When growing up, the only contact I had with Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries were numerous references in Mad Magazine, whenever they wanted to poke fun of pretentious foreign film fans. All I could imagine were intellectuals conversing theory and tossing out cinematic terms while having absolutely no idea what the film was about—ubiquitous exercises in mental masturbation. Clips that usually only show the initial surreal dream sequence add to its obscurity. So preconceptions often cloak Bergman's work with ideas that it must be obscure and largely incomprehensible. Nothing is further from the truth.
Like all great works of literature, greater appreciation comes from digging into the symbolism and following the allegories, but Wild Strawberries works at various levels and is among the most approachable of Bergman's films. Largely autobiographical, the film reflects on much of Bergman's own life—his strained relationship with his overly strict and cold father, a Lutheran minister. Much like Kurosawa’s Ikiru, the film deals with a man near the end of his life, who strives to come to terms with it and find redemption.
Amazingly, the legendary director also foreshadows his own life to come some 40 years later, as he now lives a life of isolation on his private beaches of his beloved Faro island. These parallels are strikingly brought out by Criterion's inclusion of a 90-minute interview session on a newly released DVD. No doubt that Bergman identifies with his protagonist Isak Borg, however. Even the initials match.
As the film begins, Borg (Victor Sjöström) is compiling his memoirs for an honorary degree he is to receive later that day for his 50 years service to medicine. After a disturbing nightmare, he changes his travel plans and decides to drive to Lund, stopping along the way to visit significant places from his youth—a childhood summerhouse, a small town where he practiced medicine, and his mother’s home. In a few hours his life will be changed!
Accompanying him is his daughter-in-law, Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), currently separated from Borg’s son but she decides to attempt reconciliation. Along the way they pick up a hitchhiker named Sara (Bibi Andersson), who reminds Borg of his first love, and they attempt to help a middle-aged couple before realizing that the husband is hopelessly abusive to his wife and are too disturbing for their younger passenger.
Along the way, heartfelt discussions occur, religious conflicts emerge, disturbing daydreams enlighten—and Borg confronts himself and his mortality and reconciles with his life and finds redemption.
Lest you believe this sound far too Scandinavian and ponderous for enjoyment, the cinematic pleasures all occur with the details and delivery. Gunnar Fischer's black and white cinematography alone are worth the DVD purchase. Having worked with Bergman on The Seventh Seal, stylistic similarities occur—lighting intensity increases in portions of the dream sequences to give added surrealism, a foreboding dark tree branch effectively frames another scene to serve as a visual reminder of Death, and always Bergman’s trademark lingering close-ups on expressive faces. The close-ups, especially on legendary silent film actor Sjostrom, demonstrate Bergman's command of the film medium and should silence critics that believe his vast stage experience tends to make his films too theatrical. If that were true, Bergman would order nothing but long and medium camera shots.
The oft shown initial dream sequence is beautifully shot and composed. Taken from Bergman's own dreams, it begins with the protagonist walking deserted streets, coming across faceless clocks that indicate the coming eternity. Not only are the surroundings bathed in harsh white light, but the streets are eerily silent. The only sounds occur after a horse drawn funeral carriage entangles with a lamppost, creating a jarring clanking sound before breaking off a wheel. Then the coffin disengages, the creaking lid sounding very much like a baby's cry—signaling an archetypal re-birth. A hand emerges from the coffin, and the nightmare plunges Borg into his real life odyssey.
The first place that Borg stops at is his childhood summer home where grow the wild strawberries that symbolize the brief days of summer in Sweden, a beautiful time of year much yearned for. The strawberries trigger Borg's memory, and we accompany him (like the final act in Our Town) into his past to meet first love Sara (also played by Bibi Andersson) and other significant figures—curiously, however, his parents are missing from the first visit. The nostalgia permeates with melancholy, as Borg observes what goes wrong with his first love interest.
Immediately after the daydream, the new Sara appears along with two competing suitors to hitch a ride. While the modern Sara brings back fond memories for Borg, her suitors represent two competing theological arguments as they argue about God—s existence at lunch near Lake Vattern. During this sequence Borg begins to recite a well known Swedish poem, significantly stumbling over the second line (indicating his own difficulties reconciling with his mortality):
"Where is the friend I seek at break of day?
Naturally, each character works on multiple levels, but each works on his/her own as well. Marianne very openly spills her difficulties with her husband, and also bluntly lets Borg know how his son hates him and compares the two. Instead of acting defensively, the old man mostly listens—he has his own self doubts and seeks redemption from the onset of the trip. He sees that her difficulties with his son parallel his own with his wife (now dead), as do the disturbing middle-aged couple that they pick up briefly during the journey. Even though Marianne soon strands the couple along the road, Borg meets them again in his most troubling dream.
When night falls I still have not found Him.
My burning heart shows me His traces
I see His traces wherever flowers bloom
His love is mingled with every air."
This occurs in the one location that should be the most comfortable for Borg—the place he has experienced his greatest successes, a lecture room. He is examined while other characters coldly observe from their seats, but he can’t even see clearly through the microscope and can’t remember the basic Hippocratic oath that a "doctor's first duty is to ask for forgiveness"—a direct message for Borg to apply. Accused of guilt, Borg is found incompetent and fails as a human being for his "callousness, selfishness, and ruthlessness."
Such life examinations are fairly common in literature—Dickens A Christmas Carol and Hawthorne’s "Young Goodman Brown" immediately come to mind, but Bergman's treatment is far more satisfactory. Of course much of credit goes to the director, but Victor Sjostrom’s great performance elevates the material to a higher and heartfelt level. Sjostrom rightfully is known as the founder of Swedish cinema, having written, directed, and acted from the early silent years. Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället) is his last, and arguably best, screen performance. As Bergman describes, Sjöström took Bergman's screenplay, applied it to his own life, and makes it his own—and certainly looking deeply into Sjöström's expressive face, it's easy to forget that he is acting.
You can focus on various levels and discuss the cinematic techniques, the mirror motif symbolism, theological issues, and break down the dreams as much as you like. But it's not totally necessary to enjoy the film. The acting and strong dialogue carry the film's messages well, and which of us haven't had parental difficulties, wondered at our significance, or won't face the grim reaper at the end of our days. Don't let pretentious film snobs scare you off from Wild Strawberries—film school training is no prerequisite for appreciating Bergman's masterpiece. It's even more accessible now with Criterion's crystal clear delivery.