On Sunday July 13, TCM is playing one of Ingmar Bergman's most well-known films, Wild Strawberries.
Wild Strawberries was one of two Ingmar Bergman releases in 1957; the other was The Seventh Seal. The two films confirmed Bergman’s reputation as a new, important talent, following the success of 1955s Smiles of A Summer Night. In the US, they were rolled out in 1958 (Seal) and 1959 (Strawberries); Wild Strawberries earned Bergman a well-deserved Oscar nomination for best original screenplay.
The film is about an elderly professor who travels by car to accept an honorary award, and on the way reminiscences about his life, with some regret. The film begins in professor Isak Borg’s home, at his desk, where, through his narration, we’re filled in on the backstory of his life. The next scene, following the credits, is a startling dream sequence in which the professor confronts his own death.
This dream sequence, with its striking sound design (it plays mostly silent, with punctuations of sound effects and music at dramatic beats), is the single most memorable sequence in the film. Except for Bunuel (and Dali’s Spellbound dream sequence) this kind of dream sequence was little seen in cinema up to this point. The dream is seen through the eyes of the main character, experienced by him, and makes a strong impression on the viewer. It can seem dated today, even pretentious. But Sjostrom conveys such bewilderment and wonder that we’re drawn into the scene as any other well-played dramatic scene might register.
As Isak travels with his daughter-in-law we get to know more about his current relationships. Additionally, we see a series of characters in various stages of life, notably a bickering middle-aged couple. These little character vignettes strengthen the film, adding depth to it’s themes and support of the central characterization. Among these is a surprising one— Isak takes time out to visit his mother, who’s 96. We also see Isak’s relationship with his childhood sweatheart thorough a flashback and in a modern version thorough a young outgoing girl who Isak picks up along the way (both roles are played by Bibi Anderson).
The entire film has a dreamlike quality and appears to put forth the notion that our lives are actually completely out of our hands, despite any decision-making we’ve made along the way— an anti-existentialist tone. Isak is at once an important member of society and as he puts it, “the faculty should have made me honorary idiot.” Isak is searching for answers, essentially searching for God. It’s possible that Isak is seeking God as an excuse for his bad life choices. Isak is, at the very least, looking for a tranquil end to his twilight years, in which everything has had a purpose, everything makes sense.
Victor Sjostrom’s casting is as much a masterstroke (he was one of the most prominent actor/directors in Swedish cinema, appearing in his last film) as the performance he gives. With each close-up Bergman gives him, we see a combination of Isak’s uncertainty and eternal hope, despite his age, and despite his fears, and despite his past mistakes.
For some reason, Wild Strawberries is less compelling on repeat viewings, perhaps because when you get back to it you’ve taken in Bergman’s later, more mature works, of which Wild Strawberries serves as a primer, up-to-and-including his great “swansong” Fanny and Alexander. The initial viewing of the film though has a powerful impact, again perhaps due to Sjostrom.
Wild Strawberries (1957): A Bergman primer, with a central performance by Victor Sjostrom, as great as any in film history, tapping into the viewer’s own uncertainties and fears with life’s course.