21 May 2005 - Saturday

The first duty of a doctor

Yesterday evening, I drove into Austin to watch Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries (1957) at the Paramount Theatre. The film, which I had never seen before, more than met my expectations.

The central character is Isak Borg, an aging doctor. The story takes place on the day of a ceremony, in the cathedral of the distant city of Lund, that will honor him for 50 years of distinguished service. Troubled by dreams of his own death, Borg abruptly decides that morning to drive himself to the ceremony rather than fly. His daughter-in-law Marianne, who has been living with him for a few weeks rather than with her husband in Lund, joins him for the automobile trip.

Borg makes a few significant stops along the way. First, he stops to show Marianne his boyhood home. Pausing at the wild strawberry patch in the woods nearby, he lapses into a dream of his first love, Sara. We learn through the dream that the straightlaced young Borg lost Sara to his own less reputable but more ardent brother.

Borg is roused from his dream by the voice of a stranger. The stranger is a gregarious young woman. She and two male friends, who seem to be rivals for her attention, ask for a ride (they are going to Italy). The girl is named Sara. Borg seems rejuvenated and charmed by their presence, and they take to calling him "Father Isak." The road trip resumes.

The next stop is unintentional. Borg's car nearly collides with an auto going in the other direction. Both cars swerve off the road, but no one is hurt. The occupants of the other vehicle are a middle-aged husband and wife, who are quite cheerful about the accident but who bicker viciously (through fixed smiles) between themselves. With their car out of commission, they join the crew in Borg's capacious vehicle, but Marianne soon asks them to leave; the husband's cutting remarks about his wife have become intolerable.

At the next stop, Borg takes his daughter-in-law to see his mother, a formidable and forbidding 96-year-old. The mother welcomes them amicably but not warmly. Borg seems unusually cheerful, but Marianne seems disturbed by the cavalier way the ancient lady speaks about her family.

Borg and Marianne return to their car to find that the young men accompanying Sara, whom they had left in an argument over the existence of God, are engaged in a physical fight. Apparently Sara is used to this. Her favorite is the boy who wants to become a parson, but she is aware that the other, who wishes to become a doctor, will probably make more money.

The journey resumes. Borg dozes off as his daughter-in-law drives. He enters another dream.

In this dream, Borg is called into an examination room to answer vague charges of incompetence. The examiner quizzes him: "What is the first duty of a doctor?"

Borg, stunned, answers, "I've forgotten."

"The first duty of a doctor," the examiner reminds him, "is to ask for forgiveness."

Borg is then led to a place in the woods, apparently to witness a scene he remembers from life. He watches as his wife Karin is raped by someone she knows (they are both well dressed, as if coming from a party). Afterwards, Karin soliloquizes about what her husband's response will be. He will try to calm her. He will say it was not her fault, even that it was his own fault. He will be perfectly proper about it – but he will be cold as ice, as always.

When Borg wakes up, Marianne asks what Borg was dreaming about. He answers that he has dreamt that he is dead – dead even in life. Marianne says that her husband has talked in a similar way about himself lately. She reveals that Evald has threatened to leave her if she decides to have the baby with which she is pregnant. Also, Evald has been speaking of suicide.

The journey continues without incident. The party arrives at Lund, where Evald is already waiting, along with Borg's old housekeeper Agda. The ceremony at the cathedral proceeds magnificently. The youths stay to cheer for "Father Isak."

That night, Borg fondly bids farewell to Sara and her friends, who continue their trip to Italy.

He asks Evald about his marriage; Evald says that he and Marianne are going to try to stay together. Borg kisses Marianne good night, and they announce that they like each other after all.

He asks his housekeeper, "Miss Agda," whether – after 40 years – they know each other sufficiently well to call each other just "Agda" and "Isak."

He drifts off to sleep, dreaming about meeting his parents on the shore of the lake by their home.


Victor Sjöström, in his last film role, is magificent as Isak Borg. He began his career in silent film; this movie uses beautiful closeups to make the most of his expressive talent. His voice is also perfect for the character; even with poor subtitles, I was grateful that the original sound had been retained.

The symbolism in the film, although heavier than most audiences are accustomed to seeing, is palatable because it is woven into the story naturally. Dreams are expected to be symbolic, after all, and children often take after their parents. In dreaming about different stages of his own life or merely in witnessing different stages in the lives of others, Borg sees the different directions a person's choices about love can take him.

The film manages a happy ending without resorting to schmaltz. Wild Strawberries, unlike maudlin cousins like A Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life, does not exaggerate its protagonist's vices or virtues; Isak Borg is a routine well-meaning man of ambition. His redemption, therefore, can be of a similarly moderate nature. His "first duty" is the duty of every doctor: to ask forgiveness for the sacrifices he has made.

In particular, I enjoyed the fact that Borg makes this trip at the end of his life. He is not making a dramatic change that will redirect the course of his existence. He is making what small choices he can to show love to those around him – the sorts of choices that must be made every day.

| Posted by Wilson at 16:03 Central | TrackBack
| Report submitted to the Humanities Desk