness. It’s like a vintage wine is needful of a crystal glass; otherwise it must be spilled. But her sisters are cold. These unreal people, as in the scene with the diplomat couple at the dinner table, are like crystal carafes, empty of the red wine. It’s a horrid condition to lead a life of mere display. But it’s as if these people complement each other. At the death of Agnes, we see a sudden recovery. Karin and Maria start talking to each other and become close. Agnes has taken the evil spirit with her in death. In Christian theology, the Lamb of God, through his sacrifice, takes the sin of humanity away. In Autumn Sonata (1978) the wretched life of Helena (Lena Nyman) supports the deceptive and cold life of the pianist Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman). It appears that Helena’s illness has its roots in her mother’s coldness and absence.

Evidently, the Eurydice theme is connected with the motif of vicarious suffering. It seems that emancipation is achieved thanks to a vicarious sacrifice. This explains why a woman has to die, or be locked up in a mental asylum, for the evil spirit to recede. The notion that it represents a spiritual presence is evinced by the late bishop Vergerus’s reappearance as a ghost, in Fanny and Alexander. To Alexander this spiritual presence is not just of an intellectual kind, but it is outright reality. In every traditional culture the spirits of the dead are believed to haunt the surviving relatives, should they deviate from tradition. The “forefather spirits” become revengeful when old customs and beliefs are abandoned. The bishop is revengeful. Alexander’s family shan’t think they can get rid of him! They are only fooling themselves if they believe that life could be led according to the principles of Gustav Adolf and his “little world”.

Christianity was invented to, once and for all, substitute the blood of Christ for the torments laid on the shoulders of our fellow humans. Today, it’s as if the symbol of the Christ has been emptied of lifeblood. And so, there’s no other way than to recommence the paradigm of victimization. Vicarious suffering is an important theme in Bergman. It is present in The Silence, too. Anna’s (Gunnel Lindblom) way of life makes Ester (Ingrid Thulin) very sick; in fact, she may be dying. Interesting roles are played by simple people in these films. In Cries and Whispers, the maid Anna (Kari Sylwan) is a complete person, having collected both form and substance to her person. But Agnes has an eye only for her sisters, not for Anna, although she is the only one who is capable of loving. In Autumn Sonata, Eva (Liv Ullman) is not sophisticated; still she has acquired a simpler form that harbours a feeling for life, making her capable of loving. In Winter Light this role is fulfilled by the verger Algot (Allan Edwall), I suppose. In The Silence there are the little people, the midgets, who are spontaneous and happy.

There is a recurrent theme in Bergman’s films of people who are cold, empty, and dead inside. They are merely upholding a façade. In Winter Light, Tomas (the parson) belongs to the living dead, whereas Märta, Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow) and Algot, all suffer from diverse illnesses. Tomas effectively kills the agonized Jonas Persson. By psychological means, he pushes Jonas over the edge, who by the suicidal act fulfils a vicarious sacrifice. It requires a psychological outlook to understand that Alexander, in Fanny and Alexander, is not lying when he claims that bishop Vergerus drove his family to suicide. The official truth is that the drowning took place when they were out on an excursion, but the psychological truth is that everything living is bound to die around such a person like Vergerus, because he is himself dead inside. Psychology has much to say about narcissism, the disease which makes people lead a life only on the outside, obsessed with career and surface appearances. For the purpose of social adjustment, many people are wholly devoted to posturing and fake role play. This gives rise to inner suffering, as the flow of life is stifled. Personal life cannot come to its natural expression as people are forced to wear a mask, carrying a role that is contrary to their true nature.

The concealment of infamies

The modern way of repressed grief and pain has chocking repercussions in society. According to LiveLeak, pedophilic gangs continue to drug and rape under-age girls all over the UK (cf. LiveLeak, here). The authorities keep it secret on account of the foreign ethnicity of the perpetrators, which seem to be Muslims, chiefly. It is consonant with the modern attitude of sweeping appalling adversity under the carpet. These children fulfil the roles of scapegoats, as they are called “whores” by the perpetrators. They “aren’t worth more than a dog”, they say. It is all in order, from the unconscious perspective of the average citizen, since these girls are, by proxy, carrying the torments of other members of society. This can only continue as long as it is kept secret, which accounts for the pact of silence between the authorities and the news media. The average person unconsciously appreciates what these girls do, as they fulfil the role of sacrificial victims. It seems that society is gradually returning to the age-old theme of blood sacrifice. It includes the motif of the sacrificial cannibalistic meal:

“Mother of murdered girl ‘put into kebabs’ runs from court after gruesome testimony” (MailOnline, here).

“Police ‘hid’ abuse of 60 girls by Asian takeaway workers linked to murder of 14-year-old” (Daily Mail, here).

A BBC documentary (Sex crimes and the Vatican, 2006) has revealed that Pope Benedict XVI, in his former profession as cardinal, played a leading role in a systematic cover-up of child sex abuse by Roman Catholic priests. According to a secret Vatican edict, nobody must talk about the abuse, and the victims should be kept quiet. The Church’s interests must come before those of child safety. When pedophilic priests have been exposed, they have often been transferred to other districts, which has enabled them to continue their misconduct (cf. Wiki, here).

In order for the abuse to continue it is necessary to shield it. This stratagem follows the principle of unconscious suffering. Thus, people may uphold the illusion of an earthly Eden ruled over by Papa. Smoke screens are created in order to shield the evil deeds. But behind the screen, the voracious monster continually feeds on children, who serve as sacrificial victims. In a similar manner we uphold the illusion of the multicultural and motherly welfare society. By remaining unconscious of the evil presence, people may retain an immature Kindergarten mentality, and thus the torments will continue unconsciously. It means that the suffering Christ is rejected. It’s important to understand that victimization, in some form or the other, is required to sustain unconscious life.

Jesus told his disciples to lift up their cross and follow him (Mark 8:34 & Luke 9:23). It implies that travail is accepted in one’s daily life. The dark aspects of life on earth are thus acknowledged. It is the underlying meaning of the story of Simon the Cyrenian who bore the cross to the place of crucifixion. The Christ promises that he shall lift the burden from the shoulder of those who help him carry the cross, and he shall take their pains and sins away. All the rest shall be “cut down and thrown into the fire”. It implies that one will experience a true relief of hardship, provided that one resolves to carry the cross, at least part of the way, and rejects the paradigm of unconscious suffering.

Cooking Lucifer

A young man dreamed the following:

I and my father went to a hospital where we found a little devil, a black and evil-faced newborn baby. The father told me to eat the devilish looking baby. I started eating and finished eating it while walking.

Of course, it is not possible to say exactly what it means without recourse to other dreams and information about the dreamer’s life. Yet, evidently, it is a symbol reminiscent of the eating of the Christ in the Eucharist, in the form of bread and wine. The Aztec baked a bread in human shape which they ate ritually. It personified Cinteotl, the god of maize. The eating of the god is a common motif in religious history. When we partake of the Communion we are eating the god of light. Comparatively, the young man is here eating the god of darkness. The notion of eating signifies “integration of the unconscious” (to eat is to integrate). When the god is consumed the subject acquires the powers of the god, in a sense. In Western Christian civilization the ideal is to integrate the god of light. But this has created a one-sided attitude that expects society to be more good than it is really capable of. It has forged a gullible personality who wastes away his life’s energy for the good of others, who don’t really deserve it. It also paves the way for false people, because it makes a mere façade of goodness a successful career formula in society.

The eating of the dark god would serve to compensate this one-sidedness. It is a deity connected with instinctuality and with feelings of a dark, but not necessarily evil, nature. For instance, to be shrewd rather than credulous is necessary for the survival of the species and of civilization. Without an instinctual drive to strengthen the position of ourselves and of our collective, neither our biological species nor our civilization could have emerged. Evidently, the capitalist system depends on a degree of eagerness and acquisitiveness. Instinctuality and feelings of dark nature is the very earth in which we are rooted. Such dreams have something to do with the integration of the capacities of the dark deity, such as ‘assertiveness’. The dark deity is only evil when allowed to roam freely. To integrate him means that his powers are restrained by consciousness, and thus they can be turned to the good.

However, this also means to lift up one’s cross and to carry it along. It means to embrace sorrow consciously and not to deny the reality of dark nature, especially dark human nature. It implies that moral pain is allowed to remain in the heart, and that one’s eyes are opened to the existence of evil. We mustn’t be blinded by the illusion of an earthly paradise, in terms of a global welfare society for all the peoples of the earth. Nor should we brush evil under the carpet all the time and pretend that it doesn’t exist. The symbol is recurrent:

Cynthia Palmer, 29, and her live-in boyfriend, John Lane, 36, pleaded innocent to burning to death Mrs. Palmer’s 4-year-old daughter in an oven. The two, who told neighbors shortly before their arrest that they were “cooking Lucifer,” were arraigned Tuesday in Androscoggin County [Maine] Superior court. They were arrested Oct. 27 at their Auburn tenement apartment. Angela Palmer was found stuffed in the electric oven. The door was jammed shut with a chair. (UPI, Nov 14, 1984)

Among the Pawnees this perception of “cooking Lucifer” was a custom. A virgin girl was taken out to be sacrificed. She was attended by warriors who each carried two billets of wood, which had been received from the girl’s hands on a previous day. Her body having been painted half red and half black, she was attached to a sort of gibbet and roasted for some time over a slow fire, then shot to death with arrows. The chief sacrificer next tore out her heart and devoured it. While her flesh was still warm it was cut in small pieces from the bones. According to one source, the flesh was then reduced to a kind of paste that was sprinkled on the field (cf. Frazer, 1922, ch. XLVII.3).

The victimization of the 400 British girls is the modern version of cooking Lucifer. By refusing to acknowledge the existence of evil, people believe that they are good — evidently, their hands are clean. I am sure that Pope Benedict XVI views himself as good, as he has striven to uphold the innocuous view of the Church, the priesthood, and of humankind. But he is not good, because he has paved the way for evil by repressing the truth about omnipresent wickedness. Only by lifting up the cross and by acknowledging the presence of evil, can the individual achieve liberation from sin. The dream of eating the demon-child caused distress in the young man. However, thanks to the integration of the demon it is possible to avoid evil consequences in real life. Yet, the adherents of unconscious suffering is an all the greater crowd. Such people pave the way for corruption and malevolence by pretending that it doesn’t exist; by creating illusory smoke screens according to which earthly life ought to be a great welfare society, where adversity and depravity is merely an unnatural presence, a speck of dirt that is easily wiped off. But the person who has integrated the shadow can never be like these sinners, who are, following Jesus’s words, destined for the everlasting fire.

The man of suffering

A young man in his early twenties had this dream:

I was standing upon a mount. I became aware that a man was moving up towards me. He came out of hell. I realized that this was Jesus Christ who was suffering. He was in pain and he had come to ask for alleviation through my help. But when he came close I was chocked to see that his face was mine! I stubbornly turned down his appeal because the implication of this was more than I could stomach. Thus, the Christ, in an expression of immense sorrow, had to go back to hell. In hell he was being tortured by a red-faced demon, whose devilish grin revealed a set of big pointed teeth. But now it was I who was being tortured. I was helpless and apathetic. The demon was manhandling me and flung me to and fro through the air.

The Christ is “a man of sorrows, familiar with pain” (Isaiah 53:3). When the human subject consciously takes part in grief, he shoulders his cross as a crucifer (cross-bearer), and accepts his role as a man of sorrows, in the image of Christ. It does not imply a preposterous and inflated imitation of Christ (‘imitatio Christi’). It suffices to open one’s eyes to the dark sides of existence and to throw off childlike illusions and ambitions of an ideal earthly life, void of agony and pain. The mount signifies consciousness, whereas the devilish torture in hell signifies unconscious suffering. At that time the dreamer could not understand the message, because he had already resolved to follow the path of unconscious suffering, like everybody else. This is the reason why the dream took this awkward Christological expression. However, it heralded a change of attitude that was going to occur later. It is not really about identification with the Christ, in the sense of mental derangement. It is rather the opposite — in all humbleness to accept the earth-bound role as a “man of sorrows”. In fact, as the dream reveals, the people who suffer unconsciously are the ones who unwittingly sustain a grandiose identification with the Christ. It comes to expression in their conscious standpoint. The average modern Westerner holds utilitarian views and expects to lead a life in continual comfort and well-being. It is a cloaked form of hubris.

We know that human life is bound up with existential dread, moral pain, sickness, death, humiliation, indignity, and degradation. If people, notwithstanding the distressing facts of life, partake of a life of well-being, then we can deduce that agony is unconscious. People pat themselves on their fat stomachs and commend themselves for being so happy and prosperous — an attitude that permeates our modern culture. We strive after welfare, both in the bodily and psychological sense. Apparently, we expect that life’s travails can be extinguished, although it is completely undoable, as it is an integral part of life. There cannot be biological life without great strife. Researchers have shown that also green plants experience distress. When this occurs they exude chemicals to warn other plants. They are plagued by parasites, and call out for help to cooperative species. Simple organisms, like fish, are driven by fear. They can experience sheer terror as they easily panic. Certain species of aquarium fish can become so terrified that they sometimes, at a sudden movement outside the aquarium, die out of sheer shock.

Dwarf gouramis live in matrimony, and the male is responsible for building the nest. I once observed how a female discovered her dead husband, which I hadn’t had time to remove. The male had hid himself in a corner, behind the filter, and turned his belly up. The female panicked when she discovered him. She swam uncontrolledly and speedily in diverse directions, and tried to swim through the glass in sheer chock. She ended up hyper-ventilating in a corner. I would like to have spared her that chocking experience. A man in Helsinki, Finland, left his ground floor apartment in a tidy state. When he came home he found a dead elk in the living room. It had jumped in through the window. Panicking, it had completely trashed the living room, including the stereo equipment. There was blood everywhere. It is a horrible death, and it amply exemplifies the enormous tribulations of living creatures. Fox traps are still used to catch foxes and other animals. Foxes have been known to gnaw their leg off and linger off to a slow death. Vivisection is the cutting of, or operation on, a living animal, usually for physiological or pathological investigation. Today, there are restrictions that apply, but in the 19th century it was practiced extensively.

We like to believe that suffering isn’t quite real. Descartes practiced vivisection. He chuckled when the animals shrieked in pain, because they were soulless creatures, anyway. Pain wasn’t real to them, merely an automatically programmed behaviour — an imitation of discomfort, as it were. This is similar to how we look at animals today. They merely follow a machinelike program, and have no real feelings, corresponding to death’s anguish or sorrow. Nothing could be more wrong. They are more exposed to, and more defenceless against, their own terror, pain, and anguish, than are humans. A human being can always withdraw into himself, into his inner intellectual universe, but an animal is left at the mercy of its feelings and pains. In order to alleviate this, animals typically have very powerful bodily systems of pain alleviation, which involve endorphines, i.e., substances reminiscent of morphine. A cat has recourse to massive amounts of anaesthetics with which it can drug itself.

Biological life is brimful with suffering. Also psychological life, including human societal and social life, is connected with constant agony. By its very nature, life is a humiliating experience. Social life is a serpent’s nest of falseness and artifice, backbiting and social positioning. It is denigrative to be part of it. Narcissism is ubiquitous. It is understandable why the pillar saints elected to climb a pillar and withdraw from the world. Denial is one of the foremost characteristics of psychic life. We have specialized in denial of psychological distress. To a sizable part of humanity, it is necessary to make people and animals suffer, since it is a modus in their native psychic economy, as exemplified by scapegoatism. Torture and blood sacrifice was once institutionalized in cultures all over the world. Misery is thus externalized, as the average individual isn’t mature enough to carry his own cross. Today, people have achieved mastery in torturing each other psychologically, but we can still observe the allure of the blood sacrifice when the vulgar crowd gathers around the gory scene of an accident. P. N. Rastogi says:

Human beings live in social systems. Social systems comprise patterned human interactions. Misery and suffering refer to unpleasant, contra-survival experiences of man in social systems. These experiences are generated by persons interacting as subjects and/or objects. Human misery is thus produced in and through human interaction itself. Mental diseases and suicide in this context represent, self-induced states of human misery. These states may however be cumulative outcomes over time of the interactions of the persons concerned.

Human misery is ubiquitous. Man’s capacity to inflict suffering on fellowman is awesome. Cruelty, deceit, greed, humiliation, revenge, murder, rape, dacoity, sadism, violence, wanton destruction of property, implication of innocents in criminal cases, injustice, turning rural poor into bonded labourers or serfs through deceit and usury, kidnapping for sexual assault or ransom, harassment of citizens by corrupt officials, use of terror and torture for political and criminal ends, forced prostitution, mutilation of children for beggary, dowry deaths, bribery, nepotism, brazen indiscipline, wilful neglicense of duties, coercion, brutalities against children and prisoners, drug addiction and peddling, embezzlement, misappropriation of funds for the poor, blackmarketing, adulteration of food stuffs and commodities, bogus medicines, ethnic antagonisms and chauvinism, large scale religious/racial/communal violence, brutal internal civil wars, ‘limited’ wars and those involving chemical, bacteriological and nuclear weapons of mass destruction, are samples of the man’s capacity as a profuse producer of misery […]

An unfortunate fact however is that despite provision of deterrent punishments and severe social censure, graphs of misery-producing acts […] and indicators of suffering do not show any downward trend. Persistence and growth of [misery-producing acts] thence bring out inadequacies and failures of social control mechanisms […] Their limitation is further highlighted when we consider complementary problem of self-induced states of misery […]

A man may experience misery as a result of intended and/or unintended act(s) of other person(s) toward him. He may however also experience misery as a result of his own psychological and psycho-physical disturbances. These disturbances may be cumulative outcomes of a series of anxiety laden actions and events. Unhappy interpersonal relationships, disrupted social bonds, thwarted ambitions and frustrated efforts may produce continuing mental stress in an individual resulting in mental diseases […]

Problem of human misery may thus be seen to have two dimensions — external and internal […] Mechanisms of social control are seen to be flawed in their application to external dimension of human misery. For internal dimension, they are inapplicable. (Rastogi, 1986, pp. 258-62)

Outer means of controlling misery are inappropriate. This is part of the explanation why we are in denial of gruesome nature of reality, and in denial of ourselves. Human beings are especially prone to deny the sufferings of nature, and are oriented toward the expansion of our own species. The population increase in the Third World must be sustained at all costs. The fact that the monkeys and apes are eaten as bush meat, and the rain forest is cut down, is a small matter compared with the glorious proliferation of our species. It has been denoted ‘speciesism’, an egoism focusing on the needs of our own species, to the detriment of all other life on earth. In Scandinavia, fishing vessels have demolished many coral reefs through bottom trawling, thereby destroying the capacity for regeneration of fish. There are fish species that eat corals. But they take care not to eat too much on a coral reef before swimming to another. In this way corals can regrow. Evidently, these fish prefer to risk their own lives by swimming between coral reefs, rather than staying put and destroying the conditions for future generations. The conclusion is that fish have greater wisdom than humans.

Hell torment

From what has been said, we can better understand the medieval focus on the sin of mankind and the resultant punishment in hell. From a psychological viewpoint, rather than a theological, human sinfulness consists in self-conceitedness and avarice, along with our obsession with well-being and pleasure — all of it very characteristic of modern man. Such people are sinners on account of their refusal to lift up their own cross. It falls upon their lot to be tortured in hell, as in this image from an early 15th century book.

Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry
“Lucifer torturing souls in hell, and being tortured himself.” Image from the early 15th century book Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (Wikimedia Commons).

The upshot is that torture in hell signifies unconscious suffering, a consequence of the subject’s refusal to carry the cross of hardship, i.e., to consciously carry the dark and painful aspects of life. However, from a psychological point of view, hell torture is instant punishment. In Bergman’s films we can see how people are living in a hell on earth, as it were. They are tortured by anguish, weariness of life, humiliating experiences, falsehood and conceitedness. It represents the unconscious suffering of the collective, which has been “cut down and thrown into the fire”. Contrary to what many a critic has argued, Bergman relates the true picture of modern humanity. In the long version of Fanny and Alexander, people are marching in the hot sun, toward nothingness. It is a hellish march of languish and grief. But a young man decides to escape into the shade of the woodland, to find the wild strawberry place, by the purling brook. A young woman dreamed the following.

I was in a dark room, dressed in a white beautiful wedding dress, looking into a giant mirror. The man I was about to marry was watching me. I laughed and told him it’s bad luck to see me before our wedding. I was walking up the aisle and my bridegroom beamed at me. I knew I loved him. (This man is a recurrent dream figure, stunningly beautiful, with perfect golden hair and green eyes). But suddenly I turned and ran to my room. I was sobbing, banging against the giant mirror until my hands bled and the glass shattered. It revealed a tunnel behind it. I ran through the tunnel until I reached a lake. It was pitch black, so I screamed for Erik (the recurrent figure of the phantom of the opera, who is physically deformed). I screamed and screamed, but he never came. So I decided to swim. I knew I was a good swimmer, but my dress was heavy and pulled me down, and I began drowning. I reached for the surface but I couldn’t make it. Then a hand pulled me up and it was my bridegroom. He pulled me onto a boat, while laughing. On the boat with him was Erik. He grabbed Erik’s body (who was trying to reach for me and save me), pulled up a blade and sliced Erik’s wrists. The blood pulsed out and stained my dress. I tried to reach out and save him, but my bridegroom only cut deeper into his wrists while laughing hysterically. The blood poured out of Erik and onto me.

I believe that these recurrent dreams depict an inner conflict centering around adjustment to the superficial ideals of outer life versus the unconscious suffering that results when we adopt the ideals of the good life, which are fake. The successful man and the agonized man are seated in the same boat. The former symbolizes the fake life of success and well-being, which is like wearing a false mask of pretension. This means that torment is not accepted in the conscious sphere, which implies that it will subsist in the unconscious, in the guise of the phantom. So the agonized phantom is the shadow of the successful man. They are sitting in the same boat. When she stands before the mirror in her white dress, she is like a princess, unstained by the dark and painful facts of life. But this portrays a narcissistic ideal, a fake version of life, which is intolerable, and that’s why she crushes this image of herself. Her white dress becomes stained with blood, which means that it is, by its nature, unconsciously connected with anguish. It becomes heavy with water and she is in peril of drowning. It is this ideal of whiteness, and of the good life, which gives rise to unconscious suffering and bloodshed.

It is the narcissistic man who slashes the agonized man. The ideal of conscious well-being implies that all the pain and humiliation that life entails must needs linger in the unconscious, instead. But the torments of the phantom must come to an end. The solution is to abandon the ideal of a life of opulence and beauty, and accept that agony, adversity, anguish, and discomfort, are part and parcel of life. “Take up your cross daily, and follow me”, Jesus says (Luke 9:23). How can this conflict be resolved? If we endeavour to find the “little paradise”, it results in the resolution of the conflict between the narcissistic ideal and its counterpart, namely unconscious suffering. To manage this, we should learn to tolerate hardship and sorrow in our daily life, especially in its psychological form. To find the personal paradise means to discover the intimate relation to reality, when inner and outer connect, and we are situated in the present moment, here and now. In olden times, people often found these places in groves in the wood, by sacred springs, or in silent temples, where they could be alone with the spirit. But it can be found at any location, because its wellspring is in the heart. This is a lengthy process, so it is not really like a truth that one suddenly uncovers. It is a successive development, a feeling for life which is achieved little by little. Long ago I dreamed about this theme:

I had found a rare fruit whose stone was visible because it protruded from the pulp. Due to this damage it was capable of generating the most exclusive sweetness. I created a brew from the fruit and left it to ferment in the dark cellar for a long time. Eventually I went down in the cellar, and poured the brew into a thimble. Its colour was a very dark red. I drank from the thimble. It was the most concentrated and refined flavour that I’ve ever tasted.

This is the “moon sap”, the Ambrosia, the nectar of the gods. It is the fruit of the “little paradise”, which is a damaged and suffering fruit, capable of producing nectar. The acceptance of hardship, in the following of Christ, is a central theme in Christian spirituality. It is surprising that our age has turned anti-Christian in the sense that we have become so focused on well-being. Although Bergman holds a critical view of Christianity, it could be argued that he returns to the Christian beginnings for spiritual replenishment. He reactualizes the theme of suffering which has been repressed in our culture. In religious terms, it amounts to a realization of the terrible presence of Christ, which is the truthful picture of Christ. Our God is not only an untarnished white light, as we have been made to believe. He is also associated with the dark aspects of existence, as light must take root in darkness. The tree of light grows in the fertile soil of darkness. In the epilogue of Sarabande a suffering Christ appears in the form of Marianne’s daughter, who is hospitalized in a lunatic asylum, a quite clinical and lonely place. When Marianne (Liv Ullmann) pays visit to her daughter she breaks through and makes a loving contact for a second. She represents Marianne’s own heartache, which has been dissociated. When St Paul says that Christ now lives within him (Gal. 2:20), it means that he is now a man of sorrows. To continually bleed, as Jesus continually bled from His forehead from wearing the crown of thorns, and to carry the agony of existence on one’s shoulders, is what it really means to live in Christ’s presence. Inner serenity makes us capable of accepting dark reality. It is not religious in the sense of imitation; it is what Christianity has abandoned in a mental hospital and tried to dissociate itself from.

Almond fruit
The stone protrudes from the pulp in the mature almond fruit (Encyclopedia Britannica Ultimate Ref. Suite, 2012).

The spiritual remedy

According to Rastogi, the only proper remedy against ubiquitous misery can be found in our cognitive endowment, the affect operators of Universal Love and Inner Serenity. Spiritual awareness means serenity amidst environmental changes. It amounts to a conscious realization of the inherent non-importance of worldly matters and men. This protects the ego from disruptive impacts of frustrations and anxiety neurosis. Rastogi says:

According to Gita and other ancient Indian scriptures, man possesses an imperishable soul (atma) which is an innate part of the Divine Being (Parmatma). Foremost purpose of a man’s life is thence to realize his unity with the Divine. In the light of such a spiritual goal, pleasures and pain, gains and losses, joys and sorrows of the world are seen to be not important enough to disturb one’s inner tranquility and repose […]

Man’s true nature is that of an atma. He is hence in effect just a witness of events and his actions. He is a detached observer living and participating in the world but is not of the world. His true identity is that of oneness with the Divine and thus transcends his diverse social roles in society. Hence there is no reason for him to be perturbed over persons, situations and events of a phenomenal world.

Burden of reasoning here is not a truth-value assessment of above cognitive premises […] Discussion and reasoning are here oriented toward finding a solution approach for the problem of human misery. In this connection, man is seen to need the cultivation and maintenance of the two affect states. In order to do so, he however, needs a compatible and matching belief system that may sustain the two affect states, in a logico-rational manner. Premises comprising such a belief system require existence of a Supreme Creator and man’s relationship of identity with Him. These premises are seen to be needed for a systematic approach to misery problem.

If a miseryless social existence be a basic goal of mankind, then the above nexus of belief system and affect states would appear to be an intrinsic requirement for leading social systems toward that goal. (Rastogi, 1986, pp. 273-74)


In Wild Strawberries, when Isak Borg remembers the unrequited love of his youth, he realizes the pain in his soul; but at the same time he rediscovers the wild strawberry place. A painless life is not the natural condition. Misery and pain belongs in life. This is an important realization. It is not invariably something that we must rectify by going to the doctor, or by other means. It seems to function as a conditioned reflex, when we try to get rid of pain by whatever means. It is unreflective. We would better learn to carry the soul’s pain, through the acquirement of Inner Serenity. Today, it is not uncommon that young people go see the doctor when they’ve been abandoned by their beloved. Evidently, they think that the pain must be removed, because it is humiliating and agonizing. In fact, it is quite natural and it will never go away. It is a natural fact of life. Also crows have been observed to die of sorrow when their spouse has died. Symbols, also religious ones, can assist us in coming to grips with life’s tribulations. He who allows the suffering Christ to live in his soul acquires a complete life. The “moon sap” will continue to brew in the unconscious. He will reminisce the strawberry patch.


© Mats Winther, 2002 (revised 2015).


Film interpretation

The characters in Bergman’s films aren’t necessarily “real” people. They could also be viewed as expressions of our inner world. In some cases they seem like figures in a dream. I don’t think Bergman is moralizing, thinking that simple people are good and truly alive whereas accomplished people are like empty shells. An upper class person, living in a mansion, expresses a side of us all that is like an empty sophisticated shell, similar to the bishop in Fanny and Alexander. Against this attitude, Carl Gustav is promoting the “little world”. Yet, it’s obvious that’s he is something of a buffoon. Moreover, he says that his baby daughter will prove him wrong about the superiority of the “little world”. The midgets, too, are buffoons, although happy and alive. It’s not obviously a morally superior position to be a truly living person. One might argue that there is a lack of purpose in their lives. Indeed, I tend to get that feeling of insignificant lives, when I see the married couple in Autumn Sonata.

Personally, I never side wholly with any character in Bergman’s films. Arguably, bishop Vergerus is not a completely unsympathetic person. At least, the monastic milieu of his mansion is attractive, unlike the overbearing Ekdahl house. Nothing is simple. All persons blend into each other, as in Persona. Nothing is wholly right and nothing is wholly wrong. I wouldn’t be judgmental about the debauched character of Anna in The Silence. Life must be lived and sometimes there is only one direction to go. These empty and conceited people in Bergman’s films are often very accomplished; they are pianists, bishops etc. Thus, they have at least made an impression in life.

Many interpreters of film and literature tend to reduce everything to bits and pieces, in the way of Jacques Derrida’s method of ‘deconstruction’. However, it is sometimes necessary to amplify a theme instead of reducing it. For instance, must the male member always represent sexual instinct or is it worthwhile to listen to what Indian religion has to say about the lingam? Amplification is just this: connecting Bergman to themes in Shakespeare, Strindberg, Greek mythology, St Paul’s letters, music, and so forth. A filmic theme, such as Eurydice in its simplest form, may constitute an item of ‘irreducible meaning’. In that case one cannot deconstruct it. It’s only through amplification that we may get a sense of its meaning, i.e., by shedding light on it from different aspects of human knowledge: anthropology, history, religion, etc. Amplification necessitates a diversified knowledge. But, due to specialization, it is hard for any intellectual institution to live up to this requirement.

There is an important difference between a metaphor and an irreducible symbol. Is the filmmaker using the “facial merger” metaphorically, or is it a symbol, i.e., something that needs to be amplified and viewed from different perspectives? Interpreters continue endlessly, from the free associations of the intellect, to deconstruct any sense of ‘meaning’. Typically, they attempt to deduce the underlying political and social implications of a film or a text. They can go on babbling forever about social, feminist, political, and phenomenological philosophical concepts. Pseudo-intellectual jargon has an ability to feed on itself. The only way to stop the intellect from feeding on itself is to present it with a symbol of irreducible meaning. At this point the intellect becomes silent. I suggest that amplification be reserved for the occasion when the interpreter stops short before a motif and accepts that this represents more or less irreducible meaning. The intellect cannot cope with it directly. Yet, it’s possible to amplify the motif by connecting it with other motifs from different spheres of human culture. At this point, interesting connections will begin to appear. Yet, authors like Derrida, in practice, reject such a notion of irreducible meaning.

I hold that the author can, after all, provide a fixed point of reference, in the form of a specific symbolic content. The reductionistic philosopher dismisses such a possibility out of hand. It depends on a dogmatic attitude that serves to give the intellect, and the intellectual himself, a position of supremacy. It’s as if the intellectual is weaving a protective cocoon around himself. Allegedly, the text cannot reach outside itself, which explains why so much awkward analysis is produced. Such notions derive from Wittgenstein’s idea that we are enclosed in our language. In that case one would expect them to keep silent; but the effect is the opposite. Since it matters little what they are discussing, they realize that they can just as well prattle about anything. It doesn’t matter that their analysis is feeble, because there is never any true reference to an external meaning, anyway. If anybody should write something seemingly deep and intelligent one can always deconstruct it and reveal that it’s simply a petty bourgeoisie political motif underlying the text, or homophobia, perhaps.

A corresponding kind of self-contradiction occurred among the followers of Schopenhauer. He was the pessimist philosopher who said that life is meaningless, and thus it’s senseless to continue the strife. Paradoxically, his followers concluded that we can just as well have a good time, and keep feasting and drinking, since life is meaningless anyway. Surprisingly, among many a follower, the effect of his philosophy was the opposite of the ascetic attitude that he recommended. Regardless of what the post-structuralists say, there are fixed points of meaning, because a symbol has an inner power. For example, “Woman brings around wild strawberries” is a theme that Bergman uses in several films, as in Monika, for instance. I once dreamed about this very theme. I experienced the wild strawberries as laden with meaning. The image still generates meaning, if I think of the symbol.

There are people relating in Bergman’s films. Nobody denies that it represents a social phenomenology. Yet, his films cannot, all in all, be reduced to petty bourgeoisie neurotic trivialities. Symbols transcend intellectual notions, whether sociological, political, etc. We are capable of understanding them, anyway, by connecting them to other spheres of human knowledge. Yet, political ideology cannot deal with them. Nor is a sociological or phenomenological philosophy capable of understanding the themes. It depends on the fact that ideologies are rationalistic products of the intellect. On the other hand, in history, religion, literature, etc., there exist ‘empirical entities’ that are not ideological thoughts but artifacts of human nature. These are better suited for a method of amplification. For instance, one might wonder whether there is any connection between “Woman brings about wild strawberries” and what took place in the Garden of Eden, when the woman presented the fruit to the man. After all, in Sweden the notion of “wild strawberry place” signifies a personal paradise.

Such investigations are fruitful and interesting and can provide us with ‘pointers’ to the meaning of symbols. Although we might not quite understand what they mean, we will get a hint of their meaning. Thus, we must differ between symbol and metaphor. Indeed, there are metaphors in Bergman’s films that might have definable social implications. However, there are also things that cannot be directly understood. The fact that Bergman took the image of Christ from his childhood parson’s home doesn’t mean that the image merely signifies his Christian heritage in terms of mores, etc. Such a powerful image is not necessarily always a metaphor.

Insofar as we remain in a “prison of language” we are up against a serious problem. It would imply that any discourse on film or literature lacks truth-value, since language cannot reach beyond itself. It means that any interpretation could be deconstructed. This deconstruction may itself be deconstructed, and so on for all eternity. This is something that Derrida realizes. That’s why he says that deconstruction is a never-ending process where meaning is endlessly deferred. The intellect is fully in command, always and endlessly reducing anything to trivialities in order to deflate any sense of meaning. This is clearly a neurotic state of affairs, where the intellectual feeds on himself and cannot accept that there is anything holy and untouchable that is greater than himself.

Richard H. Schlagel argues in ‘The Waning of the Light: The Eclipse of Philosophy’ (2003) that the modern philosophical project has failed miserably. The offspring of Wittgenstein’s philosophy has died out. Husserl’s project came to naught, and nothing good came out of all the “french philosophers” who were his followers.

© Mats Winther, 2012.


Bjerre, P. (1929). Death and Renewal. Williams & Norgate Ltd.

Frazer, J. (1922). The Golden Bough. London: Chancellor Press (1994).

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Lauder, R. E. (1989). God, Death, Art and Love: The Philosophical Vision of Ingmar Bergman. Paulist Press.

Rastogi, P. N. (1986). Ethnic Tensions in Indian Society: Explanation, Prediction, Monitoring and Control. South Asia Books.

Schlagel, R. H. (2003). ‘The Waning of the Light: The Eclipse of Philosophy’. The Review of Metaphysics 57.

Tozer, J. (2011). ‘Police “hid” abuse of 60 girls by Asian takeaway workers linked to murder of 14-year-old’. Daily Mail, 7 April 2011. (here)

‘Muslim Gangs Drug & Rape Children All Over The UK’. YouTube. (here)

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‘Sex Crimes and the Vatican’. Wikipedia article. (here)

See also:

Winther, M. (2008). ‘The Blood Sacrifice’. (here)

   -------     (2009). ‘The real meaning of the motif of the dying god’. (here)

   -------     (2011). ‘Mysterium Iniquitatis – The mystery of evil’. (here)