WILD STRAWBERRIES (1957)
After living a life marked by coldness, an aging professor is forced to confront the emptiness of his existence.
It’s uncommon that an artist produces a singular masterpiece, and increasingly rare the artist should create another work of equal magnitude that functions as that first piece’s shadow. Rarer still is the event of this happening in a single year. Ingmar Bergman belongs to this exclusive club. In early 1957, he directed The Seventh Seal, and following at the end of that year came Wild Strawberries / Smultronstället. Though on first impressions they appear to be two starkly different films, it remains difficult to separate them, both in terms of their philosophical rigour and depth, but also in terms of their being products of Bergman as he approached middle age.
Both films are in the habit of looking back. The Seventh Seal’s journey might have been several hundred years, but Wild Strawberries’ distance felt just as far, pushing into the memories and ghosts of the early-1900s, which, to the modern, vivacious youngsters in the film, might as well have been a millennia ago.
In the then-present day of 1957, ageing doctor Isak (a disarmingly tender Victor Sjöström) looks back upon his life in the days leading up to being awarded ‘Doctor Jubilaris’—a half-centennial celebration of a doctor’s career, which is a custom in Sweden. We meet him through his narration, as he writes slowly and deliberately at his desk. He’s at an age where he no longer rushes, as he’s willingly left his social life behind, dismissing matters such as social customs as trivial and empty.
Instead, he loves the sciences, specifically bacteriology. Perhaps bacteria are more pleasing to him than people, as they’re less prone to emotion and erraticism, and more predictable. His office is detailed with photographs and trinkets, though it ‘s hard to believe he’d be sentimental enough to look through them.
Widowed, and distanced from his similarly remote son, Evald (who notably also happens to be a doctor), Isak finds that his own mind is perhaps trying to tell him something he’d rather not hear, manifesting in dreadful nightmares. Bergman’s tactile realism is brilliantly disrupted for the first time in one of the early dream sequences—a disturbing and uncanny passage in which Isak imagines himself in an empty city. The streets are barren, the clocks have no hands, and the only person there collapses in a hissing puddle of gore, melting like the Wicked Witch of the West.
Instead of giving the nightmare a frantic tone, Bergman offers a measured, almost floating pace, with few cuts and a following camera providing the unreality of exploring a dream space. There are the images of a dream—most distressingly a coffin dropped in the street containing a doppelgänger of Isak—but Bergman’s quiet steadiness prevents the possibility of cliché. Importantly, his presentation of a nightmare sets a major idea of the film in place: that a dream might feel as real as anything experienced while conscious, and that what’s felt holds perhaps more weight to an individual than what is objectively real.
Isak sets out on a road trip with his confrontational daughter-in-law, Marianne (Bergman regular Ingrid Thulin) to Lund, where he’s to receive his award the following day. Through conversations with her as well as with hitchhikers picked up along the way, Isak retreats further into dreams, nightmares, and memories, stirred up further by familiar places from his past. Bergman’s maturity as a filmmaker allowed him to abandon formulaic devices associated with memories and dreams, and instead, everything presented in the film is on a continuum. With divides and signifiers removed, daydreams bump up against waking life, nightmares converse with memories. Bergman makes it irrelevant to pick out the details and try to attain meaning from them; the meaning is instead in the experience of watching the film, of letting time collapse and a life wash over you in fragments and feelings.
By delving into surrealism and seemingly impossible imagery (take, for instance, the breathtaking shot of a couple glimpsed through a window before seemingly turning into clouds, an effect achieved simply by changing the camera focus and slightly adjusting its placement, so that the window’s glass reflects the sky), Bergman achieves a psychological bond between the viewer and Isak, doing what film is uniquely positioned to do: representing the flow and workings of the mind as it sees and hears. Thus, the film possesses a true fidelity to how we experience the world, to how our thoughts arrange themselves.
When Isak takes Marianne to see the house in which he spent his youth, Bergman makes a point to foreground the sounds of the place. Surrounded by overgrowing trees and waist-high grass, the house remains unmovable while everything around it feels as if it might blow away like the memory of a dream moments after waking. The sounds of leaves and branches blowing is overwhelming, but comforting in its familiarity. Bergman lets us explore the sound and the image, hoping, perhaps, that it might remind us of a house we know, or once knew. It’s rundown, and empty most the year. But from Isak’s perspective we see the house as it once stood: filled with life and noise, with his younger self outside picking strawberries.
Marianne tells Isak that she doesn’t like him—that he’s a miserable old egotist, dogmatic in his beliefs and thoroughly unfeeling. Though Bergman was never traditional enough to present a story in which a character overcomes their flaws, he was nevertheless intrigued by the process of a person acknowledging those flaws. And as such, the film follows Isak as he reluctantly delves inwards and backwards, rocked perhaps by Marianne’s admission, and searching for reason and comfort in the past.
After picking up a trio of hitchhikers consisting of a young couple and their put-upon chaperone, Isak remembers himself as a young lover, dashing and romantic. The woman he loved and the female hitchhiker are both played by Bibi Andersson, further blurring the lines between reality and memory. Back at the house in his memories, he ‘s handsome, exciting, and fearless—a far cry from the man he’s become. Even the memories of his youth have a strange unreality to them, as if they’re an echo that has reached the point at which they is barely audible. Bergman, who heavily utilised real locations, does not disguise the artifice of the strawberry patch, pushing it beyond idyllic into something quite uncanny.
Inside, we meet twin sisters who talk in unison (it’s worth noting that elements of psychological horror are present in much of Bergman’s work—and one wonders if Stanley Kubrick, who revered Bergman, had those twins in mind when he adapted 1980’s The Shining), communicating through some strange twin telepathy. Isak’s Uncle Aaron (Ygnve Nordwall) holds up an old-fashioned ear-horn to listen to them— the eccentricity of these images evokes a dream, or perhaps memories that have diminished and been confused with years of false remembering. It mimics the feeling of looking at an old photograph and the question of whether we remember the day the photograph was taken, or if we simply remember looking at the photograph itself. But, we might wonder, is one of those less valid than the other?
Soon, these memories become preferable to Isak than his current circumstances. His age is brought up frequently, and the ceremony, when they arrive, feels more like a memorial service rather than a celebration of his achievements. Marianne, meanwhile, is pregnant with Evald’s baby, who is reluctant to bring a child into such a cruel world. “There is nothing in the world but cold and death and loneliness”, she claims. A middle-aged couple whom they pick up after an accident do little but argue, until Marianne asks them to leave. In a nightmare of Isak’s, the husband becomes an examiner, insisting that Isak is a failure as a doctor and a person. Two men they pick up end up in a fist-fight after arguing about the existence of god. Nobody can agree on any one subject, and nobody is happy.
Bergman seems almost to be making a joke about the characters he tends towards. They are each conflicted, wrestling with each other and with moral and philosophical dilemmas. They each loudly introduce themselves and their predicaments, and we learn no more than we need to know. They are markers of who Isak once was and the people he once knew, and a representative of the very human struggle for harmony. Bergman claimed that Isak was based partly on his father, but it is hard not to see some of the filmmaker’s struggle in the character too.
If Bergman’s career to this point had consisted of building simple environments in which characters could interrogate faith, death and dreams, then Wild Strawberries feels very much like an artist commenting on his own creations, and wondering where he fits into it all. Just as Isak tumbles into his past, so too does Bergman, meeting along the way trademark topics, and familiar faces that he had worked with for a decade, actors like Max Von Sydow and Gunnar Björnstrand, and working again with cinematographer Gunnar Fischer. His films that came before it had an accumulative effect, and approaching 40, Bergman stepped away from their subjects and instead made the subject the past itself, and our relation to it.
The text of the argument between the two men about God, for instance, is largely irrelevant—instead they are signifiers of the conflicts of personal beliefs. As they sit at a table in the beautiful sun, the sea sparkling and still behind them, Isak offers up his perspective: a poem. “His love is in the very air I’m breathing, the sigh I’m heaving” he says. The purpose is not the debate, but to reconcile the fact that the debate will never be settled. It’s a beautiful passage, but it disguises Isak’s struggle to accept the words he speaks, to feel the the breath in his lungs. Instead, he retreats back into his mind, rejecting the present, but overwhelmed by the potency of the past. He’s finally feeling rather than thinking.
Bergman does let slip some optimism. By the time Isak’s had his ceremony, it’s suggested that Marianne has warmed to the old man, and that he himself has thawed somewhat. When the trio of hitchhikers leave, they sing a song to him outside his window, the girl joking that he is her one true love. Off they go, to Italy. Like his memories, they drift into the night, perhaps not to be revisited. The hitchhikers and the world at large, it seems, keep going, despite the conflicts and contradictions.
And most moving, is that after years of making powerful work about human suffering, Bergman resolves the tension in himself for a moment of transcendent beauty. As Isak falls asleep, he remembers himself as a boy at the house we’ve come to know. The summer wind is blowing fiercely again as he looks for his parents. And then the wind stops, and by the water he finds them. His father fishing, his mother watching the water. Now there is only the sound of bird song. They wave. It is a memory and a dream. Isak, like the filmmaker, forgives all the anguish for as long as the moment will last, putting aside mistakes and fears. For now, at least, he is simply his parent’s son.
SWEDEN | 1956 | 91 MINUTES | 1.37:1 | BLACK & WHITE | SWEDISH • LATIN
BFI’s new 1080p Blu-ray release of Wild Strawberries looks tremendous. The transfer is crisp and vivd, while the audio track lets the meticulous sound mix shine. The standalone disc comes with a booklet with some great writing by Geoff Andrew, but extras on the disc itself are non-existent. It’s a pity, as such a respected and discussed film deserves more. However, the film is also a part of the BFI’s ongoing Ingmar Bergman box-sets, which are filled with extras and films that haven’t been released on Blu-ray before. The two box-sets released so far are stunning, and essential for anyone looking to acquaint themselves with the master of Swedish cinema, or to revisit his prolific career.
writer & director: Ingmar Bergman.
starring: Victor Sjöström, Bibi Andersson, Gunnar Björnstrand, Ingrid Thulin, Folke Sundquist & Naima Wifstrand.