Director: Ingmar Bergman
Okay, seriously, now. This is our (quickly checks Janus set table of contents…) THIRD Bergman film! And only ONE Antonioni film? Only ONE Buñuel film? This might be my favorite of the three Bergmans, but I’m still not going to waste a lot of time writing this BACKGROUND section.
While driving from Stockholm to Dalarna (which are apparently places in Sweden), Ingmar Bergman stopped at a house where he had spent time in 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.”
Years later, he would repudiate his earlier explanation: “That’s a lie. The truth is that I am forever living in my childhood.”
He wrote the screenplay while hospitalized in 1957, spending many days alone, wheezing and ruminating (I can only assume) on his failed marriages and other disappointments. By 1957, when Wild Strawberries was released, he had already been divorced twice, and was well on his way to a third (he divorced Gun Grut in 1959). Besides multiple failed marriages, Bergman also had multiple already-failed or about-to-fail adulterous relationships to occupy his thoughts, including one with Bibi Andersson (yum yum!), who plays Sara in today’s film.
The title in Swedish is Smultronstället, which sounds ridiculous, frankly. It literally means “wild strawberry patch,” but holds the additional connotation of an underrated place of beauty with sentimental value.
Wild Strawberries won several secular awards (Golden Bear for Best Film at Berlin, Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film), but also won a stamp of approval from the Vatican, who placed it on their Best Films List.
The lead character, Professor Isak Borg, is played by Victor Sjöström, who was an acclaimed director (55 films) in his own right, sometimes called the father of Swedish cinema. In fact, Sjöström’s film The Phantom Carriage is frequently cited as one of Bergman’s favorite films, and contains plot elements clearly reworked in Wild Strawberries (a series of flashbacks reveal a main character to have been a selfish, rigid man with few friends).
Sjöström was in poor health during the filming of Wild Strawberries. As a result, many outdoor scenes had to be filmed indoors on a soundstage. The cinematographer, Gunnar Fischer, fearing that Sjöström would not survive the shoot, made sure that his star was in bed by 5:15 each evening, and that he received regular doses of his preferred medicine: Strong Irish Whiskey.
Woody Allen, well-known as a Bergman fanatic, essentially remade Wild Strawberries twice: Another Woman recasts the central character as a woman, while Deconstructing Harry recalibrates the story as abrasive comedy.
That’s it! No more Bergman!
White-haired Professor Isak Borg sits at his desk, writing. “In our relations with other people, we mainly discuss and evaluate their character and behavior. That is why I have withdrawn from nearly all so-called relations. This has made my old age rather lonely. My life has been full of hard work, and I am grateful. It began as toil for bread and butter and ended in a love for science.”
Borg gazes around the room at pictures of his son (unhappily married and childless), his mother (alive and cranky), and his wife (dead these many years, God rest her soul) and ruminates silently.
Borg is 78 years old, and is due to receive an honorary degree on the following day; this impending event has prompted a bit of reminiscence and reflection.
Borg recounts a “weird and unpleasant dream”: on his morning walk, he becomes lost and disoriented on mysteriously empty streets. The houses are ruined and abandoned, and the clocks are missing their hands.
A horse-drawn hearse crashes, and a coffin is deposited at his feet. The corpse is – wait for it – Professor Borg himself! Symbolism? You bet!
The morning of the ceremony arrives, and the Professor wakes early. He announces that, contrary to previous plans and despite the complaints of his maid, Miss Agda, he is leaving immediately in the car.
There are 14 hours remaining before the ceremony. His beautiful daughter-in-law, Marianne, accompanies Borg on his journey; she wishes to return to her home in Lund, for reasons of her own which I’m sure will become clear later. Also unclear: Why is she currently living with her father-in-law?
In the car, Marianne lights a cigarette, much to Borg’s chagrin. According to him, the only vices allowed to a woman are “weeping, giving birth and speaking ill of her neighbors.”
Conversation turns to a loan made by Borg to his son Evald (Marianne’s husband). Evald is struggling to repay the loan, which means that he has to work a lot of overtime (or something), leading to an unhappy marriage. Borg, being rich, could forgive the loan but will not. “A promise is a promise. I know Evald respects that.”
“Perhaps,” replies Marianne. “But he also hates you.”
“What do you have against me?” Borg asks, and Marianne tells him, using words like “ruthless,” “selfish,” and “stick up your ass.” A month previous, Marianne asked if she could stay with Borg for a short time while she and Evald sorted out some marital difficulties. “I have no respect for mental suffering,” stuffy Professor Borg responded. “If you need therapy, see a shrink.”
Reminded of his heartless reply, Borg is taken aback. “Did I really say that?”
On the road to Lund, Borg takes a detour. Arriving at a boarded-up house in the woods, Borg tells Marianne that this was the house where he spent his childhood summers, along with his nine siblings and cousins. While Marianne takes a swim in the nearby lake, Professor Borg walks around the property, stirring up dust and memories.
“The place where wild strawberries grow!” he exclaims, kneeling to examine the plant. “It’s not impossible that I began to think of this and that, associated with places where I played as a child,” he tells us in voiceover. Cue flashback sequence and wistful string quartet on the soundtrack…
In his mind’s eye, Borg sees his beautiful cousin Sara, picking strawberries. Isak’s brother Sigfrid flirts with her but makes little headway. “You know quite well that Isak and I are secretly engaged,” says Sara haughtily.
But then Sigfrid kisses her, and she likes it, and the strawberries are spilled on the ground. “What will Isak say, who really loves me?” she wails, as Present-Day Isak looks on, aghast.
The lunchtime gong is sounded, and Isak’s family (still in flashback) gathers around the table, all dressed in stylish white Great Gatsby summer clothes. Auntie rules over the table with an iron fist, scolding the children for their dirty fingernails and uncivilized behavior. Twin girls, both in pigtails, tattle on Sara and Sigfrid’s strawberry-patch kiss, and Chaos Reigns!
Present-Day Isak watches as Memory-Sara weeps. “Isak is so… moral and so sensitive… he only wants to kiss in the dark, and he talks about sin. He’s on such a terribly high level, and I feel so worthless!”
Borg’s melancholy flashback is interrupted by an impertinent young (present-day) girl asking for a ride. Strangely enough, her name is also Sara, and she is played by the same actress as Memory-Sara. Sara fails to mention that she is also traveling with two randy young men, Viktor and Anders. Anders is her boyfriend, while Viktor pines for her glumly. “I’m a virgin; that’s why I’m so cheeky!” Sara announces while they drive.
Borg tells the young girl about his own beloved Sara: She married his brother Sigfrid, and is now 75 years old. “I can’t think of anything worse than getting old!” Present-Day Sara exclaims.
A near-collision with a VW Bug leaves the Bug upside-down and Borg’s old car in a ditch. The Bug is out of commission, and now Borg has two more unwanted passengers: a horrible, bickering married couple.
The arguing and sniping culminates in a slapping fight, and Marianne stops the car. “Please get out,” she says, and they do.
Next, the car stops at a gas station, where they are greeted by a jumpsuit-wearing Ming the Merciless. “It’s Dr. Borg in person!” Ming tells his pregnant wife. “Mom and Dad and the whole countryside still talk about him. The world’s best doctor!”
Borg attempts to pay for the gas, but Ming refuses. “Ask anyone around here. They all remember your kindness.”
“Maybe I should have stayed here,” Borg says sadly, looking at his unhappy daughter-in-law.
Over lunch at a roadside café, Borg regales his young companions with humorous anecdotes from his many years as a County Doctor.
The two young men, embroiled in a good-natured God v. Science argument, ask their host for his opinion. Instead of responding directly, he recites a poem:
Where is the friend I seek at break of day?
When night falls, I still have not found Him.
My burning heart shows me His traces
Wherever flowers bloom
His love is mingled with every air
His voice calls in the summer wind.
Isak and Marianne visit Isak’s mother, the quintessential tongue-clucking “I’m not complaining” martyr pain-in-the-ass old person. A box is produced, containing toys from Isak’s childhood. “Ten children, and all dead except Isak,” says Mom. “Twenty grandchildren. Evald’s the only one who comes to see me.”
Mama shows Isak a gift she plans to give one of the grandchildren: Papa’s gold watch. “It has no hands,” she notes. “Does that matter?” Thunder, or perhaps just kettle drums, roll ominously.
Back at the car, the God v. Science debate has devolved into a shoving match. Marianne tells the boys to cool it, and the posse piles back into the car for the last stretch of the trip to Lund. They drive through the rain. Isak dozes, but his sleep is disturbed by vivid dreams and the painful memory of Sara’s rejection.
An imperious Inquisitor leads Professor Borg through darkened hallways and chambers until reaching an examination room. “What is a doctor’s first duty?” demands the Inquisitor and Professor Borg cannot answer. “A doctor’s first duty,” the Inquisitor reminds Borg, “is to ask for forgiveness.”
In the dream-court, Borg is judged incompetent. He is also accused – by his dead wife, no less – of “callousness, selfishness, ruthlessness.” He is forced to relive a scene from many years previous, when he spied on his wife and her lover in the woods.
After (possibly non-consensual) sex, Karin tells her lover that she will tell Isak, that he will express sympathy, but that his sympathy will be false. “He’s cold as ice,” she says. “His hypocrisy makes me sick.”
Acknowledging the truth of his wife’s beyond-the-grave accusation, Isak asks what punishment he can expect. “The usual, I suppose,” responds the Inquisitor. “Loneliness.”
Upon waking, Isak tells Marianne about his dream, about his fear that he may be already dead. Marianne tells him that his son Evald has the same dreams, the same fear.
A month previous, Marianne tells Isak, she found out she was pregnant. Evald was decidedly unhappy: “It’s absurd to bring children into this world… I was an unwanted child in a hellish marriage… 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.”
Marianne is returning only to tell her husband that she has made a decision: She will have the baby, and hopefully bring an end to this lineage of cold, lonely, dying people.
The three young hitchhikers present Isak with a bouquet of wildflowers and congratulate him on fifty years of being a doctor.
Reaching Lund, Isak is hustled into his tux by Miss Agda. Marianne and Evald have a prickly reunion; she informs her husband that she will be leaving again quickly.
The ceremony begins. The young hitchhikers have joined the crowd of well-wishers. Isak is marched into the church with much pomp. The occasion is joyful, but Isak is lost in his own thoughts. He resolves to document the events of the day.
Isak is in bed when Evald returns to the house. Isak asks his son to sit for a moment, and asks him about Marianne. “I cannot live without her,” Evald responds. Nothing has been resolved, but he has asked her to stay, and that’s a step in the right direction. Perhaps Evald is not such a hopeless case, after all.
Marianne comes into the room to say good night. “I like you, Marianne,” the old man tells her. “I like you, too, Uncle Isak,” she responds, somewhat unexpectedly.
Drifting off to sleep, Isak once more returns to the summer home of his childhood. He walks around the lake with his cousin Sara, and smiles to see his younger self fishing with Papa.
WHAT I LIKED
Readers of this series will know that I have no affection for the hermetically sealed, existentialist navel-gazing of Ingmar Bergman. Having said that, I loved Wild Strawberries.
Victor Sjöström as Professor Isak Borg is tremendously affecting, his weathered face and tearful eyes speaking volumes about the regrets of a life poorly lived.
I loved the cranky but somehow loving banter between Borg and his maid, Miss Agda.
Bibi Andersson as past and present Sara, and Ingrid Thulin as Marianne are both stunningly beautiful in that blonde Nordic way. More importantly, they both demonstrate range and sensitivity in their roles.
Wild Strawberries worked for me because it was so different from the Bergman of The Virgin Spring or The Seventh Seal. This film is peopled by real, flesh-and-blood characters that I recognized and cared about. There is plenty of existential self-reflection, to be sure, but it rarely feels heavy-handed or stuffy. The final scenes, without providing pat solutions to the various problems, at least provide a fitting emotional resolution to the themes of the story.
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE SO MUCH
The nightmare scene, with the faceless man and the clocks without hands, and the corpse with his face landing at Isak’s feet, was the only sequence that felt like the other, irritatingly portentous Bergman.
SHOULD YOU SEE IT?
Yes, you should. In fact, make it a double-feature with Ikiru, and see if you still feel like wasting entire weekends playing World of Warcraft and living on frozen burritos.
Yes, I’m talking to you.
Next (the last film in this series): Three Documentaries