Going back to my original review of The Seventh Seal (1957), I was a little surprised at not even having mentioned Wild Strawberries. I described The Seventh Seal as a film that changed Sweden as a moviemaking country, and I still consider it one of the top ten greatest films ever made. But it’s pretty astonishing to note that Wild Strawberries was released the same year, another complete masterpiece by Ingmar Bergman. His medieval story dealt primarily with religion. This one doesn’t… unless you see the hand of Christ in its theme of forgiveness.
A journey from Stockholm to Lund
Professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström) is a 78-year-old widower about to be celebrated at Lund University for having held his doctorate for 50 years. Beginning his journey early from Stockholm to Lund, Isak is driven by his son’s wife, Marianne (Ingrid Thulin). As they set out, Marianne is very frank and tells Isak that she doesn’t much care for him – she’s always considered him egotistical. She’s also considering divorcing her husband Evald (Gunnar Björnstrand) who shares many of his father’s traits. Over the journey, they visit the place where Isak grew up and pick up three young hitchhikers.
They also encounter a couple whose marital arguments turn ugly. Each event is dramatic for Isak, setting off dreams or visions portraying his past or symbolizing his current anxieties…
Working with an influential predecessor
The film united Sweden’s most famous filmmaker, Ingmar Bergman, with his most influential predecessor, Victor Sjöström. The latter’s performance here is very good as the aging academic who’s never been a great influence on his family but nevertheless receives a lot of love. It is as a director we’ll remember Sjöström above all; known sometimes in the U.S. as Victor Seastrom, he was one of silent cinema’s most prominent figures, making The Phantom Carriage (1921) in Sweden and The Wind (1928) in Hollywood. Bergman directed him in To Joy (1950), but it took some convincing to make the legend agree to the part of Isak Borg – Sjöström was feeling his age and had trouble remembering his lines, agreeing to do the movie if Bergman could make sure that he’d be home in time for his daily 5 PM shot of whisky. The cast also has wonderful supporting talents.
The director wrote the script while in hospital, during one of his many bouts with gastric problems. The result is one of his most bittersweet films, a road movie where the main character travels with people who at various points put his life into perspective, but it’s also a journey through the old man’s life. The flashbacks provide clues to Borg’s attitude. Sometimes the old man is present in the flashbacks, reminding us perhaps of Scrooge in ”A Christmas Carol”, observing the painful memories of his youth. Borg’s dreams are consistently interesting, especially the first one where he observes a clock without hands, then meets a man with a twisted face and finally comes across his own dead body lying in a casket.
Bergman frequently finds ways to illustrate death, loneliness, the contrast between youth and old age, but also his own negative feelings about marriage, most colorfully depicted in Borg’s encounter with a couple whose hatred for each other is comical at first, then turns alarmingly real. All of it is very touching and genuine, and it’s interesting to see the role forgiveness plays near the end, as there’s hope for Marianne’s marriage and a chance for peace in Isak’s life.
Great beauty in the story – and in the way the film is conceived by Bergman and cinematographer Gunnar Fischer, as they find so many fascinating, intimate moments of light and darkness throughout this road movie.
Wild Strawberries 1957-Sweden. 91 min. B/W. Produced by Allan Ekelund. Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman. Cinematography: Gunnar Fischer. Cast: Victor Sjöström (Isak Borg), Gunnar Björnstrand (Evald Borg), Ingrid Thulin (Marianne Borg), Bibi Andersson, Folke Sundquist, Björn Bjelfvenstam… Naima Wifstrand, Gunnel Lindblom, Sif Ruud, Max von Sydow.
Trivia: Original title: Smultronstället.
Golden Globe: Best Foreign Film. Berlin: Golden Bear.
Last word: “Borrowing my father’s form, [Sjöström] occupied my soul and made it all his own – there wasn’t even a crumb left over for me! He did so with the sovereign power of a gargantuan personality. I had nothing to add, not even a sensible or irrational comment. ‘Wild Strawberries’ was no longer my film; it was Victor Sjöström’s!” (Bergman on working with the screen legend, IngmarBergman.com)