On the first day of the new calendar year of 2019, I had the opportunity to watch the film ‘Saraband’ by Ingmar Bergman, the much acclaimed Swedish film director and script writer. The film is a Nordic and German TV production from 2003 (released in the US with English subtitles in 2005). The star actors are Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephson, Börje Ahlstedt, and Julia Dufvenius. The story is about past, present and future, well, more about the past and present, hopefully to learn from it for the future. It is about the unresolved issues that people carry with them through life’s journey – when we travel in superficial ways, innocent and thoughtless ways, busy and arrogant ways, and more, till it all one day is getting meaningless and often too late.

We may all travel with less consideration for others than we should have. We travel with less awareness of the world around us, indeed, less closeness to those nearest and dearest, and we may not notice the many others whom we meet, those who stretch out a hand for help, or to help. Often, we forget to tread softly, but not on purpose; rather we forget to take time to reflect and be still, listen to the heart’s voice. We forget that every person has dreams, ambitions, work to do, and his or her challenges, the same as I have, and then, life is not only about oneself alone, it is about all of us together.

In the film and in real life, there is love, too, but often not spoken about. In the film, love is also extremely intense, or not mentioned. The main charter Johan’s son has hate for his father, or so he and his father think. But he has extreme love for his wife and daughter. When his wife dies, he cannot get over the loss, and his daughter, and their common work with music, becomes all that gives meaning to the aging man’s life journey. But his daughter decides to loosen ties and leave his beloved father for music training abroad, knowing, too, what her mother had written in a letter to her father that that might end his life because his life would become meaningless. He commits suicide. Only then, when it is too late, his estranged father realises that it was his own life that was the most miserable, not his son’s, and that he was the person who had inflicted misery on others; he had rather been his own worst enemy. But the old academic, Johan, didn’t despise his son, also an academic. But the son thought so, carrying with him from the age of 19 what the father had told him then, that he was totally disappointed with him. The son could never forget, even when in his 60s and the father is in his 80s. It was not hate, though, it was probably love, at the bottom, from both sides, love gone astray, not corrected in lives not tread softly.

Only after the son is gone forever, by his own hand, the father realises his enormous loneliness and failure in life. It is his divorced wife, who after 28 years makes a surprise visit to her ex husband who consoles the man. Yet, she leaves, too, for work and her life. But they talk on phone, almost as a Sunday ritual, until that ends, too. She never returns and they never meet again. When they met last, tough, they promised each other to keep in touch, maybe even take a tour to Italy in spring to shorter the cold Scandinavian winter; but it was just talk and maybe a dream.

In the film’s epilogue, Marianne, Johan’s ex wife, played by the Norwegian character actress Liv Ullmann, says that she herself is alright; she keeps working as a lawyer, a bit less as age catches up with her; she has order and system around her; true, she may certainly be a bit lonely. The film ends with Marianne’s visit to her daughter’s care home, well, a psychiatric hospital ward; the daughter doesn’t recognise her mother, is just withdrawn into her own disconnected world. Marianne’s other daughter is a successful business lawyer who has moved to far-away Australia with her husband, who is also devoting his life to work, minting money and being, or at least feeling successful; there is no time to have children in that kind of world, the mother says with some kind of accepting resignation.

Films like Saraband make us all a bit wiser. They may seem melancholic but are also important, not least at the turn of another calendar year. The film Saraband tells us how dangerous it is for all of us not to tread softly; to fight with open vizier, as old warriors used to call it. But life is not a war; it may be a struggle, but it must be peaceful one; the more peaceful we are, the lighter we tread, the better life will be for ourselves and those around us. Then we will not end up like Johan, played by Erland Josephon and his son, played by Börje Ahlstedt; and to some extent also the more consolatory character, Marianne, played by Liv Ullmann.

My new year’s advice – to you and myself – would be: Let us be careful and fully awake as we travel, so that life doesn’t go by unnoticeable, whether we did good or bad. We must always take time to listen to others, yes, listen more than speak, see more than be seen, learn and listen, not always teach and tell. On that note, the young daughter in the film, Karin, played by Julia Dufvenius, showed that it is important that people, young people, especially, make their decisions and sort out their lives the way they need. As much as she wanted to stay with her widowed father, it was right of her to leave for music training in Germany and Austria, not for the concert her father had planned for her in Stockholm. We should tread carefully and be considerate, but young Karin tells us that may sometimes also mean that we think about own needs before those of others.

Dear reader, as we now get used to writing 2019, and as I have sat down and reflected on life’s wonders, the loss of fellow human beings, the big and small things in the years gone by, and the year that has just begun, I have been reminded how important it is that we make time to be still and quiet. St. Francis of Assisi said that it is in giving that we receive. And, it is in listening that we learn, I said above, yes, we also teach trough listening, showing concern and empathy, feeling some of the pain of others, and indeed receiving the joy and love of others.

On this year’s new Year’s Eve and New year’s Day, my home country Norway’s head of state, King Harald and Prime Minister Erna Solberg, the political leader, both spoke movingly about the importance of showing kindness and consideration in everyday life, about giving a smile to someone we see on the street, having a positive exchanges of words when we meet strangers, too, about acknowledging persons who succeeds against many odds, about appreciating each other the way we are, trying to do our best, treading softly.

Many things can only be realised through political frameworks, and Ms. Solberg mentioned that, while King Harald gave reference to advice from religious thinking. He quoted from King Solomon’s Book of Proverbs, 4:23, the second book in the Hebrew Bible, included in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible, hence also a background for the Koran. It says: “Above all else, guard your heart, for from it flows the springs of life.”

King Harald said in his speech that we all have a precious compass in us; it belongs to the common humanity and it is also unique to every person; no one can take it from us. He said that we human beings want to meet others and that we need each other, also when differences may seem big. When we meet others, we learn more about ourselves and we become better.

Referring back to the philosophical and universal issues in the film by Ingmar Bergman, with reflections on the sadness in our lives when we have been too busy and inconsiderate to find time to sit still and listen to the inner voice in us. King Solomon said that everything flows from the heart. We must remember that every day; it will make our own life good and the life of others – as we tread softly on the journey on earth in 2019 and the other years to come.


The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from university, diplomacy and development aid.