Ingmar Bergman, “Smultronstället / Wild Strawberries” (1957)
Few movies feature 80 or 70-something actors as lead characters so to see Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries” with Viktor Sjöström in a lead role only a couple of years before his death at the age of 80 years is to see something special: an actor still at the peak of his powers and perhaps aware that his role will be his swansong piece. The film also features actors who regularly appear in many of Bergman’s films: Bibi Andersson, Gunnar Björnstrand, Ingrid Thulin, Max von Sydow. Although the title in Swedish refers to something of sentimental personal value, Bergman uses the strawberry patch that appears early in the film as the launch-pad for a journey of self-discovery and examination, and a final redemption and reconciliation with the realities of life and custom.
Professor Isak Borg (Sjöström) learns he is to be honoured by his old alma mater the University of Lund with an honorary doctorate for services to medicine so with his daughter-in-law Marianne (Thulin), who is estranged from his son Ewald, he sets out on the long car journey from Stockholm to Lund. Along the way he and Marianne stop to look at his old family holiday home with its strawberry patch and memories of his youthful romance with a girl called Sara (Andersson) come to him. The unlikely duo continue on their way and pick up three teenage hitch-hikers, one of whom is called Sara (Andersson again). The five then nearly collide with another car and have to take on the married couple as passengers. The husband and wife quarrel so much that Marianne forces them to leave. The couple reminds Borg of his own unhappy and tumultuous married life and his wife’s infidelity.
The journey continues and at each step of the way Borg is forced by daydreams, memories and knowledge of his own impending death to admit that he has never been a model lover, husband and father, and that his own son Ewald has become as cold, rationalistic and status-seeking as himself. He is forced to see that his coldness drove away his sweetheart Sara, who ended up married to his fun-loving brother Sigfrid, and his wife (Gertrud Fridh) into an affair. He and Marianne visit his aged mother (Naima Wifstrand) and Marianne is shocked to see the aged crone as a cold bitch.
The five reach Lund and Borg duly accepts his award in a sterile and lifeless ceremony of mumbo-jumbo Latin and starched-collar comic parody quality. Later Borg bids adieu to the teenage Sara and her boyfriends; in the short space of a few hours Borg and the second Sara have become close friends. Borg’s son Ewald (Björnstrand) later tells Borg that he and Marianne have decided to reconcile. When Borg retires for the night, he dreams of a picnic in which he sees his parents again and he is at peace.
The film is low-key and quite serene in presentation, masking the deep emotions and the quest for meaning to a long but empty and shallow life. In the space of a few hours’ ride in a car a dysfunctional family’s problems are laid out with the use of ingenious methods such as dream sequences in which Borg finds himself a voyeur into dioramas of family life, heart-felt conversations he should have had decades ago with Sara, his wife’s secret love affair and encounters with death. Significantly at the beginning of the film, Borg is spiritually lifeless and his connections to human beings are cold and formal but through his car journey, he is forced by experience and memory, and the way new associations with people such as the teenagers and the quarrelsome couple bleed into his reveries, to acknowledge his weaknesses and arrogance, and through that acknowledgement become human and alive at last. By the end of the film, he has forged a new and more caring relationship with his daughter-in-law and might be well on the way to reconciling with his son.
All the acting is good though Bibi as the teenage Sara is a bit unbelievable as a typical 1950s hipster jiving teen who declares her love for an old man while flirting with two boys. Considerable poetic licence must be allowed – the car journey itself can’t have taken such a short time from sunrise to early afternoon and allowed Borg to have prepared properly to receive his award. The near-collision scene strains credibility as well but it’s what happens afterwards that is most significant.
Symbolism is important in the film: Borg’s dreams, in particular his nightmare at the beginning of the film, carry prophetic elements and even props such as the coffin in the nightmare, slipping out of its carriage like a squalling newborn, or the funeral cortege-like car Borg and Marianne drive to Lund have been carefully selected. The country landscape with its quiet trees and sinuous roads is a stoic contrast to the turbulence roiling in Borg’s mind. Sometimes the symbolism can be a little too heavy and forced as when branches of a tree appear to encircle Borg’s head from one scene to the next. The use of dreams as a way to explore issues of existence and the worth of one’s life and values can be inspired; in one dream sequence, Bergman uses a common dream theme – returning to school for an exam – to demonstrate how rationalistic Borg became and how his humanity was reduced as a result.
This is a film to be experienced for its visual beauty, its intelligence and philosophical questioning as well as for the fine acting and story of self-discovery and redemption through a car-trip.