NR | 1h 31min | Drama | 1957
“Wild Strawberries”(1957) begins with lines uttered by the protagonist, an irascible professor Isak Borg (Victor David Sjostrom): “I am an old pedant, which, at times, has been rather trying for myself and those around me.” This forms the kernel of screenwriter-director Ingmar Bergman’s Swedish drama on selfishness and its poisoning of personhood.
Isak, a 78-year-old widowed physician, contemplates his life through flashbacks, dreams, and experiences while on a long drive from Stockholm to Lund University to receive his Doctor Jubilaris, an honor bestowed for 50 years of service. The journey isn’t so much a car ride as a voyage of self-reflection. Marianne (the lovely Ingrid Thulin), his daughter-in-law, accompanies him.
As the story unfolds, Isak’s initial understanding of his own misanthropy turns out to be understated. If anything, he’s been more ruthless to those he was supposed to love than he imagines.
Bergman’s first scene shows Isak hunched over his desk, his face turned away from the camera and, symbolically, away from people. Photographs in his study tell us who they are: his dead wife Karin (Gertrud Fridh), his son Evald (Gunnar Bjornstrand), and his aged mother (Naima Wifstrand). Yet, for all the family that once surrounded him, it’s Isak’s housekeeper Miss Agda (Jullan Kindahl) who is now closest to his experience of a “family.”
Isak spars with Agda in the touching, if lighthearted, opening sequence. He wakes her at an unearthly hour, announcing that he’s driving out to Lund. As she tries to talk him into setting out later, as he’d planned all along, he puts her in her place. “We’re not married!” he says. She exclaims with folded hands: “I thank God for that every night.” Seconds later, she’s affectionately rustling up breakfast and packing his bags for him.
People Matter More Than Fame or Fortune
Isak’s luxurious house bursts with self-importance. He is not only wealthy but is also used to a lifetime of getting his way; he exudes entitlement in every impatient gesture, every frown, every intolerant shake of his head.
En route, young hitchhikers, and later a middle-aged squabbling couple, hop into his spacious car. Isak strikes up conversations with them. These conversations are interwoven with dream sequences of his dead wife and filled with his regret over their bitter marriage. Other conversations in dream sequences with Marianne, his mother, and embittered son Evald critique Isak’s repeated refusal, over the years, to love.
In one family flashback, Sara (Bibi Andersson), Isak’s cousin and a symbol of the love of his youth, overhears singing in honor of an old uncle. She mocks the silliness involved in singing for a “deaf” man. And Isak feels the futility that the unloved feel when loving those unable to “receive” love.
In one dream, Isak stares at a giant town clock, the “face” of which has no minute or hour hand. Later he’s shown his dead father’s pocket watch without hands, like the giant clock of his dreams. It’s meant to be a symbol of Isak’s wasted years, wasted because he’s merely lived rather than also loved.
In another dream, Sara refers to Isak’s knowing much and still not knowing anything: an indictment of his professorial knowledge in contrast to his ignorance about how to care for others.
At his journey’s end, as he approaches the ceremony at the university, Isak’s mind is filled with thoughts from the day’s events. He senses an “extraordinary logic” to them and plans to write it all down.
The theatrical feel of “Wild Strawberries” flows from Bergman’s stage sensibilities. Here, his camera doesn’t move too much within scenes, and he almost never cuts away mid-scene. In spite of his dependence on dream sequences, he uses few, if any, “effects.” He also avoids offering visual clues to separate dream and reality; often it’s only mid-scene that you realize it’s happening in reality and not in a dream.
Bergman isn’t so concerned with the realism that swept European cinema then, and even less with storyline. What matters to him is what the story means and how he can make that meaning profound at the film’s every stage.
The camera’s almost obsessive gaze at Isak reveals his confusion in a dream, and his dread in a nightmare. Sjostrom, in his final film role, plays Isak with sensitivity, supported by a superlative cast who serve as a sounding board for Isak’s musings.
For all the screen time taken by the central male character, strong, perceptive, and outspoken women (as many as half a dozen of them) figure almost as prominently. Their screen time adds up, as well as the sheer weight of their lines in the script and their impact on Isak’s mind and soul.
Crafted scenes and camera angles, brimming with symbolism, tell us of Isak’s bottled-up self-loathing.
Some shots of Isak reveal a “twin” of sorts: his dark reflection in the glass pane of a door or on a pond’s glassy surface—a sign of his grumpier, earlier self. Each moment seems to offer him a chance to be a new man: to love or to stay indifferent, to reach out in compassion or to continue withdrawing in aloofness.
Bergman extends the reflection theme when young Sara (in a dream) holds up a mirror to the aged Isak to have him really look at himself.
Bergman’s film presents us with questions that we must reflect on. Will Isak shed his guilt? Will he forgive himself for his cruel indifferences? Will he heal festering wounds? Or will he rationalize his way out and harden himself further?
The Swedish title of Bergman’s masterpiece, “Smultronstallet,” loosely translates as “the wild strawberry patch,” a symbol not so much of a place, but of a state or time in life worth nurturing. His film shows the price we pay when we betray our promising childhood of trusting love by following it with narcissistic youth and adulthood.
“Wild Strawberries” nudges us to contemplate our lives, just as Isak’s dreams, nightmares, and experiences on the drive show him what he made of his.
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Victor David Sjostrom, Ingrid Thulin, Bibi Andersson
Running Time: 1 hour, 31 minutes
Release Date: Dec. 26, 1957
Rated: 5 stars out of 5