There is a frightening nightmare sequence in the beginning of Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries as you see an elderly man in the early morning walking among empty streets with ruined houses. The clocks all seem to have no hands and the streets are so silent that the elderly man is aware of the sound of his own heart beating. Suddenly the elderly man sees a figure in the shadows with his back turned. He puts his hand on the strangers shoulder and turns him around and finds the figure is not real as it collapses onto the street and shatters like a balloon with a strange liquid pouring out of him. He then sees horses walking by in the street carrying a hearse in its carriage. The carriage wheel gets caught on a street lamp-post and the wheel rolls off as you hear the squeaking and rocking of the casket inside which sounds like a newborn baby, suggesting the contrast of birth and death. Suddenly the casket slides off the carriage and onto the street. The elderly man walks up to the casket which is now open from the fall and a hand in the casket grabs him and tries pulling him down inside, with the elderly man realizing the dead corpse in the casket is in fact the elderly man himself. The old man wakes up from his nightmare and slowly gets out of bed. The elderly man is 78 years old, and over the past several decades he has been withdrawn and isolated from family members and friends making his last few years very lonely. His whole life has been hard work which ended him in the field of science where he became a greatly respected professor. He has a married son who is a doctor with no kids and a mother who is still alive and active. His wife has been dead for many years and the only company Isak has is his housekeeper. Tomorrow he will be receiving an honorary degree in Lund Cathedral and he has to drive down there to receive it. This elderly man is someone who has accomplished everything in his life when it came to education, his occupation and financial stability; but when it comes to the people who love him, he has coldly shut them out and selfishly ignored them. He now realizes time has gone by and he understands he must make amends for past sins, before his death arrives and it is too late.
In the classic opening sequence a elderly man is walking in the early morning streets along ruined houses. The clocks all seem to have no hands and the streets are so silent that the elderly man is aware of the sound of his own heart beating. Suddenly the elderly man sees a figure in the shadows with his back turned. He puts his hand on the strangers shoulder and turns him around and finds the figure is not real as it collapses onto the street and shatters like a balloon with a strange liquid pouring out of him.
He then sees horses walking by in the street carrying a hearse in its carriage. The carriage wheel gets caught on a street lamp-post and the wheel rolls off as you hear the squeaking and rocking of the casket inside which sounds like a newborn baby, suggesting the contrast of birth and death. Suddenly the casket slides off the carriage and onto the street. The elderly man walks up to the casket which is now open from the fall and a hand in the casket grabs him and tries pulling him down, with the elderly man realizing the dead corpse in the casket is in fact the elderly man himself.
The old man wakes up from his nightmare and slowly gets out of bed. His name is Isak Borg, and he is 78 years old. Over the past several decades he has been withdrawn and isolated from family members and friends which has made his last few years very lonely. His whole life has been hard work which ended him in the field of science where he became a greatly respected professor. He has a married son who is a doctor with no kids and a mother who is still alive and active. His wife Karin has been dead for many years and the only company Isak has is his housekeeper.
Tomorrow Isak is receiving an honorary degree in Lund Cathedral and he has to drive down there to receive it. Isak is a man who has accomplished everything in his life when it came to education, his occupation and financial stability; but when it comes to the people who love him he has coldly shut them out and ignored them. Isak is a man who now knows time has gone by and he understands he must make amends for past sins, before his death arrives and it is too late.
The film begins with Isak (Victor Sjostrom) waking up from his nightmare and quickly telling his housekeeper Miss Agda; to prepare breakfast because he now has decided to take the car and drive up to Lund Cathedral instead of flying which was originally planned. These change of plans greatly frustrates Miss Agda as they start to bicker back and forth. "We're not married, Miss Agda", says Isak. Agda responds saying, "I thank God for that every night. I've used common sense for 74 years and it won't let me down now."
The two of them have a light-hearted quarrel with one another with her telling him how he couldn't live without her, as she helps him pack and make breakfast. At the breakfast table Isak's daughter in law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin) comes out of her room and she asks if she can ride with him since the trip will head towards her home in Evald; and Isak agrees.
Right in the beginning of the drive Isak complains of Marianne smoking and tells her woman's vices are weeping, giving child-birth and speaking ill of her neighbors. She of course stays quite during his arrogant comments and he then says to her, "Don't pretend. You don't like me. You never have." He then reminds her how her husband Evald still owes him the loan of 5,000 a year that he borrowed from him and Evald should have paid him back yearly when he became an associate professor; out of principle.
Marianne says that for this loan that Evald is slowly paying his father back for is conflicting with their freedom because her husband works himself to death. It bothers her that Isak keeps insisting for the money because Evald and Marianne are struggling with their income as it is, while Isak is set; and doesn't need the money. Isak states to her though that, "a promise is a promise. And I know Evald respects that." Marianne says, "perhaps... But he also hates you.
"What do you have against me?"
"Shall I be frank? You're a selfish old man, Uncle Isak. You're utterly ruthless and never listen to anyone but yourself. But you hide it all behind your old-world manners and charm. Beneath your benevolent exterior, you're as hard as nails. But you can't fool us who have seen you at close quarters. Remember when I came to you a month ago? I had a stupid idea that you might help Evald and me. So I asked to stay with you for a week or two. Remember what you answered?"
"I said I'd be delighted."
"Perhaps you've forgotten, but you said, 'Don't try to draw me into your marital squabbles. I don't give a damn. You and Evald must make the best of it. I have no respect for mental suffering, so don't come lamenting to me. If you need therapy you'd better see a shrink. Or why not a minister? It's in fashion now.' Your judgements are very categorical Uncle Isak. I should hate to depend on you."
During the drive Isak decides to make a stop and show Marianne the summer-house he lived at for the first twenty years of his life with his ten brothers and sisters. While Marianne goes off to have a swim Isak looks at the garden and says, "the place where wild strawberries grow." Isak begins to get emotional looking at the places where he played as a child. Slowly his memories take over and the film flashes back to when he was young.
In the flashback Isak sees his first young love Sara (Bibi Andersson) picking strawberries in the garden near the summer-house. Isak tries to speak to her but she doesn't seem to hear him. His older rebellious brother Seigfred comes up to Sara and flirts with her even though Sara informs him she is engaged to his younger brother Isak. Seigfred being suave says to Sara, "you must kiss me. I can't bear it any longer." When they kiss Sara feels so ashamed and she decides to run into the house for lunch. When his mother asks where Isak is his twin sisters say he's out fishing with papa.
In a very clever device Bergman films Isak's childhood dinner sequence with the older Isak walking in while being able to walk around the house observing his family in front of him which is almost 70 years earlier. During the dinner the twins point out the suspiciousness of Seigfred and Sara alone in the strawberry fields which of course embarrass and anger them. Isak's oldest sister Charlotta consoles Sara as she runs out of the dinner table.
Sara says to Charlotta crying, "Isak's so kind and good, so moral and sensitive. But sometimes it seems to me that I'm a lot older than Isak, and then I think he's a child although we're the same age. And Seigfred is so bold and exciting. Poor little Isak who's so good to me. How unfair everything is." While witnessing all his childhood memories Isak feels overwhelmed by feelings of emptiness and sadness; as the pains up his past come back.
Isak's memories are suddenly interrupted by someone asking him if this is his house. A young girl (Bibi Andersson) walks up to him and says her father owns the house and Isak tells her he used to live here two hundred years ago of course with him exaggerating. She says her name is Sara; but her hair is different to blend with the present times. Her personality is also different as well as the present Sara is more strong and self-confident in herself. She says her two friends of hers named Anders and Viktor are on their way to Italy and Isak offers to give them both a ride.
During the drive Sara says how Anders and Viktor are in love with her but she's proud to be still a virgin. Isak says to her, "I was once in love with a woman called Sara. She married my brother Sigrid and had six children." While driving Isak almost gets into an accident with an oncoming vehicle and the other car flips over.
The couple in the other vehicle are all ok and apologize for their reckless driving while the husband named Alman blames it on his wife Berit. Everyone helps the husband push over his vehicle back on the road while his wife is ridiculing her husband strength. Of course the car no longer can run and so they ride with Isak and the rest of the group. Everyone in the car is unusually silent as Berit looks troubled. Her husband Alman says, "I never know whether my wife is really crying or just playacting."
His wife tells him to shut up while he keeps insulting her and Berit suddenly starts to slap her husband multiple times. Alman tells the group that for selfish reasons they haven't beaten each other to death a long time ago. Marianne decides to pull over and says to the married couple, "This may be too blunt but for the children's sake, will you please get out." The married couple are embarrassed by their behavior and apologize while leaving the vehicle as the group drives off.
They later drive in the town where Isak's mother lives and where Isak first practiced his profession with his father. They all stop at a gas station and the gas station attendant (Max Von Sydow) comes out and recognizes Isak; because his family have been long friends with him through the years. The gas attendant fills up the gas as he asks Isak how his mother is doing and thanks Isak all the kindness his family has done for them in the past with his profession. Isak quietly says to himself that maybe he should have stayed up here after he was done practicing. Later at dinner Isak entertains everyone with his stories on being a medical doctor as Victor and Anders have a debate on science and religion.
Later on that evening Isak and Marianne decide to visit Isaks mother who is now 96 years old. Isak's mother is like a mummified lonely woman who complains how not one of her children come to visit her and how she wished she had died sooner. She and Isak go through old memorials while Marianne watches quietly in the background. Isak's mother then shows her son a watch that she is giving to Seigfred's eldest son who is now turning 50. The watch has no hands on it which mirrors the nightmare Isak had the other night. She then says, "I remember when Seigfred's boy was a newborn. He used to lie in the lilac arbor at the summer-house. Now he's turning 50. And little cousin Sara used to carry him around and sing to him. She married Seigfred that good for nothing..."
The long expression on Marianne's face before her and Isak leave his mother's home is an expression of disdain for Isak's mother; now having a clearer idea on why Isak is the way he is. When meeting back up with Sara Marianne asks Sara where Anders and Viktor have gone off to; and Sara tells her they started debating again about God and science and lost their tempers. Marianne decides to go out and find the two boys as Sara asks Isak, "Which one do you like best?" Isak asks her who she likes best and she says, "I don't know. Anders is going to be a minister...Vicktor's nice too. In a different way. A doctor earns more money. And ministers are out of date. But how can anyone believe in God?"
When Marianne retrieves the two boys they all start on the road trip again as Isak dozes in the car. He has another dream that he is back in the strawberry patch with young Sarah; and now she is speaking to the old Isak. She asks him, "have you looked in the mirror, Isak? Then I'll show you what you look like." She then holds up a mirror in front of Isak and he cannot bear to look at his aging self as she says, "you're a worried old man who's soon going to die, but I have all my life before me. That hurt your feelings after all."
He says that she hasn't hurt his feelings but she insists she did because he can't bear the truth. She then says, "the truth is that I've been too considerate. And so became unintentionally cruel. I'm going to marry your brother Seigfred. Love is almost a game for us. Look at your face now. Try to smile! There! Now you're smiling." Isak begins to cry saying that her words are hurtful. Sara says, "as professor emeritus, you ought to know why it hurts. But you don't know. You know so much, and you don't know anything." She then leaves to be with her and Seigfred's baby. When she cradles her baby she runs inside her house joining Seigfred as a family, leaving an empty Isak outside to wander all alone.
Isak walks up to their house and looks inside the window to see his brother Seigfred and Sara happily in love and having a romantic dinner together. In a symbolic scene you see Isak put his hand up accidentally against a nail on the house which punctures his hand. That of course is a reference to Christ and symbolic of Isaks own suffering.
Suddenly the door opens and it surprisingly is Alma who is no longer the helpless husband but someone who is tough and relentless in an interrogation on Isak. Alma takes him inside and leads him to an empty dreary lecture hall where Isak finds all the people who played a part in his life sitting in the auditorium with stern looks on their faces. Alma then asks Isak to a series of tests, which one is looking into a microscope and another is reading the text on a chalk-board. Isak seems to be failing each test that is given to him and instead of this being a question on his knowledge as a scientist; they are actually questions on his knowledge as a spiritual human being. When he can't make out what is on the board Alma tells him it says, "A doctor's first duty is to ask for forgiveness." Alma then says Isak has been accused of guilt. Isak tries to get out of this nightmarish situation but not before Alma asks him to diagnose a patient which Isak finds is Alma's wife Berit. When examining her she starts to laugh mocking Isaks diagnosis which greatly embarrasses him. Alma then writes out Isak's verdict for his exam which says he is an incompetent human being.
The way Isak has treated people all his life using his education and stature as a way of looking down at others has now reversed itself in this nightmare. Alma then says Isak is accused of having callousness, selfishness, ruthlessness and that his own wife Karin has made the charge herself. Alma then orders Isak to see his diseased wife Karin and confront her at the very spot where he years earlier caught her having an affair with another man.
When arriving at that location Alma informs Isak that Isak stood in this very spot at that very same time on Tuesday May 1st, 1917, where he witnessed his wife say these very words: "Now I'll go home and tell Isak. I know what he'll say. 'My poor girl, I'm sorry for you.' Just as if he were God. Then I'll weep and say, 'do you really feel sorry for me?' He'll say, 'Yes, very sorry.' Then I'll weep even more and ask him to forgive me. He'll say, 'You mustn't beg my forgiveness. There is nothing to forgive.' But he doesn't mean a word he says, because he's cold as ice." Karin and the man she is having an affair with suddenly disappear and Isak asks Alma where they have gone too. Alma says, "gone...all gone. Removed by an operation Professor. A surgical masterpiece. No pain. Nothing that bleeds or trembles." Isak asks what the punishment for this is and Alma answers, "loneliness."
Isak wakes up from his nightmare as he finds the car parked with Marianne in the driver seat. Isak asks her what is going on and Marianne tells him they made a stop so Sara and the boys could pick flowers to give to Isak when hearing of his upcoming award ceremony. Isak tells Marianne that he's been having the strangest dreams and when Marianne asks what his dreams are saying; Isak tells her they are saying that he's been dead all his life even though he's alive. Marianne is stunned by his comment and says to him that her husband Evald once said that exact same thing about himself.
Marianne then tells Isak a painful story of her taking Evald out to tell him she is pregnant and has decided to have their child. When Evald hears the news from his wife he is furious at her decision and tells her that she either doesn't have the child or she doesn't have him. Evald then tells her, "This life sickens me. I will not be forced to take on a responsibility that will make me live for one day longer than I want to." When Marianne tries to tell him her point of view he doesn't want to hear it and wants to leave. Now Isak understands how serious her domestic problems are with his son which is the reason why she left Evald and asked to stay with Isak for the last few days.
When Isak asks Marianne why she finally decided to tell him this, she said it was because of the way she saw Isak's mother; and how his mother reminded her of Evald; someone distant and who is cold as ice. Marianne then tells Isak that she's going back to Evald to tell him she's having the child; and doesn't care what Evald thinks. But Marianne still loves her husband and doesn't want her and Evald to end up like Alma and Berit; the couple they picked up earlier in the day. Isak agrees saying seeing those two fighting and hurting each other emotionally reminded him of his marriage with Karin. Suddenly the scene lightens up a bit when Sara and the boys return with flowers to celebrate the 50 years of Isak as a doctor as they all finally decide to leave and head to the ceremony.
Near the end of the film; everyone finally arrives at the Lund Cathedral with his housekeeper Mrs. Agda waiting for Isak's arrival. His son Evald welcomes him as well and Marianne and him unpack upstairs in the guest room. Sarah, Victor and Anders decide to stay and attend Isaks ceremony, but during the ceremony which should have been one of the most important moments of Isak's life; his thoughts are strayed on the day's eye-opening events and he realizes that the ceremony is less important than the road trip he had taken with his daughter in law and what he had learned about himself as a person.
That evening after the ceremony Mrs. Agda sets Isak up for bed and before leaving the room, Isak suggests they both known each other for so many years now that they should start treating each other more formal. After Mrs. Agda leaves to get some sleep Isak hears singing coming from the window as he sees Sara, Victor and Anders outside playing Isak a song. Sara then tells Isak they all greatly enjoyed his ceremony and they found a girl who will give them a lift to Hamburg. Before Sara leaves she shouts out to Isak, "Goodbye! It's you I really love you know. Today...tommorrow...always." After they leave Isak smiles and whispers, "I'll remember."
Later that evening when Evald returns early to his room Isak asks if he could speak to him. He then asks his son how it is between him and Marianne. Evald quickly says that he asked Marianne to move back home with him; and when Isak tries to bring up the loan his son owes to him to tell him it's not really necessary his son quickly cuts him off and says he'll pay him as soon as he can. When Marianne comes in the room Isak kisses her goodnight and thanks her for joining him on the road trip. "I like you Marianne," he says to her. She smiles and says, "I like you to Uncle Isak."
That evening when falling asleep Isak narrates how it always calms him when dreaming back to his childhood memories. His last dream is young Sara taking him down by the lake to see his mother and father fishing; as there's a happy and peaceful smile on Isak's face in his bed while dreaming of a time that no longer exists.
The opening nightmare in Wild Strawberries comes as a shocking reminder of death to Isak, the film’s central character. He finds himself in the Old Town of Stockholm, assaulted by a burning sun. He plunges hastily into the few patches of shadow that the street affords. Gateways loom, great areas of black, used by director Ingmar Bergman to suggest a hostile nothingness. Isak is alone, faced by successive portraits of disaster: a watch without hands, a human figure that crumbles on the sidewalk, a coffin that contains his own body.
Ingmar Bergman is still startled by the speed at which the years pass. He remembers the smallest things—toys, noises, smells, light. “When I look at my brother,” he told Liv Ullmann “it seems it was only yesterday we were running barefoot in the garden, and I feel a fear inside me.”
In the spring of 1957, immediately after directing a television version of Hjalmar Bergman’s Mr. Sleeman is Coming (his first contact with the new medium), Ingmar Bergman settled down to write the screenplay for Wild Strawberries—a film dealing with that “fear.”
There was no difficulty in setting up the project. The success of The Seventh Seal and the foreign sales of Bergman’s movies had convinced Svensk Filmindustri that they had an asset on their hands. That organization’s Carl Anders Dymling, in fact, persuaded the aged and ailing director Victor Sjöström (The Wind, He Who Gets Slapped) to take the part of Isak Borg. Sjöström was seventy-eight years old and sometimes querulous. He was a lonely man whose wife was dead. His health was poor, and during the filming he often forgot his lines, a failing that would only aggravate him the more. Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer says that several scenes had to be shot indoors for Sjöström’s sake. “We had to make some very bad back-projection in the car because we never knew if Victor would come back alive the next day.” Nevertheless, as long as Victor was home by 5:15 P.M. each day, “and had his whiskey punctually, all went well.”
Isak Borg, the distinguished professor emeritus who lives alone with his housekeeper, can only come to terms with his egocentricity by traveling back in time to his earliest youth, finding there the seeds of his failure as husband, lover, and father.
The opening nightmare sequence seems a tribute to Sjöström’s own great silent film, The Phantom Carriage. Sound effects, as in the opening flashback of The Naked Night, leave a deep impression. The silence at one point is so profound that Isak becomes aware of his own massive heartbeat. When the carriage crashes into a lamppost and disgorges its casket, the axle squeals insistently, like a newborn baby, suggesting the proximity of birth and death. Bergman has always been aware of the importance of the soundtrack, seeking a little extra sound that will give a scene an added dimension.
The set for this sequence was built on the lot at Råsunda, but the shot of the carriage rounding the street corner was taken by Gunnar Fischer in a deserted Old Town at almost 2 A.M. one summer morning. A couple emerging from a restaurant was startled by the spectacle of a coach without a driver hurtling down the narrow, cobbled lane. The dummy that Borg mistakes for a pedestrian was constructed from a balloon and a silk stocking. All the walls had to be painted pure white to achieve the glare that Bergman wanted.
Wild Strawberries won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1958 and was acknowledged around the world as the seal on Bergman’s career. Gunnar Fischer’s cinematography and the haunting regretful music of Erik Nordgren are beyond reproach. The warmth and gentility of Victor Sjöström’s performance render Isak Borg a character so sympathetic that the audience sides with him, however damning the accusations.
Some months after the opening of the film, Bergman met a childhood friend, who told him that while he was watching Wild Strawberries he “began to think of Aunt Berta, who was sitting all alone in Borlänge. I couldn’t get her out of my thoughts, and when my wife and I came home, I said let’s invite Aunt Berta over at Easter.”
That, says Bergman, is the best review he has ever had.
No writer likes to think of himself as aging, but it is fifty years since, as a thirteen-year-old schoolboy, I first saw Wild Strawberries (1957). The movie left an indelible impression on me. The screening took place in a film club in the remote wilds of Yorkshire, organized and programmed by kind Father Augustine. Though thirteen-year-olds, by definition, don’t know much about life, many scenes in this very adult film caught my imagination. One in particular stands out: it is the flashback about two-thirds of the way through where the married couple Evald (Gunnar Björnstrand) and Marianne (Ingrid Thulin) sit in their motorcar in the rain arguing about whether and how to start a family. Marianne, who is pregnant, wants one. But Evald does not; and it is the reason he gives, combined with his manner of giving it, that I can never forget from that screening. He says it would be irresponsible to bring a child into the world, the world being what it is. He doesn’t say this timidly, either; he says it with vehement conviction—the conviction, shall we say, of a pessimistic atheist. These are his words: “It’s absurd to live in this world, and even more absurd to provide it with new wretches!” So people—certain people, anyway—really thought and spoke like that, did they? They said such things? For me, it was a moment of moral revelation—a first glimpse, from my sheltered upbringing, of the intransigence of the adult world.
The lively shock to my innocence that I experienced at that point finds an echo, as a matter of fact, in another memorable scene in this movie—the episode in which the travelers Marianne and Isak give a lift to a middle-aged couple whose oncoming vehicle (driven with maniacal carelessness) they have narrowly avoided hitting, and which has subsequently overturned in a ditch. To say that the Almans (Gunnar Sjöberg and Gunnel Broström) don’t get on is to put it too mildly; evidently, they passionately loathe each other. As their sarcastic bickering swells to a pitch of fury, Marianne, who is driving, stops the car and throws them out. Their quarreling, she explains coldly, could only upset the younger passengers, a trio of student hitchhikers (Bibi Andersson, Björn Bjelfvenstam, and Folke Sundquist) whom she and her father-in-law picked up earlier that day, and whose hitherto high-spirited exuberance has visibly drained from their faces in the course of this marital onslaught.
The just and vivid portrayal of different generations, from childhood to old age, via all the stages in between, is one of the most beautifully wrought aspects of Wild Strawberries, and we will come back to it. But before doing so, we should perhaps linger a moment more on the character of the driver, Marianne, and specifically on the beauty of the actress Ingrid Thulin, who plays her. She is not, I suppose, the most important figure in the movie; that role is necessarily occupied by old Isak Borg, her father-in-law (famously played by the celebrated Swedish film director from the silent epoch Victor Sjöström). Even among the other woman characters, Marianne has a less conspicuous part than those of the two Saras (both played by Andersson). Yet she can also be seen as the linchpin of the movie: in a strange way, she—or rather, Thulin’s portrayal of her—gives it its “tone.” Ingmar Bergman’s films are famous for their psychic violence; it is a commonplace to say that they are peopled by characters who are neurotic (the viciously argumentative couple in the scene we have just glanced at is a good example of this). But Wild Strawberries, taken as a whole, is not at all a neurotic movie. Its final cadences, on the contrary, communicate a wonderful, warm sanity, and Thulin’s beauty—often in reaction shots, where she is not saying anything but merely listening serenely and responsively—is a not negligible part of this humanism.
And yet the film is, of course, about dark things—the viewer can’t miss this. It’s there from the opening, that extraordinary postcredits sequence (surely, in its detail and particularity, one of the finest evocations of dream in the whole of cinema) in which a coffin that has fallen from a broken carriage opens up to reveal to the passing Professor Borg his image and likeness—a classical doppelgänger that, stretching out an arm, attempts to drag the old man down into the darkness of the tomb. The screen goes black at this point. Cut to our protagonist shaking his head and awakening. We are back in the world of normality—a normality in fact already established in the precredits sequence, where we have seen Professor Borg in his home environment, seated comfortably at his desk, smoking a cigar and ruminating over family photographs. A distinguished (if fussy) old emeritus, he is shortly to make a journey to the southern city of Lund to be honored for his lifework in medicine.
Normality on the surface, therefore, but a certain kind of anguish underneath. As the film progresses, further dream sequences reveal more of the inner life of this complex yet upright bourgeois citizen. His marriage, it turns out, was a sham—his now-dead wife, Karin, having deceived and humiliated him. Before that, in his youth, there was the love he conceived for a beautiful cousin, but she went off with his wastrel brother Sigfrid. Such deceptions of the heart have left him cold and isolated and enclosed in an impenetrable loneliness. Heredity, too, has played its part in the tragedy, as Marianne notices: of a large and lively family of ten siblings, only Isak survives—though, astonishingly, his ninety-six-year-old mother lives. In an extraordinary sequence midway through the film, Isak and Marianne pay a visit to this dowager. From the frosty atmosphere that greets them (directed at Marianne, especially), one discerns the many self-inflicted injuries wrought by pride and egotism, and how it is that such sins of the spirit might have descended to blight the life of Isak, and through him that of his only child, Evald.
But it is in the film’s dream sequences, as I say, that most of the backstory is carried, and that the theme of guilt—guilt, as it were, for mere existence—is explored most profoundly. Bergman was too much of an artist to subscribe to any single ideology of the unconscious; fascinated by psychoanalysis, he was nonetheless no reductive Freudian. And yet the scenarios that are played out in these multiple fantasies have the kind of sinister and mysterious rightness that one recognizes from classic case histories. Take, for example, the episode in which Isak, as he dozes off in the car after luncheon, returns in memory for the second time to the old summerhouse of his youth. Prior to this, in an earlier reverie, the place was dappled in sunlight; now the sky is dark and filled with the screeching of jackdaws. The ghost of Sara, his childhood love, is seated on the same patch of ground where previously we have seen her innocently picking wild strawberries and being flirted with by the interloping Sigfrid. Yet she seems to be a different, older person. Forcing Isak to look at his face in the mirror she holds up to him—and even, at one stage, to smile into it—she regales him with his inadequacies as a marriage candidate.
Her manner is far from compassionate. Yet it is not quite mocking, either; it is thoughtful and serious. Still, the contrast with her earlier and more vulnerable childish self couldn’t be more marked, and it reminds us of the extraordinary way in which, in dreams, people who are close to us present themselves, almost arbitrarily, in starkly different emotional registers: tenderly disposed and friendly in one part of the dream, distant and hostile in the next.
So it is that, having delivered her devastating verdict, Sara bestirs herself, telling old Isak (who is at the same time, of course, the young Isak) that she is going off to tend to her sister Sigbritt’s baby—another fascinating and intriguing detail, for we have no idea who this baby or its father is. As she stands at the edge of the wood, with the dark sky and shore in the background and the beautiful empty cradle beside her, there is a chilling atmosphere of melancholy and loneliness. It passes through our minds, momentarily, that the anonymous creature she is comforting at her breast stands in for the child who would have been born—haunted and cursed from the start—had she and Isak ever gotten married.
Like practically every one of Bergman’s more than fifty completed films, Wild Strawberries issues from an original script. The director wrote the scenario over a two-month period in the early spring of 1957, while recovering in the hospital from a breakdown brought on by overwork. His private life at the time, we learn from his autobiography Images, was as complicated and tormented as it seems to have always been. Specifically, his third marriage was breaking up—though apparently he still loved the woman concerned—while his partnership with Bibi Andersson (who would replace her in his affections) was not going particularly well either. Nor was he at all happy in his dealings with his parents, toward whom he found himself, during this period, in a position of painful rebellion. It is always tempting, when discussing cinema as obviously auteur-driven as Bergman’s is, to seek in the director’s private life some clue toward the genesis—or indeed the meaning—of the finished work of art. Yet this is never a simple matter. Wild Strawberries is not about illness (though it is certainly about the pain of old age); it is not, except as a minor excursus in the case of Isak’s mother, about different generations hating one another; and it is not—emphatically not!—about any problems that follow from having too many wives. No, the film tells a story in its own right; it has the dignity of third-person narrative. Isak Borg, the protagonist, and Ingmar Bergman, the director, share the same initials, but they are not otherwise linked in obviously discoverable ways—indeed, it is strange to learn, given how memorably the aged actor stamps the part as his own, that the role of Isak was not even written with Sjöström in mind. All great films have multiple miracles attached to them, the greatest miracle here perhaps being that this legendary actor-director—one can really call him the founder of Swedish cinema—should have still been alive when needed, that someone should have inspiredly thought of him, and that he should have been willing to take the part when it was offered to him.
These things can be said, then, without denying that the film is autobiographical; if we couldn’t guess it ourselves, we have Bergman’s word for it. Plainly, he believed that in some vital way he was the unwanted child of quarreling parents, and that no amount of talent and ambition could make up for this—it was a guilt he would need to carry to the grave. But I believe it is wrong to overemphasize these connections and what one might call the movie’s existentialism. There is torment aplenty in Wild Strawberries, but the film is not really about torment, I think—indeed, the contrary. Mention was made earlier of the calmness and sanity of its closing episodes, and it is time to dwell a little more on those qualities. Surely, all along, it has been impossible to miss the movie’s good humor. The viewer who is alert to tone can’t fail to have remarked the way in which courtesy, lightness, and gaiety govern so many of its major sequences.
The scene of Uncle Aron’s birthday party—that initial flashback in the woods, during the course of which we revisit the old professor’s childhood home in summertime—provides a characteristic example of what I’m talking about. The extension of this sequence, as we have already discovered, takes a decidedly sinister turn, yet that doesn’t annul the force of the earlier part of the reverie, in which we are present at the preparations for this relative’s birthday breakfast. The youngest children, a pair of identical twins, are going to sing him a birthday song (a bit pointless, since Uncle Aron is deaf!). The sun is shining. A splendid spread lies on the table. The pale Scandinavian decor, of lace and pine, seems like an illustration from a turn-of-the-century fairy tale. How charming are these scenes of bourgeois revelry, where the girls are so pretty and the dandyism of the young men so innocent. The friendliness toward young people shown here, and the delight in their boisterousness, is picked up, of course, and transferred to the spirit of the three young hitchhikers in the episodes that follow on from this festive scene, and maybe those characters, too, require mention, as their presence is so central to the story.
This little band, then, consisting of the pipe-smoking Sara and her two male companions, have “ambushed” Marianne and the professor and managed to wheedle a lift from them (Lund, their destination, turns out to be on a direct route to Italy, where the young people are headed). Installing the trio in the back of their vehicle, the professor and his daughter-in-law, charmed by their cheek, in due course offer them lunch, and they stop off at a convenient terrace restaurant. The meal, we are told in the professor’s voice-over, is a success, and the five of them linger afterward in the open air, over port and coffee. The two young men, rivals for Sara’s affection (one of them, in fact, is engaged to her), have been quarreling good-naturedly about theology; the fiancé is planning to become a minister. Asked by Sara to adjudicate the intellectual merits of the argument, old Isak Borg smilingly declines. After a few moments of silence, he proceeds instead to recite a beautiful poem that starts, “Where is the Friend I seek where’er I’m going?” At different times in the recitation, different listeners take up the thread of the verses; evidently, among Swedes, the poem is well-known. Its author is a nineteenth-century poet-archbishop named Johan Olof Wallin (1779–1839), but we needn’t be aware of this historical context to grasp and appreciate the yearning, idealistic tenor of its discourse. Harmony and peace descend, as if by a miracle, on the assembled company. It seems, momentarily, as if God himself is present in their midst! This quiet and modest scene, to my mind, belongs among the great epiphanies of cinema.
The film’s conclusion offers yet another epiphany—or possibly it would be better to say a series of miniature epiphanies that seamlessly feed into one another to make the end of this movie one of the most beautiful and emotionally satisfying in the whole of Bergman’s oeuvre. First, there are the reconciliations—Professor Borg with his housekeeper, Fru Agda; more crucially, Marianne with Evald (how delicately the love between the pair, “despite everything,” is communicated to us in gestures of fleeting elegance and reticence; how beautifully Thulin shines in her ball gown!). In the midst of these acts of forgiveness, there is, of course, the sequence of the award ceremony itself, with its grand fanfare, solemn procession, and moving encomiums in Latin summarizing the professor’s achievements. Finally, there is the aftermath: the hitchhikers’ lovely nighttime serenade and the dream that closes the movie, during which Borg, back again on the grounds of the family summerhouse, is guided by Sara to a spot where he can see, across the lagoon, his parents relaxing with their fishing rods, as they turn in the sunshine to wave to him.
That really is some cadence to end on! Six ascending chords of the harp accompany the closing images. The music throughout the film, composed by Erik Nordgren, has been consistently wonderful—from the sequences just spoken of, one could single out the little cello phrase that hovers in the air behind the professor’s ruminations in the cathedral as he’s crowned with his honorary doctorate. As with all good film music, the effectiveness increases in direct proportion to the discretion with which it is used—and Nordgren’s most telling touches are subliminal. Wild Strawberries possesses, then, the kind of unflashy lyricism that is the property of many of the best films of the fifties—one might cite such near-contemporary works as Sansho the Bailiff (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954), Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray, 1955), or Ashes and Diamonds (Andrzej Wajda, 1958): films of the time that are not quite avant-garde but cannot really be said to suffer from this. There seems to be an agreement among film critics to label the decade in question “conformist”; yet one needs to remember how many of the greatest achievements of world cinema belong to the period I’m talking about. Far in the future for Bergman lay searing dramas like Persona (1966), where we could say the grammar of cinema is “dismantled”—brilliantly, of course, yet at the cost, perhaps, of a certain human coherence. In Wild Strawberries, and in its companion piece of the previous year, The Seventh Seal, the reigning conventions bespeak a quietly confident classicism.
-Mark Le Fanu
Ingmar Bergman came up with the idea for Wild Strawberries while driving from Stockholm to Dalarna, stopping in Uppsala where he had been born and raised, and driving by outside his grandmother's old house, when he suddenly began to think about how it would be if he could open the door and inside it would be just as it had been during his childhood. "So it struck me — what if you could make a film about this; that you just walk up in a realistic way and open a door, and then you walk into your childhood, and then you open another door and come back to reality, and then you make a turn around a street corner and arrive in some other period of your existence, and everything goes on, lives. That was actually the idea behind Wild Strawberries."
Bergman was at a high point of his professional career after a triumphant season at the Malmö City Theatre, and having the first major film successes with both Smiles of a Summer Night and The Seventh Seal. However his private life was in disarray; his third marriage was on the rocks; his affair with Bibi Andersson, which had begun in 1954, was coming to an end; his relationship with his parents was, after an attempted reconciliation with his mother, at desperately low point. The director's immediate choice for the leading role of the old grumpy professor was Victor Sjöström, Bergman's silent film idol and early counselor at Svensk Filmindustri . Victor Sjostrom directed some of the greatest silent films including a film titled The Wind in 1928 and the great Phantom Carriage in 1921 which closely resembles the themes of Bergman The Seventh Seal.
The Phantom Carriage tells a story about a man who dies to takes Death's place but not before Death gives him a tour of his life showing him how vicious of a man he was when alive. Buts it's for his acting role as doctor Isak in Wild Strawberries that Sjostrom become most memorable for. "Victor," Bergman remarked on the filming of Wild Strawberries, "was feeling wretched and didn’t want to do it;... he must have been seventy-eight. He was misanthropic and tired and felt old. I had to use all my powers of persuasion to get him to play the part." During the shooting, the health of the 78-year-old Sjöström gave cause for concern. Dymling had persuaded him to take on the role with the words: "All you have to do is lie under a tree, eat wild strawberries and think about your past, so it's nothing too arduous."
This was inaccurate and the burden of the film was completely on Sjöström who is in all but one scene of the film. Initially Sjöström had problems with his lines, which made him frustrated and angry. He would go off into a corner and beat his head against the wall in frustration, even to the point of drawing blood and producing bruises. He sometimes quibbled over details in the script. To unburden his revered mentor, Bergman made a pact with Ingrid Thulin that if anything went wrong during a scene, she would take the blame on herself. Things improved when they changed filming times so that Sjöström could get home in time for his customary late afternoon whisky at 4:30.
Wild Strawberries will always hold a special place in my heart; and when really thinking about the plot structure of the film, it really is a simple formulaic road movie about self-discovery and coming to terms with past mistakes, torments, regrets and sins. As bleak as the film sounds it is actually one of the more lighter and accessible works of Bergman's cannon. They're several darker and brooding themes subtly brewing underneath the story, but like his swan song Fanny and Alexander; Wild Strawberries actually has many several moments of added humor and charm; that many of his bleak 60's chamber-dramas did not.
I, like Isak would visit my childhood home and neighborhood, and I would often ponder over several key parts of my life, the regrets, and the choices I wish I have made differently when I was much younger. Now being 30 and thinking back on things, everything seemed extremely simple, and made much more sense. True, I didn't exactly know my identity yet, but back when I was a child, there were less stressful things to worry about. The thoughts on true love was real and definite, and life and my purpose in it all seemed to be so very clear. It's the older you get that the black and white parts begin to merge into gray and you realize things aren't so simple but much more complicated and complex. Love isn't a definite thing when getting older and the purpose of your own existence starts to be questioned. I can greatly relate to the old and bitter Professor Isak who lived a most fascinating but sad life. Of course the root of Isak's bitterness probably started at a young age (as mine did), especially when he lost his first true love Sara to his obnoxious and more exciting brother Seigfred. This greatly hurt Isak as you can see through his flashbacks; and I can relate being in a similar situation as a young boy. We all had are first true love when we are young and when losing them to another who we know is much more exciting and spontaneous is deeply hurtful and in a lot of ways shatters our confidence, self-image, optimism, and innocence. You instead begin to question the simple things that you were once greatly sure about, and the older you get, the more sure you are that those things either aren't definite, or they don't exist; at least not in the same way you thought they did when very young.
Unlike Sara, I don't believed Isak and his wife truly loved each other, and during their marriage they weren't truly happy. Isak seemed cold, aloof and distant towards his wife and even knew of the affairs his wife was having and yet didn't do anything to stop it. I believe being raised in a household with a mother like Isak taught Isak to be bitter, cold and emotionless and to keep all his emotions and feelings bottled up inside, because expressing them would be a sign of weakness. It's amazing how intelligent Isak is with all his degrees and awards, is but when it comes to simple human emotions and understanding Isak has no clue on how to deal with them. He's such a stern, cold, and arrogant man and cares more about getting his loan paid back by his son; not because he needs the money but because he believes it's the right thing to do; even knowing full well how his son is struggling financially.
All the different dream sequences in the film were magnificent and unique in their own ways including the magical childhood family dinner sequence and the sad flashback sequence of Isak catching his wife having an affair with another man. But one of the most fascinating dream sequence wasn't really a flashback at all, and is more of a nightmare. Isak is again with Sara, who is now happily married to Seigfred. Only this time Sara mocks Isak and cruelly forces him too look at his own aging reflection in a mirror. Sara then informs Isak how happy she and Seigfred are, as Isak tragically watches Sara, Seigfred and the baby they have together have a romantic dinner in their home. While watching this moment in time, Isak accidently places his hand up against a nail on the house which punctures his hand, which of course is a reference to Christ and symbolic of Isaks own pain and suffering. Later in the dream Alma welcomes him into the home and forces Isak to a series of tests and evaluations on his skills as a professor and as a human being, as he is faced with his all the people throughout his life sitting in a auditorium, all with stern faces, judging him. Isak is succumbed to several tests and he of course fails all of them because the tests are more based on him being a moral and ethic person, which he unfortunately was not through most of his life. The way Isak has treated people all his life using his education and stature as a way of looking down at others has now reversed itself in this nightmare, as all his education and knowledge means literally nothing when faced with how he as a kind and loving human being.
His character throughout the years has slowly manifested itself into a bitter, cold hearted and spiritually hollow individual. Sara, Anders and Viktor bring out a new breath of life into Isak and make him feel youthful and happy again. Sare, Anders and Viktor's are most definitely the comedic parts of the story. When Isak and Marianne pick up Alma and Berit on the road, this unhappy married couple begin to verbally and physically hurt each other; and it not only greatly embarrasses Isak that this couple is causing a scene in front of Sara and the two boys, but it was a shocking reflection of his own unhappy marriage with his wife throughout the years. Isak probably verbally insulted and belittled his wife and always emotionally put her down, believing he had special privileges, just simply because of his stature on being a distinguished and educated professor. This of course made her very unhappy, which is probably one of the several reasons why she had an affair.
Yes, I do believe age and the fear of his upcoming demise is a reason Isak is finally coming to terms with his past mistakes and regrets but it's also because of the memories and guilt he is feeling which has heavily been keeping him up wakeless nights, knowing he must be rid of them before he passes on. During the road trip Isak and Marianne finally begin to bond with one another; and instead of Isak rudely ignoring others, Isak instead begins to listen and finally comes to realize the serious domestic problems Marianne is having with his son; which greatly mirrored Isak's marriage with his wife. The one sequence in the film that has always stuck with me, is the one flashback sequence that Marianne tells Isak. Where she is in the motorcar in the rain with her husband Evald. Marianne and Evald are arguing about starting a family, as she is pregnant with his baby. Evald doesn't want a child and the words he says to his wife are words of contempt and bitterness. Words I will never forget: "This life sickens me. I will not be forced to take on a responsibility that will make me live for one day longer than I want to." Those are the brutally contemptible words of a pessimist who chooses to look at life negatively and cruel, self destructive and nihilistic; and who sees the absolute worst in people. To sum it up: He sounded exactly like me. I believe this story that Marianne revealed to Isak was the pivotal moment that finally woke Isak up. Hearing how bitter and unhappy his own son has become; probably made him realize not only that Evald sounded like a younger version of himself, but that Isak's negative and pessimistic behavior throughout the years is what probably shaped and molded his son into the person he is today. Marianne's dislike for Isak begins to change throughout their road trip when she realizes why Isak became the cold and stern person as he is; especially when meeting his bitter mother for the first time. I truly believe a large part of why a person is the way they are, comes from the way they were raised growing up as a child. The iconic dream sequences of Isak being able to witness and interact with the people from his past greatly influenced director Woody Allen who later used that similar style most famously in Annie Hall and Crimes and Misdemeanors. In a 1963 interview with Cinema magazine legendary director Stanley Kubrick listed Wild Strawberries as his second favorite of all time; and it is considered one of the most spiritually important films in the world. At the end of the film it looks as though it might be too late for Evald to change his stubborn ways, and save his deteriorating marriage with Marianne, and whatever damage was made cannot be undone. Unfortunately like Isak, Evald will probably come to this realization of his mistakes when he is much older and when it is probably far too late. Months after the opening of the film, Bergman met a childhood friend who had told him that he was watching Wild Strawberries and he "began to think of Aunt Berta, who was sitting all alone in Borlange. I couldn't get her out of my thoughts, and when my wife and I came home, I said let's invite Aunt Berta over at Easter." Bergman has said that was the best review he has ever had.